The dos and don'ts of canvassing to business ownersArticle added by Michael Goldberg on July 3, 2014
Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg

Jackson, NJ

Joined: August 21, 2010

Canvassing is an approach where financial advisors, reps, agents, brokers and other sales producers “drop in” on small businesses to meet and greet the owners and other decision makers. Why? To promote and ultimately sell their services — not to mention to discuss the value of their work. Good approach or bad?

I like canvassing as a marketing strategy because it’s a face-to-face introduction that may create opportunities to establish a connection with those you meet. And great connections lead to more prospects, referrals and business.

Here’s the counter punch. By walking into someone’s place of business unannounced, you’re taking the owner (or decision maker) by surprise and positioning yourself as just another vendor. Vendors that solicit become bothersome to business owners who are simply running their body shop, gas station, convenience store, or coffee stand. That’s when doors get slammed, "no soliciting" signs get displayed, and gatekeepers get trained to say, “Not interested.” Imagine the toll this kind of rejection takes on a new sales rep. Rejection is bad enough on the phones but even worse in person.

OK, maybe not such a great way to do business.

Done correctly, canvassing becomes an opportunity to shake hands and develop relationships (remember, relationships drive business) rather than getting treated like just another vendor. Here are 10 ways to make more connections, generate more referrals, and not hit the canvas.

1. Networking, not selling: Consider taking a networking, not selling, approach. Networking is about establishing a relationship in an effort to learn from and help one another. Your attitude should be, "How can we get to know one another and ultimately refer each other business?" rather than, "I want to sell you my product and services." Remember a networking attitude drives your use of language. Language drives relationships. And relationships drive business. After establishing a relationship, the business owner may become your client. This “attitude” will be a far cry from the other 50 vendors that show up daily and want to talk about the value of their work.

2. Schedule an appointment: When showing up to someone’s place of business, don’t look to get into a detailed conversation right then and there. This is probably not the time, unless the business owner is interested in speaking immediately. Otherwise, see if you can schedule a time to return when the business owner can be less distracted and more prepared. Keep in mind that this may not be a scheduled “sales” appointment per se. Unless, of course, it is!

3. Tailor your language: Attitude drives language. Language drives relationships. And relationships drive business. Did I say that already? Anyway, having solid networking language will win the day and make you feel good about you. And isn't that what it’s about? A few guidelines, though. Never again can you use terms or phrases like:
  • "decision maker"
  • "value of my work"
  • "successful business owners like yourself"
  • "I get paid in two ways."
  • "What will it take to earn your business?"
If you start using sales language, you run the risk of building resistance and creating an adversarial confrontation — like your competitor who was there five minutes ago. Use networking language.

My name is Michael. I’m a financial rep from XYZ Financial Group. Like a lot of other financial guys that may visit you all the time, I have expertise in employee benefits, life insurance and financial planning. I’m focused on working with small business owners, specifically auto body shops and restaurants. I’m not here to sell you my services, unless, of course, you think I can help you. What I am here to do, since you’re probably in the middle of a million things, is schedule a time for us to meet, and discuss — one business owner to another — how we can refer each other business.

Notice how this approach sets up collaboration rather than a confrontation? Tailor your language to fit your style, but try to maintain a "we" feel rather than a "me" feel.
4. Find and focus on a target market: A target market is whom you serve best and, therefore, wish to serve most. Ideally, it’s where you do your best work. I often share with sales reps, especially financial advisors, that having a target market makes you much more referable and helps you determine where you might go, what you might say, and whom you might say it to. I like target markets to be focused on specific industries and professions — not simply a category like business owners and preretirees. But with canvassing, it may make more sense to either focus on a specific geography or an industry that is prominent in a specific geography. For example, Detroit is the automotive capital of the world. Businesses focused on car sales, body work, and the vendors related to those businesses may make a good target market. Be strategic in deciding what types of businesses you’re targeting as it will help you get referred to others.

See also: Why you absolutely need a target market

5. Stay in touch: Out of sight is out of mind. As you are speaking with various business owners, find out the best way for you to stay in touch — not to continue selling them your product, but rather to continue to develop the relationship and explore referral opportunities for one another. There are two major components to developing strong business relationships and staying in touch is one of them. Think of it as your jab!

6. Ask for introductions and referrals: Introductions are connections to other business owners (in this case) that would be open to speaking with you to have another "How can we help one another?" conversation. A referral is a connection to a business owner that’s interested in potentially becoming your customer or client. See the difference? Get in the habit of asking for both when the time is right. When is the time right? When you've developed a friendly relationship and you can use "we" language. How can we refer each other business? If you can be prepared to discuss specific businesses within a given community and request an introduction, you’ll be all the better for it.

7. Join a business group: With all of this networking, you would be absolutely insane not to join a business group that can only help you be more effective at canvassing. The groups that make the most sense are hard contact groups like Business Networking International (BNI) and your local Chamber of Commerce. Remember, it’s your business so it’s worth investing in. Think of how powerful it would be to walk into that small business and say, "We’re both members of the same Chamber and I thought it would be a good idea to introduce myself." You can work your common bond into the dialogue I suggested earlier. The same holds true if you’re part of the same church, synagogue, softball league, college alumni group, or if your kids play sports together.

8. Get them involved in your business group: If and when you become a member of the local chamber, networking group, or whatever it is, this can be a true “selling point” to a business owner in an effort to help them. "You should really join the chamber!" Talk about how it’s helped you and the benefits of joining. Remember, if they become a member, the group will love you and you’ll have the opportunity to get to know the business owner better.

9. Be a giver, not a taker: If staying in touch is your jab, offering and ultimately giving referral business is your power punch. Focus on the relationship and the business will be there. Not exactly the mindset of most sales reps who canvas, but that’s why most end up flat out on the canvas. Spend time generating sales for businesses that you like, are great at what they do, and will return the favor sometime soon. Keep in mind, it’s not about keeping score, but it is about the connection — so make it.

10. Do your homework: Map out the day before exactly what businesses you will visit and how to make the best use of your time. How many neighboring businesses are in the area? How many of those businesses are members of your chamber or business group? Who do you know that may know the owners of any of those businesses? Are you or your family a customer, client, patient or member of that business? Do you know the peak and non-peak hours of those businesses? (For example, never visit a restaurant in the middle of the lunch rush or a service department first thing in the morning.) Be strategic and have a process for canvassing — don’t just do a drive by!

There is no sure-fire way to make your canvassing efforts successful all the time. But taking these approaches will absolutely give you the confidence to have better conversations, write more business, and most important, be able to dust yourself off when getting off the canvas.
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