5 Timeless Sales Practices for Vendors Who Sell to SMBs

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Selling to SMBs is not for the faint of heart and even the best of the best can fall on hard times — just ask GrubHub, Constant Contact, Groupon, Dex Media, Yelp, OnDeck, ReachLocal, Angie’s List, Endurance, NEWTEK, et cetera. Despite being in business for a combined 100-plus years, with sales forces that rival the armies of third world countries, these companies just barely scratch the surface in terms of SMB penetration (none have more than ~10% share) and have hit hard times in the public markets. As a salesperson or marketer with a focus on local (V)SMBs, it can be easy to get down.

But there is hope. For every flailing, traditional, SMB-tech juggernaut, there’s a burgeoning, often non-traditional, SMB-tech startup. Companies like ChowNow, Occasion, Opencare, StyleSeat, Homer, GoMoto, RevLocal, EatStreet, and Fundera are quietly killing it. So much so that I’d be shocked if even half of these companies remain independent over the next 2 years. While the number of (tech) IPOs is down, total M&A is booming and unlikely to let up any time soon.

I like to think that non-traditional sales (social selling, local engagement, multi-channel drip campaigns, et cetera) is a small part of why the aforementioned companies have outpaced their brethren. The devil is in the details: the tone of a subject line, timing of a phone call, recency of the point of contact, marketing cadence, and value proposition positioning — all impact sales. Yet, conversations these days tend to forget these basics and focus instead on new-age, shiny fixes like marketing automation, Lookalike targeting, and ad-tech. Of course these tools are important but if they are built on a shaky foundation, they may be all for naught.

Here are some essential, sales and marketing basics – goodies but oldies, crucial but not revolutionary:

Engage across channels
Run a combination of traditional – email, physical mail, phone call, in-person visit – and less traditional – Facebook ads, Yelp direct messages, Tweets – outreach. Try scalable, frequent, impersonal, “air cover” (e.g. ads) and non-scalable, infrequent, personal, “ground cover” (e.g. in-person visits). The best campaigns often start with broad outreach and quickly end with narrow focus/doubling down on “hand-raisers.” Here, the minority of SMBs that are truly ready and willing to engage with you are surfaced quickly from the rest of the pack. Hand hold the hand-raisers until they cross the finish line but continue to touch them to stay top of mind. A half dozen or more interactions with an SMB prior to a reply is not uncommon.

Remember, as social networks like Twitter and Facebook increasingly help advertisers reach their ideal audience, and Yelp and Facebook connect businesses with consumers (in some cases incentivizing businesses to respond within 5 minutes), the social channel will become a ubiquitous, increasingly efficient, but also increasingly crowded one for salespeople and marketers alike. Many of the most successful vendors market both on and offline with varying content and cadence and a mix of scalable and non-scalable outreach.

Engage often
The minimum drip marketing campaign should have 6 touches, though some have 16+. As Heather Morgan of Salesfolk mentioned, 50%+ of responses typically come after the 3rd touch, so persistence pays. While persistence is key, no usually means no. Don’t force it but do stay the course. If an SMB asks to be removed from your campaign, apologize and do so promptly. If an SMB says it’s not interested, inquire why but oblige. Be human. Vary channel, content, and cadence to keep things fresh.

Say you’ve initially placed all SMBs in a 6 touch email campaign, during which you change content and cadence. Email #6 should look nothing like Email #1. It should teach/add value vs. sell and potentially be apologetic. While the first 6 emails may be separated by days, the next few may be separated by months. After the campaign, SMBs that click on emails are delivered a Facebook ad, after which those that click on ads are sent a physical mailer, called, and eventually visited. Here, 10 touches are distributed across 5 channels. The funnel is managed such that only interested parties stay on your list and take the bulk of your time and effort.

Personalize outreach
The ability to tailor outbound communications and say

  • “you’re a women’s boutique but don’t currently use eComm…,” or
  • “adding delivery to your business can increase revenue by 15%+…,” or
  • “you’re in the bottom quartile of poorest rated plumbers in SEA,” or
  • “we noticed that you advertise on Yelp…,” or
  • “it looks like you promote a monthly raffle on Facebook…,” or
  • “you posted 100+ times in the last year but haven’t posted in over 10 weeks…”

…may be the difference between a 15% and 50% email open rate. Often, far less obvious differences matter. Testing and tweaking based on various buyer profiles removes the guesswork of what should hit and what will; casting a wide net will only go so far, same for pizzazz that speaks to some SMBs but not others. The devil is in the detail.

