Personalizing Small Businesss Marketing Efforts – Part II

The following is the second section of a three-part article focusing on ways a small business can personalize their marketing efforts.  As mentioned in the first post, I’m not referring to personalizing mass produced printed materials. 

Instead, I’m focusing on those little “human” touches that mean a lot to your best customers, prospects, industry allies and employees.  I refer to this group as your “focused contacts.”  The first part, posted on June 25, addressed handwritten messages.

The second way to personalize your marketing efforts is to demonstrate how much you appreciate your customers. 

First are on-going methods such as

  1. acknowledging customers by name
  2. offering a place for customers to display a stack of their business cards so others may take one
  3. touching base with a prospect about some other need they mentioned during your presentation or discussion 
  4. providing a simple way for contacts to opt out of receiving your company’s routinely distributed promotional materials
  5. organizing free workshops in which you partner with related professionals to offer meaningful information   
  6. sending a testimonial from an existing customer to a prospect
  7. writing thank you notes and placing phone calls as previously discussed
  8. establishing a client or customer board of the month featured at your office, retail store, newsletter or website.

Financially, you may

  1. offer discounts if they bring in a postcard or mention your notice about customer appreciation day or week
  2. hold a monthly drawing for FREE use of a chauffeur, prepared meals, financial check-up, golf packages, etc.   
  3. donate to your focused contact’s favorite charity in his or her name
  4. invite focused contacts to try a new product or service at no charge or at minimal cost, dependent upon the product or regulations  
  5. establish a frequent purchase program (yes, this does require you to keep track of all customer purchases) to provide rewards.  Use this opportunity to have some fun and select meaningful items or services.
  6. inform customers of special sales involving their frequently purchased items (here again, don’t forget the usefulness of a customer database), or if you have a top-selling item that your best customers frequently purchase
  7. publish a picture in the local paper, perhaps quarterly, of an important customer, employee or ally
  8. host an event where you don’t talk business such as a picnic, BBQ or softball tournament.

  The final part of this series will focus on personalizing customer service.

Great Customer Service Should be a Part of your Product

What are three great reasons to provide outstanding customer service?

  1. Repeat customers spend more than new customers.
  2. Referrals from repeat customers are greater than new customers.
  3. It costs less to sell an item to an existing customer than a prospect.

So how do we make great customer service a daily occurrence?  Focus on the various interactions you have with your customers before, during and after their purchase.

  1. How easy is it to find your location, phone number or website?  Include this information on as many of your company materials as possible.
  2. During the sale, do you offer helpful assistance, practical packaging, and payment options?  Make sure your staff has the training and knowledge they need.
  3. After the sale, are delivery and installation convenient?   Will your product be more useful with training?  Is your automated phone system customer-friendly?  Are your return and warrant policies reasonable?  A positive experience at this phase can significantly impact the number of customer referrals!

Personalizing your marketing efforts

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to publish a few brief articles on ways a small business can personalize their marketing efforts.  And just so you know, I’m not referring to personalizing mass produced brochures, newsletters, catalogs, and emails.  Instead, I’m encouraging you to focus on those little “human” touches that mean a lot to your best customers, prospects, industry allies and employees.  I’ll refer to this group as your “focused contacts”. 

In this process, I’m also advocating greater utilization of your contact and/or customer database.  I suggest either upgrading it to include contact specific information, or referring to it on a more regular basis.  Some examples of personal information include: how you met, where a person went to college, how many children they have, where he/she grew up, what are their favorite vacations, which competitors or suppliers they use, who they report to, etc.   

Beyond the basic contact information, customer specific information might be what are their preferred products and payment or delivery methods.  As an example, a pest control service could maintain information on whether or not residential customers have outside pets and thus always make phone contact prior to scheduling service.   

Before we get into methods, I’ll briefly list some of the potential goals of these personalization efforts: 

  1. building loyalty so you and your business are more likely to be remembered
  2. keeping your name in front of your customers in a non-sales, impromptu manner
  3. building relationships and trust
  4. making your focused contacts feel valued and appreciated.  Your note might motivate, encourage or uplift the receiver, either personally or professionally.

The three broad categories I’m going to discuss include

  1. handwritten notes
  2. customer appreciation
  3. customer service.

