Selling to Small Businesses

While billion dollar revenue enterprise companies, along with disruptive technology focused start-ups and their Millennial Generation hoodie-wearing founders receive overwhelming attention in the business press, let’s remember that America is a nation of primarily small and medium-sized business ventures.

As documented in a 2018 report published by the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 27.9 million privately run businesses in the U.S. and 23 million are owned and operated by Solopreneurs.  SMBs employ 47.9 % of the private workforce (non-governmental, for-profit organizations), 58.9 million people. Twenty million SMBs have fewer than 20 employees; the median income of self-employed owners of incorporated businesses in 2016 was $50,347 and the median income of self-employed owners of sole proprietorships was $23,060.

The majority of SMBs have limited budgets for what some owners perceive as non-essential services—marketing, advertising, or IT, for example. Yet, SMB owners will from time to time of necessity feel the need to purchase such services. Timing most likely plays a big factor in your ability to make a sale but should the opportunity land in your lap, you must handle it skillfully. Selling to the SMB owner is a delicate business.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Demonstrate excellent value

Nevertheless, there is money to be made in the SMB market. The social media marketing company HubSpot and Google have made untold millions in profits by targeting SMBs. In your sales pitch, detail the story of a client who shared a similar goal or faced a similar challenge, so that the SMB owner can get a clear picture of how your product or service can help him/her achieve goals.

If you can provide a link to a case study that’s on your website or social media, so much the better. SMB owners are usually worried about how they can cover expenses and simultaneously make their desired profit and they are cautious about spending money.  Show your SMB prospect that your product or service will solve the problem or see to it that the goal is achieved.

Describe how your product or service can help grow the business

Profit, growth and financial stability are the big goals of SMB owners. If you want the sale, identify preferably tangible benefits that will enhance one or more of those metrics. New customer acquisition and customer retention are also important benefits to emphasize.

Deliver results in the near term

Whatever your product or service, the faster that some portion of the ROI can be documented, the better. Too many SMB owners are concerned about cash-flow and they need to see that their investment in your product or service delivers the expected results ASAP.  When considering whether to pursue the SMB market, evaluate whether your product or service can deliver benefits quickly, at least in part.

Follow up and follow through

When selling to the SMB owner, you would be wise to under-promise and over-deliver. Your enthusiastic sales presentation must carry forward into enthusiastic customer service as well. If there is difficulty with the implementation of the product or service you sold them, meaning that the ROI cannot materialize within the expected time frame, your SMB client may very well discontinue the service and cancel future orders if you do not quickly rectify the problem.

But if you are knowledgeable, transparent and dependable, you will be positioned to  receive repeat business from your client and referrals to colleagues in his/her network.  SMB owners are often part of a community of trusted fellow business owners and most will be happy to spread the word about your good work.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

Photograph: The Arthur Anderson Barber Shop in Mattoon, IL circa 1920. Mr. Anderson is standing at right, and employee Sidney Williams stands at left.                                 Courtesy of Eastern Illinois University

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What’s Your Problem?

Whether your customers are B2B, B2C, or B2G, no matter if you sell products or services, tangible or intangible, you will, through trial and error, lost sales and big paydays, develop good stories that convince customers and make sales. Over the years you will trot these warhorses out again and again because they take you to the bank.

Your selling stories can take any number of approaches depending on what and to whom you sell, but one tried-and-true selling story category is the Problem Story. In a Problem Story you demonstrate that you can relate to the prospect’s pain points, you understand what is driving the prospect’s situation and you’re prepared to work with him/her to come up with an effective and reasonably priced solution (that just so happens to reside in your product or service line).

The best Problem Stories have a basic format that you can then adapt and apply to any prospect. Learn to personalize your Problem Story with a visit to your prospect’s website, an internet search to read what’s appeared in the press and if you met the prospect at a business association meeting or similar event, a call to the membership chairperson to get additional info about the prospect and his/her business. Get the back story and begin to comprehend the big picture of your prospect’s goals and understand what really matters. Now you can put together and customize a winning Problem Story.

For example, I provide event planning and PR services for a couple of large annual art events that are sponsored by an artist’s organization. The project specs describe the event planning responsibilities and event promotion public relations campaign that I’m hired to manage, but the unspoken purpose of my job is to persuade art lovers, art dealers, museum curators and the curious public to attend the event and buy art. My service enables the meeting of the relevant parties, so that business can be done.

When I write for the women entrepreneurs magazine where I am a staff writer, my unspoken purpose is to provide compelling content that persuades readers to click on my articles. Those clicks are tallied and they measure both my value to the magazine and the magazine’s value to advertisers, whose budgets sustain the publication.