That said, personalization doesn’t always drive alpha. If you’re not driving a clear benefit from your expenditures (weighing metrics – pre-personalization vs. post), it may not be a fit. While personalization seems like a no-brainer, don’t assume that it is. Instead, test and compare.

Target unique personas
In a typical day, it’s not uncommon for a SMB to receive more calls from vendors than from patrons. Sigh. With the number of technology vendors increasing at an alarming clip to keep up with SMBs growing hunger pang for digital technology, targeting broad swaths of SMBS (e.g. restaurants in the US) is likely to be a feeble undertaking. Most SMBs don’t get, don’t want, or don’t need you. If you’re resource-constrained, care about optimizing sales efficiency, and looking to close more SMBs quicker, your best bet is to niche the niche. Instead of targeting all restaurants in the US, target those that

  • use specific software (e.g. OpenTable, Constant Contact, etc), or
  • are early (e.g. active on Instagram) / late adopters (e.g. non-mobile website) of tech, or
  • cater to a Hispanic and Latino demographic, or
  • don’t deliver, or
  • are hiring.

Better yet, try multiple different personas, including some that you think will never work–you may be surprised! Conventional wisdom may say that getting a SMB to switch from a competitor is an uphill battle, but that SMB may want features their current provider doesn’t support, be disgruntled with price, ROI, or service, or at a minimum “get” your value proposition and thus be more likely to reply in the first place.

Vary demand generation/lead sources
In general, the best converting lead sources are (in descending order) WOM (word of mouth), Inbound call, Referral, Partner, Appexchange, Website, Outbound sales, AdWords, and Blog.

WOM (word of mouth) and inbound calls are great but rare. Unless you help your SMB clients get laid, made, or paid (as Dave McClure says), don’t expect a flood of inbound love.

Referrals, partner, and app exchanges, though indirect, can be powerful. Don’t hesitate to properly incentivize SMBs for referrals or to collaborate with complementary partners/peers, app exchanges, affiliates, and the like (3rd party vendors drive 10-figure annual revenue for Vistaprint, for example).

Websites, blogs, and SEO help vendors rank high in search engine results and increase organic visibility. For more on these, I’ll refer you to Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media. He sends out a weekly newsletter with website design and content marketing best practices which never disappoints.

Outbound sales are some of the most obvious choices: robo-dial, email marketing, direct mail, in-person visit…pick your poison. But don’t just tell SMBs how great your product is; show them and offer value with a Free Trial.

AdWords, SEM, and paid acquisition (where vendors run campaigns that bid on relevant keywords to drive targeted traffic to their website) is a channel that has long been dominated by the likes of GoDaddy, HomeAdvisor, and Vistaprint, who spend $10-$100 million per year and pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to acquire SMBs. With the recent boom of SMB tech vendors, it’s no surprise that the cost per click for words like podiatry, repair, mobile, exterminator, and lawyer range up to an astronomical $100+. That said, niche opportunities exist. Just ask Joshua Spitzer of Schedulicity, who through targeted, paid, direct response primary on social networks has quietly amassed the largest horizontal scheduling platform in the space.

While this hierarchy may apply to many vendors, it’s not a rule of law. For example, Manta and Closely are among the few companies that have bucked the trend and made paid (Facebook) acquisition work in a big way, scoring some of the lowest SMB acquisition costs ever seen (as low as a few dollars per action – download, etc.). Package Zen and Groupon heavily employ outbound sales – the former has built what I believe to be one of the most sophisticated, automated, outbound sales engines while the latter, the fastest growing company of all times, uses brute force (i.e. an army of 4K salespeople at its peak). Bottom line, try different sources.

Undoubtedly, the sales landscape is changing. Push is becoming pull and sell is becoming self-manage. But remember that the devil is in the details and even the most basic ones should be revisited, recalibrated, and revised often — but not forgotten.

Mo-YehiaMo Yehia is a former-banker-turned-human and co-founder of Sidewalk. He’s lesser known for stints at Sparkle Buggy Car Wash and Lehman Brothers. Backed by 500 Startups, Sidewalk’s business intelligence helps sales and marketing teams close more deals faster and to their dream SMB clients.