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InvoiceMarketing_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Invoices occupy a sweet spot for business: they are one of the few types of mail that are promptly opened and read. A surprising amount of invoices, however, are devoid of any kind of marketing message. Since you have the complete and immediate attention of your customers—the first step in any sales cycle—putting a message on your bill or invoice is an opportunity that shouldn't be ignored.


InvoiceMarketing_PQ.jpg"The biggest advantage is that it's something the client is already receiving from you, so it's not overly invasive," says Melanie Wright, the marketing director for Abstrakt Marketing Group, a full service marketing company in St. Louis, Missouri.


Besides this stealth superiority, you can insert a wide range of messages on the invoice. For example: announcing a new product, upselling a service package, asking for customer feedback, sharing a testimonial, offering a free white paper, or acknowledging the customer's loyalty. It's not so much what you put on the invoice as it is capitalizing on a new touchpoint and reconnecting with your customers. 


Just say thank you

Abstrakt's Wright notes that they've used invoice marketing to give updates on products and services. They also nurture relationships by reminding their customers to use them for upcoming projects, discreetly asking for referrals, and requesting testimonials. "Those little details and touches and customizations play into [business-building]," she says.  


Putting a simple thank you or other sincere note of appreciation on the invoice can pave the way to future sales, too.


"Instead of using your traditional carrier envelope, put [the invoice] in a nice envelope," recommends Daniel Glickman of FirmFlair, a marketing consultancy in Sherborn, Massachusetts. "Change the perception that [the invoice] is a penalty of doing business with you. It's not a downside, it's one of the benefits." For added impact, send the thank you in its own envelope inside the main invoice envelope.


Glickman emphasizes that any invoice message must complement—not contradict—your overall messaging. For example, a business that markets itself as giving personal customer service would send the wrong tone with a message on an invoice that sounded cold or bureaucratic. Still another mistake would be to come across as pushy or hard selling if you usually cultivate a warm, low-key tone in your other advertising.


"You're sending an invoice to get paid for the work you're doing. The question is, why did they hire you in the first place? You don't want to contradict that," Glickman says.


Working together is key

Which department owns invoice marketing, accounts payable or marketing?


"It's definitely a joint effort," says Abstrakt's Wright. "I could have a million ideas for what I think would be great for invoice marketing and then I would run that by our accounting department [to have them] review the functionality of it as well as the professionalism and legal aspect."


Abstrakt relies on both internal and external collaborations to enhance the power of their invoice marketing. For example, Abstrakt partners with a web design firm to handle services that they don't cover themselves. But instead of sending them just a regular invoice, Abstrakt takes its own advice: they include customer feedback on projects that the design firm executed and even gives them leads for new business.


It is generally agreed that messages on invoices should be short, direct, and few in number—one, or sometimes two at most. As with a renewal series, variety is key.


"If your customers see the same thing on every invoice, they're going to quit looking at it," says Jerry Ellis, vice president of sales and marketing for Lanvera, an outsourcing company in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that delivers documents to customers through print and electronic means. "If [the message] changes all the time, now your customer is going to be trained that you're doing promotions or marketing in the invoice, so they're going to look at it."


Ellis recommends putting the marketing message upfront on the invoice so the recipient sees it right away before they get involved in the financial transaction of paying the bill. Since the bill is primarily text, using graphics is a keen way to draw the customer's eye.


"The entire back of the carrier envelope and even certain portions of the front can be used to put a marketing message on it, too," he says. "The message on the outside could be the full message or 'Look Inside For' something more."


Marketing messages also work well on bills sent electronically, and even offer a distinct advantage over snail mail. Not only can the bill be paid immediately, but it can also be embedded with a link that takes the customer to a new landing page with a fresh marketing message. Response can be tracked to identify what language or offer was most appealing. 


Outsource your invoicing

Having a third party company, like Lanvera, handle the myriad details of invoice marketing can be a real time saver for a small business, as Nisly Brothers discovered. The small, family-owned trash hauling company, located in south central Kansas, was founded in 1957 by the father of the current president, Marvin Nisly.


