25 Sep

Communicating Your Worth to Customers for Small Business Owners

I recently read a superb article about communicating your value by Carrie Foster.  Carrie is a management development coach and writes insightful articles about how to get the best out of individuals in an organisation, and this article was aimed at employees who want to get more out of their jobs.

I got thinking about how the same principles apply to small business owners, skilled people who are learning how to turn a skill into a steady, healthy income.

“Surely that’s just called sales?” I hear you saying…

The most striking thing about Carrie’s article is that it doesn’t mention the S word. This is important because you are not a sales person – you’re a designer, a programmer, engineer, teacher, consultant, plumber, joiner.

As a small business or one-man-band, you know that the only thing you have to offer is your skill and experience. You also find out slowly and painfully that that’s not enough – you have to convince people to part with their hard earned cash, trust you to do a good job, have confidence in your abilities and agree that the price is appropriate.

When I started in business I managed to generate a good amount of business without any marketing- at one point even without a website! (I was a website developer)  This implies that I must have been using sales skills, but I rarely saw it this way- people just seem to trust me and want to do business with me. It was only when reading Carrie’s article that I realised the crucial distinction between outright selling, and what I had been doing all these years: Communicating My Worth.

“Pure Selling”, for the purposes of this article, is trying anything to convince someone to make a decision, pushing them towards that moment, and putting in place things to prevent them from changing their minds.

“Communicating Your Worth” is talking about what you do, in a way that the audience can easily understand, relating it to their specific needs and goals, explaining how it relates to their needs which demonstrates your knowledge, and allowing the person to reach a buying decision themselves.

A great sales person will mix these methods perfectly, and as someone who has had to learn sales the hard way, watching this happen is a truly inspiring experience. However, you are a designer, developer, consultant, engineer, not a sales person, so if you learn to simply and effectively communicate your value, you’ll find people will not only want to buy from you, they’ll buy into you – recommending you to friends, celebrating your successes and helping you out in hard times. I regard many people who started out as my customers as firm friends, and that has been worth more than any marketing campaign, both financially and in good will.

I want to keep this short and practical, so let’s go through the points in Carrie’s article, rewritten for a self employed professional:

  1. Create a clear “line of sight” between the customer’s goals and your skills – this might mean re-stating what you do in different terms, for example a graphic designer faced with a customer whose goal is to increase sales to young people might say instead of “What do you need me to draw?”, something like “Appealing to young people can be done cost-effectively by using of certain types and styles of image, and I have some great ideas on how you can change the brand to reflect that.”
  2. Focus on the relevance of your knowledge and potential, and keep your message consistent – in other words, don’t try and tell someone you are a ‘jack of all trades’; work out what you are best at doing, listen to what people really need, and tell them how your services can, or can’t, fulfil that need.
  3. Create regular opportunities for talking to decision makers – perhaps your day to day contact at a particular customer has no real influence, and lacks the influence to communicate your worth to their managers and colleagues.  Make sure you take his or her boss out for lunch, or at least meet with them, every so often to discuss what you’re doing for them.  This gives you an opportunity to make sure it still fits in with their goals and to see if there’s anything else you could be doing for them.
  4. Solicit input about and don’t be shy about your value – ask current customers what they like and dislike about your service, ask potential customers what they found good and bad about other people they’ve used in your industry, and make sure your value is being well communicated to the decision makers within your customer’s organisation.
  5. Manage upwards – gently coach your contacts to communicate your value upwards in their organisation, making sure your successful delivery of a product or service is recognised.  This gives you two lots of free marketing – a recommendation from high-level buyer carries a lot of weight with the buyer’s friends and contacts, and it also filters back down the organisation and makes it likely that you’ll get business from other people within that organisation.
  6. During review meetings, such as mid-project “move the goal posts” meetings or post-project reviews, or just over lunch with your favourite customer, try to ensure the conversation covers the value you are adding to the customer’s business – whether it’s directly measurable in new sales, or indirectly in staff happiness.
  7. Market your worth with face-to-face communication, backed up with formal communication.  I don’t need to explain the value of face-time to any small business owner – meeting your customers in person at least twice is the only way to get and keep a good long term relationship.  Backing it up with formal communication is something small business owners often miss – for example a blog, printable and/or printed leaflets and brochures describing the services and products you offer, and real actual printed letters to announce new products and services.  Note the absence of emailed mailshots in this list – avoiding that is a personal preference of mine.
  8. Spend time with leaders – whether it’s on the golf course, at the pub, or in the board room, it’s vital that you set up and maintain a relationship with the people who have the power to authorise your invoices for payment.  If you get the relationship right, you will find someone who will mentor you in general business terms and specifically in how to be the best supplier for their organisation. That relationship will often travel with you and and other person as they move into different organisations through their career.

It goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that all of these techniques should not be over-used – nobody likes to do business with someone who spends all their time boasting about how great they are, so remember to learn when to temper your passion with a bit of humility and respect.

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