As you read each idea, evaluate it to see if it’s something that fits your budget, your schedule and your personal style. 

One of the most personal methods is to send a handwritten note.  Stop and think about it: don’t you almost always open the personally addressed mail first?  So what are meaningful reasons for a personal note?

  1. appreciation for being your customer, prompt payment or a referral
  2. acknowledgement for special achievement
  3. acknowledgement for a mistake made by you or your staff
  4. expression of sympathy or concern
  5. comments accompanying an article highlighting their business or industry
  6. anniversary with your company
  7. important contact met at a networking event
  8. inquiry to simply find out how they’re doing, you’re thinking about them or to highlight an important personal matter
  9. his or her birthday.  I’m going to add a word of caution as I feel this can be overdone as in the case of a P&C insurance agent sending birthday cards to the children of customers. 

Perhaps you want to acknowledge your focused contacts during small business week, save your vision week (optometrists and eyewear stores), national family week (if you business provides relevant products and services), or their alma mater scored a major academic or athletic victory.  For more fun ideas look under the Strategy category of this website for the article titled “Adding some clean fun to your promotional activities.” 

I recommend maintaining an ample supply of pre-printed stationery that fits your style, whether note paper, note cards or postcards.  The pre-printed information could include your name, title or business, phone and address.  You’ll note I’ve omitted fax number, email address and website, as this information may be crossing over the line into more of a sales message.  The rest of the card should have ample space for your short, brief message of three or four sentences.  Some people tend to find it easier to hand write something more personal then when emailing or typing a note.  Pre-printing your return address is a time saver!   

If you feel you’re better on the phone, make the effort to speak with your customers, prospects, allies and employees.  They will more than likely appreciate your personal touch! 

Two examples of professionals who have benefited from this approach are accountants and financial planners.  In the case of the financial planner, he practiced for fifteen years before adopting this tactic.  He stated that within six months, he gained extensive new referral business that significantly exceeded all other previous marketing efforts!

The next posted article will provide ideas for personalizing customer appreciation efforts.

Practical Considerations of Business-based Networking

Networking, whether to directly find new customers or to increase your visibility in the marketplace, is an important activity for small businesses.  Here’s insight based on my experience after completing over ten months participation in a referral / leads networking group in which only one member per profession is allowed.   

These concepts and issues are relevant for other business-based networking opportunities such as a chamber of commerce and civic groups.  Please note there are many other valid reasons for networking, but this article is strictly focused on business networking. 

Business and Marketing Considerations 

1)    Visit other similar groups or chapters if they’re nearby.

a)    Use this opportunity to speak with members who are professionals from your industry.  Ask about both time and money commitment and whether they’ve benefited financially and/or professionally. 

2)    Analyze the membership in terms of your target market.

a)    As an example, does the group consist of more business-to-consumer entities or more business-to-business entities?

i)      In my case, there were certain businesses I was never able to refer to such as home security.  We’ve lived in the same community and house for over ten years, and I tend to recommend businesses I personally know or use.

ii)    What is an acceptable amount of time to spend meeting with people outside of your target market at this stage of your business? 

b)    If you have a geographic target market, where do members live and work?  Additionally, a business may target customers based on other factors such income, age or lifestyle.  And of course, B2B markets will utilize different criteria.

3)    Consider your sales cycle.

a)    Members with short sales cycles (carpet cleaning, clothing alterations, hairstylists) will usually gain business immediately.  Industries such as financial planning and consulting can be involved for six or more months without receiving any referrals.

b)    Be prepared to remain in the group for at least six months to one year.  As with any promotional effort, make the commitment and think of this opportunity as a long term investment in building relationships and developing trust.

c)     If your business is young, this opportunity can be invaluable for testing ideas.

4)    Examine the group in terms of the quality of members.

a)    You have to balance what time you have for this marketing activity versus how much you may need to give to make the group highly valuable (inviting potential members or your industry allies, one-on-one meetings, etc.)

b)    It can be uncomfortable to recommend a person based on a few meetings if you haven’t seen or experienced their work.  Plus due to human nature, there are bound to be certain people with whom you don’t click.  When it comes to referrals, your reputation is on the line! 

