Marketing Chain: What We Don’t Know


There’s a lot you don’t know about marketing. Me either, and I’ve studied it exhaustively and consulted others on it all my adult life, from single person freelance folks working from their homes to some of the largest corporations in the world. Marketing is just not the tidy little package we’d like it to be, and if someone says otherwise, they are a lot smarter than anyone I’ve ever met (and soon to be richer than anyone I’ve read about). Or they’re a flaming liar.

We Beat it To Death, but It’s Still Squirming

Marketing is such a fascinating subject, and of all the business subjects out there, I can’t think of another that’s more thoroughly examined. The case studies written at graduate schools and the research conducted in dim rooms is boggling, but we still don’t have it figured out. Marketing is really about influencing and predicting individual choices, and when’s the last time you even nailed that with one person?

That’s what I thought. So now tell me you can do it for a multitude of people, most of whom you don’t know at all. This point hit me recently after spending a week at Harvard Business School where learned professors guided us through intricate exercises designed to shape our thinking about marketing. The only problem is that each study was really “back testing” of current theories on historical events. They gave us reams of data to study, hoping we’d find the clues to what a given company should have done. Then we looked at what they did do, along with the attendant results, to learn even more about marketing choices.

What amused me is that this isn’t all that difficult to do if we’re looking at a) how to spend someone else’s money b) in the past. You know what I’m talking about, too, right? Surely you’ve agonized over marketing decisions that were very important to the well being of your business. Should I hire this person to sell on my behalf? How long should my case studies be? Should we spend the time on this RFP? How could I fire these eleven clients and replace them with three more just like our best one? Why can I do this for my clients but can’t do it for myself?

Why There are Unhealthy Doctors

That is a huge question, isn’t it. For some reason it’s so much easier to provide marketing advice to other people than it is for yourself, and let’s talk first about why that is.

First, it’s different when it’s someone else’s money. It shouldn’t be, but there it is. You shouldn’t be any less careful in advising people who are spending their money than when you are spending your own, but we all know it’s easier to pontificate when there’s little at stake. By the time they figure out whether or not your advice was any good, well, you’ve moved on anyway. I was conducting an agency search last year and one of the firms pitching the account talked about how they always ask this question: what would you do if this were your money? That was a simple but impressive question.

Second, marketing decisions are too easily influenced by historical baggage. What seems like a tough choice to the client, requiring lots of back and forth analysis, seems a lot more clear cut to you. That’s because you aren’t having to weigh the politics or need for short term results to keep your job.

Third, you can’t operate on yourself. Well, I suppose you could, but not many physicians make a habit of it. I imagine they’ve discovered that splitting skin with a knife is easier if it isn’t your skin.

Fourth, very few people can say “no” to opportunity, especially when it’s their own. Want to know what really hampers the effectiveness of your marketing efforts? It’s that you get too easily distracted from what you should do because what you want to do is more fun.

Analyzing Your Client Base

Let me explain one of the most perplexing things about marketing, and why I’ve been thinking about this subject for a long time. It all stems from an exercise I’ve performed with clients hundreds of times, and I’m going to ask you to pause and do it for yourself as you read this.

First, make a list of the ten best clients you’ve ever had, whether they are current clients or not. Use your own criteria for what a “best” client is, including the profit you made, the connections they spawned, the work you did, or how much you enjoyed the relationship. There’s no need to put them in any particular order—just come up with about ten. Please don’t read on until you’ve completed this step.

Second, next to each write down one sentence that describes how they came to be a client, particularly what prompted them to express that initial interest in working with you.

Any observations from this exercise? My guess, if your firm is at all typical, is this: getting your best clients has been a bit more accidental that you’d like. Many of these clients came your way from chance encounters, referrals from your evangelists, or something really silly, like sitting next to the right person on an airplane.

Control What You Can; Don’t Worry about the Rest

What are we to make of this? We’ve already ruled out the idea that we can control the marketing process and just need to do more of it. If that were true your best clients would not come to you so accidentally.

But is it fair to take the opposite extreme and assume that marketing is so accidental that we can give up and use our time and money more effectively elsewhere?

No, for three reasons.

