selling to multinationals

Big fish, little fish. Selling to multinationals.

Posted by Matthew Stibbe Picture of Matthew Stibbe on 28 May 2007
Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing. Writer, marketer, pilot, wine enthusiast and geek. Not necessarily in that order. Never at the same time.

Through my company, Articulate Marketing, I have worked for lot of huge companies, including HP, Microsoft, Samsung, Toshiba, LinkedIn, Symantec and eBay. It's great. They're full of smart people who are fun to work with. They give me lots of opportunities to deploy all my skills and make a real contribution.

How to sell to multinationals

It is possible - just like with sales and marketing - for small companies to work with big ones. Here is my experience:

  • It's all about people. You don't sell to an organisation, you sell to a person. If you can find someone who needs what you do enough, they'll find a way to work with you. I call this person a patron (and bless 'em all!).
  • Find a niche. The key thing is to find a niche where you can offer a better service than their incumbent suppliers. However, don't go in hoping to replace rostered agencies or established suppliers, just look for the opportunity to complement them and enhance what they do.
  • Focus on their problems. Find out what your potential patron's pain is. Are they spending too much time correcting agency copy? Is their website substandard? Do they need to reach a new audience? It's not really selling, it's more a branch of psychotherapy.

  • Pricing matters more than price. Generally big companies have big purses. If you can solve your patron's problem within the budget they have, they aren't going to negotiate over price. A freelancer or small agency is going to be cheaper than a big agency or, for the same money, they'll work harder. I find that it helps to offer a pricing structure based on fixed project fees. Typically, I quote a number or days at a day rate or a number of words at a word rate. This means that my patrons can predict what they will get for their budget. It also short-circuits a lot of negotiation (which everybody finds awkward).
  • Avoid their purchasing department. Everbody finds negotiation awkward ... except the purchasing department. They get paid to do it. Avoid at all costs. Better to turn down the deal than agree to a heavy discount that you will never walk back. In my experience, there's always a way of doing a sensible deal with a client if they want what you are selling.
  • Expect to be paid late. Big companies are good for the money - you will get paid. But don't expect to be paid quickly. 30 days is optimistic. 60 days is more typical. It's the bureaucracy that delays payment, not bad will or cash flow problems. Get your invoices in quickly and make sure that they are approved. Understand how invoices are processed. If they have an online invoicing system, get on it as soon as possible - they work very well because you can plug straight into their ERP system and track the status of your invoice.
  • Market yourself, not your business. I like meeting people and finding out about them (it's hard to be a writer if you don't!). Although it is not deliberate or cynical in any way, I am sure that spending time with people, being friendly and being myself is the best way to market my business. I find that seminars and things like that are good opportunities to do this as well as being good karma.
  • Build a network. The best marketing is referrals. Doing a good job for one patron is the best way to get work from another patron in the same company. Big companies are like federations of small companies. Cross-selling within a client is much more efficient than trying to hook a new client.
  • Don't over-promise. It's easy to say 'yes, yes, yes' and raise people's expectations. I find that it's very important to agree specifications for everything I do. This avoids unecessary rework and also helps set expectations. Faced with a fixed budget and a fixed deadline, it's also sometimes tempting to agree to do more work than you planned for the same money - just for goodwill. Best avoided.
  • Understand their weaknesses. Compared to small businesses, collective decision-making in big companies takes longer. Much longer. It's all about budgets, bosses and butt-covering. Priorities change and people move on. They like meetings and conference calls. Try to understand how the organisation works and how it makes decisions. If you can help your patron, for example, by presenting information in a way that helps them get decisions made, that's great.

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