How to recession-proof your small business

Small businesses can tackle big problems like an economic downturn in the Canadian economy. This slump has also affected large company’s budgets significantly. Can the small survive?

Technology marketing expert, Robin Robins discusses the advantages these businesses have over the big contenders and strategies on how to market those advantages. She is the author of the Technology Marketing Toolkit and Million-Dollar Managed Services Marketing System and has over 3,000 customers in 42 different countries. In an interview with ITBusiness.ca Robins shared 10 strategies for success in these difficult times.

“While there is definitely an economic slow down at this point, there are a lot of my clients who I’m seeing having tremendous success,” she says.

10. Don’t play dead
“You can definitely pull yourself out of this,” she says.

She recommends not ‘buying into the media.’ Despite what’s being reported, she says she has clients who have been able to grow their small businesses.

“Reality is there are plenty businesses which are doing fine,” she says.

While fear causes companies to pull back on their advertising budget, Robins suggests ‘ramping it up,’ and being more creative. Find cost effective ways to get your name out there through various methods such as direct mail, e-mail, trade events and shows.

“The people that are being successful are the ones that are using this as a reason to ramp up the marketing, not pull back,” she says.

9. Go back to current customers
Assuming that you don’t have a huge marketing budget or perhaps none at all, Robins suggests dipping back into your existing customers.

“Most people grossly overlook their current customers as resources for generating more sales and increasing their revenue,” says Robins.

Customers constantly need to be sold, they need to be aware of new offers or promotions she says. Any new and better services your business is providing and find unique angles such as charity tie-ins should be communicated to them regularly.

8. Ask for referrals
It may seem a tad aggressive but if you never ask you’ll never know. Robins advises small businesses to go to existing customers and ask for referrals. People place high value in their business relationships, she says.

Try letting customers know that they are appreciated and then asking about information about two or three colleagues that could benefit from your services. It could be the perfect opportunity to build on that relationship.

Asking for an introduction and following up on referrals is definitely a strategy small businesses should look into, according to Robins.

7. Go back to unconverted leads
Robins says she often has clients whom after over five years have only 20 names in their prospect database.

A prospective clients database is a list of companies you would like to work with, either you have called and been turned down or you plan to call in the near future. Keeping this database on track and ongoing is key. Robins says every small business should have a solid list within a year and if you don’t have one, start building one.

Use this list as a tool and continually marketing and promoting yourself to them makes a difference.

“Just because somebody has said no right now that doesn’t mean that at some point they’re not going to start looking,” she says.

Perhaps they become unhappy with their current personnel or frustrated with the outsource service they are receiving, or their IT person leaves unexpectedly.

“A big gross mistake that a lot of people do is that they never go back and rework those unconverted leads. You have to put them in a database and keep those records up to date,” she emphasizes.

“Go back to those unconverted leads and touch them again, invite them to a seminar, offer a free report, offer a whitepaper, offer something. Quite often a lot those unconverted leads who said no a while ago, will say yes.”  

6. Tighten up your Web site and Web marketing
Get serious about your Web site and Web marketing she recommends.
“Your Web site is the single most important piece of marketing collateral that any business can have,” Robins says.

The advantages of a strong Web presence and Web marketing is endless she says because it’s viral and often it’s the cheapest printing press. You can explore online updates, email marketing and 30-day trials at often low costs.

“Almost everybody is going to go back to your Web site,” she says. “One of things that people do on a regular ongoing basis is instantly go to the Web site and if your Web site is poorly done or if its not designed to be a direct response marketing piece, you’re going to be losing a ton of business.”

Robin helps her clients revamp their message and organize initiatives like e-newsletters and free offers.

“Tighten up your Web site and make it a good direct response marketing vehicle,” she says.

5. Get involved, seek the media
“You want to start promoting yourself like a politician without a marketing budget,” she says.

Through trade shows, social networking events or even church or rotary clubs. Take part and be active in your industry events as well as in your community.

These associations bring Robins’ clients more business than any other activity that they do she says.

If you’re struggling for new clients getting actively involved in clubs, associations, trade shows, and even non profit organizations (a lot of non profits are fueled and chaired by other business leaders), can grow your client base.

