Why better sales and marketing probably isn’t the answer

Most businesses – from logistics companies to IT consulting firms – believe that sales and marketing will be the magic bullet to all their problems. If they could just sell more stuff, all their other headaches would drift away.

Nonsense. If they have other problems in the business, selling lots more stuff will simply add fuel to the fire.

There are foundations that must be laid before scaling your sales and marketing, and for me, this is where it needs to begin:
– Clarity over the company’s core competence
– Clarity over the company’s position
– Clarity over the company’s product definition

Failure to address the above before launching aggressive communications or sales strategies is a bit like sticking Lewis Hamilton in a state of the art Formula 1 car and then removing the steering wheel. You can expect something spectacular to unfold but it’s unlikely be pretty.

It’s about doing things in the right sequence. I always imagine it like an egg timer with multiple bottlenecks that each get a little larger as they descend. The first and the most narrow of these bottlenecks is the clarity of the company’s core competence followed by its position and then followed by the product definition, so it doesn’t matter how much you widen the ones beneath it (culture, systems, marketing, etc), the sand isn’t going to get to the bottom any faster until you address those at the top.


Core competence

In simple terms, your core competence is the thing that sits at the intersection of the following:
– The thing you’re really good at
– That’s really important to your customer
– That’s largely neglected by your competitors

Sometimes this one thing is literally just one thing. So perhaps you’re a hardware company, for example, that develops one very particular kind of hardware solving one very particular problem. If so, fantastic, but that doesn’t work for every business, particularly those in busy markets, so instead you may need to pull two or three things together.

I always illustrate this with a conversation I had about 5 years ago with my cousin. At the time he was in his early 30s and already hugely successful within his field of medicine, having been featured in just about every major newspaper as well as The Lancet and New England Medical Journal. I asked him if he put this down to anything beyond hard work. He replied “Dan, I’m not the world’s greatest academic. And I’m certainly not the world’s greatest surgeon. What sets me apart is that I’m pretty good at both. I walk into a room full of academics and they all think it’s unbelievably cool that I’ve spent the day getting my hands messy in surgery. And then I walk into a room full of surgeons and they all think I’m some kind of supernerd because I’m writing code and contributing to exciting new academic studies. It’s this ability to talk both languages and bridge the gap that distinguishes me from others.”

Exactly the same is true in business:
– The accountant who combines deep technical expertise with high level business and finance strategy.
– The software company that combines some extensive functionality with great user experience
– The marketer who combines rich brand expertise with technical and analytical insight

Whether it’s one thing or the marriage of two or three things, few companies ever answer this question which is why few ever progress beyond resounding mediocrity.



Brand position essentially just means – what you do and who you do it for.

Well we’ve already answered the first part with our core competence, so the next question is – who are we doing it for?

This issue of audience is just as important as what’s actually being sold. The lawyer who is also a technology enthusiast and speaks at technology conferences. She may not be the best lawyer, but she’s in a league of her own in the technology sector. The software vendor that has 30 years experience of solving problems for HR departments. There may be competitors out there developing better software, but do they have the same insight into the challenges faced by an HR department? Perhaps more importantly, do they have the trust and relationships with heads of HR, or are they completely unknown to these buyers?

Again, if you’re operating in a really competitive market, narrowing your position to focus on a very tight customer universe is likely to be really important.


Product definition

Once we have our core competence and position neatly defined, it’s time to establish how exactly this translates into a set of products. And to be clear, when I say product, I include services in that. In fact, the distinction between products and services is becoming looser every day, as service companies seek to “productise” their offerings and product companies wrap their products in layers of service.

Each product must tie in closely with your core competencies. Those that don’t must be eliminated from your offering. This is the part that separates the best from the rest. How brave can you be in tightly defining your products and saying no to those customer requests that fall outside your areas of core competence? Most businesses are simply incapable of turning away customers, which is why so few (particularly B2B organisations) have a really neatly defined offering.

So, going back to our earlier example of the accountancy firm that combines deep technical expertise with high level financial strategy, their products may include:

– R&D tax credits
– Audits

– An outsourced FD offering
– A business plan writing service
– A quarterly strategy review

But if someone walks through the door and asks for bookkeeping, the answer should be no.

That’s not to say that the accountants wouldn’t help to find another solution – perhaps there’s a great freelance bookkeeper based locally they can refer the customer to – but if it’s not within their core competence, they must not take it on. It will attract the wrong clients, undermine their core competence and harm the customer experience.


And finally comes sales and marketing

The above does still not guarantee a successful and scalable business. There are lots of other things that, if absent or broken, could still bring everything tumbling down (having the right senior leadership team, a strong culture of execution, robust processes for recruitment and training, etc) but what the above will guarantee is clarity of message so that all communications you now project (whether via a brochure or a tweet) will be developing your brand as one coherent, long term and ever growing asset.


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