50 ways to win business and influence customers

Some of the UKs leading entrepreneurs tell us their secrets

Business Idea 1

Start at the top
Will King, founder, King of Shaves
“I wanted Harrods to stock my first shaving oil, so I sent a fax to Mohamed al Fayed’s private number and the next day I was delighted to receive an order. Today, King of Shaves is the second largest ‘shaveware’ brand in the UK, stocked in leading chemists and supermarkets.”

Business Idea 2

Dress it up
David Hathiramani, co-founder, A Suit That Fits
“Always look for new and exciting opportunities. We dressed in fantastic suits while riding round the city on bicycles emblazoned with information about A Suit That Fits.”

Business Idea 3

Don’t take no for an answer
Nick Rutter, MD, FireAngel
“I think the secret of our success has been staying calm in the face of adversity. We never take no for an answer. An example is when we waited in the reception of Woolworths head office until the buyer agreed to see us. Sometimes you have to go to that level to get the business.”

Business Idea 4

Be distinctive
Ian Millner, CEO, Iris Worldwide
“To get the attention of a key prospect, we created the Dinosaur Mailer – a piece of direct marketing highlighting Iris’s own unique benefits and showing our competitors to be outdated dinosaurs. In a fun and creative way, we communicated that in today’s climate you need to be fast, flexible and adaptable, otherwise you’re heading for extinction.”

Business Idea 5

Show how it’s done
Lance Forman, MD, H Forman & Son
“We specialise in supplying smoked salmon to the hotel industry. There was one top hotel that we wanted as a customer. We invited the chef to tour our premises so he could see the quality, skills and care first hand. As a result of this initiative, they are now buying from us.”

Business Idea 6

Be a trailblazer
Susie Willis, founder, Plum Baby
“I spoke directly to the buyer whom I was plucky enough to go and see on my own. I let the brand speak for itself. The response was that they found it refreshing to find someone who was a genuine trailblazer ready to fight her own battles. This was our first major customer.”

Business Idea 7

Let your product do the talking
Karen Watson, MD, The Real Flower Company
“We targeted a luxury London hotel that we wanted to work with. We know the quality of our flowers speaks for itself. So we sent a hat box filled with our scented roses complete with an information pack to the weddings and events coordinator. We got asked to cater for a private party and have been working with them ever since.”

Business Idea 8

Help others
Oliver Bolton, MD, Alibi Pretox drink/Solution Sciences Ltd
“When we launched the new pomegranate flavour of our Alibi Pretox drink last year, our goal was to be sold in Waitrose. The drinks market is highly competitive, so we needed a unique approach. We partnered POM354, a charity that works with Afghan farmers helping them to grow pomegranates as a sustainable alternative to opium poppy production. In addition to the money donated from each pomegranate can sold, the press coverage we received attracted the attention of Waitrose’s buyer, with whom we are now successfully doing business.”

Business Idea 9

Offer your service for free
James Lambrou, director, begindesign
“My residential interior design business was keen to move into the commercial design market. However, in such a competitive market it is difficult to get your foot in the door. I contacted a local estate agent, explained what I did and I offered a free service to makeover their office space. It worked! Years later, we still get business from the estate agent.”

Business Idea 10

Get out there and network
Mark Dixon, CEO, Regus
“I can’t emphasise enough how important relationships are in business. However, you can’t just expect contacts and clients to come to you. Networking with people face to face may unearth common interests and business values, and will enable you to share learning and experiences and, importantly, initiate lasting partnerships with other like-minded business professionals.”

Business Idea 11

Impress people with your own personality
Tim Campbell, founder, Bright Ideas Trust
“Never feel that you want to be like somebody. I realised working for Alan Sugar that my management style was different to his. The values I have permeate my charity and it wouldn’t succeed if I tried to be someone else.

Business Idea 12

Show creativity
Stuart Skinner, senior account manager, PHA Media
“I was invited to pitch to the restaurant chain, Prezzo. I presented a PR plan in a pizza box, in the form of a menu. The menu was accompanied by a cardboard pizza, showing the different areas of work. The client was impressed by the originality of the pitch and liked the connection with their brand. They signed up to a four-month PR campaign.”

