5 Things You Must Do To Sell To a Small Business Owner

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Small business owners are an odd lot. I can say this without judgment because I am one.

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Cracking the small business code is something that routinely perplexes large organizations. I see it every day, and I’ve been asked numerous times to consult on that very puzzle.

The thing is, however, a lot of small businesses want to sell to other small businesses too. Many times I find that they miss the subtleties of attracting small business even though they need look no further than their own buying habits for keys to the sale.

So, today I’m going to share how I, one long-time small business owner, think and make purchases in an effort to create what might become your cheat sheet for how to think about selling to small business.

I suspect there are Fortune 500 consultants that would charge tens of thousands of dollars for what I’m about to reveal below, but you get it for free!

1) Realize I don’t plan that far out

Small business owners would love to have a three-year and five-year plan, but the reality is we often have a one-week plan and it’s a rough draft. I’m not saying it’s perfect, I’m just saying it’s the reality of the time and resource sparse business.

We don’t respond well to future ROI messages or value received over time because mostly we’re usually looking to fix something right now. Talk to me about the pain I have today, fix the problem that will get me immediate relief and then we can talk about the future.

2) Help me buy value over price

I actually don’t want to buy on price, but I will. If you don’t give me a way to see how your solution makes better sense to me right now , I’ll choose the lower price. But if you can demonstrate that you’re going to be here whenever and however I need you, that switching to your solution isn’t going to be painful and that this time it’s going to be different, I’ll pay a premium.

The problem is, I don’t believe your brochure. In fact, the greater problem is I don’t fully trust myself to implement what you’ve suggested either. So, demonstrate by building a relationship, don’t sell, educate. Prove to me that you really understand my business by using my language – if you use the terms synergy or value proposition it will hard for me to hear anything else you say.

3) Make the service as sexy as the sale

Good marketing makes you hungry for how your world is about to change for the better. Good marketing paints a picture of your new shiny world once you’ve bought the product or engaged the service. That’s the job of marketing – to build know, like and trust.

The problem is that once I say I want to buy, good marketing seems to come to a crashing end.

Good marketing also understands that I need to be oriented to what I just bought, I need to know what to do next, I need to know who to contact with questions, I need to know how I pay, how I get more, how I add features and I need to know it all as part of your sales and service process.

In fact, good marketing doesn’t ever end. It also wants to measure the results I got and it wants to make sure I’m thrilled.

4) Know that I am loyal to a fault

Okay, I’m playing with fire sharing this one, but you need to know that I value loyalty as much as anything. So, that’s a great thing to know, but it’s a two-way street. I will be loyal to companies that are loyal to me.

If you fix my problem, you do it in a way that is simple, effective and affordable and if I come to trust your words and actions – I’ll buy anything else you present to me in the same way. I’ll go out of my way to keep buying from you because what I know about you is more comforting than what I don’t know about someone else’s pitch.

Take advantage of this by making it easy for me to share you with my friends, neighbors and colleagues. Make me feel like a champion for your business and I’ll willingly become an unpaid member of your sales team.

5) Continue to educate and I’ll buy more

Don’t change once I become a customer. If you want me to buy more, don’t just toss me into the up sell and cross sell sales funnel that consists of little more than canned sales messages.

Continue to educate me, share things that real people share with each other, talk to me like someone you want to have a deeper relationship with – do that and you’ll earn the right to come to me with the unabashed intention of selling me something else.


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  1. I think that o many occasions I have been failing when selling to small business by offering great future opportunities. I really like the simple fact that you reminded me that I need to relieve today’s pain. 

    As a small business person I also have many future projects but I have to get those that are being implemented at the moment to be successful. Something we easily forget when selling to other small business owners. 

    The biggest issues I see when you sell to a small business is by knowing how much time you need to invest to make sure they know what needs to be done next. In many occasions I have sacrificed (not invested) a lot more time to keep a relationship healthy and the small business owner has interpreted that my extra services to make sure they are guided correctly become my responsibility even when I am not getting paid. Do you have any advice on how to get them to the next steps without leading your clients into thinking your consulting and work is free most of the time. 

    1. I think Raul has nailed it, at least for certain kinds of services. I’m a freelance writer/editor and all I hear from my veteran colleagues is that small businesses have too many problems and too little budget to bother with.

      It sounds like you’re asking for a level of service that could be unprofitable for somebody to provide. Most independent vendors need to earn $50 an hour to get out of bed. There’s an impression that many small businesses simply cannot afford that, except for absolutely essential services that generate an even greater return.

      1. Tom…. thanks.. I think where I run into issues is when I try to keep a balance from helping a small business out and having the other side of the picture where they end up taking advantage of the help I gave them. 

