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Monday, January 14, 2008

Perception and marketing

If you only wish to read one book about marketing, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind is the one you should read.
Marketing is not always what it seems to be. In the world of marketing, perception is often more important than reality -- at least at the front end -- and the preconceived notions of potential (and current) clients carry far more weight than what might, in scientific terms, be described as the 'true' picture. This is important because just because you have a better product, better service, better price -- in objective reality -- you may find that your potential clients just don't seem to care, or refuse to get it. Their frame of reference and perspective is defined by other values.

If you haven't already read the classic marketing book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout, you must do it now. (It is inexpensively available in paperback at your local bookstore or Amazon.) The ground-rule of successful marketing is that unless you have extremely deep pockets, you need to be first in the mind-space of your potential clients. This is usually achieved by finding a niche, a small segment not occupied by others, where you can 'own' the space. So, say you are a general contractor. Your niche may be a small, rural geographic area ("We build everything in ... name of community); or you might just do fourplexes, and only fourplexes, in Minnesota.)

On a higher level, Sonny Lykos observed to me in an email that no one seemed to care on another forum about his system for ensuring back-end client satisfaction, as a key component of marketing. (See this thread on Contractortalk.com and my final thread posting, suggesting Sonny's approach to budgeting. Then silence.) People were more interested in advertising flyers, canvassing, and the like. Their perception of marketing is defined by their preconditions and expectations, and they cannot see beyond it to the alternative he encourages.

I got my first impression about the power of preconceptions in 1978-80 in Africa.

Before arriving in Rhodesia near the end of the 15-year bush war, I learned that if I entered the country as a "journalist" I would be put on the next plane or train out. So, with scraggly hair and youthful exuberance, I declared myself a "student" on entering the country.

Then I went to look for work, knowing the country -- with military call-ups at high pitch -- had a serious labour shortage for 'whites' jobs. I ended up with a job offer at the Bulawayo Chronicle -- I then went to the immigration department and said I had good luck in being offered a job as a "trainee journalist" (a little lie, of course). The result: I received immigration papers and a work permit marked "journalist", legalizing my presence in the country.

For the next 18 months, I spent my life watching the story unfold --and living it in real time. Notably, most of the whites said the "world press has preconceptions; they think we are all bad, and nothing we do good ever gets reported." They predicted horrors under black rule. They all cited the same mantra, seemingly without thought. They had their own "preconceived notions", I thought.

I filed several stories to a Canadian news service. Newspapers across the country could elect to use or ignore my stories. The wire service, along with a modest cheque, sent me clippings to show where the stories had been published. And I noticed something interesting.

At the beginning of my time in the country, many papers picked up my 'conventional' writing. But as the war ended, and I saw things through a deeper and more complex perspective, fewer and fewer papers picked up my more balanced articles. These weren't blindly supporting the whites or blacks, they were simply looking at the issues from a deeper perspective. Editors across the country didn't care, however. The stories didn't meet their "preconceived notions".

Today, Zimbabwe is a basket case and the whites ignored by the media appear to have been correct -- on the surface. But delve into this issue more deeply, and you would not draw such a simplistic conclusion. I think the mess in Zimbabwe is largely because the whites clung to power longer than they should have.

So what does this have to do with construction marketing? Perception is deadly important; and you will not succeed in breaking into a market by offering a 'me to' service. You need to differentiate yourself; and stand out from the crowd. But you also need to know how the crowd thinks-- at least the crowd you are trying to reach. At the same time, going off the deep end is risky -- it might work, but I would take a more incremental approach to change. (No one else may be cold calling businesses to sell commercial construction services; so you would be unique in your approach -- but I'm afraid you would fail and irritate rather than encourage business by trying that; unless you have a truly innovative way of selling yourself.)

So, say you are a general contractor whose business is slipping. What sub-set of services can you offer that would work for you? Perhaps you can offer a maintenance service package to existing clients; or you have proven an experience within a specific sector, and can build out from that.

Note as well that you may not need to change your product or service to achieve great results -- it could just be an exercise in positioning and perspective; in changing your client's mind frame. And, finally, if you are successful at branding, you reach the holy grail of marketing -- clients and potential clients form a positive preconception about you and this 'sticks' even when you don't quite get things right, or they know you little. So, if you want to get the branding right, consider again the Brand Harmony concepts. They work.

2 comments:

Sonny said...

Mark, I bought "Positioning" several years ago, and it's one of my favorites. But even the process of "positioning" required a lot of commitment, and great "systems", to maintain ones advantageous "position." By commitment I mean that as yo climb that ladder, you are increasing the numbers of competitors below you, just waiting for any chance to bring you down several rungs. So diligence must be maintained. One what that's done is by serving your customers in ways not done before in your industry, and in ways they don't even expect. So innovation also comes in to play.

As for those contractors preferring to use cold calling, door knob hangers, and flyers, let's face it: That is easy, doesn't cost much, and most of all, have always been industry standards, standards that result in not much. But still standards, so they continue to be uses. Branding, on the other hand, takes, systems, commitment, sincere desire to serve, exceptional honesty and warranties - far too much work. Besides, for most contractors, planning, an essential aspect of business, is not one of their strong suits either.

Another aspect of bad customer service and branding - where the customer is not valued, but even an inconvenience was represented with I as a customer. My Verizon Broadband card stopped working. I called Verizon's technical dept. about a week ago, and while the man who assisted me was polite, we were unable to determine the problem. He suggested he cold send another card or me or I cold visit a Verizon store, which I opted to do. But he neglected to tell me to cal first to make sure the store has a "technical" dept. I just returned from our mall (I hate going to the mall), only to find out that they do not have "tech" dept. Trip wasted, but I'm not done. When I asked for the store with a tech dept., he told me to go to the one on Pine Ridge and Airport Road and it's in the plaza. The problem is that at that intersection there is a plaza on each of the four corners. Nor did he have a phone book, or their number. Not enought room I guess, yet I found enough room to keep two (white and yellow pages) in my pickup truck.

Arrrgh!

I'm back home now, using mapquest.com to locate the exact location and address. I will never understand why business owners and CEOs, have still not learned that initiating the basic premise of the "Golden Rule" as a Goal #1 culture throughout their companies will substantially increase their sales and margins, and at a lot less then what they are currently spending in advertising and marketing, which by the way, is far too deceptive to boot.

So that is the "Position" that Verizon occupies. No wonder their stock price has been static for seven months, and is why I sold mine.

Mark Buckshon said...

Sonny, you are right here -- the challenge for a growing business is to replicate the craft-style attention and client sensitivity that many 'small guys' have (and in good times these businesses rely exclusively on referrals) with systems that can be transferred to employees and adhered by them. This is hard stuff -- first, you need to have really good recruitment and selection systems, and then, once your employees are in the organization, you need to constantly oversee, innovate, and inspire them. Frustratingly, assuming you do everything right and build a top-quality work force, everything remains very fragile; just a bit of sloppiness on your (or your management team's) part and these carefully cultivated employees are prime targets for competitors looking to hire them. Again, you need to do things to ensure the employees remain loyal and committed to the organization; and that may be the hardest thing of all.