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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Elizabeth Shea, founder and CEO of Speakerbox Communications, heard me speak last year about how to find out what’s really important to your customers. To her credit, she embraced the concept and my methodology and had some very eye-opening conversations with several Speakerbox clients.  As is often the case, what Elizabeth thought was her firm’s primary value proposition was different than what the clients thought.  I’ll be interviewing her in a blog post soon to share those details.

Meantime, Elizabeth invited me to share my message at a Speakerbox happy hour for clients and other tech CEOs and marketers. Not only did I have a blast presenting but there was a rather extended Q&A session with some of the most thought-provoking and penetrating questions I’ve encountered–always a good sign that your audience is tracking with you.

Speakerbox broadcast the talk on Facebook Live–see it here:


And here are the slides themselves:


Happy listening!



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You may have heard me talk about listening to your target audience to make sure you know their real pain points, priorities and perceptions. Some of you have seen our Customer Re-Discovery Playbook–and you get the idea.

But you still might not know how or where to start.

The answer is a simple email to 10 to 15 of your customers and prospects asking if they are willing to give their perspective on a few things. That’s the first step. And to make it even easier, below I have provided the actual email templates my clients have used to set up hundreds of calls.  I estimate that the acceptance rate (the percent of those who agree to chat) on these emails is about 80%–which proves that customers are more than willing to share their thoughts.


Email Template 1: Longer, More Formal Version

Subject: Requesting a 20 minute call to get your perspective.

Dear (first name):

I hope this note finds you well.

I wanted to touch base to see how things are going in general and also to ask if you would be able to participate in a research project that we’re undertaking.

By way of background, (company name) is doing some strategic planning around our positioning in the marketplace—and a critical step in refining our efforts is to get an outside, real-world perspective on the challenges people like you are facing in certain areas and how you—and your organizations—may be addressing them.

To that end, I’d like to see if you would be able to participate in a 20 – 30 minute, one-on-one phone interview with (me or name of interviewer). We are just looking for your experience and candid perspective; this will be very valuable in helping us focus our efforts.

Please let me know if you are willing and able to participate. If so, just send a couple dates/times when you’re free.  Or, if you prefer, we have set up an online scheduling link so you can quickly book a date and time that works best for you: (use TimeTrade.com or Calendly).

Your involvement would be greatly appreciated!  If you have any questions, please feel free to reach me at (phone) or (email).

Best regards,

(Your name)

Email Template 2: Quick, Informal Version for Customers

Subject: Quick request if you can.

Hi, (name). Hope you’re doing well.

A quick request if you are willing/able. We are refining our go-to-market approach and messaging and would love to get a real-world customer perspective from you. I would like to have a 20 minute call to ask a few questions—just your opinion on a few things related to (your industry or their job function).

Please let me know. If so, just send me a couple dates/times when you’re free. Or feel free to use his scheduling link to find a date/time that works for you: (use TimeTrade.com or Calendly).

Really appreciate the support.


(Your name)

I hope you find these templates useful. And as always, I welcome your feedback.

Haven’t read the Customer Re-Discovery Playbook? Request a copy here. It outlines everything you need to know about the process, including who to target, the questions to ask and how to ask them.

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https://soundcloud.com/maliphonpadith-soarpodcast/ep31-bob-londonMali Phonpadith is a gifted, soulful person who is one of the most generous people I’ve come across in business. Her podcast series is worth a listen–I recommend starting with this one, featuring me (ha!).

Click here or below to enjoy.

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If there’s one quote that sums up my extremely jovial but pointed interview with Sales Guru Ian Altman, it’s this:

“It’s the company’s responsibility to arm salespeople with stuff that matters to the customer. But ‘stupid marketing’ makes it hard for sales people to do their jobs well.”

Here’s the link.



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I thought I’d share a cool outcome from a workshop I did with a peer advisory/networking group. I recommend anyone who is part of a Vistage, EO or other peer advisory group to try this as a fantastic way to test the “stickiness” and customer-centricity of your company’s messaging.

