I’ve been inspired today by a post written by Demian Farnworth entitled: What a Cocky CEO Can Teach You About World-Class Blogging. The post was excellent, and as a small business creator and owner, I loved the points made in the blog on keeping our companies “focused, lean, fast.” Embracing these attributes usually keeps you competitive, especially against larger companies, which can occasionally bog down under the weight of their own hierarchy, policies and procedures.
However, in my experience in working with large clients, I have learned much about them. When I was younger, I used to get quite frustrated with the sometimes arduous process to get anything approved, or to get policies changed, in order to make it possible for clients to use our services and technologies. But over the years I have learned to be patient, as we have seen that once the required changes have been made, and the contracts signed, there is nothing more satisfying than the stability a large client can provide to small business cash flows, and A/R collections. We currently spend more way more energy running around attempting to collect from small clients, than we ever had to spend waiting for a large client to put everything in place for us. So to all small businesses out there thinking about servicing large clients, go for it. It may take years to get a contract in place, but once it is there, it is a very comfortable place to be. In one example, one of our current Fortune 500 clients took almost 5 years of discussions before we actually got the business, but we have now been working with them for over 3 years, and just renewed our contract for 3 more. It is very, very nice in these economic times to have a contract in place with a sound, stable client.
So how do you land these large clients? Is it an art? Are there any tricks? I have thought about these questions quite a bit over the years. There are no tricks per se, but here are some steps we have found to be very helpful.
1. Before approaching a client, learn everything you can about the company, their history, the current management team, read all the latest news articles. I love to look over their stock price, and history. Many working within the company will watch the stock closely, as it has much to do with how their salaries, bonuses, 401K and retirement will be calculated. Whatever you can do to increase your knowledge about them, and what they do and are about, the better off you are going to be once the discussions begin. With every phone call, I have found the opportunity to ask them about some aspect of their company, or mentioned something I have learned, or I congratulate or commiserate with them on their stock price. Once they know you really know about their company, you have made an impression that is invaluable.
2. Don’t be afraid to follow up. There are many demands on employees at large firms, they are required to attend all kinds of meetings, produce reports, and they do not have as much control over their time as small business folks do. The polite, squeaky wheel does eventually get the grease in this case. We try to follow up at least once a week during the courting period. That is a lot of contact when it takes years to finally get in place, but again, think of the long-term prize, and keep your expectations realistic on the amount of time required to get the deal done.
3. Make sure your product is not only great, but it is a near perfect fit with what they are doing. Do not call and fish to see if they just may possibly have needs for some form of what you could possibly do for them if they had time to listen and share what their needs are… (annoying run on sentence used purposefully) 😉 There have been many times we have pitched our product or service, which fit well with what the potential client was doing, but while talking to them we realized we could offer other products and services that might be even better based on their immediate needs. We would then approach them later with a new proposal that is not only more comprehensive, but excites them more because of their current needs. This is a great way to get the ball rolling more quickly.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals, even during the negotiating process. One of our current largest clients was actually a referral from a client we were in negotiations with. Those you are speaking with know others in other companies in their line of work. They went to school together, attend conferences together, might be in local organizations together, and they will know if your services might prove helpful at another firm. A referral from a person of stature in a large company, to their counterpart in another firm is golden. We literally started working with the referral company the same week the referral was made. It was a fabulous surprise.
5. Take the time to travel and see those you are talking to. As small business folks, we don’t always have the working capital to fly all over the world on a whim, but maybe consider taking a family trip to a city where you have a potential client. Michael and I were in a city for SoloSEO business, and since we were going to be in the area anyway, we just called up a potential client we had been working with in another opportunity and said “hey we are going to be in the area, and were wondering if we could come by and meet with you?” They were very accommodating, and we actually got to meet with entire executive group. We had a great discussion, demoed some stuff, and moved the discussion along more in a hour, than we had been able to do over the previous 12 months.
6. When all else fails, invite them to golf. Oh laugh if you must (and my wife will 🙂 ), but there has been many times when I have tried and tried unsuccessfully to get someone on the phone or to answer an email. But eventually I will call, when someone tries to give me the brush off, or if I have to leave a VM, I will say “well, I have a tee-time today at 2:00, and have had an opening, just wanted to see if _______ wanted to join us.” I am either put on hold and put through, or I get a call back in less than 5 minutes. Great thing about golf, I then have 4+ hours with the person I needed to talk with. And, never, never, never allow them win, that’s terrible. If they beat you straight up, fine, but if you can take it to them, then you will earn their respect. Once you trounce a CEO, President, VP or anyone else on the golf course, you have their attention, respect, and they will take your calls from then on, guaranteed.
7. Probably the most important, just be yourself. You are good enough, just as you, to hang with anyone, no matter how big the company is in your sights. Your products and services are (hopefully) excellent, and you will do a good job for them, and make their company more competitive or efficient. As long as you can focus on this, the whole process is easier to exist through. I have no doubt that what we have to offer the companies we approach can help them be better at what they do. If they choose to use us, they will see amazing results, and they will be grateful they decided to work with us. If they choose not to go with us, it is their choice and their loss. Chances are we will work a deal with their competitor, and the original company will eventually learn how good things could have been. 😉
8. Once you have landed the big client, keep them by providing customer service they have never experienced in-house. We try to respond to any request or comment from our Fortune 500 clients as soon as they come in. We will tell them instantly what we are doing to address the concern, and how long it will take to get it done. When someone works in a large company they are used to their request taking days, and sometimes weeks to be addressed. So they are happy when things are dealt with more quickly, but we don’t allow ourselves to become complacent because their expectations are way low. We respond as quickly as we possibly can, even though we don’t really have to in order to keep them happy.
9. When contracts eventually come due, and it is time to negotiate, realize these companies are going to do all they can to keep the price as low as possible, or to lower the price. They have budgets, supervisors, and stocks holders they have to be concerned with. We like to have at least three possible pricing options for them, with varying levels of products and service we can offer at these varying price points. The client can then choose what is best for their needs. In all the packages we can be profitable, and we have addressed the concerns our clients have. If we are doing our jobs right, we usually know what these concerns will be, by listening during time we spend working with them.
Working with large clients is challenging, it is demanding, but it is incredibly interesting, and most of all it is very enjoyable. I consider the people I work with at these firms to be great friends, I enjoy their phone calls, visits, and solving their challenges for them. We have gained quite a bit of business by current clients just asking if there is anything we could do to help them solve a new problem. In many cases we have, and it has developed into a new product or service we can then offer in the marketplace.
So get out there and land a big client(s), it can be done, and when it is done, it will be well worth all the effort.