“Marketing doesn’t work!” If I had a pound every time I heard this expression, I would be very wealthy indeed! The complaint usually comes from businesses that have invested precious resources on an initiative that has yielded absolutely nothing. Websites, advertising, email campaigns and leaflet drops are all common culprits.
In general terms, of course, the statement is clearly nonsense. If we take ‘marketing’ to mean winning customers profitably, ‘marketing doesn’t work’ implies that no business ever makes a sale! So, for the purposes of this article, we will narrow our focus and examine why so many marketing initiatives fail for so many SMEs.
Conventional wisdom has it that the issue is down to a lack of planning, investment and monitoring. True, but that doesn’t really get us very far! All my experience suggests that the problem is a good deal more fundamental than that and can be broken down into three key issues: “evolution,” “siloism” and “abrogation.” At first glance, this may sound a bit strange but let me explain.
One of the most valuable lessons gained from working in the SME environment is that all businesses evolve and many marketing failures can be attributed to not adapting to these evolutionary changes. Let me give you two examples.
Take the case of a business that has successfully navigated the start-up phase and is now looking to grow to its full potential. It won its first customers through ‘relationship marketing’ using personal relationships, reputation and referral within the owner’s network. However, growth means moving into bigger markets, and this is where the problems start. The business has to compete much more effectively; it can no longer rely on personal networks as the primary source of new customers, but nothing has been put in their place.
For the second example, we’ll take the case of a well-established business that is dependent on repeat orders from loyal customers. However, these customers are now starting to drift away, and there is no effective process in place to replace them.
Although the two businesses are very different, the core problem is the same - the approaches that used to work no longer do so; the problem rapidly becomes urgent, and something needs to be done - fast! And this takes us directly to the second issue…
Apologies for the dreadful use of language but the term neatly describes a significant problem: the enormous inefficiencies and inertia generated by over-specialisation and compartmentalisation. The critical process of customer acquisition has been broken up into the completely artificial ‘sales, marketing and branding silos’ directly leading to an uncoordinated ‘scattergun’ approach to customer acquisition - a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees!
Examples include hiring more salespeople or slavishly adopting the current marketing ‘silver bullet’ without giving any thought to the validity of the initiative or how it fits into the overall customer acquisition process. But, whatever the cause, the results are the same: wasted time, effort and money; disillusionment; and, worst of all, no new customers!
Running SMEs is tough! There is always too much to do and too many demands on our time. One of the unfortunate consequences is that it becomes much too easy to put off the things we don’t like doing (full disclosure - I’ve done it myself many times!) and customer acquisition tends to be one of those things.
However, customer acquisition cannot be put to the back of the queue. It is the most critical element of running a business. Nothing is more ‘strategic.’
“If you are running an SME you are, first and foremost a marketer. That is your job!”
This is perhaps the single most important point I have attempted to drum into my mentoring customers over the years, and it remains the case today. To put it bluntly, if we are not dedicating most of our time to our business’ customer acquisition processes we are not doing our jobs correctly.
By all means, delegate or outsource specific elements. But, the responsibility for understanding and managing the process as a whole is ours. That involves a serious investment in learning, thinking and doing.
Put customer acquisition at the top of your list of priorities - and keep it there!
Development and optimisation of the customer acquisition process is your responsibility.
Avoid silos, ‘silver bullets’ and ‘scattergun thinking’ by taking an holistic view of your customer acquisition process.
You cannot outsource a problem! Only delegate or outsource elements you understand and can monitor.
Invest carefully. Business growth cannot be done on the cheap.