What’s the biggest issue you face in selling your products or services? Market positioning? What to say? Collateral? Bad Product/service? Too many potential customers (don’t we wish)? For most businesses — it’s not any of those, but simply a lack of interested prospects to engage in the proposal and acquisition process.
My family and I spent 10 years in New England before moving to Denver. We bought a home with a woodland and were told it needed thinning in order to grow strong. The romantic in me saw how fulfilling it would be to go back to the earth, and this woodland management problem seemed the perfect opportunity. I installed a wood boiler in our home next to the oil boiler (that I planned to never use again), bought the biggest chain saw I could find, and decided to play woodland-management-guy. I told a neighbor of my plan to use the wood to heat my house the next winter and even my hot water year round.
It was June when I started. He laughed, then explained that I needed to go buy some firewood because the green wood I was felling wouldn’t be dry enough to burn for another year. Undaunted I called and had dry wood delivered in 16 foot logs, cut, chopped, and stacked them outside, and put together a great system to move the outside woodpile to an inside woodpile to the boiler.
It was a great system until the outside woodpile was depleted some time in early February. Oops. Fortunately, the oil boiler I never intended to use again kicked on and got us through the winter. We learned a valuable lesson: A hot fire (or boiler) was not the key to heating the house, and neither was a full load of wood in the inside woodpile. And how many trees there were in the woods was completely unhelpful. The only thing that mattered was if we had enough wood in the outside woodpile to move to the inside woodpile and to the fire to get us through a full winter. The outside woodpile was everything. We paid much more attention to the size of the outside woodpile in the years that followed.
I have come to find out that business development in marketing support services shares the same requirement — the outside woodpile is everything.
My New England experience translates to business pretty well. My woods is my target market, my outside woodpile is potential customers with real names and phone numbers with whom I have easy access (they’ll take my call), my inside woodpile is those potential customers who are actively talking to me about my services, and my fire/boiler are those with whom the pricing and proposal process are complete. The only thing left is for us to get a “yes” or “no” decision.
Where does the sales process break down for most for us? If we had a steady stream of potential customers who need what we have and are interested in possibly buying it, how would that impact our sales? If all you have to do is call the next person on the list and begin a buying conversation, would business growth be an issue? It’s not a far-fetched idea, but a very practical way to grow our business that most of us are missing. And it’s the only way to even out the peaks and valleys we experience in the sales cycle.
Mort Murphy, a friend, says there are four major ways to focus on customer acquisition — advertising, public relations, direct marketing (including cold calls), and relationship marketing. In all my conversations with business owners and sales VPs about how they obtained most of their customers, the 80/20 rule always kicks in. 80 percent or more (usually more) of their business comes from existing relationships, and 20 percent or less (usually well less) comes from advertising, PR, direct marketing, or other non-relational forms of marketing.
Relationships are clearly the key for us – relationships fill up the outside woodpile with people who need what we have to offer and want to talk to us because they trust us. And these relationships, referrals or migratory relationships (moving from one company to another) are the key to our growth. Ironically, most of us have budgets for advertising, PR, and direct marketing, which account for the smallest percentage of our sales, and no budget whatsoever for building relationships.
Random hope is not a good sales strategy, but too often it’s our central un-articulated strategy. There is nothing wrong with advertising, PR, or direct marketing, but why do we put all our energy in these when all the evidence says we get our clients from existing clients, past clients who moved to another company, friends, referrals from friends or clients and other relationships?
Relationship Marketing Strategy
If we want to even out the peaks and valleys of client acquisition and see consistent, predictable growth, we need to have an intentional, well-developed, written strategy for relationship marketing, including a significant budget to support it. Here are a few elements of a good relationship marketing strategy:
1. Define for your business what would describe raving fans and advocates. Raving fans are people who refer to me without asking, advocates are those who are glad to help if I give them very specific direction.
2. Make a list of your raving fans and advocates.
3. Figure out how to help continue to develop these relationships so advocates become raving fans, and raving fans send you even more potential clients.
- The best way to do this is to become intimately acquainted with what will actually help them in their businesses and figure out how to help them get there. All businesses talk about and even believe in serving their raving fans, but few of us actually do it.
4. Make a list of people (not businesses! — people buy from people) who you would like to have as advocates and raving fans.
- See bullet point under 3.
5. Which of your existing clients are not already advocates or raving fans? What actions do you need to take to get them to become one?
- See bullet point under 3.
6. Put marketing money into events that serve your raving fans, Advocates, clients, and potential clients (inside and outside woodpile). Don’t sell them, serve them where they are at, even if it has nothing to do with your business. People become our friends because they find that relating to us serves them. Why do we treat our business relationships differently? Recreation such as golf, wine-tastings, cooking classes, education on business principles, co-sponsoring of charity events — the list can be endless of things that you can do to develop relationships that will lead to more sales.
- See bullet point under 3. Picking up a pattern here?
7. Strategic alliances. What other business owner is chasing the same customer base as you, but isn’t competing with your company? These are just about the best source of new clients. You could rain on each other for years to come.
8. Follow-up. Events or meetings are only a beginning. How many trade show booths and/or wine socials have you sponsored where follow-up wasn’t done well if at all? And how many of these were actually well-planned to specifically develop your intended relationships versus a company-sponsored “mixer” for all conference attendees?
The key to successful relationship marketing is an outside woodpile full of people who know you. This moves you away from “contacts” to “connections” and creates a much higher close rate. Make relationship marketing a central part of your marketing strategy and budget. Shooting a gun in the woods is not bear hunting, and throwing money at advertising, PR, direct marketing, or even relationship marketing is not a marketing and sales strategy. Identify the relationships that are feeding you business and the ones you wish were, and focus deeply and intentionally on serving them in their businesses. This will make them want to refer to you and help you build your outside woodpile.