Problem Stories communicate your understanding of what the prospect is facing and why s/he needs your help. Problem Stories communicate your authenticity because they entail sharing and not just telling. You “get it” and you care. A Problem Story is the opposite of a canned, impersonal sales pitch.

BTW, problem Stories can have a life beyond your conversations with prospects. With client permission if you’d like to reveal names, your Problem Stories make excellent case studies that you can upload to your website, Facebook page and LinkedIn profile, or share with the listening audience when you are a pod cast guest. Make use of your Problem Story wherever and whenever you’d like to demonstrate expertise, build trust and grow your customer base.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Photograph: Academy-Award winning actor (“Network,” Best Actor 1977) Peter Finch (1916 – 1977) as Howard Beale in “Network” (1976). Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Is Your Idea a Business or a Dead End?

Ha! So you think you have an idea that you can parlay into a good business, whether it’s a cutting edge technology or a tried and true formula, like a car wash.

Regardless of the industry that you’d like to enter, there is a more or less standard checklist of factors you should consider before investing your money, time and hopes. Before fantasies of entrepreneurship carry you away, do yourself a favor and answer these questions first. You’ll know how to proceed from here, whether it means that you meet with the Branch Manager at your bank to learn about business financing options, or you take a trip back to the drawing board.

1. Who are the target customers and what is the size of the market?

Define your market demographic. Who will pay to buy what you plan to sell? Is this a product or service that is growing in popularity, or maintaining its broad appeal, or is there a shift in customer preference on the horizon as those who would be your customers learn about a new choice that may persuade them to switch to The Next Big Thing?

In addition to demand for your intended product or service, are there enough customers in your location to support the business? By the way, how are your competitors doing? Do they appear to be thriving?

2. What is the problem that target customers want to solve or avoid when they do business with companies like your proposed venture?

Understand the back story of why customers would buy the solutions that you plan to sell. What is it that they’d like to achieve or avoid? One calls a window washer when the windows are dirty because clean windows demonstrate the owner’s desire to protect and enhance the value of his/her home.

3. How are target customers meeting their need today?

What businesses would be your primary three or four competitors? What factors persuade their customers to do business with them—a convenient location, exceptional product variety, discount pricing, the right relationships?

What advantage can you offer that customers might be drawn to—more convenient hours of operation, for example? Can you provide a product or service that meets a need that is valued but not currently addressed?

4. What is your solution (product or service)?

Describe your proposed product or service. You should be able to easily and clearly describe (and sell) your product. Develop an off-the-cuff sales pitch, record your delivery of it, then listen and evaluate. Would you buy this product or service?

5. How will you reach your customers?

If your business is B2C and requires a physical location, can you afford to set up shop in an area that potential customers will visit? If your business idea is B2B, do you have a plan to access customers and referrals? If your plan is for e-commerce, how will potential customers learn about your website?

6. Do you have the credibility and credentials to do business in this industry?

Especially if you plan to enter the B2B sector, be certain that your education and experience will command respect and trust. If obtaining certain licensing, certifications, or an educational degree is vital (even if not required), investigate the process, plus the time and money involved.

7. Do you have the funding to launch the business?

Research the expected business start-up costs and think objectively about how long it might take you to start making sales you can live on.

Pay your bills and get your credit score. Build up your savings. Whether you expect to self-finance, ask to borrow from friends, family, or your retirement account or apply for outside funding, you will need a lump sum of cash on hand when you launch a business.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Photograph: Financial District, Boston, MA. Kim Clark, September 23, 2018

Recipe For Success

Solopreneurs and owners of small businesses can benefit from what can be called a basic recipe consisting of time-tested business practices that will put you on the path to building a profitable enterprise that will make you proud.

Business strategy

Every business needs a strategy and a business plan is a very helpful tool that supports you as you implement your strategy to develop and launch your venture.  A complex strategy or business plan aren’t necessary to achieve success.  A one-page business strategy and a five-page business plan may do the job, as long as both are well thought out and executed.

A good business strategy (and plan) defines and drives the activities and behaviors of the entire organization. Without it, the business becomes a rudderless ship, lost at sea.  A well-conceived business strategy and properly written business plan reflect and support the business model and always address marketing, operations, finance, staffing and customer service, at a minimum.

Business model

The business model is the plan for how your company will generate revenues and make a profit.  The business model answers the question “Who is the customer and what does that customer value?” As a result, your business model must also spell out the company’s value proposition and what differentiates your products and services from those of competitors.

The business model will keep company leaders focused on the core markets and measuring success as defined by the business strategy.  Here you’ll detail a step-by-step action plan to operate profitably within your marketplace.

