Too Many Houses Are Us

Most businesses face unforeseen circumstances while in pursuit of their sales and other goals. The way these situations are handled will quite often determine the degree to which the company’s efforts are successful. A useful method to see what others have tried and what principles we can learn from their experience is the case study. When your business produces products, it creates inventory. When the inventory is too large for the demand, it becomes a problem. Let’s take a look:

A speculative home builder on the West Coast discovered to his chagrin that the market in his local area was inundated with homes very similar in style and price to those he was building in large numbers. There was both a general glut, and a specific one related to this company. As his lender began to point out, an inventory level that has escalated out of control presents severe cash flow problems among a variety of other concerns. The lender was also quick to point out that the builder was in jeopardy of defaulting on construction loan interest payments a couple of months down the road if he did not begin selling some of his inventory–and soon.

How could this builder (and others in a similar situation) end this problem of increasing inventory? First, the problem can normally be attributed to one or more of the following factors:

  • an overbuilt market in the builder’s product offering
  • incorrect, incomplete, or absent market research
  • an inability to revise product in terms of plans, elevations, and prices to meet buyer demands.

Once a builder has determined the existence of increasing inventory levels–and their cause–it is time to stabilize the situation. Selling off an old unit for every new unit constructed is a bare minimum requirement. It is not wise to continue building simply to try to fund aging inventory interest payments out of new construction loan draws. As older homes are sold, new construction can be considered. Due consideration includes understanding the problems that led to former inventory level increases well enough to avoid the same errors in the future.

In addition, an inventory reduction plan should be initiated immediately, making sure to target the oldest inventory with the worst gross margins first in any type of incentive offer. The use of incentives can be gradually lessened as the builder moves through the oldest inventory into newer inventory with better margins. Sales staff can be of great help in determining what may help to move homes. If qualified buyers are hard to come by, it may be advantageous to work with local mortgage lenders and offer a program for qualifying buyers at lower monthly payment levels in the early years of a home purchase. Also, it is always helpful to walk all inventory and make lists of all items that need to be repaired, replaced, or cleaned up.

Finally, a builder can prevent uncontrolled increases in inventory levels by performing more careful, thoughtful research, making revisions to product as soon as buyer tastes are known to have changed, and offering ongoing, automatic incentives for aging inventory to be sold. It is often helpful to “re-research” current projects to make sure that the original research findings remain valid and informative. Periodic product updates and revisions are necessary even in a stable, conservative market. Buyers are always looking for small things that make one home purchase better than another. By catering to buyers’ particular tastes and requests, a builder can offer a better home and still make money.

Even if you are not in the homebuilding business, but in some other business that has inventory, these principles are important to observe. Think through ways to reduce inventories–better yet how to prevent them from ever becoming a problem!

Locating the Buyer Need

Is your organization in the habit of finding unresolved problems? If not, chances are high that you are currently–or will be soon–losing market share to more nimble competitors who are “tuned in” to buyer habits and frustrations. Many industries suffer from the slow and steady move to products and services that have largely become commoditized. Once your offering is viewed as a commodity, you are no longer competing on value; the playing field is reduced to price only (or at least as a primary decision criteria.)

One of the categories that suffered this fate about 15 to 20 years ago was televisions. Appliance stores (as opposed to the modern day consumer electronics big box specialty retailer or boutique provider) were where people shopped. When looking for a TV, most consumers would walk down the aisles of sets in their beautiful shades of grey or black. Sales staff may follow or approach and offer to explain or demonstrate features of a model you may have paused near. Most buyers, however, came in to the store armed with some knowledge about prices or consumer ratings and were planning to buy a certain model…until they came across a TV with a sticker that asked the simple question, “Ever lose your remote control?”

How did Magnavox determine that the Remote Locator function (in which pressing the power button causes the lost remote to beep several times) was a missing ingredient in the TV viewing experience of many viewers? Did they simply ask, “What problems do you have with your current TV?” No; instead, they asked penetrating questions about how the TV fit into the lives of consumers. They looked at family dynamics and how TV viewing paralleled relationships with other daily activities. What they discovered was that 80 percent of Americans admitted to losing the remote control; over half of the viewers lost their remote more than five times per week. Inanimate objects like sofas, pantries, and refrigerators swallowed up the devices when the owner wasn’t watching!

The typical consumer may never have offered up that losing the remote was a problem associated with TV viewing. The TV manufacturers were not responsible for the loss of the remote (though family members and friends were certainly thought to be culprits!) Yet, when asked if the loss of remote was a problem, most readily agreed that it was.

Note that the technology used in the Locator was not novel or cutting edge. But, Magnavox had created a temporary competitive advantage among buyers of TVs for whom keeping track of the remote control was now seen as a problem that technology could solve. While some may argue that the company was fortuitous in “stumbling upon” this idea, in fact, it was very deliberately planned.

