Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Heartbreak Market

A friend in the coaching business recently asked me why small-business owners tend to shy away from training and coaching. 

These were my thoughts:

Entrepreneurs tend to distrust consultants of all kinds (they've all been burned once or twice). 

As you probably already know, you have to have a relationship with them (or a prominent reputation) before they'll usually consider buying from you. They're wired to get the best bang for their buck, and they're looking for sure bets and guarantees - which of course don't exist.

Also, they don't really want to change. So when you say that coaching is all about transforming them and their results, they may just feel threatened. 

To sell to entrepreneurs, you need to stand out. What's your brand differentiation? Of all the coaches and consultants in the world, why should they rely on you? 

My friend offers a free initial coaching call. This might seem like a great door-opener, but he doesn't describe what it is or how it can help. Plus, he offers no reason why someone should call NOW! Busy entrepreneurs will always put off calls that cost them money, unless you can convince them an opportunity is slipping away! 

I call small business a heartbreak market. Entrepreneurs are always being sold to, so they have developed very strong resistance to conventional pitches. Unlike corporate types, it's their own money they're spending, so you really need to prove yourself first (case studies and success stories can help, and anything that reverses the risk).

You CAN sell discretionary good and services to small business. They just have to trust you first.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Amex Canada targets small business

I found an odd story at NationalPost.com on Amex Canada's plans for marketing to small business. I don't know why this story was commissioned or who would be interested in it – other than competing organizations interested in understanding how to sell to the same market.

Since that pretty much defines the readers of this blog, let’s find out what we can learn from this story.

Q: Why is Amex’s executive in charge of small business globally based in Canada?
A: Vice-president of international small business services Rob McClean says: Canada was selected as a testing ground for our small business growth strategy, really leveraging our investments in Canada to chart our blueprint for growth across the globe. There’s a strong entrepreneurial appetite that exists in Canada that makes it a real springboard to lead.

Q: What opportunities does Amex see in this market?
A: There’s plenty of evidence that suggests to us there is a real growth opportunity here and there’s a significant need for a company like American Express to tailor products to meet those growing needs. And when you look at the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Canada, they’re focused on innovation and growth and are willing to take risks, and also very optimistic.

Q: What sets Canadian entrepreneurs apart?
A: In Canada, entrepreneurs are looking for advice, that additional component of servicing, and also the most attractive rewards they can find. For example they’ll leverage gift cards as incentives for employees, one way their spending translates to rewards which transforms into incentives they can reinvest in their business.

Q: What has Amex learned about Canadian entrepreneurs?
A: Small business owners are looking for personalized service, personalized account management, professionals that understand their unique needs, improved working capital and cash flow for their business, and we’ve developed products that allow them to do that.

Q: In the U.S., Amex has a very strong online business network, Amrican Express OPEN Forum. The Post didn't ask about plans to expand that in Canada, but they did ask about Amex Canada’s “networking initiative.”
A: We are constantly evolving and looking at various partnerships and rewards. At this point, I can’t give you specifics on what we have coming down the hopper. But we are starting to leverage social media as a tool. We’ve got a Facebook site we’re focused on growing, we link small business owners from time to time through special events or speaking engagements. And they’ll ask us for information too, for instance, how to leverage social media, what are the best practices for expense management, maximizing rewards and reinvesting rewards in the business. We’re looking to create those forums and platforms to disseminate information.

Q: Any industry-specific niche markets Amex is focusing on?
A: There’s a significant number of dentists in Canada who have specific needs for their practices, such as purchasing products and equipment from labs, and we have forged relationships with a number of dental suppliers and associations.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Don't Disrespect Your Small-Biz Clients

When you're selling to small business, don't think of your customers as children.
You may have a big company, and theirs may be small. But don't talk down to business owners, and don't think for a minute that they are second-rate or stupid. Business owners are proud of their businesses, and they hate being talked down to.

No one means to insult their customers, but it happens all the time in small business. Take, for instance, a recent marketing venture involving Google, RBC, Rogers and The Globe and Mail.

“Get Your Business Online” (www.gybo.ca) offers Canadian business owners a free dot.ca web registration – and a free low-end hosting account. The laudable objective was to get more Canadian businesses online – but I found the solution clunky and even disrespectful.
Sure, participants could save the cost of registering a dot-ca domain name (e.g., sellingtosmallbusiness.ca), but that’s only a $13 item – and the free offer only covers the first year. Participants also got a barebones hosting account, enough to build a basic, no-frills web site – but again, the free offer only lasts a year. In ensuing years the hosting site (yola.com) collects another $13 or so per annum – although of course it really hopes to sell these clients up to more costly, but more fully featured, hosting plans.

The big problem, to my mind, was the sponsors’ assumption that a $13 fee was holding back entrepreneurs from setting up their own website. More likely, it’s a failure of vision, or ignorance of the web or how to sell on it, that prevent more companies from branding themselves and selling online. Setting up a cheap-looking website does nothing to solve these problems or  help these businesses grow.
Worse, the program allowed YOLA to advertise on the participants’ sites. Site pages also contained the phrase, “Designed by free CSS templates,” which pretty much exposes the website owners as freebie-seekers.

In other words, the program sponsors weren't respecting the participants’ businesses. They seem to have never thought about entrepreneurs' needs for credibility.
The system was finally revised to eliminate the telltale line, “Designed by free CSS templates,” but only after I complained about the program to an executive of one of its sponsor groups. I had previously denounced the oversight in my Financial Post column, but none of the sponsors seem to have noticed that. (You can read my original article on “Get Your Business Online” here.)

