Don’t run with scissors.
Don’t color outside the lines.
Wait your turn.
Children are natural entrepreneurs. There are no circumstances that can’t be overcome in a child’s imagination where everything is possible. Nothing seems insurmountable, uncertain. Yet, as adults, we become shadows of our former fearless selves.
Times like these can feel scary and uncertain. Like learning to ride a bike without training wheels, times like these are really opportunities if you open your mind to the potential. Upheaval is normal and it is a natural part of a business cycle. It is meant to be both a creative and reflective time.
Economists described the four phases of a business cycle as — expansion, peak, contraction (recession), and trough. But that’s not the only way to define them. Instead, think about contraction as not just a time to survive, but as the most critical phase to prepare for the next cycle. Time to regenerate, gather energy and prepare to pounce. Rules are being rewritten — innovation happens in chaos. The most successful and innovative companies of our time are reinvented or born in times like these.
Imagine a bow and arrow. As you pull back the string, you're storing all the kinetic energy in the bow just waiting to release. Now is the time to pull back your string. It is the time to reload; it is the time to prepare; it is the time to market and strategize by focusing on yourself, your people and your market.
Accessing Yourself and Your Company
If uncertainty isn’t something you welcome with a warm embrace, start by accessing yourself and your business environment. This exercise will open your mind to see what is and isn’t working and where you should apply your focus instead of feeling overwhelmed.
Time to be completely honest with yourself about what is working and what isn’t. The illusion of success masks failures and missteps. The same goes for good economic cycles. Mediocre and poor businesses can thrive in abundant markets, but they stumble in contracting markets and fail in recessions.
In essence, now is the most cerebral part of the business cycle, as you put a truthful, unforgiving mirror up to yourself and your company. This isn’t the time for “business-body” image issues. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the uncomfortable truths about myself as a leader?
- What are the uncomfortable truths about my business?
Place your answers in the first quadrants of the decision matrix below and rate them based on their impact on the business and the market the business serves — its customer community.
If something falls as low impact on the business and your customers, that list can be shelved for the foreseeable future, this wouldn’t be a productive place to invest your efforts.
An item in the low impact on business but high impact customers quadrant should be planned for in the future.
Any item in the high impact on business but low impact on customers should be delegated away from your team. Remember, Peter Drucker said it best — businesses are innovation and marketing, the rest is cost. If your team is focused on something that isn’t adding high impact on the business and the customer, then seek a partnership that frees up internal resources and reduces your costs.
You are left with the fourth quadrant, high impact for both the business and your customers. This is where your focuses should be. This is where you must embrace uncertainty to strengthen and grow your business.
Uncertainty shouldn’t be feared, but it should be welcomed. It can foster some of the most creative and innovative ideas that can reshape your focus and propel your company not just into different areas but to new heights.
Leaders in business need to develop a mindset that uncertainty will make your company stronger. It creates opportunities, whether they are new investments, new strategies, new approaches, or new marketing efforts to reach new customers.
We have heard many times during our careers that the best opportunities for investment occur when the market exhibits fear and panic. This is not the time to sell and hide, but the time to be observant, patient, and opportunistic, as well as to remind yourself of market fundamentals and your skills as a business leader. After every contraction, the US economy has recovered to higher highs. This will happen again. This is a country of innovators. It’s in our collective DNA.
A frequently used business paradigm for the last few decades has been to think outside the box. The question for 2020 is whether that is still the right approach. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York suggested that we forget the box altogether and we think he is right. When you unleash yourself from old constraints and the “rules” you thought you had to obey or certain lanes that you thought you had to follow, you free yourself to visualize new possibilities. You can see things differently. Instead of hearing why you can’t do something, your new response becomes “WHY NOT?”
Now that you have your decision matrix box, take action. Brainstorm every possible action to the items you've listed in the fourth quadrant. List even the ideas that maybe aren’t possible or don’t exist yet. Don’t limit yourself to the rules, the box. There is no box and there are no rules. The sooner you stop self-editing your thoughts on business, the sooner you will tap into your own greater leadership, creativity and innovation.
Internal Marketing in Uncertain Times
Uncertain times show the true character of your company’s culture, the second area of focus within your business leadership ecosystem. Is everyone worried or reassured? Are you seeing a drop in quality or productivity from your team, or are they still thriving even from home? Are you worried your team is going to explore employment elsewhere? What keeps you up at night about your employees? Are there internal issues on your fourth quadrant list that require immediate attention?
