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How to Get Your Service Business Off the Ground

Even if your product doesn't exist yet, you still have to find ways to sell it.
January 28, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/204846

Whether you are a seasonal tax accountant or a full-time plumber, the hardest part of being self-employed in a service business lies in how you go about creating your market. The business world relies on an intense buy-and-sell culture, so anything you plan to offer should be the best quality, easy to procure and strong enough to survive word-of-mouth (and especially the lack thereof). In the case of service businesses, though, the hardest roadblock may be in trying to promote a product that technically does not exist until a client has been secured.

Marketing and advertising will play a huge role in building your businesses whether you offer products or services, but for industries without physical products, there is a huge need to market yourself, manage your growth exponentially, and establish your footing. Here are basics, and also some things to avoid.

From the Internet to Snail Mail: Networking for Exposure
Unless you happen to offer something as eclectic as domain name-picking, chances are that you will need to stand out from the crowd. A quick internet search or a flip through the Yellow Pages will show you just how much market competition you have in your industry. Growing technology trends are creating more and more ways to market your business, however. Starting a web page is a great way to reach out to potential consumers, especially since the internet has revolutionized the way information is passed along. With an e-commerce website, you can also allow payment options to help streamline billing by accepting credit cards.

Professional web designers will be able to customize your site to your users and help you with search engine optimization to help increase your online traffic. And with iPhones and BlackBerries now allowing the general public to search for services right from the palms of their hands, having someone with knowledge of technology trends can also help market your business. There are plenty of cheap, do-it-yourself templates available; but keep in mind that they will be less scalable and not unique to your business.

Aside from the web, however, are many other traditional options to help get your foot through the proverbial business doors. Sending out direct-mail pieces shows that you have something in common with other companies reaching local businesses or residents, as does participating in neighborhood networking groups (or larger online communities such as Local Business Network or LinkedIn) where you have a better chance of garnering positive word-of-mouth through trusted relationships.

Staying local, especially if your service is just starting out, can help you build from the ground up as well as establish stronger relationships with your neighboring businesses. You can hire telemarketing companies to promote your services to the local community for less than the cost of calling nationwide. When working with these call centers, make sure that you create a script and that you are comfortable with the sales reps. Searching local directories or conducting a quick search online will help you find local call centers in your city. Local referrals for service are often more worthwhile to you than recognition from national businesses because your startup clients will likely be close by.

Who Are You? The Trials of Establishing Your Expertise in a New Market
Adding the title of "king" after your service category is a start to establishing your name, but how should you establish your expertise to the public? Essentially, you will be selling your knowledge to the public, so it pays to make sure they know you can handle all their needs.

Promoting yourself is also part of the plan, but advertising can only take you so far in terms of getting your name out there. One of the best ways to gain trust and to generate leads for your business is to offer your services for free or at a highly discounted rate. Beware of scrimping on service when you offer discounts, however. In the same way that businesses with concrete products offer samples, offering your expertise and allowing the public to reach it easily and affordably shows that you stand behind your offers.

Supermarkets and superstores such as Costco constantly offer free samples of their products. This does two things: First, it promotes your name. Second, and far more important, it establishes that you stand behind the quality of what you offer. In the same vein that market leaders such as MacAfee Internet Securities offer their free trial virus protections on every computer and Netflix offers free DVD rentals, so users learn quickly how easy and trustworthy their services can be and build a reliance on their accountability.

If you are a web designer, consider writing free blogs on your website for people to learn about your services as well as build a relationship where they know you understand your industry. You should also start contributing articles to third-party sites such as Resource Nation, Work.com and others. These sites expose your brand and expertise to other businesses, which is a strong asset. By giving it out for free, you are not only promoting your name but also establishing a trusted relationship with your consumers.

Keeping an Eye Out for the Forecast: Where is the Wind Blowing?
If you offer services that are easy to find, then it can be very important to understand the current market trends that are shaping your industry.

Whether you plan on offering a popular public service like carpet cleaning or a more inclusive one such as guitar lessons, information on how your local predecessors and your competition have evolved can help determine where you should take your services. Are your services needed yearlong? Or would you benefit from keeping your services part-time to match market trends?

A carpet-cleaning service in a college neighborhood would probably benefit the most by raising its promotional and advertising efforts at the end of the school year when students need cleaning before they move out. The need for guitar lessons will probably increase along with your potential customers' free time, so offering them during summer vacations or winter breaks may help you stay in tune with your service demands.

The same advice goes the other way as well. Making sure that your competition can stay above water can help determine how far you should wade into that water. Certain declines in business may not hurt your competitors but have a dramatically negative effect for a new business without established clientele.

Excellent Service Takes Time, Commitment and Patience
Time, commitment and patience are not just pretty words on motivational posters--they are also some of your most valuable resources because they're free. If you're starting in the service industry, securing new clients and gaining market trust takes more than an attractive storefront (or poster, if you're working from home).

Talk to the press, talk to any related services, and try not to forget that anyone who mentions your service can potentially lead to a bona fide business opportunity. The same can be said for negative press, though, so offer the highest quality of service to anyone--whether it is a large account or a one-time patron.

The same goes for your employees and partners. If you're starting a service business, chances are that your staff will be small (if you even have a staff, that is) and your partners and investors will hover over you with watchful eyes. Show them that you're a professional, and you'll have a lot more leeway for growth.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that even though you are working for yourself, anyone you talk to can help you network, expand and even establish your niche by simply being involved as a customer or reference.

David Liu is a writer for Resource Nation , an online resource that provides expert advice on purchasing decisions and a comparison service for web designers and credit card processing services .