Business Owners Toolbox Blog Discussions and articles to help the small business owner solve the challenges they face as they grow their business.

March 29, 2017

Why You Should Fire Customers, And How

Filed under: Marketing — Tags: , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 10:18 am

With all the marketing focus on getting clients, let us not ignore the clients you should get rid of.

“You’re crazy!” you say, “Why would I want to fire a customer?”

Here’s why:

The client is unprofitable or distracting to the rest of your business. They may have been good in the past, or perhaps you should never have taken them on.

Here’s the thing – it’s possible you’re putting way too much attention and effort into a small a number of customers that are never satisfied. This is at the expense of other customers who are happy and complementary of your work.

When your company is small, you take in any business to build it up. When times are good, perhaps you take on any customer. But as you grow, it’s prudent and profitable to become more selective. And as business slows, you should be less tolerant of marginal or unprofitable customers. They can actually threaten your business.

When to fire a customer:

  • The job is too small, and the cost of serving them takes most of the potential profit.
  • They are too large, and keep insisting that you lower your price — until the work is unprofitable.
  • They are too different. They buy something that you have been selling but you no longer want to sell. For example, a print shop wants to close its graphics department, or a landscape contractor wants to close its maintenance section.
  • The job is too distant. When you had a lot of customers in their area, it was worth serving them; but now that you only have a couple, you actually lose money on them.
  • They are more trouble than they are worth. These customers argue with you, are never satisfied, are slow to pay, or all the above.

Now, obviously it’s not easy to fire a customer. Here are some suggestions to soften the blow:

  • Refer them to someone else that you know would be more appropriate for them. Sending business to someone else may entice that person to send a good referral back to you. However, don’t send problem customers to your good referral sources!
  • Give them some warning. “After this next project, we won’t be able to work with you any more.” Tell them why.
  • Instead of getting rid of a customer, ask yourself how you can turn an undesirable one into a good one?
  • Then when you tell them why you can no longer work with them, they may be able to change something that will make them a good customer.
  • Raise your price. They will either leave, or it becomes profitable and more enjoyable.
  • Change the way you work with them. Instead of 1 on 1, get them into group workshops, or steer them to online programs.
  • Change the terms of your work. Instead of fixed price, charge for your time and materials. Make sure you get change orders for extra work they request. Overcome your timidity and be polite but firm: “Yes! We’d be delighted to do that for you, and it will only cost you an additional…$$.”
  • Require pre-pay or payment by credit card, to cure slow payers.
  • Be the squeaky wheel. Stay on them. Oftentimes we don’t hold clients to the agreements they make with us. We let them slide and then we moan about it. Remind them what the agreement is, and request firmly that they abide by it.

You have nothing to lose by doing any of these things. Bad clients lower profits and distract your business. Since you were going to fire them anyway, they just might work.

March 16, 2017

Marketing—Do I Have to Do It All Myself?

Filed under: Marketing — Tags: , , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 2:17 pm

You’re a busy business owner, you’re up to your ears in scheduling, bookkeeping, and managing people. Do you really have to handle every aspect of marketing, too? Here’s the blunt truth: No one you hire will ever care as much about your business as you do. Period. You can’t clone yourself, but you can put your time and energy where it counts. Here’s why, and how, to delegate your marketing:

Yes, You Do Have to Take the Lead in Marketing

  • It’s your company. You care the most about it.
  • You know it best.
  • You are the most motivated to sell.
  • You got into your business because you are good at marketing and selling your offering.
  • Customers want to connect with you, the owner.

No, You Don’t Have to Be a Marketing Martyr

  • It gets to the point where it’s too much for you to handle—plus do customer work.
  • Doing all the marketing tasks is not the best use of your time.
  • You may not be the best sales person in your company.
  • Parts of the marketing are easy to hand off to others.
  • You don’t have the expertise to handle all the parts.

There Are Some Things Only You Can Do:

  • Set the mission, vision, strategies, goals
  • Build strategic relationships.
  • Choose good people to help you market and sell.
  • Make sure they do what you want.
  • Approve your marketing and promotions.
  • Insist on results, not just effort.
  • Tweak your direction and offering; develop new things.

