The following conversation was overheard at the check-in table during a recent B2B marketing conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Zubat and Ximbast are visiting Scottsdale from another planet and speak with a Coneheads-type accent.

Nikki: Hi! Welcome to (name of conference redacted)! If you’ll just give me your names I’ll dig up your badges super quick so you won’t miss a second of the opening keynote.

Zubat: I am Zubat and this is Ximbast.

Nikki: Wow–your names are AMAZING! Where are you from?

Zubat: Oh, you have heard of it not likely.

Nikki: Ouch. That almost sounds like a burn! Try me!

Ximbast: We are hailing from…(panics–looks around at display booths for inspiration to make up a name)…SaaS…click…buzz…ly…Sasclikbuzly.

Nikki: (absentmindedly) Awesome, welcome guys!

Zubat: I am stunned by something and must ask about it a-s-a-p.

Nikki: Shoot.

Zubat: Um…(Nervously fingers the taser-gun holstered under his jacket).

Nikki: What’s on your mind?

Zubat: Oh. (relieved–let’s go of gun) Yes. In glancing at the event guide, there are 3,754 total words but the word customer appears zero times. There appears to be no information or education at your big meetings about customers.

Nikki: Well, of course there is! Marketing is all about the customer.

Ximbast: Then why no stage-talkers or microsessions about customers?

Nikki: (sounding like a waitress reciting specials at TGIFridays) This week we have some of the leading marketing experts here. Thought leaders who have written books, articles, white papers and blog posts on the latest marketing techniques. Companies that offer leading edge marketing products and services, featuring software as a service and algorithms. Combined, our speakers and session leaders have more than 2,500 years of marketing experience.

Ximbast: I repeat. Then why no stage-talkers or microsessions about customers?

Nikki: (anxiously looks around for more senior person to help her out.) Candace–can you just hop on over here for a sec? (back to Ximbast) You can’t have marketing without the customer. Customers are at the center of marketing.

Zubat: (feels bad for Nikki) Hear me greeter person. The last marketing conference  in our…area…was 100% featuring customers. What they do. How the act. What they want. What they dislike. What they intensely dislike. There were hundreds of live customers walking amongst us, talking and informing us about their points of pain.

Candace: (walks up, listens, asks skeptically) So the entire marketing conference was nothing but customers?

Ximbast: Not exactly. There were also smarties who instructed us on how to talk to customers, what questions to ask, how to listen to the answers in order to gain much insight.

Candace: So when did the vendors speak?

Zubat: What is this vendor?

Candace: Vendor. Sponsor. You know. Software, automation, content marketing, creative services.

Zubat: Why do we want to hear them? Are they not simply trying to sell us their wares?

Candace: Uhh…

Ximbast: Our conference then had many learnings about using the new customer insights to make things that customers really want to buy. Because it solves a point of pain that they have in the real universe. And makes some part of their job less hard.

Zubat: We are taught that when you make things customers really want to buy, the part called marketing is much easier. The software, automation, content and creativity seem to be much more effective when it focuses on a winning product.

Ximbast: Our conference slogan was “To generate demand you must first learn what the customer demands.”

(At this point, Candace and Nikki, feeling totally overmatched, demotivated or both, look past Zubat and Ximbast and manage to chirp in unison) OK, who’s next? What’s your name please?

Zubat: (says to Ximbast, referring to Candace and Nikki) Are we not theircustomers?

Ximbast: Yes, but judging from their dispositions, no one has told them yet. I think we are missing the keynote. It is by the CEO of a company that makes a content marketing automation buzz generation device.

Zubat: Cool. I wonder if he has sold anything yet to the people in the audience.

(Ximbast and Zubat fist bump and go into the keynote.)

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Here’s the text of an actual cover wrap ad I saw recently when I picked up a copy of my local business journal:

A Better Law Firm Experience in DC At (name of company redacted), we’re committed to creating relationships and delivering results that exceed expectations. We partner with our clients to understanding their business and legal issues and develop creative strategies to solve problems. Our entrepreneurial drive, proactive approach and commitment to client relationships are what set us apart and enable us to deliver a consistently better law firm experience. We will show you that (name of company redacted) is the firm you want to work with. At (name of company redacted)–We’re all about you.