Business Idea 13

Spot the potential
Mathew Dixon, director, Hudson Walker International
“I discovered a small fashion brand that had the potential to be a big name and a major client for us. The contract initially had very low fees but increased as the business hit defined levels of turnover. This has now paid dividends as the brand is going through a period of rapid growth with us as their recruitment partner.”

Business Idea 14

Show your expertise
Ian Jamieson, partner, Doig + Smith
“An important win for us was with BAA. We were up against fierce competition, and after the written submission we were in ninth position. At the interview our people were able to demonstrate their expertise, passion and commitment – that won us the business. We distinguished ourselves by putting in the people who would deliver the project, not sales people.”

Business Idea 15

Use people’s assumptions
Sara Murray, founder, Buddi
“Aged 22, I managed to blag an appointment with the chairman of SmithKline Beecham to sell him my software. I knew I could develop his marketing strategy better than anyone else and told him so. Slightly taken back, he said that I didn’t look old enough and asked my age. “You don’t ask a lady her age! How old do you think I am?” I replied. He said ‘early 30s’. I said nothing. I won the contract."

Business Idea 16

Taste the pain
Jos White, co-founder of Notion Capital
“Early-stage companies need to ensure that there is a genuine customer pain that they are addressing. If you understand the source, depth and extent of the pain, then you can begin to put a realistic cost on the product. The more significant the pain, the greater the cost you can put on the solution.”

Business Idea 17

Make sure you do your research
James Layfield, founder, Never Ever Ltd
“I always make sure that before I go into a pitch I thoroughly research my audience – you’ve got to get under their skin. Only when you’ve done this can you truly appreciate what it is that they need.”

Business Idea 18

Take a natural approach
Angus Thirlwell, co-founder and CEO, Hotel Chocolat
“Be natural, don’t try too hard and don’t try to use a load of techniques that you have read in some book on sales, as people will see through that. If you then follow up and do what you said you were going to do, then that’s nine out of 10 already.”

Business Idea 19

Show dedication to detail
Andy Willox, MD, Gold Star Cleaning Services
“It was our sheer dedication that won us our first major contract. At the interview, we took the client through the process from start to finish. At the final stage, we brought in two cleaning operatives to clean a difficult area. It sealed the deal.”

Business Idea 20

Keep it personal
Kim Sauer, director of marketing, Demarquette – Fine Chocolates
“We identified a leading department store that we wanted to work with. I took the personal approach and hand-delivered chocolates with an invitation to a private ‘Champagne and Chocolate pairing’. This ultimately won us the business as not only were we able to make a first introductory taste impression, but also offered an experience rather than a pure sales call.”

Business Idea 21

Focus on getting people not to say no
Simon Woodroffe OBE, founder, YO! Company
“I had Sony, Honda and All Nippon Airways branding all over my first restaurant. I had written to these brands saying that if I hadn’t heard from them in three weeks, I would take it I could use their names as sponsors. I never heard back. Soon after opening, I had a successful restaurant, but owed money. I asked my suppliers for credit which I got. They had concluded that with the Japanese giants behind me their money was safe.”

Business Idea 22

Your reputation counts
Dr Bill Collis, CEO, The Foundry
“We develop hi-tech software for demanding clients. A big sale will float because of our reputation, and our reputation is built upon the smaller deals, our communication, our innovation, the quality of our products and the care taken to support customers. Your biggest deal is the sum of all the hard work of all your teams in the years before.”

Business Idea 23

Imagine you are the other person
Andrew Atalla, founder and MD, Atom 42
“The best lesson I ever learned about winning business was also one of the simplest. Spend a few minutes imagining that you’re the person you’re pitching to. Understand their needs, and consider how they may react to what you’re saying. If you can do this in advance, then you can also react in advance – helping you anticipate and dispel any concerns they may have before they’ve even had them.”

Business Idea 24

Sell yourself first
Tristan Rogers, CEO, Concrete Group
“Sell yourself, then sell your product. To not ingratiate oneself is to create a barrier too great to overcome, regardless of the draw and brilliance of your business offer. So, in short, be nice, be understanding and make an effort get on with people.”

