The Challenge of December

Every industry and business has its own rhythm and cycles, with slow periods interspersed with times of exhausting activity.  Making sure you understand, anticipate and plan for both is the difference between a good year and, well, a not so good one.  While there’s an argument for any number of months being a candidate for toughest time to get work done, I think many companies would vote for December (or more properly, the week before Thanksgiving through the New Year holiday). Distractions are many, the stresses of personal lives inject themselves into the workplace, and frankly, no one’s really in the mood to work.  That said, the business of business needs to continue, and therein lies the challenge.

Even with creative pressure-reducing solutions like non-calendar year-ends and offset quarters, there’s no getting away from what the season is.  Summer months can be slow and hard to get things done because of the weather and vacations, the fall can be tough because people are just coming back from those vacations and reluctantly getting back into the swing of things, but this time of year is a festive season for pretty much everyone.  It’s natural, after a long year’s effort to want to slow down a bit and enjoy the lights, displays, office decorations and such.  It’s a time for breaking what can be a tedious routine for most of the year and peoples’ moods change.

When I managed sales and marketing teams, my weekly status meetings around this time of year were filled with excuses for slowing activity. To be fair, it is hard to break through your prospect’s own holiday lethargy, and the number of times I personally heard, “well, at this point, let’s just get things finished after the first of the year…” is hard to count—but it was a lot.  I’ve learned, and I passed the same onto my teams, that this time of year is a great time to reach out to customers and prospects, not to try and extract more business (though that’s always worth the try), but to connect and say thanks for the business they’ve already given you or the time they’ve allocated you in the past year to pitch your wares.

Of course there’s a secondary reason: people by from people they like and trust.  And the only way you can build trust is for prospects and customers to get to know you, not just as a representative of your company, but as a person.  At the end of the day, just as all politics is local, all business is personal.  So if you’re feeling festive, now is a great time to help your counterpart break up their routine even as you are able to modify yours.  If you can get the deal done before the end of the year, great.  But if not, you’re at least well-positioned to get the job done as soon as the last glass of champagne has been finished at the turn of the year.

For marketers December should be a time of both planning and preparation for the next year’s set of activities, but also a time to burnish the business’s image a bit.  Thanking customers publicly in the media, demonstrating pride in the relationship, offering up messages of thanks to the communities in which you operate are all useful ways to keep focused on the business objectives without having to put aside the spirit of the season.

Lastly, if you’re the owner or an executive of the business, now is the best time of all to show employees and the public what you’re made of.  For so many, this is a time of need and worry. Take some of the good fortune your business enjoys and share it around in some way.  You don’t need to make a big deal about what you do, but organizing events that benefit the community and involve employees and management, donating to help those less fortunate, even extending those efforts to include customers and partners if they wish to participate, not only does a wonderful thing for the community, but sends an important business message to customers about what kind of a company they are partnered with.  Doing well by doing good is a powerful way to build loyalty, and that’s a foundation for future growth.

Yes, this is a difficult time to stay focused and get stuff done, but by going with the flow of the season and incorporating it into your work effort, that stuff will get done, and you’ll be able to demonstrate to all that business isn’t, well, all business.

Overcoming the Challenge of Summer

For many businesses, the summer is a particularly complicated time: it’s hard to keep sales and marketing momentum up when the beach beckons, prospect and customer email vacation autoreplies load up your inbox, and those you do manage to connect with are often reluctant to move things forward “until after Labor Day.”

On the other hand, there’s still the need to close business, somehow, and to keep the sales pipeline filled.  When I ran a sales team, I’d hear all manner of excuses about why deals were slipping, and usually summer-related excuses predominated. But just like time and tide, sales quota attainment waits for no one, so there is a need for smartly applied pressure to advance deals, but that has to be balanced against a fair recognition of the season.  A good sales and marketing team will work together to notch up the creativity a bit to keep things moving.  With that in mind, let’s consider what can be done in the summer months that will help sales efforts, if not perfectly in-period, at least near-term enough to make up for summer deficiencies in the months that follow.

