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Using Outside Resources To Meet Marketing Goals

Answers to commonly-asked questions about working with marketing consultants.

Executive Summary
There was a time when most companies felt they could fight their way through periods of poor performance or low profitability with simple expedients — such as raising sales quotas or shuffling key players within the organization. In other words, some reassessment and rearrangement from within would take care of the problem.

These days, with competition more intense … with product management, pricing, distribution, promotional strategies and other business factors becoming increasingly complex ... "quick fixes" aren't so easy. Things may work out well in the end, but usually "muddling through" with existing resources is a daunting if not impossible task.

Indeed, in an effort to become more agile, competitive and profitable — to keep pace with the dizzying speed of technology and the changing marketplace — most organizations today must, from time to time, look outside for help. In the area of marketing and sales especially, a company must truly understand the customers' needs and position products and services precisely to meet those needs. A key to meeting this objective is to have "fresh eyes" — experienced in specialized marketing strategies — looking at old problems … and towards bright new horizons.

This paper provides insights into the process of evaluating, hiring, and working with, marketing consultants. Armed with the proper questions — and no-nonsense answers — you can expect to find the expertise needed to help you meet more easily and effectively the challenges of today's marketplace.

Question: Why should a company like ours look outside for marketing help?

Answer: There are all kinds of reasons why companies hire marketing consultants. Most often, however, consultants are called in to address a specific problem or event.

An "event-based need" may involve something like your company wanting to open a new division — or wanting to get established in a foreign country. Or, you may want to introduce a brand-new product — and need help penetrating the marketplace.

Frequently though, the event, or problem, is less specific. Executives often explain their situation to marketing consultants in terms such as these:

  • "We have a function that's broken and need help getting it fixed."
  • "We can't seem to grow. We're losing our place in the market."
  • "We're losing money. We need help in finding the reasons why."
  • "We seem to have lots of business, but profits are low."
  • "We need a sales training program. Can you help?"
  • "We think our product mix may be weak — and the way it's marketed is weak as well."

In general terms — even when things seem to going fairly well — savvy chief executives sense that, on the same old track, there may be trouble just around the bend. That's when marketing consultants may be appropriate.

Question: Why look outside, when we already have marketing people on staff?

Answer: You may have competent and experienced marketing people working for you already. Nonetheless, it's always a good idea to have a fresh point of view. The old adage about "not being able to see the forest for the trees" applies. Further, chances are you need specialized marketing skills which are borne out of working with scores of companies over a number of years. That's the kind of expertise that a professional marketing organization brings to the table.

Question: Basically, what can my company expect to get out of a relationship with a marketing consultant?

Answer: In broadest terms, you'll be able to define your objectives better — and bring more structure to the way you do business. Essentially, the consultant will be contributing "new perspectives" that can only come from an external source:

  • First and foremost, the consultant will generate a marketing plan which will be a "blueprint" for all your sale and related activities.
  • With a plan in hand, you'll have better management all along the line — simply because the planning process "puts everyone on the same page."
  • Every roadblock in the path of progress will be challenged by outsiders with a fresh point of view — so that change-for-the-better is bound to happen.

Question: Can my company afford outside marketing counsel?

Answer: The obvious answer, of course, is: Can you afford not to have counsel when you really need it? The fact is, with a reputable consulting organization you can determine what costs will be "up front" — before any money changes hands or "the meter starts running" … then make an informed judgment as to affordability. In other words, any marketing consultants you talk to should be willing to have an introductory, exploratory meeting with you — at no charge or obligation. At this meeting — and possibly at another session — the consultants will make every effort to determine exactly what you need … what you are trying to accomplish … what the scope of work will be. Again, there should be no charge up to now.

At this point, the consultants will author a proposal which spells out exactly what will be done — and how it is costed … how much time will be involved and the like. The proposal document is a roadmap for the work to be done — and it is yours at no charge. In effect, ahead of time and before any money changes hands, you'll know what your costs will be. Once you accept the proposal, the consultants actually go to work and start billing for their efforts.

Question: What, specifically, will be covered in a proposal from a marketing consultant? How "in depth" should the document be?

