A CEO explains how to approach prospective big-name sponsors to help pitch your products.
"I don't think of myself as a salesperson," says Kim Whittaker. But the president of Baby Faire, a products, services, and information expo for prospective parents, must be wrong. She persuaded Dr. Spock to headline her first consumer show, in Boston -- on his 90th birthday. And she's recruited such sponsors as John Hancock, Prudential Insurance, Toys 'R' Us, Gerber, and the drugstore chain CVS.
"CVS originally said no," she reveals. "Most of my sponsors and exhibitors said no before they said yes. Usually no is a request for more information." In three years of persuading people to reconsider, Whittaker, based in Winchester, Mass., has built a $500,000 business.
Some of her strategies for changing holdouts' minds:
Give free samples. Whittaker sends VIP show passes to potential exhibitors who have said no. Recently, a Canadian maker of glider-rockers had a change of heart at the show.
Form selling alliances. "Companies already doing business with your prospect may be interested in working with you to the same end," she notes. Whittaker won over the Stop & Shop supermarket chain by teaming up with a big-name baby-care vendor. "I contacted the manufacturer directly and explained how working with Baby Faire as a marketing vehicle could generate increasing sales in Stop & Shop." The manufacturer's participation made the idea of sponsoring Baby Faire much more appealing to Stop & Shop. In the case of CVS, Whittaker initially approached the chain's ad agency , and that groundwork helped ensure that a key CVS marketing executive would at least read Whittaker's proposal. But even that was only a start.
Learn why they said no. Whittaker received a rejection letter from CVS, but she didn't give up. A second round of sleuthing revealed that the drugstore chain had produced its own consumer show, with mixed results. In her follow-up letter to CVS, Whittaker contrasted the setup of the two shows. That effort won her a face-to-face meeting with CVS, and two weeks after that, a major sponsor.
Work the phone. "Generally, people are willing to talk if you call and say, 'I'd like to discuss what went into your decision.' " But, she adds, "you have to hear what they're saying. Usually, I uncover a misconception about Baby Faire." But she's learned how hard to push. "You have to know when to get off the phone," says Whittaker, who does most of her selling from her home office. She concludes, "The door is never closed if you believe the opportunity still exists."