Personal Considerations 

1)    Focus on the time of the meeting as your personal situation may work better for lunch meetings than morning or evening meetings, or vice versa.

a)    Interestingly, I’m continually hearing about a greater number of networking groups meeting bi-weekly or monthly. 

 2)    Find out what meetings are required outside of your regularly scheduled meeting. 

a)    We were expected to meet at least once a week with another member and to meet with every member.

b)    While the group is sold as only requiring ninety minutes each week, the time commitment was realistically three to four hours each week. 

3)    If considering a leadership position, ask questions about how much time it takes, does the member feel the extra commitment has paid off, and what type of training is available. 

a)    As incentive, the top three leaders of our group obtain additional months of membership for their service.

b)    In our group, training always required some type of fee (under $20) and was not necessarily geographically convenient.  For my particular position, limited free materials were provided, but the majority of materials required a purchase. 

Group Considerations 

1)    Learn about membership retention rates and try to gauge the priority of the group.

a)    Our group was very young. 

i)      Thus, many members felt our top priority was to recruit new members.  This can lead to projects requiring additional time and money.

ii)    Leadership stability can be important.  We had three different group leaders (i.e., president, director) and two second-in-command leaders in 10.5 months.

iii) During those months, twenty-six members left the group for various reasons.  At the time I joined, the group had roughly thirty members.  At the time I left, the group had twenty and at one point was under 15.

b)    Learn about the types of businesses that have remained in the group if it’s older than two years.

2)    Ask about membership policies.

a)    You may be required to invite a certain number of potential members involving letters, phone calls, etc.

i)      These numbers can be substantial.

b)    Ask about financial commitment. 

 i)      We paid an initial registration fee, annual fee and monthly dues to cover our breakfast and meeting facility; these fees totaled over $870 for twelve months. I’m aware of some groups having monthly dues of $50 to $60 if meeting for lunch.

c)     What type of training is available?

i)      In our case, a basic required course offered useful suggestions for maximizing your participation.  These ideas were applicable to other networking situations.

d)    Make sure you fully understand attendance policies, such as whether a substitute is or is not expected.

i)      Of the forty plus meetings I attended, we always had at least one member absent.  In some cases, we had seven or more absent out of 20 or 25 members.  When members are absent, it detracts from the value of the group.

e)    If more than one person from a profession applies, how is the member selected?

f)      How are non-productive members handled?

g)    If the group tracks referrals and business, how are they calculated?  Different groups within the same organization may use different methods.

h)    A mentoring program is great but again requires additional time.

i)      If the group has a website, spend adequate time researching it.

3)    Visit as many times as permissible to observe the flow of the meeting. 

a)    Our group leader received formal training on how to run the meeting, and thus each one generally followed the recommended format.  I’ve been told not all groups do so. 

b)    Are the members friendly to visitors?  Are the members actively speaking with one another?

c)     Try to learn about the quality of direction given by paid personal if the group has a formal management organization. 

i)      Will the organization offer any type of discount for providing poor management from the paid/staff level?   If this group is run as a for-profit business, you’ll have an idea if gaining new members is significantly more important than providing customer service to existing members. 

d)    If there are terms you don’t understand, ask for explanation.  Just like any industry, these groups have their own terminology! 

What I learned and experienced in a nutshell.

  1. Business-wise, since I have a geographic target market and primarily focus on clients in the B2B market, I would likely generate greater benefits by establishing my own networking group of small B2B businesses serving my geographic area and relating to my field.
  2. I obtained enough business to pay for all fees and expenses but the time commitment was extensive.
  3. I will maintain contact over the long-term with a handful of professionals from the group who I can either refer to or receive referrals.  Plus, some have become personal friends.
  4. Professionally, since I’m a home-based business, it was great incentive to dress in formal work clothes, get out of the house, and sharpen my speaking skills through a leadership position.  Other home-based members and those who have recently relocated to our area share my sentiment! 
  5. I highly recommend business networking for professionals who’ve been out of the work force for a period of time and will benefit from the structure and leadership opportunities as it’s easier to get back into the professional mode.
  6. Overall, my participation in this group helped more with professional growth than business growth.   