Here’s How to Play

  1. Start with two Volunteers, seated side by side at the front of the room.
  2. Volunteer 1 goes to a soundproof booth backstage. (If you don’t have a soundproof booth or stage handy, they can just leave the room.)
  3. Volunteer 2 gives Volunteer 1’s elevator pitch from memory.
  4. #1 comes back, recites his/her own pitch.
  5. Audience votes on how well both elevator pitches match, discusses which one was better and why. (Yes, sometimes the other person nails your pitch better than you can.)
  6. Repeat 1 – 5 until everyone has played both roles.

The Twist

The Volunteers who give their peers’ elevator pitches can feel a bit anxious because they think they’re being tested on their recall. After all, when a group meets every month or quarter for several years, you should know each other’s messaging pretty well, right? But that is not the test. The game actually reveals how sticky the other Volunteer’s (the one in the “soundproof booth”) messaging is. The more relevant (not necessarily clever or catchy) their message is, the stickier and more memorable it will be.

The Lesson

Our messages are usually forgettable because we start with the wrong perspective: Our own. We start talking about our company, our product, our features. In today’s noisy, customer-first world, this doesn’t cut it any more. How do we know this? Just ask yourself how many terrible, one-way elevator pitches you’ve been subjected to. Or sales pitches. Or investor presentations.


What makes your messaging sticky? When it connects it to a problem or need the other person or the target audience can relate to. But it can’t be the same old problem your competitors are talking about. It has to be authentic. Which means it might be a problem or need that is unspoken or non-obvious.

I call these hidden problems your target audience’s Elevator Rant. I’ve listed some questions you should ask your target audience to discover their Elevator Rant.

Now Incorporate the Elevator Rant into Your Pitch

After you’ve determined your target audience’s Elevator Rant. Remember, it’s not often what you think, so you have to do some research here. Ask your fellow group members what their reactions are to the type of service or product you provide. (To help you along, here’s a link to a free e-Book.)

Then, practice using the rant to lead off your pitch. Here are four approaches you can use to frame your pitch using the target audience’s Elevator Rant:

Why Was The Newlywed Game Such an Effective Part of My Workshop?

This was a room full of people who are all buyers in addition to sellers. So listening to elevator pitches with their “buyer” hats on reinforced everyone’s personal experience as “pitchees,” which is that:

They hate–and then forget–pitches that are all about the pitcher–descriptors, features, etc.; and
They tend to remember pitches that feature a problem they can relate to–and include an outcome or benefit.

Then I did a demonstration that became the real “eye opener,” according to the participants. One young woman–I’ll call her Sally–volunteered to frame her elevator pitch with what she believed was her target audience’s rant. She gave a good effort but got a few words into it and realized it sounded very pitchy (I also call this a “selfie-style” pitch). She hadn’t thought through what the rant would be.

“No worries,” I said, “that’s why we’re here! To work on it.”

So I asked the group–“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear (the woman’s industry segment)?” Remember these people all work in or around the same industry ecosystem and have been meeting together for a year or two; therefore, I thought they’d be a good proxy for her target audience.

(For the sake of demonstration, let’s say she was in the promotional products business–pens, hats and shirts with your company logo).

Well, I was right. One guy–let’s call him Marcus–said, “The first thing I think of when hear (that industry segment) is ‘pretty brochures.'” Sally was taken aback. I was a bit as well. So I asked Marcus, “Why would you boil her industry down to “pretty brochures?”

“Because,” he replied, “the covers of her brochures are all full of what I’d call ‘trophy’ products–big, custom expensive items that you only need once in a blue moon. But I’m almost always looking for basic, utilitarian products.”

Hushed silence for a few seconds. Sally was thrown off at first and seemed as though she might get defensive. Then it clicked. Here was her new pitch:

“We’re know for our glossy brochures with amazing and expensive looking promotional products…but turn the page and you’ll see we also have a fantastic variety of basic, every day products. And for all of our products, we’ll match any price you show us.”

Sally drops mic. Applause. End of workshop.

There was a bit of an epilogue which was also instructive to the participants. Sally said to Marcus, “Well, this helps explain why you’ve never done business with me!” “Why would I do business with you?” challenged Marcus. Sally exclaimed, “Because I sell promotional items and you’re a marketing director!” “Well, the fact is you just assumed I’m the decision-maker on those–but I’m not,” deadpanned Marcus.

Eye opening for sure.

