Train your clients to buy, buy, buy
When times get tough, training is often one of the first expenditures to get the axe. So why is Hydronic Solutions Inc. (No. 22 on the 2009 PROFIT HOT 50) not only maintaining its staff training but going to great lengths to train its customers as well? It’s simple, says James Kuepfer, president of the Wallenstein, Ont.-based distributor of water-based heating products: “It more than pays for itself in increased sales.”
In 2007, Kuepfer hired a top U.S. authority to speak at a private, 1½-day conference on the subject of hydronic (water boiler-based) heating systems. For a $10,000 outlay, Kuepfer drew 125 attendees — most of them contractors, his key target: “We sold tickets, but we fed them well, treated them like kings, gave them great value. I have contractors who — even today, two years down the road — still talk about that.”
They also talk about Hydronic’s frequent smaller-scale training sessions for contractors, some of them tailored for individual clients. “We buy some pizza, give them coffee and have a specific focus, depending on what they are interested in or lacking in terms of knowledge,” says Kuepfer.
The training has built strong customer loyalty, adds Kuepfer: if a client’s employee is on a job site and needs a product, more likely than not he’ll order from Hydronic because he knows the firm from one of its training sessions. Kuepfer says the sessions have also boosted margins by allowing Hydronic to price a new product line 25% above that of its nearest rival: “We’ve exceeded our sales forecasts on it, and that’s because of the perceived higher value we offer.”
Climb the mountain from the top down
That’s why the Toronto-based software developer for investor-relations websites went after Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest gold producer, as its first client. Q4 quickly parlayed this big win into an impressive portfolio of other clients, first in the resource sector and then beyond it.
The strategy, says president and CEO Darrell Heaps, came from reading Geoffrey Moore’s business classic Crossing the Chasm: “There’s a concept called the beachhead,’ and the idea is to focus on niche markets within your broader market.”
Heaps and co-founder Chris Vickerson had a budding relationship with Barrick from their marketing and communications consulting work while at a previous firm. When they met with Barrick executives, they learned that the company needed to meet a new regulation requiring it to prove precisely which information it had released on its website — and when — to investors.
From their earlier work, the two knew that Barrick liked to be an innovator in its industry. So they proposed developing software that would allow the firm to retrieve a chronological record of everything it posted. Q4 would supply the software for free, provided Barrick participated in the development and trial.
Heaps says having Barrick as a marquee client was critical in giving other companies in the resource sector confidence in Q4 and its software. “The only way to build client business in B2B is to understand that people want to buy whatever their peers are buying,” he says.
When Q4 met with prospects, says Heaps, “They’d say, OK, your pitch is good, the value proposition is resonating with me. Who can I talk to?’ I could say, Here are five people in your industry who are using us.’ And a beachhead is the most efficient way to start building that reference-client base.”
Bite off less business than you can chew
Virginia Poly knew she had the solution to an array of IT staffing problems facing a major bank. But Poly Placements Inc. (No. 6), her fledgling Toronto-based staffing agency, ran into loads of red tape and some trepidation at the bank when it tried to land a big piece of business all at once.
Poly didn’t give up. Instead, she scaled back her proposal by about two-thirds, to just a single component. The bank gave her the green light, and was so impressed by the time and money this smaller undertaking saved that it awarded Poly Placements a three-year contract.
The reduced scope was, in some ways, a blessing in disguise, says Poly, her firm’s president and CEO: “It allowed us to ramp up other pieces internally to make sure we were delivering on all the things we said we would do.”
The smaller project opened the bank’s eyes to what her firm could do. “They’re very happy, and looking at us doing another three years,” says Poly. “And the scope will probably increase.” The abilities the firm proved on the scaled-down project later helped persuade another bank to add Poly Placements to its vendor list — one of just three chosen from 65 contenders.
Poly’s experience with the first bank changed her approach to other clients. She now maps out a strategic plan for each one, starting with modest projects and then using the trust this helps build to pitch larger undertakings. “Even when I’m working with a client on a small project, I have a long-term, big-picture strategy for them in mind,” says Poly. “I let them see what I’m capable of, and communicate where I want to go with them and what my next ideas are for them.”
Supersize yourself with social media
Mindfield Group (No. 8) is a much larger and stronger company than it was just a few years ago. The key? Using social media to present this image to the world — even back when it wasn’t quite accurate.
“Social media has allowed us to get our name out there very quickly,” says Cameron Laker, CEO of the Vancouver-based provider of retail staffing services. Mindfield has used Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about its expertise in using the very same tools for recruitment. “We’ve never done any traditional PR, but we’ve generated a large following,” says Laker, who notes that Mindfield employs a marketing specialist whose sole task is to use social media to promote the firm every day.
For example, Mindfield uses Twitter to track conversations about online recruiting and offer its own perspective. “It’s a real credibility booster,” says Laker. “It helps establish us as a thought leader.”
The company also posts videos and webinars on its website on topics such as recruiting members of Gen Y and using Web 2.0 tools to market your firm as a good place to work. Anyone wanting access to this content must provide contact information, which Mindfield then integrates into its CRM program for managing sales leads.
The results have been huge. “Every one of our deals, except for a recent one, has been attracted to us originally because of our use of social media,” says Laker.
Sell softly, but carry a big funnel
Picking up the phone to call a prospect who’s never heard of you sounds so primitive that you might think cold-calling is a thing of the past. Not so, if the success of FouFou Dog is anything to go by.
The key is how you go about it, says Cheryl Ng, founder of the Richmond Hill, Ont.-based designer and distributor of dog accessories and apparel (No. 37). She started by scouring her rivals’ websites for every detail she could find about which stores carried their goods. Before calling those stores, she created a road map of where she wanted the conversation and followup calls to go and how she would advance her case. Her ultimate goal? “Contacting the person who writes the cheques.”
Often, the buyer wouldn’t be in the store. But Ng might reach a clerk, who she’d pump for information about the buyer’s habits. “A lot of them were really helpful,” says Ng. “They’d say, Oh, they come in early. Try calling tomorrow morning.'”
She continued to expand the depth and breadth of her database, often dedicating entire afternoons to initial calls and followups. “It’s a numbers game,” says Ng. “A certain percentage will bite, so the more people you call, the more deals you’ll land.”
Working the phone gave her a foothold with many independent pet retailers. Ng still makes a lot of calls, although these days they’re mainly to major chains.
She warns against trying to pry out all the information at one go, which can make people clam up. Instead, she goes step by step, perhaps getting a buyer’s name and number on one call and his e-mail address on another. That accomplished, she adds, “I send them something that they’d be interested in, like an offer to get a certain amount for free, or a free gift if they pre-book.”
When Ng reaches a buyer, she doesn’t try to make the sale then and there; rather, she tries to learn all she can about his needs so she can build a relationship and differentiate herself from her rivals. Thanks to her diligence on the phone, says Ng, “Many large companies are now dealing with me when they could be dealing with China, and we’re now doing product development for PetSmart’s head office.”