Whether you’ve had positive or negative networking experiences, or want to share comments, please don’t hesitate to email me at kgbmarketing@hotmail.com.

Adding some clean fun to your promotional activities

What a better day than the Friday of a three day weekend to discuss fun and/or lighthearted ways to keep your name in front of your customers, prospects and industry allies.  Keeping in mind that any type of humor first of all must be appropriate for your small business’ industry or line of work, the use of it may make your promotional efforts striking and less forgettable.       

Some specific uses include direct marketing materials to create interest and response dependent upon a person’s stage within the sales cycle; personal notes or postcards for those whom you know personally and want to recognize such as veterans, nurses or teachers; or events to offer interaction such as customer appreciation day or week.  Two other ideas may be a sales promotion tied to a special product or service, such as Bicycle Safety Day, or the desire to tell your target audience about your selection of a local charity.  As mentioned in prior articles, creating and using a contact or customer database is essential for your marketing activities. 

I’ve included a few ideas for each month and applicable businesses or professions for these events.  If I didn’t mention your industry, sources for other holidays and celebrations are listed at the end.  To my knowledge, some of these dates change from year to year.   

January

Jan. 13 – Make Your Dreams Come True Day, financial planner, insurance agency or interior designer

Jan. 23 – National Handwriting Day, stationery retailer 

February

Feb. 13 – Bicycle Safety Day, bicycle store

Feb. 17 – Random Acts of Kindness Day, non-profit

Feb. 21 – Love Your Pet Day, pet store or veterinarian

Feb. 25 – Quiet Day, bookstore 

March

Mar. 3 – Employee Appreciation Day, any business

Mar. 8 – International Women’s Day, any business catering to women

Mar. 27 – Photography Day, camera store or photographer

Mar. 30 – Doctor’s Day, physicians 

April

Apr 5 – Read a Road Map Day, travel agency or tour operator

Apr. 7 – World Health Day, businesses in the health care profession

Apr. 22 – Earth Day, businesses in the landscape industry 

May

May 6 – Nurses Day, health care industry

May 10 – Peace Day, non-profits

May 15 – International Day of Families, water park

May 31 – National Save Your Hearing Day, ear specialist 

June

June 1 – International Children’s Day, day care business

June 5 – World Environment Day, organic landscaping business or retailers accepting trade-ins

June 23 – birth date of Johannes Gutenberg, 1400, printing business 

July

July 2 – halfway point of the year, accountants and bookkeepers

July 30 – Comedy Day, comedy club 

August

Friendship Day – first Sunday of August every year, greeting card store

Aug. 9 – International Art Appreciation Day, art gallery

Aug. 13 – International Left-Handers Day, for someone your personally know

Aug. 22 – Tooth Fairy Day, pediatric dentist 

September

Sept. 17 – Constitution Day, attorneys

Sept. 20 – International Student Day, educational consultants or tutors 

October

Oct. 9 – World Post Day, postal / mailing centers

Oct. 20 – National Fruit Day, health food store

Oct. 27 – Make a Difference Day, non-profits 

November

Nov. 11 – Veteran’s Day, thank customers who are veterans

Nov. 15 –America Recycles Day, business offering recycling of printer cartridges 

December

Dec. 4 – National Cookie Day, bakery

Dec. 5 – International Volunteer Day, thank customers who you know are active community volunteers

Dec. 15 – Game of Basketball invented in 1891, sporting goods store

Dec. 17 – Orville and Wilbur Wright made first successful flight in 1903, travel agency 

Sources: www.enchantedlearning.com/activitycalendars and Linda Bean, owner of Be In Touch, www.beintouchday.com  

As you can see, there are numerous events and methods to consider based on your industry, personality and budget.  The good news is with a little planning and creativity a method can be tailored to fit your situation.

Knowing Your Customers Gives You the Edge!

When it comes to marketing, what or who is the most important element of your business? Your customers! Therefore it’s only logical that you should know a lot about them and their opinions and values.

So what are some of the benefits and end results of placing emphasis on customer knowledge? First, you’ll be able to update your customer database. And if you currently have names on pieces of paper, this process could be the reason for creating a database. Within the database, you can create a specific column to designate if the customer if a key customer; i.e. one of those twenty percent who produce eighty percent of your revenue. Or a column for special notes such as where they went to college, where they’ve lived, what are their hobbies, or how they found you. Take the time and make the effort so your database will work for you!

