One thing almost all small businesses need is more sales. John Doerr, a venture capitalist with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said that at a recent event I attended. Everyone in the audience -- which was made up of several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and service providers -- agreed.
I wondered: How can good business planning help you find new customers? The key is to take a step back from your daily routine and reconsider your strategy, as well as its impact on sales. While you were busy building your business, your market may have changed, even slightly, or your customers may have changed. You can sometimes identify these changes by asking individual customers out to lunch, searching online or joining a workshop or class to give yourself some new angles.
After that, the goal is to reconfigure your business plan by adding new sales initiatives as concrete tasks among your milestones. Each initiative should involve specific responsibilities that can be assigned to specific people, with start dates, end dates and budgets. New startups will want to be thinking about the following points from the start, making sure to add these initiatives to your business plan with detailed explanations about how you will track these goals and follow through on them.
Here are four steps that should set you on a path to finding new customers -- and hopefully to higher sales.
1. Sell more to existing customers. Generally, that's the quickest path to healthy growth. The best example I've ever seen is the computer store that contacted its entire customer base and reminded them all that they were most likely overdue for upgrading their data storage, networking gear, printers, software and computers. This company created a special promotion and cleared some old inventory in the process.
How could something like that work for your business? The computer store story illustrates how customers can be grateful for reminders, and be ready to say yes to improved performance. Essentially, there are three parts to it: Determining what you can offer that relates to your customers and business offering, how to turn it into an event and how to get the message out to customers.
And when you come up with something, put it into the milestones of your business plan. Give it a start date, end date, and a person in charge. Estimate additional sales so you'll know, for next time, whether you underestimated or overestimated.
2. Review your pricing. Price is the most powerful marketing message you have. What's most important isn't the high or low of it, but how it matches your strategy.
Some businesses are built around visible low pricing to bring people in and generate higher unit sales, while others offer more quality and need a higher price to communicate that message. I see far more businesses underpriced than overpriced. A problem with frequent low pricing is that your business may wind up losing customers who assume your product or service isn't great because the price doesn't match it.
And if you decide to revise pricing, make sure you reflect that in your sales forecast, and in your marketing messages. Synchronize what you're saying to your customers with what your price says to your customers. And then, most important, make sure you deliver the value you promise. Put that into your plan as a task in the milestones.
3. Review your marketing messages. That means both the core content of your message, and how you deliver it. Some small businesses are turning to social media -- particularly Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn -- to spread their messages in new ways. Others are resurfacing older methods such as email marketing, direct sales, and even direct mail marketing because they've been neglected for a while.
Find a way to make this effort concrete and measurable in your plan. Add specific measurement, whether it's ads, page views, web visitors, retweets, Klout.com score, friends, links or whatever. And make sure to track results and follow up on results.
4. Expand into nearby markets. That means either selling something new and different to your existing customer base or selling what you've always sold to new kinds of customers. Either option is usually more realistic than trying to develop a completely new product or service while trying to sell it to a different client base than you're used to. You have to look at your own business and think creatively.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure to add it to your business plan. As much as possible, include measurement and tracking so you can tell if you've successfully implemented the new plan. Then you follow up and review actual results regularly so you can see what's going right and what isn't, and make the necessary adjustments.