Is Marketing Everything?

I was doing some office cleaning recently and, in a pile of stuff marked “worth keeping?” I came across a clipping I saved some years ago (I’m sort of a pack rat and save far too much stuff).  It was a “Letter to the editor” of a national business magazine that ended with a statement I had underlined, “Indeed, it seems that marketing may be the dominant paradigm of more than popular culture – it may be the next dominant paradigm of everything.”

From my perspective, I believe history has proven the writer correct.  Marketing is the dominant paradigm:

  • When a company works to add value and differentiation to a commodity product they use packaging, branding, bundling, speed of delivery… all marketing.
  • When prosecutors in a murder trial have family members of the deceased testify about their loss and suffering, emotions of sympathy and empathy are injected into the trial… all marketing.
  • When a politician uses “Spin” to shade a story they are utilizing copywriting, persuasive scripting, and public speaking skills… all marketing.
  • When the phone is answered, “XYZ Company, this is Bill, how can I help you today?”… all marketing.
  • When a customer is contacted by phone, email, text, or real mail after they have purchased something to ask about their level of satisfaction… all marketing.
  • When a jeweler or florist sends a congratulatory reminder of a birthday or anniversary with the obvious intent of selling something… all marketing.
  • When a company that sells an “automatic monthly shipment” includes something extra at the anniversary date of the service… all marketing.
  • When a job seeker visits the hair stylist before an interview they use cosmetic adornment, grooming, and exhibit a particular attitude… all marketing.
  • When the dentist, the vet, or the auto mechanic sends a “Reminder for Check-up” card they are utilizing database management techniques and “Lifetime Value calculations”… all marketing.

Because price and quality among competitors selling a similar product or service are often so comparable without much to separate them on their own merits, the customer service and customer rewards aspects of marketing has become the dominant differentiator, the dominant paradigm.   To market better look at your business with a strategic focus.  Consider what you can do at little or no cost that will delight your customers so that they will never defect to your competition.  When you see the resulting boost in customer retention (which some people describe as “customer loyalty,” you will see that “Marketing is Everything” or maybe “Everything is Marketing.”

Question or comment to Larry:

You Don’t Need A Magician

Designing a home or commercial building is not magic; neither is designing a business plan, a marketing plan, or a strategic plan.  They all go through the same step-by-step creative process.  If we are talking about the creative process of an architect, people get it and nod their heads, yet when I discuss designing one of the business plans, some businesspeople seem to think we are talking about voodoo, or magic, or hocus-pocus… so when I want to talk about business planning I often use the analogy of designing a home as an example.

These plans are based on “wants,” “needs,” and “resources.”  An architect balances the client’s desires against the realism imposed by budget, size and age of the family, aesthetic tastes, and physical limitations of the site and the climate.  Any of the business plans go through the same balancing act, dealing with many of the same issues while adding considerations for competition, level of ambition, skill sets of management and staff, and cash flow and eliminating site, building codes, and the probably the climate.

Along the path towards a realistic and workable plan are a series of questions: Are the goals realistic and appropriate?  Is the budget adequate?  Is adequate financing in place or available? Are the principals credit-worthy? Is the timing right?

When the preliminary plan is written, it is time for adaptation and compromise.  Perhaps the spa will fit in that home, but it may take space away from the bedroom.  Perhaps we can afford the new, four-color brochure if we design it creatively enough to use fewer pages.  From these compromises, and perhaps a few heated discussions, the working plan is drawn, timetables and priorities are established.  Action steps are developed.  Responsibilities and accountabilities are appointed.  Reporting and tracking systems are designed.  The consensus is reached on the outstanding questions before either a business plan or an architect’s plan are brought to bankers who can finance the project.

Once financing is in place the plan is put into motion.

The design of a home plan and a business plan, marketing plan, or strategic plan are creative and methodical processes.  They are not magic, yet if you sit down and go through the process your competition will think you hired a Houdini with a magic wand.

And the first step for any of the business plans is to clearly define what you want and expect to accomplish, then determine how you will do it, when, and the resources that you need… it’s harder than pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but certainly do-able.

