Guest Post by Liane Sebastian (learn more about Liane at the end of this post).
As a backlash against increasingly international trends, relationships matter more. When all attributes are equal in a competition, the company who gets the contract has a personal connection. The bigger the playing field, the more trust, familiarity, and rapport count. For long-term relationship-building, be sure that your values and those of your clients mesh. Competition without relationships turns products and services turn into commodities.
One half of building business is supplying quality products or services; the other half is skill in building relationships. No one is equally expert at both. Most are talented in one over the other. (Many even believe in the myth that just good work creates success!) To compensate your side of this seesaw, creative shortcuts cultivate new directions for building business and explore the inspiring nature of change.
Like with advertising, fifty-percent of promotional efforts work. But the advertiser or the promoter can’t know in advance which fifty-percent! Some of the efforts cast out into the marketplace stir up action. But many businesswomen are so overwhelmed with running day-to-day operations, there is little or no time to do a good job at casting the net of promotional effort out—whether through community activities, donations, networking events, promotional campaigns, public relations initiatives, or advertising—it is NEVER enough! These functions are like a nest of hungry sparrow chicks screaming for attention, mouths gaping! We need to decide how to best divide energies—whom to feed first.
Rather than be overwhelmed, it is better to try a little in a lot of areas than to try a lot in one area. How do you best focus the time and resources you have? What promotional vehicles are most successful in your industry? How are you most comfortable in building relationships for new business?
Follow some basic ground rules to best focus the time and resources you have:
Know what you need.
Additionally know what you have to trade. Rehearse your pitch. Test and have ready for business.
Being sharp means being succinct. Any professional should have antennae open for business every time you answer the phone, e-mail, or walk out the door. As a former client once said, “we are ALL salesmen!”
To know what you need, determine your strengths and strategize to supplement your weaknesses. For example, as a designer/writer, my skills are not well applied to bookkeeping or financial management. So, in teaming up with those who can do what I can’t, they might need what I do. We can leverage each other’s expertise.
Mine your backyard.
By investigating resources MOST open to you, momentum increases. Start with the lowest hanging fruit in your orchard of options. Develop those contacts as a ladder to reach higher, but more challenging, prospects.
Examine business contacts from the past. This is a great way to grow business because you know each other. Although it is very easy to fall out of touch, it is those who perfect the keep-track-of habit that have an edge in the future!
Ask family for contacts, but be very careful about doing business with them. If they INVEST in your business, treat it with appropriate legal documentation as if with any other contact. Family is best utilized for lead generation: they can widen your circle exponentially!
Finally, your backyard’s most fertile territory is your community—memberships, volunteer activities, church contacts. In cultivating business with or from close relations such as siblings or neighbors, everyone sets out with the best intentions, only. If a relationship is more important than any business transaction, the risk of possible differences may not be worth doing business together. Proceed with extreme caution.
Then come down—whether it is getting published or getting a new product into stores. AFTER exploring accessible connections, research those you most respect and try to cultivate a contact or, at a minimum, try to get good advice from them. Approach leaders or experts with a pitch of mutual-interests.
This skill takes practice. A good pitcher can describe an idea enthusiastically in three sentences. When negotiation begins, you can further explain the benefits of doing business together. Pitches MUST be short, which is more time-consuming than presenting long ones. It forces you to edit and target with accuracy.
Don’t be timid.
So many intelligent women just don’t speak up! Perhaps this is an issue of confidence. But commitment guides bravery more than an inherent belief in self-ability! Do what has to be done and don’t waste energy on fear that undermines performance—unless the doubt is a nagging hunch of a wrong direction! Self-doubt only belongs in the evaluation phase and kept out of the implementation phase. Use strengths as stepping-stones.
Confidence can be built from following the signposts of progress—where you receive greatest response. For example, when my book publisher was hit by Hurricane Wilma, (thus my upcoming book was literally blown away), I turned to graphic design where I had received all my training and contacts—but with a much different business model. Utilizing strengths and the contacts I had made to write the book, I scaled my practice to service women in business—the companies that support them and the companies that they own. I also chose to write for online business groups, and hence, you are reading the result.
Being timid leads nowhere. My motto: “you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Perfecting the art of asking can be applied to any business!
Practice pitches and product or service descriptions. (Toastmasters is great for honing presentation skills). You can’t practice enough. So when the opportunity arises (i.e., you put yourself in the right position), you are ready. And, being ready, you are confident.
