The Secret To Marketing in Tough Times

The secret to marketing in tough times is simple. Ask your clients what they want.

What’s even crazier is that few companies embrace detailed market research. Not your standard, garden variety of market research in which the client ticks a few boxes or answers a few questions in an annual survey. I’m talking in-depth, one-on-one interviews which uncover the good, the bad and the ugly of working with your organisation.
In business-to-business companies, particularly in professional services, it’s not uncommon for a client to be worth millions of dollars in fees. And yet, rarely do companies take the time to find out whether their clients are happy with the service they are receiving.
For more than a decade, I’ve undertaken intensive marketing research for my clients – often dozens of interviews over a period of months – and have discovered that a few hours’ research can mean the difference between winning and losing millions of dollars of business.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but in tough times, clients rarely make decisions based on price. People know that when work is scarce, they’ll get a good deal.
So, what does matter in the lean times? Relationships matter more than anything else. People want to work with companies they like and trust.

"Your clients will tell you these answers."

“Your clients will tell you these answers.”

Comprehensive market research enables companies to identify clear trends across the business and uncover specific relationship issues and opportunities.
Here’s an example: After years of being the preferred construction company for a retail supermarket chain, the work just dried up. And the construction company’s management team had no idea why. “Let’s ask them,” I suggested. The CEO of the retail company was happy to meet with me, and we discovered that a project manager – one who had already moved on – had managed to offend nearly every one of the retail chain’s staff. When he left the receptionist in tears, they changed construction companies. “We really liked working with your organisation – we just didn’t like this one guy,” was how the CEO put it. No one in the construction company had any idea this was the issue. Once they understood, they could work things out – and were awarded contracts worth millions of dollars as a result.
Here’s another example: A design firm had worked through an intermediary organisation for about a decade, but had noticed, particularly over the last few years, that they were repeatedly coming second in tenders. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and money had been wasted. The design firm’s marketing team had undertaken proposal debriefs, and conducted one-on-one interviews with the consultancy to identify issues. The feedback was always the same. “You’re doing a good job; it’s just that the other company was better on the day.” The design firm wasn’t reassured, and decided that objective, external interviews might reveal the truth. Yes, the design firm ticked all the boxes, but no, they weren’t being recommended as they simply weren’t being as proactive as other competitive firms. “Some of the competitors come to us with opportunities outside bids, and provide us with insights into market trends. We want to work with companies that see us as partners, not simply as go-betweens.” The result? A change in marketing focus and a reinvigorated business relationship.
So why is market research such a powerful tool?

1.  Australians don’t complain – they just go elsewhere

Aussies don’t like dobbing in their mates to their bosses. Many people feel uncomfortable complaining about a business associate – especially when they are being asked for feedback from someone within the business. In most cases, they’ll just go elsewhere and your company will never know why. This is an expensive outcome when your client is worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. An objective outsider can often gain the vital information that those in your company are unlikely to hear.

2. Bad is good

CEOs and company directors are often worried that market research will uncover some bad news. “What if our clients say bad things about us? Do we really want to know?” Yes, you do! Ironically, the negative interviews are the most powerful. When someone is feeling unhappy with your company, and yet they are willing to spend up to an hour of their time sharing what’s gone wrong, it means they want something to be done. It means the problems can be fixed. If your company chooses to listen to this negative feedback, and makes a concerted effort to address the issues, the unhappy client tends to transform into a loyal, engaged one. They know, from experience, that it’s OK to speak up when they are unhappy, because their problems will be resolved. They become an evangelist for your business.

3. Your people are the brand

We’ve heard this one before, but do your clients actually enjoy working with your people? In any type of professional services business, the key client relationships are held not with the CEO, but with the people who deal with the clients on a daily basis. Your staff might be brilliant architects, shrewd lawyers or savvy project managers, but those core skills don’t necessarily mean that they are great communicators, negotiators or marketers. These staff members can often unwittingly upset a client – usually through poor communication, taking an adversarial approach or simply by not meeting the client’s expectations. Without providing your client with a channel to resolve this, you may lose the client – and never know why.

4. Don’t spend a cent  on marketing until  you know what your clients want.

Rather than trying to second guess what marketing strategies will most appeal to your clients – ask them. How do they like to receive their communication? What are the growth areas in their business? Where do they see the opportunities for collaboration?

When asked in the right way, your clients will tell you these answers. From there, a highly-customised, clever and creative marketing and business strategy can be developed to meet these needs and opportunities. As one interview subject said to me recently, “The gold will be found in the creativity, not in the engine room.”

The bottom line is simple. In a tough market, winning new business is costly in terms of both time and money – and the odds of winning new work are lower, as more people compete for fewer projects. The bulk of new work comes from existing clients and referrals – and the key to securing loyal clients is to know them inside out. And how can you possibly know what they want if you don’t ask?

This article was  originally published in Spring issue of New Wealth Creator magazine. To see the original article, click here.

Nicole Smith has spent nearly two decades helping professional services firms to grow their businesses.  A strategic marketing expert, Nicole established the Tin Shed marketing co-op in 2010.  See:

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