Question or comment to Larry:

The “Customer-Centric” Philosophy

It seems obvious, but obviously it isn’t, that customers or clients are the most important part of every business, and it’s very easy for a customer to discover, by staff member attitudes, whether the company feels their customers are their primary focus or an annoyance.

Serving or supplying customers is the only reason any business exists.  Those that are centered on the needs and desires of customers are “customer-centric”.  They serve customers well and work hard at impressing and pleasing them.  If they do it well, they flourish, because they retain their customers, however businesses that “just go through the customer-service motions” or take advantage of customers eventually wither away as customers defect and go where they are served with quality, value, and respect.

It’s easy to say something like, “We put our customers first” and it’s quite another thing to work to prove that axiom on every sale, with every customer. 

I recently approached a company’s reception desk for an appointment; the person behind the desk never looked at me, just blankly said while typing and looking at her monitor, “do you have an appointment?”

She took my name, said, “Have a seat” and sort of pointed at some chairs against the wall.

While everything was handled in an efficient, businesslike manner, I certainly got the impression that, as a customer, I was not essential to their business, nor was my purchasing from them appreciated.

Companies that adopt a “customer-centric” philosophy put forth the effort to show and communicate that philosophy at every opportunity.  They hire staff members who exhibit “people” skills, integrity, and responsibility.  They train new hires on customer-centric methods of service fulfillment and communications.  They continuously improve product and service delivery with an eye toward pleasing and impressing the customer.  They develop programs to give extra value and extra service to the customer… that’s being customer-centric.

As a personal observation, companies that have adopted a customer-centric philosophy grow faster and have greater profits because they build greater loyalty and have a higher percentage of returning customers who then become a base of “word of mouth” advertising and referral business.  Additionally, these companies generally have lower employee turnover because the staff, once trained in the philosophy, is appreciated more by the people they serve.  

The customer-centric philosophy becomes circular when the focus is centered on customers.  Happy customers make a happy company with happy staff, and everything continues to get better.

Question or comment to Larry:

Become a Problem-Free, Stress-Free Zone

Every business has “problems.”  Some are small and can be easily handled without much effort, yet far too often, the same small problems crop up again and again.  They magnify, grow, become increasingly infuriating, and eventually cause chaos and a bottleneck of some sort or another.  Everything stops.  Customers become angry and don’t return because you haven’t fixed it.  Staff members get hurt, then angry, then they leave or throw a wrench in the works.  Suddenly that “little problem” has cascaded into a “hair-on-fire” moment!

It’s “All hands on deck!” People rush to phones.  Panic ensues because there is no system in place to handle it. And again, it gets fixed.  Once resolved, most problems go away temporarily only to spring up again, unwanted, on another day to be resolved yet again.  Break this cycle now.  But, in most cases, reoccurring problems are the symptom that reveals an underlying cause and it is that cause that must be eliminated.  When that happens, the symptoms will cease also.

Imagine what would happen if the “problem / panic / resolution / no problem” cycle was eliminated by systemization. When a problem occurred and was resolved, the actions necessary to overcome it would be documented so the next time that problem resurfaced, the resolution would be fast and relatively painless.  That way, small problems would be handled at their source without panic, chaos, or the need for management to be consulted for guidance.

As an example, assume a piece of office equipment malfunctions.  Instead of searching around for the documentation, it should be immediately available.  In addition to the manual, the documentation should show the contact information of primary and secondary service agencies, the method of getting the work accomplished until that equipment is fixed, and a cost limit for repair before consulting with management.  If all this information is easily accessible, the problem can be handled without causing anything more than a minor inconvenience.  This example can be modified, as needed, for the majority of repetitive problems most businesses need to deal with.

The cycle-breaking action is to document these problems and their resolution.  Make sure the people responsible for problems that occur in that area are familiar with the documentation and can handle the problem within the limits of the authority as written.  If the small problems that occur regularly become easily handled, you are on the way to making your company a problem-free, stress-free zone with few, if any, “hair-on-fire” moments.