Answer: Although content varies widely from firm to firm, you can expect to see a proposal with elements such as the following:

Covering an overview of the situation, background and the purpose of the proposed relationship. The objectives described in general.

Scope of the Program
What the program will cover and in what sequence. Generally this is broken into various steps or phases — each one initiated once its predecessor is completed. This is, in effect, a list of all the things that need to be done. Program Benefits enumerates all the ways the program will impact the company — both internally and externally.

Output/written materials which will produced as part of the program. Also, what reports can be expected by management.

Time requirements and a proposed sequence of events.

Who from the consulting organization will be working on the project.

Pricing Summary
The number of hours/fees associated with completing each phase of the program. Recommendations on a fee payment schedule agreeable to all.

The history and credentials of the consulting firm.

A recap of program objectives and the methodology to be used in achieving them.

Question: What do consultants cost these days — in real dollars?

Answer: Prices vary — depending on the experience of the firm and the complexity of the project involved. But you can expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $300 per man hour for consultants' services.

Interestingly, you shouldn't be solely concerned about what the consultant charges or how much time he or she intends to spend. Instead, be more aware of how much of your time and how much of it the consultant plans on taking up. You should ask how many hours you are expected to spend — and figure the cost of your time into the equation.

Whatever the case — and whatever the hourly charge — you should have a clear picture of the scope of work before things get started. Most importantly, keep in mind that a good consulting organization should be able to give you a solid price structure from the beginning. The firm should be able to say, "Yes — we know what that will cost." Beware of "ballpark" figures and blue sky estimates.

Question: What kinds of skill sets can my company expect from marketing consultants?

Answer:You can expect a qualified marketing consulting organization to "wear many hats" and be expert in a number of disciplines. And that's what makes them unique among professionals who are generally classified under a "communications" umbrella.

Think of it this way: you probably depend on a number of professionals — each with their own skills — to help you accomplish business goals. You may work with an Ad Agency, a Public Relations firm, a Direct Marketing organization, a Telemarketing group, and a Sales Counselor/Trainer.

A reputable marketing consultant is qualified to work in all these areas — and feels comfortable interfacing with professionals in all these disciplines. A marketing consultant, then, is "multidimensional" … as opposed to other communications professionals who generally concentrate on only one sphere of work.

Question: In what areas specifically, can a marketing consultant be helpful to my company?

Answer: As pointed out above, marketing consultants "wear many hats." You may find them most valuable, however, in helping you analyze the following aspects of your business:

Market Focus. Because the consulting firm has very likely worked in many situations similar to your own, they are qualified to help you define your position in the marketplace. They can help you evaluate the competitive climate … analyze how you position yourself … how your are perceived. Some market research may be necessary … all pointing to where you stand vis-a-vis your customers and your competition.

Product or Service. A consulting organization can take a penetrating look at your product or service. Usually, there's need for change. Taking a hard look at how your product is packaged and named can lead to some surprisingly fruitful new directions.

Price and Economics. An analysis of pricing is one of the most beneficial services a marketing consultant can provide. Pricing versus costs … gross profit and gross margins in relationship to costs … these are key factors in shaping business success.

Communications. What kind of "face" should you be showing the public? How about advertising? Should you concentrate on print versus broadcast, or use both? What roles should public relations and direct marketing play? How important is your website and the Internet?

A marketing consultant can help you answer all these crucial questions — and steer you towards the proper communications mix … as well as point you towards specialists who can fine-tune programs for you.

Sales and Distribution. Your account management program may need a shot in the arm. Or your sales training efforts may need to be re-vitalized. A marketing consultant can be eminently valuable in both instances.

Question: How can my company tell if a relationship with a marketing consulting firm is a "good fit?"

Answer: Check references, for one thing. If comments from current or recent clients of the firm are less than enthusiastic, you should probably look elsewhere.

You should also sense that the environment you work in is "familiar" to the consultant. The consulting firm should have experience in similar situations — and especially be equipped with specific skills that apply to your business.

Question: My business is fairly unique. Does a marketing consultant have to "learn it?"

Answer: Hopefully, a marketing consultant knows a fair amount about your business and your industry before you get together. At the very least, the consulting organization should have related experience. You should probe — ask basic questions during the interview, just to be sure. One telltale sign: when a consultant says, "All businesses are basically the same" — it's time to move on.

