Why firing clients is sometimes a good ideaJanuary 22nd, 2013
Bad clients can ruin your business.
But only if you let them.
A few years ago we won some new business, and we were thrilled: A branding + website project with a major, internationally-known cosmetics firm. It was a smallish project, but we were certain it would lead to more work down the road, and did I mention it was a huge brand name?
(Because let's face it: When you're a small marketing consultancy, it doesn't matter how much revenue you've generated for B2B or smaller clients. Potential clients are really only interested in whether you've worked with brand names with which they're familiar.)
The project quickly went downhill: The overall goals, which seemed clear at the outset, suddenly got suspiciously murky; the client team seemed to change every 2 weeks, whereupon the whole project would change; we kept having to fly halfway across the country for meetings which never seemed to go anywhere; and their head office, which was located in another country, took 3 weeks, 10 emails, and 4 phone calls just to approve a URL.
The project was giving us indigestion. But it was a big-name client, our bills were getting paid, and we were a small company - we couldn't afford not to do it. Could we?
Sometimes, a client is costing you more than you think.
On the surface we weren't really losing a lot of money.
But between all the flying back and forth, the endless meetings, having to request information/feedback/approvals multiple times, and the fact that the goals had turned into unknowable quantum particles, we were losing more than we thought:
- Sure, we were getting reimbursed for the cost of flights and hotels, but our time was part of an overall project fee. So the 'downtime' associated with flying across the country was costing us more than we realized
- The revolving cast of characters on the client side meant we were never going to build the long-term relationships that would lead to additional or referral business
- The lack of strategic direction meant we weren't going to get to do good work, so our dreamed-of case study was going to look anaemic
- The whole thing was making us feel demoralized, which wasn't good for our other projects - in marketing you need to maintain a high level of enthusiasm at all times
- We weren't able to take on other clients, because this project was taking up too much of our time
So one day, after yet another pointless meeting, we called the client and - politely - said that we couldn't work with them any more. They seemed surprised - I think their big brand name meant that no one had ever broken up with them before.
You may agonize about it. But 99% of the time, you won't regret it.
Client relationships are like the other relationships in your life: Most of the time, if it's not working for you, it's not working for the other party, either. (In our case, we learned later that some of the new members of the client team thought they should have hired a local firm - even though we'd been hired because the original goals called for someone on the ground in Toronto - but didn't know how to tell us that.)
The whole thing limps along, no one is happy, and the results - if you can even get that far - are spotty at best.
In the 10 years of StayAwake, we've only fired a handful of clients - and every single time, we agonize over it, because it always seems as dumb as quitting one job before having another one to replace it. But every single time, we realize afterward that it was the best thing we could have done for our business: We're able to focus on more successful, profitable, and enjoyable projects; we have fewer headaches; and we're able to do better work in the long run.
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The 11-Question Marketing StrategyJanuary 18th, 2012
You know you need some marketing. But where do you start?
These days, most of my work is with small-but-fast-growing brands, like this and this.
I spent the first 10 years of my marketing career working with big brands, but I much prefer working with entrepreneurial companies: They're willing to take more risks, the limited budgets mean you have to get more creative, and there's more room for a big vision that isn't going to get hijacked by layers of stakeholders because you're creating a brand from scratch with a small team of highly invested people.
The challenge in starting from scratch, however - especially when you're working with companies who don't have in-house marketing or communications resources, and who have never really undertaken a marketing project before - is knowing where to start. When you've got a limited budget, it's crucial to focus your resources.
So how do you do that?
The 11 questions you need to ask to arrive at a marketing strategy
Most entrepreneurial businesses don't want to shell out $25k to a 'consultant' to generate some 50-page PowerPoint deck about Their Marketing Vision. And I agree - that's $25k they could be spending on results-oriented marketing efforts.
Here's how to get a good handle on what your marketing strategy should look like, in 11 handy questions.
1. What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?
All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals - with specific revenue numbers. There's no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers. Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.
2. Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?
While the answers to #1 should be highly specific ("Increase revenue on X product by X%"), the answers to this should be more 'visioning', like "We'd like to be the leading provider of X in X area"). However, it's important to keep this realistic: If you're currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn't long enough to get to the #1 spot.
3. What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?
Are you suffering from a lack of awareness? Not being considered in the competitive solution set? Not being able to communicate with customers? Operational delays? Confused employees? Marketing and communications can help with all of these - and sometimes it's more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.
4. Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?
The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you'll get more bang for your buck. Once you've tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.
5. What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?
Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings? Are they having trouble closing them? Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace? Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message? Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.
6. What do(es) your target market(s) look like?
This is a big one for small- and mid-sized businesses, who typically want to sell to 'everyone'. But when you're just starting with marketing, the more you can segment and target narrow niches, the better results you'll have. It's better to divide and conquer than to go scattershot.
7. Do you have a 'brand story'?
Do you know what you sell, why it's different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better? In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story - they wouldn't have made it this far if they didn't - but it's not being clearly and consistently articulated. Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.
8. What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?
It's important to understand what marketing tools you're already using, and whether they're working or are just placeholders. Maybe your current website doesn't need a huge overhaul - maybe it would be better to spruce it up a little, then focus efforts on that dormant Facebook page that already has 250 'likes' and which could grow. And don't forget that people can count as 'assets': Maybe you have a salesperson who happens to be a technology geek, who'd love to take on your social media responsibilities.
9. What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you're communicating with them right now?
The other day I talked about how great branding comes from the inside. Employees who are on the front lines - both with customers and with management - probably have some great insight into your communications in terms of what's working and what isn't. One anecdote from one strident employee shouldn't direct your whole strategy, but if you've been hearing from employees and customers that, say, your website is difficult to navigate or they don't really understand your product line, that's probably something to consider.
10. What does business success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?
This sounds a lot like questions #1 and #2, but it's interesting: If you go through these questions in this order, you'll find that by the time you get to this question, you'll get answers that have more to do with positioning, proposition, corporate culture, client base, etc. Because while the answers to 'business goals' tend to be expressed in terms of sales and revenue, overall business success is a lot more complex.
11. What does marketing success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?
99% of the time, marketing is a long game, especially when you're just getting started and need to build brand identity and awareness, and test the marketplace. Sure, the goal of marketing is, ultimately, to 'sell more stuff', but it can do that in a lot of ways, from driving site traffic to increasing engagement to improving customer service to improving the sales function. So the answer to this question isn't just "Sales should have increased by X%", but also "Increased customer retention", "Lower cost of customer acquisition", etc.
I know, I know - another long post. But whether you're a marketing consultant or a new marketing client, I promise these 11 questions will get you an effective marketing strategy, faster than you thought.
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