From the August 1999 issue of Startups

What's the one office essential that can market your business, deliver a message about your product or service, enhance your company's image and even take orders--24 hours a day, whether you're in the office or not? The answer is your phone line. And if you're using it just to take and make calls, you're not getting the most out of this potential powerhouse. Here are four low-cost, high-tech strategies you can adopt now to get immediate results:

1. Do more with voice mail. Each time a prospect or customer contacts your business, you have an opportunity to communicate information or even close a sale. But what happens when you're out of the office or on your line and can't take the call? If you're using a basic answering machine, your prospect will either get your standard outgoing message or a busy signal. Not much help there. But with voice mail and multiple mailboxes, you can give callers the option to get more information, leave a detailed message or even place an order. You also project to your clients the image of a solid, professional company that's focused on serving its customers.

The number of mailboxes you need depends on your type of business and the way you make your sales. Imagine you're a Web designer. You might have three mailboxes callers could reach after-hours or when you're on the phone. One could provide information on your company's design services; another would offer promotional materials on ancillary services or products; and the third might be your personal mailbox.

You can buy phone equipment with voice mail and create a custom system for your company. Or use voice mail with multiple mailboxes, available from the local phone company in most areas, generally for less than $10 a month. Just be sure to avoid "voice-mail jail" and provide callers with a way to speak to a live person during business hours.

2. Your order, please. If you currently take orders by phone or mail, why not accept orders by fax? You'll reduce the amount of time you spend on the telephone, and by allowing customers to place orders instantly 24 hours a day, you'll make it easier, faster and more convenient for them to buy. You can even offer an incentive for fax orders--such as a special gift or discount--to encourage customers to try it.

Setting up a fax order system costs little or nothing beyond the price of the machine itself. Begin by letting all your customers and prospects know about the new ordering option. Include the information in your newsletter or other direct mail, and offer order forms by fax on your outgoing voice mail. Once customers begin placing orders, be sure to send confirmation--by fax, of course!

3. Just the fax. Are you creating your company newsletter or other marketing pieces the old-fashioned way--printing or copying, folding, stamping and mailing? If so, you'll save considerable time and money with a broadcast fax program. Just ask David Lindenauer, owner of Lindy Promotions Inc., a Bethesda, Maryland, event planning company that creates after-work events and themed parties for young professionals in major cities including Atlanta, Boston, New York City and Washington, DC.

Along with e-mail, print and radio advertising, and postcard mailings, Lindenauer's company broadcasts faxes to between 50 and 100 targeted lists annually. Lindy Promotions faxes only to those who have signed up to receive information at previous events. The 30-year-old, whose company had sales of $1.2 million last year, describes his broadcast fax program as "an integral part of our marketing strategy. It's a cost-effective way to reach a large amount of people."

Broadcast faxing is easy and inexpensive to do on your own, although high-volume users may prefer to enlist the help of an outside vendor instead of doing it on their own. It's best to create a one-page flier with each recipient's name and company information at the top to cut down on paper waste and the length of time each transmission takes. You can create your own fax fliers using a desktop publishing program and broadcast fax software, such as HotFax by Smith Micro Software ($79.95, http://www.smithmicro.com), which can be programmed to send your faxes out overnight (when you're less likely to get busy signals).

But remember, broadcast faxes should be sent only to those people who have expressed an interest in your company or who are already customers or clients. Always include a contact number for recipients to call if they would like to have their names removed from the fax list.

4. Tear down the walls. Do your advertising, public relations, direct mail and other marketing materials contain a toll-free number? If not, you're creating a "sales barrier"--a wall between your company and potential customers or clients. Unless you're marketing exclusively in your immediate geographic area, a toll-free number is essential. Toll-free numbers increase marketing responses because they reduce the risk prospects take when contacting an unfamiliar business. Nowadays, with the proliferation of toll-free numbers, it's unrealistic to expect prospects to foot the long-distance bill.

Fortunately, toll-free numbers are affordable for everyone--if you shop around. Qwest (800-860-1020) offers your first toll-free number free; additional numbers cost just $5 per month. Or if your business is homebased, you can sign up with Sprint Sense Home Office (877-679-5647) and pay no monthly fee for your toll-free numbers and a low per-minute rate.

So don't risk looking like the new kid on the block. Use a toll-free number in your marketing materials to remove sales barriers and contribute to your successful, big-company image.

Think Backward

Market your product before it hits the shelves

By Laura Tiffany

Sometimes those guys in marketing come up with a campaign that's meant to sound upscale and gourmet, but comes off as a little bit goofy. Like dry beer. Steve Brown said no way. That's not gonna work. Beer is tasty, refreshing and thirst-quenching. Beer is 95 percent water. Beer is wet.

So Brown, 35, tossed his bottle of dry beer and kicked off his own marketing campaign for Wetbeer Inc., a company that sells shirts, mugs and caps with a splashy blue logo declaring beer to be the wettest thing since, well, beer. He launched the promotional products via his Web site (http://www.wetbeer.com) last summer, and within two months, a few hundred visitors had asked him, "Where's the beer?"

Where was the beer? Brown didn't have any--yet. But with a successful market test under his belt, he found a brewery, garnered distribution deals and now sells Wetbeer in six states. Why the backward beginning? "I knew [the beer] had potential, but I dangled the idea out there to see what the demand would be," says Brown. A former marketing and public relations director, Brown knew no one does better than beer companies at creating a stir with catchy campaigns. Take some clues from Brown and you, too, can brew up demand before (and after) your product hits the shelves:

  • Take your Web traffic into boardrooms. "The Web site was integral in showing [potential distributors] there was a demand for this product."
  • Advertise your URL. Everywhere you see the Wetbeer logo, you see the URL. "It's your best pipeline for information, merchandise and sales to customers."
  • Cross-promote. There's a phone number on the Wetbeer label to call for a free merchandise catalog, and the merchandise spreads the Wetbeer name outside of bars and stores. "The merchandise is a great way to promote the beer, and the beer is a great way to promote the merchandise. They go hand-in-hand."
  • Make yourself accessible. The hotline for Wetbeer's merchandise catalog is (888) 4-WETBEER. Easy to remember, no?
  • Be irreverent. It's hard to resist a T-shirt that says "Wet Yourself."

Kim T. Gordon is a national speaker, the author of Growing Your Home-based Business ($12.95) and president of National Marketing Federation Inc., which provides marketing guidance by telephone to small and homebased businesses nationwide. For information and books, call (800) 2-SOLVE-IT.