When testing ideas are part of the creative process for product, service, or business development, this triangle must be a business priority:
- To test product, watch prospects interact with it—whether they use a tool, read a book, choose a necklace, or scan an airline ticket. Design stems from USE.
- To test service, put yourself in the shoes of your audience’s experience. Observation and role-playing are useful exercises. Research the prospect experiences of your competitors regularly.
- Test business development, starting with advice from your banker, accountant, and lawyer. These three are then best assisted by feedback from other professionals. Investigate those doing what you want to do. Their advice can be invaluable.
Research prospects and contacts.
Evaluate organizations online: their mission, major products/markets, history, and biographies of key participants. There is no reason not to Google any names of interest. Research will save you much time later and increase your rapport from the start.
Ten minutes reading about someone you are going to talk to can be invaluable, whether for services you consider, possible employees, collaborations to pursue, or customers to solicit. Similarly, make sure your OWN site has the best key words for the search engines. Google your name periodically. If you rely on searches for your background research, so will those you work with (if they are sharp).
Be willing to be scattered.
Accept that it’s better to do the right things quickly and good enough than to do the wrong things perfectly. Business moves too fast for the perfectionist, so you just have to get over it and move on to the next priority! Start small promotional initiatives in as many venues as you can. Then you can invest in what truly works versus what you hope will work. This gives you flexibility.
Many professionals find that business is nurtured by volunteer work—there is a reciprocal balance between the two pursuits. A network created from volunteer-made connections can be life-saving during times of transition. Adding volunteer work to an already-overloaded schedule, however, can feel like adding more papers to an over-stuffed briefcase! The only way to work networking in is to schedule attendance to an event and go. If that is all you have time for, at least do that, and seek to exchange a few business cards when there. If you have more time, contribute to an association committee. This leads to furthering your credentials and friendships. However, before committing, choose the organization of interest EXTREMELY carefully. The choice of alliance will color the depth of exchange.
Align with similar initiatives.
To reinvent the wheel is time-consuming. Even the most successful empire-builders found shoulders to stand on! Find them. Many career-enhancing activities can develop from carefully chosen volunteer-based projects. The return in connections is usually greater than the effort extended! Have collaboration goals and processes well-defined so that expectations MATCH.
Critically leverage contacts to expand your network. Barter professional expertise, time, connections, talents. If you can facilitate to help your prospect’s businesses, they will reciprocate. To offer unique products or services to promote, combine disparate subjects together like a trade show professional integrating with women’s business issues into a conference, or a marketing professional using her personal experience with the disabled in training programs, or an adventure-seeking attorney putting the legal business together with adventure vacations, these combinations open new possibilities for promotion.
Cultivate the local media.
Discover the reporters in your area and profession. Write letters to the editors and blogs to encourage dialogue. Such involvement can lead to greater visibility. Start small and build up. Make a few great connections and develop those rather than chase a multitude of lukewarm responses. Media momentum is much like a wild fire—the power of one well-placed match can ignite dramatic pyrotechnics!
Include a press release approach both to business planning and communication. By defining the positioning and purpose so well that it is a news story, you have done much of the most important branding, pitching, and promotional thinking early in the strategy.
Then, use the press release to stay in touch with media contacts, from local newspapers to alumni associations to membership publications. Media builds like blocks: one exposure stacks atop another. Many organizations have publications, award programs, or contribute to specific causes that you can tie into. Any accomplishment aimed towards the community has media potential.
Seek ‘side-door’ approaches.
Choose unusual, unique or avant-garde ideas for promotion. Be guided by appropriateness and tie into what the target values or needs most. Base marketing initiatives on shared values and multiple-agendas. Connect as many strengths and resources as possible, for innovation lives in fresh combinations.
The most creative approaches will get the most attention. They are also the riskiest directions and take some guts to pursue. A good way to start honing this courage is through Letters to Editors. There you can express strong opinions. An old client became well known and rather notorious through this technique: he liked to predict the future in his industry, always outrageous. Half of these predictions would be right, half would be wrong. The right ones made him look like a visionary. The wrong ones were forgotten. He got a lot of media attention!