Question or comment to Larry:

“So What Do You Do For A Living?”

There you are at a social function, a business function, or perhaps talking to someone in the next seat on an airplane.  Ultimately one of you asks the other, “So, what do you do for a living?”  

That’s your moment of truth, your opportunity to articulate what you do in terms that might get you a new customer or referral agent, yet most people waste the opportunity by mumbling something meaningless and generic instead of a short specific statement loaded with benefits.

A couple of examples:

  • Instead of the generic and almost meaningless, “I’m a financial planner” say, “I help high-income people have a secure and bountiful financial future.”
  • Instead of, “I’m a marriage counselor” say, “I help married couples resolve differences with a goal of bringing back the magic they once had.”
  • Instead of, “I’m an electrical contractor” say, “I help people who live in older houses be able to use newer technology by upgrading their electrical service.”

The generic statement describes “what you are.”  What you are (financial planner, marriage counselor, electrical contractor, or whatever) is a commodity and commodities are interchangeable.    

The specific statement describes “what you do for people.”  Should describe the benefits that accrue to your clients and should also differentiate, separate yourself, and elevate yourself when a prospect compares you to your competitors.

Realize that no one wants to purchase “financial planning,” “marriage counseling”, or “electrical contracting.  They want to purchase “a secure and bountiful financial future,” “a marriage with renewed magic,” or “to be able to enjoy a home theatre in a re-wired older home.”

When you formulate a specific, benefit-loaded statement, the other person will gain interest and ask questions.  If they have a need or know someone who does, you may be on your way to increasing your business by articulating specific benefits instead of generic descriptions.

To create your specific statement, list the benefits you supply your clients, then work them into a simple to remember and simple to say statement which is designed to elicit a question, “How do you do that?”

When you get that question or one like it, you’ve gotten permission to start talking about your process and your “I had a client once who…” success stories.  If you’ve done the specific statement right, answered the question right, and finally get to talk about successes you’ve had, that’s when the benefits of answering the question, “What do you do for a living?” with a well practiced and honed specific statement turn into results.

Question or comment to Larry:

Reduce Buyer’s Risk, Sell More

Everyone is working hard to steal customers, right?  Your competitors are working hard to attract your customers and you are doing it also… right?

Yet, it’s hard to do because customers know that changing from one vendor to another entails assuming some risk on their part.  When customers defect and purchase from a new vendor, they are taking the risk of getting inferior value, inferior quality, and / or inferior service.  If you are trying to sell to prospects for the first time, reducing their risk (or the risk they assume they have) will make that first sale come easier and faster.

Naturally, it is easier to get a customer to switch if they can buy a commodity – exactly the same product or service from you because you can attract them by offering some sort of trial offer – better price / value, extra (or better / faster) service, or one-time incentives.  It’s more difficult if you are selling a professional service where the customer has an existing, personal relationship with the vendor (think hair stylist, mechanic, dog groomer, dentist, accountant, financial advisor, etc.).  

The challenge becomes how to reduce or eliminate their risk when they try your service or product.  Please realize that when you reduce your customer’s risk you are increasing yours.  But that is the price you need to pay to attract new customers easily and quickly.  In general, people defect from professional services vendors only when they don’t feel they are getting what they are paying for and then, are seeking to leave… and if you reach them when they are vulnerable to change and have a good offer, there is a higher probability for success.

Here are a couple tactics you can use to reduce your prospects risk:

  • Substantially discounted first purchase (Trial Offer or Buy One – Get One Free).  They can try you with little risk, you profit when they return.
  • Trial Offer – “If you don’t like it… bring it back within xx days”
  • Longer Guarantee – Stand behind your quality better and make it easier for the prospect to see the difference.
  • No Hassle Money Back if not satisfied – eliminate the risk for them by taking it on yourself.
  • Guarantee speed – If we can’t deliver when we say we will you get a reduced (Free is better) cost.
  • Give them something of extra value with their first purchase.

