CPA's and marketing are NOT the first two things you think about together. But growing a business is about more than processes and profit margins. At some point almost every one of your business clients is going to experience a bottleneck, and effective marketing is the only thing that will solve it. When you revamp processes and invest in resources there comes a time when the next step is scaling up sales. And to do that you need an effective marketing strategy. If you cannot help your clients create one you will be failing them at a critical time in their development.
In the first post of this series I described the "Built it and they will come" fallacy present in most small business marketing plans. In this post I want to ask another question. Do your clients know their audience?
They think they do, but do they really? There are three common responses you are going to run into when you ask this question.
Response #1: "I knew them once upon a time"
These business owners have a very dated impression of their typical customer based on old data. It might be their past experience working in the field or it might be their long forgotten leadership on the sales floor. But they are pulling these impressions from somewhere. You have to respect that and at the same time realize that at some point they moved inside the office, and became more insulated. They hired others to do the customer facing work. And gradually they lost touch, both with what people were actually buying from them and what people wish they could buy from them.
Marketing plans, if they exist in these businesses, look like they did 10 years ago. They still invest heavily in yellow pages while newcomers to the industry favor more targeted advertising. They discount rather than differentiate. Their sales staff is a mix of long term old timers and constant turnover newbies. The product catalog is too thick, there is too much dust on 80% of the warehouse shelves and they spend the industry average on the same advertising budget that everyone else does.
Of the three this is usually the easiest to help, but we will get to that in a second.
Response #2: "Yeah, I know 'em"
Before I explain this mentality let me paint you a picture.
I'm sitting across from a middle aged business owner in shirt sleeves and Wrangler jeans. I ask him, “do you know what your best customer looks like?”
Before answering he pushes the chair away from the conference table, moves the toothpick to the other corner of his mouth, and folds his arms while propping his cowboy boots up on the end of the table. “Yeah, I know ‘em,” he says.
Get the picture?
Without referencing any data or fact-based evidence these business owners begin to recount the characteristics of just a few customers, the outliers. On the one end of the spectrum they describe their largest accounts, which typically have the lowest margins. On the other end they describe their highest maintenance accounts that require the largest overhead investment.
These businesses are unlikely to have any marketing plan. The accounts that loom largest are based on a friendship that the owner believes to be unscalable. Therefor, no effort is made to find similar large accounts. The other accounts he described, the high maintenance accounts, are a pain in the neck. No one can imagine creating a marketing plan to attract more of those. So theres is no plan.
This is what business looks like on autopilot. A couple of big accounts come your way. What resources aren’t dedicated to serving them try to take care of the squeaky wheels. The biggest accounts get larger. No effort is made to obtain additional large accounts. No effort is made to obtain medium sized-low maintenance accounts. No effort is made to disengage from high maintenance pain in the neck customers.
It usually takes the loss of the largest account to get everyone to wake up and start executing a pro-active marketing strategy.
Response #3: "Ummm......?"
This third response typically comes from the business owner technician. These owners focus on the tools and services that might be used to fix problems, rather than the actual problems their customers are experiencing. They take their cues from vendors that sell them the tools of their trade, suppliers that provide product, marketers looking for advertising dollars and competitors who seem to be setting the pace for everyone else.
More than anything they just want to focus on getting the work done. If there's a way to do it faster, they want to hear it. But they rarely ask whether the work is worth doing or if it is the most important work they should be doing. Customers and their problems are a distraction and an obstacle to getting the work done. What information they can provide about their customers is based on second hand accounts from someone that has a vested interest in selling them something.
The universal problem
Each of these three groups shares the same problem. It is that they would rather speculate about what customers want, speculate about what message resonates with them, speculate about what problems they have and how much they would be willing to pay to solve them...they'd rather speculate about all these things than do the hard work of leaving the nest and finding out for themselves.
When you ask them to go out and ask their customers some questions to find out what we should be marketing and how we should be marketing it they hesitate. Then they start to tell you all the things their customers would say if they went to them and asked. BUT THEY WON'T GO ASK! They'd rather just speculate.
The good news is that this situation presents an enormous opportunity, if you are willing to take advantage of it. You customer is sitting there in the dark, clueless about what they should be doing from a selling and marketing standpoint. This also means they are clueless about what they should be producing and the services they should be providing, not to mention the pricing they should be charging. Someone has to go out and get this information. If your business owner client won't do it there is a really good chance they just don't know how.
Here's what you can do to help.
Get your client to tell you the names of their top 10 customers and get permission to call on these people. When you get them on the phone (or sit down in person) explain who you are, that you are trying to help your client get better information on customers and what those customers want. Then have a simple conversation. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What frustrates you about the industry my client is in?
- What are some things my client is doing well?
- What problems are we not even seeing?
- What are you most and least willing to pay extra for?
- If you were to consider switching vendors what things would be most important to you?
There are more questions but these are plenty to get you started. After half a dozen of these conversations you will have some very valuable information for your client. And you will have the beginnings of a marketing strategy that is more relevant than anything that has been done in years.