Nisly takes advantage of invoice marketing to keep his business at the forefront of his customers' minds through a variety of messages, from promoting new products and announcing enhanced services—such as open top containers and e-billing, respectively—to non-sales-oriented, appreciative messages at Thanksgiving and Christmas that nurture relationships.


Although he doesn't track specific results to particular messages, one message does stand out in his experience.


"We got an extremely strong response when we did a survey that asked customers to rate our company in different areas," Nisly recalls. "If they included their account number, we'd enter them in a drawing for a gift certificate. We got some helpful feedback from that. I was amazed."


Nisly's business sends out around 3,000 pieces of mail every quarter. Outsourcing the printing, handling, and inserting to an outside vendor has freed Nisly's small staff to go onto other jobs. "Now, when we're finished building the invoices and uploading them to Lanvera, we're done," he says. "It's been a huge savings for us."  

CustomerReferral_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


Asking a satisfied customer for a referral may seem like the easiest thing to do. But for many small business owners it’s a tactic they like to avoid at all costs. The question is—why the aversion?


“There are really two things in my experience—pride and fear,” says John Jantsch, small business marketing consultant and author of the book The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business to Market Itself. “The pride part comes into play when a business owner feels that asking their customers to refer business is like begging or an admission that they don't have all the business they can handle. The fear part is a little trickier: It’s fear of being rejected and fear that perhaps their clients aren't as satisfied as they hope.”


So if fear, a primal emotion, is what prevents small business owners from utilizing this most cost-effective method of attracting more customers, how can they overcome their phobias and build referrals?

Initiate a gift program for referrals

Jeremy Schaedler, president of Schaedler Insurance, a three-year-old Northern California-based firm that specializes in insurance and bonding for contractors, says that he relies so much on rewarding referrals that it’s become his company’s primary marketing tool. He says referrals have helped grow his business 20 percent annually for the past six years, the challenging economy notwithstanding.


To illustrate his point, Schaedler, whose company has a staff of three, cites a popular rewards program he conceived that helped boost his company’s bottom line. “One of our most successful ideas was to partner with upscale local restaurants to purchase $50 gift cards for $25 each, and use those for referrals,” he recounts. “The restaurants that participated loved the idea because it got people in to try the restaurants. We were also able to offer something with a $50 value for only a $25 out-of-pocket cost.” As Schaedler’s business expanded beyond northern California, the local gift cards made less sense for him, but he still believes in the concept. “It is still a great approach for the right type of local-based business looking to build relationships in the community and reward referrals,” he says.


If you do decide to opt for a gifts or cash rewards program, be careful you don’t go overboard or your customers will feel like mercenaries.


“I had a client that was not focused on referrals in the right way and it was obvious from talking to their clients that they were loved but no one was referring,” recalls Jantsch. “What we discovered was that it was the way they were addressing referrals that was hurting them.”


The client, an upscale remodeling contractor had a standing cash offer of $1,000 for a referral. Jantsch discovered that the contractor’s customers were “put off by the fact that they would gain from telling a good friend to hire this service.”


So Jantsch and his client restrategized. Instead of offering $1,000 for a referral, they switched the referral award to securing the services of a skilled carpenter to spend a day at the client’s house fixing things. “All of a sudden the referral motivation changed and the contractor’s clients started bragging about earning a carpenter for a day, which, as it turns out, was hard for them to acquire and more appreciated than the $1,000,” he continues. “It was something they felt good about earning.”


Build a relationship of trust with customers

Asking a new customer straight off the bat for a referral would be a mistake, says Bruce Loren, owner of the 12-year-old Loren Law Firm, which is based in West Palm Beach, Florida and has a staff of eight.


“You need to spend time building up trust, and treating a customer like a business colleague or a friend, not simply a money-generating client,” explains Loren, whose firm specializes in construction law. “If you have been fair with the client, they will want to help you. For example, I often tell clients to settle cases, despite the fact that it is against my financial interest. They know that and appreciate it.”


Michael Raanan, president of Landmark Tax Group, a tax firm based in California’s Orange County, echoes Loren’s sentiments. Having launched his company with a staff of two in January, Raanan, a former IRS revenue officer, says you can’t have referrals unless you build relationships first.


