Direct Approach: Brush up your people skills

Recession is a key time to invest in training and ensure your workforce is performing to its full potential.

Test, review, measure, refine: it's every direct marketer's mantra when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of their marketing practices.

In fact, it's in their DNA. And throughout the recession, the need to focus on marketing efficiency and value has never been more important. In recent times, marketers have had to seek out ever more accountable practice and cost-effective methods to communicate with audiences - which explains why direct and digital budgets have been most resilient in the face of sweeping cuts in expenditure.

Identifying which marketing practices are the most effective and which are poor performers - and reviewing, refining and redirecting budgets accordingly - is second nature to any successful direct marketing professional.

So why is it that so few organisations do the same when it comes to their training and development programmes? At a time when you are probably being asked to achieve better marketing results with fewer resources, it's essential that you have the right people in place, with the right blend of up-to-date knowledge and skills. If ever-changing demands of business and marketplace dictate that your marketing must continually evolve and its effectiveness improve, then your company's marketing capabilities must evolve and improve too.

How many senior managers, often responsible for several marketing teams, regularly assess who are their most effective employees, what are the major skills gaps and which team members should they be developing? The individual and collective talent of your people is a fundamental asset and key resource - but how do you know if that asset is being put to best use and is achieving optimum results?

The answer is to go back to our marketing DNA and measure, review and refine. Assess your people's skills (what they are capable of doing) and their practices (what they actually do) and you will know how to improve your organisation's marketing capability and effectiveness. Only then can you precisely prioritise and target the performance improvements that will have the greatest impact on improving marketing results - and therefore return on marketing investment.

Unfortunately, as soon as the word "recession" hits the media, training budgets, like marketing spend, are often among the first to be culled. However, as one of the world's best-known business gurus, Peter Drucker, once said: "If you think training is expensive, try ignorance." Gaps in skills and knowledge can lead to errors - and in a recession, errors can cost millions.

A December 2008 McKinsey report on training affirmed that, in a downturn, the companies that continue to invest in professional development are those that will be best positioned for growth when economic conditions improve. More recently (May 2009), another report, Identifying Employee Skill Gaps, stressed the importance of identifying the areas where organisations need to improve their capabilities most, particularly in times of cost-cutting. Under scrutiny is "where limited training resources must be used to close the critical competency gaps that prevent companies from meeting business objectives".

In other words, you need to work out whether your organisation has what it takes - in terms of the right people, with the right skills in the right roles - for the task in hand. As with your marketing, you need to measure in order to manage. Understand the marketing capabilities your people have and those that they need by measuring and evaluating their skills. And by examining the individual skills of your people, you'll build a picture of the macro skills of your organisation - or its competitive marketing capability.

Recently, the IDM worked with a large global services provider, helping it assess the competitive marketing capability of some one hundred marketers worldwide. With business units across three continents, the brief was to identify the marketing strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, especially in the capabilities identified as business critical. Tailored training and development programmes were then to be created to fill any skills gaps that were apparent, and subsequently improve marketing performance. Using a newly developed assessment tool, MCap, we were able to help the business compare the performance of different territories, business units, even different teams, as well as each of the functional marketing roles. At the end of the process, we were able to identify the disciplines in which each comparison group was strongest, who were the best people, where they were and what were their specific areas of expertise.

Findings have since enabled the client to target and customise its training programmes based on key group needs, with the emphasis on critical business requirements, and also to target individual performance improvement within functional groups. The company was even able to discover hitherto unknown pockets of expertise and set about developing a formal exchange of knowledge to bring weaker areas or employees up to speed. This saved time and money and further ensured that the development process aligned more closely with the needs of the business.

Having built an accurate picture of the skills of its people, the client has been able to confidently plan a number of new marketing initiatives, supported by improved organisational capability in key areas.

There is a direct link between training and development and business performance. The effectiveness and value of your marketing is greatest only when you make every individual count and when, collectively, their combined talents and skills are organised to best meet the specific needs of the company.

Going back to McKinsey: "Companies that conduct disciplined, meritocratic assessments of performance and potential are well placed to make good personnel decisions." Examining the skills and capabilities of your people now helps you assess which types of talent drive business value today and which will drive it in the long term. You will know who to develop and how; who to keep and, bluntly, who, if necessary, to let go.

Fail to do this in times of recession and your competitiveness may be at risk once the economy begins to grow.

- Derek Holder is the managing director of the Institute of Direct Marketing.