So you’re running a start-up that targets corporate clients. All you need is a few corporate signatures on that paper, and all of a sudden you’ll have a sky-rocketing business with an exciting guaranteed revenue stream every month, right? Right… But it’s not quite that easy.
Maybe you decided against a B2C (Business to Consumer model) because the marketing spend to win over one consumer at a time was not worth it, or that the South African consumer market is not big enough in your industry, or that it’s better to get 10 paying corporates rather than a million paying individuals. You’re not alone, and you’re not wrong.
Both models have their major pros and their major cons. Trust me, I know. But here are some of the learnings I’ve had by pursuing the B2B model.
The pitch: Anything other than a resounding ‘yes’ is likely a ‘no’
First step is to get the pitch. There is a huge temptation to go about it as passively as possible, hoping that the deal will fall in your lap with a well written email. Reality is a little different however. To secure most pitches, a combination (or all) of in-person approach, phone call, linked-in message and email could be required. Once you’ve secured the pitch, book it in both parties’ calendars and hope that there’s no last minute cancellation. The exciting part awaits.
The sad fact of human nature is that people don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. Possibly it’s because we don’t like to hurt each other, or it’s because we avoid uncomfortable discussion as if it’s the plague.
Whatever the reason, it’s quite rare to receive “hard no’s”. The reality is that after a pitch, anything other than a resounding yes, or a “when can we start”, or “where can I sign?”, is likely to be a soft no; they have no interest in doing business with you. The entrepreneurial spirit is one that looks at the positive in everything, so it could be very dangerous for a glass half-full entrepreneur to receive a soft no, because this person will very much believe the deal is still alive.
Once again, trust me, I know. I recommend tempering the enthusiasm by looking out for any sign of an excuse during the pitch, and addressing it then and there. You know how hard you worked to get that meeting – so make sure you leave with no question unanswered, knowing that you did everything you could to win that business, or learnt everything you could to enhance your product, service or pitch to win future business. If you don’t get their business, it just means you didn’t get their business right now. Extract the positives and move forward.
1. Balance patience & momentum: They don’t operate like start-ups
It’s often said that a corporate is the most important thing to a startup, but a startup is far from the most important thing to a corporate.
As start-ups or SMMEs, we just have to accept that. Where we would respond to an email in a heartbeat, it may take our corporate contact 2 weeks to respond; especially if they are decision-maker. They don’t need our business, but we need theirs. As such, it’s important to remember when following up on a successful pitch that they are big, they are busy, and they have multiple balls being juggled at once. It’s likely that our proposition is the least important to them, and may be seen as a luxury.
Remember, they didn’t pursue you, you pursued them. So we have to be patient. But this is the difficult part; we have to balance patience with the desire to keep momentum. It’s an oft-said phrase that “time kills deals”. As start-ups, we need to be respectful that our prospective client is busy, but also very direct and honest with them in terms of our position and our goals and objectives.
If we are direct about when we want to conclude a deal and why, it could scare them away, or it could lead to them prioritising the deal as a priority. Either way, it’s better to know where you stand rather than have something drag on in that mythical pipeline for months or years as false hope.
2. Their emails are not their priority
After the pitch, it’s easy to get in an unhealthy pattern. That pattern could look something like this: Send follow up documents directly after the pitch; hear nothing back from the prospective client; send a follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week etc. into perpetuity until you go crazy and re-apply for your old job.
I have learnt that busy decision-makers in the corporate environment don’t just sit at their desk all day reading and responding to emails. They’re on the move, in important meeting after important meeting, flying to London followed by a quick trip to Doha and then 10 days in New York. They’re not setting the wheels in motion in response to your proposal in that spare 30 minutes in the airport.
As such, when they are available, you need their full attention and you need to get them to commit to the next step. Either a phone call or in-person visit is effective with this. Getting through to them and asking them the difficult questions about the next step is the only way to be top of mind, and to find out if they are serious about this deal or not.
From my learnings, I recommend emails as secondary to the phone call as a way of confirming what was discussed over the phone in terms of next steps.
3. Improve the product / service – become irresistible
With all else said, there is only one way to consistently increase chances of getting a deal over the line. That is, simply, have an incredible product or service that solves a real problem. If you have pitch after pitch where the response is luke-warm, you should ask them before leaving “what would this product have to do / look like for you to sign up right now?”.
Once you’ve had a few meetings like this, you will understand exactly what your market needs. If you build that product or service that the market craves, you’ll be turning away clients because the demand for your business will be so high. Become indispensable. Build something so good that your clients would be crazy to say no to.
4. Build a pipeline
Your business should never rely on one client saying yes. Putting too much emphasis on one deal will make you desperate, and desperation is the easiest way to scare someone away – relationship, business or anything else. Your market should be big enough that a rejection here and there is water under the bridge and simply a learning.
Closing one deal will provide a proof of concept and credibility that can be leveraged to close the next deal. Each subsequent client should, in theory, be easier to win than the previous one.
Finally, if the product or service is constantly being enhanced according to the market’s needs, if there are enough clients in the pipeline, and if the follow-ups after a great pitch are being done effectively, deals should go through systematically. At the end of the day, closing a deal shouldn’t feel like hard work. The best way to win business is by building a great business that solves real problems.