“How do you decide who to prospect, and where do you find clients and potential clients?”

As a supplier and active social media user, I recently posted this question on an industry group Facebook page to start the conversation on a topic I think is critical to business success—and apparently others do too. 

My intent in asking this question was to engage the community and encourage idea sharing, and to gather and present the results in a way that would help people and encourage them to look for new and easier ways of prospecting for new customers.

Prospecting is the first and possibly the most important step in the sales process and it involves systematic communication to convert someone from a prospect to a customer. Because different methods of prospecting produce different results, it is incredibly valuable to understand how different industry companies do business. It’s interesting to note the differences between what prospecting looks like for a small business versus a big business, or more importantly, to those who have a big-business mindset.

If you are thinking like a small business and acting like a small business, then chances are, your business will remain small. And that’s OK if you are happy with your sales volume. There is no right or wrong way to prospect. However, if you’re hitting a wall or not seeing the growth you’ve been hoping for, it might be time for a change.

How Do Other Companies Prospect?

Most of the distributors who responded to my post represent small companies. For them, successful prospecting techniques include networking and cold calling on local businesses (see sidebar on page 90).

Unlike small businesses, larger organizations don’t bother stopping in random businesses hoping to find the right contact. Instead, they employ the services of companies that provide qualified lists of prospects. While these lists typically come with a hefty price tag, they take most, if not all, of the guesswork out of prospecting.

If your competitor is using such a list, they likely have access to comprehensive information from company names and decision makers in a certain geographic area or industry niche, to annual sales, annual budget spend and much more. There is no other prospect information available to small companies that large companies don’t already have or have access to if they are using these kinds of lists.

So, though no single company can legitimately lay claim to a specific prospect or client, it may appear that a larger company is calling on or marketing to someone a small company’s sales rep considers to be their prospect. Instead, it is far more likely that the small distributor is calling on a prospect the larger company is already working with. 

Use Promo To Sell Promo  

Have you ever received a request from a client asking for a quote on a pen they just got in the mail? As industry professionals, we profess that promotional products are the No. 1 way to get in front of new clients and to keep existing clients. However, it seems we often employ every other prospecting strategy before we use our own products. We cold call, e-mail, make in-person visits, drop off catalogs and use social media in an attempt to tell the story about the power of promotional products. At the same time, we don’t think to—or are not willing to—invest in our own medium: promotional products. Larger companies, and successful small- to mid-sized companies as well, know the power of promotional products and use them strategically to market to and win clients. It’s that simple.

The big takeaway from this is that promotional products work, and your competitors’ direct mail packages are proof. While it’s frustrating for your clients to receive marketing materials from a competitive company, in truth you should thank them for creating awareness about promotional products. Imagine though what could happen if that package of ideas the prospect received came from your company instead? Yes, buying self-promo products will cost you and for a small company it can seem like a big spend, but if you aren’t willing to invest in the products you claim to believe in with the intent of growing your own company, you can’t expect your prospect to be willing to either. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune; it’s OK to start small. In fact, a smaller quantity of relevant, well-thought-out products with a distinct message and a strong call to action are typically more effective than a mass mailing.

Next Steps On Prospecting

How can a small- to mid-sized supplier or distributor company go about marketing themselves to prospects in a way that will bring the biggest returns in the shortest amount of time? First, decide what your brand is all about. What type of business do you want and who do you want to do it with? What industries are you passionate about? From here, make a dream sheet. If you could do business with any 10 clients, who would those 10 clients be? Then do your homework and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do those companies use promotional products?
  • If so, how do they use them and why?
  • What will improve for them if they switch their business from a competitor to your company?
  • If the prospects don’t currently use promotional products, how will adding our medium to their marketing plans affect their business?
  • What problems do they have that promotional products and your company’s services can solve?

Once armed with this information, you can create a meaningful drip marketing campaign that is centered around sharing your ability to creatively solve your client’s problems. Choose products that help you tell your client’s story and consider distributing them in a unique way.

One prospecting method I’ve used in the past included calling my prospective clients “just to confirm I had the correct mailing information” for them. I would say, “Hi. It’s Charity from MyCompanyName. I am mailing out a goodie bag for you and just wanted to confirm that I’m mailing it to the correct address.”

Once you have that information confirmed, let the person know to be on the lookout for your package. “Thank you! I’ll get this right out for you. Keep an eye out for a bright green envelope with a monkey on the mailing label.” This way you’re not trying to sell anything, it’s not scripted, and you create some anticipation for the package headed their way.

