Marketing when times get tough — the first Iraq invasion, after 9/11, during the 2008 meltdown, and now — is hard. But it isn’t impossible. I know, I helped clients through the first three and we’re working our way through now, well…now.
Here’s what I learned from all those experiences. If reading this helps you, fantastic, I’m thrilled. If you want help, let me know.
1 You can’t get out of it, so get into it. It’s a fearful time, but fear slows you down. Don’t push it away, accept it, invite it to sit down beside you and take a back seat so you can get on with what needs doing. You’d be surprised how well this little Kung-Fu move takes the emotional power away from fear.
2 Action is what you need right now. Changing things, cutting things, trying new things, measuring, refining, and repeating. This is what you need. Planning is fine, but make sure you act.
3 What happens to your customers happens to you. Get closer to them. Talk to them. Understand what’s happening in their world and how that affects the roll your product plays in that world. Talk to five. Phone calls are fine. What did you learn? Act on it, then measure, refine, and repeat. If you need to talk to five more, fine. But this isn’t a big, hairy statistical need-to-interview-100-people ordeal. This is checking in with your customers. Do it.
3a Don’t wait. Human nature is to wait until the pain is great enough to act. Don’t. If your customers are hurting, so will you. Acting the month before your sales drop by 50% gives you more options than acting two months after they drop.*
4 You’ll need a new message. It is NOT business as usual. You are hurting. The people looking for what you sell are too. The fact you are the oldest, biggest, or offer the best service aren’t as important as they were a few months ago. So, what can you do for them to add a bit of sanity or certainty or value to their lives? Take some of the pressure off? How about giving your product away for free? Of course you can’t that but it’s a good place to start your thinking. What could you do to take buying from you easier on them? A discount? Better terms? Something else of value bundled with the purchase?
5 Don’t discount your current customer base as the fastest path to sales growth. It’s easy to think you need to find new customers to grow. But your current customers already know you, like you, and trust you. Up your communication with them, get closer to them (see #3 above). Chances are they are not buying as much of what you sell as they could. AND, chances are you aren’t creating as much value for them as you can. Think about that. You. Solving different problems. Adding value where you aren’t now (see #7 below).
6 Having just suggested you give more time and attention to your customers, and you should, maybe it’s also time to consider finding different customers? Your customer mix is a result of customer referrals, people finding you, etc., NOT because of an intricate plan to attract a certain type of customer. Right? So your current customers aren’t the only type of companies that buy what you sell. This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Who else buys what you sell? Are they larger than your current customer? Smaller? Located in a different part of the country or world? In different industries? It’s too easy to limit yourself by saying “This is who buys from us, they aren’t buying anymore, so we’re screwed.” LOTS of other people buy what you sell. Maybe it’s time to find some who aren’t buying from you now?
7 There are no sacred cows. I have seen more innovation take place during tough times — when owners are forced to make big changes — than during times of growth. What are you really good at? What is your core competency? Maybe you need to stop doing a lot of what you do and shrink down to doing only that one thing? Maybe you need to cut away that thing you’ve always done and focus on that new thing that’s more profitable and requires less overhead? Nothing is sacred.
A training company came to me shortly after 9/11 (shortly after practically every company in America put all their training on hold). They offered training in 10 different areas, from managing difficult people to on the job safety. And they were very proud of the breadth of their offering. I asked them what their single best seminar was. The owner said “That’s easy, business writing.” So I said let’s sell business writing. Period. (Let’s kill the sacred cow of offering many different training seminars.) And let’s offer an iron clad money back guarantee. THEN, after they’re happy with business writing, we can talk to them about your other seminars.
This simplified their message, allowed us to zero in on a target decision maker, and gave the company some new-found uniqueness. They ended up doing so many business writing seminars they never had to mention any other type of training.
8 Look for new opportunities “around” your current product definition. Let’s say you sell ice cream to restaurants. What other deserts could you start selling? What other types of dairy products could you start selling? Let’s say you sell accounting software specifically designed for HVAC contractors. Could you start selling CRM software that integrates with your accounting package? Quarterly tax prep services? Inventory control software for HVAC contractors? You get the idea.
9 It’s time to more clearly communicate your story. It’s easy to grow when your industry is thriving. You don’t have to stand out as much or have a particularly unique story. When things slow down, you need to sharpen and clarify your story. You need to close a higher percentage of a shrinking number of prospects. Presenting why you are better and different, telling the story only you can tell, is more important now than ever before. More about storytelling for results.
10 Burn the furniture to save the ship. Much of your overhead is based on current requirements and perhaps future growth assumptions. The world just changed. Don’t be slow to cut.
Bonus Innovation…I mentioned this in #7, but it bares expanding on. I truly have seen far more innovation during tough times, during times of big transition, than during good times. It happens when owners are forced to face reality, forced to make tough choices, and forced to act. A small manufacturer invited me in when their bank cancelled their line of credit. If you haven’t had that happen, it does tend to get your attention and focus the mind. I helped them cut employees by 50% and their product line by 80%. And flourish (and have their line of credit reinstated). Because they rightsized their overhead and focused on their best sellers. I was also brought in when a startup’s growth had stalled. They were faced with going back to investors for another round of financing, something NOBODY, including their investors, wanted to do. I recommended some simple, but uncomfortable changes to their marketing, which I’m happy to report got them back on track. But I’m convinced they wouldn’t have acted on my report if the alternative wasn’t as distasteful as it was.
If you take only one thing, take this: act! Take action. Don’t wait for more certainty. This is it. Act, measure, refine, and repeat.
Now get out there and get going. The world needs your best, most inspired work. If you need help, email me.
*If your business has been hurt by the corona virus I am happy to offer you five free hours of consulting. A couple of my marketing consultant “brothers” have agreed to do the same. More here.