Most Canadian small businesses fail within their first five years, research indicates.
While reasons for failure are wide and varied, ineffective marketing often has a lot to do with it.
But marketing need not be a “hit and miss” exercise, experts point out. Technology tools available today, they say, can be used to infuse a new precision and power into marketing campaigns.
Technology is transforming marketing into a science, according to Bob Carroll, program coordinator and professor at the School of Marketing and E-Business at Seneca College in Toronto.
Carroll is presenting two sessions on effective branding, marketing and sales management techniques at The Business Point Program (BPP), a seven-session business management seminar being hosted by Innovation Synergy Center in Markham (ISCM).
This educational seminar is especially targeted at owners and managers of small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) that are less than five years old.
To what extent should SMBs use technology to drive marketing initiatives?
The answer depends less on the size of the business and more on the number of customers they are looking to serve, Carroll suggested. So as a first step he recommends creating an accurate list of customers. The next thing is to look at customer profiles and contact history.
You may do these steps with elaborate tools or a just use a binder, he said. It would depend on the size of your business and customer base.
There’s a range of tools that help you capture, store and analyze customer data, noted Donna Geary, a professor at Seneca’s School of Marketing and E-Business.
But the critical piece, she said, is knowing how to find and use them.
For example, she said, people are rushing out to do customer surveys using tools such as Survey Monkey, but when seeking to collect good information, half the battle is knowing how to ask the right questions.
And you can’t ask the right questions unless you’ve first done a thorough analysis of how you relate to competitors and where you can differentiate yourself, Geary said.
She said a SWAT analysis – determining strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – is something every start-up, or company developing a marketing plan should do.
Tools are available through Industry Canada, she said, but it’s good to be coached through the process because so much information comes out that it can be mind-boggling to analyze the results.
The Business Point Program helps participants to “put wheels on the plan,” she said.
During her presentations at the Program, Geary will discuss where to get started, how to create a value statement, and how to differentiate oneself from the competition.
“It’s so competitive out there. Just figuring out where to start is the first step.”
The trend today is to use technology to measure the effect of marketing actions, according to Caroll. “If it isn’t absolutely measurable, it’s becoming pretty old as a marketing technique.”
Traditional techniques continue to work for some niche companies.
For instance, keeping existing clients happy and asking for referrals can be the “lowest hanging fruit,” as SIMMS, a Toronto-based developer of medical imaging software discovered.
Nikolai Bratkovski, the firm’s chief technology officer, plans on attending ISCM’s program for three reasons – as a networking opportunity, to improve his marketing skills and sales techniques and to receive an “A to Z refresher” on how to start and run a business for an upcoming venture.
SIMMS sells software-as-a-service and uses the same model inside the office. “We don’t have any paper. Everything is digital and online,” Bratkovski said.
He said when the company tried to implement an open-source customer relationship management application, it didn’t work. SIMMS is a small business, Bratkovski said, so everything can be done with regular online documents.
“Instead of going with full-blown CRM where you have to take 500 steps to put in one potential customer, we use Excel sheets and <a href="https://www.google.com/accounts/ServiceLogin?service=writely&passive=true&nui=1&continue=http://docs.google.com/&followup=http://docs.google.com/Google Docs, which can be edited, updated and viewed by anyone.”
For some firms – when it comes to customer relations it’s the human and business values – such as commitment, delivering on promises and empowering frontline employees, that get you the best results.
This is the experience of Fusion Homes, the southwestern Ontario building company that won Tarion’s Award of Excellence in 2008 for outstanding customer service.
If your client has an issue or asks for something, allow your people to make a decision on the front line rather than go back and ask permission to do something, said president Lee Picolli.
He said making everything as convenient as possible for the client is another technique his company uses.
Picolli calls it “mass intimacy.”
“Our clients – from the time they sign the deal until the time the house closes – go to the same person for everything, any questions, concerns, or anything they need to schedule.”
He said internally, technology is vital to the company.
With roughly 40 employees spread across the head office and various sales and construction locations, sharing information is extremely important, noted Picolli.
Fusion, he said, runs a virtual private network so “everyone works on the same set of data” – whether it’s client information, plans, specs, sales information.
But a system has to work on paper before you can automate it with IT, said Picolli. “I think a lot of companies look to IT to solve their problems…it will as long as it works on paper first.”
He suggested looking at IT as a multiplier. “If the base is strong, IT will help take it to the next level. But if the base is not fundamentally and materially solid, it might not help. It might make things more confusing and worse in the long run.”