“A really key thing everybody can do is to go out join these clubs get actively involved in your community.”

Another important strategy is to invite the media to cover positive stories about your growing business. According to Robin, the media is always looking for stories on what business are going to be successful, what they’re doing to help charities and what they’re doing to grow.

“If you have a good story and you’re working with the local charity or your rotary club that’s a great way to get company in the news and get yourself recognized,” she says, “This is a key strategy especially for those with a small budget.”

4. Learn how to be a persuasive communicator
This isn’t a quick fix says Robins. Being a more persuasive communicator takes time, but can have a great affect in all areas of your marketing.

Robins says that when a company hits a tough economic slump that’s when you need your marketing to work.

You need it to generate from two leads to 20 leads and the only way to do that is to learn how to be more persuasive and more effective in marketing communication she explains.

The key is to angle yourself as an effective direct response marketer.

“In everything you do if you want to be an effective direct response marketer. In everything you do make absolutely certain there’s an offer.”

3. Offer free information of value
Robins touches upon this in her last point. One of the most popular offers many of her clients are making is a free network audit and assessment.

She says it is important on how you position it. You are selling something of value so be sure to sell them the free offering as though it costs money, and also in a way that the prospective client  feels as though even if they don’t hire you there is value in that offer.

One client she has offers a white paper to prospective clients which he authored, titled The Seven critical building blocks for creating a more profitable business structure through strategic outsource IT sources.

Using this white paper has generated leads, built relationships and gave something of value to potential customers.

 “That is really going to help you generate more leads and more sales opportunities than anything you can possibly do,” she explains.  

2. Send clients a monthly newsletter
Setting up some kind of monthly newsletter or ongoing monthly mailing is still very effective says Robins.

“I can assure you that direct mail, to this day, still is one of the most affective ways to conduct business and businesses marketing,” she says. While referrals are still number one, direct mail is always up there.

Providing a monthly communication to all existing customers and prospects, builds relationships, keeps them aware of your success stories and promotes new offers.

Robins explains by citing a client who includes a success story every month. The story focuses on the client, what their issue was, how it was solved and how it has improved their productivity.

“Once you get your foot in the door you’ll get more business, but it all stemmed from doing a monthly newsletter and highlighting a different client success story every month.”

Even though they focus on the client, it is a glorified testimonial without being really blatant says Robins.

However Robins says while increasing communication isn’t necessarily bad you don’t want to become boring or irrelevant.

“The frequency of communication has to do with the content rather than anything else.”

People like to read stories about other companies. Highlight a client and write a business story that is interesting, relevant and entertaining that people want to read about in your newsletters she suggests.

“You’ll see a significant boost in your responses and sales profit if you start doing that monthly newsletter. It usually takes about three to four months and after that you really start seeing the sales come in.”

1. Use Subscription income to ‘recession proof’ your business.
Reposition your business offers in a subscription format instead of managed services which can be limiting.

 “Make sure everything you do has a subscription income tied to it,” she says.  

While she’s not saying that you shouldn’t sell managed services, Robins suggests thinking in terms of subscription income. For IT companies she suggests having subscription services such as remote back up, managed firewall, software as a service, VoiP, leasing hardware, leasing software, Web hosting, spam filtering and more.

This gives the client more options and clearly shows them what services you’re providing while giving you a monthly residual income.

“Everything you do, every thing you sell, every project, every client, every solution, you should seek to have some kind of ongoing residual income coming from that,” she says.

If for every single client you are selling some type of subscription income it will change the way you do business says Robins.

“It’s a great way to ‘recession proof” your business.”

She works with clients to help their businesses get to a level where they are making enough “to cover the nut,” – monthly expenses such as rent, taxes, pay roll etc.

Subscription income helps balance that monthly budget and everything beyond that is pure profit. She says once small businesses gets to that point where they can feel more secure, they can focus on ways to expand and the advantages don’t stop there.

“It also gets you into the budgets of your existing customers,” she explains, “You’ll find that clients that pay you on a monthly basis are more loyal, they refer more often as well, and they often buy more services.

“Something that’s already securely locked into a reoccurring fee is less likely to get cut than something they buy on occasion.”

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