Why scratching the surface is not enough in marketing management

There is a difference between people traveling the same distance by plane, bicycle, or on foot. The more slowly they move, the more details they can see and experience. By the same token, it makes a difference whether managers and researchers skim over problems or get involved in concrete situations in markets, with customers and with employees. The conclusion to be drawn is straightforward: too many people in charge remain superficial. This results in obvious solutions that are often not implemented consistently.

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Going in-depth is time-consuming – is it worth it?

Everyone is merely a dabbler in some areas of their personal life. This may involve the use of electronics, social media, one’s investments and insurance, or more tangible things such as home construction. Yet, these examples show only a fraction of possible areas of expertise. In such a context, is it enough to limit oneself – quite by chance – to only a small part of possibilities? Is it no longer necessary to make an effort because everything can be delegated to specialists – even in a business context? Is a piece of paper sufficient as a basis for major decisions in companies, or should boards of directors and managers always seek information on the spot and talk to stakeholders? Where should resources be deployed? Or does too much specialization cause us to lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in details? Do we choose to be superficial because we are afraid of the complexity of reality?

Scratching the surface is not good enough

Everyone is constantly confronted with the question of what they should specialize in more. Having only a vague idea of something is often more convenient. Anyway, in some situations, it is possible to fake and dodge (especially if others in the committees or teams are also uninformed). But those who limit themselves only to generalities run the risk of making the wrong decisions. They become dependent on others, and are more easily duped. Those who anxiously optimize their efforts and do not want to accept roundabouts or specialization lack curiosity and never discover anything important. This prevents real progress. The consequences of superficiality in terms of the risk of wrong decisions and dependence must be carefully assessed with a certain degree of detachment.

Finding the right balance of breadth and depth

When it comes to solving problems, it is important to have a balanced approach in terms of both depth and breadth. One focus of education and training in management and marketing used to be on practicing the process of problem-solving. By way of an example, this can comprise the following phases: (1) specifications and problem definition, (2) diagnosis, (3) objectives, (4) alternatives, (5) strategic and operational solutions, and (6) implementation and verification. In reality, it is often necessary to go through these phases several times forward and/or backward, as well as to amend and correct them. In addition, a top-down approach should always be backed up by a bottom-up approach. Large problem-solving processes can also be broken down into important small ones. This requires maturity and cohesiveness.

Depth seen as a practical obstacle

Today, this balance is seldom carefully considered and enacted in practice. Most of the time, too little emphasis is placed on the “bottom-up”, in particular. The steps mentioned are usually missing from current presentations and concepts. They often are add-ons, creating an accumulative effect. Without having jointly specified the problems or challenges, self-evident and generic objectives are identified, and initial solutions are proposed mindlessly and casually. Being measurable sometimes becomes the benchmark for choosing solutions. Priorities are swapped before they can even have an impact. Superficiality can be seen at every stage of problem-solving.

Using the big picture as a frame of reference

A point needs to be raised here that seems somewhat of a contradiction: depth also requires breadth and a general overview. For example, if those responsible lack a good general education, they also lack a sense for effective priorities and innovations. General education shapes the capability to recognize and study opportunities in depth. It generally characterizes an attitude of effectively delineating and exploring new topics. In B2B marketing, for example, depth refers not only to understanding one’s own product, but also to penetrating the entire value chain from the raw material to the customer’s use of it. Depth includes the customer’s environment.

But where to start?

The following questions are to serve as inspiration for creating depth and vision in B2B marketing and sales:

  • Do executives need knowledge of the industry and technology to find good solutions, or do all products and markets grow together and obey the same mechanisms of action anyway, for example, in marketing and sales?
  • Is it in fact possible to argue that industry, consumer, and durable goods are becoming more and more similar in how they are marketed?
  • Do executives need access to diverse national markets, or do only global approaches matter?
  • Are those responsible already sufficiently challenged to relate general developments from pandemics and digitization to sustainability, at least superficially, to their own company?
  • Is professional management the same in all companies?

Depth must come with a vision

Of course, there are common features, but they are often overestimated. The art of management, marketing, and sales involves working on specific problems and solving them systematically. For example, many executives in marketing and sales think that it is enough to mention a few customer advantages in order to trigger a purchase decision. They are reluctant to look at the stages of the customer’s long journey and identify controls for effective customer support. In short, the biggest challenge is not in aggregation, but in proceeding correctly in diverse market situations, fleshing out or breaking down the solutions. It has also always been more intellectually demanding to put concepts into practice than to develop them.

What companies need to bring to the table

Those responsible need to have a greater understanding of technology, products and services, customer applications, and the working methods of employees on the customer side, as well as employees in their own production, sales, and customer service. It is important to understand one’s own successes and failures. Gathered information needs to be consolidated and interpreted. An analysis of the current situation is not enough – it takes a critical diagnosis and dialog. Work on paper falls short of obtaining a sound understanding of the situation. After all, everyone involved in the company and on the customer side is supposed to become a stakeholder.

Relevant research is based on overview and detailed knowledge

Incidentally, the observations made concern not only practitioners, but researchers as well. Some retreat to abstract systems and concepts that apply everywhere but accomplish little. Anyone who wants to develop helpful results has to get involved. Big data in marketing can be discussed, but without knowing enterprise applications and CRM software, the necessary “meat on the bone” is missing. Also, extreme depth through delimited sub-questions and experiments does not provide answers for real-world problems with multiple conditions.


Conclusion
This short article describes a current sentiment on management and marketing. It calls for more depth among those in charge. Conclusions to be drawn are quite basic, but not so clear-cut. There are three principles that can help: (1) priorities instead of perfection, (2) content instead of empty words, and (3) consistency instead of simply taking action. The conclusion to be drawn is this: if they do take to the skies, executives should still keep their eyes on the ground, because no good solutions are to be found above the clouds. Sometimes, it is actually better to move slowly. This is how you make progress. Finally, being thorough ultimately saves time. Many a lesson could be learned from technology and product innovation and applied to marketing and sales development.

 

Written by Prof. Dr. Christian Belz, Professor Emeritus of Marketing at the University of St. Gallen and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Industrial Marketing.