You Should Never Do Things That . . .

  • You are not good at. You can find better people to do them
  • You can easily hire and delegate to other people.
  • Get in the way of you doing what brings the greatest value to your company

Do this . . .

  1. Make a list of the Marketing tasks you’re good at, and that bring the most value.
  2. Then make a list of the tasks you’re eager to get off your plate.
  3. As you hire people – contractors and in-house, be clear about the tasks you want them to take over, and what you will continue to do.

Your Marketing Job

  • Define your pathway—your overall strategy to reach your vision.
  • Build your marketing team of skilled people who can help you execute your strategy.
  • Orchestrate your team; oversee team performance.
  • Review results, tweak, refine, and change direction when needed.

As the owner, it’s up to you to set the overall vision and define what success looks like. From there on, empower people to make it happen.

Does All This Pertain to a One-Person Business?

As a solopreneur, unless work just falls into your lap, you have to spend a good portion of your time drumming up new business. Plus doing the work. Plus all the admin stuff. How many hours a day do you want to work? (Clue: the max is 24!)

If you have a viable business, you soon discover that it’s worthwhile to hand off pieces to others: website design and maintenance, social media, copywriting, maintaining your marketing database. You notice that you depend on all these others, even though they aren’t your employees. You’re no longer a one-person business.

The option is to stay tiny and run yourself ragged.

November 5, 2012

How to Generate Referral Business

Asked on LinkedIn by Shaun Caldwell

Referrals and introductions from clients are still our #1 source of new clients. Introductions from referral sources are much more likely to become clients than, say, cold calls. Here’s the approach we use. Just a few steps:

1. Provide excellent service to your clients so they will talk you up.

2. Ask them for referrals. Tell them who you want: “I want someone as good as you are, who has . . . . (list the desired qualities).” And ask for an introduction, not just a name and number, so that the prospect will expect your call.

3. Follow up! Don’t drop out these referrals and introductions. Sounds obvious, but this happens so often.

4. Let your client know the outcome. What happened with the person they introduced you to? New client? Not interested? Could never reach them? Doesn’t matter–just tell them.

5. Thank them. Doesn’t have to be monetary. I have tried both the reward and no-reward approaches. Most of my clients do not care about getting a money reward. But some do, and I give them a discount off their next month’s services with me. All of them get my profuse thanks!

6. GIVE referrals. The best reward for an excellent referral is giving one back. I notice that when people offer me money for a referral, I’m not interested. But I will drum up business for them if they give me good referrals in return!

So take the lead in giving referrals to those you’d like to get referrals from.

On the other hand, I have taken people off my list who are always asking for referrals but never give any back.

7. After a suitable time, ask for another referral.

8. All referral sources are not the same. Keep track of what quality referrals you get from different sources, and take particularly good care of your take referral sources. I’m talking dinner for two at the best local restaurant.

If someone makes a so-so referral to you, pass them along to a more appropriate person. Then thank your source and tell them what kind of referrals you can really help the most. You can convert a so-so source into an excellent source in this way.

Other kinds of referrals. What else do you want referrals to? I’m always looking for informal speaking gigs, so I ask people what small business organizations they know of that bring in speakers. All the above rules apply.

Marketing funnel for developing referral sources who aren’t already clients is shown in the diagram. Look for professionals who offer complementary services, are not competitors, and who work with the kind of people you want as clients. In my case, this includes CPAs and bookkeepers, IT consultants, web designers. Also people who work for small business support organizations.

Get testimonials. By the way, when asking for a referral, also ask for a testimonial statement, and be ready to record it right then when it is given. The first words out of their mouth will be the best. If you say, “Let me get some paper and write that down. Now, can you say that again?” They won’t be able to recreate it. Testimonials and referrals go together, since the person referred will first check your blog, website, and LinkedIn profile.


April 10, 2012

To Thrive, Banish Doom and Gloom

“I let myself get discouraged by telling and retelling the same old story of woe about how bad things were. This was killing the business. During the plan workshop, I wrote it all out in excruciating detail, took one last look and then tore it up in little pieces. Now the slate is clean for the coming year. From now on, I’m talking about how we’re laying the groundwork for recovery.”

