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seal the deal

Digital tools can generate interest, but the deal still needs to be sealed in person.Juan Fuertes

Paul Heron is a big believer in the power of the web-connected world to attract new clients, showcase a small company's services and speed the sales cycle.

It is really no surprise, considering that helping businesses sell their services to other companies and consumers is the bread and butter of his 10-person communications outfit.

Mr. Heron's Toronto company, Complex2Clear, rebranded itself to its current name and re-focused its offering a few years ago after he joined a local business networking organization and looked at what he was doing in a new light.

Besides the name change, he concluded that there was a huge potential base of corporate clients that had difficulty selling services rather than products, how they delivered them and how they interacted with customers.

Among its services, Complex2Clear creates websites, sales materials, videos and bid proposals for companies large and small. Unlike so many smaller companies that are focused on delivering on contracts and hunting for new ones – keeping the lights on, in other words – it practised what it preached to clients by creating a rich Internet presence, complete with video, thought leadership articles and other "free" content to spotlight what it could do.

That work paid off.

"Our three largest clients came to us as bolts out of the blue via our website," said Mr. Heron who has a hard-earned grasp of what the web can and can't do for a company.

"People need to feel engaged in less than 10 seconds when they land on your website in order to stay there," he said. "Any small business with a website should have Google analytics enabled so they can track not only the total volume, but they can look at the number of pages that people go to, and the bounce rate, which is the number of people who land and within a few seconds leave the site." For Mr. Heron, a bounce rate over 30 per cent is a signal that a company is likely doing something wrong with its web presence.

Digital tools can also fill the sales pipeline faster than a small business can achieve through good old, carbon-based growth. "In this Google age everyone is using search engines and social media to make their short list of who they want to work with," he said. "All those tools, those website tools, thought leadership and having a good website and other various things you can do to increase your exposure, they are all scalable. Whereas personal relationships, which was the old way of selling, it is very hard to scale those. If you have one or two [new business] rain makers in your company, that is great, but how do you find another one?"

Mr. Heron's company has been able to enjoy "double-digit" annual revenue growth in the crowded communications field in the past four or five years since its name change by relying on its web presence to do much of the initial heavy lifting that makes up much of the sales process.

Complex2Clear now relies on its digital presence to "self-select" potential clients, who then take the next step of calling for a face-to-face pitch meeting. "For us the sales cycle is up to the point we know that the client has a budget appetite and a need and is in our space, has a strategic fit," he said. "The Internet and a phone call can get us to the initial meeting and we are pretty successful in those meetings."

The digital world has proven to be a double-edged sword for companies, however. "The web, if you take it across multiple platforms, search engines, websites, social media, blogs, etc., it essentially democratizes marketing," said Jeremy Miller, head of Sticky Branding, a Mississauga, Ont., sales consulting company, who knows Mr. Heron through their business networking group. "It doesn't matter how big or small you are, you have access to the same tools and these tools are free or virtually free." That's the good news.

The negative? Being lost in the clutter.

"Now everyone is going out, using these tools and communicating and if you just look like everyone else, then ultimately the customer or consumer has the problem, 'How do I distinguish one option from the next?' " This can lead to something of an arms race among competitors as they attempt to expand and continually upgrade their digital storefront in an effort to stand out.

Mr. Miller also noted that a robust digital presence can only do so much to compress or speed the sales cycle, with the decision making power and pace still in the hands of the paying customer. "They will buy on their terms. The advantage the customer has today is that they have access to more information so they will make more informed decisions," he said. "They can get on Google and research very quickly and get the information they are looking for but if they aren't ready to pull the trigger," the sale does not happen.

What a company can do, he said, is ensure that it is "in the path of search" due to having the content, website and social platforms to get more connections, sales leads and awareness than it would otherwise.

In the case of Complex2Clear, the Internet can't seal the deal. That still has to happen in those early pitch meetings. Digital tools, no matter how powerful, also can't ride herd on complex projects to ensure they don't run off the rails and delivery deadlines are met, said Mr. Heron.

That task continues to require a living, breathing person. "On a big bid project, our project manager will be on the phone with the client five or six times a day and they are happy to hear from him or her – and that doesn't include the countless e-mails going back and forth." The company has, however, been able to devote some resources that used to go into the sales cycle into that customer service area.

Providing decent customer service is arguably more important than ever in a digital realm where the good, bad and ugly customer experiences can be broadcast far and wide almost instantly.

The Internet has forced companies to be "naked," said Adam Green, president of Toronto internet marketing agency Maple North. "That has ultimately forced companies to make sure that their product quality is good and they are giving the information that the consumer is looking for at every opportunity. Beyond that, should their products and their service be horrible, there are some incredible cases out there of some awful customer service being outed by social media."