I’m very proud to acknowledge and congratulate several DC-area companies I’ve had the privilege of working with that were just named to the 2016 Inc. 500/5000 List of the Fastest Growing Companies in the U.S.

Resonate (Reston, VA)
CrossCountry Consulting (McLean, VA)
Optimal Networks (Gaithersburg, MD)

In addition, there are a number of outstanding executives I’ve gotten to know–and in some cases work with–over the years whose companies made the list. Kudos to these folks and their teams (listed in alphabetical order):

Shashi Bellamkonda, Chief Marketing Officer, Surefire Social
Michelle Boggs, President, CEO and Co-Founder, McKinley Marketing Partners
Marc Gonyea, Co-Founder, Managing Partner, memoryBlue
Ron Novak, Executive Vice President, Segue Technologies
Pat Sheridan, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Modus Create
Barg Upender, Founder, Mobomo

Please check out these great companies when you have a chance, and keep them in mind when you are looking for excellent vendor/partners.

On a related note, along with the pride of being on the Inc. 500/5000 list, these companies will also experience a barrage of unsolicited calls and emails from commercial real estate brokers, accounting firms, benefits firms and more! Here’s a blog post with tips for how these vendors can improve their pitches.

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I caught up with serial entrepreneur and investor Tien Wong at the October 2016 Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit where he spoke on using SnapChat for B2B, and I gave a talk called “You are not your customer,” which focused on using the customer’s real perspective to improve marketing strategy.

In this video Tien comments on the increasingly noisy environment marketers face and how to be relevant. He also talks about how HubSpot has become the arms dealer to practitioners of what he calls “interruption marketing” (aka content marketing and marketing automation)–which contributes to the noise level.

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Most marketing is forgettable and ineffective because it isn’t tuned to what the customer is really thinking. That’s why every CEO should be a “chief listening officer.” Hear my banter on this topic with sales guru Ian Altman on his brilliant podcast.

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In 2012, with T-Mobile mired in 4th place in the U.S. wireless wars, new CEO John Legere–this honorary “chief listening officer”–decided to go straight to the source to get insights and inspiration for the company’s new strategy. He began monitoring live customer service calls. What he heard shocked him. And it eventually led to his T-Mobile’s dramatic resurgence. Read Fast Company’s account here.

Read the seminal account of how John Legere listened to his customers to formulate T-Mobile’s amazing turnaround.

Because Legere’s efforts led to widespread innovations which drove a sustained period of growth, Chief Listening Officers is pleased to award him with the inaugural “Ear of the Year” award. No trophy, no ceremony, no podium. Just kudos. Legere has reminded us all that marketing strategy begins with understanding what the world looks like from the customers’ perspective–not ours.

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I attended the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Technology Showcase recently to hear presentations from a number of mid-market companies and mingle with the investor/finance/M&A crowd. Because I help my clients strategize on how to sell to financial executives, it is important for me to understand the way they think and prioritize—and I gained some great insights.

But one of the most striking things I observed and heard was when I ran into senior business development people from three different accounting firms—regional to national in scope. We exchanged the usual “how’s it going” pleasantries and caught up in general.

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun

What was astounding to me was each person’s take on the current market environment: “Our competitors are dropping their shorts,” one said, meaning they are grabbing market share by lowering their pricing. Another echoed those sentiments. The third talked about feeling a lack of marketing support—not just the usual requests for more awareness and more leads, but more so the fact that they don’t really have anything distinct or differentiated to sell. They weren’t talking about something new at the “pixel layer”—a new elevator pitch, tagline or web site. What they want is to be able to offer something new in their firms’ services, the way they do business. Something new that delivers value above and beyond the usual “same old, same old.”

At some level, I get that—they’re accounting firms. Great business model, everyone needs one. It’s worked for decades. But to me, it’s crazy. Why send your business development folks into battle unarmed—without a unique value proposition that the other firms haven’t thought of.

How Do You Differentiate At A Substantive Level?

Differentiating your service in a way that is meaningful and valuable to customers starts with you actually asking your customers what they want. This sounds simple—almost elementary. But not nearly enough companies do it.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of my clients’ customers over the years, CEOs, CFO, COOs, CIOs and CMOs, to help my clients understand their customers Elevator Rant—what they are thinking about on the elevator when my client isn’t around. And I can tell you that there is always a way to add value in a differentiated way. Once you start asking the right questions in the right context there is always gold in their responses—sometimes useful gold nuggets, sometimes game changing gold bricks. It just takes a little experience and synthesis to extract the insights.

Then comes the hard part: You have to have the desire or courage (sometimes out of necessity in a business that has plateaued or fallen behind its peers) to use the insights to address what those customers say.

Why Isn’t Anybody Listening?

But in my experience, very few companies ask their customers what they can do better or differently. Think about it…when’s the last time you as a business leader:

Talked to your customers when you are not trying to sell them something or solve a problem?
Used customer insights to change or improve key aspects of the customer experience. That could mean product features. That could mean service enhancements. It could be service delivery or customer support.
You cannot tell me that there isn’t away for those accounting firm business development people to sell more if they were armed with a newer or different version of the “same old” services—something that makes the prospect’s eyebrows go up in a way that says, “I didn’t know you could do that,” or “I’ve never heard of anyone doing it that way.” And when you offer something of value that others’ don’t or can’t, you won’t have to “drop your shorts” to win business.

