Catering corner

As a child, I spent many a day at the greenhouse pond going "catching." Fishing is passive, takes time and patience and may or may not result in success. "Catching" means you know on the front end that you'll be walking home with a stringer full of fish.

Lead generation marketing, done properly, is the business equivalent to "catching." Because of the large size of catering orders, your marketing efforts are most likely going to get you a qualified lead to call in and inquire. Your salesmanship, or lack thereof, will determine what percentage of leads become customers.

Insurance companies teach new salesman, with great success, to approach their family and friends as the "best" sources of leads. Your current customers are your family members of sort. Using signs, banners, table tents, flyers, box toppers and washroom signs are the best way to get the word out to your customers that you now offer catering. These marketing tools also act as a perfect ongoing reminder.

The close cousin of on-site marketing is database marketing. Every pizzeria should have a database of dining and delivery customers. This database is your most valuable asset, and these customers need to be cultivated on a regular basis. Including information about your catering service is a great way to generate leads from those that love you. The single mom that has a large pepperoni and two liter delivered every Friday night just might be in charge of ordering in food for the company safety luncheon.

Real estate professionals have perfected a marketing system that can be adopted for catering lead generation. They call it "farming" a market. Just like these agents, you'll need to define a target market that will think of you first for pizza and pasta catering. Defining geographic zones, like zip codes, parts of town or an entire city is the first criteria for your farming zone. You'll then decide how many employees a business must have to justify the ongoing marketing investment.

Farming your market involves regular communication with this group of catering prospects. You need to plant these seeds, preferably through direct mail, from four to twelve times a year. Though you should include special offers to get immediate benefit, the overall purpose is to be in front of your prospect enough times to be called when the need for your catering service arises. Alternating formats ensures your message gets read: post cards, newsletters and sales letters.

For the more aggressive pizza operator, I teach my members how to reap large rewards through niche marketing. Safety luncheons, sport's banquets, weddings, pharmaceutical rep luncheons and training meetings are just a handful of the over thirty specific catering niches you can attract. Each of these events shares one thing in common. You can easily get a list of the types of companies and decision makers that book them. Sending a lead generation letter directly to every pharmaceutical rep in your town will get a better response than hoping to be discovered. By mentioning the type of event in your sales letter, you are connecting the dots for your prospect. Otherwise, even if they frequent your restaurant, they might never have considered you.

A shortcut to finding great catering niches is to look at your catering customers. The types of customers and events you cater hold the secret to more of the same. If you are a popular choice for end-of-season baseball league parties, mailing to a list of all the little league coaches in your area is sure to get you more events.

When using direct mail for your lead generation campaign, there are a few rules to follow. The first is the rule of threes. A consultant taught me that just like bill collectors, you want to send three letters, each letter a little more urgent to reply. I, and others in direct marketing, have found that your second and third mailing should yield the same number of leads as your first mailing.

I have developed and use a lead generation system that gets 20-40 percent of my prospects to set up a catering appointment from this three-letter sequence. I like to use letters because of their low cost, high return and ability to get read and acted on by my ideal prospect. Testimonials, awards, newspaper articles and reviews are credibility boosters to be included in your lead generation mailer. For the prospect that may have never heard of you, these unbiased endorsements of your pizzeria are often enough to gain acceptance.

When lead generating for events that run $5,000 dollars or more, I will often use 3-D mail. I have sent letters to pharmaceutical reps in cough syrup bottles and once mailed a letter in an aluminum pan. Your lead generation letter mailed in a pizza box is sure to get opened and read, which are the critical steps to a prospect taking action.

However you decide to start generating leads for your catering service, make sure you track the profitability of each campaign. Not every mailer or target market is a winner for your type of pizza operation. Invest more resources into the lead sources that make you money, and quickly dump the losers. Before long you will develop your own money printing press that supplies you with a steady flow of catering leads.