This is a prime example of how companies with the best of intentions can mess up when they sell to small business. Recognize the market’s need for respect and for well-considered, sophisticated solutions. Hard-working business owners deserve nothing less.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Double your SME marketing effectiveness

SMEs need so much help: with growth, strategic guidance, accounting support, management efficiency, procurement, IT, marketing communications, and employee management and motivation. Yet most entrepreneurs can only afford so much help at a time.
That suggests an easy strategy: If you provide one of the above services, you could partner with a company selling some of that other expertise. Together, you share leads, you can serve each SME more efficiently, and you'll likely get a bigger share of their dollar than you would otherwise get. The fact that you can connect them with a trusted, effective provider will also be appreciated; you've saved them research and decision time, thus helping them move ahead further and faster – which will help cement your status as a trusted provider of value-add.
This happens all the time, of course, when a local accountant recommends a business lawyer, and vice-versa; it's win-win. It happens less often at the national brand level, but that’s more a failure of marketing moxie than anything else: Scotiabank has a successful alliance with the CFIB, for instance, and RBC and Google teamed up last year to encourage more small business to go online.

Business owners are cautious buyers for many reasons: resources are usually tight, they are picky about finding the right solution, and the cost of failure (in time and opportunity lost, as well as cash itself) can be crippling.
Double your credibility with business owners by teaming up with other reputable sales organizations and service providers to create client savings and synergies. Make sure you share similar values with your partners, and offer comparable value propositions. (Lexus, for instance, might not care to hook up with an “everyman” service like Google to offer free web hosting – but why not explore opportunities with an upscale business hotel chain?)

If you make life easier for business owners, by helping them source the deals they are looking for, and saving them the trouble of tracking down other best-in-class providers – they’ll respect you as caring partners. And they’ll stick with you through thick and thin.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Flesh and Blood Cash Machine

One of the key differentiators and characteristics of the SME market is that when business owners are considering the purchasing of equipment, investing in an ad campaign, or making a donation to a local charity, they are spending their own money. They don’t have access to a corporate account that represents virtually limitless funds from anonymous investors, as executives tend to have in large corporations. They are acutely aware that every dollar they spend comes from their own pocket.

The other day an entrepreneur told me about a phone call he’d recently received from a local homeless charity. When he found out how much they were asking him to contribute, on behalf of his company, he had this to say:
“The amount you’re asking would pay for my family to go on a week-long ski vacation to Whistler. And I could bring my parents, too. So tell me again why I should contribute to this cause rather than give my family an experience they would never forget?”

In the end, the entrepreneurs anted up most, although not all, of the donation the charity had requested. He probably always intended to give. But he wanted to make damn sure that the canvasser knew that when he asked that company for a donation, it was coming out of somebody’s pocket—not a special budget intended for charitable contributions, not out of some vast anonymous slush fund. It was important to him that the canvasser understand the choices that business owners have to make when they are called upon to invest large sums in non-strategic activities.
In my experience, most business owners are grateful for the support of their community; they are glad and even proud to be able to give back when their level of success allows it. But many business owners are running highly leveraged companies, and they don’t have a lot of cash to throw around.

So here’s the bottom line for charitable canvassers and vendors’ sales managers alike: Respect the pocketbook of the entrepreneur. Remember where that money’s coming from. And make sure you make a good case for the deal that you’re proposing. Because the funds aren't coming out of a budget. They're coming out of MY pocket.
And that makes all the difference.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A hard-working online ad that knows what it's doing

Here's a first: I actually found an online ad I like that targets SMEs.

Below are three screen caps from PROFITguide.com for an animated ad from global business bank HSBC.

It's a simple ad, eye-catching and innovative, that incorporates strong words and great graphics. Here's what I like about it:

* The colorful images of the nesting matryoshka dolls stand out nicely against a generous white background. Once you notice them, you can't help but see that they represent a number of cultures - not just the Russian folk costumes you'd expect to see. A very creative concept, well executed.

* As you admire the dolls, the bank tosses us a strong headline: "In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge." It's a great example of thought leadership, getting you thinking about the successful growth of so many markets once called "developing countries." But the cleverness of the line makes you ponder - perhaps for the first time - that there is a limited number of fast-growth emerging nations. So perhaps it's time your business explored those markets.

* The final sell line "HSBC's on-the-ground experience can support your emerging trade needs" does many things. It points to the bank's competitive advantage (its worldwide branch network), and offers a specific benefit (personalizing the message with the all-important word "your"). Finally, it ties the message together by repeating the word "emerging." You rarely see such hard-working copy on the Net.

* Finally, there's a direct appeal to click on the ad "to find out more." Many online marketers fail to include that call to action, although research shows that requesting people to take action significantly increases the chance that they'll actually do so.

Good to see an advertiser that takes their work so seriously.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Never Assume Anything

You've targeted a group of successful business owners for your sales pitch. You've sent them all the brochures, literature, emails or links promoting your products or services, and you've dangled various benefits and inducements to get them to read all that stuff.

And now you're getting ready to close the deal. But wait! What are the chances they have actually read the material you sent them? The chances are slim.

Business owners are busy people. They have very little spare time – and what time they carve out is rarely spent on their unread ads and solicitations pile. Even if they initially asked you for information, the likelihood that they actually read any of that bumph is very low.

I learned this the hard way. A few years ago I was asked to speak to a “mastermind” group of entrepreneurs in Toronto. These business owners got together once a month to trade war stories and best practices, and occasionally hear guest speakers. They invited me to speak on a certain topic, and I willingly agreed. And when my contact asked for a one-page summary of what I was going to talk about, so the attendees could properly prepare themselves, I willingly passed that along.

On the day of my talk, once all the small talk was done, I launched right into my presentation. Since the dozen entrepreneurs around the table had already received my summary, I skipped my usual introductory remarks and went straight to the heart of the issue.

