When all the spring conferences, trade shows, and networking events were canceled, it was undoubtedly a blow to small business owners looking to connect with new customers — but we all figured we’d make up for lost time with a networking marathon in the fall.
Now that it’s looking like in-person events won’t be a thing for quite a while, it’s time to adjust our plan and figure out what business development looks like in a totally virtual world.
To get you started, Business Insider gathered tons of ideas from business owners and coaches on how to successfully find and pitch potential customers while working from home.
If you’re finding it harder to make new business connections because you’re stuck on your couch, turn to the ones you already have. It could take the form of an email you send out to all your current and past clients and other professional connections reminding them what you have to offer and asking if they or anyone they know might need your services.
If you’re a maker trying to connect with new wholesale accounts, it could also take the form of reaching out to your direct-to-consumer customer base or social media followers for ideas.
“Give them a quick little form to fill out where they can recommend their favorite boutiques,” said Emily Grey, the owner of The Flourish Market and a business coach to makers and indie brands. “Then, when you reach out, you can share that connection. If I get an email saying one of my customers has recommended something, I’m going to pay attention.”
It could even take the form of revisiting some long-lost contacts. “I reached out to someone I met once and haven’t spoken to in years, and it resulted in a (yet to go live) major awareness opportunity for the app,” said Dani Fankhauser, cofounder and chief marketing officer of XO, the first dating app with icebreaker games. “Everyone is experiencing collective grief and genuinely cares about what others are going through and working on, so all of our ‘cool’ connections are actually warm and worth re-igniting.”
Your online presence is essentially your first impression now, so you want to have a strong website and social profiles that clearly show off what you do and how someone can work with you.
Once you have this digital foundation, you also need to put in the time and effort to put yourself out there (just like you would when introducing yourself to a group of strangers at a conference).
One of the most powerful strategies is to engage with communities where your ideal clients already are: Facebook groups, Slack channels, Instagram Live videos with brands or people that align with your own, etc.
But what you should avoid is hopping on every social channel out there. “When you’re spread thin everywhere, then you really dilute your message, and you’re not really doing anything well,” said sales strategy coach Natasha Hemmingway. Instead, she tells her clients to find their “lead pipeline lanes,” or the channels where their target customers are and where they feel most comfortable presenting themselves. “Ask yourself: Where do you show up best?” she said.
You can take a hint from your in-person preferences here. For instance, if you used to love networking events, you might turn to Slack communities now.
“I chat with a lot of people who are posting questions in different Slack channels and communities,” said Jes Osrow, cofounder of HR consulting agency The Rise Journey.
Whitney Robinson, founder of The Renée, has also found incredible opportunities in these spaces. “Never before have I experienced such a range of female founder incubators, pitch contests, and funding opportunities,” she said. “Where before these things seemed more concentrated in major cities, remote opportunities have allowed me to cast a wider net and spread the word about my business to larger audiences.”
If speaking used to be your jam, maybe doing videos or live sessions on social could be a good path for you. “I’m taking the messages I used to deliver in 45-minute talks around the country and breaking them down into small videos on social media,” said Jamie Lieberman, owner of Hashtag Legal.
The name of the game right now is generosity. While it can be stressful to just give away your time (or your product) as an entrepreneur, think of this as rerouting the time and money you’d normally be investing in conferences and trade shows.
That could mean offering more free advice or consultation calls than you normally would, especially if your expertise is in high demand. “With COVID-19 in particular, some of our clients were in distress,” Lieberman said. “So we’d reach out to just say, ‘We’re here if you need us, and if things are tough, we’ll 100% help you.'”
Not only was this personally rewarding, but it helped build deeper relationships and referrals.
“By offering free mentorship chats and paying it forward, those we talk to share our information, post about us on social media as thanks, and often come back to us when they have a budget and want support,” Osrow added.
“That doesn’t mean giving away everything for free,” Hemmingway added, saying you can be generous with boundaries. “For example, in my last course, I gave a free spot away. I thought, what woman out there needs this right now? And what skin is it off my back? I get to catapult another woman who’s going to rise up in the market and support other women. That’s not a loss, that’s a win.”
Once you get in touch with a potential client, Liberman suggested following their lead if they’d rather connect via video chat, phone, or email.
If you’re hopping on a video call, take a moment to chat about how the client’s doing before diving into business. You’ll also want to make your pitch a lot tighter than usual since it’s easy to lose people’s interest online and relate it to the customer’s needs and current reality. Finally, remove as many distractions as possible, but have a plan for the inevitable technical difficulties.
Sten Pittet, cofounder and CEO of Tability, loves tools like video messaging software Loom or proposal software Qwilr for asynchronous communication that’s still engaging. “These tools allow small business teams to duplicate themselves,” Pittet said. “Rather than having tons of one-on-ones, you can create this piece of information, but it can be shared to multiple people without you being present.”
Grey said the best way to pitch wholesale accounts remotely is to send samples to potential partners.
“We receive a million emails a day and we can’t open all of them, but I guarantee we open every box that arrives at our store and, when we hold your product in our hands, we can tell in a second if we want to sell it,” Grey said. If you can’t do that, invest in really good product photography, keep your email short and to the point about the value of your product, and make it really easy to order your product.
“We don’t need to talk to you,” said Grey. “We don’t need a whole long email about the story behind your product. We get so many pitches, all we’re looking at is your product and asking ourselves if it will sell.”