As we suffer through our third year of a recession in the building trades industry, we keep trying to find ways to grow our top line. There are not that many options--buy another business, find a new product line, sell more product lines to existing customers, or steal an outside salesman from a competitor. But the one that appeals to me the most is getting new business.

Sandy Sawyer New business is about getting a larger percentage of the existing market. Most businesses are tracking this metric and want to see 7% to 15% of total sales be new business.

With this group, the big question is what we look like to those prospective customers to make them want to switch suppliers and spend their money with us. This subject is called "First Touch" and it can broken down into three categories.

1. The Internet
It is estimated that daily Google searches have increased from 100 million hits per year in 2000 to 2 billion in 2010.That's exponential growth, so we can expect the search total to e considerably larger in 2011. The Internet is now the first place your potential customers go for information. Are you positioned correctly on the web? Are your competitors?

Type in the products you sell and your trading area and see what appears. If you are not near the top of the first page of the Google results, you have most likely lost a prospect. If you are there and your site is accessed, you now have 15 seconds to get their attention. Fail to engage them and they'll head off to your competitor's website. You need to have your web designer have the proper metatags in your website code to have the various search engines find you first.

2. Your Bricks and Mortar
Phew ... they are coming to your store. What visual message are you sending them when they arrive? Is it clean? Is it organized? Are the products you want to sell the first ones they see? Is the store traffic flow conducive to that positive first touch? More often than not, I see the opposite.

Make sure the entrance to your store is not a maze. Clean it up. Determine whether your prospective customer is seeing the products you want to sell to him or her. If not, it's most likely time to redo the store layout.

3. The Sales Staff
They have made it through the web. They have made it through the store to the sales counter. Oops, there are two employees talking to each other and ignoring the customer. Oops, the salesperson just took the next bite of his sandwich. Oops, the phone just rang and left the prospect waiting. We as an industry do very little training at this beginning stage of the sales cycle.

You need to have a strict policy on these issues. The toughest one is what to do when a customer walks in and you are on the phone. Here's my rule: Simply cover the phone, look him in the eye, and say "I will be with you in just a second." And smile when you do it.

The retail company that most impresses me is Apple. Visit one of their stores and watch the 25-year-old computer geek acknowledge you. It is that warm feeling of being recognized that keeps customers coming back.

We are not coming out of this downward to stagnant economic cycle for some time. If you want new business, you need to work on your first touch. And don't get me going on last touch.

Sandy Sawyer's company, SAWCO LLC, provides roundtable facilitation and consulting services. He presently works with more than 80 building supply companies across the country. He can be reached at [email protected] or 401-295-9349.