Starting A Business? Consider Your Marketing Strategy Part I

Once you have identified your customers, done some detective work to check out your main competitors and positioned yourself relative to them, thus claiming a niche for your company, you are ready to devise a marketing plan for your business venture.

The marketing plan supplies the road map that you will use to reach the target customers.  Sales strategy, pricing, product or service positioning, advertising and distribution channels must all be accounted for in relation to what target customers will accept.  The idea is to convince customers that buying your services or products will give them benefits that are worth the cost.

PRODUCT/SERVICE STRATEGY

Describe how your products or services offer more advantages to the customer than what  is offered by competitors.  What’s the hook that will bring customers to your door?

Research the product features and attributes that are important to target customers and what they are willing to pay for them.  Dig a little deeper and brainstorm the benefits—those unspoken and often emotional motivators that will drive customers to buy from or hire you.

What is the challenge or need that customers  face, what is the “pain” that they’re in? Your company must provide solutions that customers determine to be useful. Think about what customers might value in the long run, but remember that tastes and perceived needs are fluid and therefore subject to change

PRICING

Pricing is a tricky issue, especially for consultants and professional service providers.  It may be difficult to find out what competitors charge,  so there is no framework for  comparison.

If you have relationships with those who hire for similar services,  inquire as to what they pay so that you can set your price points.  Competitors are unlikely to help you with pricing, but colleagues who offer similar services may give some guidance.  If you plan to sell a tangible product, canvass the marketplace and learn how similarly positioned products are priced.

Be advised that  it is risky to underprice.  In general, it is not a great way to rapidly build a client list or gain market share.  In services especially, clients may wonder why your rate is so cheap—are you unqualified?  You don’t want to give the impression that you’re less than first rate.  Moreover, raising prices in the future may be met with customer resistance.

Underpricing will also negatively impact your cash flow.  You could find yourself spinning your wheels like mad, overwhelmed with lots of orders, but losing money overall because you have not fully accounted for the cost of goods sold, be it product production and marketing costs or the time and creative energy it costs you to fulfill a contract assignment.

Unless you’re in the grocery business, where profit margins are traditionally thin, make sure that your pricing strategy builds in a profit margin that will sustain the business and eventually you too.

DISTRIBUTION CHANNELS

Think about how your products or services will flow from their source and reach the target customers.  Examine how customers currently buy your type of product.

Do they buy primarily online, from catalogues, from a physical location, by referrals from trusted sources, by contract bids or at trade shows?  Can you access the preferred distribution channel?  How much will it cost you?

Service providers and Freelance consultants must also develop a distribution strategy, so that potential clients and referral sources can be reached.  If you work in professional services, you are on the coattails of the firm’s marketing efforts.  However, these days even junior associates are expected to bring in clients.

Networking and other relationship building strategies will be helpful here.  Put yourself in the places where clients and good referral sources can be found.   Work an expert elevator pitch and see who you can meet.  Visibility counts, so speaking opportunities and leadership roles in business groups will also be important for self promotion.

I’ll be back with Part II of Marketing Strategies next week,
Kim

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Starting a Business? Consider Your Customers and Competition

Once you’re clear on the difference between an intriguing idea and what may be a genuine business opportunity and you’ve chosen what product or service you will offer,  it is then time to carefully consider who your customers will be.

The entrepreneur must define the customer well,  by using demographic and psychographic (lifestyle) data. The more specific the customer profile that is created, the better the ability to deliver what the target customer wants and will pay you to obtain.

When an entrepreneur fully understands who the customers are,  then he/she can understand what compels them to buy,  how to sell to them (on line or bricks and mortar?),  how to market to them,  how to price the product and how much time and money it will take to win those customers over.

This is why it is always preferable to enter a business in which you have experience.  The best way to know customers is by talking and interacting with them.  That allows you to tailor your services to meet their perceived needs and expectations.

If you’ve already done business with your target customers,  you will have a significant advantage and are better positioned to create a profitable venture.

