I have an interesting perspective as a marketing consultant who works with small businesses.  My clients compete in a diverse group of industries, from software and law to construction and technology.  Some are feeling the full force of the economy, others had their best year ever in 2008.  I’ve competed in just about every conceivable market condition.

Boiled down to the simplest terms I can manage, here is what I learned-

Sell to people for the reasons they are buying.  Your customers are likely buying what you sell for different reasons today than they were 18 months ago.  Understand how your customers’ reasons for buying have changed and adapt your message accordingly.  What’s important to your customers NOW?  Talk about that!

Sell to the people who are buying.  We work with a swimming pool remodeling contractor.  We focused all our marketing on the residential market.  Yet, every year, one or two commercial customers (resort, college, city) would call and ask if they remodeled commercial pools.  About a year ago we started going after the commercial market and thank goodness we did.  Their residential business has slowed as people are slower to remodel their pools during down times.  But commercial customers can’t afford to put off their projects, and that business has been critical to the client.

Said another way, quit beating your head against a wall.  Stop trying to sell to people who aren’t buying.  What type of customer do you have that maybe you haven’t focused on, but who is buying right now?  You may need to change your brochures and website to speak directly to this different type of customer, but that’s a small price to pay to go after customers who are buying.

Sell the way people are buying.  I’m advising a solid company in the heart of the rust belt.  They reached out because things are drastically changing around them.  Their average sale has gone from $60,000 to $10,000, current customers aren’t buying and they’ve identified they must take their business national after being built from the ground up to be a local, face-to-face type company.  They blame the internet.  I said embrace it, sell the way people are buying.  When at one time selling to someone you’d never sat across the desk from seemed impossible, now, the net—phone contact—a sample in the mail—closing the sale on the phone is their customers’ preferred way of buying what the client sells.

Let go of your sacred cows.  This relates to everything I’m saying here.  When things change open yourself up to changing: who you sell to, how you sell, your message, what you sell, etc.  We work with a landscape contractor who built a solid business selling to people retiring into upscale gated communities.  In other words, new construction.  Well, that business has vanished.  Really.  It hasn’t dropped 40% or 50%; it has freaking vanished!  We have been scrambling to focus on the remodel market and replace a super-premium quality message with a more value-oriented message.  His salespeople, however, has resisted the change.  They still want to design and sell a $60,000 masterpiece front yard — their sacred cow — instead of the $15,000 remodel people are wanting now.  Do so at your own peril.

Simplify.  Every time we simplify a website or a brochure or a mailing, sales go up.  My site is a perfect example.   We built a site four years ago to be a portal.  From watching visitor behavior via Google Analytics I trimmed everything back except the most popular pages.  Literally within 24 hours of posting the new site inquiries went up.  All the content I assumed added value to the site also added complexity; and suppressed response.