Marketing by the Books

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Tarango is a former Internal Revenue Service tax auditor with degrees in accounting and social services. Two years ago, he quit his job to become a full-time caretaker for an elderly relative and concentrate on developing a small business as a bookkeeper and tax preparer.

But his home-based business has not progressed to the level he had expected. In fact, he has managed to earn only a tiny, seasonal income at it and found that he must rely on his elderly aunt to provide his modest living expenses.

Tarango, 40, applied for a Business Make-Over as a last-ditch attempt to make a go of his business.

"I wanted to get some ideas on how to improve my marketing skills and increase my clientele," he said. "I had tried other options, but nothing else worked."

Tarango believes his major problem lies in marketing his services. He is good with numbers and enjoys working with them, has mastered the two most popular bookkeeping software programs on the market and, because he speaks Spanish, believes he could provide a valuable resource to the many Latino-owned small businesses in his Montebello neighborhood and in nearby East Los Angeles.

If he could attract about 10 small-business clients who would hire him to handle their monthly financial statements, accounts payable and receivable, and payroll, Tarango said, he would have an adequate year-round income. To round out his business, he said, he would like to attract 20 to 30 additional tax clients.

But it is finding clients and convincing them that they should hire him that has Tarango stymied.

"I have always lacked marketing skills," he said. "I worked with a marketing consultant for a while, but the results were extremely poor."

A lack of natural ability to market oneself is a great impediment to making a small business successful, said Derrell Ness, the entrepreneur-in-residence for the award-winning Small Business Institute at Cal State Fullerton, where Tarango's business was analyzed.

"When you are in business for yourself, you are selling every minute of every day, whether it's during a formal sales call or not. You are always in a position to sell the credibility of yourself and your company," said Ness, whose Los Alamitos-based company, NSA Distribution, distributes point-of-sale hardware and software for retailers.

"When you work for somebody else--say you're an accountant for Price Waterhouse--you are loaded with credibility before you ever walk in a client's door or open your mouth. When you have your own company, you have to carry all that on your own shoulders."

Ness and the director of the Small Business Institute, professor Michael Ames, joined forces with 20 students in the Small Business Management class to meet with Tarango and prepare suggestions for how he could make his business viable.

The group first tackled the marketing issue. They recommended that to improve his personal marketing skills, Tarango take advantage of some of the low-cost marketing courses offered by community colleges, business-networking groups and the Small Business Administration's small-business development centers.

Tarango gets new clients mostly from word-of-mouth referrals--a great way to bring in new customers, Ames said. Each spring, Tarango sends reminder cards to his current tax clients that offer them a 10% discount on their tax-preparation fees if they bring in a new client.

But personal referrals typically do not generate enough business to make a fledgling company stable. Tarango has placed advertisements in the yellow pages and La Opinion newspaper, but they didn't generate enough response to justify the expense, he said.

He's also sent direct-mail fliers to his neighbors, new homeowners and new businesses in ZIP Codes that are along convenient bus routes, since he doesn't drive.

But while the idea of appealing to new businesses was a good one, Ames said he isn't surprised that approach didn't work.

"It strikes me as bad timing," he said. "A new business will not be ready to make decisions about bookkeeping until they get established and begin to grow a bit. At the time when they are filing their DBA [doing-business-as] statements, most of them don't even know they will need a bookkeeper, and very few of them would have the money on hand to hire one even if they did."

He suggested that instead of targeting brand-new businesses, Tarango send his marketing materials to business owners and appeal to those who are unhappy with the prices they are paying or with the wait for their financial reports.

Ames said Tarango should revise his fliers so they target specific types of businesses, such as small retail shops or dry cleaners. He recommended that Tarango purchase marketing database software such as D&B; MarketPlace or buy lists from direct-mail brokers who charge by the unit, which might be more economical.

