A Key to Long Term Success


by Dana Baldwin

Times are tight, business is lousy, right? We can't be bothered worrying about long term image building when we are worried about our next order, if there is to be one, can we? While there is much to be said for surviving this downturn, there is also much to be said about starting to plan for the next upturn, as well.

Why should I think about marketing, when what I need is sales? Many companies use the term marketing interchangeably with the term sales. Nothing could be further from reality. Their focus is totally different in many ways. Sales is concerned with the here and now. Next order, next inquiry, next quotation, next sales call. Marketing is aimed at the long term. Marketing is aimed at building the company image, building the basis for sustainable competitive advantage for the long term.

In his book, It's not Rocket Science, Mitch Gooze points out the considerable differences between sales and marketing. His goal is to help companies build their sustainable competitive advantages over time so the companies will survive and prosper. In so doing, he emphasizes the importance of marketing for all companies. Example: In Cincinnati in 1837, there were 18 companies that made soap and candles. One survived: Proctor and Gamble. Why? Because they followed a course of action that differentiated themselves from the others. They developed sustainable competitive advantages which brought the public to buy P & G products, like Ivory Soap. Ivory Soap was a good product, but a good product without the sustained effort of building an effective image would not/will not sell as well as one that has the image in the market place. Ivory was differentiated by the ad campaign we have all seen: "99 and 44/100 per cent pure. And it floats." Those two slogans helped build P & G into a giant. They gave the company an image of quality and an image of innovation. Image can be made up of small things, not just large, expensive ones. Example: One paper boy noticed that a lot of people would cross the street to purchase a paper from him, when there were other paper vendors more conveniently located. One day he asked one woman why she bought from him instead of the others, and she answered, " Because you always say 'Thank you.'"

What is marketing? Peter Drucker, the guru of modern business management, has described marketing as much broader than selling, that it encompasses the entire business as seen from the customer's point of view.

To envision your company from your customer's point of view, you need to take a huge step outside of your four walls and put yourself in your customer's place. This is definitely not an easy task, because you are faced with myriad challenges. You have competitors who want to court and woo away your best customers. You have new technologies, new products or services coming on the market every day. You have competitors who want to enter your market place that have never been in it before today. You have changing personnel at your customers businesses who may have relationships with other suppliers. All of these challenges, and more, await you when you seek to look at yourself from the outside. But, to be more effective in the market place, you really need to gain the perspective that this will provide for you.

Marketing is really the process of helping others to perceive value in what you do for them. The challenge is to persuade your customers and potential customers that you really do provide value in what you do for them.

In marketing, one must take the long view. We need to build up our image, our reputation, a perceived value we bring to each transaction over time, so that it will be sustainable over time. Example: Johnson & Johnson. A number of years ago Johnson & Johnson made a commitment to their market places that they would behave according to a predetermined set of values. They codified this in their Mission Statement. When they were subjected to the brutal attacks on their credibility with people lacing their product Tylenol with arsenic, they acted upon those stated values, pulled all of the product off the shelves, instituted new safety procedures and, when they reintroduced the same product in safe packaging, the public rewarded them with confidence in the product and reliance on the integrity of the company. Because they had built up a long term image for reliability and quality through effective long term marketing of those qualities, and because they reacted exactly as the public expected, with total honesty and integrity, they got through the crisis with no long term damage, and, essentially, an enhanced image. Had they not built this image over time through effective marketing of their image, it well could have ruined the company. An extreme case, but well worth considering how effective this long term, long view process was for them.

What is included in the marketing effort? Actually a surprising number of factors should be included in the marketing endeavor. You should be starting with the simple things that leave a lasting impression on the customer. For example, we suggest you try calling your own company. Judge how friendly and helpful your initial contact is with your company. First of all, does a person answer or does a machine answer? There is no right or wrong selection, here, but you should be sure from the very start of the interaction there is an obvious and easy way for a caller to reach a human. There are many people who simply do not relate well to a machine answering their phone calls. Once your caller is able to reach a real human, does that person project the image and feeling you want projected to your customers and prospects? Does the first person who answers have the ability to direct the caller to the correct department or person to help the caller? Does she or he come across as knowing how to assist the caller? Too many times, we have seen the point of initial contact with customers and prospective customers left to the least experienced and least trained personnel in the company. The result can be that a poor impression is left in the mind of the person initiating the contact, and this can have the consequence of fewer sales and less confidence in your company's ability to handle whatever brought the prospect to contact you in the first place. It is important for all parts of the company to realize they are a part of the process of satisfying the customer. If the initial contact goes well, the inquiry is promptly and accurately handled, the order is well taken and handled, but shipping goofs and sends the wrong materials or ships to the wrong address, the good done by the rest of the company is lost on the customer, because the outcome is not correct in the eyes of the customer. Everyone must contribute consistently to have the overall effect desired.

Another factor could be your hours of operation. Are you available when your customers want to contact you? I visited a service-oriented company recently, and noted that their hours of operation were from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM. My first question of the management was to ask when their customers were at work? Do your hours of operation make it easy for them to contact you without having to take time away from their work? Their reaction: they had never thought about how convenient their hours were. They had always had those hours, and had never thought of changing.