Magnavox published survey data to validate the problem. Some of the key findings included:

  • 55 percent of respondents admitted losing the remote control 5+ times/week.
  • Of those who lost the remotes, 63% said that their average search to regain the device was about 5 minutes.
  • The remote was most likely to show up in/under a piece of furniture (38 percent), in the kitchen or bathroom (20 percent), or in the refrigerator (6%)

What was the process of discovery and meeting a previously unstated need?

  1. Magnavox tuned in to a problem that TV buyers really had.
  2. They created a product experience to solve it.
  3. They shared the powerful idea with the market. (Through survey results)
  4. They communicated to the market in ways the target audience wanted to hear.

Instead of taking a traditional, worn-out R&D approach, consider changing how your company develops and commercializes product ideas. Send team members out to collect data that can drive design, packaging, messaging and other aspects of product positioning. You will be better off for the new approach!

Don’t Mess With…the Customer Perspective

A deep understanding of your target audience is the only way to create ideas that resonate and break through the noise of modern life. Being able to connect authentically and directly to a buyer persona’s culture is an effort in alignment. Alignment is not just for vehicles–it is critical to business success! When people begin to see your product or service as a part of their identity, then you have built a connection with stickiness to it!

Keep America Beautiful launched a campaign years ago aimed at deterring littering. In it, an actor made to look like an Indian cries when he sees trash detracting from an otherwise majestic scene. While an emotional memory was built through the public service announcement, a cultural connection was not formed and very few behaviors were changed. Littering is still a problem today. (In fact, one of the things that irks many are cigarette butts all over the ground, thrown out car windows, and piled up at entrances to office buildings.) Why smokers can’t keep their butts to themselves is a mystery! 

A market research project in Texas sought to understand who litters. What they found in terms of demographics were that 70 percent of “litterbugs” were males, who also usually had the following characteristics:

  • they are young
  • they drive trucks
  • they drink beer
  • they have a “king of the world” attitude

The research project led to a marketing campaign recommendation to engage culturally with these young males. Ever heard the slogan, “Don’t Mess With Texas?”  In the mid 1980s, actors and athletes were recruited as spokespeople for a new breed of PSA in which the stars shouted out the now famous slogan. For instance, two burly defensive football players from the Dallas Cowboys team during that era are depicted roadside, picking up trash and vowing that they want to give litterers a personal message!

Megastars like Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Love Hewitt, George Foreman, Owen Wilson, Chamillionaire, and Chuck Norris all did cameo endorsements for the campaign. YouTube videos show that it went viral. When a leading research organization suggested that a 10% reduction in littering would be good and 15% stellar, its team had no idea what a campaign that truly connected could do. In the first five years after the slogan was launched, litter in Texas was reduced by 72%!!!

Something else that really connected was Cadillac’s launch of is Escalade SUV. Escalades became iconic in hip hop culture, appearing in music videos, lyrics, and becoming the ride of choice for many to demonstrate status. John Manoogian, who oversaw external design at Cadillac, was asked why it became the bestselling full sized SUV for a number of years.  Rather than attributing success to something like product placement, he admitted that Cadillac missed its target audience with the Escalade. It was intended for  older affluent males. When it didn’t sell as planned, he visited a dangerous neighborhood in Detroit to see who else might be in the market for the luxury SUV. While the “business” that the owners of Escalades appeared to be in was not what bigwigs at headquarters may have wanted, he realized they had a winner. From there, it was a matter of building a strong marketing approach to reach the target audience and tweak the product based on feedback–just like any other niche!

What can be learned from these two “case studies?” Simply that we must not try to educate people into taking another perspective that is conducive to our personal or corporate success. Instead, we should find out what is important to the target and meet them culturally with an offering that resonates with their environment, way of living, and motivations.

 

Sizing Up the Competition

Whether you are in turnaround mode, wildly profitable operations, or somewhere in between, it is imperative to know as much as you can about your competition. Competitive threats–present or forthcoming–should be well understood and strategies developed to address them.

Assessing the Competition

To assess buyer potential, knowledge of competing products is essential. Any advantage an executive team may hold over the competition needs to be studied with an eye toward exploiting that advantage fully. By developing this competitive advantage, the business creates non-financial barriers can prove difficult for the competition to overcome; financial barriers (for example, price discounts) are often more easily met.

Threats from competitors are a daily occurrence. Therefore, the competition should be monitored and key information compiled and categorized, either manually or electronically, and updated regularly. The most common forms of threat to watch are as follows:

  • the unanticipated entry of competition with extensive resources or new product offerings into the local market
  • the diversification of existing companies into new product offerings
  • the introduction of  a technology (such as a software as a service trendsetter) that exceeds currently available prototypes
  • efficiency improvements that create cost advantages not easily matched

Any slight advantage in cost savings others can gain presents a viable threat to the operation of every other participant in that niche. For example, if a company can source inputs cheaper, that competitor can control the market through pricing. While price reductions can be matched, cost efficiencies cannot. With reduced cost structures, the business could offer higher quality products for the same or cheaper prices to the same group of buyers another business is trying to attract. Some may strike lucrative deals with their vendors, who are in effect “held captive” by their need for the contract work. Streamlining staff or other reductions in overhead can also contribute directly to the bottom line and clear the way for improved price competition.