Be sure to flesh out your customer info by speaking with others who do business with your target customers.  Suppliers and Freelance vendors  can provide lots of useful info. Speaking with your competitors will likewise be very helpful.

Visiting conferences and trade shows that are frequented by your target customers is a smart move,  as those are forums where information is shared.  Competitors may be more forthcoming in these settings.

Analyzing the competition will be a key success  factor for the business.  This is how you’ll find out what customers want from businesses similar to your own,  what benefits they think they’re getting and what price they’ll pay to have what they want.

A thorough competitive analysis allows the entrepreneur to refine the market niche and identify additional competitive advantages.  Good competitive info sets the stage for your marketing and sales strategies.

Visit the stores,  the restaurants and the websites of your direct competitors.  Check out where and how they advertise.  Study their message and methods of interacting with target customers.  Are your competitors making money? How do they make that happen?

Make sure that you have a critical mass of advantages that will improve your chance of success,  be it a hot product,  strong relationships with target customers,  experience in the business,  influential friends or a healthy budget to spend on start up costs.

You probably don’t  hold all of the cards, but before you take the leap  make sure you have enough to give yourself a good chance of winning the game.

More later,
Kim

Starting A Business? Consider This

Like millions of people around the world, over the past few months you’ve given some thought to ensuring your economic survival.  How to make money is at the top of the list for many and we’re all exploring our options.  A yard sale or two can help in the short run, but most of us need a steady and healthy income stream.

Polishing up your resume might no longer be a viable option, given that employment statistics have been dismal for several consecutive quarters and the global economy continues to shed jobs.  What little employment exists tends to be at at the bottom of the pay scale.

This cruel reality has lead some of us to decide  what the heck, I’ll go out on my own.  I’ll start a business or become a Freelancer and do some consulting.  That’s why I went out on my own.  Employers did not give a damn about transferable skills, work ethic, strategic thinking or anything else.

All they knew was that I was  too expensive to hire (or keep) and so they didn’t.  To have a roof over my head and food on the table I had no choice but to become a Freelancer. Thank God  I had a few desirable  skills that I eventually learned how to package and market!

This blog is all about sharing knowledge and experience as a way to help readers become more successful Freelancers, business owners and even employees.  My objective is to help you avoid time-wasting mistakes and obstacles and get you into your definition of success,  faster.

First of all,  becoming an entrepreneur requires  objective thinking and creativity.  You’ll need to take a cold hard look at your skill set and figure out what you can possibly do.  Next, you need to analyze the marketplace.  Who will pay for the product or service that you’re able to offer? Does it appear that you can eventually persuade enough clients to pay you enough money to live on?
Also, what relationships can you rely on to help ease your way into the business—refer clients, provide expert advice, hook you up with good deals on equipment or a space to set up shop?

Oh, and BTW, can you afford the start-up costs? Every business requires up front money to get rolling, so the financial requirements of the business you choose need significant consideration.  Banks are making very few loans these days and those who do get funded have near perfect credit.

On the upside, going out on your own during a difficult economic cycle can be a smart  move.  The economy will force you to distinguish between the magical thinking of an intriguing idea and a real business opportunity. You’ll be in the planning and learning stages while the economy lags.  When the inevitable upswing comes around, you’ll be prepared to take advantage and make some money.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll help you take a look at a few basic things you’ll need to consider before you take the leap.

Much more later,
Kim

Going up! Expert Elevator Pitch

I don’t want to brag, but…oh, yes I do and so do you! We just need to figure out how to tell people how amazing we are, how talented and lovable, without being obnoxious.  Bragging is a turn off and nice boys and girls don’t.

But how do you let colleagues and prospects know what you’re good at? How do you network if you don’t know how to put your story across?

Every Freelancer needs a first rate elevator pitch.  A Freelancer must be able to position him/herself as an expert, a capable problem solver who can get the job done and is therefore worthy of important assignments.

