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5 Ways Small Businesses Can Win Large Customers

When you're just starting out, you need to project an air of sophistication and establish that you have indispensable skills and knowledge.
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Most small business owners I know salivate at the prospect of landing a large customer. But having listened to the woes of entrepreneurs in my field and others, I know most don't know the strategies necessary to lure and land that first big account.

I do. When my business partner Ed Moed and I opened our shop from his squalid, one-bedroom apartment in 1995, we had a measly $12,500 in seed money and my Rolodex of leads. We didn't have a single customer, large or small.

While we employed a host of different strategies to get Peppercomm where it is today, these are the five best tips I can share to help increase your awareness, credibility, and attractiveness among the big boys:

1. Separate yourself from the pack.

By developing a unique value proposition, a small business can immediately differentiate itself. Consider Akvinta Vodka, for example. When the small vodka business began a few years back, it was competing against the likes of Smirnoff, Grey Goose, and Stoli, to name just a few. But Akvinta was different. Its vodka featured 100 percent USDA certified organic content--unlike competitors, it didn't contain any impurities, preservatives, or chemicals.

Akvinta's marketing campaign underscored the difference, billing its product as "the honest vodka" and promising never to hide any ingredients. As a result of its authenticity, Akvinta began being served at Jean-Georges and Nobu (two top Manhattan restaurants) and was named Virgin Atlantic airline's exclusive vodka.

My firm also made a point of separating itself literally from day one. Our first tagline read: "What separates us from our competition is helping to set clients apart from theirs." Those bon mots not only told large customers we provided strategic positioning, it also struck some as quite clever.

In fact, the chief communications officer of a global insurance company called me and said, "If you're smart enough to coin that phrase for yourself, I'd like to hire you to create something just like it for us."

2. Position yourself as a thought leader.

Small businesses can attract big customers by positing a smart or unexpected point of view on subjects of interest to prospects. When we were still in an embryonic stage, I pitched a column on the subject of branding to a leading public relations trade journal. My angle was simple, but unique: I would conduct man-on-the-street interviews with about 20 people, asking them to tell me what type of person they thought a large company would be if it suddenly were to come to life. Would ExxonMobil, for example, be a man or a woman? Rich or poor? Young or old? Liberal or conservative?

I conducted the interviews on an industry-by-industry basis. The trade journal hired an illustrator to draw cartoons to accompany my text and depict exactly how people described AT&T, GE, or GM. As a newly-minted thought leader, I began receiving calls from some of those same organizations asking if I could help them change their image from that of an old, conservative white man to a hip, young woman of color.

Select a subject in your industry on which you can take a unique point of view, and approach a trade journal to suggest authoring a feature article about it. I'll bet you a year's subscription to Inc. magazine you get a bite--and a significant sales lead--as a direct result.

3. Help large customers compete.

The top executives running sales, marketing, and just about every other function at a large organization love to know what their peers think. Small businesses can win large accounts by conducting proprietary pro bono research, and sharing the exclusive results first with targets.

One of our partners, Deb Brown, called 10 top marketing executives and asked them if they'd answer one question. She told them she'd be asking nine of their peers the same question, and would share the results before submitting the research to our top industry journal, PRWeek.

As a result of sating prospective customers' need to know what their peers felt, Deb was able to arrange numerous one-on-one meetings with some and scored a few nice wins with others. Here's how the final article turned out (subscription or purchase required).

In another example, a tiny, Cambridge-based consultancy called Integral lured huge clients away from the likes of Bain, Booz-Allen, and McKinsey by conducting unique studies showing large organizations how to disrupt their competitors. We in turn helped publicize Integral's work in Fortune, an article that generated 843 leads and several large clients for the small upstart. Here's the Fortune piece.

4. Sophistication implies size.

The smallest companies can suggest size and sophistication with the right website design. Matt Lester, our creative director, says small business sites shouldn't be brochures: "Too many small businesses use their sites to sell. Instead, a site should be educational, informational, and entertaining." Matt says sites should show their savvy by "stating in no uncertain terms that they know what's broken in the industry, and that large customers can count on them to fix it." As examples, he cites GoPro, Zillow, and Warby Parker.

A single employee, too, can make all the difference in the world when it comes to landing large customers. The fourth person I hired after hanging out the Peppercomm shingle was a British receptionist/administrative assistant. While her roots may have been Midlands working class, she oozed British sophistication over the phone (and in person). Prospects assumed we were far larger and more diverse than we were simply because we had a charming and polished young professional as a frontline ambassador. Small businesses that understand the critical importance of a first impression will attract and win large customers.

That said, a single employee can also undermine small business's success. Prior to starting my own company, I labored for a global image and branding firm whose receptionist would have made Pol Pot seem like a good guy. The agency had been experiencing a long, slow death at the time, and is now gone. I believe the receptionist was one main reason for its demise.

5. Doing good does a whole lot of good. 

Smart small businesses will sometimes agree to help charities and nonprofits by donating their accounting, legal, and marketing needs in exchange for references and testimonials.

We once agreed to publicize the work of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In exchange, we asked that they serve as a reference. As a result of the nonprofit's referral, we were able to attract a major multinational corporation that was trying to win military contracts. The work we produced for the nonprofit also won awards and enabled us to attract other large customers. Doing good will help a small business do very, very well.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 27, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, and with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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