Eye on the States: Ask your sales and marketing team some tough questions

Thomas Davies

There's nothing like head-to-head competition to bring out the best in companies doing business with the states. Pressed to grow revenue and profits organically at double-digit rates in difficult times, companies are distinguishing themselves as much by their sales, marketing and business development practices as by their capabilities and offerings.

Is your sales and marketing team on top of its game? Candidly responding to the following questions may give you the answer. 

How good are our relationships?

When you really want to know what's happening in the states, how many cabinet-level officials in state and local government do you know well enough to call, and have a reasonable chance of getting your call returned? Be honest. I'm not referring to those relationships your lobbyist or government affairs office may have on your behalf. Nor does it count if it's a friend of a friend. I mean the kind of relationship where you are on a first-name basis with those who make a difference in your customer's organization. Can you count the names on the fingers of one hand? Beginning to feel a little uncomfortable?

How much time do we spend listening?

Your team gets points if it is keeping on top of trade journal reading, networking and attendance at state and local conferences. But if it isn't regularly sitting across the table from state and local officials in one-on-one sessions -- using few, if any, PowerPoint slides, and talking about the customers business, not technology -- that's not a good sign. It probably means that, like many companies who market to state and local government, your focus and attention is on your internal business, not your customer's business. There is a good reason why national politicians regularly visit the states to press the flesh, and why they call state and local the retail level of government.

What was the last significant marketing initiative we launched to educate our customers?

A rollout of the latest company branding campaign via state and local trade publications doesn't count. The key word here is education, not promotion.

Education means understanding your customers' needs, and helping them discern what they need to know to be successful. It's a little much to expect anyone to buy something when they really don't understand what it is. Good candidates for education I've seen recently include share-in-savings contracting, commercial solutions, business process outsourcing, managed services and customer relationship management.

When did we last conduct first-hand research?

Undoubtedly, like the good leader you are, you always probe to get to the bottom of things. But if you rely on the latest projections from the same market research company everyone else uses, then you're in deep trouble.

Market forecasts are notorious for being impossible to verify, and often just wrong. It's scary to see how many sales and marketing plans are built on such flawed foundations. But don't take my word for it -- go kick the tires yourself to see what's behind the official-sounding numbers. If your question is important enough, and you need an answer you can count on, roll up your sleeves and do the research, even if it means going outside to get some help.

You won't find the answers to these questions in your company's sales force automation system. And while the answers won't tell you what your sales for state and local are going to be for the quarter, they sure will spare you any surprises.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va. His e-mail address is tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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