The Great Marketing and Selling Crisis of 2010 - and how to escape it
We are smack dab in the middle of a terrible dilemma. The entire marketing and selling world is "betwixt and between." Traditional marketing and selling methods are not working the way they used to, and social media is not the end-all answer, either. In spite of the hype level and some people who are actually making it work, it's just a hint at the answer. But it isn't THE answer.
There is an answer, fortunately, but first let's look at the crisis itself.
This is a serious crisis because it's a perfect storm; five forces coming together at once, each powerful on its own.
Force #1: All those "traditional" marketing vehicles and methods have lost their power, and no one is really sure how and if the new vehicles and methods can replace them. We all know people have turned away from newspapers, TV, and glossy magazines. They aren't depending on "the big three" for their news anymore (for those of you who grew up with the Internet, "the big three" were the big TV networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC). We are so far from that scenario it's almost laughable.
Newspapers have lost their immediacy, their relevancy, and, for many, their credibility. We all know that the Internet has become the main source for news and purchases. We all know that Facebook has the "population" of small country. But we don't know if our buyers expect us to be there, and if they actually use those tools to help with their buying decision.
That is the big question. Sharing your pictures and saying what you had for breakfast has nothing to do with making purchases, and there are far more people tweeting than there are people reading those tweets.
Bloggers are a new PR pathway, but there are many bloggers for every audience, and, again, they may or may not play any role in the customer's buying process.
Force #2: No one wants to be "sold to." The phone rings. It's someone with a thick Indian accent, telling you his name is Gordon McDavish, and "I'm not calling to sell you anything." Like, where's my turnip truck? Did you think you were calling Forrest Gump? How stupid do you think I am?
Anyone who runs a business knows how it feels to be at the receiving end of these terrible pitches, but the minute they become the seller, they honestly don't know what else they can do. Their overriding, ever-present thought: I need to make sales! So they hire or partner with a salesperson, and hope that he knows what he's doing. Or, in larger companies, they hire the best marketing and selling people they can find, and hope they are doing the right thing, while all the time searching desperately for a better answer.
Force #3: Any entrepreneur or CEO with a conscience is in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Most business owners are the kind of people who went out on a limb and started their own businesses because they wanted to make a difference. They had something of value to offer, something that helped other people achieve their own goals. Now those same entrepreneurs, who are not in it for the bucks or the battle, are struggling to find meaning and purpose in this new business environment.
They look at the usual marketing methods, and see they aren't working. They look at the typical selling methods, and hate the whole concept of manipulation, canned scripts, and cheap tricks. They look at social media, and while they know there's value in interacting with customers, they aren't sure what to do, or even why they should be doing it.
They also know that they could spend all day tweeting and not make any more sales than if they never tweeted at all, especially if they're selling high-scrutiny products and services. Mostly they want to be in business because it matters, and "selling" and "marketing" feel shallow and crass. It doesn't feel like the right kind of "difference."
It all feels complicated, agenda-driven, and unstable. Who can they trust, in the midst of the chaos?
Force #4: Shaky economic climate - on a global scale. No one knows if the stock market is going to tank tomorrow, or if it will slowly come back, or if some big catastrophe will demolish everything overnight. Everyone knows there are serious problems - bubbles have burst, governments are bankrupt, banks are going under, retirement funds have shrunk to dogfood levels, and no one seems to have any good answers.
The solutions that are being suggested - and implemented - make many business owners shake their heads and wonder how the economy (or their business) is going to survive those so-called solutions.
Force #5: Personal reluctance to spend. Consumers, too, are in the midst of this storm. Everyone knows someone who has been out of work much longer than that person should have been out of work. Adult children are staying home longer, or moving back in. People who came from other countries are particularly hard-hit, if my recruiting experience is any indication. Anyone with a heavy accent is having a harder time getting work than those who can be easily understood. There are a lot of smart, hard-working, talented legal immigrants, some with multiple degrees, having a very hard time getting a job.
Even as we see some possible signs of recovery, consumers are still in recession mode. They are finding they can put off purchases or just do without. The kitchen remodel that seemed so pressing a few years ago has become a deferrable expenditure. Plus, there are the baby-boomers, who are in simplify and consolidate mode, not expansion mode. They still comprise a large sector of the economy.
That's the crisis. It's a perfect storm that affects every single business trying to sell anything to anyone. No one in business is immune.
On top of all this, it's personal.
On the most personal level, faced with all this, it's pretty easy to end up "dangerously bored," as one entrepreneur said to me this morning. You can wake up and think, What's the point? And, Is this all there is? And, This is just too complicated. I can't figure out which way to turn - and until I know, I'm not going to throw away money on things that won't work. And, Why am I doing this for a living? Should I be doing something else? You find that the things that used to motivate you just aren't motivating you anymore.
The way out of the Perfect Storm
As my regular readers know, I don't write until I have something to say, and I never describe a problem without also describing the solution. These are the cardinal rules here.
What is the solution? It's right under your nose. It's not in the newspapers or the blogs or the creepy sales methods. It's as close as your customer list.
See, you already have customers. They already bought from you. They chose you. They decided you had what they wanted, and they got their questions answered, and they bought from you.