Marketing

In order to develop a realistic and potentially effective marketing strategy, it is essential to thoroughly research the most likely target customers for the venture.  What problem or goal will be solved with your products or services—what is the customer’s motive for doing business with you? How much will potential customers pay to obtain the solutions that your venture will offer?

Finding out which competitive products target customers now use to get their needs met is another essential marketing research function.  As well, you must learn the type of marketing and information gathering outreach that potential customers will find and trust.  An effective marketing strategy addresses how you will:

  • Identify target customers
  • Identify the products or services now used  (competitive products)
  • Describe how you will promote your products and services to those customers
  • Explain the positioning strategy for products and services
  • Discuss the branding strategy
  • Describe the sales strategy—how will you sell to customers
  • Address the pricing strategy
  • Identify advertising and social media marketing activities

Sales

The sales strategy that you adopt will depend on your target customers, your access to those customers and the competitive landscape.  You may be able to build referral arrangements and strategic alliances that allow you to generate enough sales to be profitable.  On the other hand, cold calling may be the most effective way to generate sales for your organization.  Will you sell in a physical location, or online? Will customers pay immediately, or will they be billed? The preferred selling approach a company uses is defined in the marketing plan.

Operations

Predictable, practical and streamlined business operations processes are a must.  The customer experience is closely linked to what happens in the behind-the-scenes delivery systems of products and services.  Think of it this way—when you go to your favorite breakfast place to get a muffin and coffee, you expect to receive what you’ve ordered with a minimum of fuss. That is how you start your day because it’s convenient and it makes you feel good.  You, business owner and leader, must create a similar experience for your customers if you intend to retain them.  Smooth business operations also play a role in building good word-of-mouth for your business.  Fail to develop a good operations plan and things could blow up in your face as disappointed customers spread the word about your shortcomings.

Unfortunately, many businesses give short shrift to the operations section of their business plan.  The purpose of thinking through operations processes is to increase business productivity and reduce costs as you offer the same (or better) outcomes to each customer, time and again.  There may be some trial and error along the way, but most of all it takes thought and planning.

Successful business leaders understand the need to continually improve business processes, to become more efficient and productive and able to respond to market changes faster, all the while providing excellent service to customers.

Technology

While technology is important, it needn’t be complex or costly to be effective.  Up-to-date technology products enable upgrades within any number of company functions: product manufacture, delivery of services, inventory management, payment systems, sales and distribution, marketing campaigns, quality control and customer service.

Finance

A realistic financial plan is the cornerstone of building a profitable enterprise.  Every business requires a financial roadmap and budget, along with the discipline to follow it.  You must anticipate and plan for business start-up or expansion costs,  projected sales and assisted by a break-even analysis, project that point in the future when the business will be positioned to make a profit.

The financial plan ensures that the business owner recognizes the most likely sources of business launch or expansion capital (will a bank loan or a partner be necessary?). A financial plan reminds owners where and how to spend money and it provides ways to measure progress, promote healthy cash-flow and warn of impending shortfalls.

Customer service

Smart business leaders treat customers well, because they are aware that there can be no business without customers who make purchases that create revenue and lead to profits.  Integrate customer service into your business practices and review those practices frequently to ensure that they are having the intended effect of facilitating customer satisfaction, repeat business and referrals.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: One scene in a mural displayed in the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City, where thousands of artifacts were excavated from the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the former capital of the Aztec Empire (now called Mexico City).

 

The Art of the Sale: How Marketing, Branding and Advertising Help Revenues

Today, I respectfully offer you a tutorial. Our inquiry will focus on the essence of doing business: selling. The purpose of starting a business is to generate sales, produce revenues and earn a profit.  If a business cannot generate a certain threshold of sales, business expenses cannot be paid and the owner’s investment will be negatively impacted. To curtail mounting debts, the business must close.

Over the past 10 years or so I’ve noticed, sometimes with amusement and other times with dismay,  that the word selling seems to make people feel uncomfortable.  I noticed that frequently, aspiring business owners and Freelance solopreneurs, who must find customers and earn money that is derived from the exchange of money for the products or services that their ventures would produce and provide, avoided the word sell. Instead, the word market was substituted.

Many self-employed professionals are uncomfortable with the process of selling, so they’ve decided to banish the very word. It’s as if selling is now perceived as crass or pushy. That is a shame.  The sales profession is one of the oldest on earth and honorable. Selling is one of the foundations of civilization and selling skills are among the most useful anyone can have; it is the ultimate transferable skill.  Selling makes the world go round, because we wouldn’t have much of a world without it. The ability to sell is far more valuable than the ability to code (yes, really!).