        1. Raul you have to make it clear (in your mind and your customers) when your time/advice is free and when it is not.  If it’s not a clear rule (that you both can understand) then they will get confused (and take advantage).

          Some approaches you could use – modify to suit you obviously!
            – Allow a free 30 minute consult once a month/quarter
            – Have group sessions/webinars/events where you can work with more people at once and leverage your time
            – Prepare information packages to help guide them – videos/flow charts/ebooks – again gives you leverage

          It can be a hard line to draw between moving a client towards a sale or just dropping it – but you need to have a line in the sand and stick to it.  All the best!

          1. Andrew, 

            My good friend @beckymccray:twitter gave me the free first 15 minutes which I have been using. I usually include in maintenance plans 30 minutes of consulting a month. 

            My biggest issue is that culturally and locally there are so many people giving free and bad advice with a sales bait. That when i am transparent they think I should give my consulting for free. 

            I appreciate your feedback and will give a few of your suggestions a try. 

  2. John, 

    This is great advice no matter if the business is large or small, consumer or business. Well done.
    As a vendor partner to associations and nonprofits, I was nodding my head at nearly everything!

    Thanks so much,

    Tony Veroeven

  3. John I would add:

    Make it Cool to do business with you.  Make it seem like the small business owner is joining an elite club of people who get to do business with you.

    Great article!

  4. I’d add one more — a sense of urgency is good. Small companies want to move ahead NOW, not in 6 weeks when the sales lead pops to the top of someone’s pile. When interest gets expressed, companies should move quickly to demonstrate that great service and personal relationship that builds loyalty and trust. Start as  you plan to go on — being respectful of the small business culture where everyone wears many hats, at many different times, Show you can adapt to that environment and you will get and keep their business.

  5. John, that was seriously the best description of sales to the SMB sector I’ve ever seen.

    Of course, big companies just CAN’T DO THAT STUFF, and small companies are rarely good enough, but still … kudos!

  6. Great insight John!
    It’s funny that people try and sell one way, but they would never buy that way. It’s easy to say “Put Yourself in Your Prospects Shoes”, but most salespeople never do it.
    It just confirms the value a conversion (sales) process brings to both parties.
    Great stuff,

  7. I agree with each of your points, but I think they ultimately disprove the premise that you can sell to small businesses. This is especially true if you are a small business yourself. And by selling, I mean an outbound strategy of identifying prospects and trying to contact them through whatever medium and ultimately ending in a sales call. This worked as late as just over 10 years ago. I could actually go door to door in the late 90’s selling websites and related services and be successful. No more. When choosing my latest venture one of the requirements was actually no direct selling to small businesses.

    I think what you can do is market to small businesses, mostly through education, and when they’re interested or the pain is great enough, they’ll buy. All of the technologies that you regularly explain make this possible. Maybe I’m standing on semantics, but to me that’s not the same thing as selling. And that’s not a bad thing.

  8. I think the point you make in item number 1 is key, in any marketing situation, you need to understand your prospect’s sales cycle.  While larger firms can demonstrate longer purchase timeframes with complex selection committees, the small business is operating in real time, and has to adapt quickly, and often times “purchase quickly”.  So if you have demonstrate quick value and provide an easy, fast purchase mechanism, you can be very successful with small organizations. 

    Thanks for making this point, John!
    Sue Watkins

  9. These insights about Targeting Small Business Owners are from an article on MarketingZone

    1.  Owners may not want to be called a “small business”

    2. The business owner(s) are spending their own money

    3.  Most business owners go into business because they’re good at one thing, not everything

    4.  They are “people people” who like to do business with people in person

    5.  They don’t plan short term and focus on the urgent/important priorities

    6.  They’re thrifty about spending money

    7.  Many small business owners are loyal and don’t like to switch

    8.  Small business owners are typically reactive vs. proactive

    9.  They spend money on their business when they feel confident

    10.  They are busy wearing many hats and want to be educated, not sold to.

    11.  Small business owners love what they do and being their own boss

    For more insights about small business owners and the list of recommendations on how to market to them visit MarketingZone.com


  10. Wow, thank you so much for these in your face straight forward tips, I think too many times small business owners who have coaches get caught up in the lingo of positioning and value propositions and up-selling and cross-selling, we move away from the core of what we really offer.  Thanks for re-emphasizing that marketing doesn’t have to be complex, you just have to understand the behavior of your customers.

