Q: I'm starting up a service business where I will be the sole proprietor. How do I set up a comprehensive marketing plan?
-- B.C., San Diego
A: Before you even consider setting up a marketing plan, it's imperative for a service business to make sure its service is top-notch. If it isn't, any message you try to market will fall flat. "That means arriving at appointments on time, working confidently and competently, and explaining your services to your clients in a way that they will understand," says Lynn Sarkany, president of Marketfinders, a marketing consultancy based in Agoura Hills, Calif. "Don't ever make a client feel bad for asking 'silly' questions."
Once you have this skill set down, it can be used as a shining marketing point that will attract clients, especially early on, as you rely on word-of-mouth and customer referrals. Focus on using your earliest customers as a means to attract more business. Implement referral programs and use testimonials from satisfied clients to bring in new clients.
LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS. You can also get creative and find ways to use the Internet to "narrowcast" these positive customer experiences. Depending on what industry you're joining, there are very likely Web sites and blogs that relate to the service you're providing. You might also try e-mail marketing, strictly on an "opt-in" basis, which isn't costly and offers an easily measured effectiveness rate.
By definition, a small business doesn't have the kind of budget to implement a brand marketing program that a larger corporation has. So, when you map out your formal marketing program, your first priority is to live within your means. Your business plan should have established a preliminary marketing budget.
Determine which methods and tools you can afford under that budget, and which you can't. "For example, running a television commercial five times -- because that's all you can afford -- will do nothing but deplete your budget," says Tom Simons, president of PARTNERS+simons, a Boston-based marketing communications agency.
DON'T OVER-EXPLAIN. Narrow down the characteristics of your "perfect customer," and then try to find out what that customer is reading, listening to, and watching. Don't look at major media channels, as those are likely to be out of your price range. Instead, focus on regional, local, and trade media. These are the ones you'll want to use to get your message out to your target customers.
Then craft that message carefully. "Make sure that your brand story is clear, customer-focused, and economical," Simons says. "Don't over-explain yourself. A small business embarking on a marketing program must be able to communicate the proposition in a few sentences -- meaning two or three. And by all means, once you have the story down, don't change it. Your brand-marketing narrative will take hold with your target audience only with many, many consistent tellings."
In order to reinforce your message, you should have written marketing materials and a Web site that effectively communicates why prospective clients should use your company, as opposed to another firm, Sarkany says.
MAKING CONTACT. An attractive, easy-to-read Web site can be designed and hosted for a very reasonable cost, but don't skimp to the point where your site looks amateurish or is difficult to access. Just like your customer service, your site should reflect positively on the quality and professionalism of your firm.
Your print materials should also be good quality, but remember that top-notch brochures and pamphlets are often expensive. Don't squander them or diminish their impact by handing them out indiscriminately.
"The print materials should be distributed and referred to only after contact has been made with a prospect, and that prospect wants more information on the company," Sarkany suggests. And with the right message and a company that stands behind it, chances are they will.
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.