Finding your niche Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

When Jeff Ahola decided recently to target The Ahola Corp.’s services specifically to family-owned businesses, it was not the first time he had refocused the company — itself family-owned and operated — around a specific market niche.

Upon its founding in 1967 by Ahola’s parents, The Ahola Corp. operated as a general data-processing bureau, using mainframes to compute a wide range of business functions. Nearly 20 years later, Ahola joined the organization as marketing manager and made a quick realization.

“I joined the firm in 1984, and shortly thereafter, I realized we were just too spread out as a company,” Ahola says. “We were competing in a humongous number of markets and areas.”

Choosing which of those markets to target was difficult, but after weighing his options, Ahola settled on outsourced payroll processing.

“That first choice to focus just on payroll services was a huge decision, and it was the right decision, in retrospect,” Ahola says. “You can forecast it, but when it comes to where the rubber hits the road, you’ve got to make the decision.”

Once you’ve made the decision to focus your business, Ahola says the biggest challenge is often preparing your staff for the process. Communication from the top is critical in reducing the confusion and frustration that accompanies any significant change.

“When you see the vision clearly, you assume that everybody else sees what you see,” Ahola says. “Not everybody can be whole-brain thinkers, and that’s what good leaders need to be aware of.”

At least some of that communication is non-verbal, Ahola says. During any business adjustment or refocusing, it is imperative that once a decision has been made, a leader projects a sense of confidence, not indecision.

“It’s like if you’re leading a battle and you’re in a boat and you’re landing the boat and going inland; you’ve got to burn the boats so you’ve got to go forward,” Ahola says. “Confidence builds success, and then success builds confidence. Your people need to be confident that you feel you’ve made the best decision.”

Projecting confidence, however, is sometimes easier said than done. Ahola says that while the benefits of such a change can be slow to materialize, a leader must stick to his or her guns.

“What’s difficult in this economy is that you can’t filter between, ‘Is it the economy, stupid?’ or, ‘Is it your strategy, stupid?’” Ahola says. “You’ve got to be ready to withstand the short-term confusion of the marketplace. Once they see the benefits of the focus, the growth will go very, very rapidly.”

Making the correct and profitable niche marketing decision requires, first and foremost, that a leader be familiar with all aspects of his or her own organization. Above all, Ahola stresses the importance of being well-acquainted with your customers and their issues before choosing how you can best appeal to them.

“You just have to know your business,” Ahola says. “You have to be out there with your clients. You have to be there in a sales capacity, an owner capacity and a customer service capacity before you make the decision.”

Though conventional wisdom might suggest that targeting a specific niche is limiting your opportunities, Ahola believes just the opposite.

“It’s tough to think you’re going to shrink your market,” he says. “You’re actually going to expand it. You’re going to enhance your expertise and you’re going to create your own leadership position in a category, especially if the category has not been created yet. There is no leader for family companies for payroll services, and we intend to take that leadership position.”

HOW TO REACH: The Ahola Corp., (440) 717-7620 or www.ahola.com

Rules to better niche marketing

Niche marketing can be a low-cost, low-risk strategy to grow your business. Keeping your risk low, however, requires foresight and thoroughness. Kim T. Gordon, an author and marketing coach, offers these three rules to effective niche marketing.

  1. Meet the unique needs of potential clients. The benefits you promise must have special appeal to the market niche. What can you provide that’s new and compelling? Identify the unique needs of your potential audience and look for ways to tailor your product or service to meet them.

  2. Say the right thing. When approaching a new market niche, it’s imperative to speak the language of the niche. In other words, you should understand the market’s hot buttons and be prepared to communicate with the target group as an understanding member, not as an outsider. In addition to launching a unique campaign for the new niche, you may need to alter other, more basic elements, such as your company slogan if it translates poorly to another language, for example.

  3. Always test the market. Before moving ahead, assess the direct competition in the new market niche and determine how you will position against them. For an overview, it’s best to conduct a competitive analysis by reviewing competitors’ ads, brochures and Web sites, looking for their key selling points, along with pricing, delivery and other service characteristics.

SOURCE: To reach Kim T. Gordon, go to www.smallbusinessnow.com