When you pack for a trip, you don’t put your entire closet into the suitcase and start pulling out what you don’t need.

But this is the approach companies often take when formulating their messaging. Like the traveler who says, “I need to make sure I have outfit options in Paris,” companies feel compelled to jam everything they do into marketing materials and sales conversations. In both cases, the villain is indecision and an inability to determine what’s most important.

Luggage over-packers risk sore backs and exorbitant overweight luggage fees. Messaging over-packers risk weighing down their audience with so much information that they don’t retain any of it.

The wrong way to “pack” your messaging.

  • Start by pasting in 50 slides from your most recent sales presentation or 4 paragraphs from your About Us section–and then try to whittle down from there.

The right way to pack.

  • Start with a blank document–an empty suitcase if you will.
  • Now, write a sentence that communicates the most essential thing the audience needs to know. (The most essential item for your trip.) This will likely be your unique value proposition or the problem you solve for your target audience.
  • Add a second sentence with the second most important thing the audience needs to know. This should include the value prop or problem, whichever you didn’t “pack” in the first sentence.
  • Now, add the third sentence with the next most important thing. This can be a credibility statement (“We serve 80% of the Fortune 500.”), a claim (“We’re going to be the Uber of microbrews.”) or capability (“We have developed a patented approach to electron fragmentization and deconstruction.”)
  • Now, here’s the key: Stop adding sentences as soon as you have given the audience the gist of your pitch–the basic contours of your topic (capabilities, product, investment opportunity). Probably 15 seconds total. The analogy is trying to close your suitcase to see if everything fits. This is a critical step that gives you a chance to check in with your audience to see if they’re with you–or whether you’ve “overstuffed” your message to the point where they’re confused. This check-in step is a great opportunity for the presenter. It’s where the audience often reveals their pain points, skepticism, lack of knowledge, etc., all of which are important signals that you can use to guide the rest of your meeting. Of course, after the check-in, you can fill in details on a range of topics, such as use cases, product specifications, customer examples, key features–whatever helps the audience fill in his or her knowledge gaps.

So next time you pack for a presentation (or a trip), remember to start with what you need most–and don’t overstuff.

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To: Amazon.com

From: The Powers that Be in DC

Subject Line: The real reason you need to choose DC for HQ2

Dear Amazon:

If we’ve learned one thing here in DC, it’s that when all else fails, you resort to a power-play. You’ve seen House of Cards, I’m sure.

So we’re not going to pitch you by spouting all of the typical reasons why you should locate your second headquarters here. You know, business-friendly atmosphere, educated workforce, innovative, tech-oriented people, great universities, quality-of-life, public transportation, blah blah blah.

Those aren’t differentiators. You want to differentiator? Here you go.

If you don’t relocate here, we will regulate your Starbucks-swilling, low-margin asses back to the Stone Age. We’ll create a special tax just for companies whose name starts with an A, ends with an N and contains a Z. We’ll file so many court briefs you’ll have to hire a thousand more lawyers.

Now that’s a claim no other city can make!

That’s right, go ahead and choose another city. We dare you. We’ll unleash the full fury and might of the Federal bureaucracy–wave after wave of extraordinarily harsh, unfair and unprecedented treatment at the hands of the FTC, SEC, FCC, DOJ and a dozen other federal agencies.

A threat? Perhaps. Extortion? Welcome to the real world. We’re just competing by using the most unique and powerful lever at our disposal.

But there are real benefits here for Amazon.

Think proximity to power. With a DC area HQ, you can drop in and the FTC to lunch anytime (note the $25 gift limit). You’re just a 10 minute Uber ride from the Capital where you can walk the halls, twist arms, line pockets, etc. And you can sponsor tables at all of those fancy political-military-industrial events where you’ll hob-nob with Federati elites.

Think about it.

We won’t make this offer a second time.

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“What do you and your team need to get better at this year?”

It’s a simple question that focuses the customer or prospect on the delta between their objectives and where they are today. They start thinking about the specific tools or skills they lack or that they feel are insufficient to reach their objectives. How do they get there from here?

Their answers will give you insight into whether and how your solution is relevant to their “delta.”

Here’s an example from a recent conversation (remember, it is a conversation, not a survey or interview) I had with a prospective client. Let’s say she’s the Chief Revenue Officer of a company that sells to insurance companies.

