It’s hard to win new customers and grow without a marketing strategy, but how do you decide who can best tell your story?
A marketing strategy has never been an exact science, and sometimes even the sharpest tools aren’t fit for the task.
Numill, a Rotherham-based tooling business which serves the likes of Rolls Royce, spent several years trying to get its message out there – buying in data, launching a telemarketing campaign, and employing a seasoned marketing agency to spread the story. Yet, according to Numill managing director Anne Wilson, all that effort yielded little more than frustration. And a hefty bill.
“We’re quite niche,” Wilson said of Numill, which turns over around £1m a year. “We’re not selling widgets, but a service, and if you can’t convey the actual value of that service to people, it becomes a very hard sell. Those who know us love us, but others may not understand the value proposition we offer. Getting a third party to persuade them clearly wasn’t the right way to go. It has cost me a lot of money along the way.”
Founded back in 1969, Numill had made its name primarily serving the oil and gas sector. However, in recent years that particular pipeline began to dry up dramatically as the sector became depressed and activity slowed. In 2015, Numill’s output had contracted by around 15 per cent.
The company responded by launching a major restructure, re-examining everything from its payroll to the cost of toilet rolls, to prepare for renewed growth. And, with the tap being turned down in oil and gas, it began targeting such sectors as automotive, rail and aerospace – areas that offered both crucial high growth and the potential to export Numill’s UK work overseas. The snag, chiefly that the company wasn’t widely recognised in these sectors, meant effective marketing would be crucial.
Setting a strategy
After Numill’s experiences with agencies and traditional methods, the company realised there was no one better-placed to tell, and sell, their work than themselves.
“We understand where our strengths are,” Wilson said, “so we just sat down and worked it all out. What’s the strategy on how to engage with customers, what’s best way to get through to them, what do we need to communicate? We used our expertise to really drive out the good work we knew we were doing.”
As the small team numbered just ten, Wilson had to share marketing duties with her production manager, Jon Blake. The pair had learned a great deal about content from their work with external marketing experts, and could harness many of the materials they’d created, simply adding their own personal touch.
Harnessing new channels
Wilson and Blake also secured some grant funding to bring in an outside expert to tutor them on the benefits of social media and mail-out campaigns – analysing which approach might be best received.
“This is where we learnt concepts like ‘tell don’t sell’, and ‘inform rather than impose’,” remembered Wilson. “We opted for an ad-hoc, constant drip-feed of the things we’d done, which might just trigger something in someone’s mind: ‘Ooh, if Numill can do that, can they do this for me?’ That’s the reaction we were looking for.”
Social media proved an invaluable, handy means of getting the company name, ethos and value proposition across, especially as the duo also had a company to run. Blake used Google, Facebook and MailChimp to share stories and images of particularly good products, and how they could transform a damaged tool into one with full capability. Wilson looked after the company’s Twitter account, keeping her eyes peeled for any stories that were relevant and interesting, and which tied in with Numill’s interest in apprenticeships, exports and engineering.
Telling the right story
New markets, they knew, would also demand fresh stories. The company decided to share the work it had always been doing, from a new angle: sustainability. This theme is now a key driver for Numill’s customers when tendering for work.
“The government is now looking at the circular economy, the whole life of products,” she said. “About 75 per cent of our business is in remanufacturing worn and damaged tools, bringing precious resources back to life and saving money and time for companies.
“That meant our marketing centred on transferring that knowledge to our clients: this is what we can do for you, and what that could mean for your business. We realised we’re not just selling a service to our customers, but actually adding value.”
Wilson also invested more time networking in and around rail organisations, getting the Numill name familiar in the sector, and has been travelling overseas to increasingly lucrative foreign markets. She recently joined a trade mission to Poland, and spoke at a business-to-business event in Dubai. “I was able to take along pictures that showed them the stark reality of one of our automotive clients, one that would have scrapped 1.5 tonnes of finished product in one go without our help,” she added.
Getting the right salesforce
Wilson’s initial work is now bolstered by a network of overseas distributors and agents, who sell Numill’s services either as part of their own portfolio or directly on a commission basis. “It makes a huge difference if clients can talk to a countryman who understands their needs,” she believes. “It’s a massive, massive benefit. They either already know them, or can more easily build a rapport before they get in the door.”
Modern communications meant that the work of these external agents could integrate seamlessly with the rest of the team’s approach. They can, for example, send images pertaining to the work direct from the client’s premises. “We can quote them while they’re still there, delivering the information there and then right back to that customer,” she said.
Maintaining the momentum
Wilson is in no doubt as to the success of Numill’s marketing drive, which has delivered new customers both in its existing sectors and some new areas too. “We’re looking at a £250,000 uplift on our turnover in the next 18 months, to take us back to about where we were before the contraction. And we’re now looking to employ more people – one person imminently, and maybe two more within 12-to-18 months.”
When Wilson arrived at Numill in 2000, exports accounted for 18 per cent of the company’s turnover. That’s now up to around 40 per cent on average, getting close to 50 per cent in some months. “We got a fabulous reception in Poland, while our Finnish market rep has consistently brought us new customers every month.”
“You must constantly look at where new business is coming from, whether that’s Twitter, LinkedIn or our mail-out, as well as monitoring any high-value regular customers that are dropping off the radar. We’re doing that now – going through our records and spotting who we haven’t heard from in the last six months, to work out why. The reasons are not always sinister. Like the oil and gas sector contracting – that’s not us, it’s the drop in the level of work our clients are getting.”
One key lesson Numill learned is that, while market forces are clearly beyond your control, there’s still plenty you can achieve by being proactive with sharing the story – even if you can’t afford to throw money at an agency.
“Our form of engineering isn’t sexy,” Wilson admitted. “It’s not like selling a Ferrari, which will shift itself. We need to be out there, be noticeable, and be available for people to find us. Instead of sitting there waiting for the work to come to us, we had to put the effort in, and let people know how proud we are of what we do.”
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