First, the fact that so much is out of your control should motivate you to control whatever you can. Otherwise, it’s like deciding to not brush your teeth anymore because you were diagnosed with cancer. Or getting cutoff on the freeway and deciding to close your eyes the rest of the trip home. It just doesn’t compute. If you can control everything, you can relax a bit—otherwise accept your fate without letting it color your entire world. Control what you can—accept what you can’t. Shouldn’t there be a tacky plaque at Cracker Barrel that expands on that?

Second, good things happen to people who market themselves (whether or not they see the connection). I can’t really explain this, either, but if nothing else, it gives them a confidence that the prospect just senses from you during those accidental interactions. Knowing who you are, knowing what kind of client you want to find, and investing some of your time and money in implementing your plan helps you sleep better at night, too, confident that you’ve at least done your part.

Third, marketing forces positioning. It demands that you craft a specific message to stand behind because now it’s in print or on a web site for all to see. The alternative is to go from prospect to prospect with a different magnetic sign for each encounter. You pull into their parking lot, rummage through the signs in the back to find the one closest to what you think they are looking for, and then you slap it on and call yourself “branded.” Listen, if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to paint that van and stake out a positioning that really means something.

Now let’s look at how a single mistake in preparation can nullify even your best marketing efforts.


Marketing Chain: Importance of Each Preparation Step

I fly helicopters. It’s not the most brilliant thing to do, frankly, but I like challenges. And if you ever had any doubt about the wisdom of getting into a helicopter, do a pre-flight with me and you’ll be scared witless. There are just far too many things that can go wrong, and in many cases it just takes one of them to fail, like the single bolt that holds the rotor to the mast, or the cable that connects the cyclic to the hydraulic pump, or whatever.

Marketing is like that, too. You may have someone on staff who is brilliant at busting into rooms but has nothing to say once the dust settles. Or you may have a compelling positioning but no one ever hears it because you haven’t updated your web site.

Links in the Marketing Chain

What I want to do next is talk through the marketing chain. I want you to carefully look at each link in the chain and see where you might be struggling. Then we’ll wrap this up with some final suggestions in the final part. Keep in mind that all it takes is one weak link for the marketing chain to fail.

Mapping Responsibility

Mapping is establishing the competitive positioning of your firm and then crafting a marketing plan to find clients who would be a good fit. It might require only one day every year, and the result might be scratchings on a napkin, but only a principal can do it. It is one of the three things that cannot be delegated, and unless one person is assigned to make sure it’s done, and unless that one person is a principal, you have a weak link.

Understanding the Consistent Role of Marketing

Marketing consistently is the most important thing you can do for your firm. Marketing is not primarily about the quantity, but rather the quality of business you have. In fact, marketing often doesn’t happen because principals don’t understand that well. They are busy and think that marketing will just make it worse (i.e., busier). But marketing is about becoming less busy and making more money. It’s about options. But if you think it’s about finding more work, rather than finding a certain kind of work, you won’t market consistently for the right reasons, and that porpoise approach will never be effective.

Compelling Positioning

You need a compelling positioning, but very few of you have one. Could you take your positioning (in other words, what makes you unique in the marketplace), hand it to a competitor of yours, and they could say all the same things? Most public relations, advertising, design, and interactive firms are much better at differentiating their clients’ products/services than they are their own. They make three mistakes, typically. They talk about what’s true but not necessarily what’s different. (‘We think strategically.’) They rely on things that are not demonstrable during the dating process, confusing why clients come to them with why clients stay with them. (‘You’ll like working with us.’) Or they emphasize the wrong things. (‘We’ll do things on time, on budget, and you’ll work with senior staff.’) So that’s the first mistake: a positioning that sucks, that’s no different from anyone else’s, and is just marketing gibberish. You may be able to bust into any room, but if you don’t have compelling things to say, you’ll lose their attention quickly. Finally, this positioning needs to be articulated well in a tagline, and it needs to be the most prominent element in your branding. It doesn’t count if you don’t tell people.

The Right Finder

The Finding function implements that marketing plan, on a full- or part-time basis, depending on the firm’s size. They make it happen. They have the right personality profile (highest I and a good amount of D and S, using DiSC terminology), have a consultative (not transactional) sales background, are self-motivated, authentic, and bring lots of connections to the table. They also are comfortable and patient in waiting for a few of the right accounts instead of lots of the wrong ones.