At which point my audience started squirming. I sensed this unrest, but didn't know what it meant. Until one alpha male interrupted me to say, “So who are you and what are you here to talk about?” I apologized, explained myself briefly, and pointed out that I had provided the appropriate contextual materials in advance. The entrepreneurs looked at each other and smiled wanly. “Never come in here and assume we've read our briefing materials,” said Entrepreneur Alpha. “We’re too busy for that.”

And he was right. I should have realized that not everyone had read my summary.

Meanwhile, alpha male, to prove his point, asked his colleagues around the table, “How many of you read his summary?” Only one person put up his hand – the contact who had asked for my summary and forwarded it to his colleagues. Not wanting to be seen as weak, however, he defended himself by saying, “But I only skimmed it.”

It was an embarrassing lesson for me to learn. Never assume any business owners have read your material, even if it’s in their best interests or they themselves asked for it.

Business owners march to their own drumbeat, and if you want to be accepted by that group, you have to get in line and join the march. And never assume anything.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Bad Ads 2010

In re-reading a recent issue of PROFIT, I was stunned by the sheer vacuity of some of the ads in the magazine.

Advertising to small business owners isn't easy. You have to catch their eye with a compelling offer or graphic, make an emotional appeal to their needs and problems, and create a forceful case for your sophisticated, best-in-class solutions.

But that’s no excuse for the lousy ads I spotted in the January issue of PROFIT. Banal graphics, tiny understated typography that whispers, “Don't read me!”, and underwhelming messages that leave this entrepreneur unimpressed.

Here are three of those offenders:

KPMG: Devoted to your private company? Yes.
Are we efficient with moving a dolly? Not so much.

You may have seen the TV version of these ads that show people pretending to be KPMG professionals acting like ignorant goofs. This is branding? Humor is a key tool in advertising, but not when the joke is on the people you are trying to promote as world-class pros.

And what’s with the 10-point type at the bottom? Looks like legalese that no one is actually supposed to read. Yet this is their big “sell”!

Looks to me like an organization that doesn't know how to sell its services, and is so noncommittal about its value proposition that they hide it in the corner.

BDO Dunwoody: A high-concept ad looking for a concept.
So a zipper isn't really a zipper, but “an intricate system of wedges, hooks and hollows.” Um, so what? That doesn't matter to someone who just wants to fasten their coat or pants.

Talk about missing the big picture. If BDO professionals are going to overcomplicate something as simple as a zipper, why would I let them and their high hourly rates anywhere near my business?

Plus, the execution of the headline and graphic? So flat. So unexciting.

And again with the tiny type! “Fine print” communicates one message: you're not supposed to read this.

CA: Wouldn't it be nice if decisions were so easy?
I’m a fan of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants’ radio ads that use this theme, especially the one where a business chooses its strategy by spinning a roulette wheel. (“Looks like … a merger!!”) Those ads convey a realistic business atmosphere, and contain great humour.

But this print ad fails on several counts. I guess these are Tarot cards, but being one of the 30 million Canadians who know nothing about obscure mystical fortune-telling rituals, I'm not really sure. And the unholy mix of confusing labels – two adjectives ("Secure" and "Integrated") and a noun ("Holdings") – only adds to my befuddlement.

I have no clue what the message is here. A reminder that my Dungeons and Dragons club meets on Monday nights?

The sell copy, for once, is reasonably strong: “Look to a CA for the talent and integrity to make the right ones” [decisions]. Again, buried at the bottom of the page. Like an afterthought.

And is anyone else bothered that the CICA's new brand is merely “CA”? It looks so unfinished, as if no one wanted to take credit for this ad. But then, would you?

Here’s the final irony. If these ads fail to make the phone ring, the perpetrators will blame print.
(If anyone wishes to defend these ads, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

10 ways big business can help small business

Many businesses that target the small business market agonize over how carving out a leadership position in the SME space. Some put on awards programs (think of Ernst & Young with its Entrepreneur of the Year program), some put out specialty publications and newsletters (think Visa, some of the banks), some sponsor SME websites and blogs.

I’d like to see these companies think bigger. Instead of creating a new SME medium (e.g., newsletter) and then struggling to create content for it (advertising is easy, content is hard), why not get involved in issues that matter to independent business?

With luck, you can get market exposure and credit for doing the right thing, without having to do all the heavy lifting of actually starting and running a program of your own.

Here are 10 issues in which small business owners would love to see big businesses get involved. You can probably think of more.

1. Encourage coalitions of companies to form one big portal for small business news and advice (instead of all the mediocre competing players that are out there now). Support the site with advertising, sponsorships and even content (when available and relevant).

2. Sponsor programs for startups at the local level, through Community Futures and other regional economic development offices

3. Sponsor and encourage your organization's executives to volunteer with local mentorship programs (e.g. CYBF, local chambers of commerce, etc.)

4. Fund small-business research in universities and colleges

5. Actively promote a “speakers’ bureau” of business experts from your organization (and perhaps others) to speak to students at high schools and colleges. Let impressionable young people know that going into business doesn't mean selling your soul

6. Create transparent processes in your own organization to make sure SMEs are included in procurement, outsourcing, etc.

7. Assist retirees in your organization with starting consulting businesses aimed at SMEs. Their life experience could be a lifesaver to a local entrepreneur. You might also provide occasional meeting spaces for entrepreneurs who don't have their own.

8. Support local social entrepreneurship initiatives. Young people across Canada using business tools to create social change deserve your encouragement.

9. Here’s a toughie: Pay bills from small business more promptly

10. Collaborate to create and fund centres of excellence around key management issues, such as exporting, small business advisory boards, or innovation. A little effort can make a big difference!