A basic elevator pitch can be broken down into three  parts:

1). What you do

2). For whom you do it

3). Outcomes and benefits derived

What You Do

Concisely describe your service in straightforward and uncomplicated terms.  Challenging economic times can bring the temptation to be all things to all people–let’s face it, if there’s a legal way to get paid we’ve gotta bring it on.  Still  clients,  prospects and referral sources want to know what you are known for.  Help them out and develop a niche.

For Whom You Do It

Who are your typical clients? What are they looking for when they call you? What kind of pain are they in? Prospects and referral sources need to know who you typically do business with. They need to know who might need you.

Outcomes and Benefits Derived

What’s in it for the client who hires you? Describe the problems you solve, the money you help clients make or save, how you make them look good.  Mention an advantage  or two that distinguishes  you from competitors.  Stay on top of what is going on in your client’s industry so you’ll know how to position your services in relation to the hot issues.

Practice your elevator pitch until you’re comfortable with your phrasing.  Make sure it sounds natural for you and that it will spark the interest of your target customers.  A basic elevator pitch should take you less than a minute to present. Your pitch can serve as a  self introduction and will also allow you to transition into a more meaningful discussion of  your services should an interested party want more info.

Use your bragging skills, artfully packaged in a good elevator pitch, to establish your reputation as a results-oriented professional and an available source of useful information in your area of expertise.

OK,  so now that you know how to create and deliver an expert elevator pitch,  it’s time to do some savvy networking!

More later,
Kim

Your Personal Brand Part II

Here we are, back to continue talking about how to increase your perceived value in the marketplace by building a strong brand identity.

Maybe you created a SWOT matrix and listed attributes that make clients hire you and also weak areas that may give some clients pause? Perhaps you’ve taken stock of some major challenges that you face, but have also uncovered some opportunities to pursue?

I hope you’ve made a serious examination of services your clients actually need or think they need (not necessarily the same thing, as you know). You must be able to address their objectives in the story– the brand narrative–you’ll create to establish yourself as the go-to guy or gal who is an expert, a trusted adviser who can get the job done.

PACKAGE and PRESENT

You provide an excellent product (I know you do. That’s why you read this blog!). You owe it to yourself to showcase your talents by packaging your value proposition with care and flair.  Communicate your unique competencies in ways that decision makers will perceive as conferring benefits to them.  Express your professional credentials to differentiate yourself from the competition in ways that clients value.

In other words, don’t tout the fact that yours is the only store that offers bubblegum flavored ice cream if no one really wants it.  Of course, if customers suddenly decide they love the stuff, then you’re golden!

When you’ve crafted a brand narrative that works for you, because it appropriately grabs the attention of your target audiences, spread the good news in a variety of ways that are consistent with your brand.

Showcase your accomplishments and get yourself some speaking engagements, get on a panel or two, propose and lead workshops. You are a well respected expert in your field and you must help the right people get to know and trust you.

Familiarity will work to build trust in your abilities. Trust in your abilities will bring requests for your expert advice and referrals.  Referrals are yours to convert into loyal customers.

Take pains to develop a strong and consistent brand narrative and communicate this message to whomever can help you further your business interests.

ON LINE BRAND  STRATEGY

Type your name and your company name into a couple of search engines.  Are you there? What information is listed? Does it present an accurate impression of you?

Make sure that your brand identity on line is in synch with how you verbally package yourself.  If there is a disconnect, work to fix it.  Create a visible and flattering on line presence.

Create good profiles in the 2.0 media that support your brand identity and strategy.  Be careful posting aspects of your personal life if using the more social media. You wouldn’t want anything to be misinterpreted by clients and prospects.

SYSTEM UPDATES

Finally, remember that your personal brand, like your life, will continue to evolve and will never be static (at least not if you’re doing it right!). Branding is an ongoing endeavor.

As your professional achievements expand and become more sophisticated or specialized and as changing business environments impact your clients’ needs, your brand narrative will change with the times.  Freelancer, I know you’ve got what it takes to roll with the punches!

