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The Cost-Cutter’s Guide to Growth

Five Tips for Building Growth Muscles in a Weak Economy

Dan Adams

Warren Buffett famously said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful.” And you’d love nothing more than to be that kind of long-term thinker, willing to invest in the future when others are running for cover. Of course, Buffett has his $60-billion fortune to cushion the risks associated with his maverick tendencies. You, on the other hand, are saddled with a shortage of cash and a coterie of colleagues who believe the right response to the slow-to-fully-recover economy is to stay hunkered down, slash costs to the bone, and wait for the storm to pass. What’s a frustrated would-be business-grower to do?

“You can aim for growth in a sluggish economy,” says Dan Adams, president of Advanced Industrial Marketing and author of New Product Blueprinting: The Handbook for B2B Organic Growth (AIM Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-9801123-4-4, $35.00). “In fact, now is the perfect time to do so, because your competitors are probably still distracted by the problems brought on by said economy. You just need to consider alternate (read: cheaper) ways of going about it.

“If you’re trying to grow your business-to-business company these days using old, costly, inefficient methods, you’re probably doomed to failure,” he warns. “The good news is you don’t have to go that route. You’ve probably tightened up other areas of your operation since the economy went south—and you can do the same with your growth efforts.”
Here are five small-budget growth ideas you can use right now:

Tip No. 1: Find out what your customers really want—not what you want them to want. Profitable, sustainable organic growth starts when you have a deeper understanding of customers’ needs than your competitors. If someone tells you otherwise, be careful: They might be misguided in other areas as well.

“When my clients begin using advanced methods to interview customers, they are usually surprised by what customers want,” says Adams. “This means they had been planning on developing a product that interested them, not their customers. No wonder the average hit rate for products under development is 1 in 4! Companies are not using the right techniques to unearth true customer wants and needs. But no one can afford to introduce failed products these days.”

Tip No. 2: Conduct customer interviews remotely. (It’s more effective than you think.) Jetting around to interview customers is understandably unpopular when travel restrictions are all the rage and airfare is sky high. Consider the web conference-based customer interview, using a service such as Live Meeting, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. It may not be quite as effective as a face-to-face interview, but it is better than no interview at all.

“Actually, there are some benefits to interviewing customers remotely,” explains Adams. “For example, you can have more people ‘from your side’ in remote customer interviews than is comfortable or practical in a face-to-face interview. And if the customer’s key buying influences—manufacturing, technical, marketing, and so forth—are located in different facilities, it’s much easier to have them all ‘at the meeting.’”

Tip No. 3: Get everyone listening to the voice of the customer. Some large firms keep a small staff of highly trained VOC (voice of the customer) experts poised for action. These folks parachute into a project as dawn streaks the morning sky, interview your customers for you, and hand you a report of “what the customer wants.” This is a flawed model. Most businesses chalk up thousands of face-to-face customer meetings during the course of a year, as sales reps, technical service reps, and others go about their normal duties—so why not train these people to become VOC experts?

“They’ve already gained the customer’s trust, they know the customer’s language, and there’s no extra travel cost,” notes Adams. “Best of all, you’ll develop a reputation among customers as ‘that supplier who really listens to us.’ Now that’s how to protect today and position for tomorrow. So keep that handful of experts…but let them become trainers and coaches for the masses, not primary interviewers.”

Tip No. 4: Use OPK (other people’s knowledge). Adams explains that he has a lot of very smart clients, yet many are stuck in the past in important areas. Why? “There are two reasons,” explains Adams. “First, more work is being required of fewer employees. Most of us want two things out of our jobs—to contribute and to learn—but in today’s pressure cooker, there is little time to learn and apply fresh thinking. Second, useful knowledge is exploding. Each year, mankind generates enough new information to fill half-a-million Libraries of Congress. Who can keep up?”

Fortunately, adds Adams, we harried businesspeople have access to exciting new tools to help us process and use the information. Let’s say you want to get better at a growth practice such as consultative selling, acquisition integration, or product launch. You can learn a lot using three approaches:

  1. Search for books on Adams says he buys over 100 a year and is amazed at the brilliant thinking he can access for a pittance.
  2. Google for subject matter experts. Many will gladly share their knowledge—via white paper or web conference—in hopes that you’ll become a client.
  3. Tap into associations such as and for great benchmarking and shared learning.

Tip No. 5: Bring your training in-house. How many announcements do you get per week for conferences in San Diego or Orlando? These conferences are at the “intersection of interest” for three parties: 1) revenue for the hosting organization, 2) publicity for sponsoring vendors, and 3) learning for attendees—in a pleasant environment.

“In some cases, the attendee returns to your company, shares what she learned with colleagues, and things change for the better,” says Adams. “More often, though, the conference materials stay stuffed in a bag and nothing changes. That’s too bad, because these affairs often cost $3,000 to $5,000 per person with travel costs.

“Compare that to private, in-house training, where the trainer comes to you. This may cost $1,000 to $2,000 per person. But beyond lower costs, there are big advantages. One, the training can be customized for your company and industry. Two, everyone learns the same new language and methods at the same time, which greatly improves implementation. Three, the business leader can hold attendees accountable and drive change with a solid post-workshop follow-up plan.”

“Here’s the best part about aggressively moving forward with your small-budget growth plans,” says Adams. “Your competitors probably won’t do the same. So when the economy is in full swing again, you’ll be ahead of them by leaps and bounds.

“Yes, there is a lot of economic stress now, but we can say with confidence that things will get better,” he concludes. “They always do. So while your competitors are completely immersed in handwringing, why not focus some percentage of your energy on the coming upturn? Thinking in new ways may do more for your future growth than spending-as-usual would have.”

Dan Adams, president of Advanced Industrial Marketing Inc., is author of New Product Blueprinting: The Handbook for B2B Organic Growth (AIM Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-9801123-4-4, $35.00). In over 30 years of working within and with major B2B corporations, he has explored every aspect of product development, building New Product Blueprinting from the ground up. The book is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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