First, think about ways in which you can engage with your prospects.  Now is the perfect time to suggest meeting up for coffee or lunch or a chat about future plans or just visiting because you were in the neighborhood.  Relationship building should never be put off, so use the summer’s slower pace to your advantage by working on the relationship at the same time you’re trying to advance the transaction. Summer is a good time to set up executive meetings to talk more deeply about the future product or service plans of the company.  It does take more work to coordinate, and you certainly want to avoid Friday meetings, but remember they run businesses as well, and they can’t just go fishing for the summer either. Use this time to inform, educate, and continue building bonds.

Second, don’t take customer or your team’s delays as an inevitable part of the season.  As I said earlier, there’s always work that can be done, and that’s as true for your prospects as it is for you. Yes, there’s seasonality in many industries, but chances are you already know that and have set your sales plans to match the dynamics of your industry.  Budgets still need to be worked.  Software still needs to be implemented.  Parts still need to be fabricated.  Shelves still need to be stocked and goods still need to be shipped.  So yes, it may be a little harder, and time frames might get stretched, but summer’s not the time to surrender productivity entirely.  If you’re a sales leader, hold your team accountable to perform to their commitments.  If you’re a sales rep, hold your prospects (politely but firmly) to their commitments.

Third, use the summer to do your own planning and organizing, especially the stuff you never seem to get to.  Reflecting on previous quarters’ performance, and thinking through what worked and what didn’t go as planned is enormously productive, and puts the business in a better position when everyone is back and engaged.  Pull your team together and think about who, where and how you will execute your next big push for sales.  Balance the frustration of out of office messages with your own proactive planning for success.

Summer is a particularly good time for the marketing team to step back and review results and refresh messaging.  Talking with the sales team to get the latest input about what is resonating with prospects and customers is easier to accomplish when the pace is a bit slower, and there’s an opportunity to test new things out of the glare of “prime time.”  Whether it’s a simple set of tweaks or a new program, summer is a great time to get the work done and tested—and it keeps your momentum going, something that is often overlooked.  Especially these days, even a short absence of active marketing makes you invisible faster than ever before.

Lastly, don’t forget to give yourself a break as well.  Far too much research says that we don’t take anywhere near the vacation time we have coming to us.  That doesn’t mean shutting down for most of the summer like our colleagues across the Atlantic do (though I wish it did), but do take some time off, even if it’s just long weekends.  Change up your routine.  You’ll find it freshens the mind, uncovers new ideas, provides more energy to get back to turning over rocks in search of new business, and herding cats to get the deal done.  Summer’s differently paced, for sure, but it can be a productive time as well.

Communications Skills are Not Optional!

One of the great ironies of the times in which we live is that while we have more ways to communicate with one another (and too often, the world) than ever before, our ability to do so effectively has devolved to (metaphorical and sometimes literal) grunting.  Email makes getting messages and documents to anyone, anywhere instantly a simple thing, but is rife with pitfalls.  Social media has enabled endless communications, often unencumbered by the thought process, going from zero to outrage in a single thread, post or tweet.

The fact still remains, however, that good communications skills are essential for both the internal functioning of any business and connecting effectively with customers and prospects.  Knowing what needs to be said and then actually getting that information heard should be at the top of every team’s list of “must dos” for business success.  With the disclaimer that I often run communications workshops for my clients and those take time and reinforcement to achieve success, there are some key considerations which can get you started thinking about communicating differently.

First, hone your listening skills.  Yes, good communications starts with good listening.  Would you want to engage with someone who finishes your sentences, claims to have the answer to questions that haven’t been asked yet, or who knows just what you need before you had a chance to share them? Of course not.  People want and need to be heard, and then responded to.  In private life that lack makes for bubble wars on social media.  In the business world, where people buy and work with people they like and trust, connections have to be real and built over time, and that starts with giving them your undivided attention for as long as is needed.

Second, take the time to validate what you think you know.  Ask qualifying questions, confirm your understanding, ask if you’re getting it right.  Even if you did get some things wrong, allowing yourself to be corrected builds trust and with trust comes better interactions.

Third, consider communications styles.  Some people are very comfortable in the abstract, talking conceptually about how, say a brochure or web page (or kitchen for that matter) will look in the proposed result.  Those are the ones who you see on the HGTV shows who can walk into a horrible looking place and say “we can move this, tear out that, replace these items and it will be perfect!”

