From the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

How can [you] cope with today's marketplace, in which erratic conditions are--and will continue to be--the norm? Here are 24 practical ideas for gaining customers in unpredictable sales conditions.

1. Surprise the prospects. Run of the mill is out; getting attention is in. But this isn't easy, particularly amid all the clutter and competition for attention. Be innovative and dramatic. One insurance agency offered to buy small contractors "the biggest steak dinner in town" if the firm couldn't save them money. This challenge was enough to make the telephone ring.

2. Target the right person. The big job in marketing is getting the right people inside a company. Addressing mail to "Facilities Manager" or printing a routing slip on an envelope is ineffective. Taking time to be highly targeted is essential.

3. Be more creative. Ask yourself "Will anyone be intrigued enough to read my mailer--before tossing it into the wastebasket?" To be distinctive, a highly creative approach is necessary. Creativity costs money, but if more people read the ad or accept the offer, you have accomplished the goal.

4. Focus on what customers care about. After listening to the admissions director talk about what should be shown in the school's new recruiting video, the marketing consultant asked "Is this what parents and prospective students are interested in knowing?" Suddenly everyone involved became less confident. Someone suggested asking the student tour guides what questions the visiting parents and kids were asking. Whether you are creating an ad, brochure or presentation, know what the customer wants, needs and expects.

5. Tell customers what to think about your company. People come to conclusions by making comparisons. The rating of life insurance companies makes an impact on customers. The J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey on cars influences buying behavior. Wise [entrepreneurs] spend time and effort influencing the way their company is perceived.

6. Make your offers outstanding. Customers are cautious. This is why offers are essential. "Try it for 30 days . . . free." "We won't deposit your credit card slip for a month." The goal is to overcome the customer's reluctance.

7. Be in the right place at the right time. "Oh, why didn't I think of you last week when we bought the
new--?" Some salespeople simply shrug off such comments with "Oh, well. I can't be in the right place every time." Wrong. Developing a consistent program for staying in front of the customer is the challenge. A mix of seminars, newsletters, bulletins, fact sheets, special events and informative articles will keep you on the customer's mind.

8. Name your product or service. Differentiate your products or services from the rest by giving them distinctive names. A building contractor with expertise in remodeling during off hours calls himself the "stealth" remodeler. The idea is to imbue ordinary ideas with new meaning.

9. Be relentless. Persistence is power. Far too many salespeople fail because they don't follow through. Marketing momentum comes from consistent effort. It takes time for customers to understand what you're doing and to get comfortable with your business.

10. Get rid of the self-serving nonsense. Most company publications, ads and other sales materials do nothing more than toot the company's horn. No one cares that the business says it is the "best," the "oldest" or the "biggest." Pictures of staff members only interest the staff. A better approach is to ask prospects what they want to know.

11. Tell customers everything you know. Today's customers want information and ideas. Do everything you can to share your knowledge and become a valued resource.

12. Be generous. At one auto dealer, you buy a new car and the dealer hands you a 29-cent plastic key chain! You may forget the car, but you'll never forget the lousy key chain. Another auto dealer delivers the new car to your office. What a difference! This dealer sends a powerful message: "Our customers are important."

13. Make prospect identification your mission. Companies that make prospecting a continuing process produce a steady flow of leads. They never stop asking "Who do we want to do business with if we have the chance?"

14. Scrutinize your corporate identity. Is the logo dated? Does it communicate the right message? What about the company colors? Are they reminiscent of the 1970s? Do the letterhead and business cards convey a strong, positive message, or are they dull and ordinary?

15. Write customer-centered letters. Most business letters are cold and impersonal. "As per our conversation . . ." "Pursuant to our agreement . . ." When was the last time you heard anyone talk this way at lunch? Yet give the same people a pen and they become stilted. There's no reason business letters should not be warm, friendly and conversational. Write as if you were the one reading it.

16. Develop the fine art of faceting. Facets give a diamond its sparkle and appeal. It's the same with a business. Look for new, unique angles or facets of your business, product or service.

17. Focus on why customers should do business with you. What makes your company different? Get beyond the usual, trite responses such as "We give great service" or "We've been in business for 63 years." Dig deeper and uncover the valid reasons you deserve the customer's business.

18. Develop a sense of excitement. There is little or no action without a sense of urgency. The goal is to create the "I wonder what they are going to do next" attitude. This draws customers.

19. Tell the story one piece at a time. There's a tendency to jam everything about a business into one brochure, ad or newsletter. The difficult job is pulling it all apart, breaking ideas into their parts, and then rolling out a continuing, intriguing marketing campaign. Communicating a message over a period of time works best because it allows the message to sink in slowly.

20. Make your marketing match your business. Review your marketing materials carefully. If you want to be known as a first-class organization, do your brochures and sell sheets convey that message?

21. Personalize communications. The days of letters beginning with "Dear Customer" are gone. Yet this is the way one letter began from a company president who takes pride in delivering personal service. Don't bother mailing a letter that isn't personalized. There is tremendous power in personalization. It makes customers and prospects feel you actually know who they are and that you're talking directly to them.

22. Take advantage of testimonials. Let your customers blow your horn for you. Why are some customers reluctant to give a testimonial? They may lack experience in expressing themselves. A better way is to interview them, then prepare their comments for their approval.

23. Give customers the opportunity to respond. Getting your message into the marketplace is important. But getting customers to respond is the real test. Always offer opportunities to ask for additional information, state a question or request a sample. Discovering what's on the customer's mind is all-important.

24. Make marketing your mission. Marketing often becomes a priority only when sales are down. This shotgun approach simply does not work. Communicating the company's message is an ongoing process, and the task is to develop new and interesting ways to get the message across.

Producing the best product or offering the most comprehensive service isn't good enough today. The primary goal is to create conditions that will make the customer want what you sell. These 24 down-to-earth, practical ideas can make a major difference.

From 203 Ways to Be Supremely Successful in the New World of Selling, (c)1996 by John R. Graham. Reprinted with permission from MacMillan Reference, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Now available at local bookstores or by calling (800) 428-5331.