Business Idea 25

One point of difference
Margaret Manning, CEO, Reading Room
“Reading Room secured a place alongside Accenture on a large framework last year against very strong competition. Often with big deals it is not how good you are but how much better you are than your competitors – you only need to be one point better and you’ve won. Focus on the things about you that are unique, and don’t go on endlessly about hygiene factors that apply to your competitors as much as they apply to you.”

Business Idea 26

Be different
Jennifer Irvine, founder, The Pure Package
“Do your homework; understand your client and their needs; prove they need you. We won our largest contract with a multinational company by understanding the company’s biggest problem and creating a programme for that.”

Business Idea 27

Deal in absolutes
David Soskin, former chief executive of Cheapflights.co.uk
“Cheapflights became a big provider of leads to British Airways, but BA saw itself as a premium player and at first was reluctant to work with a company called ‘cheap’. We got the deal by making it absolutely risk-free for them. We said we’d throw away the invoice if they weren’t satisfied with the service.”

Business Idea 28

Avoid bad apples
Charlie Mullins, founder and MD, Pimlico Plumbers
“Customers are not just king, they’re God! For anyone in business, keeping hold of them should be a religion – that’s why, in my book, customer service starts with hiring. Any successful entrepreneur will tell you the damage you can do to your business by employing just one idiot. At Pimlico our aim is to win ‘customers for life’, and we are acutely aware of the price in lost custom of letting a single bad apple on board.”

Business Idea 29

Join relevant organisations
Andrew Lovell, practice director, Michelmores LLP
“Joining committees can open doors. One of our lawyers was appointed as regional coordinator to an organisation, Solicitors for the Elderly. We targeted care home managers and owners in the region and informed them of the firm’s appointment. This resulted in us obtaining leads and winning new business, previously not perceived as achievable.”

Business Idea 30

Be persistent
Natalie Allen, Sweet Things
“My goal was to be in Selfridges, so I researched the cakes already in there. By befriending the manager of the cake counter, I got the buyer’s telephone number. Initially, the buyer said no, but I was persistent. I pointed out that Selfridges didn’t have any gluten-free cakes, which I could supply. Immediately, I sent over my cakes. The buyer rang me back the next day to place an order.”

Business Idea 31

Share your passion
Richard Anson, CEO, Reevoo.com
“Securing our first big accounts was all about self-belief, passion and persistence. In many cases, we just picked up the phone and made cold calls. If you really believe you can add value, it will come across in how you act and what you say.”

Business Idea 32

Everyone must succeed
Andrew Pearce, CEO, Powwownow
“Business comes down to people. The people who work for you, and the people to whom you are providing a service. If you invest in your staff they feel valued and happy. You should want them to succeed just as much as you want your business to succeed. You need to take a real interest in their career.”

Business Idea 33

Take notes and make lists
Sir Richard Branson, chairman, Virgin Group
“I think company owners should get out from behind their desks and go and sample their own products as often as possible. I see many bosses doing their rounds speaking to staff, but they never write the details down. They will never get anything sorted.” (From Business Stripped Bare)"

Business Idea 34

Everybody’s a potential customer
Gary Boom, MD, Bordeaux Index wines
“A guest we’d invited to a wine tutorial brought a rather scruffy friend whom we completely ignored. Ironically, he was the one who placed the largest order. At the next tasting, I targeted the person I thought was the least likely to buy and secured a huge sale. I’ve now learnt that the best orders come from the most unlikely people.”

Business Idea 35

Think out of the box
Shane Guy, head of publicity, Leeds Castle
“We invited prospective brides and grooms to experience Leeds Castle at a Weddings Open Day. We dressed the rooms as they would be used for a wedding, let the guests enjoy canapés and offered one-to-one guided tours so the couples could meet all the relevant people. Sixty couples attended the event, of which 12 signed on the dotted line.”

Business Idea 36

Communicate with individual customers
David Eldridge, CEO, Alterian
“More and more consumers are sharing information about brands online and their trust is at an all-time low. Smart businesses are listening to the conversations their customers are having. To communicate with customers on an individual level should be the strategic and tactical goal of all brands and organisations.”