Gathering Information on the Competition

Given the possible threats, every company should study and know its competitors inside and out–not just figuratively, but objectively, analyzing competitive products in the field and the team(s) that produce them. If a competitor suddenly pulls out of a channel or wholeheartedly pursues another, the executive team should wonder and try to determine the reason. If you are playing in the same space, detailed information on the features, marketing and expected pricing of the offerings of others can be extremely valuable. More difficult to collect, but perhaps even more valuable, is information on a competitor’s cost structure. Knowledge in these areas prepares your team to position its offering in any given situation. This information can and should shape planning.

Information can be gathered from websites, especially press releases, industry publications and organizations, and word of mouth. Suppliers, services firms, and buyers are valuable sources of competitor information. Of course, such information must be considered in light of the motives of the person providing it. Proactive research in terms of surveys and interviews can also supply good background data. Most important–and easiest to obtain–is information from marketing agencies and sales organizations that serve multiple clients.

Gaining a Competitive Advantage

Companies gain an advantage when a known, unique asset is translated into a more competitive offering. Therefore, the executive team should carefully note opportunities to gain an edge throughout the information-gathering process. Capitalizing on company strengths–and opportunities to serve the market thereby–will instill the confidence necessary to withstand outside threats. Addressing buyer concerns in a positive manner, funneling their input into a constructive, sales-closing process, will enable the business  to make the most of both strengths and weaknesses. For example, by offering option packages and upgrades based on buyer demand, the company can secure more contracts. Meeting delivery schedules is also critical to enhancing competitive advantage. 

Customer service is another important area to scrutinize. Satisfied customers are a great source of new, repeat, and referral business. By carefully pre-screening potential buyers and collecting selection information, more targeted sales efforts can be made. Teams should expect prospects to respond to customer service before and after the sale as though the sale depended on it.

 

How Do Successful Companies Market?

 

Businesses on the leading edge of industry trends and developments are market-driven. Thus is not to say they manage their financial and operating efforts poorly; rather, the financial and operating efforts serve as strong support bases for the marketing power from which they derive most of their profits. Possessing a thorough understanding of the various markets in which a business competes, top companies are able to identify which exact product offerings, features and characteristics are most desirable for their target customers in each market sought. Having identified these key characteristics, top performers direct aggressive marketing campaigns at the universe of prospects who meet the general description, letting them know what they plan to offer, when, how and where. Further marketing efforts are focused on developing consultative conversations to entice this target market to purchase, usually including a solid follow-up process for keeping in touch with potential buyers.

Continual market research is essential for small business success, helping the successful executive team to develop a feel for the target markets. You need to know who your ideal client will be–and create corresponding prospective buyer profiles. By studying the types of prospects who visit your website and those of your competitors, it is not hard to get a feel for who your prospects are. What other constituencies should be studied?

  • Competitors
  • Distributors or referral networks
  • Sales channels–online and other
  • Demographic groups and their buying patterns
  • Prior customers and their feedback

Knowing as much as possible about the purchaser of your offering helps successful companies design aspects of the offering that fulfill unique needs (think about how Starbucks creates an environment in which we pay three times as much for a hot beverage as the prior source). By thinking through the offering thoroughly, savvy companies gain a competitive advantage over the competition through informed development decisions. From the same marketing information gathered about prospective buyers and their habits, a business can determine pricing and sales techniques that should lead to higher revenues and profitability. This research process gives you a distinct leg up on those who do not put in adequate effort to understand customer needs.

Putting information to the best possible use is a skill that further distinguishes the successful enterprise from its competition. Selective–and effective–advertising and promotional campaigns can be carried out on even the smallest budget. Social media outsourcing companies will do a phenomenal job for you for as little as $500/month. Other forms of promotion should not be ignored, however, as many traditional approaches are still valid, perhaps none more so that one-to-one networking with the right people. Successful executive teams realize that marketing is all about building a conversation–online and in person. Good information sets the stage for the conversation, but we still must create an open two-way dialogue with people who matter. 

Successful businesses also develop marketing plans that lure prospects into asking to be contacted. For example, if your company can offer better terms than the competition, that needs to be promoted. Sales or promotions can drive short-term traffic, but are not your best long-term tactic for profitable growth. Better, think about bundling and cross selling opportunities to entice a customer to sample more of your wares. The intent is to create a symbiotic relationship wherein they see you as a trusted provider of multiple things they need and value. There are more ways to attract and optimize customer interactions, the common thread being that you need to think through how you make your offering “sticky” enough to hold someone’s attention in a day when so many other messages are competing for it. Motivate prospects to buy your offering over the competition’s!