So we can agree that the success of a business is dependent upon sales?  Now, let’s go back to the process of marketing.  The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

The activities and processes for creating, communicating and delivering information about products and services that have value for customers. Marketing is a set of processes that are interconnected and interdependent with other business functions aimed at achieving the interest of (prospective) customers.

Marketing consists of using information, in words or pictures, to promote products and services and persuade potential customers to make purchases.  Customers have an array of motives that drive their purchases.  Marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to the motives of selected customer groups (e.g., parents, young professionals, adolescent males) that research has shown are potential customers for the product or service in question.  The purpose of marketing is to communicate with and appeal to targeted customer groups and persuade them that (your) products and services will satisfy one or more of their needs or desires.

So we can agree that generating sales is dependent upon marketing campaign promotion that is directed at the most promising customers for your products and services? I hope we can also agree that marketing and sales, while on the same continuum, are not one and the same.  Let’s move forward on the path and consider branding.

Branding campaigns are designed to enhance and expand marketing messages by differentiating and distinguishing the reputation of products and services available in the marketplace.  Products, services and individuals can, through an effective branding campaign, acquire a powerful reputation, recognition and loyalty among customers, fans and the general public.  That reputation is known as the brand.

A company logo is usually associated with products that have acquired sufficient popularity and sales to be considered a brand. That logo is instantly recognized and conveys the essence of the brand to its loyal fans, as well as those who may not use the product.  The product name itself will come to symbolize a powerful brand, as does Coca-Cola.

Now let’s take your marketing and branding messages to the public and that brings us to the next stop along the marketing continuum, advertising.  There are more ways to advertise than ever before, thanks to the digital age,  but do not underestimate the value of traditional methods.  The century-old medium that is radio remains a highly effective advertising tool, as do billboards.  Taxi cabs and city buses (and bus stops) announce local events, such as the circus coming to town.  Newspapers and magazines continue to be packed with eye-catching ads.

Content marketing, which many call the new advertising, continues to grow in influence.  It’s approach is indirect and it is presented as relevant information.  Content marketing is stealth advertising that uses primarily written information conveyed in blogs and newsletters to provide information about topics that would be of interest to prospective users of the products or services sold by the company.  The purpose of content marketing is to build an audience of regular readers who trust the source (you) and would feel confident enough to do business with you.

Then there are the social media platforms that are now in the mix. Regardless of the name social media marketing, when used for business purposes it is advertising: the Instagram photos of your wedding venue, the video clip of you accepting an award at the Rotary Club, the webinar posted to your website and LinkedIn profile.

If your marketing strategy and campaigns have been effective and enabled the development of a trustworthy brand and memorable advertising campaigns, your business will attract paying customers. Your business venture will generate sales and you can declare yourself a winner.  Let’s sum up our tutorial:

MARKETING:  How you envision and describe your company. The verbal, voice and visual messages used to promote your products or services. The business owner identifies the market positioning strategy for the company, based on populations predicted to  become customers: mid-market, luxury, or bargain, hipsters, seniors, adventure travelers.  Product positioning impacts all marketing campaigns and messages, the branding strategy and advertising choices.

BRAND:  The company reputation, what it is known for. How others perceive your company.

ADVERTISING:  How and where you portray and describe your company to the public: in print or digital, visual or audio formats placed in Popular Mechanics, Harper’s Bazaar, subway stations, flyers tucked onto car windshields, or Twitter.  Advertising usually costs money.

SALE:  The ultimate goal and final step of the marketing process.  The exchange of money (or another valuable item or service) for the purchase of a product or service.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph of Cher by Richard Avedon (1986)                                                                 Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, LA

e-Commerce Insights

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  Just because everything is different, doesn’t mean that anything has changed.  Way back in the middle of the 20th century, business owners and advertising/marketing specialists learned through experience that the response rate to advertising campaigns, known today in the internet age as the conversion rate, is about 3%.  When you distribute a marketing flier in a chosen geography to announce a new business, for example, either by door to door leafleting or through a mailing, you can expect that 3% or so of the recipients will show up and buy at some point.

In the internet age, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube will announce the grand opening.  The business owner will spend several thousand dollars to launch a website that’s e-commerce ready, with a user-friendly and secure payment system and reliable shipping.  Social media accounts are created, text and photos begin the digital marketing campaign.  According to Statista, U.S. retail B2C e-commerce sales in 2017 were approximately $409,208,000 and 2018 retail B2C e-commerce sales have been projected to reach or exceed $461,582,000.

That’s all to the good, but recent research indicates that the internet age has only barely advanced the original direct marketing response rate.  E-commerce sales conversion rates are about 4%, meaning that 96% of your website visitors do not buy.  Your website may be able to attract customers from all over the world, but no matter.  Whether your customers are down the street or in Amsterdam, aided by technology or looking at a flier that was left in the entrance of their apartment building, only a handful will respond to your advertising outreach.

