One of the biggest concerns of running a small business is finding new prospects to keep your sales pipelines full. You can panic if you have no systematic plan on how to identify who your perfect customer is, where to find them and how to nurture them to a sale.
So how can you identify, target and nurture your new prospects until they become your ideal customers?
Identify the Perfect Customer
Defining your target customers means identifying the specific needs (“pain points”) and characteristics of the consumers or businesses who you believe will buy your product. This demographic profile for end-user customers can include age, gender, income, occupation, marital status (and family), hobbies and interests. For business markets, you would look at a particular profile, including industry, revenue, location and number of employees.
In general, determining the exact demographic of your market starts by contacting prospective customers to see if they have a need that your company solves … and the money to solve it. There’s a certain amount of guesswork along with trial and error to refine the targeted customer. Try to be as specific as possible. If you can narrowly define your customer demographics, that’ll make your sales and marketing tactics easier and increase your chances of success.
One thing you should do when homing in on your target market is to ask current customers and employees what your company does. Do they have a clear, common or compelling answer? Too many entrepreneurs may focus on what they want to offer customers, not what those customers actually want to buy. Remember that consumers tend to buy when they are in pain (that is, have a great need) and have the money to relieve that pain—people often buy painkillers ahead of vitamins. Part of the reason your sales pipeline is empty could be that you have failed to narrowly define your business offering in terms of the pain you can heal for customers.
To identify who your ideal target market is and what these consumers need or want, consider the following:
1. State the critical problem that your business solves for customers. Complete the following sentence: “My company helps _________ who are _________.” For the first blank, fill in the customer you’re targeting. In the second blank, fill in the problem your company specifically solves. For example, my brand is: “My company helps small-business owners get unstuck.” Similarly, “Acme Heating and Cooling helps homeowners whose heat is broken.” And “Becky Smith helps parents whose children don’t sleep well.” These are all focused explanations on how these companies are solving a problem.
To test your original ideas about what your target market is, go out and offer your product or service for sale at the intended price. Do those customers actually buy it, or do they say “no” or, worse, “maybe”? In this exercise, anything short of a “yes” from a paying customer is a failure. If you’re not successful here, brainstorm with your team all “adjacent pains” that your business is solving. Sometimes the biggest customer need is not the most obvious, and you may need to pivot once you get more clarification on who the target market is and what they really need.
2. Why is your company the best? If that initial test indicates your original ideas about your market might not be completely on target, consider the following sentence: “My company is the best at _________.” Many companies will say customer service, but this is probably not a differentiator because so many small businesses promise this, and few may be truly able to deliver. A good way to get this answer is to ask any current customers why they chose to buy from your company. Ask them why they do business with you and not with a competitor.
3. Test the brand in front of your employees and customers or prospective customers. Does your brand ring true for both of them? Do your products and all your actions around it truly reflect your brand inside and outside the company? Many companies say their brand is one thing, but their actions may not reflect it.
4. Practice your pitch. Can your entire team state your brand and know who your perfect customer is? Teach all employees the exact answer to this question: What does your company do?
Find the Perfect Customer
Once you’ve gone through the exercise of identifying your perfect prospects, you need to find them. To do so, you should be where the conversations are. Where are your potential customers discussing their issues and problems?
Search engines. Use keywords to search for customer problems that your company targets. For example, if your company repairs cars, search for phrases such as “When is a car considered totaled?” Then, comment on discussions that are happening within those search results.
Set up Internet alerts. Use Web alerts to get notified when new content appears in these areas or when someone mentions your company. Free alerts are available through Google Alerts or TalkWalker.
Industry magazines, blogs, podcasts or forums. Find out what the most popular and active communities are in your industry and find ways to inject yourself valuably into those relevant conversations. (These can be found through Internet searches, trade shows or social media referrals.)
Facebook. Search this social media tool to find relevant business pages. For example, if you are a florist, search for pages that discuss holidays, weddings and other similar life events. Since it's impossible to keep up with an entire feed, set up Facebook interest groups to monitor specifically selected prospects and customers. Using these customized private lists, it’s easier to read and comment each time someone in one of your watch groups posts new content.
Twitter hashtag conversations. Search for popular hashtags to identify relevant conversations. For example, florists might use #Sayitwithflowers. Once you find the conversations, you can offer expert advice to meet new prospects. Also, set up Twitter lists to follow selected prospects and customers, as you did with Facebook interest groups. Twitter gives users the ability to sign up for other people’s public lists as well.