This ad is not only devoid of substance, it sounds exactly like every other law firms’ (and for that matter professional services firms’) ads, web sites and elevator pitches. Shame on all of them. Paying thousands of dollars for premium ad space and not using it to actually deliver a substantive value proposition.

As a member of the ad’s target audience–and as someone who has interviewed hundreds of business decision makers to discover their “Elevator Rants” (the unaddressed issues clients tend to bitch and moan about on the elevator after a meeting with a vendor)–I offer this counsel:

Don’t use words like “better,” “set us apart” and “all about you,” without giving me tangible examples of what you do that’s unique and how it benefits me.

So how could a law firm truly separate itself from the crowd? By making claims that actually address some of the most common Elevator Rants clients have about professional services firms. What would your reaction be if a law firm’s ad made one or more of these statements?

  • Our partners do 75% of the actual client work.
  • As a value-add, we do a personalized business risk assessment for every client each year.
  • We don’t have new business quotas, which means we can focus on our existing clients.
  • Our client-facing team averages more years of experience than 95% of other law firms.
  • Several of our partners have years of real-world experience actually working in the _________ industry.
  • We proactively introduce you to other executives who can provide peer advice, guidance or relevant resources to help you grow your business.
  • We have a client portal with templates for the most commonly requested legal documents.
  • We don’t bill you for every phone call you have with an attorney.

The irony here is that the claims above are not secret weapons–they address common Elevator Rants that are widely known–and as old as the law firm business itself. Also note that these claims aren’t just rhetoric–they are substantive benefit a law firm can actually DO (vs. just say) differently– substantive things that require a top level commitment and investment to serve clients better.

The great news here is that given all of the ‘sameness’ in law firm marketing, the law firm that understands and addresses its clients’ Elevator Rants will surely stand out among the crowd.

On that note, I should point out that Cooley, LLP, a 900-lawyer firm operating in 12 offices in the United States, China and Europe, offers items 6 and 7 on the list above. Cooley’s award-winning CooleyGo portal lets businesses download sample legal documents and the firm’s Capital Call event helps connect entrepreneurs with their most valued resource–investment dollars. These tangible value-adds have helped Cooley earned a reputation in the DC tech community for going above and beyond in helping their clients grow.

The bottom line: Don’t invest thousands of dollars marketing that says the same thing your competitors are saying. Build and promote tangible differentiators that actually solve your clients’ business problems.

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If I’ve learned one thing in several decades of hands on marketing leadership, strategy and execution, it’s that great marketing requires great listening. And great listening means asking your customers questions your competitors don’t ask.

One of the pivotal moments in my evolution from Chief Marketing Officer to Chief Listening Officer was when I started asking my clients’ customers (and prospects) this simple question during my “customer rediscovery” interviews.

What would make you a customer for life?

Why should you be asking your customers (and prospects) this question?

This priceless question has helped me uncover countless invaluable insights about what really matters to decision makers:

  • Ways to add value and differentiate that other vendors haven’t considered.
  • Tweaks to a product or service that would better address an important or even unspoken pain point.
  • New use cases for a product or service that my client hadn’t considered.
  • Better ways for my client to approach or engage with their customers.
  • Things customers hate about vendors’ customer-facing processes or marketing and sales approaches.

These insights have helped my clients formulate new strategies and approaches that are more relevant to their target audience–cutting through the ridiculous level of noise in the marketplace.

Why did I start asking this “golden question” during my customer rediscovery interviews?

Short answer: A CFO used the expression after I floated a concept that might potentially address the pain point she had just described. She thought about it for a moment and said, “Now that would make me a customer for life.”

In every customer interview since then (hundreds), I’ve asked the question.

Here’s what happens when I ask it.
  1. There’s usually a pause. The customer is taking a moment to step back and think more deeply about his or her answer. I’m clearly not going to get a canned response.
  2. The customer says, “That’s a great question.” This indicates to me that they appreciate being asked.
  3. The customer often says, “No one’s ever asked me that before.”

Given how much would all like our businesses to stand out in the crowd…to differentiate our products, services…to have unique and powerful positioning and messaging…and more successful marketing campaigns and sales outreach…

…So ask them the question your competitors aren’t asking.

And take the answers to heart when you develop or refine your marketing strategy and priorities.

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