Another way to develop unique promotions is through useful giveaways. For example, my design firm did a direct mail booklet that was called “Fortune 501” with 501 little quotations set up as fortunes around a fortune cookie recipe (we’d have made the cookies, but there are food regulations beyond our legal purview). It was visual, fun, different, and recipients kept them on their desks (and in their bathrooms). The most simple give-away can express “the Top Ten Ways to…” this gives constituents more value than the usual unimaginative gadgets, key chains, mugs, etc. Good useful original gifts are best if they can contain a mini-version of your product or service for sampling. Other ideas: donate your expertise as an award, speak at the local library or school, and interview local officials to report for newsletters. Any side-door approach is going to take time and research. If you can leverage your research to several recipients, there is more chance that one will hit the bulls-eye of response.
Adapt ideas from other industries.
Don’t do what you’ve always done or you’ll get the same results you’ve always gotten! Examine inspiring books and magazines in related fields. Talk to other entrepreneurs, but only accept advice from the successful.
Seeking ideas from other industries does not take as much time as it takes paying attention to hone an awareness. Ideas come from everywhere! Metaphors from nature, sports, and travel are very useful to generate repurposed solutions. Curiosity is necessary to develop cross-sectoral techniques. Try new approaches. Place ad in an unusual venue, attend a political events, support a new cultural organization, or even be friendly at the Health Club. All these activities can bring new perspectives and experiences for input. Curiosity instigates imagination.
Don’t take business personally.
There is no shortcut to playing the numbers when building an audience. If you invite ten well-targeted people to an event, having two show up is success! So if you want 20 people, you must invite 100. Expectations for advertising returns are on the other end of the scale: to achieve a .5% response is success! Tom Peters reports that packaging on a store shelf is judged in .06 seconds by the shopper! Choose the glass one-half full as a measurement, or you ASK for disappointment. You can say: “I didn’t get 80,” or you can say: “I did get 20.” This 20% builds businesses!
The test really comes when you’ve made the requisite seven contacts to a prospect and no action happens. Patience seems to run counter to what motivates promoters! Therefore, because everyone can get discouraged, plan for downtimes to ease their sting. The biggest way to be disappointed is to have unrealistic expectations of success. The second way is to feel that your work is not good enough. This is so self-defeating; it is like getting major surgery before getting a second opinion! Prepare in advance to withstand inevitable disappointments: have creative distractions, friends who know how to soothe, a planned break, and a solid plan B.
Don’t throw money at a need. Exhaust resources that don’t cost first and at least come up to “Dummy” level on each initiative that you manage. Whether it’s developing a Website, launching a sales campaign, or hiring an accounting firm, learn enough lingo to comprehend the topic’s basic landscape. So many sharp talented business people lose by trusting the wrong people or don’t provide an educated guidance. Use experts to explain, but get second opinions on big decisions, plans, or expenditures. If you don’t have another source to ask, then you are boxed in. Remember its YOUR business and if you offend someone by your research (seeming to be disloyal), then you need to examine the nature of that relationship. Business partners, employees, and providers are not the same as family members. Loyalty is paid for one way or another. Relationship building needs a base of fair trade, or it fades (at best) and bleeds (at worst).
When entering into collaborations or business-dealings of any kind, get an agreement in writing that states what is expected from each party. Having clearly defined initiatives and agenda items will save time—especially when working via e-mail where there is no room for innuendo or subtlety. While doing business online is one of the biggest money-savers (cuts down on travel and meetings), it can also waste time through indirectness, poor timing, too much detail, or messages sent too quickly without thought or polish.
Home-based businesses have the advantage of low overhead but the additional challenge of personal distraction. Although business progresses at an overwhelming speed, it is better to service a few initiatives well than too many poorly. The tricky part is to balance doing the right initiatives poorly versus the wrong initiatives well. To know what works, first cast the net wide, and you are guaranteed to be surprised with new opportunities—being guided by successful signposts. It is too easy to waste time in unprofitable promotional pursuits without taking time for considered strategy. It is like the company who commissions a color brochure but has no budget for writing, photographs, or design. It is like spending on one or two ads and nothing on other more accessible and cheaper opportunities. It is like hiring the most expensive consultant while ignoring more accessible talent. It is like trying to convince a prospect to hire you when they never will. Frugality, when applied to time, is even more precious than when applied to expenses. When using your promotional time well, when exhausting the clearest opportunities, if you then have to spend more money to advance, you can promote in smarter ways.
About the Author
Liane Sebastian is a graphic designer and author of the classic Digital Design Business Practices. Speaking on creativity nationally, Liane authored Idea Initiators, business books by and for businesswomen, and a line of journals at www.prosperiapublishing.com.