How To Identify and Target the Customers You Want
by Nancy Rathbun Scott
The phone call comes into your business on a Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it's somebody who stopped by your booth at a trade show. Or a cold caller who saw your ad in the yellow pages. Maybe your prospect is a current customer's neighbor or an admirer who saw your sign posted at a new job. The question is: "Will the prospect buy?"
No, in this case it's not about repairing socks. D-A-R-N is just an easy acronym for remembering the four basics of lead qualification: desire, authority, money and need.
What do these attributes have to do with the price of plants? Plenty, says George A. O'Hanlon, president of the marketing consulting firm, OnTarget. In fact, every prospective customer can be qualified by these four measures of sales potential.
Here's how the DARN formula works.
Desire: Does the caller want the products and services you are selling? The answer is not as obvious as it seems. Remember, your business is different from any other. You have your own strengths, preferences and approach to landscaping and design.
Authority: Assuming the prospect likes what you're selling, does he have the authority to make a buying decision or does he need to consult with someone else first?
Resources: The prospect may have a need, may be the right person, and may even be willing, but without the money, your sale won't happen. Determine that the prospect has the necessary budget for your service.
Need: Of course the prospect must have a need for your service (or think he does). But when? In six months? A year? Tomorrow? Only when need meets capability do you have a sale.
Ask callers a few questions
To establish desire, authority, money and need, you'll want to ask prospects a few questions. Develop a form that the company's receptionist can use to gather pertinent information about customers who call in.
One landscape firm says, "We started the formal process of qualifying our leads last year. We do a tremendous number of jobs, but we wanted to raise our job size. It's difficult to quantify, but since we started qualifying, we are doing more $20-40,000 residential jobs than ever before."
That company's form addresses a number of important DARN attributes. "We ask, 'How did you hear about us-was it the yellow pages, a referral from a client, a referral from the garden center?' We ask the caller to tell us about the project. We say, 'Are you a do-it-yourselfer?' Lots of people want to pick our brains and get a plan without installation. But installation is where we make our money, so we want to discourage that. If they say, 'No, I'm not a do-it-yourselfer' and they want a plan we tell them that we charge a $50 consultation fee to go on site the first time and a minimum of two hours at $50 per hour for a design."
Hallie Mummert of Target Marketing in Philadelphia says that a formal method for qualifying leads works best. "In prospecting, it's important to implement the three Q's: Qualify Queries Quickly. If the call comes by phone, ask a couple of qualifying questions and be sure your operators ask for the same information every time. Just asking for a bit of information will often wipe out the curiosity seekers."
To save money, Mummert also suggests a system for handling various types of leads. "Top leads get a call and a visit from a salesperson. Medium leads get a free video. Poorly qualified leads get a letter and an order card."
Favorite qualifying methods
Marketing consultant Mark Freeman says, "Qualifying sales leads effectively is the first step toward lead management. Telequalifying can help you determine the urgency of the prospect's need." Those we interviewed say they most often qualify leads through pricing, timing and need.

1. Price. Your sales people need to know whether a prospect can afford the service. One way to find out whether a prospect is serious or just price shopping is to charge for professional consultation. "I start out being very cordial," says one sales manager in Florida. "I tell callers that we charge a consultation fee of $50 to $75-even more. I determine the amount of the fee depending on how I feel at the moment. Generally, if they want a free consultation, I know they aren't the type of client we want.
2. Timing. Smart service firms aren't jumping at every call that comes in, particularly during busy times. In fact, many find that leads qualify better when kept waiting a bit. One manager says, "We tell the caller that a [professional] will phone back to them in a day or two, but that the next appointment may not available for a month. If the caller is serious, this time lapse won't be a problem."
3. Need. Successful professionals know they won't land every job-and they don't want to. A designer in San Francisco believes in seeking work only from clients whose needs match her capabilities, so she gives her callers several days to read the extensive press kit she mails out. "It gives them a chance to see if they want to work with us because I'm not anxious to work with people who are not excited about these ideas. We're not here for the big, high-end, expensive jobs. That's not our market. We're here for longevity. The rootedness. Our clients are socially-conscious and get into doing some of the work themselves."
A week or so after mailing the kit, she calls back to ask, "Did you like it?" She doesn't assume every client is right for her. In fact, she has found that some prospects assume her distinctive look carries a huge price tag. But she doesn't cry over lost business. "I've had people decline and then call us a year later and say, 'We're sorry we didn't use you in the first place.'"
Other professionals agree there's no point in lamenting the client who didn't materialize. Even jobs that may not be right for your firm today could be right tomorrow, she says. "Sometimes I can tell it's a small job and I'll say, "I hate to turn down any work, but we probably won't be your most cost effective option. Let me give you a couple of names of firms who do that kind of work.' But I always tell them, 'If your needs change, please call me.' And they usually do."
Use leads to refine the marketing plan
A system to follow-up and refine leads belongs in every firm's overall marketing effort, says Mark Freeman. "Use your leads to fuel your database for the future and in your marketing efforts. For instance, sending 'Did You Buy?' surveys or conducting them by phone can make up for incomplete field reporting and serve as a platform for future product and pricing strategies. Lead information can also bolster existing advertising and promotion programs and help refine your target audience and your message. Keep in mind that leads provide you with valuable information about the people you want to build relationships with-those who are interested in the very thing you have to sell."

