I wasn't always in marketing. In fact I spent the second 'half' of my working life in sales, and by that I mean I worked for businesses where the word 'sales' appeared somewhere in my job title and on my business card*.
And working in sales was good - every company needs sales, and I ended up working for quite a few organisations as a sales person, from huge companies, to medium sized ones and also as a sales contractor for a number of tiny businesses and startup businesses.
It was only really after working at both large organisations and small organisations that I realised how very different they were from each other (duh!), and this had nothing to do with what products they sold - you could have two companies in the same industry selling the same products, one small and one large, and the large company always had a huge advantage over the small one.
When working at one smaller company where (of course) we had a much superior product to our larger competitors, my innate optimism told me that all we had to do was show people how much better our product was and they would instantly buy from us instead. Naive? Maybe.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of why bigger companies dominate came to me when I was working in a pre-sales/telesales role for a software company. It was actually quite a large US company, but almost unknown in Australia. The biggest problem I had was finding the right person to speak to at the large businesses that were their target market. After about a month of seemingly fruitless cold calling things were not looking good, but in month two I started to make some headway and set up several meetings for their sales engineers.
Ultimately the lead generation project I started turned into their most effective sales strategy and I ended up running a team of four outbound telesales people for them, but boy was it tough at the beginning. After three months I ran an analysis of all the calls I'd made, and worked out - not what the ratio of sales appointments per phone call was (that was easy - 0 per 100 initial calls) - but how many calls I had to make into an organisation on average (first call + follow up calls) to set an appointment. The answer may shock you. It was 14.
I even had one guy who was happy to talk to me every month for 6 months without setting an appointment. When he finally said yes at the sixth call I asked him what had changed his mind, and he told me he never made appointments to meet with new software vendors until he had been talking to them for at least six months. It weeded out the vapourware salesmen, he said.
On the back of the (relative) success we'd had with the first client, my employer secured a contract with - at the time - the largest software company in the world. I'd work for the first client in the morning and then for the new client in the afternoon. Guess what? Calls on behalf of the new client were dead easy - one in three people I called straightaway agreed to a meeting. I also found myself getting a bit cocky over lunchtime as I prepared to represent the big hairy gorilla of software!
So what was the difference? It certainly wasn't product quality. The first client had a great product, proven in the marketplace. The difference was brand. Or to be more precise brand awareness in the target market.
The biggest issue you have to overcome when selling a new product is trust. Is your product vapourware? Will it work? The old saying 'nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM' is spot on - why risk an unknown vendor?
With brand awareness doors open easily. People know you and know what to expect and are open to buying your product. You don't have to establish that trust, it's already there. Even if they don't buy your product or don't like it, they still have a begrudging respect for it!
So (I hear you ask) how can marketing fix this? How can it fix your sales? The truth is that it isn't a 'quick fix'. It does take a little time. But fix your sales it certainly can.
Salespeople in smaller companies need way more marketing support than those in larger companies to be able to do their jobs properly. Otherwise they have to do it themselves, if they can.
In several of the sales roles I had with smaller and startup businesses, the marketing to back up the sales function was just not there and needed to be created from scratch.
In essence what you have to do is replicate the brand awareness that your larger competitors already have. But of course you don't have the same resources or budget as the big players, so you need to be incredibly focused on who is most likely to want to buy your product - who really desperately needs your product (even if they don't know it yet). These are your 'perfect clients' and you must be laser focused on them.
Then your marketing has to be all about doing everything you possibly can to help them see the problem that your product solves and give them advice about how they can fix it. This advice can't simply be 'buy our product'. You need to demonstrate knowledge of your target clients and their business and broad knowledge of the ways the problems they have (that relate in general terms to your product) can be fixed.
Get the word out in workshops, seminars, whitepapers, how-to guides, talk to industry media, get case studies as soon as you can and keep all the content coming. Communicate via all the channels your clients are likely to be on, and at the very least 1) on your website 2) via email marketing and 3) on relevant social media channels. And keep networking in all the right places.
It won't happen immediately, but it will come together.
In one sales role my client had got some very positive media coverage in the main industry publication thanks to a relationship I had built with the editorial team with regular media releases and contact.
A month or so after the article was published I made a cold call in person to a potential customer business and handed my card over to the assistant. He took the card, looked at me and then looked down at the card again, and said “You're famous!”. To which I replied “Am I?” “Yes,” he said “you were in Retail Pharmacy last month”. He was right, I was famous. Slightly.
*apart from when I was described as 'International Marketing Manager', but this was a bit of a fib. I was still in sales.
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zzpza/3269784239