Next, do your people follow through on their commitments to outside contacts? When your customer service department tells a customer that they will have an answer by a certain time or date, do they consistently get back to the customer on time or early with the complete answer? Or do they miss deadlines, lack understanding of the customers' needs, and not follow through on commitments?

The interesting thing about this discussion is that, so far, we have not suggested that any significant investment will be required to bring your levels of service and communication up to a higher level. These are potentially easy fixes, the result of which will be a broad-based impression that your company cares about doing business with each contact, knows what it is talking about, and follows through with the commitments made by each area within the company. Even if these factors don't result in immediate orders, the groundwork has been laid for the up-coming improvement in the economy. When business picks up, the fact that your company cared enough about its customers to improve communication and to follow up on commitments, on time and with complete information should lead to better sales.

What next? What relatively inexpensive things can we do to improve our image in the market place over time? Good question, and the answers here get a little less obvious and a little more difficult. One area to start with might be our sales force. Yes, earlier we said that the focus of selling is immediate and short term, and the focus of marketing is longer term. But, any sales person worth his/her salt has to realize that an investment in a longer-term strategy of positive image will eventually pay off for their immediate goals of more orders. Example: When I was in the machinery business, during the "depression" of 1980-81, we required our sales force to continue to make sales calls on all their customers and prospects. The purpose of this was, of course, to ask for orders. The second purpose (not secondary) was to be sure that our customers and prospects knew we were interested in serving them for the long term, in good times and in bad times, and that we were willing to make the effort and investment in contacting them, even if there was no immediate business to be had. Our competitors were sitting in their offices, waiting for the telephone to ring, while we were out, face to face, with our prospects. Who do you think got the phone calls when business started to improve? We did, and we reaped the benefit from this effort for a number of years after the recovery began.

If you are not already doing so, start to do some networking with your peers and your best customers. Talk with customers to find out whom else might need your products or services. Get referrals from satisfied customers. A referral from a satisfied customer is often one of the quickest ways to get the attention of new prospects. Talk to former customers to find ways to get them back. Tell them what you are doing better, and ask questions to determine how you might be able to lure them back.

What about longer term goals for marketing? The classic elements of marketing are very important, too. But, you must be able to afford them, or to figure ways around the obstacle of cost. Example: Knowledge of your customers is a key to knowing what they will need in the future. Market research can be expensive, but there are some ways around some of the expense. One possibility is to have a local business school do some research for your company. Sponsoring a graduate business school student will often help both parties. It will also provide you with some positive publicity, and the results should be helpful in your overall marketing approach.

Knowledge of your competition is also important. There are some inexpensive ways to gain some knowledge of your competitors. Call your competitor and ask for general information. The purpose is to see if you can determine how well inquiries are handled. Also, you will be able to see how nicely telephone contacts are managed, and how courteous or abrupt the initial contact is. Attend trade shows and conventions, and shop your competitors. Look up your competitors in the leading directories for your industry to see what they are advertising, and what they are not advertising. The internet is a good tool for research. Spend some time in your competitors' websites. You can learn a lot from what they are telling their public. Talk to their competitors. It can be surprising how much you might learn from one competitor about another. All of these are relatively inexpensive and can be quite enlightening.

What role does advertising play in marketing? Obviously, if people don't know about you and what you have to sell, it will be most difficult to sell them anything. So you do need to get your name out there and keep it in front of your public. While the traditional press in some form is an appropriate vehicle for advertising, the ultimate tool for most companies can be advertising on the internet. In addition to the internet, if you can afford it, you should do typical trade advertising. You may want to advertise in local papers, local magazines, the regional trade press or even national trade magazines. These can be expensive, but depending on your market areas, may well be necessary. But there also are a large number of no or low cost things you can do which will keep your name out in front of the public. Volunteer for local charities and other activities.

Send birthday and anniversary greetings to your customers and prospects. Send personal notes to people who get recognition in local papers and trade journals. Be ingenious. Watch how other similar businesses advertise, and learn what works and what does not. Do some cold calling, but do it right. Just calling prospects out of the blue may yield some results, but calling them after doing some homework could lead to more effective outcomes. One principle that should be remembered is to smile while making the call. Sounds funny, but the smile usually comes through the phone to the prospect, even though the caller can't be seen. Another tip is to write out a script and to practice it until you are comfortable with it. If there are words or phrases that you are not comfortable with, change them until you are comfortable. When you make the actual calls, don't read from the script. It will usually come across as stilted and uncomfortable, and will not be as effective as your natural conversation. Your script should include a brief introduction and the purpose of your call. Don't try to sell something on the first call, rather try to learn what your prospect's needs are and how you might best serve them.

Obviously this is not a complete treatise on marketing, but it is a good selection of ideas that can help you understand your customers' needs and preferences. Included are a number of ideas which are no cost or low cost, but which will possibly help you gain insight into ways to better approach the task of marketing. The goal is to build your image so that when your customers need your products or services, you are the first one they think of. Marketing should help you learn your best approaches to your prospects and could help lead to improved results for your business.

Dana Baldwin is a consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.

Dana can be reached via e-mail at baldwin@cssp.com.

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