Interviewing a brand strategy firm can be tricky and frustrating.

It’s easy to get caught up in their animated, graphics-rich presentations (with file sizes so large they can’t simply be emailed to you after the meeting, they have to be Dropbox’d); shiny objects (their latest AR/AI/VR campaign); industry awards (“here’s our content marketer of the year award from the content marketing awards show, sponsored by the content marketing association”); and the introductions to team members with an artful array of job titles (Brady the design thinker, Seychelles the UX lead, Marianella the Instagram rockstar).

Sometimes you find yourself 20 minutes into a one-hour meeting wondering when the meeting’s going to start.

Here are some tips for your first meeting with a B2B brand strategy firm to ensure you get what you need–including one HUGE topic you absolutely need to ask about. (HINT: This post was inspired by getting some pretty blank looks when I asked several CEOs who recently embarked on rebranding or branding efforts, “Did the agency interview your customers?”)

Tips for Interviewing Brand Strategy Firms

  1. Contact each agency via their web contact form. Someone should get back to you by the next business day. Deduct 2 points for every day after that. The person who contacts you should be a principal or partner. If it’s a lower level employee or business development person with no branding expertise, deduct 1 point.
  2. Tell each agency the initial meeting is 45 minutes, while marking your team’s calendar for an hour. That should focus everyone on getting to the point, while allowing for 15 minutes of overtime. If an agency squawks that they really need 90 minutes, deduct 1 point and tell them you’re interested in a conversation, not a dog an pony show. If the agency still shows up with a massive slide deck, deduct 3 more points.
  3. Some agencies like to bring numerous staff members in an attempt to demonstrate something called “bench strength.” This only wastes time on introductions and micro-digressions on non-critical topics (have you tried Snapchat filters!??!). Encourage agencies to bring 2 – 3 representatives max and deduct 1 point for every additional staffer.
  4. Start the meeting by asking why companies do or don’t choose them. Deduct 1 point every time they mention, “people,” “service” or “creative.” Add a point for “sales,” “revenue,” “ROI” or “business objectives.”
  5. When they list their full range of capabilities, ask how many they are great at. Deduct 1 point for each capability they say they’re great at beyond 3.
  6. Ask about their staff experience. Deduct 1 point if the average number of years out of college is below 10 and 1 point if their staff’s aggregate experience is less than 25% on the client side.
  7. Now, here’s the 800 lb. gorilla:
    • Count how many minutes before they ask about your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences–or talk about their process for gaining insights into your target audience. The over/under is 7. Add a point for every minute below that and deduct 1 for every minute over.
    • Ask which agency executive will lead the customer insights process and which will lead brand strategy. It’s critical that nothing get lost in translation between insights and strategy, so if these are two different people, deduct 5 points. And don’t settle for having a less experienced staffer in charge of insights and strategy. If it’s not an agency principal, deduct 15 points.
    • If the agency doesn’t recommend interviewing customers and prospects, deduct 5 points. If the lead executive personally conducts the interviews, add 10 points.
    • Follow up by asking what percent of their total project hours, on average, goes into understanding your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences vs. design. Deduct 1 point for every 10 points below 30%.

BOTTOM LINE: The only purpose of your brand is to make a rational and emotional connection with your target audience. Yet too many branding engagements give lip service to understanding the voice of the customer. Why? Because that’s not where agencies make most of their money. They want you to buy more profitable brand identity, web design, content marketing and digital campaigns, where they can bill out lower level staffers at high rates. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this model, per se; but as always, it’s “Caveat Emptor.” If you’re hiring a branding firm, it’s your obligation to understand what you’re getting and not getting. If you need their help understanding your target audience, this post will make sure they’re up for the job.

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At this point, every B2B company should be exploring and refining some sort of content marketing strategy. We know that customers and prospects don’t just value the insights vendors can provide–they are coming to expect them.

