Best Practices for Working with Big Clients

Date: January 03, 2014

Author and small business owner Cynthia Kay shares tips on selling to big companies

As the owner of Cynthia Kay and Company, a small media-production and communications company in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cynthia Kay has spent her career behind the camera. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to get in front of big companies. She and her eight-person team have won business from Global Fortune 100s Her latest book, Small Business for Big Thinkers, lays out her game plan for small business owners to grow their firms by selling to big businesses. Here, she riffs on the power of word-of-mouth marketing, why you should start with small projects and the importance of applying for industry awards.

What are the best ways to find big clients?

My strategy is to take on smaller projects in the beginning. It’s one of the best ways to get in the door, prove yourself and win long-term business. That’s exactly how we won our first big customer [furniture company Herman Miller]. A small subsidiary of a large manufacturing company had an existing video supplier, but they were too busy to take on a small, lower-budget project. This potential customer found us through an ad. We gave this project the same attention and creativity that we would a much larger one. The customer was so pleased that he got us on an RFP list when his parent company was looking for a supplier to produce an ongoing communication. That first $2,500 project opened the door to a much larger opportunity. Twenty-five years later, and projects too numerous to mention, we are still working with this company.

Another way [to find big clients] is to position yourself as the expert and then learn to brag. To get recognition, apply for awards that demonstrate your ability to achieve great business results. High-profile industry awards are important. They show that, when compared to your peers, your work is noteworthy.

What are some best practices for calling on big companies?

The best way to call on a big company is to be where they are. I have attended events where procurement professionals are presenting on topics like supplier diversity or how to respond to RFPs. I have also presented at seminars on topics of interest to big companies and walked away with stacks of business cards as leads. When you meet in these settings, you have the chance to make an initial impression and learn valuable information [about their current business partnerships]. Then I follow up with targeted communications offering content I think will be valuable. The goal is to get an RFP and get short-listed or get a face-to-face meeting.

Another best practice is to do more than just respond to an RFP. I believe in consulting with big companies about why they might consider a different approach. I try to offer alternatives that can improve their efficiency and cut costs. For example, I showed one of our large customers how to leverage their video assets so they could create both an internal training video and external marketing piece for much less than it would have been to create them separately.

How should small businesses follow up with potential big customers?

Small business owners need to ask and listen to their potential customers for their preferred method of follow-up. It’s not about how we like to communicate; it is about how your potential customer wants to receive information. I have one customer who did not want any face-to-face meetings during the time we were trying to win their business. She preferred all communication via email and asked us to copy specific individuals. We honored that request and won the business. Some potential customers request, believe it or not, printed materials. Others give you guidelines on when you can check in. If they tell you to call next quarter, call next quarter. It shows you were listening.

How can small businesses form long-term relationships with big clients?

To form a great relationship, I think you need to really care about the success of your customer and do everything you can to make that happen. You have to trust each other enough to share information. That means admitting that something went wrong or that the budget is too high or too low. You have to know more about your customer than they sometimes know about themselves. You have to think of yourself as a part of their team—not just someone they hired.

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