Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Help For Very Small Businesses - How to Get New Customers

Some Things You Can Do To Find New Customers

Are you running a very small business, or thinking about starting up on your own? If you are, then one of the most critical factors is getting yourself customers - enough to keep you in business.

Lots of people start up with a few customers already 'on their books', usually people you've previously worked with or for. This is a really good way to start, but try not to have all your eggs in this one basket, because the nature of business is that sooner or later the circumstances will change and then you'll be left needing to find yourself some nice new customers to deal with.

So, it's very important to think about how you'll find these precious new contacts, even if at the moment, you have enough business to keep you going. Remember, people move on; the contact who loved you, might be replaced by someone who just doesn't click with you, you do an amazingly good job helping to grow a business, and then find yourself then unable to support their increased needs, your best customer might go belly-up, or decide to sell. There's a lot that can go wrong that's completely out of your control, but if you have a plan for finding new contacts, this isn't going to totally de-rail you when it happens.

So what can you do to attract lovely new prospects? Well, let's face it, none of us very small business owners are going to have mega-budgets to throw at this one, so here are a few suggestions that won't break the bank, but will produce results.

I've divided the ideas into those that work for very small local businesses and those more suitable for very small businesses whose customers are more spread out. Have a read through and see if you could apply them to your business.

Local Business Development 
If your work is done in a limited, local area, then you have a variety of options.

The old chestnut of a local leaflet drop still works. The more you know about the people who'll want your service or product, the better you can target your leaflets. So, if you're offering a gardening service, don't leaflet drop the local blocks of flats - instead, drive or walk around your area and decide which gardens have the most potential - big ones, ones where the owners are too busy to do it themselves, rough looking gardens in posh areas - you get the picture. Then produce a simple leaflet - you can do it on your computer - and print a few off. Then off you go and put them through the letterboxes.

It doesn't always have to be homes you distribute to either. I know a photographer who popped leaflets into the school bags at her daughter's primary school to kick start her business.

Don't do too many at a time, so you can make alterations if you need to. Make your leaflet highlight the benefits your service will give to the customer - what problem will it solve. E.g. Working too hard to be able to do the garden? Don't let your garden let your house down etc...

Leaflets really don't need to be glossy jobs, in fact as a very small business, it's often better to keep it simple. The more personal you can make it, the better. People like to buy from people they feel an affinity for.

Business Cards
I love business cards, they're so portable and easy to use. They might sound a bit tacky, but I bet you read the cards on notice boards don't you? The trick is to say clearly on the card what it is you do. Keep it simple. Then get creative about where you put them - OK, maybe not the phone box (depends on your business, I guess), but lots of shops have notice boards, pubs are another good option, as are churches and church halls. Think about the places in your area where your customers might spend time, and get your card out in those places.

Use your existing customers to find your new contacts. This is a REALLY POWERFUL technique. When you're established and doing a great job, it's the type of thing that happens naturally. A customer who's happy with you, is very likely to let other people looking for a similar service, know all about how good you are.

But when you're starting, it's still a good idea to ask your customers if they hear about any possible contacts, to pass on your details. You could leave them with a small quantity of business cards, just in case, if you feel it's quite likely. Don't go in too heavily, remember the main thing is to do an excellent job and build your reputation, but it's fine to gently say that you'd love to hear if they know someone else who'd be interested in your service.

Also, if a customer does refer you and it turns into business for you, reward your referring customer - there's no need to go mad, but a little gesture of thanks goes miles and helps build your reputation even more.

Advertise Locally
Now a HUGE note of caution here. I've spent most of my career involved in advertising in one format or another, and although done correctly, it can work wonders, it is all too easy to get it horribly wrong and blow far too much hard earned cash, achieving nothing.

Now, having said that, the good news is that you can do it well, as long as you proceed with care and think very deeply about what you're doing.

So, think local, think targeted and think cheap. Which route you choose will depend on your target customer, but lets look at an example.

If our local gardener wanted to boost her contacts, what could she do? Well, if she knows that a lot of her customers are church goers, then a small advert in the Parish Magazine might be a good option. She'd need to check how many people it goes to - it's distribution - to be sure it would reach enough potential contacts. Her message would need to be targeted at that audience too.

She could put a small poster in the local pubs where her potential customers live. Posters are also great for libraries, church halls and local shops.

What about local newspapers? 
Well, I wouldn't rule it out, but I wouldn't do it until I was very well established. Remember, a sizeable proportion of the distribution will probably go to people who would never be interested in your service - this is waste and you're paying for it, so unless you're confident that you'll reach the numbers you need, keep this one up your sleeve.

It might be fine for a local garage or car mechanic, but not so good for a local music teacher. Most households will probably be in the market for a car mechanic at some time, but far fewer will ever be looking for a piano teacher. If you're a mechanic, it's possible, if you're a piano teacher, think very, very hard.

Take a cold hard look at the numbers before you part with any money!

The difference between publicity and advertising is (forgive me those who spend their lifetimes musing on this) that advertising is coverage you pay for, while publicity is something you get for free. Now in the real world, a lot of publicity is actually paid for in some format or another, but nevertheless, it's a good way for very small businesses to get known.