Worse, do you think it's too late to try to foster a culture within your company now that everyone is remote or in a different work environment?
It's not too late, but things are certainly made easier during these times if you focused on your internal marketing before this spring. However, now is the time to throw out any ideas you had about culture being a buzzword. Culture isn’t a buzzword if it retains your top talent, attracts ideal candidates to your organization, and creates a frictionless energy that propels your company forward towards its mission and vision. Or simply put:
"Culture is an environment that retains the right company ambassadors who attract like-minded people that are motivated and fulfilled by serving your customers."
Here are six actionable steps you can take in a remote environment to help identify, create and foster your company culture and strengthen your internal marketing:
1. Identify where your company culture stands
Consider an internal anonymous company survey to find out how your company is doing. Anonymity is important in this exercise, you want your team to feel safe to give their honest feedback to you. Ask about remote working conditions, opinions on in-office situations, benefits, manager feedback, etc. You can use a free survey tool like SurveyMonkey to spin up a no cost solution. *Tip: Include a Net Promoter Score question as well as a comment box if someone would like to raise an issue that the questions don’t address.
2. Review areas for improvement
Review the survey results in full, including reading all the comments. You can use the same decision matrix to help you categorize where you should focus your next steps and efforts. The results may hurt, but it's important here to not discount any feedback. Look for trends. Survey tools make this easier by graphically showing the results of your survey question responses.
3. Communicate results
Share the graphs and results with the team. It's important that you show respect as a leader to the time your team puts into your survey. Especially if you have issues within your internal culture, it's important to take steps that repair those relationships. Transparency is the first step towards earning trust. You should be mindful of the team — any comments that name persons or easily identify team members by role, etc., should be paraphrased or only disclosed on an individual basis.
4. Show action and accountability
Using the matrix, rank the items that you need to focus on. Look for quick wins — those that require little effort but yield results. It's important that you show good faith and commitment to the survey results. We recommend not allowing more than 10 business days from the date of the survey results to implementing a positive change.
5. Create a culture code
For long-term culture growth, consider using your culture as a recruitment tool. This starts from an internal document — a culture code. This document outlines what the company stands for, its values and its mission, and what the company passionately works towards achieving for its customers. From that document you can effectively market the company’s culture to attract talent and communicate the essence of the culture code to your outside community. This includes your customers, your marketing communications, your website, your job ads. The document is also used internally to train new employees and align existing employees with success within your organization.
6. Commit to culture
Create a committee to manage quarterly activities that support culture. Outside voices and inclusion are important when it comes to company culture. While the originating essence usually comes from a founder or founding story, the continuance of the culture is actualized once it is carried forward by the company’s employees. Create a committee that represents the diversity of your organization to carry this mission forward, hold the company and employees accountable, identify opportunities for improvement, and implement activities that support the company’s culture.
Strengthening and Expanding Your Customer Community
The idea of risking investment on innovation and marketing in uncertain times can be unsettling or completely paralyzing. However, we would argue there is no better time. Consider, in times of contraction:
- Competitors leave the market due to performance issues, acquisitions, or retirement
- Price to reach — advertising — lowers
- Underperforming solutions are increasingly rejected by customers, as buyer leverage increases directly as discretionary spending decreases, creating opportunities for disruption in micro-markets
- Partners are more willing to collaborate as customers become more scarce
No matter if you are in the B2B or B2C space, you must embrace strengthening the value of your relationships with your customers. This requires you to flip the script on your held ideas that value necessarily means the product or service that your company provides. Adding value to a relationship means serving the customer when you can for a positive outcome for the customer. Let’s explore how you can achieve more valuable relationships by serving your customers.
The first rule of marketing an existing company is to strengthen the relationships of existing customers and look to expand your relationship with the customer. The results may not mean another purchase, but instead a positive review or a referral. It could mean no result at all. Consider every action you take as a deposit into the bank of value with your customers. Only by accumulating deposits can you ever ask — and ask only rarely — for a withdrawal from that bank.
