Jump-Starting Profitable Growth

In many manufacturing sectors figuring out how to turn tire-kicking types into profitable customers is what's needed to jump-start profitable growth.

In the automotive sector, dealers call them "tire-kickers" -- potential buyers who never quite become customers.

The key to capturing sales that drip away before they even hit the bucket is understanding that consumers travel a kind of "sales highway" -- from general awareness to consideration to purchase. Sellers need to understand what motivates buyers at each decision point on their journey. And senior executives need to mark each milestone to determine the exact marketing points -- and dollars needed -- to increase the likelihood of making the sale.

How do customers wander off the path? It's the kind of question that can perplex a company for months -- often leading to profit-cutting discounts or massive ad campaigns to drive traffic. But companies that effectively track consumers along the sales highway can find the right answers surprisingly fast.

How does a company prevent buyers from taking similar sales-threatening forks in the road? Indeed, how do you turn today's bumpy marketing route into a sales autobahn? At least three disciplines help show the way: First, follow the data to locate where customers are getting off track. Second, pick your spots for targeted bursts of marketing to get them back on course. Finally, make the right trade-offs so as not to overspend. In our experience, these techniques can help industrial firms jump-start revenue in a hurry. Let's examine each one:

Follow The Data

A high conversion rate at every point along the purchasing journey is the key to superior sales performance. Therefore companies should follow consumer data from end to end. The "highway" organizes sales and marketing data on five critical phases of customer contact. The first and broadest is awareness -- what percentage of potential customers is aware of the corporate brand? The second marker is familiarity -- what percentage is familiar with a particular product? Third is consideration-what percentage would consider putting it on a shopping list? Fourth is shopping -- what percentage actually goes out and shops for it? Fifth is sales -- what percentage ends up buying the product?

This tracking procedure lets companies know what percentage of potential customers move to the next point, and then benchmark each product against the rest of their offerings, as well as against the competition at that very spot.

Pick Your Spots

After management attention has ranged across the entire sales-and-marketing route, it's time to pick an appropriate remedy. A large manufacturer of testing and measurement equipment followed the data to pinpoint problems in its lackluster equipment services business. The company found customer awareness to be very low. The reason: field engineers didn't talk to customers about additional service opportunities. In a six-month period, fully 65% of field engineers didn't sell any service contracts. Moreover, roughly 60% of call center operators were found to be ineffective at selling service when customers called with questions.

The company also discovered it lost many customers in the move from "consideration" to "shopping." Analysis found that warranties were deemed too expensive, and 80% of repair contracts were mispriced. The company quickly repriced its service line, actually increasing some prices, and it retrained its field engineers and call center employees to be alert to selling opportunities.

Solving these basic problems paid off fast. The company got close to its goal of increasing its services revenue 50%, to $270 million. Along the way, it cut costs enough that its operating profit margin has grown from 13% to 29%.

Map Your Trade-offs

Third, management teams should use the sales highway to weigh trade-offs around resource allocation, especially when everybody has a gut-based opinion. For instance, we heard sales executives at one automaker's board meeting repeatedly assert that "our compact model has got to get more attention." Their remedy was an expensive broad-based marketing campaign.

Undoubtedly, more ads wouldn't hurt. But a look across the "map" helped the management team see that most of the company's problems were actually at the end of the road. In particular, executives zeroed in on the "purchase" step and saw that it had a range of close rates at its dealers -- which were also well below those of their main competitors.

The sales map showed that focusing marketing dollars on the regions with the weakest dealerships would increase foot traffic more efficiently than a national advertising campaign. Also, by training salespeople on how to close more sales, the company saw it could increase its total close rate by three percentage points. This helped generate a hefty 13% uplift in sales overall, but also would become a lasting change.

Sometimes the best investment is to find out why customers aren't coming back for more. By carefully tracking lost or dissatisfied customers, companies often discover detours on the sales highway that appear small, but end up costing significant revenues. Companies can fix these problems by building "early warning systems," such as flagging a customer who may have recently tried a competitor's offering. Another practical approach is to develop a win-back program offering incentives for newly-defected customers to return; these can be particularly effective since start-up periods with new vendors don't always go smoothly.

Grainger, the largest North American distributor of industrial supplies, is a classic case on how to track defections and then boost retention. The company had a distinguished record of quality control and customer service, but in the 1980s it nevertheless found that a significant percentage of its customers were taking their business -- and their revenues -- to competitors. At first, Grainger had trouble diagnosing the cause of the turnover. After all, it was fulfilling 98% of its orders flawlessly -- a seemingly admirable achievement given the size and complexity of most of the orders it processed. But when it considered the large number of orders the average customer was placing, it suddenly saw a very different picture. Even with a 98% error-free rate, a typical customer was still experiencing at least one botched order during the course of a year-and every failure provided competitors with an opening. Indeed, when Grainger surveyed its customers, it found that 68% of those who received an incorrect order said they had no intention of buying from Grainger again!

Grainger took action to fix these problems and boost retention. The company began benchmarking its customer service procedures against top competitors. This allowed the company to identify its relative soft spots from the customer's perspective.

Stopping such attrition, while tending to all the other milestones on the sales highway, can be one of the best ways to quickly expand the top line. And there's a big profit upside as well: because satisfied customers tend to tell their friends and become their own force for converting your tire kickers into more profitable customers.

Joerg Gnamm and Gregor Matthies are partners in Munich, and leaders in Bain & Company's Global Automotive Practice. The authors would like to thank Klaus Stricker, a manager in Munich, for his contribution to the article.

©Joerg Gnamm, Gregor Matthies, Bain & Company

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