Building your small business in today’s economy might seem like a daunting task, but Marcia McGinn, owner of Distinctive Togs, makes an astute observation. In-person and online, “networking is the way to meet new clients these days – it’s a sign of the times,” she says. “Cold-calling may never be lost or forgotten, but by networking in your business community and on the Web, you can warm up those cold calls.”
McGinn is onto something. With consumer confidence at an all-time low, establishing trust and credibility is more important than ever – and that can be a difficult thing to do during an old-fashioned cold call. Setting aside that dreaded cold call, here are five ways that successful decorators and distributors are building their businesses.
1. Through client referrals. Referrals aren’t just a passive business-building technique where you’re at the mercy of your customer, according to Gino Ventresca, general manager of National Embroidery & Transfer Services Ltd. (asi/299298). “Start with your own customers and ask them for referrals directly,” he says. “The best way to grow your business is building through referrals from your present customers and developing a strong bond with them.” You can ask your clients to refer you informally, or, consider developing a client loyalty program that offers some minor incentives to your clients who bring in referrals. Either way, client referrals are one great way to help your business grow.
2. Through service professional referrals. “I think about who the companies are that can send potential clients to me,” says Don Tillquist, owner of Coastal Embroidery. “Before they come to me, they need a logo and signage for their business, so I develop relationships with graphic artists and sign vendors in town to establish a referral relationship.” According to Tillquist, the beauty of these relationships is that they aren’t just one-way. “They refer their clients over to me, and I send clients over to them,” he says. “You work symbiotically.” Take a look at the artists and other vendors your clients work with and develop a relationship with those other vendors; then watch the referrals come in.
3. Through groups and organizations. “We’ve done very well from the networking we get to do from belonging to the chamber of commerce,” McGinn says. “I also belong to the local home builders association. We try to partner with other groups or organizations that will promote us.” It may seem like a been-there, done-that idea to join your chamber of commerce, but people do it because it works. Today there are more networking opportunities available than ever before, from Business Networking International to groups that are specific to your community. If you’re looking to add a new networking group to your schedule, consider the American Marketing Association or a Small Business Association-type group. These are great places to meet prospective clients.
4. Through local events. “One way that we market and expand our business is that we’re involved in a yearly convention of sorts,” says Meredith Kowalsky, owner of Prestige Monogram. The event is a bluegrass festival that serves as a homecoming event for the town, with people coming from across the nation and overseas. Every year Kowalsky designs an event graphic and embroiders it on blankets and other items. “People collect the blankets to show that they’ve attended every year,” she says. Participating allows Kowalsky to show her capabilities and make numerous connections, such as the connection she made with her biggest client, who is located many hundreds of miles away. “We never would have connected with that client, except through the festival,” she says. Local events and expos (business or otherwise) can be a great place to build your business. Scope out some of your local events and consider offering to design the logo each year. This puts you in a unique position to meet new business and support your community.
5. Through the Internet. How do you go about finding a service professional if you need one? Generally, and especially in this economy, you might start by trying to get a referral from friends, family and coworkers. If you can’t find anyone via word of mouth, where’s your next stop? Google (or www.yahoo.com or www.msn.com). The Internet is definitely the new Yellow Pages. Does your business have a Web site? If not, you could be missing out on a number of clients who are searching the Web to find a decorator. Starting a Web site can be as easy as getting a free site from Google or starting a free blog on www.blogspot.com, or as sophisticated as hiring a Web developer to build the site of your dreams. Regardless of how you approach it, getting your name on the Web is a great way to grow your business and connect with new customers.