More later,
Kim

Kim presented the workshop “Your Personal Brand” at the Center for Women & Enterprise in Boston on July 14, 2009  http://www.cweonline.org

Your Personal Brand Part I

Billable hours are tanking.  Once dependable revenue streams have slowed to a trickle. Clients are postponing, or even canceling, projects you were depending on.  Jobs that are scheduled to go forward are taking longer to get off the launching pad and cost containment is the phrase du jour.  You are worried.  How can you make clients realize that your contributions add real value to their organizations and should not be passed up?

Freelancing friend, I may be able to offer you some ammunition for this one.  Respectfully, I suggest that it may be time for you to take a good honest look at your position in the marketplace and assess the value that clients place on your services.  I submit to you that it may be time to analyze, clarify, strengthen and  re-launch your brand identity.

Breathe, Focus, List

I recommend that you begin this process by cataloguing your strengths: years of experience, sought-after skills, client list, resourcefulness, positive attitude, work ethic, decision making ability, strategic thinking.  List the reasons that clients hire you.

Catalog also a few key weaknesses.  Remember that you are selling yourself and will benefit from being able to anticipate objections so you can formulate and practice responses to neutralize them.

So if you’re often late for meetings, slow to respond to emails, lack the advanced degree that many of your peers have obtained or freeze up when called to speak in public, it’s best if you acknowledge all that, if only to yourself (knowledge is power, lovey!).

In fact, you may even want to make a plan to remedy a few negatives.  Maybe you can take a course or attend a seminar and deepen a particular skill set? Or perhaps you can  join Toastmasters and learn to become a more confident and effective public speaker? What negatives do clients consider to be the deal breakers? If at all possible, that’s what you work on.

You might find that placing your lists in a SWOT matrix will help you to better analyze your situation.  Remember that Strengths and Weaknesses are internal factors and are therefore  yours to impact.  Opportunities (e.g. lucrative projects you might obtain) and Threats (e.g. the weak economy) are external factors and less within our control.  Nevertheless, examining all factors allows us to better position ourselves for successful outcomes.

Oh yes, you’ll also need to be very clear about who your best clients are, or could be, and why that is so.  It will not be possible to effectively develop a brand identity and a good brand strategy without an accurate understanding of your target markets (i.e. clients and prospects).

Your Story, the Brand Narrative

Yes, this is all very similar to corporate branding. You are both brand manager and branded product. Your personal brand is your corporate identity.  It is a very potent marketing tool and you are advised to consider it carefully and construct it wisely.

Your brand identity will be reflected in all aspects of how you do business and in major business decisions: where and how you choose to advertise; speaking engagements sought and accepted; professional associations joined; clients to pursue. Your professional choices must be consistent with your brand identity and strategy, so be smart about where you’re seen, how you may be perceived and the company you keep.

Your objective here is to enhance your perceived value in the marketplace. You must effectively communicate what you bring to the table– your professional chops, your value proposition–in a clear and concise fashion.  Highlight the attributes and benefits that clients, prospects and referral sources value most and use language and terminology that is meaningful to them.

Get busy!

I’ll pause here and let you go to work on your self assessment and client analysis.  Make your lists, maybe enter them into the SWOT matrix and make a first draft of your brand narrative.  We’ll pick up the thread on this subject next week.

More later,

Kim

On Surviving the Economic Crisis Part II

Last week, I attended a roundtable discussion for business owners that was hosted by the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.  The purpose of BIG: Best Insights Grow (Your Business) was to provide a forum wherein a dozen small business owners and consultants  could share some of our more vexing business challenges and receive some practical advice from the group about how best to resolve those issues.

I offer you a few strategies and action items that surfaced in our forum. You may want to integrate some of this into your practice, so you can grease the cash flow wheels as we enter the traditionally slow summer months.  Most of these things you already know–none of it is rocket science.  Nevertheless, selectively employing a few of these methods is bound to have a positive effect on your billable hours, in the short and long term.

  • Stealth Prospecting

Obviously, we must always keep eyes and ears open for new clients and new ways to engage our current clients.  One way to do that is to network: get out there and attend events, talk to people and let them tell you which products and services they like, why they like them and how they like them offered.  Also, remember to make sure friends and colleagues know what you do and who they can refer to you, so they can be your surrogate sales force.

