In selling to SMBs, first assess their marketing sophistication


When I find the time, I’m a fairly good woodworker. I’ve made a full set of oak raised panel kitchen cabinets, a spiral staircase out of wenge, the dark, African-sourced wood, and a few other things. I’ve assembled a pretty well-equiped workshop along the way.

Every once in a while, a well-meaning person will say something like “I could do that too if I had tools like that.” I just smile, though I’d like to say, “Do you really think you could take a pile of raw wood and turn it into a staircase?” That project involved hundreds of steps and techniques, each one gradually transitioning that pile of wood into a beautiful finished project. Each of those techniques was certainly helped by having the right tools—and my knowledge of which tool to use at the time—but the only reason the project took shape was because I had an overall plan for the finished product right from the start. 

Probably the most significant reason that small- to medium-businesses (SMB’s) churn from one vendor to another, jumping from one tactic to another, is that they rarely have an overall marketing strategy. They lack an overall plan to make all of those tactics add up to a successful outcome, a return on their marketing investment. This is the equivalent of just cutting wood, learning individual techniques, maybe even becoming an expert at a few of them. There’s zero chance you’re going to wind up with a chair or a table. 

Here’s an example that you’ve probably experienced. Ever try to get a big project done on your home, such as a roof replacement or major painting job? You call four or five companies and maybe get one returned call—if you’re lucky. Then you often have to be the one that keeps that conversation going. 

A pretty high percentage of these folks are good at “the thing”—roofing, painting or whatever—but they have no systems or processes for capturing or converting leads. They’re up on the roof all day, or driving around in their truck, and struggle to find the time to call people back.

A colleague of ours was working with a pest control company recently. They felt they weren’t seeing enough results from their marketing. Fortunately, our friend had set up call tracking. Overall, forty calls had been generated—yet only one was answered live. The owner’s spouse was responsible for taking the calls and she just couldn’t manage to answer before people hung up. 

So, let’s say your sales rep sits down with someone like this and they go through a needs assessment. The prospect agrees that mobile is very important and that he would probably benefit from more traffic to his website, because, well, who can’t use more traffic to their website? There’s about an 80% chance they have a “brochure” website. That site is all about them and their company, how long they’ve been in business, all that same old stuff. No valuable content to download, tips and tricks, things you should ask potential vendors. None of the kinds of things that engage a lead, and gives a reason to come back or connect. 

Based on what this SMB said they needed, you do several things. You help them improve the appearance of their site for mobile. You do some programmatic buying to get some quality traffic. But you can give them all the traffic possible—and if they don’t have a process to capture, follow up and convert leads, it’s not going to do them any good. To extend my wood-working metaphor, it’s just like buying the best tools and making perfect cuts doesn’t turn into furniture.  

Back in 1966, Gene Schwartz wrote a timeless book titled “Breakthrough Advertising.” His concept: There are five levels of market sophistication. Now, the implications of this go far beyond just advertising. Knowing the level of sophistication of your prospects is critical in all areas of communicating with them. We can blame the lack of marketing strategy on the clients if we’d like—but I think the root cause of the problem is that there is often a mismatch in the level of sophistication between the sales rep, the SMB and the tactics being offered. 

Before deciding to launch into a full-blown CNA (customer needs assessment, or however you choose to refer to it), I suggest you qualify their level of sophistication. More than anything else, this will determine the results they’re likely to get from whatever tactics you wind up prescribing. I suggest you start with three levels: escalate, educate or run. Briefly, you run from prospects that rarely invest in marketing. Resist the urge to just sell them something. Move on. 

You meet a mid-level marketer where they are—meaning that you match the tactics to their level of sophistication. If they have a weak website, or no website, do some review/reputation management, fix their listings in directories, claim their pages, etc. Don’t sell them traffic or impressions for now. It’s not going to generate demonstrable ROI. 

The fun starts when you identify a prospect you should escalate. You should have a minimum targeted investment level to trigger a full-blown CNA and subsequent marketing proposal. For some papers, this is $6,000, for others it’s $20,000. It all depends on your market and the level of resources you have. These people will be able to tell you keywords they are working on, and they might even have an AdWords budget or a lead conversion process in place. Again, lead with the strategy that’s going to best leverage their level of marketing sophistication—then prescribe the tactics that make that happen. 

There are dozens of competitors out there trying to sell digital tactics to your prospective clients. If you want to be the one that sticks, you need to be the one that starts with a strategy that’s going to drive a return on investment.