Me: To start off, what are the overall business priorities for your organization? And when I say organization, think about the highest level–your company or the division you’re a part of.

Her: Well, the first thing is probably improving customer retention.

Me: Great. Why is that a priority? I can assume a few reasons but want to make sure I understand clearly.

Her: Some of our biggest customers leave because they think they can do what we do in-house.

Me: Got it. Thank you. Given your focus on customer retention, what do you and your team need to get better at to address that priority?

Her: We need to have better messaging to rescue or win back customers who say they’re leaving.

Me: How big a problem is this for the company? In other words, if 10 is a game changer and 1 is “nice to have,” how would you rate it?

Her: I’d say an 8 or 9.

Me: OK, perfect. You mentioned customers leave because they intend to take over your function internally. Can you give me an idea of how that conversation goes? Let’s say you’re the customer who’s leaving and I’m you. In the customers words, what would you say.

There’s a lot more insight to be gained from this conversation, but  finding out what she needs to improve to reach her goals is a key turning point that allows me to really see her perspective and focus the rest of the conversation.

Again, your goal is to get insight into whether and how your solution aligns with their “delta.” My approach is to disarm the other person and get them to lean in by starting the conversation with bigger picture questions. This signals that I’m diagnosing, not selling. That I’m interested in her goals and perspectives and I’m strategic, not just trying to hit my quota. Her answers also give me fodder to provider her with insights–to challenge whether that really is her biggest delta. (Turns out it isn’t.)

If you’re looking for a good place to start to better understand your target audience’s perspective, download my free Customer Re-Discovery Playbook.

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Let’s play “marketing long distance.” You know what I’m talking about…

CMO reads Gartner report that says the customer’s pain point is X.

CMO checks with top sales rep who says it’s more like X+1.

CMO hears X-2.

CMO briefs agency account lead who hears X-2-7.

Agency account lead briefs creative director who hears X-2-7-4+26.

Creative director briefs writer who hears [(X-2-7-4+26)*3]/61.

Writer submits draft which focuses on Y.

Creative director changes it to focus on Z.

Agency account lead recommends edits to focus on Z*5.

CMO adjusts to focus on Z*5 cubed, then sends to CRO for “final review.”

CRO makes changes based on the last customer conversation he had.

CMO approves.

Campaign fails.

No one knows where it all went wrong. After all, they started by understanding the customers’ pain point.

Someone has to own understanding the target audience’s real problems, priorities and perceptions. Then make sure the execution is aligned accordingly.

Shouldn’t that be the CMO?

Do the senior marketers you know REALLY get the customers’ perspective?

How much time do they spend with customers and prospects just listening? Trying to understand what the world looks like from their side of the table.

The great news: Decision-makers are happy to share what they know. You just have to ask the right questions in the right context (i.e. non-sales).

Their answers will give you insights to help clarify your brand or product positioning, sharpen your value proposition and differentiators and focus your messaging.

See a list of disruptive, thought-provoking questions–and the entire listening process–at www.chieflisteningofficers.com/free.

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As a B2B marketer, how could I not click on a banner ad that said, “Meet Alan. B2B marketing’s first feeling machine”?

Well, to say I was disappointed would be a tremendous understatement. And it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say this agency’s AI “experiment” made the agency look silly.

If you’re going to create something that positions you on the leading edge, then you MUST invest enough time and resources to make it a GREAT example.

Unfortunately, in this case, the failed AI experience just reinforced the “shiny object” superficiality that comes to mind for many decision-makers when they think about marketing agencies.

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Marketing’s 4 P’s are obviously outdated–so marketer- and brand-centric. “It’s about OUR PRODUCT.” “WE need a pricing strategy.” You can almost feel the dust flying off of those we-centric, textbook-sounding words. Just look at the image below; even 4 P’s graphics look corporate and dull.

As B2B customers and prospects increasingly control and drive the decision-process, THEIR P’s are the ones that matter. And marketers and brands would do well to focus on them. Here are the Customer’s 3 P’s, as well as questions you should be asking to uncover them.


What business priorities do you have to accomplish in the next 12 – 24 months? Not the entire list, just the top 2 – 3–the ones you might get passed over for promotion for not achieving. What priorities are the board paying close attention to? How much of the company’s (or your division’s) future is riding on these priorities?