Another way to set the stage for networking and prospecting is to put yourself on the panel guest and speaker’s circuit.  Meaning, position yourself as an expert.  Pay attention to the program schedules of a few business and professional organizations.  What kind of topics do they offer? What kind of audience do they attract? Can you offer up some of your expertise and give a presentation or join a panel discussion? Are you a member of any such organization?

Build relationships with the event coordinators for these groups and find out the protocol and requirements for their speaker’s bureau.  Have a clear understanding of topics that are deemed appropriate, so you can offer the right talk titles.  Local colleges may also accept proposals for workshops.  Check out noncredit continuing education offerings in a few schools and see who might give you an opportunity to teach. You might even receive a (modest) honorarium!

When you are showcased as an expert in your field, you will be approached by peers and prospects who seek your advice, want to do business with you or want to refer you to someone who does want to work with you.  Now that takes the cold calling out of prospecting, am I right?

  • Strategic Referrals

What better way to get yourself into the good graces of someone who you suspect could be a good referral source for your gorgeous self than to get the process started by referring a client to your object of desire? The chances of receiving some reciprocal billable hours are going to be good, I’ll say.  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

  • Smart Pricing

Pricing is a tricky thing. It is both a science and an art. When it comes to services, honestly, who knows what anything is worth? The service is worth what the client thinks it’s worth.  Even in flush times, you’ve gotta know when to hold and know when to fold. You must become a very good negotiator.  No one wants to gouge and no one wants to be undervalued.  These days times are tough, clients know it and everybody wants a “deal”.

Freelancer, you need a good pricing strategy if you want to keep a roof over your head and food on the table!  You need a useful bag of tricks that will keep the billable hours coming in at rates that will keep you solvent.  Here are a few strategies that can help:

When you know or suspect that a client is going to knock down your price, try adding 10-20% to your proposed fee.  Some people love to bargain, love to think they got something at a lower price.  So give that client the satisfaction of “saving” a few dollars. When they press you for a price cut, slowly and reluctantly cave in– then smile like Mona Lisa as you collect your usual fee (or close to it).

Another win-win pricing strategy is to hold your price but add in a few extras or upgrades. Maybe you can even do some small something pro bono.  Many clients will be happy to receive more for their money.  They want to stoke that value proposition.

But alas, sometimes the clients have us over a barrel and we are forced to take a job at a lower fee because we either flat out need the cash or we crave a certain plum assignment. How to take the sting out of this one?

Start by trying to get more hours out of the project. Your hourly fee won’t be great, but the check at the end will be less paltry. You can also ask for future assignments, thus getting them on the hook for more work that you can count on.  Better still, giving a referral discount to this client may be the way to go: each successful referral the client makes means their next job will be priced at a 10- 20% discount.  Pricing is most definitely about negotiation.

This is also the time to offer your clients some flexible payment options.  Consider offering a discount on invoices that are paid in full within 15 days.  Invoicing like a general contractor might also be helpful: ask for a third of the project fee up front, the next third at the project midpoint and the final third within 30 days of the project’s completion. Setting yourself up to accept credit card payments may also prove to be useful.  The downside is the processing fee, but you will make it easier for cash strapped businesses to pay you on time.  As we all know, getting paid is the name of the game.

Good luck this summer and let me know how you make out!

On Surviving the Economic Crisis Part I

Does this scenario pretty much tell the story of your business? Here are a few useful strategies that can help you to weather the storm:

You’ve brought your business to life, you’re making sales, gaining clients and gaining confidence. You are positioned to turn a profit at last. Then, crash! goes the economy. How do you hang on to your dream and keep your business alive?

Here are a few good tips that will help you to prepare your company to respond effectively in a rapidly changing environment:

  • Get better acquainted with your customers

What was it about your company that drew them in? Are you delivering what customers want in a way that encourages a long term relationship? Are there additions or variations to your product mix that previously you were reluctant to offer, but could offer now?