While they were buying from you, they didn't tell you what they were really thinking. But now that they've bought from you, they will tell you what they were thinking.
They'll tell you all sorts of useful stuff. Why they came looking for you (what drove them to seek you out). What you offered that made it all worth it for them (something I call the Critical Characteristic). What they were concerned about as they were buying from you, and how you alleviated those concerns. What they look for in your type of product, what they expect from your type of company, what they hoped you would do - and even how you have actually done compared to what they hoped you would do. They will tell you the phrases they used in Google to find you. They will tell you the trends they see in their industry. They'll tell you the role that social media played in their buying decision - if any - and how they wish you would use social media on their behalf.
Peter Drucker once said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."
If you know you're your customers are thinking, you will know what the right things are. This is what I do for my clients, who hire me to make these customer calls. Yes, you can interview your own customers, and my book teaches you how. But I've done thousands of these interviews, so I've gotten pretty good at it, and they do tend to tell me things they might soft-pedal when they talk to you personally. In any case, no matter how you conduct these interviews, the point is, doing so will give you the information you need to know in order to start doing the right thing.
You have to ask properly, which is why I spell out the method in my upcoming book. The questions need to be open-ended and designed so that you get the best information you can possibly get with the minimum of hassle or intrusion for your customer.
After hour-long conversations with as few as five customers, you're going to start to get the picture. Pieces are going to fall into place. Priorities are going to emerge. Priceless priorities.
To me, the real crisis is that sellers have managed to alienate themselves from the very people who will make them successful.
Sellers have surrounded themselves with agencies who use up 50% of a home page to display a feel-good Hallmark virtual billboard when 90% of the people coming to the site actually want to download software drivers. (Note that the standard for billboards on freeways is 7 words - because people are whizzing by at 70 MPH. That is not the case on a website; they want DATA. The only time they whiz out of your site at 70 MPH is when you don't give them that data - or you make the data too hard to find.)
Sellers have surrounded themselves with vendors and employees who take professional pride in becoming expert at the new methods, without once asking a real, live customer what he or she wants them to do. They have hidden behind electronic marketing methods, interacting with their customers via the keyboard.
I am not immune to a twinge of the dangerously bored feeling. But all I have to do is start interviewing prospective customers or current customers, and I get excited all over again. I know what I want to do, and how I want to do it - so that what I'm doing matters. I know what kind of help I should be providing, and I know how to do it.
Humble yourself. Leave the comfort of your virtual nest.
Send an email to ten of your customers. Ask them if you can interview them by phone - to see what you can learn. They will say yes, because they want you to be successful, now that they have bought from you. They will tell you more on the phone than they would in an email, or in person, or answering a survey.
Ask them these questions, and others that occur to you in the course of your conversation.
- What's your biggest challenge right now?
- Why did you buy this - what was the problem you were trying to solve?
- What was your buying process? Who was involved? What were your concerns and their concerns?
- What trends do you see in your industry?
- If you were CEO of this company tomorrow, what's the first thing you would focus on?
- How have you been doing social media, and what do you think we should do for you, using social media tools?
At the very least, you want to make sure that ALL of your outreach and inbound content address the Critical Characteristic, and then answers all the other questions that your customers have. Get the important ones out of the way immediately. Don't hide it three levels down on your website.
For example, if customers have been waiting for prices to drop before they make the move, and you've dropped your price, show your price first. That's a simple example, but you get the point. As you make these changes, your customers will find that you are there, at every step of their buying process with the information they need, organized just the way they want it.
Using the information to increase your revenue
After we gather this information we start to apply the appropriate marketing and selling methods. After all, customers have told us what they want. Now it's our job to give it to them. I love doing this work, because we are able to move forward with confidence. What we do makes sense, resonates with customers, and is rewarded by customers.
Quite often, the CEO or entrepreneur already knew that something was amiss in a given area, but he wasn't aware - until he has read the interview results - that it was actually driving customers crazy and keeping them from buying. And he also comes to realize that he's spending a lot of money and time on things that don't matter to customers. Reallocating the mis-spent money to solving the important problems will give customers exactly what they want, and new revenue is always the result.
Sometimes the changes require the CEO or entrepreneur to steer the company into uncharted territory. Armed with the confidence that comes from knowing what customers are really thinking - what they really want - and having solved these problems for years, I can help the company managers see what they have to do, how they have to do it, and what will happen as a result. Knowing there is a way out, and knowing how the process will play out successfully is the one of first steps to solving any problem.
Your escape from the Marketing and Selling Crisis of 2010 begins where it should - with some meaningful conversations with customers. No harm in that. In fact, customers always say they're glad I called and gave them a chance to help, and that they think more of the CEO for hiring me to do it.
Then, the reports containing the customer conversations, the strategic summary, and recommendations give us our roadmap. We attack the low-hanging fruit first; the problems that are easy to fix and quickly produce meaningful results. As confidence builds in the process, we are able to tackle the tougher issues, such as replacing a bully sales manager for a professional, driven, organized manager who makes every salesperson happier and more productive.
There is a way out of this crisis. One that will breathe new life into your business and motivate you and your people. Your own customers have the information you need, and they will give it to you and respond positively when you prove you have listened - and acted on what they said.
The pundits can't help you out of the crisis. But your customers can.