What do you and your team need to get better at in the next year? If you replaced yourself today, what would you identify as immediate challenges? How do those impact the Priorities we just talked about? How are you addressing these issues today? What’s the risk of not getting better at them? What are the obstacles to improving?


What are all the ways you’ve thought about to address the Problems above? What else would you consider? What’s your biggest fear in investing in a solution or solutions? How do you categorize or differentiate vendors in this space? Which ones seem to “get it,” which ones don’t–and why? What would make you a customer for life–figuratively or literally?

Bottom line: Re-orienting B2B marketing around the customer’s perspective is critical to success in our new buyer-centric world. Try using the Customer’s 3 P’s–or a similarly market-oriented framework–to re-orient your own thinking and your organization’s.

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Once in a while, for one reason or another, an executive will say to me, “Well Steve Jobs said, ‘It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.'” Or they’ll quote Henry Ford, saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.”

First, some context: The people citing these quotes are trying to make the point that listening to customers Is not a priority. What’s driving their position? Could be several factors:

  • They don’t want to take the time or dedicate the resources to understand customers’ needs. (And they might assume listening is resource-intensive.)
  • They feel as though listening to customers is an admission that they don’t know everything. (Which, of course, it is–and there’s nothing wrong with that!)

But what they don’t realize is that they are misinterpreting the quotes. Jobs and Ford aren’t saying, “You don’t need to listen to the customer.” What they’re really saying is,

“We must have an excellent understanding of the customer, and it’s our job to interpret that understanding into excellent products.”

Remember, Jobs had an incredibly unique (Jobsian!) ability to know what consumers would want–what would give them joy and utility. He WAS the avatar for Apple’s customers, and he was able to manage his team to execute almost flawlessly against that vision. Yes, perhaps he didn’t do research, but that’s because he was willing to bet the company on his own understanding of what people would buy (and love).

Similarly, Ford was probably right in speculating that people would have said they needed “faster horses.” But the brilliance is in what he HEARD, which was that people wanted a faster way to get from point A to point B. That understanding fueled Ford’s willingness to bet big on mass manufacturing of automobiles.

The bottom line: It isn’t the customer’s job to conceive of compact music devices with massive storage capabilities that feel great in their hands–or combustion engines or cars. All customers know is what they need–what their dreams, goals and challenges are. It’s up to brilliant entrepreneurs like Jobs and Ford to be great diviners and interpreters of those needs into valuable products.

By the way, when I touch on this topic in my Customer Listening talks and presentations, or when executives bring up these quotes to downplay the importance of listening to customers, I have a ready response:

“OK, great, if your name is Steve Jobs or Henry Ford, you’re excused…you already know your customers and don’t need to listen.”

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“Wemeiusour”–the acronym for “We-Me-I-Us-Our” (and pronounced we-MAY-uh-sour) is a dreaded affliction found in most marketing and sales campaigns that paralyzes prospects and completely eliminates the possibility of engaging them.

How can you recognize Wemeiusour?

Symptoms include a tendency to focus on:

  • The solutions “we” offer
  • “Our” features
  • What makes “us” special

Dangerous side effects include:

  • Weak response and conversion rates
  • Flaccid sales cycles
  • Embarrassing sales close rates
  • Uninspired revenue growth

How to rid your marketing and sales of Wemeiusour forever:

  • Have open-ended “curiosity calls” with customers and prospects in a non-sales context.
  • Ask questions your competitors aren’t asking.
  • Understand the real problems they have–which may be different than the problems you think you solve.
  • Listen for the real language they use–notice the lack of jargon and marketing-speak.

If you’re serious about eradicating Wemeius, download the Customer Re-Discovery Playbook to discover what your target audience ISN’T telling you–and how to leverage those insights to improve the relevance of your messaging.

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This fun, 6 minute conversation with two leaders from Excella Consulting –a multi-year Inc. 5000 honoree–explains how their culture of curiosity gives them a more intimate and continuous view of their target audience’s perspective.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Excella several times over the years, and their commitment to “always be improving and listening” is very impressive…and a big reason why they are successful. Check it out.

(And don’t miss the outtakes at the end.)

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