If you can reduce their risk and overcome their fear of the unknown vendor, you will attract them easier and faster.  If you can then keep them returning you will increase the velocity of your growth.

Question or comment to Larry:

Good – Better – Best… Why Not Do Them All?

A very useful marketing strategy is to narrowly position your product by quality, price, or level of service.  Once that narrow position is accepted, expand and differentiate your offerings to become attractive to different market segments.  On many airplanes, there are three levels of service (first class, business class, and cattle car), the Postal Service offers package delivery in three levels of service (next-day, priority, and first class) and there are many more examples of companies that offer many different levels of price and service for essentially the same product.  

Book publishers use the same strategy by offering the same book in hardback, “quality” paperback, “economy,” paperback, and e-book formats at distinctly different prices.  The content is exactly the same; the difference is the binding and the quality of the paper (or no paper).  The prices are substantially different with about a 300% price differential separating the lowest price to the highest price.

There is a large sign at the car wash I occasionally use that clearly shows all their different service options, both in “packages” that combine different levels of service and as “ala-carte” services.  I can pick and choose their offerings depending on my wants and needs of the day – everything from the basic wash and dry to a complete outside and inside detail and wax.  

At most fast food restaurants we can get order many combinations anywhere from just the basic burger to the complete meal including dessert at differing price points.  Customers aren’t forced to by more, or less, than they want.

I could go on and on with examples pulled from just about every industry which could include almost every product and service category.  If you think about it a moment, you can make this list up yourself.  But I’d like you to consider your own product and service offerings and see whether you can take what you already have and devise a “Good – Better – Best” strategy. [NOTE: Start with one product or service – don’t try to do too much too fast or you will quickly become overwhelmed].  When doing this, think of your customer’s recent requests and see how you can accommodate them by expanding your offerings and pricing them appropriately.  Some customers are desperate for speedy delivery, others desire economy, and others want “all the trimmings.”  If you can figure out how to accommodate their desires you can serve more people, increase your sales and profits.  You will have happier customers and you won’t be losing those who want to go beyond your current selection to the competition. 

Question or comment to Larry:

Pssst…Want to Buy a Rock… Real Cheap?

There is a natural cycle to most products, processes, themes, fads and trends.  It is the function of business leaders to be aware and understand these cycles, to take advantage of them or to be swallowed up by them.  You make business decisions based on your understanding of these buying cycles in order to predict the results of promotions, inventory levels, space allocations, and staffing requirements.

A typical cycle works like this: at first, no one knows a product or service exists, then a few early adapters recognize its existence and buy it, other people become aware and it builds in popularity.  As it grows in market acceptance there is certainly the possibility that it goes viral, and seemingly everyone wants to be “the first on the block” to have it.  Ultimately, competitors discover it and mass awareness sets in.  When “everyone is doing it,” then the new thing starts faltering as late-stage competitors come to market, prices and margins fall, and the product either perishes or becomes part of the common mainstream and is no longer unique, no longer “hot” as the fickle public starts a feeding frenzy over the next bright, shiny object. In some industries, the cycle is very short (think Pet Rock or 3D Movies), in others, the cycle is much longer (think of kale, VHS, or the beehive hairdo).  Millions of dollars were made on Beanie Babies, yet they eventually were replaced by other fashionable items of the day.

The same cycle applies to marketing plans (there are almost no door-to-door salespeople now), personal improvement programs (anyone still doing EST?), and TV shows (one day there will undoubtedly be no more “Reality” shows or even Seinfeld reruns).  

Most fad products, when their cycle is over, end up at a close-out show.  To an observer, these are very sad affairs because it’s where once-popular products are picked over by flea market buyers and end up in bargain bins.  It’s where optimistic dreams go to die. 

Your constant and pressing challenge is to be aware of the cycles that affect your business and your industry.  All the products or services you sell are being affected by cycles.  Identify both long-term and short-term cycles and develop strategies to take advantage of them when you have something hot, and how to minimize the risk when you have something that is dying on the shelves.  

