Unvarnished and Unconventional: Bold Ideas on How to Build a Better Promotional Products Support Team (The Path to $10 Million, Part 5)

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“Strategic investment in infrastructure produces a foundation for long-term growth,” wrote businessman and troubadour Roger McNamee.

No truer words have been spoken when it comes to building the infrastructure of your distributorship. Only with a strong foundation are you able to support a business that can reach ever-increasing growth and new levels of success.

Following are six bold ideas on how to build a successful production team. (For those that might be new to the business, a production team consists of the non-sales roles in your distributorship. Each distributor has their own nomenclature for these positions, but they are often called traffic coordinators, sales coordinators, account coordinators, order processing employees, and more).

These tips are unvarnished and somewhat unconventional, the kind of tips I would share with someone over coffee, I hope they provoke your thinking and help you focus on long-term success.

 

Hire for attitude.

 

There are a million products available in this business, how are you going to master them? You won’t. And neither will they. So, when you hire for these roles, what you are seeking are non-tangible qualities. Here’s a short list:

    1. Curiosity: They will need to learn about a thousand different decoration methods. A hundred different shirt options. A thousand cup styles. A curious mind will guide them and keep them engaged.
    2. Flexibility: Pivot power. Your team will need to be able to pivot quickly. Supplier out of stock? Pivot. Missed ship date? Pivot.“Flexibility is a mental process which results in an action that tests a possible solution”* Pivoting away from problems towards solutions is a special kind of mastery the pros know.
    3. Respectful Tenacity: Sometimes, these folks will have to get very direct with manufacturers and clients, and they need to be able to do so tactfully and respectfully. They need to be able to affect change with the convincing force of a hurricane but through the sweet disposition of a gentle rain. Sounds strange, but, the best of them convince kindly, but with authority.
    4. Exactitude and Thoroughness: A detail-oriented mindset tempered by deadlines. Obsessiveness about getting it right.
    5. Patience. Grace under pressure. There will be high pressure in these roles from time to time, make sure they can handle it.
    6. Conscientiousness: Give-a-shitted-ness. They need to care, strongly, about the outcome of each transaction
    7. Interdependence: Working on a team, sometimes with headstrong salespeople, requires an interdependent attitude: all parties must possess a confident humility and deference toward one another. “There’s not one specific thing or skill people have to have to work for us. But I can tell you why we fire people: soft skills. We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills. The ability to interact and communicate with others or behave ethically and take responsibility for things tends to be where people tend to break down.”*
    8. Initiative: Enough said.

Don’t underpay these people.

 

If you treat them as expendable, they will return the favor and treat your business as a pass-through. The whole time that you think you are getting maximum output for minimal investment, they are submitting resumes to better companies.

These folks as important as your sales team. Don’t believe me? Wait until your first six-figure order goes through their hands to completion. Don’t misunderstand, you must compensate reasonably, within the confines of your profits, but just remember that, without these folks, the smiles and handshakes of your salespeople are worthless.

For starters: build a compensation plan that rewards growth. If you do this, you’ll avoid sandbagging. What’s sandbagging? That’s where your support team builds excuses (like sandbags) against the flood of new business you bring in (because you are under compensating them). What you want is exuberant responses about growth. Create an environment where everybody wins (not just salespeople) and they will welcome growth, not hate it. Also, by adding either a growth bonus or incentive plan to your support team, you’ll encourage longevity and loyalty. Get creative: Anniversary bonuses, peer-to-peer reward systems, special days-off for particularly busy seasons … there are tons of unique ways you can show your respect for their hard work.

 

Education or abdication?

 

Don’t ignore their education. It’s not just salespeople who need to be treated like career-minded professionals, be sure your production team has every education benefit as well. The more they understand the business, the better your business will be. If you do not purposefully educate your support team, you are abdicating your role as a leader. It’s crucial you give them every benefit of learning possible. Your best talent will emerge from these groups. Often, your leaders of tomorrow are in support and production roles today.

 

Determine and monitor metrics for success.

 

Just as with your sales team, find unemotional gauges for success. Metrics are different for every distributorship but there are ways you can measure support success. Maybe you evaluable by order count? Error rate? Gross sales growth per team? Gross profit per team? If you measure by the numbers, you’ll discover that some teams are more efficient than others (some might produce 20% more orders). Metrics will help everyone understand context, learn where there is room for improvement, and gauge performance.

 

Structure for maximum company profit.

 

As you grow, it’s common to divide support teams by rep, but one challenge with that model is that your most experienced team might remain isolated to one or two reps. Mix it up. Try structuring your team so that they are working with verticals (industry niches) or with specific disciplines. Structuring by rep or structuring by vertical both have their advantages. If you structure by client, you ensure that your best customers are working with the most experienced teams. If you structure by vertical or discipline, you allow your team members to develop expertise. However, every business is different, you will need to determine your structure based on your unique value proposition. The key point: Think through the architecture of your support structure as much as you do about sales; without proper support, you will build a weak foundation.

 

The last piece of advice has to do with you.

 

You are the lightning rod; you are the one they will come to when they are overwhelmed or upset or stressed. It is critical that you understand the cycles of your business, as well as a captain knows the response of his vessel to the volatile sea.

Times of placidity will drift by, seasons of epic storms will toss the ship about, but you, the captain, need to guide everyone to the destination: Happy customers.

By focusing on the customer, the customer’s objectives, and the customer’s experience, you’ll align every activity toward the right outcome, diffuse every disagreement toward a solution that matters most, and develop an attitude of responsiveness toward the people who ultimately pay all of our salaries: the customer.


For more helpful tips on building a powerhouse internal team, check out our Guide to Growing Your Team. And, for a helpful glimpse at what type of personality to hire for these types of roles, read about “The Nurturer” in our post The Architect, the Driver, and the Nurturer. This post is Part V in our series “The Path to $10 Million.” Previous posts include 4 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring Promotional Products Salespeople7 Questions That Help You Focus and Find Your Personal Path to Success3 Critical Roles in a Promotional Products Distributorship: The Architect, the Sales Driver, and the Nurturer, and The 5 Stages of Business Growth.


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*Pearl Zhu

*Rick Stephens, Senior Vice President of HR, The Boeing Corporation


Also published on Medium.