Soft Sell

Don't Just Sit There!

One of the most damaging failings identified by D&B's survey is the tendency of small businesses to react to incoming orders instead of proactively seeking them out. Small businesses are so passive, in fact, that walk-in retail traffic was the most popular sales method, cited by 44 percent. Next were telephone sales, used by 22 percent, and field sales, used by 18 percent.

Small-business owners may feel they're too busy putting out fires to be proactive, Doescher speculates. In fact, survey findings indicate that competitors, tight budgets and the difficulty of getting noticed by customers were cited as the biggest obstacles to proactive marketing.

Not all small businesses take a passive approach, however. Gordon Weinberger, founder and president of Top of the Tree Baking Co. in Londonderry, New Hampshire, spends most of his time traveling throughout New England in a wildly painted school bus promoting his fruit pies. He can often be found outside grocery stores, in mall parking lots or anywhere else people will gather to gawk at an oddly dressed six-foot-nine-inch entrepreneur imploring them to "Eat mo' pie!"

"We're extremely proactive," says Weinberger, 33. He's even gone so far as to organize letter-writing campaigns by consumers urging local grocers to carry his pies. And his efforts are working: The 10-employee company, near failure in early 1997, rocketed to profitability by year-end to the tune of $3 million in annual sales, largely because of Weinberger's manic marketing.

It seems that small businesses fall short of almost every marketing ideal, from seeking international business (13 percent) and creating strategic marketing plans (21 percent) to providing outside training or compensating sales people. Still, some small-business marketing practices are on the mark.

Small-business standbys such as referrals and word-of-mouth, for instance, were named by many survey respondents as some of the most economical, effective marketing tools. In-house sales training can also be both effective and inexpensive, adds Tudor. And nearly two out of three small businesses surveyed measure customer satisfaction--another smart move.

Meanwhile, Weinberger says he's running his marketing effort like a "pie-litical campaign," complete with grass-roots efforts and lots of photo opportunities with the media. "We even have ambassadors who are in the supermarkets promoting our products."

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Soft Sell.

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