“Every interaction with another person, whether they are part of your target market or not, provides a chance to build a relationship that may lead to an untold number of referrals down the road,” he says. “The best source of referrals has always been, and will continue to be, satisfied customers. When customers are satisfied with the service they received, not only will they send additional clients your way, they do it with a smile and with a certain sense of personal satisfaction knowing they are helping out a friend and sending business your way as form of thanks. Word-of-mouth advertising is priceless, and for small business owners, there's no better investment.”

Provide exemplary customer service

This tip may sound so obvious as to be counterintuitive, but it is that simple. If you want your business to be referable, then you will have to treat your customers with courtesy, respect, and value. At the same time, you shouldn’t be shy when asking for a favor from a regular customer.


“This is a time consuming and long-range process,” says Loren. “You may start a relationship today that will result in business two to three years from now. Think like you will be in this business, in this community, for the rest of your life. You always want people to speak highly of your skills and trustworthiness. People give and refer business to people they like and trust.”


It’s that time of year again— time to get the kids ready for back-to-school. And while you’re buying new school supplies and clothes for the kids, why not think about some new ideas for your small business as well? One smart idea that many small business owners implement this time of year is to market their business with the back-to-school season in mind. With so many families focusing on school, it makes a lot of sense.


Don't think that your business has to sell services or products to families to cash in on the back-to-school fever. Really, any business can tap into this moment in time. For instance, an accounting firm can put a back-to-school spin on some promotions, such as: “Is your small business’ math not up to speed? Don’t worry, you don’t need a tutor; instead contact the Jones Accounting Firm and get A’s on your next financials.”


The key to marketing your business for back-to-school is twofold: First, you need to have the right angle. Second, you need to have the right vehicle. Let’s look at both.


The Right Angle: There’s no shortage of competition out there when it comes to back-to-school promotions.  Here’s why: marketers focus on where people put their attention, and right now, for families, returning to school is getting that attention. So, it’s important to be smart with your marketing efforts so that you don’t get lost in the shuffle.


Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss.


I once had a master marketer tell me that the key to marketing in a crowded field is “waves and dips.” He explained that while it is smart to catch a wave like back-to-school because it is where the eyeballs are, the key to standing out is the dip. That is, you need to position yourself in a spot where the rest of the wave marketers are not.


What constitutes a dip? Really it is anything that you can do that sets your business apart from everyone else. The accounting firm above did that by tapping into the fall mindset. Whereas most back-to-school promotions are for clothing and office supply stores, Jones Accounting promoted a business that is not normally associated with back-to-school promotions. That is a classic “dip” promotion.


Your dip could be:


  • A loss leader sale of an item that is not normally found on sale.
  • An ad campaign that is really different. My dad once brought an elephant to his carpet store in September. While it did attract a lot of kids and parents looking for rides, Dad was not prepared for, shall we say, “Cleanup on aisle 3.” So be careful.


Sept 4 Pull Quote.png

The bottom line is you need to be different enough so that you stand out among all the surfers trying to catch the same wave.


The Right Vehicle: One of the great things about marketing today is that there are so many ways to get the word out: Pay-per-click, traditional ads, blogs, Twitter, etc.


While I am a big proponent of all of these new forms of media because they work and generally are very affordable, in this case, I would suggest that the tried is also true. Where are the parents? What do they read, watch and listen to? Wherever your audience is, that is where you need to be.


Some options:


  • Facebook: When targeted properly, Facebook ads can be very effective and affordable. Be sure to choose the categories of who will see your ads carefully so that you don't waste a lot of money.
  • Radio: Parents spend a lot of time in the car, schlepping the kids to and fro. Finding the right station, and advertising there, can be a goldmine.
  • TV: While it can be very expensive, it can also be very effective when done properly. If you plan on using television in your marketing, allocate the right resources so that it pays off.


Fall is a great time to get back into the swing of things. Just be sure to follow these ABCs so that you don’t flunk the marketing exam.


Have you used a special marketing idea to clear through the clutter? Please share them with us below.


About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

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