You don’t want to have a warehouse filled with Pet Rocks, do you?

Question or comment to Larry:

Don’t “Wing It” – Be Scripted and Engaging!

At a trade show recently, walking up one aisle and down the next, I stopped and talked to several people who shocked me by representing their companies very poorly.  They had great difficulty opening a conversation, asking qualifying questions, and gauging my interest in their company, products, and services.  Most seemed very amateurish making it difficult for them to establish trust or start a relationship.

Introducing yourself, your company, and the product or service you sell should be easy; after all, you certainly should know the topic well.  However, I noticed that few people could effectively introduce themselves, engage me in conversation, and tell me the benefits of their products or services.   It was obvious that they didn’t have an introductory greeting script memorized and practiced.  They were just “winging it.”

I get a funny reaction whenever I bring up the topic of scripts.  Almost without exception, I can actually see the person I am talking to start to cringe whenever I mention using a script.   They usually say, “No, I don’t want to sound like I am reciting a script.”  But they have the concept wrong.

I ask them if they have seen a movie or TV show lately.  Of course, they answer, “Yes.”  Then I ask if they think those actors are “making it up as they go along.”  They answer, “No, of course not.”  

The reason actors sound natural reciting a script is that they work hard at it.  They memorize the script, they work on cadence, volume and pitch, how to emphasize keywords, and gestures they use to make themselves sound and look natural.  They practice their script with others in the cast and then they work on it with the director who will modify the script and their delivery.  Their hard work pays off because they don’t sound like they are reading a script.  They sound natural, conversational.  

Most salespeople seem to wing it.  If they are given a script or if they create their own, they might practice it a few times and that is the total of their preparation

Actors work hard at making a script work and that is what the person in the trade show booth should do – work hard at making their opening talk believable and natural to engage the passer-by in conversation in order to introduce their company, products, and services.  A well-crafted and practiced script will sound conversational while producing positive results.  “Winging it” produces very little.

READERS COMMENT on last week’s article “Become The CVO!” Stu Walesh wrote:  

“As individuals or organizations, we have only two futures. The one we create for ourselves or, in the vacuum of vision and action, the one others create for us.”

Question or comment to Larry:

Become the CVO

Every book or article on managing the small business clearly states that part of the job includes thinking about the future – how future events, sales cycles, individual ambitions, and changes in the business environment will affect the business.  That is great advice, but most owners or managers of small businesses spend their time and energy working on the past or the present – either resolving problems of the past or managing the activities, the challenges, and the issues of both today and the (very) near future – the next few weeks and months.  Essentially, they are working in “the moment.”  

  • Planning to maximize results in the next peak season
  • Planning to minimize lulls in the slow season
  • Figuring out staff schedules for manpower needs, deployment and purchasing of equipment, and use of other assets
  • Keeping on track to meet deadlines

They rarely, if ever, work on the future – they might dream about the future, that rosy, rainbow-with-a-pot-of-gold future, but that’s far different from working on the future.  

Some future-obsessed fast-growth, larger companies have created a position on the management chart called CVO (Chief Visionary Officer).  It is that person who works with senior execs to create and implement the “vision” of the company – what it can become and the roadmap to reach that future…   Few, if any, small businesses need a person dedicated to the task of being the CVO, yet a very real need exists for someone to create the vision, articulate it so all can understand where the business is headed, and design a method to achieve the goals identified in the vision.

We all know that the future is going to happen, it is going to happen whether you are prepared or not.  Businesses prosper if well prepared; they flounder or perish if they let the future overtake them.  So, I’m suggesting that a small amount of concentrated CVO effort be undertaken to design and begin the implementation of your business’ future.

The most workable future-based activity for a small business is to schedule a small part of every month dedicated to becoming your company’s CVO for a couple hours.  That means envisioning the future (five years is a reasonable timeframe) you desire, then working backward from that point back to today.  Then start working on it by defining and implements actions that will put you on track to reach that future experience.

Be the CVO who create that vision and works on the future, so your business becomes one that prospers for years to come.

Question or comment to Larry: