Business Basics: How to improve your business development and win more sales

16 November 2017

Whether it’s getting your brand identity just right or pitching for funding, small-to-medium-sized businesses need the right skills to succeed. With the help of insights from a range of industry experts, Business Basics is all about giving start-ups a kick-start in all aspects of business growth.

This month, we’re talking to Carl Reader, small business commentator and author of The Startup Coach and The Franchising Handbook. Always armed with a wealth of knowledge, Carl regularly contributes to the likes of Radio 1, The Guardian, Telegraph, Forbes, and CityAM – as well as advising leaders on the international business circuit.

In addition, Carl is Director of d&t Chartered Accountants and is involved with a selection of diverse businesses at a board level (including NED). He was also listed on the CityAM Top 100 Entrepreneur List and recognised in Accountancy Age's 35 under 35.

Here, Carl guides us through the importance of sales and how they can be integral to the development of businesses from all industries.  

Business Basics

Many startups and SMEs will not have a dedicated sales team. What are your tips for small business owners chasing those all-important first-year sales? Can professionals who have never worked in sales adopt the skills necessary to sell their services and products?  

Whatever your role, if you’re in business, you’re already in sales.

We all represent our business in any interaction we have, presenting it in the best light – that’s sales. My biggest tip is to sell in the way you’re most comfortable. Whether that’s helping people or pushing a sale, you must be proactive, because no one will do it for you.

Once you’ve worked out how to sell, the next step is to find out what works best for your customers, and what doesn’t. If there’s a common objection, address it. With a system you’re comfortable with in place, you’ll find the sales process far easier. 

There’s far more to it than just sales techniques though. Early on, it’s crucial to think of your marketing, sales and customer service holistically. They should be ingrained throughout the very fabric of everything you do.

Would you recommend a business development strategy that pioneers new and eye-catching approaches for young businesses? Or would you suggest they utilise tried-and-tested processes, which their target audience may immediately recognise and respond to?

Both. Your business should be different, but not necessarily in the way you promote yourself. The key is to find where you’ve got the best ratio of people fishing vs. number of fish in the pond.

Obviously, you need to go where your audience is – but approach it differently. Direct mail was huge until 2000, when email marketing came in. In 2007, my business used direct mail to win some amazing contracts, quite simply because we were the only ones sending them stuff through the post, rather than just another email in their inbox.

There’s no need to be extravagant and find something completely ‘out there’, just give yourself as much chance of success as possible by fishing where your customers are.

business basics

Are there any new sales processes and practices (e.g. social selling) which you’d recommend to young businesses?

It’s always worth exploring what opportunities are out there – but my advice is not to become over-reliant on them. It’s always worth taking a step back to consider the bigger picture.

Work out where your customers are most receptive to your message. How many touchpoints do you want to achieve? Maybe you’ll find billboard advertising works best for you. Perhaps Instagram ads. Maybe direct marketing is most effective, or emails, or a combination. There are so many channels available to test, measure, and see what works best for your business, with the best conversion ratio. 

For businesses in their first five years of operation, would you advocate greater emphasis on chasing new business or focussing on keeping existing customers? 

Business is about getting customers and keeping them. Many newer businesses make the mistake of focusing solely on promotion and marketing, without having the fundamentals in place:

  • Customer fulfilment is #1. You must deliver what you say you’re going to deliver.
  • Customer conversion – from first awareness through to payment. Carefully managed lead processes are key.

After these are in place, you can start thinking about hard promotion. So many businesses focus on filling the top of the funnel, only to find, too late, that the conversion and fulfilment aren’t there, and the business falls apart.

The focus should be on maintaining a steady stream of lead generation, whilst making sure that you keep the fundamental plates spinning.

business basics

Business development can be a large expense for young businesses – do you have any procedures you’d recommend to ensure this investment has the greatest chance of success without the risk of crippling the finances of the business?

Monitor your conversion rates and your statistics, keep a close track of your KPIs and know your financials. Whatever the stats are for your business, you should know them inside out.

The cost of acquisition is almost certainly going to be more than you think, so it’s important to understand the customer’s payback period for that cost. Recognise your churn rate and take action on it. Knowing your stats, monitoring and adapting accordingly is the only way to make sure spend is worthwhile. 

Considering the continued reliance on electronic communication, is there still value in face-to-face networking for modern businesses? 

Yes – if it’s done correctly. Ultimately, people buy from people, and relationships are built with humans, not with a company.  

Whilst social media has made it easier to open up communications and to continue the conversation, the danger is that people don’t see the need to meet you and actually get to know each other. In business, relationships are key. 

Go to a structured networking event with the sole purpose of meeting people and getting on with them – and that’s it. You’re there to increase your reach, not sell, because you just never know who these people are going to know.

young businesspeople in meeting

Referrals are a tried-and-tested method of securing new business. Do you have any tips for young businesses looking to build a network of partners capable of supplying these referrals?   

Referral partners are motivated in different ways. Some like financial rewards, some prefer mutual referrals. But in my experience, the easiest way to make sure you get referrals is to just offer a really good service. 

Most businesses don’t base their model on referral fees. If they recommend you to a client, the main thing they want is for their client to receive a great service from you, and to bask in the reflected glory.

Build good relationships with partners and prove that you’re committed to consistently doing a good job – that’s my number 1 tip.

And finally, at what stage of a business’ lifecycle should they look at bringing in a business development specialist to spearhead the search for sales? 

It depends. Some businesses are dependent on devoted staff from day one, while others can go the entire business lifespan without taking on a salesperson.

business basics

Some businesses have sales permeating through every member of staff, with a culture of selling in a very soft way. Others have a specific department wearing the sales hat.

It might mean hiring someone straight away or further down the line. Don’t forget marketing and communications too; these vital skills get missed, reducing the effectiveness of sales.

I believe every business needs a dedicated resource for sales at some point in order to grow. The point at which that is implemented completely depends on the individual business. 

If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t forget to read the rest of the Q&As in our Business Basics series. You can find a selection of recent articles using the following links:

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