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There’s a lot of common-sense advice out there about small businesses tapping into big business clientele. Look professional. Show up on time. Make sure your presentation materials, calling cards and website are all high-caliber.
These are all essential tips, but there’s a lot more to dealing with big companies than basic business etiquette dictates. Many professional consultants make their living helping small businesses connect with their much bigger counterparts. And they have some terrific ideas on how to go about it.
As a small business owner prospecting for clients, perhaps you’re inclined to think that your main goal should be to get your foot in the door and show off your PowerPoint presentation about how good your products or services are. But Andy Blackstone, a consultant in this area for many years and author of Small Changes That Help Small Companies Make Big Increases in Sales, warns that that’s just about the worst thing you can do. As tempting as a slick audio/visual presentation might be, he says your first contact with a company will be much more useful to you if you spend it asking questions about their business needs.
“There’s a lot of research to indicate that executives in large companies don’t want to see canned presentations,” says Blackstone. “Instead, they want to learn how to solve a problem. That means you need to always be trying to solve problems, rather than always be trying to sell something.”
Another common small-company mistake, says Blackstone, is casting much too wide a net in looking for potential customers. Instead of starting out with a calling list of 1,000 names—which Blackstone says is surprisingly common—hone it down to a much smaller group of likely prospects and concentrate your energy on them.
Jill Konrath, author of Selling to Big Companies, who also works helping small companies advance to new levels, emphasizes thorough preparation and tenacity with her clients. Preparing for that first meeting—even one where you’re asking questions rather than boasting about your products—takes a lot of time, she says. Checking out the company’s website and the LinkedIn page of the person you’re seeing are mandatory.
“Corporate decision-makers are crazy busy. Time is their most important asset, and they protect it at all costs,” says Konrath. “If they agree to see you, they expect you to have done your homework. And that involves a lot more preparation than you might initially think.”
Konrath offers several other useful tips. For example, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to sell to a purchasing or human resources department. They only do what the management of specific business units tells them to do, and those are the decision-makers you need to spend time trying to reach. And don’t surrender easily in those efforts. Konrath says that it may take an eye-popping 18 attempts, via both email and voicemail, to get on someone’s calendar.
You should always use these exchanges, she says, not to simply plead one more time for a meeting, but to tell your prospects something they didn’t already know. You might, for example, describe a recent sale and how it solved a big problem for the new customer. Or, you could cite something relevant from the news to hammer home how you will be able to help. For example, if you’re selling teleconferencing equipment, you might cite a story on a recent airline price hikes to emphasize how that equipment can help trim the client’s travel budget. “If your message has good information, you won’t be considered a pest,” she promises.
Konrath urges small businesses to keep in mind that people usually don’t have plans to replace something in their organization, but they will if they can be persuaded that by doing so, they’ll gain some sort of advantage. For instance, an individual might not be in the market for a new computer, but might buy one anyway after being told of the dramatically improved features and low cost of a new model.
Finally, when it comes to small business selling to big business, Blackstone points out that developing leads requires some creative thinking. He cites a personal example of working with an environmental company that helped big businesses comply with EPA requirements. Blackstone’s clients were familiar enough with the workings of federal inspectors to know that companies would get a warning letter before being formally accused of not being in compliance with regulations. Since the list was public information, Blackstone’s crew was able to get a copy. And since all of the companies on the list were badly in need of help complying with EPA requirements, the leads resulted in considerable new business. Says Blackstone, “They had a clever idea, and it really paid off.”
Armed with the right knowledge, navigating your small business through the channels of big business can pay off, too.
Lee Gomes is a San Francisco-based writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the San Jose Mercury News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.