As a marketing specialist, I've been leading Six & Flow's growth strategy team for several years. During this time I've implemented numerous marketing campaigns for a variety of boutique and household name brands.
And while every strategy has been different, producing so many has given both myself and Six & Flow a keen insight into what all clients can do to grow their business, regardless of the various challenges unique to them.
What I often say to clients is that whilst humans are unique, societies and situations often influence and bend us into familiar patterns and groups. This is the same for strategies. Our experience has given the team insight into the wider patterns currently influencing and bending organisations.
I wrote this piece to explore what these patterns are and also explain some of the actions they have influenced in our internal approaches. We also believe the world is a better place if we all share information. So here are my top four ‘insider’ tips you can start using today to grow your business.
1) Challenge gender imbalances in the B2B space to increase your scope
For each workshop we do we have a formula that has a skeleton structure but uses a lot of guided questioning to gain qualitative insights from the sales people. Before we look at the data (if there is data to look at) we want as much information from the sales and marketing teams on what they sell and to who. After a few questions around the Ideal customer we move on to who they interact within these companies. We normally will ask 2 base questions:
- What age is this person?
- What is the gender split in this role?
Nearly 95% of B2B companies give a similar answer 30-55, predominantly white males. This comes in a few forms “Our buyers normally have a technical job; so yea, mainly blokes” or “The best ones are actually Women ...but the majority are men.”. I’m not judging these individuals or even the companies giving the answers as they are giving genuine feedback based on their experience of selling; but this seemingly homogeneous group targeting does throw up a few questions.
1. By only targeting this particular group are we entrenching patriarchal structures that prevent the inclusion of women and minorities in B2B enterprises?
2. If the belief is that the personas are predominately male; and the target personas form the basis of all marketing activity and sales activity; are companies missing out on large swathes of potential customers? By only targeting men (and a certain type of man) are B2B companies only creating messaging and experiences that isn’t relative to other consumers.
In B2C companies, the male-centric approach is giving way with Hallmark brands such as Adidas and Lynx approaching gender in different ways (and seeing the benefits in revenue. However, in the B2B world we seem stuck in the belief that “only old white men do business.”
We see this in the creative side of design, to the point where it’s incredibly difficult to find imagery of anyone other than an old, white male in a setting that lends gravitas and power. Women and people of colour tend to be represented as youthful and up-and-coming but rarely leading in powerful positions. Yet this does not reflect reality.
We have Sheryl Sandberg, who is arguably one of the most powerful tech professionals in the world, Ian Spalter, the mixed race head of design at Instagram whose work is seen by billions each day, and Elaine Welteroth, editor of teen vogue and a woman of colour in her early 30s.
By focusing on a singular group, you limit the scope of any sales or marketing strategy. As we get better at distributing power fairly, we need to think carefully about the choices we make to ensure we are addressing the B2B audience in its entirety. This means thinking beyond men in suits.
My belief is that in our workshops we should be removing gender entirely from our questioning, and basing personas only on behavioural traits.
Traits may be influenced by age, ethnicity and gender; but traits are not intrinsic to them. By creating content that focused on helping people with a “problem and solution model” only focussing on traits we can be more inclusive in our language and tone in reaching more of the audience not just one homogenous group.
Now the audience will normally assign gender pretty quickly based on prior experience and bias so this may seem futile. However, by giving teams a different perspective, removing gender and ethnicity without challenging their beliefs of ideal buyer traits, you may help them to see the bigger picture, which is the real aim of any growth strategy.
2) Don't ignore your data
Many organisations struggle to be both objective and pragmatic when it comes to their marketing and sales data.
Six & Flow speak to a lot of business whose main reason for lack of growth results from a disconcerting disconnect between what they believe their brand is and how they execute their ideas.
This is something we call 'execution delusion' and it takes many forms: flashy emails where the imagery is on-brand but it’s too big to make it through spam filters; sales teams focussing on 'big deals' and thus missing out on smaller important clients; luxury products marketed to the wrong demographics, the list goes on.
As Francis Bacon once said, "hope makes a good breakfast but a bad supper." it’s great to believe in something, but belief must always be rooted in fact if it is to serve a purpose.
Brands can easily forget this and then spend a lot of time trying to build on shaky foundations. It’s not enough to simply believe in your marketing strategy, sales process or customer intent. For example, if your sales data consistently says your product is bought by SME organisations when you're specifically aiming it at Enterprise outfits, then you need to listen and reason why. You may believe in your growth strategy, but is your data telling you different?
However, that being said realism doesn’t need to kill your dreams. I wouldn’t want to be the fool who told Ali he could never be world champ or Messi he was too small to play professionally; but belief needs to have something behind it. If your dream is to target enterprise organisations, then look at what the data is showing you and what is transferable to those larger organisations. Use your data to show you where you can impact and then test the hell out of improving that.
