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    Talk is cheap

    Management | February 1, 2010 | By:

    Know your letters, and keep those conversations with customers focused on mutual advantages.

    When earnings and income fall, people talk. They complain about the lack of money, credit or sales. They worry aloud about their future. They wonder audibly when the economy will start to improve. But it’s another kind of talk—positive, creative, forward-looking talk—that helps make a difference in recessionary and post-recessionary times. Constructive talk can bring new products to current customers or current products to new customers, and motivate the people around you toward new possibilities.

    Talk can help beat the tough times, if you use it strategically. So talk:

    Analytically. Spend some time with your administrative staff during the down periods, and review your data files and customer records. Do you track important sales-related information, such as purchases, buying trends, key biographical and demographic market information? Do you track your own information against publicly available consumer data? There’s a wealth of marketing information available online at no charge.

    Cheap. Offer special deals, coupons, rebates or early-buy discounts—and talk to your customers about them. Building cost-savings into your everyday marketing may help you build customer loyalty.

    Creatively. Talk to your colleagues, employees and business associates about new ways to promote products. Think, for example, about cross-promotion, online and non-traditional advertising opportunities. Can you market to communities or trade groups? Can you offer e-coupons to stimulate traffic? Can you stage a publicity-building event?

    Differently. Different customers have different needs. Analyze your customers by business sector, size, number of employees and other economic factors. Group customers with similar characteristics together, and build targeted marketing messages for each group.

    Easily. Tough times mean tough competition. Make service and convenience one of your strongest selling points. Conduct an inventory of the things you do to make it easy for people to transact business with you: travel time, return policies, speed, order turnaround, responsiveness.

    Economically. Can you cut minimum orders into smaller chunks for customers who might be cash-tight? Efficiently. Spend time with everyone around you. Work together to cut costs and discover efficiencies. You might be surprised at the number of lean-and-mean dollar-boosting ideas that can be generated simply by talking to employees.

    Electronically. Today’s world is a cyber-world, and growing numbers of buyers want to use the Internet as their first contact with you. What interactive features can you add to your website to make it a dialogue, not a monologue? Have you asked your business partners to hyperlink you on their websites? Can you monetize a blog?

    Expansively. During lean times, forward-looking businesspeople seek out new markets. Can your products or services be used in new ways, by a different type of customer? Now is the time to develop a marketing plan geared toward that new constituency.

    Firmly. Just as you’d take a second look at marginal or underperforming employees during recessionary times, so you should look at marginal customers. Do you have clients who are chronically late in paying? Who frequently cost you more in time and money than they contribute in earnings? Consider taking remedial action, with new pricing, new policies—or even dropping them.

    Free. “Free” is the most powerful word in the English language. Figure out what you can offer at no charge—training, product selection advice, samples, mini-consulting sessions—and make those freebies known. They might help you build a sale or two; more important, they’ll set the stage for relationships that will persist long after the economic downturn ends.

    Geographically. Can you serve customers in an adjoining (or distant) geographical area? Can the Internet make these options available to you?

    Globally. In tight economic times, it’s important to understand the global forces that affect you, from foreign price pressures to global competition, material quality and safety regulations.

    Marginally. Do you know your margins on each of your product lines? It might be time to re-evaluate. During tight times, ask yourself whether each of your lines is producing adequate (or any) profit. True, some lines might be loss leaders or customer service essentials, but good margin information makes for informed product decisions.

    More. Some customers may be doing just fine despite challenging economic circumstances. Now is the time to encourage them to buy. Step up your sales and marketing efforts with these customers, and make sure your message gives them a good reason to spend their money with you rather than the competition.

    Productively. Make a list of customers who haven’t purchased from you lately. Use your “downtime” to contact them and find out what’s going on and what their current (and future) needs are. Better yet, design a few “get-reacquainted” offers and pitch them to the accounts on your dormant list.

    Reassuringly. Offer assurances to cautious customers: quality guarantees, money-back offers, lowest prices, trial periods, service promises. And make sure to back up your words with action.

    Strategically. Talk with colleagues and experts about the state of the economy, trends in your industry, and the fiscal concerns of your customers. Speak to your customers about these issues. By displaying an understanding of critical concerns, you become a credible expert—and perhaps, a preferred supplier, when you offer solutions.

    Thoughtfully. Don’t just sit through the tough times. Work with your associates to craft new business opportunities that can be launched when times are better. Plan ahead to seize the moment and get a jump on the competition.

    Unexpectedly. Somewhere in your computer or file cabinet you probably have the names of people who inquired about your products or services, or organizational leads you obtained through trade shows or networking. Now’s the time to pull them out, make contact, and determine whether you can be of service—now, or six months from now.

    Virally. How are you using social networking media to get your name and message across? Are you on Web 2.0? Have you placed strategic links and useful, entertaining content on your Web 2.0 sites?

    However tough times may be, don’t retreat into silence. And don’t yield to grumbling. Instead, talk about the ideas and options that hold promise, and talk to the people who count. And take a very broad view of the people who count—from employers to existing customers to dormant customers to people who have never done business with you. They’re usually willing to tell you why they haven’t, and those conversations can be the most valuable when it comes to changing existing products and procedures or developing a whole new line.

    Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a business writer based in Rochester, N.Y.

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