The offline (i.e., in person) sales conversion rate is much more favorable, estimated at 30%. Why such a big gap between online and offline purchasing? Consumer behavior researchers note that trust is integral to making a purchase online or offline, but I’ve not seen research on why trust develops at a much greater rate in offline shopping. I suppose it can be attributed to seeing is believing?

There is another factor as well, one that seems to be overlooked when the discrepancy between online and offline sales conversion rates are compared and that is, the in-store sales help.  The good ones can lead a customer down the garden path with a nice smile, a warm greeting, knowledge of the merchandise and the ability to answer questions and reassure.  Good sales help are integral to generating revenue for the store.

Derrick Neufeld, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Western University’s Ivey Business School in Ontario, Canada and Mahdi Roghanizad, Assistant Professor at Huron University College also at Western University in Ontario, Canada, designed an experiment to study motivating factors in 245 research subjects and learn what might influence online purchases, from facts about secure online payments to the website’s font sizes and colors.  The research subjects were asked to visit the website of a bookstore in Australia that had been in business for 17 years and with whom none of them had previously known or patronized and to then make some buying decisions.

Neufeld and Roghanizad found, surprisingly, that objective information about privacy and secure payment systems have less influence on purchasing than do subjective factors in website design that signal trust.  Online purchases from an unknown entity, in particular, involve risk and potential customers rely more on subjective clues that communicate trust, such as “professionalism” and aesthetics, to make themselves feel comfortable enough to put their money down.

So how might you use this information to support online purchases from your company website? It sounds as if you’d be advised to work with a very talented web designer who understands both the aesthetic and technical aspects of the craft.  The e-commerce focused website must have attractive page layouts and fonts, expert product photography (and maybe a video, too), colors that psychologists have determined will appeal to customers who are known to buy your B2C product and a good overall flow to the website pages.  I recommend that even if it’s a second-tier priority, include a line that verifies the security and privacy of customer financial information.

Think of your e-commerce store in the way that proprietors of bricks and mortar locations do and create an experience that communicates the best that your brand has to offer.  Make your website an attractive, welcoming environment that offers quality merchandise, intuitive navigation and excellent customer service.  Make shopping a satisfying experience, as it is meant to be.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Custom tailoring at Lagu Hong Kong Tailor in Hong Kong, China (2012)

Finally Figuring Out Social Media

Consider, if you will, that you are using all of your company’s social media platforms like a naïve amateur, no matter how long you’ve been active on Facebook or how quickly you jumped onto Twitter and Instagram.  Chances are you do not have a realistic definition of social media marketing campaign success.  You cannot demonstrate meaningful ROI for the strategies you’ve employed.

The fact of the matter is, you are using the wrong measurements to document social media marketing campaign success.  You have been misled and you are confused.  Followers, shares, comments and likes are widely considered the gold standard social media metrics, but does that “engagement” correlate with or generate sales revenue and referrals? Let’s lift the curtain and sort this out.

It’s time to think about social media marketing in the way you do traditional marketing campaigns, including advertising and sales strategies, and apply the same expectations.  Social media campaigns are marketing campaigns, too, and not a stand-alone entity.  Please shift your social media marketing goals and objectives to what is tangible and measurable and bring real value to your customers and organization.  Various social media platforms can take a credible supporting role in the following marketing goals, for example:

  • Raising brand awareness
  • New product or service launch
  • Lead generation
  • Increasing sales
  • Special events promotion
  • Facilitating and/or improving customer service
  • Obtaining donations (not-for-profit sector)
  • Recruiting volunteers (not-for-profit sector)

Once you’ve identified your marketing goals, determine which platforms seem most suitable for your message and which will reach the selected target market groups.  Then, select the content—blog, tweeted updates, YouTube videos, Instagram photos, announcements on Facebook, for example—that will most effectively communicate your message and resonate with your target markets.

Be aware that unlike traditional marketing methods, which fly at 30,000 feet, social media outreach is an ongoing conversation and the best way to attract and retain visitors and followers who might convert into your customers and referrers is to get personal.  Use social media to speak directly to your audience.  Answer questions that will help to familiarize them with your products and services and understand their features, advantages and benefits.  Display visual images of your brand and what it stands for. Include audiovisuals that let influencers give testimonials.  Solve problems, deliver timely information.  Be a cool and helpful friend.

To help you schedule and manage the integration of multi-platform social media campaigns and ongoing outreach across various departments in a larger business organization, investigate Buffer and Hootesuite, or other social media management services.

