What If Your Sales Force and Distributors Disappeared Overnight?

Written by on October 15th, 2008

8 ways to protect your distribution channel in a down economy!

The once in a lifetime events occurring on Wall Street are making companies think about contingency plans for things they never thought could happen. The focus of this blog article is to talk about a situation where the channels you used to sell your products disappear. For example, what if:

  • Magazines, radio, TV and newspapers circulations were drastically reduced.  How would you reach customers
  • Your distributors (stores, small businesses, corporations) were driven out of business due to the recession
  • Energy prices rose so high you couldn’t afford to send your sales force on out of state trips

To deal with these questions I wanted to share with you how a company run by my brother Tom is facing some of these issues.

Tom is a world renowned glass artist and business man in Tucson, Arizona. Tom wandered into the desert Tom Philabaum Magic Carpetsway back in 1975 and found his home. Since that time he’s built a business (Philabaum Glass) around designing giant glass installations like the “Another Way To Fly” magic carpet installations at the Tucson International Airport, creating 50 pound hand built art vases that literally will break your back when you lift then and traditional consumer products like paper weights and company awards. His product range from tens of thousands of dollars to as little as one hundred dollars.  

Tom’s work has been featured at museums, in newspapers/magazines and nearly 300 art galleries around the globe have carried his product. He’s constantly giving art pieces to local non profits so they can auction them off.

Few business people realize that artists are under the same pressure traditional businesses face today.
In down economies, art galleries have fewer customers. With fewer customers, art galleries can’t afford to stay in business. With fewer art galleries to show off the incredible work he has created, inventory builds up and cash flow slows down.

Imagine if all of a sudden you had less sales people or distributors selling your products and services.

You’d have to find a different way to reach your audience.

With less galleries to sell his products and no sales force, Tom has to find new channels to get his glass found by individuals who are looking for just the right gift or award. There are a number of Internet strategies that could help:

  1. Tom could send out a multimedia press release that includes a video of him making glass, an interview and links to his work, driving people to a Webinar where his team shares the benefits of giving glass gifts to platinum customers or special recognition for employees. By tagging it with corporate gifts, glass art and other terms, his press release will be found by individuals who are already self selecting into what he has.
  2. Write a series of article strategically placed in eZines about the benefits of using real art glass as a company award or gift, the day in the life of a glass artist, a short history of American glass, 4 elements of design to create great glass, how to give a gift family will fight for when your gone! Each of the articles of course will drive the reader back to selected pages on his website.
  3. Create simple, YouTube style video’s where Tom shows how his products are made, the steps necessary to create them and explanations of issues and problems he faces in each delicate step. Tom lives in a colorful, creative world and video can share the dance required to create glass art.
  4. Put a webcam in the shop so people can watch Tom and his crew blow glass each day. (I lived in Telluride, Colorado when I started my Internet business and miss the mountains dearly. To get my fix of the mountains, I periodically put this webcam on my third monitor and pretend I’m sitting on main street.) A webcam where people can watch the process will create interest and spread virally.
  5. Create a monthly Webinar series called “Glass Talk” where Tom shares news and information with collectors, gallery owners and others interested in blowing glass. I’m suggesting this be a fee based series.
  6. Auction off a piece of glass weekly or monthly.  One way to set this up is let the winner of the auction designate what charity they would Tom to send the money to.  Another is to sell for profit glass weekly on eBay.
  7. He could invite the thousands of customers who have bought his glass over the past three decades to post a photo of where they have the glass, who gave it to them and add comments.  This technique will also build his email list and reignite interest in his glass as a gift item to current customer. It will also drive more interest in his Webinars.
  8. Tom could advertise on Facebook and other social media sites.  Facebook ads targeted to human resource, sales and marketing professionals is only 10 dollars per 1,000 exposures.  Also advertising on bloggers who write about art and glass would be cost effective.

We are even talking about adopting a marketing technique I saw the Ready brothers use to promote their Lobster business, Catch a Piece of Maine.  In an effort to develop a personal relationship with their customers and drive viral marketing, they create a video for customers and post the greeting to YouTube.  Check out the blog article about Brendan and John. It’s really an innovative way to make the buying of a product or service more of an experience.  This simple marketing process has enable them to by pass the middle man that was giving them $3.50 for each lobster and go direct to the consumer who are paying as much as $65 per lobster!

So there is one more issue we are going to have to figure out how to solve using Internet strategies.

Tom also has to find different products and services to offer during a down economy. One thing that Tom is doing is diversifying into the corporate market. He is creating hand blown organization awards and of course large installations, like the one at the Tucson Airport.  His $3,000 large vases are not selling as well in a down economy so he’s now focusing on smaller gift items like hand blown paper weights, incredibly beautiful Christmas ornaments and smaller vases.

Like any manufacturing business, he and his team have to first design, retool and then create the product. As you probably already know there is no guarantee the public or prospect will like the new designs.  If they design the wrong product, cash flow tanks and they lose valuable time in the marketplace, not to mention have to scramble to come up with a product that sells.

So what’s an artist and businessman to do?

So what if we use social media and online community tools to give the public a say in what he creates? What if Tom creates a page on his website where he solicits input on a new product or service. You’ve seen this concept already at websites like Threadless.com where members of the community offer designs, then the public vote on which design they like. Not only does this technique create a great deal of interest and engage people, but they will show their friends and keep coming back.

Here’s another way to get customers engaged.

Nearly 7 years ago, when I was building online communities for alumni associations, an alumni association partnered with an artist on a very innovative Internet fundraising strategy. The artist was commissioned to create a painting that capture the nostalgic feeling of the college and was going to have lots of familiar images on campus. The artist took a picture of the painting as it was progressing and the alumni association sent out reminders for alumni to watch the process. When the painting was finished, the alumni association held a large event auctioned off the original and sold copies raising over $100,000 for the alumni association and creating a great deal of buzz and excitement.

All this will help Tom fill in the shoes of the middleman (the galleries) who carried his work but are being forced out of business by a down economy. These steps will help Tom create his own marketing channel and wisely use the Internet so people who are interested in his products, will find him.

Like Tom Philabaum, you’ve got to be creative in today’s economic climate.

What if your distributors are driven out of business by a down economy? How are you going to reach your customers? Developing an Internet strategy today, will put you in a position to thrive as the economy improves.

“Did I mention the Governor of Arizona recognized Tom as the Artist of the year in 1998”? He’s the man!

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