  11. I’d say that any offering a service to a small business owner needs to make life easier, not harder. Often suppliers put more pressure on the business owner than relieving the pressure. Relieving pressure can be providing the exceptional service as you explained in your post John, or it can be anticipating ones needs ahead of times, or solving problems the client doesn’t know they will have. 

    Being the clients advocate on their behalf will pay dividends in the long run will grow your business. Don’t forget to tell them what you are doing for them! They will love you for it.

  12. John,

    Thank you for the insight on the best route to promote to small businesses. I am curious to know what percentage of businesses follow this roadmap to accomplish their goals.

    Stacie Walker

  13. As the economy recovers, and pent up demand for goods and services starts taking off, you’re going to want to know which small businesses have money to spend.

    Obvious targets are the small businesses with the highest profits. Those businesses typically have the highest free cash flows, too. In other words, they have money to spend.

    So the above mentioned steps in this Journal are very important when selling to small business that have money to spent or invest ..

  14. One of the most important things to remember when selling to a small business owner is to know exactly what it is that you are selling. For example, if you’re selling SEO – you’re not actually selling SEO, or rankings, you’re selling more leads and sales for the business.

    If you’re selling business cards, you’re not actually selling business cards, you’re selling branded tools for networking that bring in more sales.

    Remember the end product, not the service itself.

    1. I agree with you but I’m going to change your wording. People don’t buy products – they buy results.

  15. This is a great reminder! As a small outsourced sales firm, most of our clients are small businesses that are looking for ways to generate sales now. This is a great reminder that we need to get to the bottom of their pain quickly and be flexible enough in our offerings to create solutions that are easy to say yes to. Thanks again for another great article.

    1. Not saying it’s always right, just saying it’s the reality. But, if you can solve today’s pain you’ll get a shot and showing them tomorrow’s plan.

  16. Point 4 about loyalty is so very, very correct.

    I worked for an IT services company selling to small/medium businesses. Our business was based on point 4… our customers trusted us. We worked hard to make sure that we didn’t betray their trust, and everyone was happy. 
    We knew that we’d failed any time they even considered asking anyone else to give them a competitive quote. 

  17. Sell value. I can tell from comments most don’t fully understand their own value. It’s a constant struggle to avoid customers commoditizing your value. Don’t let them.

  18. Good article! As a small business owner, I want better questions from the businesses offering me a service. It’s the best way for me to figure out what I really want and make me feel like you truly understand my needs. I’m tired of people acting like they know what I need when they do not understand how my small manufacturing business works. Even though we sell only wholesale, we need to keep the end user in mind.

  19. Great post. I often wonder how to convince small business owners that spending at most $1,500 on a potentially infinite lasting website may be a better value than spending the same amount for one week of newspaper ads. I guess it is about selling the end result, not some fancy SEO or development language. Keep it simple, eh?

  20. Thank you for this article! Indeed, this is Customer RELATIONSHIP Management. The principles that guide healthy relationships certainly apply. Practice giving, while being clear about boundaries. Accurate knowledge, sincere interest, and healthy balance are important.

  21. I didn’t know you had your own storefront, that’s awesome. I really enjoyed this post. Too often we don’t think of selling as something that can be sexy. It’s all bout helping the client envision how wonderful their life can be if they buy your product or service. It’s not about lying, but being honest and forthright about the results that you can achieve.

    1. Hey Karl – I do have this retail looking space on a busy street, which is kind of fun, but I don’t really have any storefront offerings so sometimes people do wander in trying to buy some marketing 🙂

  22. Absolutely. People buy value, not price. Key is learning how to market the value of your product and or services as small business. Because most small business owners start or buy business without proper training on how to market. If small business marketing is learned properly, most small businesses can be multi million dollar business.

  23. This article was an eye opener, especially points 1 and 2. It’s so important to know your target market, and these reminders helped me to see areas where I’ve made assumptions and guessed, instead of really looking at SB habits.

  24. 1. Time
    Having sufficient time is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many people who want to start their own business. One of the most central skills you need when comparison a day job with running a small side business is good time organization skills.
    2. Money
    Starting a business requires cash (or credit) up front, and buying an active business often requires a large lump sum payment.
    3. Patience
    Drive and ambition aren’t enough – sometimes the early bird gets the worm, and other times slow and steady wins the race.
    4. Research
    An idea doesn’t need to be unique to be profitable – as long as there’s sufficient demand for your product. In fact, a unique idea won’t necessarily translate into big sales.
    5. Business Plan
    Creating a basic business plan can be deadly, but it is very vital, mainly if you seek financial backing from investors or a bank.

    1. Thanks, Ramona. This post is actually offering advice on how to sell to business owners but these are helpful tips for anyone looking to start up a business.

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