How to Start a Business Support Service

Marketing

Marketing is an area where your creative side can shine. It's something many people don't like to do, but it's essential if you're going to build a successful, profitable business.

Don't be discouraged if your marketing efforts don't produce an immediate response. It's rare that someone will have a need for your services at precisely the moment you contact them, but if you put together a professional, attractive information package, they'll keep the information on file and call you when they need you--or they'll refer you to a colleague who may have the need. It's not unusual for a sales contact not to generate a response for months--or even a year.

You can find out how to create a basic marketing plan here, but there are issues and ideas specific to business support services that you need to know as you develop your plan. For example, check with your local phone company to find out its advertising deadline and directory distribution date and, if possible, plan to launch your business in time to be included. Your Yellow Pages listing will be an important source of new business, especially in the early days, so don't get so distracted by other startup tasks that you miss this opportunity.

Another important point is to be sure all your marketing materials are professional and letter-perfect. Many business support services that do a great job in this area for their clients often forget to do the same for themselves. Consider hiring a graphic designer and/or professional writer to help you with your marketing package; you may be able to negotiate a trade-out that will benefit you both.

Referrals Are Essential

Referrals will likely be a primary way you get new clients, so it's a good idea to have a systematic approach to the process. You should be able to identify who is making referrals that ultimately turn into business so you can cultivate and reward those referral sources.

Complementary businesses are great sources of referrals. For example, print and copy shops often have customers who need word processing or desktop publishing but don't have the equipment, skills or staff to handle these services.

Your referral arrangements can be set up to provide cash compensation for new business, or you may simply have an agreement where you and other cooperating businesses refer clients to each other as the need arises.

According to Lynette M. Smith, executive director of the Association of Business Support Services International, typical referral fees are 10 percent of the first six to 12 months of business from a new client; 15 percent of the first three months; or 25 percent of the first transaction only.

Of course, many referrals involve no compensation at all--satisfied clients will be happy to refer others to you simply because you do a good job. And you'll probably also get referrals from friends and associates. Charlene D. says a major portion of her Winter Park, Florida, company's business came through referrals from people at her church. "Most of my clients over the years have been either church members or people who heard about me from church members or through the church office," she says.

Advertising

Advertising is a great way to bring in new business, but choosing effective media may take some experimentation. Probably the single best place to advertise is in your local Yellow Pages, because that's where people look when they need a service and don't know who to call. Many communities have more than one telephone directory publisher, so you may need to do some research to determine which directory (or directories) should carry your listing and ad.

Don't limit yourself to the telephone directory. Bill H. in Iowa City, Iowa, does some radio ads on a local news and talk station, and although he can't credit much specific new business to them, he says his current customers do hear and mention the spots. "It's only $100 to $150 per month, and I figure it's worth it to keep my name alive with current customers," he says. He also places ads in the university newspaper classified section and gets a good response from that.

In Chicago, Joann V. limits her advertising to the Yellow Pages, one trade journal and a semiannual direct-mail campaign. She used to buy a mailing list for her direct-mail efforts, but she has found it more effective to build her own list using the telephone directory (using the listing categories of her target market) and trade journals (pulling prospects from ads and editorial mentions) as a resource. "We send a brochure and a Rolodex card, with an introduction, prices and a toll-free number," she says. "The Rolodex card is really useful, because if they don't use it right away, they generally hang onto it. I've gotten calls years later."

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