If you can make a story out of something that you do, have done or are going to do, then there's a good chance your local media (newspapers, radio, perhaps TV) will be interested. The key here is that it must be a story that will interest their audience, not just be nice for you.

So if the gardener just picked up her hundredth customer, that's nice for her, but it's not going to mean much to anyone else, however, if she wins a garden design award for her hundredth customer, then that's news.

There aren't many hard and fast rules here. If there's not much happening in an area, you might get coverage for a weaker story than you'd get in a busy place. But it pays to get yourself known by local media. I'll do a post sometime on how to do this in more detail.

Cards on the table, I loathe traditional networking events. So unless you're the sort of person that can enter a room full of strangers and instantly start up a conversation, I wouldn't advise too many of these. But networking doesn't really have to be like that.

It's more a case of being amongst the right sort of people. So think about the events where people you want to work with, typically gather and be there too. I think a lot of people dislike the feeling that they are being 'sold to', so instead, it's better to become part of a group and establish yourself so that people are drawn to you gently.

Our gardener might know that because a lot of her customers are church goers, that being involved at the church might be a good way to network with possible contacts. Actually I know a self-employed gardener who has a coffee and cake at her local church coffee shop every week; it's not selling, but it's effective networking.

If your business involves selling to parents of young children, being involved in local school sports might get you contacts.

Networking needs thought, but it's a good way to get yourself known, just don't expect fast results. Remember, people will want to trust you before they do business with you.

Looking Further Afield For Customers

For businesses that don't rely on a tight geographic market, there are other ways to find new customers.

This time, rather than looking at local media, think about the trade journals in your field. Trade journals exist for practically every industry out there - don't believe me? Go google, you'll be amazed.

Now these publications really are after as much news as they can get, and they're always pleased to hear from people involved. So get your facts together and give them a story. I'll post on writing press releases another day - if you can't wait, there's lots of information online or great books on the subject.

If you have something new to sell, have won something, hired someone, been hired by someone - you name it (well practically) these journals will want to know. Granted it won't always be used, but it's a really good place to start getting your name seen and heard.

Joint Promotions
One way to pick up new business is to join up with another business that works with the same customers you're looking for, but offers non competing services or products.

This can work well for both parties, helping offer a more complete service and tying customers closer into their relationships with you.

For example, we found new business by joining with a friendly market research company and selling our mock-up pack service. They could offer their customers cost effective pack mock-ups and we got to build our reputation for fast, accurate and cost effective artwork. Both companies benefited and so did the clients.

Not all relationships will work this way, and it's not an instant solution, but it's a good route if you can find suitable business partners.

OK, so it's rearing it's ugly head again - sorry all you seasoned networkers out there - but if your industry is spread out, then you probably do need to get out there and be seen.

Go to trade conferences, fairs and exhibitions, talk to journalists, go on training courses from time to time.

Again, don't expect to see fast results, but aim to make sure that the people you want to talk to, will begin to know who you are. It's unlikely that business will come directly from doing this, but it's a good way to boost referrals.

By the way, journalists are an excellent source of contacts and make wonderful referrers. They know and speak to everyone in an industry, so if they're asked 'who should I speak to about x?', they're very likely to refer someone who's taken the time to brief them and develop a good relationship with.

Proceed with caution. Trade magazines might be the right route, but always be sure that the numbers stack up before you commit. Sometimes a well positioned and targeted advert will really hit the button, but look for cheaper options first and always negotiate hard before you sign up. Never, ever ever take the list price - walk away. We aim to achieve 30 - 50% reductions off the list price every time - sometimes more, and we're just a very small company!

Cold Calling
A tricky one this. For very small businesses, it can be a big time eater - you have to find the numbers to call, then decide what to say and then actually do it - and that's supposing you're the sort of person who can cold call total strangers. Buying this service in isn't an option for most cash strapped very small businesses. What can you do?

Well, rather than think of it as looking for new business, it can help to think of it as planting the seeds of a new relationship. Don't try and sell anything, try and start a relationship. We once put together a short guide to local advertising and then cold called a range of companies, asking for the details of the person responsible for advertising and offering to send them a copy for free. The idea was to then follow up the call a few days later to see if they had received it and whether it was useful. We'd try to keep them warm by following up from time to time, eventually they'd recognise us and so when they did want to advertise, they'd come to us for help. It's not a quick process and there's high waste, but it does produce a proportion of nice warm contacts.

Some companies use the quantity approach to cold calling - the more you approach the better the chance that one will want to work with you. Others prefer the quality approach - they carefully select the companies they want to work with and offer a much more targeted approach - this technique gives a better return, but takes much longer to do. Both approaches are valid, it's up to you what works best for you.

An alternative that can work, is to get someone else to cold call for you - and then you can do it for them in return. For some reason, some people find it practically impossible to do it on their own behalf, but are quite confident doing it for someone else. Have a think about your friends and business contacts - are there any people who you could do this cold-call swap with?

Well this is turning into a long post, so I'll stop here. The main thing is not to wait until you're desperate for new customers before you start looking for them - as I think you'll have seen, a lot of these techniques take time and effort before they produce results - but they do work.

The other thing is to PERSIST. It's a well researched fact, that new customers very rarely respond to the first approach from you. I've seen figures that say it takes an average of six times before they're converted to paying customers. So the message is, 'if at first you don't succeed, keep trying'

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