You can probably think of more activities. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at Rick (at) rickspence.ca

Monday, January 25, 2010

Selling seminars to small business

A consultant I know emailed me the other day to ask my opinion of a workshop he is thinking of holding for small business. I figure his success will all depend on how well he markets it: small-business owners are normally hard to draw out to attend seminars. They're just too busy.

Which is one reason I often warn that the SME community is a "heartbreak market"

Here is the text of my reply:

Hi Jim. Great to hear from you.
As for your workshop idea, I don't know what to tell you.

The idea is very worthy, and this service much needed.
But will business sign up for it? I have no idea. A lot of people have lost their shirts putting on information seminars that small and medium enterprises could really benefit from. It's so hard to get this audience to come out. Regarding the entrepreneurs, they are very busy, and resent paying out a nickel if they don't have to. If they can find an excuse not to attend, they will.

If you go ahead with this, you should consider ways to get around this universal roadblock. For instance:

- Could you pitch it not to the business owner themselves, but to their technology, finance, sales or operations leads? Many owners would pay for others to go if it means they don't have to.
- Could you round up some sponsors and put it on for free?
- Could you reduce this to a series of 2- or 3-hour webinars that people could access for free on video or on the Web?

Whatever you decide, you need a robust marketing budget. You have to work hard to get people out, no matter how good the product is.

Hope this helps.


Please leave a comment below if you think you have a better solution!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Report on Your Business Magazine

I see the Globe and Mail has renamed its small business magazine “Your Business.”

It’s an improvement over the old name, Report on [Small] Business Magazine. As I have been saying for years, many business owners dislike being called “small business”, even if on a national level they do seem small.

My favorite example is the entrepreneur who described his company as "the second-largest steel fabricator in the Ottawa valley.” Yes, it’s a small business according to most definitions (less than 50 employees), but that's not the way its owner likes to see it. The word “small” may be a handy category for marketers or bureaucrats to use, but it doesn't begin to give business owners the respect they crave.

In fact, since 95% of all businesses are small businesses, the proper synonym for small business is simply “business.” Entrepreneurs themselves refer to “my business,” never “my small business.” Bell Canada and RiM and Imperial Oil aren't just businesses – they're big businesses. My friend’s six-person design shop – now that’s a real business.

So I think the Globe has made a modest improvement by calling their magazine Your Business. In fact, it’s one of the many new titles we considered when I arrived at Small Business magazine 20 years ago and decided to change the name (for the reasons cited above). That's when we decided to rehabilitate the much-maligned word “Profit.”

“Your Business,” we concluded, wasn't a bad name. Just dull.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Too much transparency!

I found a link recently to a good article on “negotiating with difficult people” at the DaleCarnegie.com site.

As a consultant myself in content marketing, I think it imperative that businesses selling their smarts (AKA “thought leaders”) provide free content such as this to attract prospects’ attention and build respect for their expertise.

But that doesn't mean you broadcast what your intentions are. Letting people know they're just "leads" to you makes people feel they're being manipulated, rather than served.

Carnegie’s mistake? Look at the URL they choose for the page that hosts the story:

Maybe most people won't notice the phrase “lead nurturing tips.” Nonetheless, this takes transparency too far. People want to be treated as individuals, not "leads."

Yes, providing relevant content is a marketing tactic. But most businesses use phrases that sound less mercantile. Examples: Free_stuff. Premium_content. Welcoming_wisdom.

Business should make customers and prospects feel they're being valued, and respected. Not hunted.

Cross-posted from www.CanEntrepreneur.com

Thursday, December 03, 2009

10 tips for marketing to SMEs

According to the Toronto-based Executive Council on Small Business (ECSB), small business is already flooded with advertising and product information.

75% of business owners say the amount of marketing material they receive has risen in the past three years. Most don't even read what they get: according to another study, 36% of business owners just scan your copy for key words, while 35% skim it by reading only the bullet points.

So how do you get a business owner to give your marketing the attention it deserves? ECSB senior vice-president Jeff Berry offers his Top 10 Tactics.

Point 1: Entrepreneurs in Canada may be gutsy risk-takers when they launch their businesses, but surveys find them decidedly risk-averse regarding day-to-day operations.

Marketers can leverage that risk aversion by acknowledging the risks or issues that customers may encounter in using their products (e.g., installation or compatibility problems).

Point 2: Reduce perceived risk by offering samples and free trials, refund periods or money-back guarantees.

Points 3 and 4: Entrepreneurs are older than you think, says Berry: 62% of Canadian business owners are between the ages of 46 and 62. Use images in your marketing materials that reflect the faces, fashions and lifestyles of older entrepreneurs. And produce your copy in bigger fonts, to ensure your target market can read your material.

Point 5: Entrepreneurs need to feel they're in control. Provide two or three options in each product category so business owners can choose the item that best fits their needs. (More than three options can get confusing.)

Points 6 and 7: Most business owners are locally oriented. Berry suggests helping entrepreneurs expand their contacts by supporting local groups; in the U.S., for instance, American Express recently sponsored “meetup” groups that enabled its customers to network more formally with local business people.

You can also form your own groups of local customers. Apple Inc. hosts bi-monthly events at its Apple stores for Macintosh-powered entrepreneurs.

Point 8: Respect entrepreneurs’ hectic schedules by creating content that’s easy to read and skim. “If what you sell them isn’t going to save them time,” says Berry, “then make the message ‘faster’ to consume.”

Point 9: Offer service options that work with business owners’ schedules. At ProStores, an e-commerce solutions company, account reps make their calendars viewable so customers can pick their own appointment times.

Point 10: Empower business owners to solve their own problems in a timely manner. ECSB’s research found that 84% of entrepreneurs watch “how-to” videos, and 71% watch videos on corporate web sites.

