Developing sales leads

Published On: May 1, 2010Categories: Features, Management

Your business lifeblood
is sales leads. Here’s how to
find them, develop them and keep from screwing them up.

David Green gets sales. For one thing, when you call to ask him about it, he might say he can’t talk now because he’s with customers.

That deft move has two effects: Customers see that Green, sales manager at Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, is in demand as a pretty smart guy, and they also see that, with him, customers come first.

The logic is compelling. “Our main source of leads,” Green says, “comes from word of mouth.”

Sales leads are the lifeblood of any business. How do you find them? Nurture them? Tend them right through to closing the sale?

It’s not rocket science, but it requires a firm allegiance to certain principles. Customers come first. Quality is paramount. So is service. Do what’s right for your customers and sales leads will find you.

Believers aren’t hard to find. Where you do business, people talk. That’s the first step, and a big one. “It’s word of mouth,” agrees Jeff Viehmeyer, owner of Alameda Canvas & Coverings in Alameda, Calif., “not just casually, but based on people you’ve performed for in a really competent way.”

So when it comes to leads, of course start at your marinas. Make friends. Emphasize your experience. If people know and trust your work, they will recommend you.

Ron Paratore, national sales manager with Tri Vantage in Miami, says good relationships have another distinct advantage: they “remove price” from the sales equation.

Be happy

What happened to cold calling? Well, never say never, but neither end likes it, and results are minimal.

“I don’t believe in cold calling at all,” says DeAnne Merey, president of DM Public Relations LLC in New York City, who counsels her clients on how to find leads. “I think it’s annoying.”

Instead, why not have some fun. William Bennett, who owns Boat Bright Custom Canvas LLC in Beaufort, S.C., thinks people spend money in order to be happy. “You just have to make sure,” Bennett says, “that you’re the one present when they decide to spend the money.”

So go fishing with them. Boat with them. Grill with them. Bennett grew up in a marina and knows his prospects’ sweet spot. “I hit the docks,” he says. “I get them while they’re at their boat. When you actually get them at their boat, they’re interested.”

Your business cards should be at the marina office. Wear your branded T-shirts and caps. Hand out discount coupons and give away stuff bearing your logo. Sponsor events. Prowl the docks. Says Viehmeyer: “When you’re on the docks and you see a boat that needs work, you can put your business card discreetly on the boat, if the marina allows it.”

Of course you should observe local protocol. Marinas may restrict dropping brochures or cards on boats, or prospective customers may not like it even if rules permit it. Yet, people do love their boats and want to take care of them. That’s where you come in.

What do you sell?

Walking the docks is part of the grunt work, but, of course, finding leads requires thinking, as well.

What’s your target market? Boat owners? That’s not precise enough, says Tom Patty, a boater and retired marketing pro in Dana Point, Calif., who volunteers for the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a group affiliated with the federal Small Business Administration.

Think about it this way, Patty says: You’re not selling fabric. You’re selling a way for people to take care of their boats. “They’re not buying covers,” he says. “They’re buying protection.”

“Some people care about protection and other people don’t,” Patty acknowledges. That helps you further define your target market: “People who have something they want to protect,” he says. A walk through your marina will show examples.

Here’s another of Patty’s analysis tools for refining your target market: How many customers do you have? How many good customers? And how do you define a good customer?

Patty proposes the example of sailing racers. These would be good customers. They spend more. “A racer isn’t buying sails,” Patty says. “He’s buying winning.” Find and focus on such big-spending customers.

Get out of town

Recession forced fabric makers to seek new customers, not just bigger-spending customers. In Utah, Green sent a truck to remote locations, including Lake Powell, a six-hour drive from his base in Salt Lake City. Boat owners couldn’t miss the logo-laden vehicle in the marina, and he did some business.

What about scheduled events? That’s a significant investment of your time. Choose events where you’re likely to find leads in your target market—like a boat show, for example. The Industrial Fabrics Association International’s events offer useful education opportunities, idea swapping and leads for wholesalers. But should you hang out at local chamber of commerce mixers? “You’ll meet a lot of people who are very nice,” says publicist Merey, “but they won’t be able to help you.”

Others, however, say any networking opportunity can be a good one. It’s a matter of time well spent on your target market. Analyzing payback may be a good idea. In fact, the recession had a positive impact for Custom Covers. The company started tracking its business picked up at boat shows and found that shows weren’t paying off. From then on, Custom Covers picks the boat shows it attends with care.

Think like a customer

Speaking of recession, here’s another caution: In bad times, of course, you want any business you can get. But if you can’t do a good job, don’t take it, warns Dennis Bueker, assistant branch manager for Tri Vantage. Poor word of mouth can take you south.

It comes down to what you sell. Consultant Patty’s notion of “what you sell is help for people who want to take good care of their boats,” is based on a practice called psychographics. You don’t need a high-priced consultant to explore it. You can do your own seat-of-the-pants research. Sit at the marina. Watch boaters. Try to understand their motivation.

Bill Morland, district director for SCORE in Laguna Niguel, Calif., says many boaters at his local marina go out maybe only once a year. “Are they buying a new boat cover for protection of the boat?” Morland muses. “Or are they buying it because they want the boat to look good sitting in the harbor next to the yacht club?” That’s a delicate distinction, but it may help you market to those boat owners.

Once you think you know why your prospects buy, you can test your hypothesis with an offer, say, 50-percent off your longest-lasting fabric. Or half off the best-looking fabric. It may be the same material, and both claims may be true. What you’re doing is exploring what makes prospects buy.

Send your offer to your e-mail list, or via social media. Or print it out and pass it around. Or just post it on the marina bulletin board.

E-mail may be easiest for such pitches. Build your e-mail list at events. You don’t go to shows only to hand out your card. You go to collect prospects’ cards. Back at your computer, key in those e-mail addresses. Contact these new prospects once a month or so with your e-mail newsletter and perhaps with a discount offer. Be sure recipients have an easy opt-out, but if you’re good and you have the right target market, prospects want to hear from you.

Never, never

Follow up with interested prospects by phone or by e-mail, but never, never say, “I’m just following up.” That wastes time on both ends. Instead, says consultant Eric Herrenkohl of Wynnewood, Pa., send your prospect something useful, like an article, a tip or an idea.

In fact, each contact with prospects should have something of value for them. Explain how to get optimum use out of their fabric, for example. You can send follow-ups via e-mail or on one of the social media tools, such as Twitter or Facebook. “It doesn’t even have to be about boat covers,” says Herrenkohl. “It could be anything about the boat-ownership experience.”

What you’re doing is putting yourself in your prospects’ shoes. “If we’re any good as salespeople,” says Herrenkohl, “we should be doing that anyway.”

You might try venturing outside your comfort zone, says Tri Vantage’s Paratore. Write an article for a local publication on your own expertise. Find a local business that overlaps your customer base with a complementary product or service. Share leads or booth space at local shows.

Whenever a lead emerges, act fast. “Someone else might get there first,” Bueker says. “Often the one who gets there first gets the business.”

Viehmeyer urges that you have a website showing what you can do. “Photos of your work are a lens through which prospects can rightly become aware of your actual capabilities and skills,” he says.

Green posts photos of Custom Covers’ work on Facebook. Ideally, his customers who are also on Facebook will brag to their Facebook boater friends that their vessel was Green’s “boat of the month.”

So, define your target market, contact prospects, and, most importantly, pay attention to your customers. Because it all starts with word of mouth.

Marc Hequet is a business writer based in St. Paul, Minn.