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Opportunity Lost

The economy for new sales is tough - it's a lot tougher if you're invisible

Copyright 2003 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

With the on-going downsizing and staff reductions that have affected just about every business, a frequent casualty is the public relations, marketing or marketing communications function and just about any corporate function that communicates to the outside world. Short-sighted management has often deemed these functions "dispensable" - and effectively removing their eyes and ears in the marketplace. The end result is similar to an airplane in the clouds turning off all its navigation equipment - not only do they not know where they are, they don't know where they are going - or who else is in the clouds with them.

The most obvious symptom (which appears almost immediately) of opportunity lost is non-responsiveness to inbound calls or queries. In other words, it's almost impossible to get anyone to return a call or email unless you're calling the sales department. So all the inbound early-stage sales and business development inquiries don't get any response, those subsequent dialogues are not developed and they eventually go to the companies who do respond. As the actor Woody Allen once remarked: "80% of success is just showing up."

The next symptom is the loss of any "news" about the company - this is quickly followed by an outdated web site. On some web sites - the latest press releases are a year old - better off to remove them than give the appearance that was the last time your site was updated.

The net result is that the sales department has to work harder and harder in the pre-sales area of market awareness and recognition - for example, when a publication recently did an article on Novell, the most frequent comment they got from customers was: "Are they still in business?" A market perception that you're dead is not a good sign.

Another sign is the loss of individuals who represent the organization's collective, or institutional, memory. Long-standing customers lose their company contact points and sense of uniqueness (and hence customer loyalty), and they have to bring new company players up to speed. Relationships that have been carefully cultivated over years get destroyed almost overnight. This is one reason why sales reps often take their key accounts with them - the relationship and responsiveness is from the rep - not the company - and savvy customers are keenly aware of that.

The next sign is introversion in product development, or a fixation on features and enhancements as opposed to customer functionality or customer satisfaction. Since the marketing department is no longer around to point out the reality of the competitive environment - odd things start to happen. Irrelevant bells and whistles are added to the product, "strategic alliances" rather than real competitiveness become the order of the day, lost sales are dismissed as an internal problem ("the sales force just has to work harder to close deals" - a comment usually heard from executives who have no sales experience), and large budget amounts begun to be spent on advertising or "branding" as a solution to falling sales. Of course, none of these really work, but they give the illusion of meaningful activity.

What should the key stakeholders (customers, potential customers, employees, etc.) do when the signs of "opportunity lost" begin to become apparent?

The choice for potential customers is perhaps the easiest - go somewhere else for your needs. No sense in getting aboard what may be a sinking ship.

The choices for other stakeholders become more difficult - dependent primarily on how much is at stake, or invested in the relationship. If it is a minor, "one of many" relationship - then shifting business to more viable competitors is perhaps the best choice. If there are substantial costs to changing a legacy relationship, then a combination of short-term damage control and long-term transition may be the best option - in other words - utilize the current relationship to best extent possible - but don't invest any more in it. For example, you may choose to not invest in the next software upgrade, and stay with the current version while you begin the search to a new vendor.

There are two tests for the pattern of declining competitiveness - examine how much business volume comes from new customers as opposed to old, and also how much of the current (old) customers' budget in that product or service area is spent with that particular vendor. If the company's new customer revenue as a percentage of total revenue has been declining - that indicates they are less viable in the marketplace. If the legacy customers are spending less budget with that vendor (over time), that similarly indicates they are transitioning to new vendors.

For employees - the choice is perhaps the most difficult - especially in today's economic climate. But riding a sinking ship down becomes a career-stifling exercise in the end. Perhaps the best option is the same one that is available to the legacy customers - minimize new investment, and look for a new opportunity. Typically - the best employees are the ones to leave first, so the company's reputation for non-responsiveness becomes a downward spiral.

For a savvy company that has to cut expenses to remain viable, a plan for how they will remain both responsive and visible in the market should serve as guide to the cuts in the marketing and external communications area. An audit of how much marketing dialogue exists, and the nature of that dialogue, should be undertaken and specific resources dedicated to maintaining this dialogue under any reorganization plan. A failure to do so is similar to not paying the phone bill, or letting your web site go dark.

In the end, the net costs of indiscriminately cutting external communications capabilities are substantial - and many of these costs will not be known by the company - hence, they represent "opportunity lost". Careers usually follow.

© 2003, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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