  • Nurture strategic relationships, brainstorm collaborations

With whom can you partner in ways that will make doing business better for all? Can referral relationships or co-promotional activities be pursued? Are you an active member of your local chamber of commerce and neighborhood business association?

  • Devise a smarter marketing plan

Use the deeper understanding of your customers to roll out a more effective marketing plan. Now you can craft a message that resonates, place advertisements in media outlets that your customers trust, outwit the competition and distinguish your company in the marketplace. You will emerge a winner!

Fortune Favors the Prepared

Fortune Favors the Prepared

Hello again,

I’m back with a little more for the blog.  Earlier this month, on Thursday June 4, I lucked up and got invited to a truly marvelous half day symposium that was held at Northeastern University’s Center for Emerging Markets.  The symposium was organized by Ravi Ramamurti, Distinguished Professor of International Business and the center’s director.

Capitalizing on Emerging Market Opportunities featured several high ranking speakers from government and industry, who offered some revealing perspectives on the reality of foreigners doing business in China and India. The directors of the US-China and US-India Business Councils both spoke, as did VPs from Liberty Mutual International, Staples, EMC, Tata, Pfizer and Thermo Fisher Scientific.  I took lots of notes.

Ready For My Close-up

So am I making a plan to do business overseas in the near future? That’s an exciting prospect (I love to travel and experience other lands and cultures. I also love to shop and eat!), but  it does not appear to be in the cards at this time.

However, prospective clients may be taking a look at how their organizations might fare in certain international markets. Some may have stars in their eyes and see juicy new revenue streams  and others may feel pressured, reluctantly viewing markets outside the US as the only way to keep the business profitable.

Regardless of the motive, those of us who traffic in business strategy or work with decision makers in the tactical functions, which could include coaching management teams, facilitating CEO forums, market research and strategic marketing, operations, sales  and of course brainstorming sessions and strategic planning, will be better able to serve our clients and our businesses if we are able to anticipate the opportunities and challenges that those clients are likely to encounter as they evaluate  entering overseas markets.  We need to know what they don’t know!

Knowledge is Power

It all comes down to the tried and true axiom of knowing your customer.  We need to know what excites them and what worries keep them awake at night.  We need to be able to show them ways they can make money, ways they can save money and also the ways they might lose money.  One of the ways we can do all of that is to stay abreast of what is going on in local, regional, national and international business environments.  So keep  reading the WSJ, the NYT plus your local newspaper.  Be sure to attend a conference or two before this year ends and get some useful info on business issues that may be on the minds of clients and prospects.  It makes for some good networking. You just might meet your next client!

More later,

Kim

Set Goals and Objectives for Your Business

Good morning all,

Welcome to my first post. I’m a self employed business development consultant who specializes in facilitating the brainstorming sessions that are part of the strategic planning process and I also lead sales skills training workshops.  Previously, I had a career in sales and marketing, working at Fortune 100 companies. In 1996 I was laid off and I’ve been self employed (and self unemployed!) ever since.

I’ve started this blog so that self employed consultants and other freelancers could have a forum to discuss our successes, fears, failures, clients, prospects and survival strategies. I hope you’ll join in and share your experiences.

On Friday June 19 I will present a half day seminar on how to set up and run a successful strategic planning session for your company. Business owners and VPs or Directors of marketing, sales, operations or finance could find this a useful course.

Difficult economic times require smart business strategies and a real leader must take the initiative to step up and address the tough issues. Those who attend the seminar will learn how to quickly get started on analyzing major business challenges and setting goals and objectives that are achievable, that are effective and that others in the organization will support and implement.

I’ll provide a case study that will allow everyone to get the flavor of what it’s like to do this in real time. The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce is the organizer of a business education program called “The Classroom” and my session, called “Plan to Succeed”, is part of the series. Register at http://www.cambridgechamber.org  and cost is $70.00. Maybe I’ll meet a few of you there? Hope so.

More later,

Kim