I’ve never been much of a follower. As a kid, I was called “unique,” which was a euphemism
for “weird.” My sisters excelled at soccer, basketball, lacrosse and track. My father wanted his daughters to compete — learning life’s tough lessons on the field or court — but I became a cheerleader instead. I think I caused my father’s early-onset baldness. I liked forging my own path. Following the rules and doing what everyone else did was not for me.
This uniqueness stuck with me.
In college, I was intrigued by success. I studied successful people, and I started to notice a trend: Exceptional business professionals almost always had a specialized niche. They had a specialty or area of expertise that they knew better than anyone else. For example, my friend Nelson loved computers. He was always interested in devices and tools that he could plug into or use with a computer. He now owns a company that makes computer accessories. He sells them on Amazon.
When I started my first sales job out of college at a print distributor, I didn’t want to just sell print to any Joe Schmo that needed their logo on a T-shirt. My goal was to find something unique, something special and different that not every print salesperson could do or provide.
I chose the restaurant industry. I wanted to focus on selling a print portal system to all the restaurants serving a common customer base. My research showed that many restaurants had a need for a centralized print buying system.
I immersed myself in the restaurant industry. I learned the lingo, studied how restaurants are operated, joined boards and organizations, started a referral group of like-minded vendors that sell to the same buyers, attended key conferences and advocated for the industry. I became part of the community. Many of my colleagues now consider me an expert who can solve complex print buying problems that will save time, money, maintain brand standards and increase store sales.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was incorporating vertical market concepts in my quest for success. A vertical market is limited to one industry, one area of focus, and mine is the restaurant industry. Nelson’s is the computer accessory market. The benefits are obvious.
After selling to the restaurant industry for over 10 years, I’ve learned a few things about how to sell to a specific industry and penetrate a vertical market:
Befriend at least two experts within the market. Get as much information from them as possible. Find out what companies to avoid, what companies to target, what shows to attend and what problems buyers are looking to solve. Learning from someone who has already made mistakes and who has built a trusted network will save you a significant amount of time and reduce your sales cycle. Ask your allies to take you to events. Some of the best contacts I’ve made are from in-person introductions. Don’t forget to add value to your allies. You need to give back and help them, too.
People buy from people, not companies. Some of the best ways to meet buyers and establish personal relationships are to be on a committee, coordinate an event or serve on a board. The buyer will get to know you on a personal level and will be more likely to care to learn about your unique value proposition. And buyers know other buyers. Very vertical indeed.
Nothing beats meeting people in-person. You get to watch their body language, look into their eyes and get a feel for their energy. Going to conferences is an excellent way to meet people. However, most neophytes in a profession have little money. To save money, I recommend going as an attendee the first time to check it out. Always get the attendee list ahead of time and spend four to six weeks setting up meetings with as many prospects as possible. Don’t sit in on the sessions (once a session starts, there’s no opportunity to network). Walk the halls and meet people. Follow up with the people you met each night. Don’t wait until a few days after the conference — that’s too late.
Learn your vertical market. Most verticals have at least one well-respected publication. Sign up to get their free e-newsletter. Having detailed information arms you with a reason to talk to buyers — maybe a company has a new CMO (most new executives make a major buying change within their first 90 days) or maybe there’s a new federal regulation going into effect that will require them to print and distribute materials. It’s important that you are on the proverbial cutting edge.
Imagine getting new business without having to set up an appointment. Visualize closing a deal on reputation alone. Challenge yourself to a write in your vertical area of expertise. As people read your work, they will think of you as an expert. Your name, picture and print system will be top-of-mind when they have an issue with their current supplier or are looking at new solutions before renewing their contract. Writing also provides you an avenue to get PR and marketing for your personal brand and company. It allows you to teach and help others.
After selling to the restaurant industry for my entire career, I’m putting my skills to the test and tackling a new vertical market: health care. It’s not that I’m bored; I just like a challenge and am ready to learn. Health care buyers, here I come. I’m ready to be a part of your world and learn how I can help!