Second, perhaps you’ll learn about the best way to communicate with your customers. Some people only use email. Maybe they’ll tell you they don’t want to be phoned at their home, or would prefer a postcard reminder. Third, take knowledge about your existing customers and apply it to identifying prospects. This information should help you narrow down the key benefit or benefits of doing business with you, and that’s extremely useful for your promotional efforts.

Fourth, if your business is outstanding, you have an informal sales force to tap. Nothing is better than a recommendation or a ready to implement referral network. Fifth, if you’ve learned about your weakness, you can try to fix it. Some solutions might be employee training or revised hours. An idea shared by one or more of your customers may help you tailor a product or service and charge a higher price, or find a way to shorten your delivery time benefiting the customer and saving you money.

The last question is how can you obtain information from these important people? Some standard methods include phone interviews; written surveys distributed via mail, email, and fax; and in-person interviews. Or meeting those best customers periodically for lunch or better yet, if you’re in the business-to-business sector, introducing them to someone who will help them prosper.

Additionally, I’ll refer to my July 2006 newsletter that focused on ways to gather customer information and demonstrate you’re listening.

  • Establish advisory groups, customer councils or board of directors, especially involving your best customers
  • Conduct focus groups
  • Use after-purchase surveys
  • Ask employees for feedback based on discussions with customers
  • Use customer suggestion boxes
  • Undertake formal written surveys sent within a newsletter or promotional piece
  • If you distribute a newsletter, ask for customer comments
  • Seek follow-up to customer complaints after problems are solved
  • Hire mystery shoppers, especially retailers.

After you’ve decided the benefits from and how you might implement this process, a great place to start when developing questions are issues directly impacting the marketing mix elements. Here are some examples.

Product

  • What are the most prominent benefits your customers receive and/or experience from your product and/or service?
  • Who are the key employees with whom they interact?
  • Do you need to revise your warranty or return policy?

Place

  • Is your location convenient? Are your store hours adequate?
  • How can you improve the knowledge of your sales and service staff?
  • Is it easy to communicate with your business?

Price

  • Have your customers compared your prices to your competitors?
  • Do you need to revise your financing or payment options?
  • Do you have a niche that will allow you to raise your price?

Promotion

  • How did your customers originally hear about you?
  • Do they want to hear about sales promotions or receive service reminders?
  • Should you considering including some of your customers in your promotional materials?

As you can see, there are numerous questions to ask. The good news is these questions and the methods for gathering answers can be tailored to fit your situation.

Marketing Fundamentals

No matter how small or large your business, certain guidelines apply to marketing.

Marketing requires a commitment.

  • Balance time, effort, money and creativity.
  • Establish a specific amount of time to market your business on a regular basis, such as phoning or visiting prospects and other contacts. Take the time to prepare a script, or at least notes on what you want to say. Marketing goals and calendars come in handy!
  • As Jay Conrad Levinson states in his books about Guerrilla Marketing, if you can’t rely on money, use creativity and effort in place of expensive promotional activities. These efforts can yield significant benefits if your business is based on building long term relationships.
  • Establish a program and give it adequate time to produce results.
  • Visit the competition or study their marketing materials.

Marketing is an investment.

  • An often used example compares marketing to investing in a blue chip stock. The value of this stock has highs and lows, but over the long run is profitable.
  • Just as the stock market responds to factors such as gas prices, hurricanes and politics, your marketing efforts experience peaks and valleys.
  • Think about the impacts from seasonality, technology improvements, training, and employee turnover.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions before spending your money!

Marketing should be consistent.

  • Seek to build trust with your customers so they know what to expect from your product or service. Consider how long it takes you to trust others before you’re willing to do business with them, or refer someone else to them.
  • Clearly state the benefits of your products and services throughout all your marketing messages. Identify the key benefits and focus on them!
  • If you provide a product or service that isn’t frequently purchased, you need to assure customers you’re still in business.
  • Think about the marketing messages sent to your home or business. How many times must you see a message before you give it a second thought, or call the business?

Marketing efforts can be improved with testing.