Finder is Not Distracted

If we could chart the new business activity at the average firm, it would look like a side profile of the Himalayas. Usually the effort doesn’t begin until panic overcomes the extreme distaste of this task. It’s even worse when we expect one person to bring accounts in (Finding) and then service them (Interfacing).

The reason for this is simple: Finding is more important, but Interfacing is more urgent. And the urgent sadly displaces the important. So there will be this flurry of activity and as soon as the first results appear, the long term Finding stops until the panic rises again.

Really effective Finders leave the cave, kill something, and drag it back. And then head straight back out to find something else instead of getting all comfortable in the cave.

Proper Finder Compensation

Good commission plans do not provide self-management for the the Finder (your sales person). Instead, they provide an appropriate incentive for a situation that would likely succeed anyway, almost regardless of the plan.

A great compensation system will not work without a great sales person. In fact, it will harm you, delaying an inevitable personnel decision and putting success just that much further out of reach. If you think you might be in this situation, make a note to yourself that tampering with an existing plan is often an attempt to continue denying that the person filling this job isn’t the best fit.

The best solution? Start with a base, to which you attach certain expectations (e.g., list maintenance and even a certain level of new business closings). Add a full commission for any sales on top of that expectation, or add a reduced commission (smaller percentage) if you want to reward the sales person for every dollar brought in. And if they need a jump start, give them a draw but cap it at a few month’s worth of base.

Clear Target

If a client relationship is like marriage, then the marketing process is like dating. Since one will flow from the other, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of “intentional dating” as you seek new client relationships. Unless the standard is set high at this stage, you’ll be exerting far too much effort in trying to change your clients. That’s energy not very well spent. Better to screen potential clients and be choosier about prospective partners at the outset. You’ll find it very useful to write out a list of criteria you’d like to see in new clients. This should include things like whether they’ve used other agencies before; how big the account is; what they’ll let you do for them; how forthright they’ll be in discussions about their budget; whether or not you have access to a decision maker; and why they’ve hired you in the first place (expertise, not cheap prices, for example).

Appropriate Materials

Are you always making excuses for your marketing materials, including your lack of a decent web site? Do you think this might translate into a lack of credibility with clients at times? Even if you don’t use your materials, having them forces positioning, and for that reason alone it’s a good idea to develop them. Once you do, of course, you’ll find all sorts of uses for them.

Reasonable Budget

Is there sufficient money budgeted for marketing? That all needs to start with a marketing plan, but after that, you should have a good sense of how much will be needed. I’m not thinking just about entertainment, either, but for all the higher profile marketing efforts that will yield a higher return on investment: expenses for speaking at a convention; opportunity cost for taking time off to write; etc.

That’s it for preparation. Now let’s talk about execution.


Marketing Chain: Importance of Each Execution Step

Let’s jump right into it and go through a checklist that’ll help increase your chances of success.

Close Management

You should never be more than one week out of date in knowing what’s happening on the marketing front. If you have a dedicated sales person, that means getting a weekly report and having random access to a database of sales activities housed on your servers. The sales person should have specific target qualifications for appropriate prospects, and should have specific goals to measure their activity and success.

Principal Involvement

While we are on the subject of responsibility, keep in mind how central your role is. The principal (or one of several, if there are partners) must be involved (as in “ultimately responsible”) for the new business efforts of the firm. This critical activity cannot be delegated entirely. You may find it useful to think of this process in terms of three different roles.

Mapping comes first. This positioning and marketing function involves setting the direction for your firm, deciding what the niche will be, and how the marketing will be accomplished. Essentially you decide who should be hungry for your services, and how best to create that hunger. The result is a marketing plan.

Finding is next. This new business development function involves implementing the marketing plan. Essentially it is making prospects hungry for your services by surfacing (vs. creating) need.

Convincing follows next. This sales function involves persuading the prospect that it will be a fit and closing the sale by getting them to sign on for that first project or program. Essentially it means taking those individuals who have raised their hand and said “I might be hungry” and getting them to sign up for the meal plan, choosing between your firm and a competitor.

