[IMGCAP(1)]It all began during a recent strategic planning assignment with a small business in Illinois when I asked the executives this question: “I see your sales units on the chart, but who is accountable for marketing?”

Small businesses do not have an understanding of how they can become more marketing oriented, but this is in fact where most SME companies and firms should be looking for growth as our economy improves. There is a marketing void which I have been noticing ever since the grand recession, because marketing is one of the areas where individuals were eliminated in small businesses throughout the country. How come?

I asked a CEO in a Wisconsin manufacturing firm that question. His reply was, “During the recession when we asked our sales guys what departments we should cut that were not being useful, marketing was one of the first they mentioned that they could get along without.”

The dilemma does not appear to be driven by the organization, but by the lack of organizing skills in the types of structures that should complement the current organizational structure. Normally a small business is driven by the line units of sales, and supported by customer service. The sales guys are accountable for bringing home the revenues, and ergo the profits of the company or firm, and most small businesses are sales organizations. Sales rules!

Are You Line or Staff?
While sales departments and sales personnel are accountable for delivering revenue, they are normally considered the line units of an organization. Understanding the roles that line and staff play in structuring an organization is the key to having a solid marketing arm for a small business, but few of them ever do.

By definition, a line unit is one that is accountable for achieving the key objectives of the business. In the Army it would be the infantry, the tanks and the armored cavalry, accountable for winning the battles.

A staff unit within a company or firm is not accountable for achieving the key objectives of the business, but is accountable for fully supporting the line units who are. What? Staff is not accountable for the objectives of the company? In the Army it would be the artillery, petroleum-ordinance-lubricants, and chow. All of these support the infantry, tanks and armored cavalry—the line units.

It is no different in a company or firm.

Does that mean engineering that designs the products, and manufacturing that builds them are not line units? These are the most important departments of a successful manufacturing company. Without them there would be no products to sell. And that is exactly why they are staff units—support—to the sales team.

The same is true with marketing, and quite often that is where friction within an organization occurs between sales and marketing. Marketing usually thinks they are a line unit and when that occurs within a company or a CPA firm, it usually means that the line units do not receive the support they need to achieve the company or firm’s key objectives and mission.

When it does occur that sales units do not receive the support they need, guess who is accountable to do the work without them? The line unit, sales.

Recently I was working with a CPA firm in the Midwest when one of the future partners of the firm was not receiving marketing support that he needed to sell his department’s services. He had wanted collateral in the form of sell-sheets and brochures which could be easily placed into presentations. Mind you, nothing more than a few graphics and no extravagant costs were involved; only the marketing department’s time was involved.

He was preparing to present his services in about 30 days to several of the firm’s clients, and he wanted the materials to be sharp and professional looking. It should have been an easy task for the firm’s marketing department, which had three people responsible for this type of work. He requested support and service from this staff unit, marketing, but never received anything but promises to help “right after we finish this big project for the managing partner.”

So with two weeks remaining and no support from marketing, he implemented the Axiom of Line Independence, which says, “Whenever line managers and partners do not receive full support and service from staff units, the line managers and partners will perform this function themselves.”

He was quite proud of himself when I met with him, saying, “Greg, take a look at this brochure that I put together myself, since marketing would not give me any support. It really looks exactly like I wanted it to appear, although it took me about 10 times as long as the marketing gals could do it.”

He performed the marketing function himself, and there is a logical reason. It was this young future partner who had line accountability for achieving this objective of the firm, not the marketing department, and when he did not receive the exact amount of support he needed he had no choice. He did it himself.

Now do you think this young future partner would ever again wait on his marketing department for future support? Probably not.

By not understanding the roles of line and staff, small businesses often do not see the need to have a full-scale marketing department, and rightfully so. Marketing is a staff unit, and quite often its objectives become more important than those of the line departments. And when that happens, fire your marketing department.

Greg Weismantel is president of Epic Group, a management consulting firm and advisor on strategy for small and large firms and companies. It partners with clients to identify their primary driving force while recognizing strategic opportunities of their markets, products and services that will deliver the highest value for ongoing growth and sustainability.

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