Any marketer can have a credible product and a fabulous offer. By heeding the new rules of consumability, you might even get your message across.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fun with Contests that Align with Strategy

Here’s a great way for a company that prides itself on customer service to promote itself, and the very concept of service as well.

Rackspace.com, the “cloud computing” hosting company that calls itself “The Home of Fanatical Support,” puts customer service first in its own business. But it also holds a contest for its clients to recognize “one of our customers for valuing customer service as much as we do.”

The 2009 Fanati Contest is now underway (for U.S. customers only). Rackspace clients who think they have what it takes have until Dec. 11 to put together a 5-minute video explaining why they deserve to be this year’s winner.

Here are some of the approaches Rackspace suggests to contest entrants:
• Tell us who you are and what your business does.
• Describe what Fanatical Support means to you.
• If you were going to take a thesaurus to the phrase “Fanatical Support” and use that in your company’s business motto, what would your new motto be?
• Tell us about a time you or an employee went above and beyond (fanatically) for a customer or employee.
• Tell us how you’ve continued to enhance your motto to adapt to your business’ changing needs, culture, and/or growth to ensure that customers stay satisfied?

What a great way to align yourself with your customers, promote your brand, and create increased engagement by among customers and their staff. And it costs almost nothing.

Kudos to Rackspace for showing that marketing (in this age of clutter) can still be about good ideas that benefit buyers and sellers alike.

What’s your brand? How could you get customers more excited about it, and promote it to the rest of the world, by organizing a contest of your own?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Quick: What does Small Business want?

My column in this week’s Financial Post tells about my recent encounter with billionaire Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit (Quicken, QuickBooks, etc.).

Cook came to Toronto last month to kick off an Intuit Canada campaign to get closer to the small business market by holding information sessions with working entrepreneurs across the country. Cook himself facilitated the first one, asking 14 Toronto business owners about the problems that keep them awake at night.

So my story looks at small business’s most urgent needs today, as well as how one company is getting closer to that market in order to identify the problems it can actually solve.

FYI, here are some of the key issues Cook heard about:

"Growth timing: When to take on extra fixed costs."

"When to expand and why."

"Compliance with tax authorities... Managing cash flow. Seeking investors."

"Work-life balance."

"How to persuade prospects of our value."

"Getting faster responses from customers."

"How to manage the time suck of social media."

"When to cut prices."

"Developing an online presence."

"Partnership and collaboration."

"Finding distribution channels."

"Cutting costs."

"Hiring, training, and when to fire."

After the meeting, I asked Cook if he'd heard any promising ideas. One big one, he said: "Social media as a time suck."
"I don't claim I understand it yet," he said, "but it's given us more to do."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Value of FREE

I had an interesting discussion last week with an exhibitor at the SOHO business conference and trade show in Vancouver. Specifically, about the lack of promotional pizzazz being shown by the exhibitors.

My friend’s company was giving away free product to anyone who visited the booth. It offers a service that people may use twice to 20 times a year, and it has extra inventory, so why not? Sampling is a time-honoured technique, good not only for getting prospects used to consuming your product, but also to attract people's attention in any competitive marketplace, such as a trade show.

Ever notice how trade show attendees usually avoid eye contact with any sales people in the booths? That’s because they see no value in initiating any sort of relationship with you. It’s a lack of interest, lack of trust, and unwillingness to explore the ROI they might gain by doing business with you. All because you have not caught their eye by offering any obvious, easy-to-grasp VALUE.

So how do you overcome that? Offer something free! Not just a cheap knickknack for stopping by the booth (“How many free pens do you need?” asked my friend), but a real, knock-their-socks-off FREE offer that presents real value – and an acknowledgement that in today’s ultra-competitive markets, prospects are doing you a big favor by even considering your wares.

They say people are exposed to 3,000 marketing messages a day (or about a million a year). We all feel like the quarry in a fox hunt, being chased through the woods and hounded to death. You have spent a lot of money to be at this trade show: show your prospects a piece of that. Give them an offer (something free, or a whopping introductory discount) that reflects their true value to you.

It’s not just a cost of doing business. It’s the price you pay to be noticed and trusted.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Passion Wanted: Small Business Week 2009

There are less than four months to go till Small Business Week, which runs from October 18 to 24 this year. The Business Development Bank, which owns the rights to SBW, has selected as its theme, Your dream, your business, your passion.”

Although Small Business Week seems to be losing steam (I haven't seen much passion around it in recent years), I believe it is still an important event for focussing attention on the needs of Canada’s SMEs. It’s also an opportune time for bigger businesses that sell to small business to show their support for the marketplace, through events, product launches, research studies, etc.

And of course through paid ads, though I am skeptical that they have much influence. Saying that you love and support small business is not quite as credible as demonstrating that you do.

This will be the 30th anniversary Small Business Week, so it could be a good time to get involved.

I have been working up some concepts for projects that would be appropriate to execute in and around Small Business Week. If you are looking for ideas or inspiration, send me an email (rick at rickspence.ca). I’d be delighted to chat with you.

One reason the SMW brand in Canada may be fading is the rise of something called Global Entrepreneurship Week, taking place in more than 60 countries this year from Nov. 16 to 22. It comes out of the UK and the Kansas City-based Kaufman Foundation. Details for this year are still sketchy, but this event is probably only a few sponsors away from turning into something quite exciting.

More details (although not many) at http://www.gewcanada.com/

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Big Question

You're trying to sell something to an entrepreneur. What's top of mind for him or her?

Himself or herself, of course. (No points for getting that one right.)

I was reminded of this when talking to a Western Canada business owner this week. "What can you do for me?" was his first question. "What else can you do for me?" was his second question. And his third.

This show the importance of the old adage, "Don't sell features, sell benefits." All your target market cares about is, "What can you do for me NOW?"