The students in Ames' class came up with several suggestions for how Tarango could appeal to the Spanish-speaking business sector, including translating his fliers into Spanish on one side; identifying Spanish-speaking business owners in his area; and advertising in Las Paginas Amarillas (the Spanish yellow pages) and in small, Spanish-language publications. He could also explore placing bilingual ads in local newspapers, chamber of commerce newsletters, and club or church bulletins.

Student Darryl DesHotels hit on an idea that had real resonance with Tarango: posting cards or fliers in some of the many check-cashing establishments that dot his neighborhood.

"There is a big check-cashing place right near the bus stop I use, and it does a very high volume of business," Tarango said.

When looking for new clients, Tarango needs to make sales calls and arrange brief meetings with small-business owners, during which he could present himself and his services, Ames said. He could spend several afternoons riding the bus routes that are convenient for him and dropping in on some of the small businesses along the way.

Making cold calls or walking into a business location to talk to an entrepreneur is hard for most people to do. "But if you develop some resilience and you truly believe that you do have something valuable to offer, you will get a response eventually," Ames said.

A strength that Ames' students said Tarango should build on is his proficiency with bookkeeping software. Since he is comfortable working with QuickBooks Pro and Peachtree, they suggested that he take classes to become certified as an official consultant for those companies.

Once he gets the certification, Tarango's name and contact number would be listed on the companies' Web sites, accessible to businesses looking for a local consultant. Also, being affiliated with those companies would offer Tarango some of that automatic credibility that he currently lacks because he is on his own.

"His direct-mail pieces should target the issue by saying something like: 'Tired of trying to figure out how to work your Peachtree software? Let a certified Peachtree trainer help you!' " Ness said.

"He needs to tie into the idea that his service will help make a small-business owner's life easier. Most of the time, the small-business person would love to ease the pain of keeping up financials by just turning them over to an expert," Ness said.

Ames applauded another tack Tarango has taken: offering gift certificates at the checkout counters of local businesses, good for $10 off Tarango's tax-preparation service, compliments of the store displaying them.

"The store is able to thank its customers by giving them a discount for shopping there, and Tarango can generate new business in the demographic and region that he is targeting," Ames said.

He recommended that Tarango expand on the certificates by offering a larger discount to business clients for their tax preparation and by making special gift certificate cards that he would send to his small-business clients and drop off at some of the local wholesalers in his area.

The students discussed Tarango's price structure, but there was some disagreement on what he should do about it. Ness suggested that offering across-the-board lower prices--which Tarango does now--may not be wise for a service business.

Ames said Tarango should determine the general price point for his services locally and then strive not to be significantly lower than that. That suggestion brought out another problem: Tarango has simply not done enough research on his competition to know what they are charging.

If Tarango can put the time, persistence and energy into the business that he needs to, Ness said, he can be successful.

"With the growing number of entrepreneurs today, Richard will never run out of clients if he can learn how to find them. Most small businesses are now computerized, but most small-business owners are still over their heads when it comes to accounting, and they just don't have the time and energy to thoroughly utilize the software that they have purchased to do it."

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This Week's Company Make-Over

Name: Tarango Bookkeeping

Type of business: Part-time, home-based bookkeeping, income tax and payroll service

Owner: Richard Tarango, 40

Annual revenue: $10,000

Headquarters: 207 N. 7th St., Montebello

Founded: 1994

Financing: Personal savings

Status: Private

Main Business Problem

Lack of advertising and marketing skills and difficulty acquiring clients

Goals

Turn part-time, seasonal business into a full-time enterprise by acquiring eight to 10 small-business clients and 20 to 30 additional tax-preparation clients.

Recommendations

Develop personal marketing skills by signing up for entrepreneurial training or marketing classes.

Define specific target market for advertising. Pick specific types of existing businesses and target with direct mail and telephone sales follow-up.

Expand on gift-certificate promotion and cross-referral plans with local retailers.

Target Spanish-speaking clients with bilingual marketing materials.

Reexamine pricing to make sure lower prices are competitive but not hurting business.

Investigate taking a course to become a certified consultant for popular business accounting software such as QuickBooks or Peachtree.

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