How to win and retain your first big client

Sylvia Pennington

Contracts with big clients can be a fast track to success for startups which back the quality of their product or service offerings, but convincing large companies to take a chance is often a tough sell.

So what are the secrets to doing deals with big business when you’re small enough to hold your staff meetings in a telephone booth?

Build relationships

Build relationships with influential partners who can give you an in, says Dean Robertson, the founder of software consultancy Mexia, which employs 40 staff across three states.

The firm became a supplier to the Bank of Queensland just 18 months after opening in 2009 and now counts the likes of Cotton On, RACQ and Unisuper among its clients.

“We’re a Microsoft partner and because of our depth of talent and specialised skills, they found it easy to introduce us when a niche opportunity came along that wouldn’t be interesting to a bigger consortium,” Robertson says.

“We invested a lot of time and effort into building that relationship with Microsoft. We couldn’t afford a marketing campaign and we didn’t have professional salespeople, just my business partner Mat Coleman and I who were passionate representatives of the business.”

You need to be able to stand in a room and talk about why you’re the best at what you do.

It’s also a big help if you can show genuine passion for the products or services you’re spruiking.

Find an advocate

Once you’ve got a foot in the customer’s door, identifying and cultivating a champion is vital.

“In large organisations, there can be politics and factions and dozens of people with decision making responsibility,” Robertson says. “You need to find the right person or team to sell to and they’ll become an evangelist for you and promote you to their boss.”

It’s also a big help if you can show genuine passion for the products or services you’re spruiking.

Be the best at what you do

“You need to be able to stand in a room and talk about why you’re the best at what you do,” Robertson says.

“If a big customer is going to take a bet on you it’s often because they want to work with people who are actively engaged, not just filling an order book.”

Undertaking a discrete assignment can give large prospects a low risk opportunity to try your services on for size, Robertson adds.

“Our work with Bank of Queensland started with a paid five-day engagement to solve a problem their other partners hadn’t been able to crack,” he says.

“If you truly believe you’re the best in your area, offer to carry out a short sharp engagement where the desired outcomes are measurable and clearly defined.

“And let the customer know that, if you succeed, you’d like to work with them on larger projects. Once you’ve proved your worth, they’ll never let you go!”

Sylvia Pennington

Sylvia Pennington is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist who writes about small business, information technology and personal finance.

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