Business Idea 37

Have a clear vision
Gavin Wheeldon, CEO, Applied Language Solutions
“A well-communicated vision, mission and values are crucial to success. If you have a clear vision in place then this should easily cascade into key performance indicators and other measurements to help staff achieve their business development targets.”

Business Idea 38

Ensure left meets right
Richard Jenkinson, CEO, Interactive Medica
“You’ve got to be organised. If the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing, your business will struggle.”

Business Idea 39

Get your product into their hands
Richard Reed, co- founder, Innocent drinks
“Supermarkets don’t return your calls at first. Then they say ‘no’. But if you’re very persistent, you might get a chance after that. Only when we finally got in to see Waitrose, did they click that it was right for their audience.”

Business Idea 40

Bring in the professionals
Bhanu Choudhrie, executive director, C & C Alpha Group
“An idea might seem spectacular to you, but you need people who understand that industry to proof-test it. Hire the best professionals to advise you and accept that it will sometimes mean listening to advice that you would rather not hear.”

Business Idea 41

Prove it with your product
Philip Weldon, founder, The English Cheesecake Company
“Find out where people are selling similar products and get them to trial yours. I believed my cheesecake was better than those in a local shop, so I took my cake in and asked them to sell it. It sold quickly. I was soon selling 20 a week to them.”

Business Idea 42

Understand the opportunity
Michael Tomlins, MD, InfoMedia Services
“You have to assess where you, as a supplier, fit into all the likely sales cycles of your potential customer. As part of our discussions with Tesco, we undertook feasibility studies to show what we could deliver to various Tesco departments, and that understanding paid off in the pitch.”

Business Idea 43

Tailor the deal
Simon Duffy, co-founder, Bulldog Natural Grooming
“I came to this industry as an outsider, so I don’t go in with any set plans on how to do a deal. I know what’s important to me and then I try and find out what’s important to the client. I look to tailor what we have to suit them, speaking as one business owner to another. This is different to some of our much larger competitors, who decide things centrally and then roll out on a global scale.”

Business Idea 44

Prove they need you
Ben McGannan, MD, Water Wellpoint
“Understand your client, prove they need you. We won our largest contract by understanding the client’s biggest problem, sickness absence, and creating a programme that engaged staff in health checks. The programme has already proved to be a shrewd investment.”

Business Idea 45

Be honest
Michelle Mone OBE, founder, MJM International lingerie
“The key to good pitching is honesty. It inspires trust and confidence and will help you build a good relationship with whoever you’re pitching to. Then you can anticipate and dispel any concerns they may have before they’ve even had them.”

Business Idea 46

Negotiate fairly
Laura Tenison, founder and MD, JoJo Maman Bébé
“Negotiation skills come into play when you place your orders. Do your research properly, inform your supplier of the value of the order (not just monetary but ongoing, to their brand, for PR), and have extremely clear outlines of what is required and the price point you are prepared to pay. Be fair, be loyal, and make sure everything’s clear.”

Business Idea 47

Share your vision
Doug Richard, entrepreneur
“People invest time and money into a project because they share the vision of its leader. That vision, usually expressed as a story about why the business was started and how it will change lives, is the heart of every enterprise and the soul of every pitch. That vision, your vision, defines your goals and your brand. It is without doubt your most important asset.”

Business Idea 48

Show your passion
Lola Cashman, founder, The White Shirt Haberdasher
“When I met representatives of Essentially, a leading sports marketing agency, I made a point of not giving them a stage-managed presentation, but spoke with passion about the values of my company. Passion is personal, contagious, and more effective than any slick PowerPoint presentation.”

Business Idea 49

Back yourself
Sir Philip Green, Arcadia Group
“Life is about taking the risk. If there are six people around a table normally three of them can’t make a decision; two will say nothing; and only one will say: ‘I’ll do it.’ Most people don’t like change, so they can’t make decisions. It’s and backing yourself.”

Business Idea 50

Put in the groundwork
Natalie Ellis, MD, Prestige Pet Products
“You need to get out there and be seen. I attended family dog shows to get my products noticed. I had tried to attract Pets At Home for months, but it was only when two staff from the store bought my bowls at a show and told the buyers that they took my product on.”