On a sweltering hot afternoon last summer, Jon Crandall, founder of JC Landscaping, drove around Peabody, Mass., wearing a heavily insulated snowplow operator's suit and boots and handing out ice cream while playfully reminding potential customers that the harsh Northeastern winter was just around the corner. He'll do the same thing this year, only this time he'll rent an ice cream truck and hand out snow cones, both of which will be emblazoned with the company's logo.
But there's method to Crandall's fun-loving guerilla tactics. He could easily pay a local teenager a modest wage to wear the snowsuit and hand out snow cones. Doing so would free him to focus on other issues, while saving him a few pounds of perspiration in the process. Sometimes, however, a small business owner's wisest move is to jump into the sales trenches himself, whether it's to warm up prospects, nurture deals along or close a sale.
Donning the sales hat (or snowsuit, as the case may be) often makes strategic sense for business owners because they tend to have an edge in explaining their company's value proposition, says Paul Binsfeld, founder and CEO of Company Nurse in Scottsdale, Ariz. "They're the ones who had the idea for the business and the product in the first place, so they can get people to understand the 'why,' not just talk about the 'what.'"
"What makes an entrepreneur a good salesperson is their passionate, unassailable, unshakeable belief inside that the prospect needs whatever they're selling," says Joel Goldstein of Goldstein Group Communications in Solon, Ohio. "No one other than the entrepreneur is able to communicate that same level of belief in the product or service. It's just part of who they are."However, because there's much more to running a small company than just sales, it's important that business owners pick their spots. "I think prospecting in particular is really tough [for a business owner] because it takes a lot of time," observes Jared Reitzin, founder and CEO of Mobile Storm, an e-mail and text-message marketing firm in Los Angeles. "Also, I'm not sure you want the owner of a company making cold calls. That might not give the right impression. Maybe it's better to hire a telemarketer instead and have the owner take the warm calls."
That's not to suggest small-business owners avoid prospecting altogether. They just need to go about it tactfully--and with more subtlety. A keen eye for opportunity is perhaps the owner's best prospecting weapon. For many owners, that means keeping the radar on at all time. "Every connection, whether in a business or personal setting, could be the next business opportunity," says Jenny Vance, president and co-founder of Leadjen, a sales and marketing firm in Indianapolis. "Small-business owners must be open to the opportunity and mindful of their business at all times, but not enter into a sales pitch with every single introduction."
"Don't take people for granted," adds Reitzin. "You never know who you're talking to, so withhold judgment. That guy in jeans and t-shirt sitting next to you on the plane might own a $100 million company."
Fruitful prospecting often comes down to data quality. " Invest in solid data ," says Vance. "Buying lists might not always be the best strategy." Instead, she says, "make a few good guesses as to the markets where your message will resonate best," identify individual companies and people within those markets to target, then invest in a custom list.
Nurturing the Sale
With warm prospects in the pipeline, there's plenty a small-business owner can do move them toward a commitment. However, rather than an owner spending valuable time with repetitive follow-up, Vance recommends outsourcing those kinds of responsibilities. The outsource organization makes the calls to get to conversations, then the business owner enters the picture as the strategic sales resource "to move the dialogue" along and help close if needed.
Consider investing in a multilayered prospecting campaign . Not only can they be highly effective, they can also come surprisingly cheap, says Jon Crandall of JC Landscaping, who recently rolled out a program linking direct-mail postcards, custom web landing pages and a slick two-minute marketing video. "We put together the whole thing ourselves, in-house, with some outside help," he says. "The whole thing cost under six grand, so it's a no-brainer. We ended up with five new customers, and I think we have a lot of good seeds planted, that will lead to more new business."
Don't be afraid to prospect unconventionally , says Mike Michalowicz, author of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. "Look at the competition, the establishment, and do the opposite. Target the untouched or the underserved, like the woman car buyer. That's the way to instantly stand out, instead of trying to make incremental improvements over the competition."
In that vein, he says, consider " void advertising "--hitting people with promotional messages in places where they're most open to being distracted, such as in elevators and taxicabs, above urinals and while holding on the phone.
While you're trying innovative ways to uncover prospects, remember that plenty of the conventional tactics still work. Jared Reitzin, founder and CEO of mobileStorm, has posted a sign next to his computer, reminding him in big, bold letters to ask for referrals . "If a customer has a good experience, tell them the best compliment they can give is a referral. It's as simple as asking."
E-mail provides a multi-touch vehicle for pushing the sales process forward, with a minimal investment of time and resources, says Melanie Attia of the e-mail marketing firm
in Ottawa, Canada. From newsletters to product news to dynamic, custom content,
automated e-mail communications
that ostensibly originate from the owner give prospects and customers the impression "they have a direct line with the top influencer," she says. Tracking how recipients handle those e-mail messages reveals the strongest leads and tells the owner when it's time to place a direct phone call to especially hot prospects.
In a business not known for groundbreaking sales tactics, Crandall says he's always looking for nontraditional ways to turn prospects into customers. Each proposal he sends out comes with a USB flash drive bearing his company's logo and loaded with a short promotional video. The drive is the prospect's to keep, regardless of whether a business relationship materializes. For his snowplowing operation, Crandall also subscribes to a meteorological service for customized weather reports. Regularly broadcasting those reports to prospects hasn't just earned him good will, it's brought him a wave of new customers.
Sometimes it takes an incentive or guarantee to warm up a prospect. "We've had situations," says Binsfeld, "where the only way to get a deal is to guarantee results-- to take the risk out of the equation for them, at least in the short term, with something like a pilot program, where they don't have to pay for the service if the results aren't there."
Target a single industry or segment, then offer a product or service free or at a deep discount to several of the top companies in that industry or segment, suggests Reitzin. In exchange, ask their permission to issue a press release and add their logos to your website. "By bagging the guys at the top, the bottom will follow," he says.
Sealing the Deal
Now comes the toughest part: the close. Once the internal (or outsourced) sales people have filled the pipeline and moved prospects through it, it's time to bring the small-business owner's passion and status to bear once again, says Attia. With the prospect on the brink of a decision, the owner steps in with a phone call or face-to-face visit at an opportune moment--"as close to closing the business as possible"--to seal the deal. As the "rock star" of the business, she points out, the owner has the power and passion to get commitments in cases where anyone else might come up empty. The true rock stars not only know they have that power, they also know how and when to wield it.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.