But too many vendors still create content just to fill that dreaded slot in their next monthly e-newsletter–instead of investing time and energy to produce valuable and relevant insights that actually help the target audience do their jobs better. And there’s the rub:

To produce insights your target audience finds valuable and relevant, you have to intimately understand what your target audience needs.

Here are three no-B.S. tips to increase customer intimacy–and the impact of your content marketing:

1. When “content marketing” was conceived, I wish it has been named “insight marketing” instead. This would have helped raise the bar for content marketers to produce useful content vs. drivel. Anyone with a laptop can (and unfortunately does) sling content, but content that doesn’t provide a relevant insight that addresses The Audience’s 4 Ps (problems, priorities, perceptions, preferences) should immediately be scrubbed from your editorial calendar. Replace or rework it with insights derived from actual customer and prospect interactions. What does your target audience struggle with on a daily basis? What are the knowledge blind spots that prevent them from doing their job better?

TIP: There’s an obvious and dead simple way to make sure your content delivers real insight and value: Ask your customers. For example, a great question is: “Let’s say you had a free hour with a renowned industry expert. What’s the first thing you’d ask them about?” They’ll gladly open up to you–and you can use their answers to fuel your content marketing efforts.

2. Most readers can quickly tell when content was written by a non-SME, i.e. a young marcom staffer who may be a good writer but has little or no understanding of The Audience’s 4 Ps. Dead giveaways: An abundance of marketing-speak and one or more exclamation points. The non-SME may have interviewed and SME, but too often, much of the insight is lost in translation…and replaced with vapid narrative.Such content is quickly dismissed by the reader as noise (best case), annoying (next worst case) or detracting from your brand (worst case).

TIP: Read your own content with extreme and brutal skepticism before publishing. The CMO’s job is to be very strict about ensuring that substance and value are obvious to the audience–in their real-world language, not marketing-speak. So don’t just approve a piece of content because it fills this week’s slot in the editorial calendar–or because you’re tired of rewriting it. Send it back again and again until it delivers value to the audience. If the CMO doesn’t understand what the target audience would find relevant and valuable, then you have a much bigger challenge.

3. In the haste to scale the reach of their content marketing via social media, PPC, email, etc., marketers often neglect the audience that most needs–in fact expects–your insights: Existing customers. They crave and often expect knowledge that is personalized to their specific situations; and you as their vendor are uniquely positioned to provide it. Vendors that invest the time and effort to do this will tend to have “customers for life.”

TIP: Don’t just spray content online. Train your sales, sales engineering and support teams on how to (a) review insights with their customers; and (b) help customers take action on the insights by interpreting them into specific steps. By the way, if your sales, SE and support folks hesitate to do this, it might be because the content is terrible. In this case, go back to points 1 and 2 above.

Bottom Line: Consistently creating valuable content requires you to have an intimate understanding of your Audience’s 4 Ps (problems, priorities, perceptions, preferences). The great news is that customers and prospects will gladly share their 4 Ps with you. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the right context–and listen between the lines to understand what’s really important to them.

For a free Customer Re-Discovery Playbook with all the questions you should ask–and tips on how to ask them–please visit www.chieflisteningofficers.com/free.
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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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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.

Priorities

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?

Problems

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?

Perceptions

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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THIS IS THE FIRST EPISODE OF “LEADERS WHO LISTEN,” FEATURING INSIGHTS FROM EXECUTIVES WHO KNOW WHAT THEY DON’T KNOW–AND ARE CURIOUS TO FIND OUT.

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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First, if you are involved in or oversee Sales, I recommend you check out Ian Altman’s fantastic Same Side Selling Academy group on Facebook. Ian, a world renowned speaker and expert on sales strategies and techniques, is building a group of enlightened executives who want to maximize their effectiveness without the tired and sometimes trashy practices of the past.

Go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/samesidesellingacademy and request to join the group.