LinkedIn groups. Search for industry-related groups your company can join, and become part of those conversations. For example, if you run a plumbing company, you can join a contractor discussion group. Again, offer advice, tips and expert insights, but don’t overtly sell your product or service.
Google hangouts. Sign up for relevant conversations and join them live. While you can’t search for hangouts you’re not invited to, you can learn about them through resources such as GP Hangouts.
Nurture the Perfect Customer
To nurture a customer successfully, you should not only understand the difference between selling and marketing, but also between suspects and prospects. Marketing gets people who feel the pain your business solves (suspects) to identify themselves. Sales activities present those people (now prospects) with a specific solution to turn them into customers. In other words, prospects are suspects who have “raised their hand” and said in some way (such as returning a phone call or email) that they're interested.
Many businesspeople say they hate to sell. This isn't necessarily true. Most businesspeople love selling to an identified prospect once they know they can solve that person’s problem. What people hate to do is market to a suspect—a targeted customer who should have the problem your solution solves, but doesn’t quite know it yet.
Whether you love it or hate it, you should consistently communicate with all your potential clients so you can be there when they're ready to buy. But to best nurture relationships, you should market differently depending on the type of customer. High-growth companies tend to spend more time marketing to suspects and converting prospects into customers, and the approach to each group is different.
Market to Your Suspects
Your suspect list is large. It consists of anyone whose business problems your company can solve. Since it may not be economical to directly sell to each suspect individually, the goal is to get them to self-select. Here are five tactics that can lead to suspect marketing success:
1. Advertising. If you don't have a large budget, you can use trade journals or online publications to narrow the list of suspects for a reasonable amount of money. It may not be as effective to advertise just once in a publication. To ensure you get maximum results, you might want to place as many ads as you can afford in targeted publications. More insertions at a smaller display size can be better than a full page just once. Make sure every ad is trackable so you can determine its return.
2. Direct email. Consider buying lists of “opt in” names from a broker and using a marketing email system to track who opens the emails and who clicks through to your website. Suspects clicking through on your email is the equivalent of “raising their hands,” so you can begin to get traction with each of them with some type of follow up to nurture the sale.
3. Search Engine Marketing (SEM). You can use Google AdWords, Yahoo or Bing to promote your business. One of the best parts about paid search is that your company can set its own budget and highly define its suspect target.
4. Trade shows. If you have a large enough budget, you might want to pick a few smaller shows. You may even want to mail a pre-show offer to attendees to incentivize them to come by your booth. If you're bootstrapping your business, it can be almost as effective not to exhibit, but instead to walk your industry's trade show and collect cards from attendees. You could also try to participate on a conference panel to get increased exposure.
5. Expert credibility. Write an article about something of value in your industry and get it published in print and online media. Companies buy from experts, and these external sources will give you additional credibility with suspects you don't know.
Market to Your Prospects
Your prospect list is a subset of your suspect list. It's much smaller because the customers on this list fulfill three requirements:
- You know they have a problem you can solve.
- They have the money to solve the problem.
- You know the decision maker.
You should touch each of these prospects individually and as consistently as possible through a variety of media. The idea is to be there at the moment when their pain is so great, they must buy something. How can you stay in constant contact with your prospects?
1. Direct sales. Call or email your prospects to check the status of their need and your solution to it. There's nothing wrong with being aggressive; just don’t become annoying. What's the difference? Keep track of the last time you contacted them and when they called you. Don’t call more than twice to every unanswered call from them. If these two calls aren’t returned, you can call every few weeks for a month or so. No answer or reply? Then you no longer have a real prospect, and you need to move on to other interested names on the list.
2. Referrals. The right customer for you may not be the prospect themselves, but someone they know. Stay in front of them so they will be thinking of you the next time an associate of theirs can use your services. You can always ask for referrals at the right time. At lunch, you can say, “Do you know anyone else who my solution may help?”
3. Direct email or postal mail. Send them industry information or articles of interest so they can continue to see you as the expert who can solve their problems. As with the other tactics, it’s critical to become consistent at this type of weekly marketing.
4. Education. Use a systematic marketing plan where your company can bring expert value to prospects and customers on a monthly basis (not selling features). Customers no longer want to be sold; they want to be educated.
Setting up a sales and marketing process within your own company can be a critical element to identifying, targeting and nurturing your ideal customers. There is no quick shortcut, but if you're consistent in your efforts and thorough, your sales pipeline might always be full.
Barry Moltz is a customer service expert who specializes in getting small businesses unstuck. His latest book is How to Get Unstuck: 25 Ways to Get Your Business Growing Again. He can be found at www.barrymoltz.com.
Read more articles in our special section on Getting New Customers.
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