Commercial Strategies

June 1, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Web

My small firm serves mostly the seven communities north of Chicago along Lake Michigan, the North Shore and about 70 Chicago North Side businesses.

I have a smaller territory than most web design, maintenance and marketing services because Lake Michigan creates a wall preventing my prospecting to the east.  This barrier also insulates me from competition to the east.  I can only reasonably cold call businesses 40 minutes away.  If a local business is farther than 40 minutes away, the time it takes to go to the several appointments to complete a site and maintain a client over time becomes prohibitively long.  The same thing works in reverse.  Few design firms from outside this area prospect where I work and live.

So, I have a relatively stable client base.  I serve affluent communities.  My firm places an emphasis on service.  I have a smaller territory but relatively little competition.

When I started this business in 1999, I sprinted for several years, working 70-hour weeks in order to become firmly established while most shops and services still had no sites.  I figured the day would come when every business had a site.  I estimated that it would be easier to build from scratch than to convince a potential client to give me an established website to rebuild.

It was maybe three or four years ago that I realized that almost half our new clients were coming to us with established sites, looking for someone to take over maintenance, and sometimes they were seeking a renovation.  The market was maturing.

At this time, it is frequently the case that when I call on a new shop or service, they already have a website.  With the yellow pages disappearing, new proprietors realize they need Google to get the word out.  The savvy ones are thinking website, website marketing and email marketing before their business doors open.

The recession is throwing these patterns into some confusion.

Over the last six to nine months, I’ve been approached by numerous businesses in the building industry, or services that specialize in maintaining homes, such as painters, masons, heating and AC specialists and renovation guys.  They are desperate for new business.  Those that had no sites are seeking a web presence.  Those with sites are looking for ways for those sites to bring in new business.

At the other end of the continuum, many shops and restaurants observing an appalling drop off in business are cutting costs wherever possible, including website maintenance and marketing costs.  These are often the shops selling products that appear in people’s homes.  Whereas the painters, masons, plumbers and heating/AC guys know that their services will eventually be required, those selling products for inside people’s homes know that new furniture, framing, rugs or interior design services are not essential.

Everybody is scared.  Different commercial sectors are adjusting in different ways.

When I was in the gift trade business as a sales rep representing many different firms, mostly greeting card and calendar publishers, I negotiated with free samples, and display racks accumulated from trade shows.  I’d give away stuff for free to get an order.  I’d give away more stuff to get a commitment of space inside a store.  Wheeling and dealing became part of the routine.

Wheeling and dealing is back again.  I find myself doing what is necessary to make a sale.  Instead of 2-3 weeks of work backed up behind each designer, it’s been closer to 2-3 days of work.  We’re more flexible now.  We have to be.  Whatever we can do to make it easier to get a client or keep a client is what we do.

I can feel a firm tug toward a barter economy, one characterized by all prices being negotiable, each individual working harder to make do.  I will continue to concentrate on the seven nearby communities and the North End of Chicago.  In this kind of environment, serving a small territory well holds more promise than serving a larger territory poorly.  Relationship is king in hard times.


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