Collaborate with other suppliers

Lead generation is a big headache for many small business owners.  They struggle to maintain a consistent level of marketing which, of course, is essential for attracting new prospects.  One way to improve success in this area is to collaborate with other businesses and to jointly fund marketing activities.  From my own experiences, only a few small business owners will seriously consider collaborating with other suppliers to improve their chances of finding sales opportunities.  It requires you to have a mindset that is open to new and different possibilities.

Collaborating with other suppliers can take many forms and what will work best for you will depend on the nature of your business.  The first step is to work out who you would consider collaborating with.  Of course, you won’t approach your main competitors nor will you approach large companies selling into your niche markets.

Large companies might, in theory, offer significant collaboration potential.  However, the process of negotiating some sort of collaboration agreement with them will be a long-winded process, as getting to the right people and persuading them to sign-off on the agreement will not be easy.  You must be sensible and avoid investing too much time on collaboration initiatives, enough time should be invested in finding and developing sales opportunities to keep your business afloat.

An ideal collaboration partner will probably be a small to medium-sized business that is selling to the same prospects and markets as you.  They will be selling a product/service that complements your own but is not a direct competitor to you.  You may have some clients in common but, more likely, they will have clients you aspire to have on your client list and vice versa.  You will also have many target prospects in common.

Collaboration can take many forms and I’ve encountered some that are quite complex.  I prefer to keep things simple.  The above scenario of common clients and prospects is one that I have encountered on several occasions.

As a result, the collaboration model I created in every case had a dual focus.  Firstly, each partner would look to exploit the other’s client list by obtaining “warm” introductions.  We would provide introductions to those of our existing clients that our partner wanted to approach and they would do the same for us.  In the interests of fairness, I suggest you agree that both businesses will make the same number of introductions until the collaborative relationship has developed further.

In arrangements I established, there was never the intention to add to the workload of either partner.  We simply explained to our clients the benefits of our partner’s products/services and sought agreement from each client that they would meet with our partner for exploratory discussions.

In current times, there might be less emphasis on face-to-face meetings and more use of email and social media sites.  I remain convinced that the use of “anonymous technology” is far less effective than organising face-to-face discussions.

There was never any pressure on our clients to buy from our collaboration partner.  If sales happened, that was great.  Where the result was no sale, we would try to collect some feedback from our client to pass onto our collaboration partner.  Direct feedback was helpful for us too as we could assess whether or not our choice of collaboration partner was a good one.

In return, we expected our partner to set up a similar number of exploratory meeting opportunities with their clients so we could discuss/show our products/services to them.

One area of every collaboration agreement was how the partners would approach common target prospects.  The easiest way to achieve benefits to both parties was through joint-funded marketing activities.  In its most simple form, you would share the costs of a marketing campaign that promoted the products/services of both partners.  For example, you might share the costs of organising a seminar that common prospects could attend or the cost of a simple direct-mail campaign.

Your objective is to reach the same audience as you would have done through your own marketing efforts, but at half the cost.  Your collaboration partner might introduce you to new ways to market your product/service, ways that have previously worked for them.  You have a good opportunity to learn and expand your own marketing repertoire.

There is much to be gained by engaging in collaboration.

ACTION IDEAS

  1. Carefully select those businesses that you would like to collaborate with.  Eliminate those with much smaller or much larger numbers of clients than you as collaboration will work better if both partners are of similar size.  Organise your list in some sort of priority order.
  2. After researching your highest priority target, approach the person responsible for sales and marketing.  It might well be one of the founders of the company (depending on their size).  Emphasise the value to them of collaborating with you and invite them to perform due diligence on your proposal.  They need to be absolutely sure you will represent no risk to their existing client relationships.
  3. Develop the relationship with your collaboration partner slowly.  In many situations it will pay to initiate your collaboration with a small pilot project.  Both parties can assess the potential synergies and possible conflicts before investing significant time or funds into the relationship.
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