There will be a "learning process" for the consultant to become familiar with the specifics of your situation, of course. But the "education" shouldn't cost a lot or take too much time. In essence, a skilled consultant shouldn't be starting from ground zero. The firm should bring a "tool box" of experience in your industry, filled with current methods and techniques.

Question: What about the Internet and websites? Is that what a consultant should be stressing these days?

Answer: Despite being the definite wave of the future for some businesses, the Internet isn't the answer to everything — for everybody. Even though some companies have had astounding success on the web, a consultant who leans heavily towards e-commerce is probably recommending a high risk strategy. As tempting and "forward looking" as the web is — and unless that's the business your in — you should rely on solid, tried-and-true traditional marketing methods before anything else. Beware of "Johnny One Notes" who trumpet electronic solutions which you, or your customers, may not be ready for yet.

Question: What size consulting firm is right for my business?

Answer: Large firms, with 30 or 40 people or more, almost certainly, can offer all the skills you need. But very often, they don't work well at the "grass roots" level. What happens frequently is that the senior members of the firm "pitch" your business — then junior executives show up at your door when the work needs to be done.

The trick is to look for a good working relationship — at your level. Meet with the senior people of the consulting firm and discern if you see eye-to-eye. Then, find out who you'll be working with one-on-one — day-to-day. You needn't be shy about saying your business is too important to be in the hands of an ingenue or a "rookie."

Question: Does a consultant guarantee results?

Answer: There are too many variables involved for a consultant to absolutely guarantee results. But a consulting firm should be willing to agree, on a handshake, that their progress will be monitored — and that anytime you become dissatisfied, they'll stop work, and billing …. and that will be the end of the matter. In earning their fee, the consulting organization assumes the risk that everything will go well, as promised. Otherwise they don't get paid.

Question: Once the consultant's recommended course of action is accepted, who implements the program?

Answer: Your own people, in the main, will be expected to implement details of the program … under the watchful eye of the consulting organization. It's important that the consultant stay behind to provide implementation assistance. The structure of your organization … your operating procedures … your way of doing things may change rapidly — so it's crucial that the consultant be available … on the spot on a regular basis … to help make adjustments.

Question: In simplest terms, how can a successful consultant relationship be defined?

Answer: When you begin to think of the consulting organization as a trusted member of your own team, that's when you know the relationship is "right." Or, another way of looking at it is to think about the times when a major decision has to be made within your company. Do you want the consulting firm to be included in the decision-making process? If your answer is an emphatic "yes" — then you and the consulting firm are a perfect match.

A Word About Alpha Associates

Alpha Associates was founded in 1981 as an outsource marketing consulting firm specializing in marketing strategy and planning services. Alpha Associates consultants have worked with over 150 diverse companies, in 20 states, to help those organizations compete more successfully in their markets. Stephen J. Prinn of Westwood, Massachusetts, and Jack West of Wayland, Massachusetts are the principals of Alpha Associates — supported by two associate consultants and various industry specialists.

Alpha Associates consultants have held senior marketing and sales positions in several industries including such companies as Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, Honeywell Information Systems, Polaroid, The Retail, Industrial and Business Systems Groups of Dymo Industries, and Dennison Manufacturing Company.

Fundamental to Alpha's work is modifying existing marketing structures and creating new ones for the revitalization of clients' businesses. The repository of Alpha Associates for these methods and techniques has become known as The Alpha Tool Kit.

The Tool Kit contains planning systems, strategy processes, product development systems, sales training methods, promotional strategies, communications and contact programs, telemarketing systems, and many more tools to effectively structure marketing efforts for maximum results. Another important capability of Alpha Associates is MarketTrac‚ — the firm's market intelligence service. Alpha is capable of providing a broad range of primary and secondary market research services — either on a stand-alone basis or as a coordinated program under an annual contract.

Alpha Associates is a member in good standing of the American Marketing Association, the Association of Management Consultants, The Professional Services Collaborative, and Professional Environmental Marketing Association. Alpha subscribes to the Code of Professional Practice of the Association of Management Consultants.