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cynical and not listening

Business owners are among the most suspicious, cynical bunch of people you’ll ever market to. They have learned to tune you out. They're so busy heading off impending catastrophes that they rigorously filter out any inputs that don't directly address their problems of the day.

Here’s an embarrassing example. Just before presenting a workshop on personal communication to a group of business owners, I sent the group leader a one-page outline citing my seven strategies. He forwarded the document to the group. So on workshop day I compressed my introductory remarks and jumped right into things. Then one entrepreneur stopped me cold. He asked what I was there to talk about.

I explained, it’s about those seven strategies. And he said, “what strategies?” "It was in the memo you got last week," I said. “Well, I didn't read it,” he said indignantly. “Did anyone else read it?”

He looked around the room. Not one entrepreneur put up their hand. Even the leader said, “I just skimmed it.”

“We’re busy people,” said the first entrepreneur. He made it clear I had erred in assuming this group had read an email addressed to them about a meeting they’d be attending. And he was right. I had violated one of my own cardinal rules of communication. I had assumed my audience knew what I was talking about.

Many marketers make the same mistake. They assume their target market knows what business they're in. They assume their customers know what services they offer. They assume prospects understand the benefits of dealing with them.

Never take any of that for granted. You have to explain yourself, anew, every time. You have to explicitly describe the benefits you offer clients. Because they have no interest in knowing anything about you until you’ve proven you can help them. So they won't be listening until they need you - and when they do, you need to be speaking their language, not yours.

As they say in the shampoo business, "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sleepless in Small Business

An executive who markets to small business asked me the other day what’s keeping entrepreneurs awake at night. (You have to know your prospects’ problems before you can start marketing effectively to them.)

Unfortunately, I didn't have any amazing insights to offer. Even in the face of recession in the eastern half of Canada, business owners are still grumbling to me about the same old problems:

* The agony of recruiting good help;
* The difficulty of holding on to good people when every other business is trying to lure them away;
* Rising energy costs;
* Trying to make sense of the Internet (before it changes their business forever);
* Finding ways to turn the Succession Boom to their advantage – either by preparing their business for sale, or by buying another business, for strategic or competitive reasons.

My marketer friend and I agreed that the slowing economy has not yet dented the confidence of most entrepreneurs. We decided the Canadian economy has gone through a huge restructuring in the past two decades, and that as a result, fewer businesses seem to be affected so badly by manufacturing’s decline and the slowdown in the U.S.

Of course, it also helps that entrepreneurs get to pick the markets they serve. In the past few years, many small businesses have changed focus and reduced their dependence on automotive companies, mass consumer markets, and other predictably vulnerable sectors. As the Canadian economy switches further to providing services, especially business and professional services to world markets, expect to see more and more entrepreneurs develop their own “Get out of Recession Free” card.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Six More Tips for Selling More

Continuing from the previous post, here are another six tips for more powerful personal marketing to small business owners.

1. Emphasize specific benefits. How much money did you save Client A by finding them better equipment? What kind of yacht did Client B buy after you helped them land a big deal?

2. Be free with referrals. If you can't help a particular individual, try to recommend someone who can. They will not forget the favor.

3. Ask for referrals! Once you have established what you do, ask prospects if they know anyone else who might appreciate a call from you to help them with their problems.

4. Find a reason to follow up. Most sales are lost through a failure to follow up in a timely manner. You might want to arrange a meeting, send them a document or an article you’ve read, or arrange an introduction. Your goal is to stay top-of-mind.

5. Ask for the order! As your relationship progresses, suggest a low-risk way to start working together. Offer some incentives, such as a pending deadline or a time-limited discount.

6. Eliminate fears and doubt: Your costs must be clear. Entrepreneurs abhor open-ended contracts and fees. Most people are more motivated by the prospect of losing $5 than by the chance of gaining $20 – so play up the value, minimize the uncertainty and set their minds at ease.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Five Tips for Personal Selling to SB

How do you as an individual sell to the elusive small-biz market? Get out there and meet them! With entrepreneurs, it's all about the relationship.

Five top tips:

1. Go where the entrepreneurs are. Be seen as part of their community (e.g., through involvement in associations such as CAFE, TEC, EO, CATA, the CofC, etc.) If you don't know what those terms stand for, you have a chunk of catching up to do.

2. At networking functions, know whom you want to meet. Study the membership or guest lists to know who's whom. Arrange an introduction if possible, from a trusted mutual friend. And bring lots of business cards.

3. STOP SELLING! Ask good questions and listen: “Tell me about your business.” “What kinds of problems have you run into?” "What got you through that?"

4. Practice using the phrase, “How can I help you?”

5. When it’s your turn to talk, don’t brag about your expertise and experience. Tell stories that illustrate your experience and demonstrate the results you have achieved for your clients. (Make sure they’re pertinent!) Include vivid images and a happy ending.
Practice these stories in advance to make them as powerful (and as brief) as possible.

Simple as that!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What constitutes "value"?

Are business owners cheap? Or do they just value “value”?

My customary joke is that entrepreneur is a French word meaning, “I don't have a budget for that.” Which means that while they don't specifically budget money for most purposes, they will still invest in new products, projects or services if they can see the value in it.

In a recent column for Tech Data’s quarterly publication, Tech Times, I wrote about attending a Toronto Raptors game with a friend who runs his own highly successful exporting company. His seats are in the third row.

“Harry” told me that he’d had a chance to move up a row, (where you can see and smell the players better), but he turned it down: “I couldn't justify paying an extra $300 per seat per game.”

I found that remark very telling. In my experience, entrepreneurs don't mind spending money to solve their problems and indulge their wants – they just like to receive value. Harry could afford the better tickets, but he can’t justify the cost. He can't see the value in it.