Remember—Those Customer Insights Are There For The Asking

The information you want is lurking around the inner recesses of your customers’ minds. It’s your job to commit to asking them the right questions, prioritizing the insights and addressing their input head on.

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Anything great that’s ever happened in business and certainly in marketing has come from knowing your customer.

So if you don’t know your customer intuitively–like Steve Jobs or Henry Ford or Howard Schultz–you have to go out and listen to your customer. To find out what the world looks like from their perspective.

But, for too many CEOs, Presidents, CFOs, CROs, CMOs and EVPs of Sales and Customer Support, there are dozens of levels, layers, tools, platforms, channels, systems, dashboards, reports and processes we rely on–too much. Collectively they form a big barrier and filter between the company and the customer. And these barriers and filters are not sensitive or absorbent enough to truly understand and synthesize what customers are really saying…and really thinking.

The great news is that the solution is so simple. And the only tools you need actually came with you when you were born. The solution is called listening and the tools are called ears. And best of all, this costs absolutely nothing–except your time.

Of course you also need mouth to ask questions and a brain to figure out what questions to ask. And you probably need some fingers to write or type notes while you’re listening.

So go forth and listen to your customers! No selling, no agenda. Just finding out what the world looks like from their perspective.

Don’t wait until your business feels stagnant–and don’t wait until problems are showing up in the numbers.

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Dale: So, we just got a termination letter from Amalfi Global.

Don: Shut up. Why?

Dale: I don’t know yet. I haven’t seen the letter.

Don: Damn, they’ve been with us for like…8 years? Hashtag “stunner.” I just met with them last week.

Dale: That’s not good…for you. Did they seem unhappy?

Don: I don’t think so.

Dale: Well, they either did or did not seem happy.

Don: They didn’t seem unhappy, ok?

Dale: What did you guys talk about?

Don: I walked them through our latest version–you know, the feature updates and patches.

Dale: OK.

Don: And um…I told them about our Customer Success Summit in September.

Dale: Uh huh.

Don: We also talked about our vacations. He’s going to Bali.

Dale: OK. So he didn’t seem unhappy.

Don: He was happy about going to Bali.

Dale: OK… Did he say what Amalfi is up to?

Don: I don’t think so. Does Grant know they’re leaving?

Dale: I don’t know. Wait, here’s the letter from Amalfi.

Don: What’s it say?

Dale: Are you listening?

Don: Yes.

Dale: No, Don, the subject line says, ‘Are you listening?’ That’s not good…for you. OK, here goes.

After 9 years of largely very positive experiences with your product, we are switching to your competitor, effective immediately. Your product continues to function well, and the support team is generally responsive. The pricing has been reasonable. The product documentation is clear and useful. 

So is theirs.

Here’s the issue:

In the last three years I have received from your company, like clockwork, a semi-annual series of carefully scripted and rather one-way visits. Strangely you refer to these as “Customer Check-Ins,” which implies you are interested in my perspective on what’s happening. It seems “Customer Check-In” actually means you are there to update me and my team on what your company is doing and then ask if we have any vacation plans.

After the first two meetings (or Vendor Monologues, as we sarcastically call them) I started counting how many questions you ask us. Questions such as, “How’s business at Amalfi Global? Are you guys hiring? What are the firm’s 12-24 month business priorities? How is your team expected to contribute to those goals?” Those would have been helpful to us but mainly to you. The total number of questions you asked us in the last four meetings, counting the vacation questions? Three. Less than one question per meeting.

So let me land this plane.

If you had asked even the most basic questions or done the simplest homework, you would have known that we recently acquired our largest competitor. This has two implications: First, we will be adding about 500 additional users. Second, we are moving to a cloud-first approach across our enterprise, which will reduce capex and help offset the integration expenses.

What’s that you say? You have a SaaS offering as well? Yes, I know. I got a call from your inside sales rep about that. Too bad he couldn’t answer my questions. And I guess those questions never made their way back to you.

Meantime, here’s what your competitor did: They asked us a few basic questions about our business—not our technical requirements but our actual business, listened to our answers and challenged a few of our assumptions. Then they helped us identify 6 or 7 new use cases where we can leverage their product (which, again, is basically the same as yours) and helped us build a business case for each one. They didn’t ask about my vacation, but I’ll give them a pass on that.

You also might be interested in how we came to engage with your competitor. Of course they’ve been trying to meet with us for years but we had no real incentive to take action. About four months ago they sent over a very comprehensive piece of research they’d done—not one of those awful, faux white papers companies produce these days—that happened to be extremely relevant and useful—with only a minimum of vendor bias. So we met with them.

Even though you don’t seem to like to ask questions, I assume someone there would ask why we left. So there it is.

P.S. Thank you for the invitation to the Customer Success Summit, but I will not be attending.

Dale: Harsh.

Don: Is anyone cc:d?

Dale: Grant.

Don: (sigh) Hashtag “time to update the old resumé.”

 

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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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