I’m in my 31st year in sales in the envelope industry. I started on the road selling for Northeastern Envelope in July of 1988. I had been hired to develop new customers using my contacts as a purchasing manager. Northeastern had been in business since the 1940’s and was a mid-size manufacturer with a decent amount of equipment and capabilities. I knew the owner who took me under his wing and taught me the ropes.
I started out working in the plant for two weeks; starting at 7 AM and learning a little bit about the various aspects of custom envelope manufacturing and envelope printing. It was a very hot stretch and there was no air-conditioning in the factory. While I appreciated the opportunity to learn about what I was selling first-hand, I was very happy to be back into my jacket and tie and on the road. I retained my appreciation for the folks who make the product and how hard they work.
The sales landscape for envelopes and printing in 1988 was a lot different in many ways. The industries were strong and paper-based systems still prevailed in most businesses. Aside from the companies that typically used a lot of envelopes and forms like banks, insurance companies and financial services, you could walk into pretty much any large company and get an opportunity to bid on their letterhead and companion envelope usage which would be substantial. Not that it was that easy, there were still barriers and lots of competition, but the ocean had many more fish back then.
Technology was not exactly what it has become. My boss was a particularly stubborn sort and I remember him resisting getting a fax machine (most companies had one, but they were still considered cutting edge) until he realized we were losing orders from customers who wanted to fax their purchase order rather than mail it. Prepress was still using film to create printing plates. I wore a “beeper” on my belt. When a customer called the office looking for me, I would get a signal through the beeper at which point I’d find a pay phone and call the office to get the message and then call the customer. I always carried a roll of dimes in my car.
Today the industry is much smaller. Paper is still in wide use but is not as prevalent as it once was. Those large companies that might have ordered 50,000 sheets of letterhead and envelopes are now ordering 5,000 or 10,000. I make calls in my car while driving around with both hands on the wheel. The beeper was long ago retired with the fanny pack. There are no more maps in my trunk. I still do a lot of sales but now as part owner of my own company.
But as that great song “As Time Goes By” from the movie Casablanca goes, “the fundamental things apply”. What that means in sales is prospecting, customer contact, good communication, determining and providing value for each individual customer’s needs, personal service, follow-ups, rinse and repeat.
Technology has changed the game, but the rules remain the same. Providing a good product at a competitive price with great service will cause customers to stay with us into the brave new world yet to come.