Business secrets SMEs can learn from global giants

A clear marketing strategy and ongoing sales and communication skills training are two areas Kiwi SMEs need to place greater priority on.
Ambrose Blowfield says it’s time to learn from the big multinationals.

I have always been fascinated by what makes a business not only survive but actually thrive. Not disregarding other key areas, two of the most significant areas that large global companies seem to focus on more consistently than SMEs are: a clear marketing strategy, plus ongoing sales and communication skills training.  
Some years back I was fortunate to join the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) global giant Proctor & Gamble (P&G). What was interesting was that after 160 years of trading, they still view ongoing planning and training as core business strategies. Similar to other multinationals, such as Nestlé, Mars and Colgate Palmolive, they believe that for the business to grow and develop the people within the business that make those decisions have to grow and develop too. Their view was that you cannot have one without the other. It’s not like they got to 160 years old, with a turnover into the tens of billions of dollars, thousands of workers, and they then said “Hey, maybe we should focus our marketing ideas into a plan as well as train our teams!”
I remember hearing that just 50 percent of small to medium businesses have a marketing plan. However, our observation from now having trained more than 5,000 businesses across ten countries, is that the real number is actually closer to five percent. The problem is that the vast majority of marketing plans never get looked after the first six months of business; they usually sit on a shelf gathering dust.
So what is a real Marketing Plan? A real marketing plan needs to be action-based, prioritized, ACTIVE and time specific.  
Most people who formally study marketing at university focus on what is called a ‘proposition’ based plan, focusing especially on the traditional four Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Promotion and Place (Distribution). Proposition items include things like the business’s USP (unique selling proposition), competitor advantage, market positioning, strategic brand positioning, and so on. What SMEs often want is a plan based on the “Communication” (promotion) side of marketing – i.e. focusing on things like advertising, public relations, e-commerce, social media, etc.  
Now, of course, many of you out there who are highly skilled in marketing will say that ideally a business should have an in-depth marketing plan that covers both the proposition and the communication side of marketing. You are absolutely correct. That said, the most common question our clients ask us is: ‘Where will I spend my money, how much money should I spend and in what areas?’ Hence we often see clients start with the Communication side of marketing first. Any action is better than no action.

Missed opportunities
One risk of not having a marketing plan is that you are at risk of missing opportunities, spending too much money, or spending too much time in the wrong areas. An effective marketing plan should allow you to save time, save money while increasing sales and profitability.  
We have also observed first-hand globally that people seem to implement far more of their plan if they have written the plan themselves. (This belief is what led us to create the Essential Marketing Boot Camp in 2009).
Another huge advantage of having a marketing plan is that it allows you to make better decisions year on year on year. At year end you can ask yourself the critical questions: ‘what should I do more of and what should I do less of next year?’

Sales and communication training
On the subject of sales and communication training, I remember that despite being one of 20 graduate applicants who were taken on board from over 3000 applicants at P&G UK, the company view was that they needed to invest well over double my first year salary into me in the form of practical training and coaching support. After more than 160 years, you have to assume that there is method to the madness! To P&G, and others who like to emulate them, training, put simply, works. As such they set clear yearly training budgets per team, something most SMEs never do.
Unfortunately many SMEs seem to be quite happy spending more than $40,000 on a new salesperson, but are not prepared to spend say $5000 on training to ensure that person performs at their peak. Many global companies can spend even more than someone’s first year wages on their skills development to ensure their success. I guess it is insurance in a more proactive form.  Billion dollar companies around the world did not get big simply by employing more people. They got big by developing the very people they started with so they could themselves manage more people, make bigger decisions and therefore grow the company.  
As Ken Blanchard observed in his marvelously universal management book The One Minute Manager (a recommended read), most businesses spend more each year on maintaining their computers, equipment and buildings, than they do on maintaining their people. Despite this, many businesses still claim that their people are a key competitive advantage. Unfortunately their investment of money and time rarely reflects this.
A common argument given by a SME business owner is: ‘What if I train my staff member and they decide to leave me?’ Our response to that is: ‘But what if you choose not to train them, and they decided to stay?’
The key message I want Kiwi business owners and managers to learn is that any training is a step in the right direction. It will allow you to benefit like the global giants do.
Equally, don’t leave your marketing to chance: have a set written marketing plan to follow.
I challenge you to take action now: attend that talk, attend that workshop, download that e-book, read that newsletter, attend a networking function and share ideas, or as the wise Mahatma Gandhi once said ‘You should live each day as though it will be your last, but you should learn as if you will live forever’.  

Ambrose Blowfield, is director of The Marketing Company. Visit or call 0800 427 627 with any questions anytime.

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