Now, to measure the effectiveness of your campaigns.  On your own, you can record selected Key Performance Indicators that immediately precede your revised social media strategies.  In six months and then again in 12 months, revisit those KPIs.  Additionally, Google Analytics is a useful tool to sort through social media activity on all of your channels and report on engagement that leads to a sale processed on the company website, event registrations, signs-ups to receive your blog or newsletter, not-for-profit organization fundraising donations received and requests for additional product or service information, for example.

When you approach social media marketing campaigns correctly, you can receive lots of actionable information.  But in order to receive information that will make a difference in you company’s bottom line, you need to ask the right questions and apply the right metrics.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Teletype operator (circa 1941-1945) courtesy of the National Archives           Teletype technology allowed typed messages to be transmitted electronically from point to point to a single or multiple recipients, including sent and received messages. The teletypewriter evolved through many upgrades, starting in 1835 and it was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1938.  Essentially, teletype was early email.

Cash-Flow Therapy

So many businesses in the U.S. are undercapitalized; insufficient cash-flow is a factor in the demise of many ventures that might otherwise succeed.  Cash is king, it is often said, and the wise business owner will do what is necessary to maintain adequate cash-flow in his/her organization.

Make friends with the basic three financial documents and learn to use them as analytical tools.  They exist to enable your success and they will signal you when corrective action must be taken.

Monitor the top line of your company’s Income Statement (sales revenue/ billable hours).  Observe the ebb and flow of the accounts receivable (who owes your business money) and payable (to whom you owe money) on your Balance Sheet.  Make note of the beginning and ending cash balances on your Cash-Flow Statement.  Also on the Cash-Flow Statement, notice the cash sales (representing billable hours payments received as checks, for example) and the operating expenses.

Seasonal variations in billable hours/ sales can potentially exacerbate cash-flow problems if that is an issue in your business (the Christmas to New Year’s slowdown, for example) and pop-up emergency expenses can do the same.  Unfortunately, the outcome for Freelance consultants or other business owners can be a cash deficit, an especially unwelcome state of affairs in a month that involves holiday expenses.

But the primary cause of cash-flow woes is usually a result of persistently insufficient billable hours for services rendered or product sales, perhaps secondary to an anemic client list.

Former Wall Street Journal Assistant Editor Serenity Gibbons points out that if you  struggle to generate enough at the top line, you’re probably facing one of the following challenges:

  • The optimum target clients have not been reached by your marketing campaigns, or the message doesn’t address their priorities or aspirations.
  • The product/ service has limited value to the target clients, or your offerings are overwhelmed by dominant competitors.
  • The product/ service is perceived as too expensive for the value delivered.

It’s time to take control and consider what can be done over the short and long-term to correct the problem.  Do some homework and discover the basic challenges, concerns and goals (as defined by their respective industries) that would motivate your prospective clients and guide their decisions.  Determine why they’re doing business with your competitors and not you.  Moreover, make sure that you are pursuing the best target markets for your products/ services.

A second issue is an administrative one that plagues many Freelancers—-we fail to invoice in a timely and regularly scheduled fashion.  Help your clients to take you seriously and treat you like a “real” business by invoicing when promised. Take measures to improve the odds of getting paid on time and in full.  I’ve lived through this challenge and can report that with a small amount of discipline, it can be overcome.

Third, watch your operating (fixed) and sales related (variable) expenses.  How much are you spending to generate sales revenues/ billable hours? Limit what must get dropped into accounts payable and expand what drops into accounts receivable.

There are usually ways to stem the tide of cash-flow problems, that is, if you take action early enough.  You might start with revisiting your pricing strategy.  Ensure that your pricing reflects the value of your product/ service; that your prices are comparable to what competitors in your area charge for similar services/ products; and that you charge close to the maximum of what clients expect to pay for what you offer. Do some in-depth pricing research, using GSA MOBIS, the federal contract system, as a benchmark.  http://gsa.federalschedules.com/industries/gsa-mobis-consulting-pss-874/

Another useful tactic that serves as a band-aid for cash-flow glitches that are more inconvenient than problematic is your business credit line.  While you’re still able to pay bills on time and have a respectable credit score, investigate obtaining a business credit card through your bank.

Resist the temptation to charge business expenses to your personal credit cards!  Keep business and personal expenses separate and get your arms around the spending in each sector.  Furthermore, a business credit card usually has a much higher credit limit than a personal line and that allows you to more easily make investments in your business and earn cash back and points as you do.