BONUS: Sample Questions that Reveal the Elevator Rant

  1. What are your top 2 – 3 priorities for the board?
  2. What is our industry’s reputation—good or bad?
  3. What’s your worst fear about investing in (product or service)?
  4. What would make you a customer for life?

(Promo Alert: Download a Free e-Book on How to Discover Your Customer’s Perspective here.)

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In one of their recent e-newsletters, software product design shop Viget immediately got my attention with this intro:

Research has an image problem. A word-association game for the word research might yield results like “methodical” and “academic” – not exactly words that resonate with digital product owners and CMOs. However, research is really about asking the right questions at the right time.

Spot on! Research no longer requires a heavy, foreboding, complex, months-long process conducted by “researchers” (aka academics not marketers). Most research should be defined by whatever is necessary to serve the business purpose or outcome. I highly recommend reading the associated article titled, “9 Tips for Doing Fast, Lightweight Research at an Agency.” It’s geared towards agency folks but has practical advice for all marketers, product teams and general management.

Here’s a tip I love:

Don’t Wait Until You Have a Research Plan

Start recruiting research participants before you know exactly what you’re going to do with them. Waiting until you have a perfect plan is a great way to lose your momentum or talk yourself out of doing research altogether. I’ve been guilty of this more than once.

Coming from the perspective of academic research, I’ve had to unlearn the tendency to be ultra-prepared. Flexibility and improvisation are anathema to academic research, but essential to design research.

Read the rest here: “9 Tips for Doing Fast, Lightweight Research at an Agency.”  As far as reducing the time required to schedule client conversations, Viget has apparently built a tool called powwow, mentioned in their article. While I haven’t used it, I have saved hundreds of hours by using TimeTrade or Calendly.

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In my talk, “You Are Not the Customer,” I use the following data from SpiceWorks that demonstrates “The Disconnect Between Marketers and IT Buyers.” I encourage you to download the entire study.  A big takeaway, highlighted by the blue and red darts, is that “IT buyers rely on targeted communities while marketers focus on broad social networks.”

New Report on “The B2B Buying Disconnect”

Recently, vendor review company TrustRadius released another significant study along those same lines, titled, “The B2B Buying Disconnect,” that also surveyed buyers and sellers.  This report strongly bolsters and provides additional insights into my points about the yawning gap between B2B marketers and buyers…and how to close it.

Highlights from this report include:

“Vendors are focusing on providing materials that buyers don’t find very useful or trustworthy.”
  • My Take: Marketers continue to talk past their customers with too much fluff and not enough substance that will assist B2B buyers in their research process.
“Buyers want hands-on experience with the product and insights from customers.”
  • My take: Software buyers aren’t just saying, “don’t tell me, show me,” they’re saying, “let me try it for myself before I buy it.” This implies a relative lack of trust in what the vendor “says” vs. what the vendor has actually built.
“Vendors see their role as strategic, yet most buyers said the vendor played a pragmatic role.”
  • My Take: Vendors that want more strategic discussions with buyers have to deliver insights and value that is actually meaningful to the vendor. Vendors that simply set up demos and provide product spec’s are not considered strategic.

I strongly recommend you download a free copy of the report here.

The overall takeaway

B2B companies need to immediately acknowledge the longstanding disconnect in the way they market–the messaging, channels and tactics as well as the sales process–to ensure everything aligns with the way buyers want to research and make purchase decisions. Companies must increase the level of transparency, insights and substance in their marketing and sales activities to make it easier for prospects to do research and buy.

One reason for the disconnect, In my experience, is that not nearly enough B2B marketers spend enough time meeting directly with customers and prospects–outside of sales meetings. The insights they glean will help them get a first-hand understanding of real pain points, use cases and the real-world language (not marketing speak) that the target audience uses every day.

So the call to action here is that directors and above of marketing, product marketing, product  management and even marcom should schedule a “listening tour” of about two dozen customers, lost customers, active prospects and lost prospects.

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Speaking of “transparency,” I like the TrustRadius mission:

To bring transparency to the world of enterprise technology by helping technology users learn from their peers to find better solutions, implement them more effectively, and share best practices. In doing so, we aim to bring efficiencies to both the buying and selling process, thereby allowing vendors to increase their investments in product improvements and customer service based upon client feedback.

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