Armed Champion Referrers

Dick Truitt has some good thoughts for us on this front. Ask any entrepreneur what she or he believes to be the most successful way to build their business. It doesn’t really matter what kind of firm they are growing. They will all pretty much give you this same one-word answer: “Referrals.”

On the face of it, that seems simple enough. All you have to do is figure out how to obtain those referrals and keep them coming over the long term. But convincing important people to recommend your firm is not as easily done as it seems. It’s a great idea, but the actual process of recruiting a sizeable bunch of respected colleagues and friends to do this for you over time would seem to be a major undertaking.

As Dick points out, most new business plans fail to deal with the reality that prospects for professional services are seldom “sold.” Realistically, most prospects are “buyers,” going in search of professional help only when they need it or expect to need it in the near future. Unless you realize this and have an intentional referral program, you’ll have a weak link in the marketing chain.

Focus on Internal Client Growth

Your best opportunities are within your current client base. Do you meet with them at least yearly to do planning for the next year? Do they call you before it comes time to implement what’s already been decided? Do you roam the halls on the client side, looking for introductions? Do you have an ear to the ground about what programs might be coming up?

It’s a rare Interfacer who can do all that well. It might require some very specific, forward-thinking activity on your part.

Successful at Following Accounts

After the initial shock that your contact on the client side is leaving, what’s the plan for following them to the new gig? Some of your best client opportunities come when your contacts are promoted, typically because they are spreading your influence to another company, and maybe even at a higher level. Have a specific plan to capitalize on these opportunities, especially now that your contacts on the client side are changing jobs more frequently than they ever have in the past (less than two years, on average).

Interception of RFPs

Consider every invitation to participate in an RFP a failure on your part. In one sense it’s flattering to be asked, but if it hits the RFP stage, by definition you already have a lot of competitors. Worse yet, you’ll be expending energy in landing the account in a process full of land mines and surprises. The goal of all marketing is to get a chance to win the business before the process is broadened and formalized.

Reach For High Impact Marketing

Cold calling and direct mail is the lowest form of marketing. Writing a book and speaking are the highest forms. And there are dozens of choices in between. Are you reaching as high as you can on the lead generation ladder? Do you have goals that you are chipping away at every day, reaching to the highest point of possible impact? Do not get lured into methods that promise more immediate results. At some point you need to get off that merry-go-round and start lifting your positioning upward instead of wearing a sandwich board on the street corner, hoping someone will take pity on your cries for work.

Do Low Impact Marketing While Waiting

Meanwhile, as you pursue the higher level marketing efforts that take time to yield results, are you backfilling with less effective but nevertheless necessary new business activity? One of the more effective tools we’ve seen is to carefully select a few dozen likely buyers and overnight them a package. Prospects aren’t as likely to throw those away, and it’s also easier to get past a gatekeeper: “May I speak with Liz? I sent her an overnight package that I’d like to follow-up on.”

Feedback Loop About Sources

Are you asking prospects how they came to you? There’s no better way to adjust your marketing plan on the fly than to emulate those results. Again, your best bet is to arm your referring sources with the right positioning language so that you don’t end up in a box that’s difficult to climb out of.

Internal Alignment

When we do a Total Business Review, each employee is asked about the firm’s positioning. If they can (without any significant pause) articulate a clear, consistent positioning statement, we are confident that there is a positioning, that it has been written into the DNA of the firm, and that there is a much larger sales force (all the employees) paddling in the same direction. 

Saying “No” to Opportunity

If you are any good at all, eventually you’ll have more opportunities that you can handle. Not choosing carefully between those opportunities is far more likely to harm you than the occasional opportunity that slips by because you say “no.” You need to say “no” to save your energy for the opportunities that are worth pursuing. Entrepreneurs, especially, have a hard time not pursuing any opportunity for learning and stimulation, but the successful ones are really choosy. Don’t let panic tempt you.


So, what’s your marketing chain look like? Is it in good shape? Are there a couple of weak links that could really use some help? Is there a great looking chain hanging from a weak positioning link at the top? Is the execution where it should be?

Best wishes as you control the things you can so that you don’t lose sleep over the things you can’t.

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