Now, about this video–which was originally broadcast live on the Same Side Selling Academy. In it, I chronicle some of the most cliche questions that customers and prospects are still asked–as well as some fresh, proven alternatives.

As always, you can download my Customer Re-Discovery Playbook absolutely FREE at www.chieflisteningofficers.com/customer-discovery-playbook-2.

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Still asking customers, “what keeps you up at night”? Well, 1995 called, and they want their question back. When you ask cliche answers, you don’t get insights–you get cliches.

Instead, here are a few questions that will help you discover fresh, actionable perspectives from customers and prospects.

As always, you can download the Customer Re-Discovery Playbook, absolutely free, at www.chieflisteningofficers.com/customer-discovery-playbook-2.

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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 starts with great listening.

And great listening means asking your customers questions your competitors haven’t asked.

In fact, 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?

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Products are cool. They’re sexy. Useful. You can touch and feel them. They can change the world. Successful products (especially software) can scale rapidly and cost-effectively, so investors love them.

I get that.

Perhaps this is why software startups seem to get all the love when it comes to brilliant advice, frameworks and tools, such as:

The experts behind these frameworks have done a fantastic job of educating leaders on how to pinpoint and address customer and user needs before and during the product development process.

But It’s Not Always About the Product (heresy, I know).

By doing customer discovery that’s tied to a potential or existing product–and obsessing about UI/UX and features, you’re potentially missing out of valuable insights in areas above and around that product, such as:

  • Brand / Reputation: What does our target audience think we do well and do best? Is the product or service consistent with our identity? Does the audience view us as a credible purveyor of the product or service
  • Positioning / Differentiation: Are we talking about ourselves in a vacuum? Or positioning the brand/product in the context of the buyers’ needs? Do they agree our approach is unique/better?
  • Landscape: What is the full range of competitors, substitutes and alternatives (including building in-house or doing nothing) from the target audience’s perspective?
  • Sales Process: Do we make it easy to buy from us–or challenging? Do our frontline people have enough knowledge to add value, or do they have to bring in a SME right away?
  • Customer Experience:  Does the product or service deliver on expectations and promises? Where are the gaps and shortfalls? In the context of other vendors, are we “pretty good,” “far better,” or “behind the curve”?
  • Content: What insights do you need to do our job better? Are we providing those? Where else would you get them?

Inputs like these should not just be incidental by-products of your customer discovery efforts. They’re too important.

This is why I don’t necessarily believe customer discovery should be done by product teams (more heresy). Understandably, product managers and product marketers view the world through a product lens. After all, that’s how they add value to the company. But sometimes their perspective is too narrow–too product- or feature-focused–to see bigger picture insights. By contrast, a CEO, COO or CMO doing customer discovery with a much broader perspective can pick up information that is actionable across many areas of the business.

Try Agenda-Less Listening–at the Brand Level

To do customer discovery at the company or brand level (vs. product-focused) I’ve create the Agenda-less Listening Framework (see below) which I’ve used on dozens of client engagements to:

  • Reveal a wealth of actionable insights that go beyond products and services to sharpen positioning and value propsition; and
  • Help identify meaningful differentiators and themes that made marketing and selling easier for my clients.

Here are slides from a recent talk I gave on Agenda-Less Listening to a peer advisory group of senior executives. It includes all of the tools and advice (including sample questions and email template and listening tips) needed to launch a “listening tour” or just have conversations with a few customers.

Questions? Need help? Don’t hesitate to contact me here.
And feel free to download the complimentary Customer Re-Discovery Playbook with more tips and tools.
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You’re a B2B professional services firm. Your people are the product. So what message does it send to your web site visitors when they’re greeted by image like the one above? Basically the message is that you didn’t want to invest the time and budget to showcase your actual people.

Listen up–reality is the new marketing. Using photos of fake people only puts another barrier between you and your customer or prospect. But showing real people draws them in.

Hear my rant on the subject–and see how one company, CrossCountry Consulting, is doing it right–in the video above.

 

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