Finally, if inflated business expenses, whether fixed or variable, play a major role in your cash-flow problems, then you will have some decisions to make (re: the selling expenses) and negotiating to do (re: the operating).  If you regularly pay on time expenses for inventory purchases, credit cards, or insurance, for example, get on the phone and ask for lower interest rates or a lower premium.  If variable expenses seem high, reconsider how much you must spend on marketing, advertising, sales and client entertaining.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Baccarat at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, NV, with Frank Sinatra (in black tie) as the card dealer (1959)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Baccarat at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, NV with Frank Sinatra (in bow tie) dealing the cards (1959)

Marketing Meets Sales: Selling to Inbound Marketing Callers

Inbound Marketing matters, to your top line revenue and your client list.  Other than “selling” Girl Scout cookies to Mommy and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, there’s no better sales opportunity than a prospect who dials your number and asks about what you sell.  Do not even think about flubbing this.  But without simple yet skillfully designed response guidelines, you are in danger of dropping the ball.

Inbound Marketing begins when a prospective customer who either met you somewhere or was referred to you by someone finds the motivation to contact you and ask if you might answer a couple of questions about your products or services.  Consider that outreach to be your Hollywood screen test and close-up.  If you want to call yourself a business person, then you will learn to confidently and competently handle Inbound Marketing calls (or emails) and emerge with an appointment to meet the caller in person to discuss specifics.

Let’s start with some basic observations about your marketing plan, the carefully choreographed activities that you implement to inform potential customers about your products and services.   Marketing can be divided into two types:

  1. Outbound Marketing, which encompasses traditional, time-tested marketing strategies and tactics such as advertising, networking, speaking engagements, teaching, writing a book, sponsoring a community or business event, nonprofit board service and other activities that broadcast your business brand and marketing message “outward” to the public.
  2. Inbound Marketing, which consists of activities designed to encourage potential customers to develop a level of interest and interaction with your company that “pulls,” i.e., persuades, them to do business with your company as a result of the trust and confidence developed through the ongoing engagement.  Online activities play a dominant role in Inbound Marketing, including social media, newsletters and blogs.  The Inbound Marketing audience is self-selected, as there is always the ability to opt-out of the communication and theoretically this cohort is more likely to do business.

The purpose of creating and executing an Outbound Marketing strategy is to generate Inbound Marketing inquiries by potential customers.  If your business fails to encourage Inbound Marketing,  your venture most likely will not achieve the financial success that you would like.  Inbound Marketing is where the money is made.

An Inbound Marketing call can lead to billable hours or a sale that makes your month, or leave you kicking yourself because you mishandled an objection or forgot to ask an important question.  Let’s see how you can design successful response guidelines.  Grant Cardone, selling skills guru and author of If You’re Not First, You’re Last: Sales Strategies to Dominate Your Market (2010), breaks down his very useful Inbound Marketing call technique:

Greeting

How you welcome the prospect who has chosen to reach out to you, rather than your competitor, is all-important.  Ace the first impression by answering the telephone politely at all times, no matter how annoyed you are by other matters.  When you realize that you’ve been gifted with a prospective customer’s call, i.e., an Inbound Marketing call, slide into character by smiling as you speak and adding a (realistic) dose of enthusiasm to your voice.  Smiling as you talk and imagining that the prospect is in the room with you has been demonstrated to make selling over the phone more successful. Give your name, title and a cheerful, helpful attitude to your caller.

Facts

“Who am I speaking with, please?” Obtaining the name of the caller is an easy Step One of the trust-building that is the foundation of every sale.  Grant Cardone recommends that you resist the temptation to ask for more information because if the caller is really interested, s/he will happily volunteer that information to enable the sale. What you DO want to learn early on is what prompted the call:

  • What the caller would like to know about what you sell and how that information  relates to what s/he would like to achieve or resolve?
  • Which, if any, product or service has been used regarding the issue before and what was the outcome?  Why does the caller want to investigate something else?
  •  Determine the timeline and any deadline “Do you need to make a decision today, or this week?”

Objections 

As you discuss the features and benefits of the product or service that may provide the solution that your caller needs an objection may abruptly spring up and make your caller suddenly lose confidence.  Objections can be skillfully handled through a method I learned many years ago, called “Feel, Felt, Found:”

“I understand why you might feel this issue (or perceived shortcoming) might prevent you from achieving results.  There have been a few others who at first felt this situation could possibly become a problem.  Over the years, my staff and I have found that when you (make this adjustment, or whatever), it’s possible to bring about the results that you want.  Does that sound reasonable to you?”

To help you organize your thoughts during any part of your unexpected Inbound Marketing call, Grant Cardone suggests that you press the hold button to give yourself 30 seconds or so to plan a response.  Making certain that you are able to successfully handle an objection seems to me like the right time to hit the hold button!