Now, this puts Six & Flow in a difficult position: it assumes we have all the answers. But we don't. Although we do know nobody else does, either. However, we do know this: when building a growth strategy for any new client, our approach is always the same - we first examine the data and then base all future marketing activities accordingly (whatever it says).
One of the biggest struggles for a marketing agency like Six & Flow is trying to convince project stakeholders that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...you know the rest.
We often find ourselves trying to show customers the disconnect between their idea of what they do and the reality of their customer base. Delivering an effective marketing strategy and maintaining an ongoing relationship is difficult when trying to reason a believer out of a position they haven't reasoned themselves. So it’s a good job we're both thick-skinned and dedicated to getting our clients results (even if they don't always want to hear what we have to say).
To solve this problem, we ensure all the key information we need to move forward, such as past sales figures, current conversion rates, deal conversion timelines, etc. is collected by the company before any workshop. Then, when we've collated what we need, we present it back to the client (warts and all) to ensure all future decisions are always rooted in fact in a bid to push clients past 'belief' driven strategy.
We also revisit this data quarterly. Why?
The world is in constant flux and the sands on which we stand consistently shift beneath our feet. If you want to stay relevant, you have to make sure your data points are relevant. If you're not reviewing data regularly and acting accordingly then your business WILL suffer.
Modern technology, especially modern computing, has revolutionised the way we do business. But it's not the answer to every problem.
Time again we see clients pouring endless resources into custom technology solutions attempting to achieve the perfect outcome. But, as all know, perfect is hard to come by. My technology teacher used to say:
“They only needed one nail to hang the Mona Lisa.”
What he meant was a simple and cheap solution can help to underpin something much greater you just need to put it in the right place.
We often see companies seduced by the bells and whistles of a high scale technology solution driven by A.I. Blah Blah blah ...when they really just need some small-scale (but consistent) automations adding to their current process.
A problem we also see regularly is companies throwing money at new tech when the real problem is that they haven't identified the true friction points in their process. There isn't a CRM system built capable of fixing basic friction points such as selling to the wrong prospects or trying to close deals where the product or service doesn’t solve the customer's problem.
Instead of throwing tech at problems, we have found most companies would better benefit from trying to fix the basics: they should take more time to see if their site, processes and sellers are ensuring the customer is happy, informed, and confident in their purchase.
However, if companies are doing this, but are still not achieving results, then, by all means, we advise introducing relevant technology on a sliding scale suitable to the problem.
Remember! Technology shouldn't be used to circumvent problems an honest conversation can solve.
4) Transformation requires buy-in from everybody
Change is hard, we get that. We're all creatures of habit. But one of the biggest blockers to successful business transformation is a lack of buy-in from stakeholders: company-wide adoption is integral to real change.
Six & Flow are experts in growing businesses by remodelling their business strategies. But it's difficult even for the likes of us - people who work in business transformation every day - when we have to tell intelligent, hardworking and experienced people they need to change.
Whenever we engage a new client, we always say one thing to management: the onus to change is on you. If management lead, others will follow. A good growth strategy accounts for this and applies the idea to ensure company-wide adoption.
But what’s the best approach?
First, speak to all staff exposed to the upcoming strategy and find out about what needs to change and where in your business. These people matter the most when trying to implement any form of top-down transformation. These are the people who will give you key insights into potential friction points when implementing a new policy.
Second, identify not only the decision-makers within your company but also the 'doers', those who never need to be told, those who lead from the front by action. Every company has this employee - the pro-active go-getters who aren’t afraid of innovation and will motivate change from within. This person will be your champion and should be the conduit through which you implement your growth strategy.
Once you have friendship and buy-in, you need to select and empower your champions. Humans get jealous and inquisitive very easily and with the process of creating a champion, you’re going to use this jealously positively. For example, there may be doubts in the wider sales team about the new strategy, but when they see Sarah from sales doubling her targets and leaving on time each day they will soon begin to wonder what’s going on. Soon the other staff will discover that Sarah was the Beta test user of your automation strategy and she barely has to write emails anymore, she now focuses on selling, empowered using the processes and technology you have implemented. Once they see this, they will all want to get their hands on the new stuff.
A common misconception that a “champion” is simply a user who is happy to advocate for something. And that’s part of it. But what you want to achieve from your champions is something a little less tangible. It’s not just someone who is following your growth strategy, it’s someone who is fully integrated and willing to stake their own reputation on the benefits of it. If you can spend time empowering this person then they will always lead you to greater successes.
Creating a great growth strategy is hard but not impossible
Business transformation is hard. Every business is unique and each is exposed to a multitude of both unforeseen externalities and internal friction points capable of suffocating growth.
But, if you accept your customer base may not just be middle-aged, white men; if you pay attention to what your data is really telling you; accept technology isn't always the answer, and if you empower your staff to change by leading from the front, then I promise your business can grow.