It’s taken a couple of years to figure out what's happening in the economy but the picture is getting much clearer. Unfortunately, what lies ahead is a business terrain shrouded in fog.

Certainly some sectors of the economy are growing stronger, and some regions are faring more positively than others. Yet, any overall appraisal is mixed - at best.  How can business cope with such erratic conditions?

No matter what the situation, it’s still possible to attract new clients, keep present ones, and increase sales. Here are 16 practical, useful, put-them-to-work-now ideas.

 

1. Keep giving them a surprise.

Getting attention is the key today and, amid all the clutter, it won't be easy. It’s the only way to cut through the cynicism. But cute attention isn't the way, and shocking doesn't impress. Be dramatic. For example, one assurance agency offered to buy small contractors the biggest steak dinner in town if they couldn't save the money on their business insurance, and this challenge made the telephone ring.

 2. Get to the right person.

Hitting the target is the name of today's game and the bulls-eye is coming into contact with the precise individual with whom you wish to do business. Keep in mind, though, that while you may also be selling to one individual, there are others in the same firm who may be buyers, too.

3. Get creative.

Just getting your direct-mail piece or newsletter to the post office is not enough - someone has to want to read it. Today it takes a highly creative approach to be distinctive and compelling, and creativity can cost money. But if more people can read your ad, your newsletter, or your e-mail piece, you have a much better chance of doing business with them.

4. Focus on what your customer care about.

This may seem obvious, but too much of today's marketing and sales materials look like little more than company-inspired ego trips. Figuring out precisely what the customer wants and needs and expects, is what works. Ask customers what they want to know about your business.

5. Let people know what they should think of your company.

Conclusions are drawn by making comparisons. If you don't let your customers know why it’s in their best interest to do business with you (or buy your product) they won't. Ratings make a big difference. For example, the JD Powers customer satisfaction surveys of cars and personal computers influence buying behaviour.

6. Be at the right place at the right time.

"I wish I had thought of you last week when we bought the new ..." Don't shrug off such comments with "No one can be everywhere at once."  The job today is to be in front of the customer when the need arises. To avoid the "last one through the door gets the business" syndrome, develop a consistent programme of staying in front of customers. Use a mix of periodic seminars, regular newsletters, special fact sheets, direct mail, special events and newspaper articles to be there at the right moment.  [Consider for a moment how the assurers and insurers work at the business of being in front of YOU, their main market!]

7. Be relentless.

In marketing and sales, persistence is power! Too many firms start and stop what they're doing. They never stay with anything long enough to produce results. They never develop a consistent marketing momentum. It all adds up to wasted money, time and effort. Once you start a newsletter, publish it on schedule. It takes time for customers to understand what you're doing and for prospects to get acquainted with your business.

8. Tell them everything you know.

Customers want information, knowledge and ideas. These should be the heart, the driving force of your business - and you’re marketing and sales. The goal should be to share everything you know. It’s the only way to become truly valued by your customers. When people "buy" your ideas, they will buy what you sell, too.

9. Check your unit or brokerage identity.

Is your logo up to date? Does it portray the right image? Do your letterhead, mailing labels and business cards convey a strong, positive message or, are they dull and ordinary? Remember, this identity is the face you put on your office.

10. Write letters which place the customer first.

Most people fail at writing business letters. "As per our conversation...", "Pursuant to our agreement ..." When was the last time you heard someone (other than the lawyer) talk this way? Letters should be warm, friendly, interesting and customer centred. Write letters as if you are the one reading them.

11. Develop the art of faceting.

A diamond has a number of "faces" called facets. As the stone is turned, a new facet presents itself. It’s these "faces" that gives a diamond its sparkle. It’s the same with a business. You can find new ways to tell your story - new and different angles - as you look at the various facets of the business, product or service. This takes effort, but it helps to sustain customer interest over a period of time.

12. Focus on the "Why should anyone want to do business with us?" question.

What makes us different from others in the same business? Why do we deserve to be in business? Once companies begin asking these questions, they uncover the real reasons why customers should do business with them.

13. Only tell part of the story at one time.

There is a tendency to try to jam everything we know into one brochure, one ad, and one newsletter. We don't want to leave anything out! The really difficult job is to pull it all apart, break ideas into components, and then develop an ongoing campaign. Communicate your message over a period of time so that it will sink in slowly.

14. Personalise everything.

The day of "Dear Friend", "Dear Customer", and particularly "Dear Valued Customer" is gone. Don't bother mailing a letter that isn't personalised with an individual's name. There's tremendous power in personalisation. Use it. It will make your customers and prospects feel you actually know who they are and that you're talking directly to them.

 15. Take advantage of testimonials.

Your credibility increases if you let a satisfied customer blow your horn for you.  One of the reasons why people are sometimes reluctant to provide a testimonial is that they are unsure that they are using the right words or that you will be disappointed with their comments. A better way is to interview them, hear what they are saying, and then prepare comments for their approval. This way you reassure them and get testimonials that will work best for you.

16. Make marketing your mission.

Marketing is something too many companies turn to when they need to increase their sales. This "shotgun" approach simply won't work. Communicating your unit's (or brokerage's) message is an ongoing process and the tack is to develop new and interesting ways to get the message across. Getting customers and prospects to believe in your product or service is the best way to attract and keep them.

It isn't good enough to produce the best product or service. Quality is important, of course. But the real goal is to get the customer to want what you sell. That's where these 16 down-to-earth suggestions can make a big difference.

John R Graham, Graham Communications, Quincy, Massachusetts. Reproduced from "Managers Magazine".