On the other hand, many people are the opposite: they’re as concrete as it gets.  Explaining without showing an actual model or picture is a fool’s errand because to respond to a recommendation they have to actually see it—then react.  Those are the people who look at the same room in the example above and say “I hate this place.  Let’s go.”  If you don’t match your communications style to your listener’s everyone will get frustrated and nothing will get done.

Lastly, be sure the think about your mode of communication.  Depending on the topic, the intended recipient and the urgency, different tools work better than others.  This is doubly important given the plethora of available means of being misunderstood. In the interest of space I will point out what I think is the most misused means of communications: email.  Yes, email.  It promotes passive aggressive behavior.  I’ve seen studies which indicate that 98% of people say things in email they wouldn’t say to the recipient in person.

Email promotes laziness and false progress.  Don’t want to deal with a problem? Forward it along (“Bob, I think this one’s better handled by you…”) and get it out of your inbox.  The issue isn’t necessarily solved or advanced, just dumped.  An email that says “Let me give it some thought and I’ll get back to you.” can stall resolution.  Claiming you never got it in the first place is just plain silly.

Worst of all though, is email does not provide the cues we need to fully understand meaning.  We’re sensory creatures: we read body language, voice intonation as well as the words themselves to discern meaning.  In an email, short of a hyperactive use of emoji, all you get is words.  No wonder email threads can get so long, silly and ineffective.  In my experience, if you can’t sort out an issue in three email cycles, get on the phone or walk down the hall if you want it sorted out. No problem has ever been made better by more and more emails.

Effectively communicating is hard—sometimes very hard.  But taking a bit of time to be thoughtful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it can pay off handsomely whether in interpersonal situations or professional settings.

Just Because it Looks Easy…

Until recently, and for many years prior, I owned horses and rode very frequently.  I was pretty good too. Riding is one of those things that most people look at and say “how hard can it be? You sit in the saddle and hold on.”  I thought so too.  My first ride lasted exactly 22 seconds.  I know this because of where the second hand of my watch stopped when I created an Alan-sized furrow in the ground after the horse I was on decided that he would like it better if I were not on his back.  He was running at the time.  Once I was able to remember my name, find my glasses and locate the remnants of my dignity it occurred to me that there may be a bit more to riding a horse than jumping on and going.

Truth to tell, I see that a lot when it comes to marketing as well, and arguably with increasing frequency as more tools emerge to ostensibly simplify and enhance marketing capabilities.  While there’s a lot to like about many of these tools and technologies (and I use them myself) there’s the danger of confusing availability with, well, ability.  In other words, having access to marketing tools doesn’t mean you’ve got the experience or wherewithal to use them effectively.  Many of them, especially the digital and social media-focused products, often offer up templates, workflows or even content to make a user’s life easier, and often they really do work at least at some basic level.  The problem is, easier access to tools means they’re used more and more often, and the more marketing-saturated your prospects get.  The result is, everyone’s websites look the same, everyone is sending out the same emails with the same templates, and you get lost in the noise.

Of course, there’s more to this than just easy access to and indiscriminate use of digital marketing tools.  (Spoiler alert: cynical comment follows.) Vendors abound who are more than willing to take your marketing dollars and run a campaign of some sort for you leveraging their “deep domain knowledge and marketing savvy” to “supercharge your business.” And you know what? Sometimes they do a good job and you really do get results.  More often, though, you get bupkis.

To pile on, unlike technical disciplines where symbols and markings and terminology are inscrutable to the uninitiated, marketing seems accessible to anyone who wants to take a crack at it, just like riding a horse.  In fairness, not everything about marketing requires a guru to execute, but to be effective it does require a technical skill set, albeit one that has a less mysterious cache than, say, a NASA engineer.  True marketing requires a lot more than just “doing stuff”.  And marketing is a lot more than sending out a bunch of emails, putting up some Facebook posts or subscribing to a coupon book. It demands planning, it calls for understanding your prospects, where they are, what they want, what they will respond to—and then laying out the steps to reach them along with the metrics for assessing results.