  • If you are planning to place an ad, use direct mail or even design a new business card, test a few options to see which brings the best response.
  • Experts recommend involving people who have no vested interest in your success so they’ll be honest with you.
  • Again, what recent messages have been the most effective for you? Look through various publications and gather samples of what you find effective.

Marketing activities should be tracked and measured.

  • When your phone starts ringing, ask your prospects how they heard about you. If a retailer, ask a few questions when purchases are made.
  • Track mailed promotional items.
  • Compare the cost versus the effectiveness of your efforts. As an example, I’ve joined a BNI group and I’m weighing the cost in terms of dollars and time invested versus the amount of business I’ve gained and professional contacts made.

Marketing requires more than one tool or method.

  • Examples of marketing tools include business cards, elevator speeches or tag lines, note cards for saying thanks or glad we met, client testimonials, websites, seminars, trade shows, coupons and samples.
  • Examples of paid advertising include newspaper ads, billboards, and CDs/DVDs.
  • Again, it’s beneficial to evaluate the effectiveness of each method.

And if you haven’t guessed, marketing success and your business’ success is dependent upon knowledge about

  • your costs
  • your customers
  • your competition.

Is It Time to Consider Changing Your Distribution?

Here are common reasons for a business to establish new distribution methods for their product or service.

  1. If your customers’ buying patterns change. As an example, companies that traditionally sold door-to-door had to find new methods as more women work outside the home.
  2. If your market is expanding, geographically or another use has been found for the product, find additional ways to reach these new customers. One option is expanding from company owned stores to specialty retailers.
  3. If you have new competitors, they’ll likely develop new distribution methods. As an example, consider how the U.S. Postal Service is evolving due to competition from UPS, FedEx and mailing centers.
  4. If new methods of distribution become available, such as the Internet, are they cost effective for you?

And don’t forget, the customer will likely expect you to maintain records of all their purchases from different methods and receive an appropriate discount based on total purchases.

Why Marketers preach commitment and patience

The following is found in numerous marketing books addressing the need for commitment and patience when promoting your product or service. By focusing your marketing efforts, you’re likely to reduce a few of the steps!

  • The first time a man looks at an ad, he doesn’t see it.
  • The second time, he doesn’t notice it.
  • The third time, he is conscious of its existence.
  • The fourth time, he faintly remembers having seen it.
  • The fifth time, he reads the ad.
  • The sixth time, he turns up his nose at it.
  • The seventh time, he reads it through and says “Oh brother!”
  • The eighth time, he says, “here’s that confounded thing again!”
  • The ninth time, he wonders if it amounts to anything.
  • The tenth time, he will ask his neighbor if he has tried it.
  • The eleventh time, he wonders how the advertiser makes it pay.
  • The twelfth time, he thinks it must be a good thing.
  • The thirteenth time, he thinks it might be worth something.
  • The fourteenth time, he remembers that he wanted such a thing for a long time.
  • The fifteenth time, he is tantalized because he cannot afford to buy it.
  • The sixteenth time, he thinks he will buy it someday.
  • The seventeenth time, he makes a memorandum of it.
  • The eighteenth time, he swears at this poverty.
  • The nineteenth time, he counts his money carefully.
  • The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys the article or instructs his wife to do so.

Amazingly, it was written in 1885 by Thomas Smith in London, at a time when consumers were receiving significantly fewer daily marketing messages.

Pricing Considerations

Businesses of all size and type have to consider three main factors when selecting a price for their product or service.

  1. Their customers’ demand for the product or service
  2. Their competition’s pricing structures
  3. Their own costs, both fixed and variable.

Small businesses, in comparison to larger organizations, generally have limited resources for studying and analyzing pricing options. Here are a few practical big picture questions to address when your small business is focusing on pricing issues.

  1. How easy is it for your customers to obtain prices from your competitors?
  2. Do you have a large or a small number of competitors?
  3. If you price too low from the start, will it be too hard to raise your price?
  4. Is your product or service price-sensitive, including small changes in price, prices ending in “9” or “5” or the overuse of sales? Do you have industry information or your own data to guide you?
  5. Do your costs vary by customer? Accountants and financial documents provide meaningful insight.