Appointment

While you might get lucky and sell your Inbound Marketing caller on the first contact, chances are your prospect will require more information to develop adequate trust in you and your company and make him/her feel confident enough to close the deal.  Suggest to your prospect that you would be happy to come to his/her office to discuss how your customized product or service solutions can benefit his/her organization and its business goals (alternatively, the caller can come to your office).

“Since you don’t need to make a decision immediately, it would seem to make sense for us to sit down together for an hour and discuss what you need, your short and long-term goals and how I can customize a solution for you that respects your budget and time line.  What does your schedule look like? What is your company name and address and what is your call back number and email?”

Happy New Year and thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Doris Day (left) and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959)                          Directed by Michael Gordon for Universal Pictures

 

 

 

How B2B Clients Do Business Now

Keeping up with the evolving mind-set and practices of your current and prospective clients has long been a challenge for Freelance consultants and continues to be so in the “new economy.”  Signing a good client is not easy, what with the penchant for not spending money being all the rage.  We Freelancers can prosper only by staying one step ahead of the client, always positioned to neutralize the temptation to keep a project in-house or let it languish and eventually die.  Knowledge is power and we need strategies that will turn on the spigot and pour out billable hours.  Here are trends that B2B products and services purchasers are following now.

They do research

A recent survey of employees who make B2B purchases for their organizations was conducted by the global consulting firm Accenture and showed that 94% of purchasers (that is, your clients and prospects) research possible solutions for business needs in advance, to learn about the options, availability and pricing of solutions and to save time and money.  By the time Freelance consultants and other vendors are approached, the hoped-for client has done most of the upfont legwork. S/he already has a good idea of what might be provided by service professionals like you and your competitors and maybe even knows what a reasonable ballpark figure for your services might be.

The entrepreneur and marketing expert Danny Wong, co-founder of the online men’s apparel company Blank Label, recommends that Freelancers acknowledge the elephant in the room and simply ask your prospect about research that may have been done and what you might be able to verify or clarify. Don’t ignore the tsunami of information.  Ride the wave and earn respect for your candor and knowledge of client behavior.

They’re skeptical

Unfortunately, some sales “professionals” and unsavory Freelancers have been known to misrepresent that which they sell.  As a result, many B2B purchasers prefer to buy online and bypass you and me.  The practice was confirmed recently by Forrester Research, in a survey that found that nearly 60% of B2B purchasers preferred to buy independently, without the assistance of a salesperson.

Wong points out that demonstrating expertise, as well as an appreciation and respect for the prospect’s goals and situation, confers to you credibility and helps you to earn their trust, an essential process when competing for assignments and sales.  They won’t do the deal if they don’t trust you and why should they?

No matter how desperate you are for billable hours, don’t rush the deal.  Take the time to understand what is needed and how your products and services can help or for that matter, if they can’t  help.  Avoid being perceived as an aggressive salesperson.  Do present yourself as a trustworthy adviser who wants to make the prospect look smart to his/her superiors and other colleagues.

They’re in no hurry

No, it’s not your imagination that closing a deal is taking longer than it used to.  Another study showed that the length of the average B2B sales cycle has increased by 22% over the past five years.  While the prospect is working the worry beads, Mr. Wong recommends that you do what you can to stay at top of mind and try to keep the project from falling into oblivion.  A Freelancer’s main competitor is not one of our rivals, it’s the client’s inertia.

Send information that can support (and speed up) the decision-making, but don’t overwhelm—curate.  Inquire about a timeline and deadline for the project and suggest what might be a reasonable starting time.

They trust the advice of anonymous “peers”

So do you and that’s why you research hotels and restaurants on Trip Advisor and Yelp and search for a contractor on Angie’s List.  Accenture reports that almost 25% of B2B purchasers make their decisions based almost entirely on information gleaned from online “social” rating sites.

If your Freelancing skill is one that would send prospects to Angie’s List or a neighborhood blog, attempt to establish a presence on those sites and build credibility that will help you get hired.  LinkedIn and Facebook could be helpful once a trusted source has referred a prospective client to you and then your online presence is researched before you get the call.  Nevertheless, create a good profile on your chosen social media sites and make yourself look knowledgeable and trustworthy.

They appreciate relevant content marketing

The longer buying cycle gives the advantage to Freelancers who produce long form content—a monthly newsletter, a weekly blog, case studies and other white papers that appear on your website, videos, infographics, or podcasts—that may grab the attention of prospects.  A FAQs page added to your website that details how to do business with you could  be helpful. Impartial and instructive content is what content marketing is all about. Produce your own and position yourself as an expert who is qualified to get the job done.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukkah,

Kim