When a company isn't catching enough fish (especially in a tough economy), the CEO's instinct is often to cast a wider net, hire more people to cast nets, or simply cast the net more frequently.
Unfortunately, they seldom consider the most obvious solution: mending the holes in those nets. They apply ever-increasing effort toward something that's just not going to work well because they're missing the real problem.
It's not really their fault, though: it's just a natural consequence of what got them to be CEOs in the first place.
You see, CEOs tend to be quick decision-makers. They're used to reviewing the observable facts of a situation and taking quick and decisive action. Of the four decision modes (Spontaneous, Humanistic, Methodical, and Competitive) they tend to be Competitive. And even if they don't start out that way, the tough realities of being a CEO usually push them in that direction over time.
This fast and logical decision-making style actually puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with consumers. Why? Because consumers typically don't shop like that.
In relatively affluent markets, such as the United States, consumers are driven less by rudimentary needs like features and benefits, and more by psychological needs like affiliation, aspiration, and identity. They make decisions based on the same motivations that many CEOs have actually spent years trying to discipline out of themselves so they could think clearly and be good CEOs.
We all know the companies that consumers get excited about and love to evangelize: Apple, Zappos, Harley-Davidson, etc. These are companies that understand the emotional side of the equation, and build it into their business strategies. From the top down, they acknowledge and embrace how their customers really think, and design their business strategies around it.
On the other hand, a typical small- or medium-sized business does a relatively poor job of this. Because the CEOs are competitive-minded, they try to solve their marketing problem with quantity (hits, clicks, likes, impressions, followers) instead of quality (emotion, inspiration, connection, identity, affiliation). They develop metric-lust, and pursue tactics that fit nicely into a spreadsheet, but aren't really acknowledging the reality of the customer's conscious and sub-conscious behavior.
The result, unfortunately, is an experience that fails to keep the customer around. She sees it, shrugs, and quickly forgets. The short-term marketing tactics get her into the net, but she slips right through the big hole in the bottom.
(If you don't believe me, go check your web stats to see how little time people are spending on your site, how few pages they're visiting, and how many aren't turning into customers.)
To mend your net, you have to create an emotional experience that's so sticky, so engaging, so compelling that they don't want to leave. To compete in a tough market, you have to make your customers feel something.
(And here's a pro tip: your corporate vision statement and generic corporate values about quality, service, integrity, etc., unfortunately won't do it.)
Once you've designed an emotion-focused experience for your customers, your sales and marketing dollars will go further than they ever have before. One dip of the net will land you hundreds of fish, instead of the few you're catching now. Only then does it really make sense to ramp up your net-casting efforts.
You'll have to get out of your comfort zone to do it, though. You can't solve this problem sitting at your desk staring at a spreadsheet, trying to find the logical answer. Go talk to your customers. Figure out what's frustrating them. Learn what gets them excited. And work with your team to brainstorm ways to add layers of real emotion to your business.
Try mending those nets, and see what happens. You'll be glad you did!