How to market and sell when everything keeps changing

Jan. 1, 2007
There seems to be something of a revolution taking place. The mobs aren’t hitting the streets; they’re hitting their computers.

By John Graham

There seems to be something of a revolution taking place. The mobs aren’t hitting the streets; they’re hitting their computers. Rather than flogging their opponents, it’s “death by blogging.” According to some reports, 80,000 new blogs appear every day. No matter how accurate or inaccurate the messages are, every voice is heard.

While Dell Computer blames market saturation as a reason for its slowdown in sales, a more basic problem may rest with the so-called “Dell Hell” blogs. Blogs may be changing the fortune of the No. 1 personal computer company.

“Measuring the Influence of Bloggers on Corporate Reputation,” a new study by Market Sentinel, indicates that the “Dell Hell” blogs are having a measurable negative influence on Dell’s corporate reputation. The study points to the conclusion that Dell’s brand image has taken a long-term negative hit, and the blame lies directly on the bloggers.

Tens of thousands of customer complaints are no longer hidden, but in full view of blog watchers around the world.

Perhaps this is another instance of “creative destruction” at work. Wal-Mart finds itself on the defensive on many fronts, while GM is dazed and in steady decline. Also, Ford is floundering and icon Microsoft is seeing its near sacred status challenged by Google.

The question, of course, is this: “What, if anything, can we do to avoid the variety of attacks?” Here are some possibilities:

1. Ask yourself the most important question. Some people call it the “unique selling proposition,” but why be pretentious? It’s actually quite basic: “What must we accomplish?” This has huge implications. A&I Products of Rock Valley, Iowa, a manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment parts, came up with an answer. Because farm equipment cannot be down for more than a day, A&I processes all orders the day they arrive for next day delivery. They also know that overnight deliveries are expensive, so the 12 A&I warehouses are located near UPS depots for cost-saving ground delivery.

It’s no surprise that A&I Products shows substantial growth in sales each year and is the largest company of its type in the agricultural market, distributing more than 55,000 parts. It’s also no surprise that other manufacturers want A&I to take on their products.

2. Run from simple solutions. Simple solutions have a compelling appeal and include everything from “How to close every sale” and “We’ll get you prospects that are ready to buy” to “Hit 50,000 customers for only $395.”

All simple solutions have the same flaw: they don’t work. Of course they sell; we want miracles, whether in business or our personal lives. “Find the love of your life in 90 days” - millions of dollars are made on that promise every year.

As amazing as it may seem, the lure of the simple solution is so overwhelming that it overrides reason. Otherwise thoughtful people make purchases without checking the record. This is no accident, and the purveyors of these so-called “miracles” count on it.

3. Plan with the principles. It isn’t enough to have a marketing or sales plan. Companies ask salespeople for their plans for the upcoming year, and most of these are exercises in futility. They are worse than useless. They may sound good, but they aren’t built on sound principles. And even though everyone is armed with a plan, it only takes a few weeks to shelve it and venture off in the first of a yearlong series of Don Quixote-type ventures.

The same is true with marketing. Rather than embracing tactics that engage customers and prospects, there is endless tilting at windmills. Without following the principles, there is no direction, only wrong results.

4. Stop watching taillights. When the road is dark, it’s comforting to follow the taillights of the vehicle ahead. This is usually a sure-fire prescription for accidents. It’s no different in business; following a competitor can be folly.

What’s so amazing is that this happens constantly in many companies. They take their lead from the competition, whether it’s products and pricing or marketing and sales programs. Why does anyone think the competition knows what it’s doing? Just because they advertise in a certain publication doesn’t make it the right venue.

5. Take a laser-like approach. Mass marketing has been dead for years. Today it’s all about niches and individuals, whether they are companies or consumers. It’s appalling how easily management says, “Hey, cut it out. We know our customers and we know what they want,” when a marketer raises the question of gathering objective, detailed data.

The goal is not just to get close to the target, but to hit it dead center. This takes two types of information: 1) a complete understanding of how the company is perceived by its customers, and 2) finding prospects that are a precise fit. Armed with the right information, the task is to take a laser-like approach to reach the prospects.

6. Junk brilliant ideas. Watch out for the seemingly “brilliant ideas;” they’re almost always deadly. Their appeal is so strong that they transform otherwise sensible businesspeople into “idea junkies” who can’t wait to find the next great idea, particularly when it comes to marketing. They’re child-like in the way they collect brilliant ideas.

Brilliant ideas are dangerous because they divert attention from doing what needs to be done. Stay away from them.

7. Take time to plan. In business, it seems as if “doing” gets more points and attention than planning. Actually, planning is quite simple. It revolves around answers to one simple and unavoidable question: Who’s going to do what to whom and when?

Planning takes time. Just think about the projects that were started but failed because they were implemented too late. Too late is the killer. Every business has given the seminar for which no one registered. Or the manager says, “It’s the end of the month and we haven’t sent out the newsletter. Get something together and get it out now!” Then everyone wonders why no one reads the newsletter!

8. Do it all well. The invention of the laser printer is the curse of good marketing. When is used, the standards for all aspects of direct mail, newsletters, flyers, e-mail bulletins, and letter writing often become abysmally low, from content to design and reproduction.

Dispensing junk is the perfect way for a company to shoot itself in the foot. Everyone should cringe when someone says, “Oh don’t worry about it. George can run it off.” Of course he can, but that’s not the point. Is the right message presented the right way to capture the customers’ attention? If this question isn’t important to you, chances are that your company is dispensing information and materials that harm its image and credibility.

9. Juggle more. The key to marketing and sales is managing a number of initiatives at the same time, even though someone may say, “I just can’t handle anything more. There’s too much on my plate now.”

Why do we feel overloaded when managing more is the required task? The manager of a large residential property may wait until a couple of days before the board meeting to make calls. At the meeting, his reports are punctuated with “They haven’t gotten back to me” and “I’m still waiting to hear from them.” It isn’t that he is not doing the job. In effect, he is actually bouncing less than half the necessary balls. He is limiting his performance and effectiveness because projects drag on and on.

Juggling more doesn’t take special skill; it takes effective management. Business success demands the ability to manage more initiatives.

Where does this leave us? We seek a sense of equilibrium in our lives, and the life of our business is no different. Getting things running well is the unspoken objective. That may have been possible at some time in the past, but not today. What’s in place must constantly be replaced. It’s a state of mind that’s difficult, yet necessary to accept.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He is the author of “The New Magnet Marketing” and “Break the Rules Selling,” writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing, and sales topics for company and association meetings. He is the winner of an APEX Grand Award in writing and the only two-time recipient of the Door & Hardware Institute’s Ryan Award in Business Writing. He can be contacted by phone at (617) 328-0069, by fax at (617) 471-1504, or by e-mail at [email protected]. The company’s Web site is