Th Its Time To

It’s time to get the message … Why your customers will never be the same

Jan. 1, 2009
“Let’s put it all behind us.” These few words capture Americans’ unquenchable optimism.

By John Graham

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“Let’s put it all behind us.” These few words capture Americans’ unquenchable optimism. If there’s a roadblock, we go around it, and no hurdle is ever too high. Nothing stops us. We regroup and move on. Besides, tomorrow will be a better day. Without such a heritage, we would be a far lesser nation.

Yet, there is nothing less than a sea-change taking place. We have been forced to turn to Middle Eastern and Asian countries to save us from financial disaster, the same ones that have long been siphoning off millions of U.S. jobs.

If all this weren’t enough, we are rendered impotent to do anything about rising energy costs and falling home prices. The situation is so serious that hundreds of thousands of consumers have abandoned their homes before foreclosure. On top of all that, we’ve parked our pickups and discontinued buying SUVs.

At the supermarket, Spam sales have shot up for the first time in 40 years, while canned beans fly off the shelves and shopping carts are filled with macaroni and cheese. Half the current crop of college graduates is boomeranging back home, and families are missing from family restaurants.

Unquestionably, our country and the economy are in the midst of what may be an unprecedented upheaval that no one can escape. Incredibly, however, many in sales and marketing seem to ignore the unpleasant realities, even pretending they don’t exist. But in the words of Warren Buffett, “The party’s over.”

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, a much more productive approach is to discover the marketing and sales messages that make sense to customers in a clearly painful economic situation. Here are five essential marketing and sales themes:

1. It’s time to stop pretending nothing has changed. It took a decade for General Motors and Ford Motor Company to finally confess that the auto-buying public wants small, fuel-efficient vehicles. They are on life support today because they couldn’t resist blaming their problems on just about everything else as they failed to see that they were the ones on the wrong road.

There’s a huge lesson in all this. It’s not just that buying behavior has changed. There’s far more to it: Those in marketing and sales often persist in the belief that it’s someone else’s customers whose buying behavior has changed. They want to believe that their customers are different.

We want to believe that we will get over this and every other hurdle and all will once again be well. When the term “downsizing” was first heard nearly 20 years ago, we said it was a temporary situation, even though there were indications that it was a permanent part of the corporate landscape.

The point: Basing marketing and sales on what we want to believe rather than reality can and will hurt us.

2. Recognize that caution prevails. Let’s face it, there’s a serious problem when the auto repo trucks roam the nation’s suburban neighborhoods day and night, while a Mortgage Bankers Association report indicates that nearly 1 in 10 American homeowners with a mortgage faced foreclosure or fell behind in their payments in the first quarter of 2008.

Then, pile on the dramatic downsizing of the nation’s airlines, add widespread job insecurity and the fact that companies are warning employees to be alert to gas tank thefts, and there’s a flood of uncertainty and fear. To ignore this situation is a strategic mistake.

A more beneficial approach is to create marketing strategies and sales messages that acknowledge the uncertainty and demonstrate how buying your products or using your services minimizes risk and creates greater security.

The point: No one wants to get too deep into anything. Offering assurance that customers will avoid getting in trouble is an appealing message.

3. The desire to do “something” is strong. Whether the current “green revolution” is real or a fad is irrelevant. There may be some of both. The cynics are always quick to point out that such activities as annual “clean up the town” days or “save the something or other” are more PR than practical. Even so, in times of crisis, people want to feel that they are doing something to help. They remember these experiences for years to come.

It’s difficult to get our arms around “global warming” and we’re impotent when it comes to doing anything about the price of oil. Yet, we want to feel that we’re helping and the current green movement is a way to take a stand.

During World War II, millions of Americans planted “victory gardens,” collected scrap rubber (including millions of elastics), cans of fat, and tons of metal. All this may have helped the war effort, but it also gave Americans the opportunity to be involved.

The point: There is value in finding ways to support and align ourselves with the “green revolution” or similar movements that allow consumers and companies to feel they are making a difference and that we are all in this together.

4. Life is filled with disappointment. No matter how you look at it, Americans are being bombarded with disappointment — pensions are disappearing, the cost of living increases, and the day one can retire is moving further into the future. Even the horizons of those largely unaffected by such experiences are changing.

As Sandra Block of USA Today writes, “Patty Stewart of Redlands, Calif., is beginning to think she won’t be able to retire at 65. Or 67. Or possibly ever.” With the drop in her 401(k) and the equity in her home sinking fast, retirement may be an illusion.

Since the 1950s, we have been able to gratify more desires than any people on earth, culminating in the bizarre belief that $50,000 or $60,000 annual incomes could support $400,000 and $600,000 mortgages. Just wanting it made it happen.

Now, disappointment prevails. Even boomers are moving back with their parents, and their kids are joining two generations under the same roof. To some extent, gratification is not just being delayed; it is disappearing.

The point: The genius of Starbucks is immediate, reasonably priced gratification. It took the founder to see that the company had strayed from this path. The product is affordable, immediate gratification, a powerful message in all marketing and sales today.

5. Get off of the slam-dunk sales mentality. Selling is a tough job, but had it not been for a population that could afford the plethora of products and services produced by U.S. corporations, it would have been a thousand times more difficult.

Companies have been able to raise quotas, cut commissions, minimize territories, and give little support to their salespeople and get away with it, primarily because most of the fruit was waiting to fall to the ground.

That party is over, too, leaving companies unhappy with their salespeople and salespeople making excuses, but who don’t really know what’s wrong.

The problem was expressed by an insurance agency president when he said, “What we need is more sales,” as if there is some magical way to turn doubting, worried, cautious, reluctant customers into instant buyers. He is not alone with his “slam-dunk” sales mentality.

The point: The marketing-sales challenge today is one of identifying and cultivating specific customers with messages that speak to their perceptions and understanding of where they are in life. That takes time, time, and more time. We have left “getting the sale” behind and now we are in a period where “deserving the sale” prevails.

The only real marketing and sales challenge today is having the strength and will to take our marketing and sales direction from our customers instead of from our companies.