Boston Herald

In a slump, marketing is crucial

Boston Herald Bizlines / by Cromwell Schubarth, Thursday, February 6, 2003

Many small-business owners trim their sales efforts during rough economic times, hoping to conserve cash and ride out the storm.

But don't tell that to Betsy Harper, owner of Sales and Marketing Search, a four-person Beverly recruiting firm that specializes in placing sales and marketing executives in the technology and business service sectors.

In the midst of one of the worst periods ever for tech recruiting, Harper stepped up her marketing efforts last year, launching an electronic newsletter.

"I bought the business from the founder at the beginning of 2000, at the height of the hiring boom for tech companies,'' she says. "By last summer, the tech recruiting market was dead. I could have taken the summer off and had the same results.''

But Harper decided that even if her customers didn't have business for her at the moment, she needed to keep in touch with them.

"I really needed to give people more than a sales pitch, since most of them weren't hiring,'' she says.

So she brought in Michael Katz, of Blue Penguin Development Inc., a Hopkinton-based e-newsletter and relationship marketing specialist. Katz helped Harper develop her newsletter, "Framing the Issues,'' which features a monthly story on "finding, hiring and keeping great people in your company.'' She also includes book recommendations and feedback from her readers.

"I knew it was worth the effort the very first month,'' Harper says. "I got a call almost immediately from somebody I knew who needed a new sales manager.''

Katz cautions that Harper's experience in that regard is unique. "She's the only one I've worked with to get a client on their first newsletter.''

He stresses that e-newsletters are about developing a relationship with customers, which is important even when the economy is slow and they don't net sales.

"If you could take everybody on your Rolodex out to lunch every month, you know you'd get business, but who can do that?'' he asks. "A newsletter lets you tell your stories, but it can't be a pitch. People get that all the time and won't respond.''

Harper understands that concept, Katz says, unlike another client he worked with in the recruiting field.

"They were a couple guys who did quite well during the boom, but are out of the business now,'' he says. "They were great hunters, but lousy farmers. When business got rough, they had no relationships with their customers they could count on.''

Which is why Harper believes in keeping up the sales efforts, even when business is slow.

"If you keep your contacts alive and keep up a good relationship, when they have some business they will remember you,'' she says.