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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lessons learned

This image is from Chase's blog entry, How do you measure the success of your Marketing and Branding results? which shows how successful community involvement opened the door to a positive new client relationship.

This week, I sensed the business turn-around and recovery that coincided with the start of this blog has moved to a new, exciting stage. Our financials still have a long ways to go, and the actual business growth isn't that significant, yet. But I observed several responses that suggest that things are going well, indeed.

In making these observations, I need to travel back 3.5 years ago in 2005 when, sitting in a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., I received a phone call from a struggling sales representative who worked for us there. She had worked with our company for about four years. We had hired her on the recommendation of our star (and originally very successful) local sales rep, as it seemed my dream of building a truly successful international business had come true.

Back in August 2001 -- yes, just before the horrible events of September that year -- we had the highest single issue sales volume for any publication we had ever produced; and I felt like a big-shot -- establishing, as a Canadian, a successful local publishing business in the U.S. capital city region.

But just four years later, in 2005, things weren't so bright. Sales had declined to the point that about a year previously, in 2004, we had to end the desperate sales rep's salary and offer her a commission-only career. For a while she continued, but things were getting increasingly stressful and the person who had originally hired her now had turned against her, questioning her ability. (Dissension and hostility had, in fact, started to run uncontrolled through the business.)

So I listened to her, as she observed how people simply weren't responding or returning calls properly. She said something that stuck in my mind: "People are telling me we are running a scam." The methodology we were using, of setting up supplier-advertising supported editorial features, then having the featured company refer their suppliers to us, had started to back-fire, big time. Now our potential clients just saw us as playing a manipulative game, ready to take whatever money we could, without delivering any real value.

I couldn't quite figure out how or what to do about this observation. I didn't fully appreciate the simple, but somewhat counterintuitive, answers. But as things deteriorated even more, I began to piece together the elements for a successful business recovery.

First, I realized virtually every 'old' employee would have to go. We needed to be rid of the hostility, tensions, frustration, and anger that had taken over the business.

Second, we needed clear guidelines and processes for hiring and working with new employees. They needed to be intelligent, 'connected' and talented at their respective fields, but able to work with others.

Third, we needed to create systems to keep the employees connected with each other and some essential guidelines for client and supplier relationships. We established our weekly and bi-annual meeting systems.

And finally, and most importantly, we needed to find a way to truly connect with our current and potential clients, and respect the fact that the advertisers who pay for the space were receiving not nearly enough value from us -- certainly proven if they thought we were delivering a 'scam'.

So we set out to change our relationships with these initiatives.

I started blogging, and the bi-weekly newsletter, initially to provide some value-added after sales service to our current clients. The idea of these resources is to show our clients how they can market effectively, without pouring their money down the drain, and invite them to call me for ideas and support (again without charge).

We started spending much more time on community support and participation, even when these don't translate to business. I have become a strong supporter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and began writing for their excellent Marketer journal. We offered free half-page monthly ads to the local hospital foundation, so they could run 'thank you ads' for the contractors who, in working on the hospital, are also contributing to its fund-raising initiatives. And we found ways to recognize the best construction businesses in the region, without expecting anyone to advertise, through the Readers' Choice Awards.

Finally, we implemented some 'best practices' -- thank you notes, a policy to return calls promptly, to listen, and to respect our clients even if they do business with us only occasionally.

So how has all of this translated in our business to give me optimism we have truly changed direction?
  • Chase describes in his latest blog entry, How do you measure the success of your Marketing and Branding Results? how an initially skeptical potential client suddenly warmed up to doing business with us, when the client realized we truly are connected to the community, and key construction organizations for which he supports.

  • Yesterday, I received an email from a client who had done business with us a little more than a year ago. Yes, he volunteered, he would like to do business again. We didn't call him; he emailed us.

  • And today, out of the blue, I received an advertising inquiry from the representative of a business who we had provided some truly valuable positive publicity earlier in the year -- without worrying whether that company would ever purchase anything from us. I suppose what goes around comes around, but we certainly weren't bugging this new client to do business with us.
The intriguing thing in these observations is that our core product/service is little changed from 2005. We still profile businesses with (print) advertising features, supported by the profiled organizations' suppliers. The difference is how we conduct our business -- and the context in which we market and sell our services. Now, we appreciate the community and businesses around us with respect and imagination and put their interests ahead of ours.

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