Turbulent Times Require Serious Marketing

(Originally published as a Marketing and Business Development column in the December 2001 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

While many would argue that a serious marketing and business development action plan is required at all times, this is especially true during turbulent times. During historical boom economic growth periods, post-war recoveries and peacetime economic expansions, it seemed that virtually any half-hearted marketing or business development activities led to continuing business growth. However, when the going gets rough, there are two key factors that all services marketers must keep in mind:

1. Life - and business - still goes on, but
2. Customers have neither the time nor the inclination to mess around.

The tragic events of September 11 temporarily brought America, and American businesses, to a stunned and sudden standstill. There was no longer "business as usual". There wasn't even mail delivery. Even worse, there was a nagging feeling that life as we knew it would no longer be the same. Neither would services marketing - at least for a while.

To this day, there are still many facets of historical business that have changed forever. Still, life - and business - will go on. Workers will continue to use their computers to get their day-to-day jobs done. Communications networks will become even more important than ever. People will still access cash via ATMs. Patients will still get MRIs and CT-scans. Milk will be processed. Textiles will be sewn. Newspapers will be printed. And services organizations will still be called upon to support their customers, dealers and end users with a full array of new and evolving services.

When you think about it, everything that we do in the services industry still needs to get done - especially in these turbulent times. In many ways, we are all doing the same things as we did before September 11 - although now, there is an extra measure of importance in everything we do, and every customer we support.

As recently as just a few months ago, undoubtedly, we were all dealing with customers (or vendors) who, for whatever reasons, simply strove to meet "acceptable" levels of customer satisfaction. Some had internal goals and objectives that needed to be met; others had their eyes on various State or national quality awards; while others simply wanted to improve existing levels of customer satisfaction to "keep up with the Joneses". Now, everything is different. The stakes are suddenly higher.

Every business, everywhere in the civilized world, now requires the highest levels of B2B support from its cadre of vendors - no matter whether the support is merely on-site break/fix, helpdesk or preventive maintenance; or systems integration, consulting or professional services. In today's tense environment when another unforeseen development can bring air travel and mail service to a sudden halt, thereby stopping parts shipments or freezing deliveries; send unexpectedly high numbers of people to medical centers for tests and evaluation; or disrupt communications as workers sit glued to their television sets or radios, there is a renewed need for services "above and beyond the call of duty" to support what was "business as usual".

But how can this be done? Quite simply, it will involve ramping up the types of services and support products you have historically marketed to a higher level of contingency-based support as well. This may also be a good time to strengthen your own organization's relationships within its strategic partner alliances. For example, whatever your company's portfolio of service and support products may have been historically, now would be a propitious time to refocus it around professional services including contingency planning, business continuity and disaster recovery. If you already provide these types of services yourself, now is the time to promote them to the marketplace. If you don't - now may be the right time to find yourself a strategic partner in those fields with which to "piggyback", or joint market, your services.

Customers, who only a few months ago, were primarily concerned with hardware, software and helpdesk support, are now talking about contingency planning, business continuity and disaster recovery. Terms like "high availability" and "hot sites" have been around, it seems, almost forever. However, since September 11, they are now "top of mind" for many businesses, and no longer on the "back burner". Are these the types of professional services that are also "top of mind" to the marketplace when they think of your organization? If not, what can you do to make it so?

We have also seen this with some of our clients since the September 11 attacks. Companies like StorageTek, long a key player in the storage device market, has won several new accounts from customers that had been "putting off" acquiring high availability or business continuity services until only recently. Baxter Planning Systems has seen increased interest in their planning systems software due to an environment where forecasting has become a more complex task. Companies like R2 Technologies have acknowledged that even though times are now "different", their client medical centers still need to have the highest levels of customer support for their mammography instrumentation.

Whatever happens from this point on, America - and the world - has changed. The way of conducting business has also changed, but the way of supporting businesses with the services they require to satisfy their customers has not - it just got a little more complex - and, perhaps, a little more serious. With this increased seriousness, we can "kiss goodbye" all those meaningless and frivolous attempts to "bundle" our existing services products into a "new" branded package, or otherwise try to disguise our "same old, same old". Our customers have always been too smart for that anyway. What the market wants - and needs - is an honest and forthright offering of service and support that will give them one less thing to worry about as they attempt to meet their customers' quickly evolving needs in this "new" - and very different - world.

Turbulent times require serious marketing - and it doesn't get more turbulent than this. We owe it to our customers, ourselves and our country to rise to the occasion, and ensure that we can provide the services and support that our customers require. Marketing and business development has never been more serious.

William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

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