You do the same. And don’t hang with doom and gloomers; stick with the problem solvers.

“The last two years have been humbling. I saw how arrogant I’d been. We assumed that growth would just keep going. But when the phone stopped ringing, we had to relearn Marketing 101. For example, setting targets for number of new clients, and tactics how to bring them in. We should have been doing this all along.”

This is one of the lessons in How to Thrive in Tough Times—Lessons From Small Business Owners–my newest ebook, just posted on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, etc. for $2.99.

When All Else Fails, Try Marketing

Marketing in 2008. *Ring! Ring!* “Hello! Joe’s Plumbing, this is Joe. How may we help you?…Sure! I think we could handle that. What about next Tuesday?…Thank you!” Joe scribbles on calendar. *Ring! Ring!* “Hello, Joe’s Plumbing.”

Marketing starting in 2009. . . . . . Joe sitting at desk twiddling his fingers. “Hum dee dum”…….. The phone is not ringing.

Marketing now. (Joe picks up phone and dials.) “Hi, Pat, this is Joe of Joe’s Plumbing. Haven’t talked with you in awhile. I just wanted to call and tell you how much we appreciate your business. We’re having a special! For the next 30 days, you can get ….”

Joe was really good at plumbing but he didn’t like marketing. But, at long last, he turned to his partner and said, “Everything else has failed. I guess we’ll have to try some marketing.”

Now, you may think this is an exaggeration, but I can’t tell you how many business owners I work with treat regular outreach to their best customers and prospects as a last option.

How about you?

Make some calls. Pick up the phone. Call some of your best customers and those you’d like to be working with.

Show your face. 80% of selling is just showing up. This is more important than all the rest of the high falutin’ stuff people tell you.

Ask, “Who’s buying?” Too often, we focus on who’s NOT buying.

Ask, “Where do we get the biggest bang for our marketing buck?”

Set a reachable target, and track your progress. Be accountable to someone else, so you don’t let it slip out of your consciousness.

If what you used to do doesn’t work, do something else. What will work best in this business climate to reach those you want to work with, and entice them to do business with you?

Want to see some more of this? How to Thrive in Tough Times—Lessons From Small Business Owners is my newest ebook, just posted on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, etc. for $2.99. Worth every cent!

December 1, 2010

How to Say No to a Prospect

“Sharisax is Out There” has a series of posts on this topic, and my “guest post” is the fourth in this series. After you read mine, check out the other articles.

Selecting the best clients is critical to growing your business, so how can you bring yourself to say no to a prospect?

First of all, you must know what kind of clients or work you want . . . don’t want . . . and why. Define your core expertise, and who your services are best for. Create a brief mission statement out of this. Then re-read it when you are talking with a marginally qualified prospect.

The main reasons you should say no are, in my experience:

1. Unprofitable

2. Off target for you

3. You don’t like them

If you think a prospective client isn’t right for you, you might ask, what would it take to make them right? For example, raising the price. Or being able to hand the work off to a subordinate. You propose that to them. They’ll probably say no, but if they say yes, you can have a good client.

If you’re turning down work because you’re too busy, then:

— Take the most interesting and challenging and lucrative work

— Raise your prices

— Hire a qualified associate, and bill them out at 3 times what you pay them

You’ve got to deal with your own resistance to saying no. For example:

– “In these tough times, I need every client I can get (even the unprofitable ones).”

These clients suck up the time and energy—and profit potential—you should devote to profitable clients. Your profitable, desirable clients end up subsidizing your unprofitable, aggravating ones.

– “Maybe they’ll grow into a bigger client.”

Occasionally true, but make sure you price high enough so that it’s profitable now.

– “They really need me, but don’t have the money.”

To keep your own business healthy and profitable, yet still help out the cash-flow-challenged, set a percentage (5 to 10% of your work time) for pro bono or el cheapo work you will do, and stick to it. Oh, and if you notice that this “poor” prospect is driving a new BMW, then bill them full rate.

– “Wow, this may be an interesting new thing I could get into!”

