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Drumming Up Business

Remember when the economy was booming and small businesses had all the customers they could handle? Well, the recession has pretty much put a stop to that, and small-business owners are being forced to come up with new strategies and work practices to get people to spend money on the services or products they provide.

Take, for instance, my brother-in-law, a commercial roofing contractor whose business was doing so well before the recession that he could give his golf game plenty of attention while still pulling in enough business to keep his 30 or so employees busy (I admit to feeling a twinge of jealously on that point).

But since the economy tanked last year, my brother-in-law hasn’t been able to count on business floating in with little or no solicitation. So, he’s spending less time on the golf course and more time on bringing in business. He’s bidding on far more jobs than he was a couple of years ago and spending far more time following up with general contractors to turn bids into contracts. For now, it’s working. After a so-so winter, he’s got his entire labor force back on the job and I suspect he’ll weather this recession at least as well as, if not better than, many of his competitors.

Like my brother-in-law, you probably haven’t been hitting your revenue targets lately by just waiting for business to roll in. So, it’s time to re-energize your sales efforts, whether that means getting more face time with customers, boosting advertising, taking sales efforts to the Internet or engaging in guerrilla marketing techniques that draw attention to your company.

Here are some ideas to help you attract more customers to your business:

Try something big, bold, new. “This is the time to go out there and do something new, special, different,” says David Hauser, co-founder of Grasshopper, a Needham, Massachusetts-based provider of toll-free phone numbers for entrepreneurs. Taking his own advice, Hauser recently hired an “ambassador of buzz,” Jonathan Kay, to promote his company, drive traffic to its Web site and generate new revenue. When the company sent chocolate-covered grasshoppers to 5,000 influential bloggers, politicians, journalists, celebrities and CEOs earlier this year — the company previously was known as GotVMail Communications and was rebranding itself under the Grasshopper name — Kay spent the next two and a half weeks keeping Twitter chatter about the stunt lively.

Don’t go overboard just for the sake of it. Doing something “new” doesn’t have to mean doing something unorthodox. New York City-based Syzygy 3, a technology consulting and services firm founded in 2004, ramped up its sales efforts this year by hiring its first dedicated salesperson when its target market — small- to medium-sized businesses — started cutting back on information technology spending.

While only one of the new hire’s leads has translated into a sale thus far, Syzygy 3 co-founder Sean C. O’Rourke says the company is going to keep him on the job. “He’s gotten us exposure we ordinarily would not have received in terms of new prospects and new opportunities,” O’Rourke explains. “And, we’re in the midst of launching new services that will give him even more to sell. We think that in the long run — another six months down the road — things are really going to start to turn around for him, and we are going to reap the benefits.”

Share the workload. Like the founders of Syzygy 3, Rebecca Brian, president and founder of Tribecca Designs, a marketing and branding firm based in Long Island City, New York, once handled virtually all new business development herself. But she also saw that role becoming unsustainable once the economy began to sink. When neither of the two sales pros she hired worked out, she decided to give some business development responsibilities to key employees, including her art director and her graphic designer.

“My staff gets paid to go to networking events, but they also make a commission on sales, which encourages them to do more than just socialize,” Brian says. “And it keeps my costs down until business is closed.” So far this year, she reports, her art director has landed 15 percent of the firm’s business.

Sell online. For some companies, opportunities to sell online will outweigh anything they could do in a brick-and-mortar environment. Gary Nealon, who launched RTA Cabinet Store in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 2005, took his business onto the Web more than a year ago after the housing market started to slump, slowing sales of his imported, ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities.

“Within a year of launching our site we were ranking No. 1 for five keywords in our category, and in the top five for another 20,” Nealon reports. “We have been steadily averaging a couple thousand unique visitors a month on our site, and now do 70 percent of our business over the Internet. Not only were we able to avoid shrinking sales, we doubled our business in each of the past two years.”

Become your customers’ problem solver. As you set about recharging your sales efforts, remember that in a down economy like this one, it’s more important than ever to be seen as a problem solver for your customers, not just somebody pitching a product or service.

“There is not a business or individual right now who is looking to spend money, so the thought of engaging in a sales conversation with a salesperson is not what they want to do,” says business consultant Dave Cooke of the Strategic Resource Group in Northville, Michigan. “However, businesses and individuals do have issues they need to deal with and must spend money to solve or fix. The trick is to understand how to be a resource to them.”

That’s sound advice. Identify what your customers need, let them know that you can provide it, and boost your odds of making it through this recession.