Once you hang up, send the person an e-mail. “Thanks for your time on the phone. Just to confirm, I have one goodie bag going to (insert their address). You should see that bright green envelope in about three days. Thanks again!”

Then, send the package. Be sure to include a handwritten note as well. “Hi (insert name). Here is the package I promised you. Take a look inside and let us know if you are interested in using any of these products or our services to brand your business moving forward. Either way, enjoy! All the best, (your name here).”

If you do this type of prospecting right, you most likely won’t need to call and follow up as you’ll typically receive a thank-you call or e-mail from the prospect. If you don’t hear back, feel free to make a polite call or send an e-mail to confirm they received the package. The last thing you want to do is tell a potential client to be on the lookout for something from you, only to find out the package never arrived.

This is just one simple way to connect with prospects. Here are some additional ideas from distributors who answered my original question on Facebook.

Distributors Share Their Favorite Ways To Prospect

Derek Miller
Owner, ProPrinters

Take a look at your best clients and the industries they fall in—that is probably where you are most comfortable coming up with ideas. Is it banking, manufacturing, distribution? Then find all the companies that fit that description.

 Andrew Dial

Account Executive, Jedco Sales, Inc.

Some of my best customers are from cold calls. It’s like fishing. You never know what you are going to catch when you throw that line out. As far as who I cold call, every business has a potential need for promotional products. And just because you don’t get a response today doesn’t mean they won’t look you up in a few months.



 Tim Ahrens

Owner, Cotton Chemistry

I spent a fair bit of time playing at a table that wasn’t exactly right for us. One of my local contractors told me you: “You have to choose your customers.” I’ve heard much similar advice since. I bet a lot of small distributors can relate to this. I find that the key to adding good clients is being very available to make art and presentations and process orders extremely quickly. An influx, not even an extremely huge one, can overwhelm us. There’s so much business out there compared to our size that process efficiency becomes very important.


Kelsey Hufnagel
Founder/CEO, MR Promotions & Apparel

Absolutely everyone who comes across my path is a prospect. Knowing my community and my province, what my strengths are and who my warm/hot market is, is where I begin. I branch out from there. Also, with my mentor and through discussion, I have identified specific industries in which I want to put my focus through marketing campaigns. Where do I find my clients, potential clients? Everywhere. The rink, the pitch, the ball diamond, breakfast networking meetings, local women entrepreneur events, the Business Network International (BNI) group, local chamber. I am a hunter. I don’t stop until I find out.


 Bill McCormick

Co-Owner, Team 
Creative Connections

I serve medium- to large-sized corporations in the finance, health and tech fields. When in my geographic territories I take pictures of signs in corporate parks and then research them online and check who they have in the marketing function on LinkedIn



Zack Barna
President, Boompromo

Aim small, miss small. We have a running list of companies that we consider our ideal client and we target their marketing team. This also requires turning away prospects that don’t fit our ideal client requirements. We’ve never turned away more business than we have this year and it’s been the biggest revenue and profit year in our 11 years in business.



 Charles Wilson

Owner, Absolute Printing Solutions

My primary focus is on social media. As a small-business owner, I absolutely despise sales calls, especially with the recent spam calls that we are being inundated with. I would much rather suppliers send an e-mail rather than call. I also find it easier to check messages when time permits. My niche is the fitness industry, so we get a lot of business from there. A buddy and I also run a large Facebook group on fitness called the National Fit Tribe that allows me to target larger groups of fitness individuals and businesses. If there is a need to focus on other industries, we do the research, figure out what product has the best ROI and then put a target audience together and push out Facebook ads. 


Erin Eberhardt
West Shore Associates, LLC

I use networking groups like chamber leads groups and BNI. Join local charity groups. Get to know people and ask for referrals. Create groups with complimentary businesses and support each other. Help other people and it comes back to you in new business. As they say at BNI, “Givers gain.”




 Dave Holden

Sales Rep, Printasaurus, LLC

I talk to everyone and get new clients at the carwash, grocery store, bible study—just everywhere. I start by asking what they do for a living and then, of course, they ask me what I do, and away I go! 

Charity Gibson, a former distributor owner, is currently the national account coordinator at supplier Peerless. She is also a founding chef at PromoKitchen and was named a PPB Rising Star in 2017.


Charity Gibson, a former distributor owner, is current the national account coordinator at supplier Peerless. She is also a founding chef at PromoKitchen and was named a PPB Rising Star in 2017.