The good news about selling to business owners is that they rarely need to justify their spending to anyone. There’s no boss to oversee their activity or set spending limits. So the key to selling to business owners is to help them justify the purchase to themselves.

How do you do that? By understanding both the personal and financial issues involved in making these decisions.

For instance, business owners are looking for ways to improve their business – as long as these solutions don't make business more complicated. They adore fast returns on investment, but that’s usually less important than not rocking the boat. New LCD monitors that free up desk space are easy to justify. But a CRM system that will upset employees’ routines and take months to master will look more like a problem than a tool for growth.

Another example: the best entrepreneurs aren't risk-takers, they're risk-minimizers. If you can reduce the risk of their purchase, they’re more likely to buy. You can reverse the risk by offering money-back guarantees, rebates, installation assistance, or free service calls for 30 days. Entrepreneurs tend to be skeptical by nature, so demonstrate your faith in your products by assuming some of the purchase risk.

Finally, business owners are looking for respect. They want to be treated as individuals and as peers. So they like custom solutions, special deals, and being able to negotiate terms. Talk down to them and they’ll squawk. And walk.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Memo to Big Business

Selling to small business is not just about finding a mailing list and hiring a call centre. It’s about knowing your market.

Case in point: I just got off the phone with Wells Fargo. A cheerful representative with a strong mid-west U.S. accent called to tell me that because of my business’s outstanding “profile” (i.e., they rented a list), I was eligible for a line of credit of up to $100,000. At prime plus 1.5%, which is pretty generous.

But of course they made the usual mistakes. They pretended that I had earned this privilege, when I clearly had not (my business is unincorporated, has no assets and has virtually no capital requirements). Please: if you want to earn my trust, don't start by lying to me.

Plus, they let someone call me who has a grating foreign accent. It was a mild one, to be sure, but why not use a Canadian call centre? We're a proud nation here: why not make it sound more like you actually have a presence in (and thus a commitment to) Canada?

They did some things right, though. When I said that I already have a credit line (from a Canadian bank) and didn't need hers, she was very cool about it. She asked if I would like to note down a web address and an invitation code that would let me take advantage of their offer some other time.

Why don't more people do this? It’s a marketing win-win – it lets the uninterested consumer off the hook quickly, yet it gives them a second chance to think about the offer. So I said, sure.

She then read out five numbers. I wrote them down thinking, "Good for them – they kept this simple." They were respecting my time. But then she read out four more numbers. Then three more. Then three letters. Why? With 15 digits, they have enough codes for everyone on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived on the planet. Plus everyone who ever will.

Moral: Making things easy for business owners is crucial. But you have to do in all ways, not just some.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ugh! Marketing

I need a new chair mat. Before I headed out to to buy one, I checked the website of Office Depot Canada to see if they're doing anything special for "Boxing Week." Sadly, the site remains as dull as it is the other 51 weeks of the year.

But check out Office Depot's U.S. site.

It's full of colour, pictures, and discounts. Also known as, reasons to linger and reasons to buy. What have Canadians done to deserve such lacklustre merchandising? Business owners deserve special prices, promotional deals and exciting new products. Where's the pizzazz?

In a recent survey cited at a November Warrillow conference on marketing to small business, Staples Business Depot ranked as one of the top brands for business owners. Too bad Office Depot isn't giving them much competition.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Winning the "Space Race"

Congrats to Encelium Technologies Inc., winner of the 2007 “Markham Space Race.”

And congratulations to the organizers – Town of Markham, Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham (ISCM), Great West Life Realty Advisors, FIT by Design, and Jim Brown of Colliers International – for creating a contest that promotes small business and actually aims to help promising companies achieve their potential.

Markham-based Encelium develops energy-management systems that help building managers control lighting and other building loads to dramatically reduce energy costs. Last March Encelium made the papers for selling its ECS system to Toronto’s Rogers Centre (SkyDome), which was expecting the system to save it $300,000 a year.

A panel of judges selected Encelium as the Ontario small business “most likely to grow” over the next year, based on its compelling growth strategy. The company wins a $63,100 prize package that includes use of a furnished, 1,000-square-foot Class A office space for a year in the Town of Markham, a telecommunications package from Telus Business Solutions, thousands of dollars in business, legal, accounting, financial and HR consulting services, and printing and furniture moving services.

Maple Lake Ltd. of Markham and Maxxian Integration Inc. of Thornhill placed second and third in the contest.

Telus was the contest's Title Sponsor, with Creechurch International Underwriters, Cushman & Wakefield LePage and PowerStream Inc. as gold sponsors. The Markham Space Race was open to export-focused, entrepreneurial companies in Ontario that have been in business for at least two years and have at least three full-time employees. Participants submitted a growth plan demonstrating how their company is positioned for rapid growth.

This blog rarely quotes press releases, but this next paragraph from the official announcement rings true to me:
"Regardless of the contest’s prizes, [Innovation Synergy Centre CEO Bob] Glandfield emphasizes that every company that participated in the Markham Space Race comes out a winner, just by developing a growth plan – something many small businesses neglect. “Developing a plan that must face the scrutiny of a third party forces a sense of realism into the process. Entrepreneurs tend to overstate the opportunity, and understate the challenges and timelines, when moving to market. Creating and implementing a realistic plan for growth goes a long way in ensuring the future success of a small business,” he said."
Congratulations to the winners and the sponsors for a rare win-win.
(Crossposted to Canadian Entrepreneur.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Look! Up in the Sky!

On a warm Friday evening earlier this month, Allstream took an unusual approach to marketing its small business solutions: it flew a UFO over downtown Toronto.

From a distance, the helicopter that towed the huge red Allstream banner was almost invisible, so the ad – which was only intelligible on one side – seemed to be free-floating. My two passengers and I in a car headed downtown took some time to figure out that it wasn't an alien invasion, but merely an ad. Then it took a while longer to realize what the message was.