Quality and brand image are paramount to the success of your business, and marketing leads the way for how the world sees you.  Branding has received more than its share of criticism over the years because many of those efforts are hugely expensive and, at least outwardly, look to observers to be more about the exact shade of blue or green to be used than about more substantive matters.  That’s not fair, of course, but sometimes branding exercises can get bogged down in such things.  My rule of thumb has been to never let great be the enemy of very good.  By that I mean that a professional brand and materials is usually just fine without having to be fine-tuned into the ground.  More important to me is that the message of the content speaks to the customers’ needs and issues, and reflects the business’s approach to addressing them.

Most important of all, however, is to use resources, in-house or external as they are available, who have proven marketing skills.  Writing internal reports doesn’t mean you can write ad copy—or a comprehensible brochure for that matter.  Just because one of your team does the PTA newsletter doesn’t mean they can put together a compelling email blast.  And just because most of your staff spends their free time hunched over their phones thumb-typing clever posts on social media doesn’t mean they are competent at capturing your message in 140 characters.  As with riding a horse, it helps if you can actually ride.

Now Where Did I Put Those Prospects, Anyway?

Twentieth century career bank robber Willie Sutton (1901-1980) has been attributed with responding to a reporter’s question about why he robbed banks with a pithy (albeit obvious) “because that’s where the money is!”  A little research on my part found that Sutton denied ever saying that, instead claiming the reporter needed something clever to punch up the story.  For his part, Sutton claimed he robbed banks because, well, he loved robbing banks.  The loot was secondary to the thrill.  Far be it from me to attempt to analyze his thinking on the matter.  Instead, I want to turn the phrase to a more useful—and decidedly more legal—purpose: talking about finding potential customers for your business.

Every marketing campaign and sales effort should have at its core the objective of finding out where the money is, but that’s not always easy to do.  Often, efforts that seem to be tightly focused on new business development miss the mark.  There are lots of reasons why this happens.  At the top of that list is not knowing where they’re hiding in the first place.  Since we’re finally seeing a glimmer or two of spring, look at it in homeowner terms: when the ants start to wake up for the season or when mice decide they like your place a lot better than their old one, chances are you get your preferred pest elimination solution, find out where they’re coming from or consistently marching through, and set it down where all the action is.  Pests check in but they don’t check out, etc.

Your end goal is different but the notion is the same: figure out where they’re coming from, where they might be going to, and what the path to their journey’s end is.  Then you need to make sure you’re there.  Said another way, you need to know what the profile of your prospective customers are (age, location, interests, gender, needs, etc.), what their key pain points are (better/faster internet, a fine dining experience, a steady supply of office supplies, etc.) and how they like to buy (online, shopping malls, in-home or in-office, catalog, etc.)

This effort matters, because there is so much background noise in marketing to consumers and businesses these days, that the wrong stuff aimed at the wrong targets in the wrong places, is money better spent on your local non-profits.  Gaining this knowledge sounds daunting, but it doesn’t need to be.  Start with directional accuracy and keep refining from there.  I like to start by looking at who my current customers are and understand why they are my customers in the first place.  This doesn’t mean they will be the only kind of customers you can eventually reach, but, well, to paraphrase what Mr. Sutton didn’t say, you know that’s where at least some of the money is.

Look at sales records to understand what they have been buying and take note of patterns you may observe in timing or behaviors.  Identify the kinds of businesses your customers have and in what industries. Look up their revenue and employee counts. (There are a number of useful databases with information of varying accuracy, but still useful.)  Send them a survey with questions about why they buy from you and how they make their decisions.  Call key contacts and ask them these same questions live.  A little information can go a long way to informing your programs.  Once you’ve got some data, build out a model of your target customer type(s).  These personas as they’re often called, will act as your “wanted poster” for tracking down others like them.  With these personas in hand you can ask the hard questions about whether a particular program does—or even can—target these effectively.  In what I’ve called the New York Times effect back in the days when I did a lot of print advertising, I was always asked why I wouldn’t consider an ad in say, the Times or the Wall Street Journal.  I had the budget, but when you look past the millions of copies distributed and drilled down to the demographics of the readers compared to our buyers, the cost to reach those few who matched our buying profile became astronomical and foolish. Now we have many tools at our disposal to narrowly target and clearly measure the response from our potential buying pool.  Learning use them is fairly easy, but the real power is in knowing where your potential buyers are, and going to them with your message.