“After all, we can really do anything!” Not true. Stick with your core expertise. Go back and reread your mission statement.

It’s important to qualify—and disqualify—any prospective client early in the interaction. You don’t want to spend several hours with somebody then discover that you won’t be working with them.

Finally: All the above applies to firing an existing client as well.

September 24, 2009

Marketing vs. Selling

Filed under: Marketing — Tags: , , — Mike Van Horn @ 4:22 pm

Q. What’s the difference between marketing and selling? I often hear these words used interchangeably.
(Asked during Business Group meeting)

A. Marketing and sales are often confused because “sales person” is seen as much less prestigious than “marketing associate,” so everything gets lumped into marketing.
Marketing is everything you do to prepare for sales. Selling is closing sales that make you money. Thus, you could say . . .
— Marketing is money OUT the door.
— Selling is money IN the door.
For small business owners, marketing is usually time intensive. We spend at least as many hours as we do dollars on marketing.
People who are good at marketing are often not good at selling and vice versa. These take different personalities and mindsets. Seldom will you find one person who is good at both. That goes for us entrepreneurs as well. We’re usually much better at one than the other, but we are forced into both roles, one of which we do poorly.

WHAT’S INCLUDED IN MARKETING? Remember, marketing is everything that leads up to selling. Here are some marketing activities:
– Handling incoming inquiries
– Asking your current customers for referrals for more business
– Networking and building relationships
– Advertising and public relations. Direct mail and e-newsletters
– Special promotional events
– Merchandising and merchandise selection
– Holding sales, offering preferred customer bonuses
– Getting articles published. Blogging
– Doing cold calls to set appointments
– Market research, customer surveys
– Branding, creating your sales message
– Design and creation of collateral materials
– Building and maintaining your web site, blog, Facebook page, Twitter
– Market planning and strategizing

Marketing includes doing good work so that your customers come back, and tell others about you. It includes hiring employees who are good at customer service, and giving them the training so that they can keep your customers happy.

Marketing includes pricing–finding the price level that will attract the customers you most want to do business with (and will make you a profit).

Marketing includes product design and development and packaging.

All these things lead up to selling.

. . . presenting, answering questions, making suggestions, doing proposals or estimates, addressing concerns, negotiating. And most important, asking for the sale. Then completing the sales agreement, etc.

Your sales people clearly do some marketing. Networking, responding to inquiries, making public presentations, doing cold calling, calling old customers. The marketing that sales people do best is just one or two steps away from selling.

Selling is harder than marketing, and this is why good sales people get paid a lot of money. As business owner, your aim should be that your sales people get filthy rich, because in the process, they make you even richer.

Because selling is hard for many people (including sales people), those who are hired to do both often spend too much time on marketing activities and not enough on selling. (This goes for us as business owners as well.)

Salespeople are motivated by performance incentives, aka commissions. In my experience, sales people on an hourly rate or salary are less effective. If there’s a mix between salary and commission, it should be weighted toward the latter. Their performance is very easy to measure: signed orders, cash in the door. Not hours worked, nor contacts made, but sales closed.

The marketing and selling funnel. This funnel shows the different stages of marketing as it proceeds toward a sale. It’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. This represents that your marketing must reach a lot of people in order to make a few sales.

I’ll send this to you for free. Just subscribe to my list, then email me and ask for it. I’ll send it as a pdf. (You’ll also receive my Success Tips from Small Business Owners, just for subscribing.)

July 28, 2009

Solopreneurs and Marketing Budgets

Q: I’m curious if anyone has a rule of thumb on what should be spent annually by solopreneurs on marketing. Would anyone care to share their own marketing expenses? Or percent of revenue?

A: Maria
I’ll bet that not 1 out of 20 of us knows how much we spend on marketing. Three reasons:

1. Our biggest marketing cost is the value of our own time we spend on marketing, and we don’t track that, let alone assign an hourly value, or check the results for the hours we spend.

2. We don’t collect all our marketing expenses under one account called “Marketing.” Instead, we have line items for Professional Services (web design, podcasts, etc.), Advertising (display ads, google ad words), Memberships, Business Meetings, Travel, etc.

