If there’s one sin in marketing and sales that’s more harmful and that dwarfs all others, it’s certainty. Yet, no marketer or salesperson gets a job without paying tribute to it for fear of coming across as weak and ineffective. At one point, the average marketing manager enjoyed an 18-month tenure, the point at which their “certainty” ran out of gas, suggesting, perhaps, that they may not have known what to do next. It may be the same story with those in sales. When a colleague met the new sales manager, he knew the guy would be gone in six months. This turned out to be a case of arrogant certainty that was betrayed by incredible disorganization and a trail of broken promises. This is the perfect set up for failure.
This is not a rant on inadequate marketers and sales executives. Rather, the focus is on the far more vexing problem of coming to terms with the reality that there is little place for certainty in marketing and sales today. Unfortunately, too many business owners and corporate executives look for and expect certainty, an impossible outcome that foreshadows inevitable failure. Here are several suggestions for coping with what can be described as a marketing and sales crisis.
• Certainty is an illusion. With all the smartphone excitement, some marketers seem to hold that having an app, for example, leads directly to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or, if not that, the thinking seems to be that not having an app is a sign of negligence, of uncertainty. Yet, having an app and customers actually using it can be quite different. Even though the average smartphone has 120 apps, we’re told that only five are used regularly. How many times have you said, “What does that one do? Why did I download it?”
Just because a marketing activity is popular or “cutting edge” doesn’t mean it will produce the desired results in every situation. Expecting marketers to hit the bull’s eye every time is unrealistic. If there’s anything that can be called “marketing magic,” it’s continual experimentation and testing.
• The curse of short-term expectations. When someone says, “F-150,” just about everyone knows it’s a Ford pickup truck. And why not? Ford has showcased the iconic F-150 series name for six decades – and the truck has been a best seller for more than thirty years. Expecting marketers and salespeople to deliver instant results is becoming increasingly ludicrous. The NPR (National Public Radio) audience, which tends to be older, is the demographic that’s most attuned to radio. To begin to attract a younger audience, NPR now streams music, without charge, from every NPR station in the nation, a rich offering for its prospective customers and a long-term investment in the future of its brand.
Those companies that are struggling with a “meeting the numbers” crisis may be suffering from a short-term strategy. Along with meeting immediate challenges, making a commitment to creating tomorrow’s customers should be a top priority. To miss capturing them now may mean they are gone forever.
• Don’t talk to customers, engage them. Many salespeople are absolutely certain that if they can just get in front of a customer, they can make the sale. Today, that’s a dead-goal if there ever was one. The huge shift is to engagement. Sales manager Jeff Short of K&W Tire Company, Inc., a wholesale tire business in Lancaster, PA, read an article that advocated getting rid of “elevator speeches” as a way to improve listening instead of talking about yourself and your company in a sales situation. After the 10-member sales team had reviewed the article, Short asked them to come up with six questions they thought would help get customers talking.
“They may not be the questions I might ask,” he says. But he decided to put the questions to a test. “I decided to try them out.” He started making calls, using his team’s questions. “They worked,” he says. “They got the customers talking.” It’s engaging customers that creates customers.
• It’s not about what you like. Often without even recognizing it, we fall prey to personal preference in marketing and sales, even when research points in a different direction. A recently published five-year study, for example, by Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, offers this conclusion: “If you really want to get people to act, disgust is much more powerful than fear,” says Andrea Morales, an associate marketing professor at Arizona State, in a USAToday article.
A cold and flu season TV commercial for an over-the-counter product depicts gross-looking monsters at work inside a person’s breathing system. And, as might be expected, the medication chases the unsavory and unwelcome intruders away. Disgusting, of course. But the ad has been aired over and over again for several years. No matter how hard we work to be objective, it’s difficult to avoid having our personal preference slip in, which may be why, for example, ads promoting financial freedom in retirement almost always use photos of happy, carefree people. Yet, what many people fear is running out of money and living a diminished existence. Maybe depicting disgust would be more appropriate.
• No more telling customers what to do. Certainty is marketing and sales sin because it keeps us focused on the past, on what we know best. Research in Motion appears to have believed its Blackberry was invulnerable to all comers. Their steady course has taken them to near oblivion. It was the same when the first iPad came out two years ago, the naysayers were “locked and loaded,” making it clear that the new product would fail because there were no unique uses for it. Ironically, their assessment was at least partially correct.
We’re so accustomed to products and services that solve problems that it took time before we recognized that the iPad was different from anything we had ever seen: instead of providing solutions, it created opportunities. Once we figured that out, sales went wild – to an estimated 55 million in 2012, according to Analyst Shaw Wu of Sterne Agee. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command has ordered 18,000 iPads to replace flight manuals on transport flights it manages, just one of thousands of uses that continue to unfold daily. Not the least of which is the iPad’s textbook revolution. Ironically, each iteration of the iPad is influenced by how people use it. The customers are driving the product in new directions.
The iPad has stood everything about marketing and sales on its head. We’ve long said that being “customer-oriented” is primary, but the iPad takes a huge leap: everything we market and sell must give the customer the ability to innovate without limit. That’s the same message today’s customers expect to hear from us.
• Waiting is out. If there’s one idea embedded in the brains of marketing and sales people, it’s the belief that their processes govern. Even though both often work under severe pressure, they often react with a “But we can’t do that right now” comment. Such certainty is absurd. “Sure, we can get you the tires you want,” the garage owner said. “They’ll be here in a couple of days.” Or, “I’ll get back to you on that as soon as I can get the information,” when meeting with a customer. Even just a few years ago such comments were considered good service – but not today – even though we continue to hear them.
“About 40 percent of smartphone users are abandoning real-world carts at the checkout counters of stores because of long lines,” according to a recent survey of 1,000 smartphone users by AisleBuyer. “Another 21 percent will abandon a cart if no registers are open.” With smartphone users in the U.S. expected to reach 106.7 million in 2012, according to eMarketer or one-third of the population, there’s no wiggle-room here. We’re into a “do-it-now-or-never” mindset, which will only become more pronounced moving forward. On top of that, it’s viral.
All of this adds up to an expectation tsunami. Do it now or the customer is gone, perhaps never to return. No more second chances. By now, the point should be clear: there’s no place for certainty in a business world that is in a constant state of flux. Doing everything right today in marketing and sales offers no comfort. Tomorrow is another day and the needs and opportunities will be even more demanding.
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