Advertise for the clients you want
Most successful firms know: the right advertising generates the right leads. What works best? It's not the same for every firm. "Most of our print advertising is in the yellow pages," says one executive. "But we don't get a lot of work there. I speak at clubs, homeowner associations, business meetings, churches. I try to stay public. Also, we do high profile projects. We try to keep a very professional look. We hand deliver and we go over things with clients at that time. This leads to referrals, where we get most of our business."
The consensus, however, is that the closer you can get to the clients you want, the better your chances are. Popular-but not equally effective-advertising approaches include the yellow pages, magazine and newspaper ads, public speaking, customer service, general PR, synergy, garden shows, signs, the Internet, multimedia, and referrals.
1. Yellow Pages. The shotgun approach of yellow page advertising is not a popular option for many professional businesses. One executive spoke for many when he said, "Recently, we seem to be getting more calls through the yellow pages, probably as a result of James Earl Jones and the yellow pages campaign. Perhaps more people are shopping through them, but that doesn't necessarily result in more signed contracts."
Another executive in Florida has had the same experience, so he tailors yellow page ad copy to the target clientele. "Even in the yellow pages, we try to appeal to the more upscale client by using verbiage that appeals to the clients we want. We'll say 'restoration,' for example, instead of 'renovation.' Or we'll talk about energy conservation. We think this approach appeals to a more affluent, intelligent audience."
2. Magazine/Newspaper Advertising. Four-color, glossy magazine ads don't seem to generate much for professional services. "We spent $2,500 on an ad in Louisiana Life and got absolutely nothing. Not a lick," says one architect.
Another says, "Newspaper ads have been ineffective, perhaps because it takes a big budget to provide consistent exposure. In general, I find it difficult to use the media to advertise our business."
Still another has found broad brush advertising to be a waste. "We don't do much advertising. Most of our business comes from repeat customers and referrals."
3. Public Speaking. Speeches and presentations to select audiences are a popular advertising option. One executive says, "I give talks any time I can to clubs. I raise consciousness about the way people think. I help people along. You can have better work if you work on the vision of what you're doing."
4. The Personal Touch. As in many businesses, customer service sells. An executive in North Dakota says, "We are committed to treating the customer fairly and honestly, the same way we would want to be treated. It's the Golden Rule. It's also important to project the image we want, which means doing a quality job so that others can see evidence of our work. Finally, we communicate with the client. This is the hardest during our busy season and we have failed many times. But it's important to follow up every job."
5. General Public Relations. Public relations events and contributions are the most effective advertising method because they are "win-win" for the client and the professional firm. "We have the opportunity to be recognized by our target market while offering a message of good will, support and appreciation to many of our present clients also participating or in attendance.
Public relations activities in which professionals can participate include:
· Fundraisers
· Product donations
· Hosting a "Business After Hours" networking event
· Being involved in, leading or coordinating projects that improve the quality of life in the community
Many professionals use the radio. "A service we do over the airwaves offersa weekly tip for clients. This continues to promote our image of being the most knowledgeable and leader in the area."
Don't forget to publicize volunteer participation in a press releases. The San Francisco designer believes free publicity is all the advertising a professional company needs.
6. Trade shows. One executive is a proponent of high-end shows-and does he believes in doing it right. "Sixty to 70 percent of new leads come out of our participation in the trade show.
7. Synergy. Complementary services also make good leads. One professional says, "Another unconventional method of advertising one service is to provide a related, but lower cost service. A client that you have had a good relationship with will mean more work in the future."
8. Internet. More consumers will be shopping the Internet in the months ahead.
9. Referrals. Every professional interviewed for this article said referrals are the best way to generate new clients. One spoke for everyone, saying, "You get much better clients through word-of-mouth."
A word of caution: merely asking the question, "Do you know of anyone who can use my product or service?" will not always work. This approach asks your client to make a judgment as to whether he knows someone ready to buy your product or service. In essence, then, you asking the client to qualify the lead. This puts too much pressure on your client and may be appreciated.
An alternate way to get the lead is to ask what business organizations, clubs, charities, etc., the client belongs to. Or, if the client is in an office building, ask for names of other tenants. The theory is that people surround themselves with individuals who have similar interests, earning power, preferences and needs. By asking for referrals this way, the client only has to give you names, not make judgments.
Grow a distinct corporate culture
The successful business owners with whom we spoke say the generation of solid, dependable leads is a process: one that begins with a strong sense of corporate capability, bolstered by quality work and a long-term attitude.
In short, before the phone rings or the prospect walks through the door, smart firms commit to the six building blocks of a successful corporate culture-building blocks that our San Francisco executive has molded to an art form.
1. Know Your Strengths. Develop your business by defining and then promoting the philosophy of your work.
2. Grow Your Reputation. Invest in an expansive press kit. "We reprint all the articles ever written about us. We include color photos. Right now I'm doing a four-color brochure. When clients call, we send this out."
3. Share What You Know. If you know your strengths and tell your story well, the clients will comeand don't pay for the privilege.
"I'm known for all of my free advertising," says the San Francisco designer. "I get people to write me up all the time."
Her secret is an infinite number of concepts and a willingness to share them.
"I'm full of ideas and open to the press. Anybody who wants to write in my field calls me up. I also have plenty of pictures to give them."
4. Rely on Referrals. Referrals are the backbone of your business. But don't wait for clients to give names. To get referrals, ask open-ended questions like "Who heard about our service? Did anybody like it? We try to pull the referrals out of them by bringing these comments up in conversation. It ripples that way and the client feels good about it, too."
5. Reengineer. Every challenge presents a parallel opportunity, every circumstance is a lead. "In 1991, when business was terrible, I developed a unique concept. It was a packet full of real ideas people could use. It was well designed and environmentally sound. I got some good work out of it."
6. Build on Success. Solidify a reputation. "Generate press coverage. You have to read what's being done and then think about it."
There's plenty to say, she concludes. "You have so much to say that people want to hear.If you make interesting stories out of your work-solving problems and telling the stories-the work will follow."
Nancy Rathbun Scott is a business writer living in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached at Visit for more information.

@2004 Nancy Scott