Not long ago, a journalist friend of mine called me up to ask for some advice. After working for various companies and publications over the years, she had decided last year to go into business for herself as a freelancer to work on her own time and according to her own rules. Things were slow at first, but some initial successes got her byline out there, and one day she sent me an e-mail to tell me about a multi-year contract doing background research and reporting for one of Chicago's top daily newspapers.
With such a huge and famous client, my friend had thought she was on her way to the big time and the big bucks. That's why I was surprised when the call came in. Although things had started great, she told me, she soon found that all of her time was consumed by this huge customer, fact-checking, rewriting, and clarifying assignments and objectives with several different editors simultaneously. As a result, she was beginning to lose some of her other clients, and wanted to know whether or not I thought she should hang up the freelancer's hat and go back to working within the corporate machine.
My friend had just had her first experience with a “Big Elephant,” that huge customer that most businesses hope to partner up with, the monster contract that Steven Kaplan suggests can lead to continued success, growth, and profits in his bestselling book Bag the Elephant: How to Win & Keep BIG Customers.
In residential construction supply, it's not hard to pinpoint the Big Elephants: We call them production builders. With thousands of starts and millions of purchasing dollars, connecting up with a big builder can be a boon to virtually any pro dealer operation, and, according to Kaplan, winning over behemoth home builders and leveraging them for success can be a lot easier than you think, even for the smallest suppliers out there.
“Oftentimes huge companies like builders overextend themselves, and that is your opportunity to flourish,” Kaplan tells PROSALES. “If you're looking to switch your model to a volume business for these industry giants, seek to position your company to deliver the speed that others cannot. Being timely and responsive is one of the best ways to leverage your company into the Big Elephant's business.”
Bag the Elephant includes a roll call of strategies that can assist the pro dealer in obtaining, and more importantly keeping, big builder business. In layman's terms, Kaplan outlines how to pick the customer that's right for you (analyze your revenue streams and services—do they match up?), how to control a big company instead of letting it control you (outline success measures before contracts are signed, include costs with bids), and how to leverage your first bagged elephant to gain similar customers (sell your perfected back-end processes, highlight your deliverables).
One of Kaplan's favorite strategies is to bring the entire team together and create a “Mock Elephant”—a fictitious customer that represents your target builder. “Outline your plan of operational attack,” he says. “Review your processes and operations and anticipate problems. If done properly, it forces communication between your employees and brings sales and operations together.”
While Kaplan acknowledges that most companies have thousands of customers, he stresses that one of the keys to elephant bagging is to make this client always feel like number one. “My prize is the long-term relationship with my elephants,” he says. “Remember, it's much easier to get your second—or even your fiftieth—elephant than your first. Your business will evolve with your first elephant and naturally will position itself for others.”
As for my friend, I told her to pick up a copy of the book and keep pushing for another big elephant. If you are a pro dealer looking to establish or improve business with national production builders, I'd encourage you to do the same.
Chris Wood is senior editor for PROSALES. 415.552.4154 E-mail: [email protected]