If you focus on your customers first, and the dollars last, only then will you create a true customer-first community — and the dollars will follow. Here are some immediate actions you can take to strengthen marketing your customer experience in both the B2B and B2C spaces:
Separate your marketing communications from your customer communications. Send them a regular newsletter-like communication that is focused on deepening the relationship you have with them. Don’t just list your recent awards and certifications (though you can certainly mention these), make sure the newsletter delivers value. This same methodology can be applied to your social media efforts as well. Consider following your customers on social media, highlighting their stories with your company as appropriate.
Identify your evangelists
Your company should have a database of customers. Whether that database is an excel spreadsheet or a CRM, you should have data on your customers that gives you context about their relationship with your brand. Not just their name, but their purchase history with you, notes, their birthday even. This should also include a lead score. This score is based on properties that characterize your best customers’ relationships. These are your evangelists. Know them, be on a first-name basis with them. This is your tribe. Ensure you stay in regular contact with them beyond the sale.
Wear the cape a few hours a week
In the movie “The Intern,” a scene opens to Anne Hathaway’s character working the phones on the customer call center line. Anne’s customer is upset that dresses she ordered for her wedding will not arrive. Anne not only solves the issue, but truly takes the customer experience beyond a regular “lost dress” call. This should be something leadership should do a few hours a week. Talk directly to disgruntled customers or those seeking help. Work the phones. Listen. Your customers will tell you more about the market and your company than any market study will. Embrace the humanity of our roles as problem solvers. Get to know your customer beyond their name. If you can’t provide the solution, suggest one that your company doesn’t provide, even if it is your competitor. Put your customer first and in turn, you will earn customers for life.
Solicit feedback and take action
Just like your internal marketing survey, don’t forget to ask your customer community for feedback. The same steps apply — be transparent with your results, communicate and take action. If you ask only one question, implement sending a Net Promoter Score survey questionnaire on a regular basis. This alone will give you enough data to measure your company’s customer experience.
Expanding your customer base can mean you are looking for adjacent opportunities (innovation) or simply looking to attract and solve the exact issue your company exists to solve for new ideal customers (marketing). Lets focus on the latter.
All companies need an evergreen marketing strategy that works to automatically attract ideal customers to your business. The marketing principle we focus on is not ad-based, but rather value-based. Remember your bank of value. This applies to both your existing customers and your future customers. The more deposits you put into the bank, the more likely you can make a future withdrawal. Approach your marketing efforts from a lens of value to the customer first — not your company.
While marketing can appear to be jargon-filled and mysterious, any company can implement an automated marketing program by focusing on three areas to create value for their customer community.
1. Website marketing
A website can seem overwhelming and complex. Depending on your business, it can be. Your website is your digital doorstep that communicates your distinct offering, who you serve and why you serve. It should help visitors interact with your company, get a clear understanding quickly of what you do, and determine if you can help them with their particular program. If your website accomplishes this, you have a great foundation to build value upon.
2. Value generation
The next steps are value-generating websites that facilitate customer conversations by providing those value deposits in your future customer bank. Most marketers would call this lead generation. We prefer to frame this from the lens of value first. If you are providing value, the lead generation will follow. This is achieved by content marketing — giving away information of value to the customer for free in exchange for the possibility of a relationship between the customer and your company. This doesn’t mean endless gated content or email forms in exchange for information. If your information is of value, the customer will take action to deepen the relationship. Content can take many forms — FAQs, video, webinars, blogs, articles, whitepapers, how-tos, demonstrations, etc. Customers will find your content organically, i.e., search and social media promotion, or through paid ads that drive targeted segments that look like your ideal customers to your content. *Tip: You can’t have lead generation without content. Lead generation without value is an ad.
3. Digital transformation and value automation
Lastly, digital transformation is achieved through websites that automate value processes through web technology. This includes e-commerce, communication bots and live chat, FAQ indexes, and automated information delivery systems — such as emails, searches, and gated educational course content. Once you have created a marketing system that delivers value to customers, you need to automate the system. Examples of automation are the emails you receive after you abandon your shopping cart, or a copy of a guide emailed to you that you forgot to download. A programmed chat bot that answers frequently asked questions or an indexed and searchable FAQ are also different examples of automation. Automation, once enabled, frees up resources once managed by your team that you can apply towards other needs.
What actionable opportunities can you do now? What should you focus on externally (to your customers), internally (to your employees), and within yourself (not to be forgotten)? Each of these areas should be analyzed and addressed and collectively they will identify your company's new business plan for the future.
So go ahead, run with scissors.
Illustrations by John Gummere