Susan Mucha
Aligning the three components of the sales process starts with a review of the business strategy.

In niche industries such as electronics manufacturing services, there is often confusion about activities associated with attracting and winning customers. I thought it might be interesting to look at the differences and the interrelationships among three terms often used interchangeably: branding, marketing and selling.

Branding is ultimately the most important term to understand. While the term “branding” is thrown around a lot in relation to everything from logo design to advertising campaigns, the reality is that a company’s brand is determined by its customers. Their experiences and what they tell others about that experience makes up the brand. Ultimately, that means branding is more determined by a company’s business model, track record in solving customer challenges, and expertise of personnel and internal commitment to flawless customer service than anything going on in its marketing department.

Consequently, business strategy needs to align closely with marketing strategy if the goal is to achieve maximum return on marketing dollars spent. That is a two-way street. Customers will only become brand evangelists if they feel the company exceeds their expectations. Simply meeting the same competitive price, delivery and quality metrics achieved by competitors doesn’t leave much to talk about. The business strategy should focus on developing elements of competitive advantage tied to challenges that keep customers up at night. Consequently, business strategy and marketing should be closely aligned.

Want to improve your brand? Look first to operational strategy. Consider making a list of customer satisfiers and dissatisfiers in the way your key processes are structured. Then, ask whether the processes driving the bulk of dissatisfaction can be modified in ways that eliminate the issue that is driving that dissatisfaction. For example, some EMS companies have one standard process for documenting and validating new production. Others have a streamlined process for early stage or one-off prototypes and a more complex process for projects, regardless of volume, that are likely to evolve into volume production. Even in the most flexible EMS companies, not all dissatisfiers can be changed. In those cases, documenting the valid business reasons for having the process can be helpful. While experienced personnel can likely make the business case for why a process needs to be structured in ways a customer initially considers too complex, newer program managers or salespeople may not. This type of in-depth analysis can generate sales and negotiating tools that improve the overall performance of sales and program management. Such analysis can also uncover process elements that drive the highest level of customer satisfaction and areas where a company may be outperforming its competition. Focusing on these areas in marketing efforts can generate better results than focusing on a less differentiated message.

So, if marketing isn’t branding, what is it? Ideally, marketing activities should do two things: position a brand and increase market awareness. A good marketing campaign force multiplies the word of mouth generated by customers. It can help position a brand by reinforcing assumptions the market is already making or by sending new messages that make customers look a little more closely about their perceptions of your brand. However, if that new messaging is not validated by customer experience, it won’t achieve its brand positioning goals. The other goal of a good marketing program is to increase the number of people aware of a company and what makes it different.

Marketing activities take many forms and, collectively, do contribute to brand positioning. That said, good marketing requires substantial investment. For example, the average person must see a message three to seven times before even remembering they’ve seen it. In short, achieving brand positioning goals and increasing awareness of your company within its target market means continuously sending out a repetitive message. This can be done through a combination of lower- and higher-cost activities, such as public relations, advertising, trade shows and networking via the social media outlets favored by your target market, but there should be a strategy that carefully defines messages and clusters market exposure to those messages. Simply running an ad once in a while or showing up at a trade show with no preshow promotion dilutes results.

Selling is also a term incorrectly used interchangeably with marketing. A salesperson is not automatically a great marketer. In fact, the best salespeople are often bad at marketing because they prefer the intense activity associated with closing sales to the more strategic focus of developing and executing a good marketing plan. Even when a salesperson is equally balanced in sales and marketing skills, the combination of long hours traveling and closing accounts dilutes the focus needed to develop and execute a strong marketing plan.

Readers with an engineering background will look at the last few paragraphs and think the most cost-effective path is likely focusing on operations strategy and letting customer word-of-mouth and a few great salespeople attract new accounts. In the ’80s, when there were far fewer EMS providers, that wasn’t a bad strategy. Today, the market is simply too competitive, and cost pressures don’t favor a company hiring a large sales staff. Additionally, the pool of manufacturer’s reps willing to represent EMS companies is shrinking since repping an EMS provider in many cases puts them in competition with their EMS customer base for other principals.  

What is the benefit of spending money on marketing? The short answer is that it saves money. While there are some cluster zones of electronics manufacturing, for most EMS companies the target market involves some traveling to win accounts. Sales time isn’t inexpensive in this industry, and when airfare or automotive expense is added to a sales call, companies are easily looking at $1500 to $2000 per visit. The question to ask is, “How much time do you want your sales team spending trying to get into accounts that don’t know your company well?” A good marketing program combined with a strong differentiated brand enables a sales team to focus on accounts with strong interest in a brand they perceive is exceptional.

A good marketing program also gives a sales team the tools they need to reinforce the points they make in the sales call. However, the best marketing material in the world won’t undo the damage that can occur if that messaging isn’t supported by a strong plant tour or the expected level of staff expertise. In short, the “walk” and “talk” have to reinforce each other. Too little promotion and a company languishes as a best-kept secret. Promote a “talk” that doesn’t align with the actual customer experience and the company becomes an industry joke.

In the EMS industry, the brand is the customer experience. Marketing activities simply help force-multiply that word of mouth and enable the sales team to focus their time on accounts most likely to be won. Achieving optimum return on investment of sales and marketing dollars spent requires business, marketing and sales strategies to be closely aligned.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (powell-muchaconsulting.com), a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies, and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Service; smucha@powell-muchaconsulting.com.

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