How to keep the customer pipeline filled, even when the economy is working against you.
By Bridget McCrea
The last two years have been challenging for many precasters, and American Concrete Products of Omaha, Neb., hasn’t been immune to the economic turmoil that has brought many of the firm’s competitors to their knees. With 2009 behind it, the company is now expecting a possible slowdown for 2010, thanks to a delay in the number of expected commercial construction projects for the coming year.
“Most of the general contractors that we serve had backlogs right up until the first quarter of 2010, but after that it dwindled,” says Tom Egan, American Concrete Products’ owner and president. “Drawings for projects to be built during the second quarter of this year should have been in by now (October 2009), but we’re just not seeing that happening.”
Egan, whose firm has thus far managed to avoid the layoffs and plant closings that many precasters have had to implement, says he considers his firm “pretty lucky” to have dodged much of the negative impact of the recession. He credits a focus on “getting customers,” rather than waiting for them to come knocking or calling, with helping to keep sales on track.
“Our company culture centers around seeking out work, rather than the other way around,” explains Egan, who adds that responsiveness also goes a long way in retaining those customers. “We know that we need to answer our clients within 24 hours or less to get the order.” Finally, he says American Precast Products’ sales team focuses more on existing clients, knowing that a high percentage of its business is generated from a handful of good accounts.
“We try not to move our attention away from our good customers in order to find new ones,” says Egan. “That’s a vital strategy, especially when times are tough. You really have to be devoted to your best customers.”
With the economic downturn persisting and firms reining in their spending, now is the time to look closely at what your company is going to do in 2010 to keep its customer pipeline filled with both existing clients and new prospects. Whether you promote your plant’s NPCA certification, use magazines like Precast Solutions to show clients photographs of precast in action or round out your sales team with a top-notch rep, the focus should be on building a robust client pipeline for the coming year.
“Now is not the time to wait around for business to ‘pick up,’” cautions Joe Calloway, author of “Becoming a Category of One: How Extraordinary Companies Transcend Commodity and Defy Comparison.” Calloway, a partner with business consultancy Engage Consulting Group in Nashville, says, “It’s time to lay the groundwork for the recovery, and to be the last person who was standing in front of that customer before things did pick up.”
Calloway suggests a targeted approach to filling the customer pipeline that includes “baby steps,” such as calling on a specific number of new, current and past clients weekly. “Make a list, but don’t make it overwhelmingly long,” says Calloway. “Create goals around those cold and warm contacts, and then develop a follow-up program that keeps your firm in front of that client.”
During those calls, Calloway says precasters should consider their customers’ basic expectations and master at least one of them in a way that makes your firm the “go-to guy” for that product or service.
Take the national plumbing firm that specializes in being on time or early for every appointment, and that compensates the customer $5 a minute when the technician is late. “Instead of thinking outside of the box and trying to come up with an exotic way to stand out from your competitors,” suggests Calloway, “follow in this plumbing company’s footsteps and develop a niche that no one else can master.”
Some precasters are already exploiting niches. Instead of shipping his best salesmen off to hunt down new accounts, for example, Egan says he allocates most of their time to current customers. “That leads to other opportunities, based on the fact that customers see our unblemished reputation for quality, delivery and service,” he says. “Those expectations
are met when we keep our best people on our top accounts.”
American Concrete Products, which has doubled its sales since 2002, also focuses on growing its product line to meet customer wants and needs. Knowing that those clients are facing many of the same business challenges that his firm is facing right now, Egan says he does what he can to help customers be “as competitive as they can be” in the marketplace. “We’re basically focusing on our best clients and trying to be an even bigger part of what they’re doing.”
Historically accustomed to fielding customer order requests and filling out bids to get work, many manufacturers lack the marketing finesse required to build a business in today’s economy. The good news is that by using tools online social networking, trade shows such as The Precast Show, networking, Web advertising and traditional advertising methods, precasters can break through this barrier and get the phone ringing again.
“Most manufacturers are starting to realize that they can’t do business the same way they used to,” says Amanda Puppo, CEO at MarketReach Inc., a Hightstown, N.J.-based provider of business-to-business marketing solutions. When working with manufacturers to hone their marketing strategies, Puppo says she first has them define their target market to include only those individuals and/or companies that would make good potential clients (do this by asking yourself: Who are my ideal, paying customers?)
“When you can identify a target niche, you can develop a marketing campaign and a compelling message for reaching it,” says Puppo, who advises precasters to consider the potential customer’s industry, staff size and sales revenue.
Next, open up an Excel spreadsheet and use it to brainstorm marketing techniques with your key executives and top salespeople. List the techniques (such as trade show booths, customer appreciation events and so forth) horizontally on the spreadsheet, and then use the vertical columns to plug in the dates when you will initiate each strategy.
“This is a very manageable and effective way for any sized manufacturing firm to get its mind around how to fill the customer pipeline,” says Puppo, who advises precasters to work through the budgeting, logistics and planning process for each initiative before undertaking it, and to consider how many potential clients will be generated as a result.
“By using multiple marketing techniques, your brand will become better known and credible in the marketplace,” says Puppo, “and customers will think of you when they need an expert in your niche.”
Finding new niches
When the going gets tough, the tough find ways to make products that meet customers’ changing needs. That’s what G & C Fab-Con LLC of Flemington, N.J., did recently when it began offering new options for the death-care industry. Previously interested in premium burial vaults, this customer segment is now looking for more economical products and
“We’ve been examining how to enter the cremation market using precast,” says Rich Creter, vice president of operations. One way the company is achieving that goal is by building precast columbariums, or places for the respectful (and usually public) storage of cinerary urns that hold a deceased person’s cremated remains.
“Columbariums comprise just a small percentage of the cremation market, but at least they’re an option that includes precast concrete and granite,” explains Creter, whose firm also fabricates granite headstones, monuments and countertops. “Our strategy through this recession has been to diversify our product offerings as much as possible while staying within our industry.”
G & C Fab-Con has also been advertising more, and using more “boots on the ground” meetings with customers, all in the name of figuring out what those companies need. “Right now we’re hoping to maintain the customers we have by serving them well,” says Creter. “Fortunately, that customer base is strong and we have orders to keep us busy well into 2010.”
Getting the word out
To precasters who aren’t as bullish on the year ahead, Adrian Miller, president and founder at Fort Washington, N.Y.-based Adrian Miller Sales Training, says now is the time to refine your sales team’s skills and start using cost-effective marketing methods (such as e-mail marketing and social networking on sites like LinkedIn and Facebook) to fill that customer pipeline.
“This is the worst time to hide your head in the sand and not do anything,” says Miller. “You need to be investing in strategies that generate revenue, whether that means hiring new salespeople, training the ones you have or buying advertising space.”
Puppo concurs, and says the precaster who focuses on keeping the client pipeline full will be able to weather the storm. “We’re not talking about creating a new $50,000 advertising budget, but we are talking about allocating $3,000 or $4,000 to marketing your company in new ways,” says Calloway. “It may not have been a line item in the past, but marketing is a necessary part of doing business when competition is fierce and the economy is lagging.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade/technical feature statewide.