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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small Business: Strategies for winning contracts with big firms

A shortage of capital, infrastructure and the immediate

A shortage of capital, infrastructure and the immediate capacity to meet demand can seem like obstacles to a large contract; becoming a subcontractor to the major contractors can be a good first step. Credit: AP/Alastair Grant

For a small business, snagging a large customer may seem out of reach.

But not trying can be a missed opportunity, experts say.

In fact, according to a recent American Express survey of small and mid-size suppliers already doing business with large firms, 81% of respondents predict an increase in sales to corporations with over a billion dollars in revenue over the next five years.

That optimism “really shows the desire these large companies have to work with smaller, innovative, adaptable companies and the value they bring to the table,” said Rod Robinson, a Cincinnati-based Corporate Procurement Advisor to American Express.

Contracts with large companies can be a boon to small and mid-size companies’ bottom lines, with nearly three-quarters of respondents expecting their company’s total revenue to increase over the next 12 months, according to the survey.

Still, finding and attracting large clients isn’t easy.

Product vs. service

It can be a heftier undertaking if you’re selling a product rather than a service, said Angelique Rewers, CEO of The Corporate Agent, a Boca Raton, Florida-based firm that helps small businesses land large corporate clients.

“If you’re selling a service, it’s very easy to be a one-person business,” she said.

But if you’re selling a product, you need the wherewithal, infrastructure and capacity to meet demand, Rewers said.

Teresa Ferraro, president of Ronkonkoma-based East/West Industries Inc., knows this first-hand.

The firm, which designs and manufactures aircraft seats and aircrew life support systems, is a supplier to major defense firms including Boeing, Sikorsky and Northrop Grumman.

“It’s definitely an investment,” she said.

For instance, just getting the special certifications these large customers require is costly, she said, noting East/West spent over $50,000 over two decades ago to get AS9100 certified (a key certification requirement in the aerospace industry), and recertification each year costs at least $10,000.

But it’s been worth it because the company has managed to increase its business as a result of large clients and become a key supplier to these companies.

Ferraro’s advice to companies looking to enter the game: “You need a quality product, on-time delivery at an affordable price.”

Certifications that help

Being a women-owned certified firm has also helped in winning contracts because certain large contractors have set-asides for such firms, she said.

That makes sense, considering American Express survey respondents listed among most useful certifications in helping win corporate contracts socio-economic credentials (i.e. women-owned, minority-owned status). Also helpful are certifications related to quality of service or products and past performance.

But getting these credentials takes time and, if just starting out, you might look to start small and perhaps become a subcontractor to the major contractors already servicing these large customers, Robinson said.

Making connections

LinkedIn can be a good way to identify people you know who may have connections to larger customers, said Rich Isaac, president of Sandler Training of Hauppauge, a sales training and consulting firm.

If you’re not personally connected, you might ask a LinkedIn contact to make an introduction, he said.

The goal isn’t to make a sale via the LinkedIn query, but to get an introductory conversation to learn about the needs of the prospect, share with them a little about what you do, and if there’s a potential fit, set up a clear next step in the process, said Isaac.

“Your focus should be on identifying key players and trying to get a meeting, not selling to them through email,” said Rewers, who finds it beneficial to try to meet with decision-makers in person.

She said she figures, based on industry estimates, that it takes 34 digital interactions to equal just one face-to-face interaction, noting small businesses should optimally try to get to industry events/trade shows where decision-makers are.

The key is getting yourself in the game.

“The tendency is for small businesses to perceive that they don’t have the wherewithal or the clout to potentially do business with large companies,” said Isaac. “That holds people back from making an attempt.”

On The Upside:

More than half (54%) of respondents in the American Express survey reported hiring new employees as a result of winning new business with large corporations, and nearly three-fourths (74%) of respondents noted that conducting business with large companies has helped to hire and retain talent.

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