The big red banner got a lot of attention – but was it the right attention? Does the hard-working target market mill around downtown with time to decipher a hard-to-read mystery ad hovering 2,000 feet up? And even if they do, does a sign that basically promotes your brand name do anything to turn prospects into customers?

I doubt it. I don't think this type of ad shows much respect for the needs of its marketplace.

While I’m generally in favor of marketing innovations, I think this one sends the wrong message. If Allstream (the former AT&T Canada, now owned by Manitoba Telecom) thinks its branding in Toronto is so weak that it needs this kind of aerial extravaganza to sell bundled telecom services, what has it been doing for the past four years?
To learn more about Allstream's small business services, click here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Go ahead, make me feel small

I received an interesting phone message today from UPS, which seems to advocating a candid approach to contacting prospects. The caller’s name has been withheld, because it’s not his fault: Who gave this man a telephone?

Here’s the message that followed his name and phone number:

“If you can get back to me I’d appreciate it. I just got your name from a trade show we did and I wanted to know if there was any interest on your end or if you were just dropping by, to close out this potential lead on my screen here. Thank you very much. I look forward to speaking with you.”

If you ask me, that's taking transparency too far.

Memo to marketers: I don't want to know that I'm just a blip on your screen. I want to know that if you're calling me, you really care about my business, and you have a very special deal for me.

Don't expect me to remember what form I may have filled out at a trade show. And don't think I filled it out so that a salesman would call. If I won the door prize, tell me. If I didn't win the draw and you're just following up on a sales lead, make me a compelling offer.

Don't treat me like I’m a chore – or just another item on a checklist you want to finish up by noon.

It's just one more reason why entrepreneurs keep beating big business: because you have to sweat the details.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Big money in small business"

Vancouver-based Backbone magazine has a great article on the challenges facing technology vendors selling to the SMB market.

Author Gail Balfour sets the tone by noting that 97% of all firms in Canada are small- and medium-sized businesses. Vendors such as IBM, Dell, HP and Cisco covet the market, but as Balfour notes, for a long time “even the vendor pitches targeting SMBs amounted to little more than a product tweak and a revamped marketing message.”

But this is slowly changing, says Carmi Levy, senior vp, strategic consulting, with Toronto-based AR Communications. “You cannot underestimate the importance of the small- and medium-sized enterprise. Vendors are starting to realize that there’s real money in providing proper support to SMBs.”

Why so much interest in small business? As Levy notes, Internet technologies are making it easier for smaller companies to compete with big competitors, creating a growing market for tech applications. However, big companies have to learn how to service smaller firms.

Among the challenges noted by Chris Ellsay of Ottawa-based Workshift.com:
* SMB customers demand 24/7 tech support, and on a much more intimate level than enterprise clients
* Often they don’t have a dedicated IT person or staff, and are sometimes not very tech savvy.
* SMBs are price sensitive.

Sellers can’t simply downsize a larger product offering and expect SMBs to buy it, says Levy. Vendors need to build packages of products and services from the ground up. Levy says typical SMB customers are driven by “consumer thinking” and emotional impact, not by the “harder-nosed” enterprise attitude.

One more point: Don't think your brand power is going to crack open the SMB vault and keep you there. Changing brands is much easier to do in small biz, says Jayanth Angl of Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. “If a [competing] company is going to give them a better solution, [SMBs] are in a much better position to make that shift, whereas in a very large enterprise that is just not as likely.”

That also means that one negative experience can push SMBs to change vendors. “They base the decision more on emotion,” writes Balfour, “and their smaller size allows them to migrate to a new product without much pain or downtime.”

For more on this subject, and how Dell and HP are responding to this market, see the original story at http://www.backbonemag.com/Magazine/SMB_09070702.asp

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why Small Business Isn't Buying From You

To help computer resellers in Canada sell more to entrepreneurial clients, I write a regular column for Tech Data's Tech Times magazine. "SMB Spotlight" looks at how small business owners think, and what makes them buy - or not.

From my first Tech Times column, published earlier this year, here are four reasons why business owners don't buy.

1) They're too busy. This is the same reason they don't return messages or finish half the projects they begin. They work much harder than the average Canadian. The stats show most entrepreneurs work at least 50 hours a week, compared to 35 to 40 hours for salaried sorts. (That’s a difference of nearly two 8-hour shifts a week.) And PROFIT Magazine’s research finds that the CEOs of top growth firms – the companies most marketers most want to deal with – work more than 60 hours week.

2) They’re not listening. Business owners face more challenges and choices every day than most people face in a year. Do I raise my price? Fire that person? Borrow money? Upgrade my ERP system? If you expect them to put everything on hold to listen to your pitch, you're dreaming.

3) They throw loonies around as if they were silver dollars. Many marketers have noted that business owners tend to be more frugal than most corporate decision-makers. They treat their companies’ money like it was their own. Which makes sense, because it is their own. Business owners are as keen to throw their hard-earned cash at new solutions as you are eager to spend yours.

4) Your offer is too complex. Business owners have too much to do, too much to read, too many problems. They cope by tackling the easiest decisions first. If your solution requires too much thinking, chances are it will be put on hold while the entrepreneur looks at simpler problems with quicker paybacks. Your turn may come tomorrow – unless other more manageable problems surface in the meantime.

These are the primary obstacles facing anyone marketing to small business in Canada today.

Fortunately, overcoming them is easy. You can capture their interest by developing trusted-partner relationships, pressing all the right buttons, crafting simple but compelling product descriptions, advertising more often and effectively, and stressing value, value, value, like a jukebox with just one record.

More excerpts from SMB Spotlight will appear here in future.