Most Valuable Players

Selling Value

Marketing experts believe entrepreneurs should move away from accepted methods of advertising to promote their value-added services. For one, they say, entrepreneurs should not shy away from comparing their services to those of large chains. "There used to be a bit of accepted wisdom that small businesses should not even mention big retailers," says Sanow. "But in today's incredibly tough retail environment, break that wisdom-emphasize your service by comparing it to big companies' lack of service." To draw these comparisons, many successful entrepreneurs spend much of their time studying large competitors to find their weaknesses. On the road, Judy George often interviews random people as they exit other furniture stores. The Turtons frequently surf eBay to compare the auction site to their operation. John Reid spends hours each week examining Staples' and Office Depot's Web sites, quarterly reports and other public information.

Marketing consultants also suggest that entrepreneurs generally avoid radio and TV advertisements. "If you want to emphasize that you provide a high degree of personal service and, therefore, differentiate yourself on value, you really can't get that message across in a TV ad," says Klein. "To push your personal service, you need a personal style of advertising, like newsletters or face-to-face contact." Armed with information comparing SPC Office Products to Office Depot and Staples, Reid's employees travel through Oklahoma visiting potential customers in person. Sanow suggests entrepreneurs periodically send frequent customers an invoice that says "no charge" on it, thereby offering them a free product or service in an innovative way.

Personalizing service means using technology judiciously. Zipcar, a Boston-based car rental company battling giants like Avis, uses the Web to handle most reservations, but, unlike its competitors, it bans automatically generated confirmations for Web reservations. Instead, a Zipcar customer service representative sends a personal reply to each customer, explaining the car rental and its policies.

Show 'Em What You're Worth

When Angela Llamas-Butler, president of Delta System Designs Inc., a Pittsburgh-area information consulting firm with seven employees, decided three years ago to seek out more public-sector clients, she worried that her company would struggle to demonstrate its value. "Dealing with the public sector is a totally different game than pleasing private-sector clients, and we had not sought out government contracts before," Llamas-Butler says. "The ways we showed we were valuable to our older clients did not necessarily translate to government clients like police forces."

Still, Llamas-Butler's company showed that entrepreneurs can learn to provide value to a range of customers. Delta System took extra time to work with its new public-sector clients, find out about their most pressing problems and learn to deal with the bureaucracy. Issues had to be managed while satisfying all the relevant authorities who needed to sign off on a given deal. "We would make sure any consulting services we provided jibed with that local government or department's traditional approach to handling problems [to] build our credibility," Llamas-Butler says. "We tried to understand their culture rather than just saying 'We have the answers.'"

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This article was originally published in the June 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Most Valuable Players.

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