We all want to build a sales pipeline. You know -- plant the marketing seeds, nurture them, and watch them bloom into lucrative clients six months, or a year, or five years from now. The best business relationships require trust, and can't be built overnight. And many marketing activities -- no matter how powerful -- simply don't generate customers immediately. It's a rare business that, even after a glowing New York Times mention, has its phone ringing off the hook the next day. More often, brand-building is a process of accretion--one article, or one radio ad, or one witty tweet will simply not do it alone.
But what if you can't wait?
Ideally, our bank accounts are stuffed with cash reserves, so we can calmly sit back and write our white papers with the confidence that massive revenues are right around the corner. But sadly, that's not always the case. Almost every business has faced a time when it needed to drum up customers ASAP. World brand domination is nice, but payroll and rent come first. What marketing activities can you undertake right now to juice sales and bring in new clients? Here are five tips you can start using today.
1) Suggest new ways to help your clients. The oldest -- and truest -- adage in business is that it's easier to win a repeat sale from an existing customer than to locate and persuade a new one. Yet too often, we overlook this fact in a panicky bid to "bring business in the door." First, concentrate your efforts where they matter most -- your present client base, that already knows and trusts you. The key here is that you're not "upselling" them -- using a formulaic "Would you like to supersize that?" approach to your relationship. You need to take the time to think through what your client genuinely needs, and how you can help meet those needs. Reach out and have meaningful conversations -- what business challenges are they facing now? Your law firm may have done IP work for a company, and it turns out they need litigation support now. Your IT company may have solved a client's database issue, but now they need help integrating it with their new web hosting service. You'll never know if you don't ask.
2) Ask for referrals from your clients. For many people, asking for referrals seems invasive, rude, pushy. Their loss! You win when others hesitate to ask for referrals. Your clients (tragically) aren't automatically focused on finding you more business, because they have more important things to worry about (like their own businesses). But that doesn't mean they don't want to help. In fact, social psychology research has shown that one of the best ways to enhance someone's positive feeling toward you is to ask them for a favor. The act of helping you makes them feel more invested in your future. But it's up to you to remind them. Your best clients like you and will go the extra mile -- you just need to ask.
3) Ask for referrals from every person you know. Asking clients (both current and past) for referrals is a great bet, because odds are, they know other people like themselves (Sales VPs, nonprofit Executive Directors, etc.) who could benefit from your assistance. But if you're really hunting for leads ASAP, cast the net wide. You're not going to make any progress with cold calls, because you'll be treated like a random and annoying telemarketer. Therefore, you need to focus on the circle of people who already know you. Your uncle, your dentist, and your childhood baseball teammate all want to help -- and they may have surprisingly relevant connections. Reach out with a phone call or personal email, and be sure to specify what kind of clients you're looking for.
4) Book speaking engagements. Publishing an article or op-ed in a targeted publication is great source of long-term credibility. But it's unlikely to generate immediate business. Instead, focus on getting in front of potential clients through a speaking engagement. Chambers of Commerce and trade associations gather your target audience in one place -- fish in a barrel. Your job is to provide enough value and insight in your talk that they realize their company can't live with you. Unlike a static newspaper or magazine article, the give-and-take of a speech lets potential clients "try before they buy" and get a real sense of your attitude, skills, and philosophy. Plus, you're already positioned as an expert, with the imprimatur of the organization hosting the event. Start sending inquiry letters -- and then making follow-up phone calls -- to book a speech today.
5) Don't lower your prices. The final tip concerns what not to do. The first impulse of many businesses during challenging economic times is to cut prices, throw a big sale, or otherwise buy into the idea that customers will flock to you if you magically find the right price point. Don't do it. This philosophy is the refuge of the weak. There's nothing wrong with creating special deals if you do it strategically, rewarding customer behavior you'd like to incentivize (for instance, a restaurant known for its breakfasts offering a short-term discount on dinner, to encourage customers to try them later in the day). But don't simply slash prices wantonly -- or else, you risk never being able to bring them back up to present levels, handicapping yourself for months or years. You don't want to compete on price, anyway. Unless your customers are literally homeless and out on the street, they're able to make purchasing decisions -- they just may not be choosing your business, and you have to ask why. Don't risk being pigeonholed as the low-price, low-quality option. Instead of asking how much you should cut the price, think about ways to offer more value to your customers in terms of your product offerings, relationship, or customer service. Over the long term, you'll be rewarded handsomely.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the forthcoming What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.
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