3. We don’t create marketing budgets, then track how much money and time we spend, compare budget to actual, and compare effectiveness of different marketing activities (“bang for your buck”).

“A yacht is a hole in the water you throw money into,” we’ve heard people say. I think this is the way most entrepreneurs treat marketing. “If I’ve got some money, spend it on marketing. A free evening? Go to another networking meeting.”

So I’ll be very interested to see if anyone can give a meaningful answer to your question. I hope you can prove me wrong!

July 22, 2009

Pay Sales Commissions for What?

Filed under: Marketing — Tags: , , , , — Mike Van Horn @ 6:23 pm

Question: I am close to hiring a marketing rep—part base and part commission–and have questions about the commission structure. For new business she brings in, she would get 5% of the gross revenue for 24 months. No commissions on referrals from existing clients or already-established referral sources. But she would get commissions on referrals from new lead sources, even if we introduce her to them.
Any comments or questions on this?
Kim, owner, professional services firm

Kim, here are some questions you should resolve up front:

What does it mean, “new business she brings in”? Does she have to close the deal? What if she turns over to you a strong, interested, qualified candidate, but then you (or someone else) actually closes the deal?

Here are some other “What ifs?” you should think through before coming to a final agreement with her:

Will she get a commission if she . . .
— sells added services to an existing client?
— resurrects a former client?
I would say yes.

What will you say if . . .

•• She asks for 5% on ALL sales (except for specified excluded names)? This often comes up. She will say, “After awhile, we don’t really know where the lead came from. It could have been mine.”
I would counter by saying that this goes both ways: she will benefit by selling work aided by others–such as you. You will specify in the beginning where a prospective client comes from, as soon as a prospect enters the pipeline.

•• A client she brings in then refers you to another, who just calls the office and says, “Sign me up!”
I would say she gets the commission. When you ask for the “source,” they’ll refer you to a client she brought you. But, how long is this chain? Does it extend to the referral of a referral of a referral? Yes, if she’s involved in the contact and sale.

•• A referral source she brings in (a CPA, wealth manager, banker, etc.) sends you a steady stream of prospects, without further input from your rep.
I would say yes, but condition it upon her staying in contact with these ref sources in a defined way.

•• She makes a presentation to an organization, then some time later you get a client through that connection that doesn’t remember how they learned about you.
You need to get sources for every prospect: “How’d you learn of us? Did you meet/work through so-and-so?

•• She works awhile, then departs. Does she still get the bonus on business she has brought in for the rest of the 24 months?
Spell out in your agreement if she must continue employment with you to continue earning extended commission.

In your agreement with her, spell out when will you pay these commissions, e.g.,
— as fees are paid, not when billed, so that you don’t pay commission on accounts in arrears.
— with the next paycheck after the receipt of the client’s payment

Let me know if any other issues come up.

June 29, 2009

Most bang for your marketing buck — right now!

“As a small business in the current economy, how have you modified the advertising portion of your marketing budget this year? How has it been working for your company so far this year?” (Question on LinkedIn)


Hopefully, nobody says, “Business is down, money is tight, so let’s cut advertising.” But you SHOULD ask, “Where do we get the most bang for our scarce marketing buck?” Then examine advertising along with your other options.

Ads or promo? Direct mail or email? Internet outreach?  Networking or public speaking? Asking for referrals? Cross-selling current customers?

And not just about advertising in general, but for each type of ad placement.

To figure this out, I would create a grid: Down the left column, write every every type of advertising, and every other marketing activity that attracts business for you. Then across the top, head columns by the most important criteria for you, such as:
– How much you’ve spent on this, in both dollars and time (Put a dollar value on an hour of your time.)
– Size of customers or sales this brings you
– Number of customers per time period
– Desirability of the customers
– Lead time till you get the customers
– Its potential to bring you more in the long run
– (add your own)

Then rate each marketing activity by each criterion. Add up the totals and see what gets high and low scores. This is an eye-opening exercise.

This approach is over-simplified. It ignores interactions among types of marketing, and ignores strategic marketing with a long lead time. But it gives enlightening answers to the question, “What marketing gives me the shortest route to cash flow now?”

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