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Hook your first corporate customer

Apr. 21, 2014 - 01:56PM   |  
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Just about every small-business owner and entrepreneur dreams of landing that “big fish” client — the Fortune 500 company, defense contractor, Internet powerhouse.

Big accounts represent big sales. But big clients also can be big headaches. If you’re targeting large corporations as customers, you need to know how to work with them.

First comes the matter of making the sale. Expect this to take a long, long time. Cold calls are almost impossible. How do you find a decision maker?

Yes, LinkedIn can help, but you almost always need a personal connection.

When you manage to get your prospect interested, expect to be asked for detailed proposals that take time and money to prepare.

Then you’ll be asked for more meetings and a revision for your proposal, taking more time and money.

Expect hard — very hard — negotiating over price and terms. Large corporations know suppliers are eager for their business, so make sure you’re building in a profit.

To become an official vendor, expect to fill out paperwork worthy of the federal government. Once you get the contract, your woes may just be starting. Many corporations intentionally pay very late.

Does that mean you should give up on large corporate clients? Not necessarily, but it helps to know a few tricks:

Get an inside advocate. Corporate decisions often are based on factors you won’t know about, for instance the chief executive might be emphasizing quality rather than cost this year or the boss hates the color green. You’ve got an edge if you have someone to shepherd you through the process.

Remember that people move around. They change jobs frequently in big companies. Meet a lot of people and stay in touch with them all, not just your advocate.

Don’t limit your activities to one area. Many departments of a large company may buy your product or service.

Always ask for a time frame for a decision. The company won’t keep to that time frame, but having set dates gives you a reason to continually follow up.

Ask if the company has a budget in mind. Your contacts probably won’t tell you, but if they do, the whole process will go a lot faster.

Figure out whether the account will be truly profitable. It may be worth breaking even or even losing a little money if you know this will lead to other orders or other big clients. But be careful.

Determine how much debt you’re willing to take on. A small bakery got a contract to be the in-store bake shop for a grocery chain. They took out loans for new ovens, trucks and staff. The venture was such a success that the grocery chain decided to run it themselves. The small bakery was stuck with massive debt and went bankrupt.

But here’s an upside: Once you have your first big corporate client, you’ll find it much easier to land other large corporate clients. Big companies follow each other and do what everyone else is doing, just like kids.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs.

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