Format Signs was looking for the holy grail of advertising to boost sales. The signwriting firm's managing director, Jared Percival, had tried print, online directories, cold calling, Facebook, Twitter and a long list of other methods to boost sales.
All worked, but none was the answer to his ambitious plans to recruit nationwide retailing companies as customers.
The Holy Grail turned out to be Google AdWords, which brought the right clients to him.
In three months sales had soared by 20 per cent and Format Signs had picked up work from Just Cuts, Hot Springs Spas, Choice Kids Child Care, and Retail Advertising, which introduced Format Signs to The Design Store. It also works for AIG and Telecom. "As far as bang for buck, we are doing very well out of (AdWords)."
Businesses that buy AdWords pay for their advertisements to appear when people search for certain terms such as "LED signs".
Percival says he was dubious when a rep from Yellow suggested he buy its Toolbox service, which included Google AdWords. "I was expecting some ridiculous price for them to manage it and I tried to brush them off," says Percival. "I thought, 'I can do this myself'.
"We had the meeting and not only were the Yellow fees very reasonable, they also have worked with other signwriters and know what AdWords work."
Percival says he had done his own Google AdWord campaigns for previous businesses. The difference was that Yellow's choice of words was more targeted than his. "When I was managing the AdWords it was trial and error," he says.
The leads from the Google search have been from businesses ready to buy signwriting. Cold calling, which Format Signs had been doing a lot of, had a much longer lead time between first contact and purchase. "It can take months or years," says Percival.
Format Signs was set up in 2011 and is half owned by Format, which provides full service shop fit-out. Even so, says Percival, his standalone company needed to stand on its own feet financially, which it did very quickly.
"Yellow has definitely given us the highest return on investment compared to all the other marketing we have done. This has given us immediate results."
Technology to boost sales
Humans have been selling things since money was created.
Every now and again technology makes sales easier. The telephone and motor car provided quantum leaps for sales as did the electronic calculator and the spreadsheet.
In 2012 the technologies that are really making a difference, says Gen-i corporate sales manager Simon Carstens, are customer relationship management (CRM) software and mobile apps for smartphones and tablets.
Maximising online reach through good search engine optimisation (SEO) and marketing (SEM) is having a huge impact on sales for businesses, adds Yellow sales manager Steve Traplin. It's no longer enough to advertise solely in directories.
Businesses that get the right advice and harness these technologies effectively can leapfrog competition.
Carstens says more and more SMEs use CRM systems to organise, automate and synchronise sales and marketing processes. CRM software helps them interact in a slicker way with existing customers and sales prospects.
The CRM database includes customers' and clients' contact details, and the entire history of the business's interaction with that customer. A good CRM system can be used to drive marketing, keep in touch with customers, and to quantify the profitability of a customer. Gen-i recommends Salesforce.com to its clients. There are alternatives such as Capsule CRM, Maximizer CRM, or SugarCRM.
Traplin points out consumers are increasingly searching online for business services and the higher up the Google rankings your business is, the more likely it is to get leads.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau of New Zealand found earlier this year that 54 per cent researched online before any purchase, whether buying on or offline.
"The way to grab that business is to be seen," says Traplin. "The magic word is Google."
SMEs are finding that their use of SEO and SEM online is making the phone ring more often.
SEO involves optimising a website so that it is ranked more highly in Google searches. SEM is paid for advertising so that the business's adverts appear high in the search rankings.
There is an art, however, to getting the online marketing right. There needs to be a clear message in the advertising, says Traplin. And the return on investment needs to be quantified. "If I spend $1, what is it bringing back for me?" The question is the same for both online and offline advertising.
It's then a matter of having the good old-fashioned elevator pitch right to turn those leads into business, he adds.
The other technological tool SMEs can harness to supercharge their sales is mobile, says Carsten. Smartphones and tablets allow more face-to-face time with customers and prospects. More and more apps allow sales people to ditch paper and do their work anywhere, any time.
Top 10 tips
Anyone can become a top salesperson. So says Heather Smith, who runs training provider The Marketing Company.
Smith offers sales and marketing boot camps to SMEs as well as training through Ateed (Auckland Tourism Events & Economic Development). There are 10 steps, says Smith that SMEs should take to improve their sales.
1. Define the issue. SMEs come to Smith wanting to "improve sales", but haven't thought whether the problem is getting sufficient leads or closing the deal. "They are two very different sides of the coin."
2. Educate yourself and your staff. "You may be an excellent accountant or a guru in IT, but you do not see yourself as a salesperson." Business owners should be upskilling themselves to be that salesperson until they can afford to employ a sales force.
3. Work on self-belief. If you don't sound confident, clients and customers won't rate you. "Once (businesspeople) have self-belief, they can show passion and energy about what they need to do. It is infectious. Customers will get excited about the products and services."
4. Set aside time for sales planning. A lot of SMEs get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of running the business that they don't plan the sales process. "They need to make a weekly appointment for themselves, where they are just focusing on sales and marketing."
5. Keep in touch with customers. If your customers feel they are taken for granted they are likely to fall for a pitch from the opposition. Yet it is so much easier to keep selling to an existing customer than find a new one. "You should be building a fan base rather than a customer base."
6. Cross sell and upsell. The classic "would you like fries with that madam?" sales pitch should be employed by all businesses. Smith cites a staffer at her local hardware asking her if she'd like glue with her bathroom mirror. "It was relevant and I was grateful ... There is a huge untapped potential for business to make more money by letting customers know what else they do."
7. Relax and enjoy the sales process. "Sales is an easy process. A lot of people get really wound up and edgy. They say, 'Oh, I'm not a salesperson, I'm an engineer'. (Yet) any one can do it. You don't need a personality transplant to sell." It is a matter of following a low-key process.
8. Beware of discounting If you do, customers will expect more of the discounted price in the future. "This is about perception. The problem is if you discount, the discounted price becomes the new full price. All you have done is erode your profit margin." One of Smith's clients, a technical consultant complained that his less experienced opposition was winning all the pitches. Smith concluded his $90/hour rate compared to the opposition's $130 was the problem. "I said, 'Put your prices up. If you are $90, people's perception is that the value of what you are offering is less than the other guy. They think they are getting second-rate advice." The client took the advice and his business quadrupled.
9. Have a USP (unique sales proposition). Too many businesses focus on the fact that they give really good customer service, says Smith. What's more important is to be able to articulate how your product or service really stands out from the crowd. "It's what you do that really matters."
10. Know your competitors. Never run them down, but know where their weaknesses are. When pitching for business you can turn this around and highlight these areas as your key strengths.