After being somewhat clueless and feeling somewhat but not super successful for the early part of my professional life, I finally found my professional passion about 6 years ago. Luckily, it happened to intersect with my sweet spot–what I’m great at. But the only reason I can or would use the terms “sweet spot” or “great,” about myself is because that’s what a dozen or so of my clients and colleagues told me during a “listening tour” I did 6 summers ago.

I asked them a simple question (try it sometime):

“Hey, I know I’m good at a bunch of things, but is there something you think I’m great at?”

(See the answer I received at the bottom of this post.)

What’s your sweet spot? Don’t assume it…ask!

When people are referred to me to discuss their next career opportunity, I ask them, “What’s your sweet spot? What are you great at?” This helps me position them relative to opportunities I may come across in my travels. If I only ask “what did you do at your last job,” “what skills do you have,” and “what industries are you looking at?” I won’t really get a sense of the value they have added or can add.

When they tell me their sweet spot, I then ask: “How do you know that?” They typically don’t have a great answer. My sense is that it is based on their own sense of themselves: an informal inventory of successes (and perhaps failures) they’ve had, combined with what they like to do. In other words, their answer is completely biased by their own perspective.

Others reply to the “sweet spot” question by saying they don’t really know. Sometimes they’re a bit down about that–as though they feel guilty about not knowing the answer. Some have trouble answering altogether and give rambling answers with three or more job functions they’ve performed or they say they’re like a Swiss Army Knife–a flexible and multi-talented generalist.

But matter how they answer, I always recommend that they go out and ask people in their network–trusted colleagues, clients, mentors and vendors–the same question I asked about myself:

“Hey, I know I’m good at a bunch of things, but is there something you think I’m great at?”

The outside, independent perspective you get will be priceless. Hopefully you will get you some consistent answers about what you’re great at so you can draw conclusions. You might be surprised at what they think you’re great at vs. what you thought. Plus, just asking them the question will make a positive impression, showing them you want to listen and learn.

Once you get the answers, map them against what you enjoy about your profession. How do others’ perceptions of you overlay with what you really like to do? The overlap of what people say you’re great at and what you most enjoy or get satisfaction from is your sweet spot.

Having the answer to the “sweet spot” question will give you a strong foundation to work from when looking for your next opportunity. Rather than saying, “I think my sweet spot is…” you can now confidently say, “Here’s what people have told me I’m great at,” and give examples to support your answer. Explain how you came to really enjoy that type of work. Tell them you get these insights from doing your own personal listening tour–that’ll blow their minds!

Is there risk in asking people this question?

Sure. Although you’re asking people you know and trust, some may still hedge when they answer, leaving you feeling let down. And others might not give you the answer you “wanted” or expected. That happened to me: there were a few things I thought I was great at that they didn’t mention. Oh well, better to take a risk by asking the question and finding out the truth rather than being clueless.

There’s a huge lesson here for companies, not just individuals.

Companies should never guess or assume what they’re great at based solely on internal dialogues or brainstorming sessions. CEOs, CMOs and others insisting on and lead a more introspective approach that brings in the market’s perspective. Otherwise you risk talking to yourselves and talking past the market.

I’ve worked with and mentored dozens of CEOs and companies on listening to customers and prospects to improve their marketing and sale outreach. In every case, the customer insights were surprising. Customers revealed non-obvious pain points and preferences (I call them Elevator Rants) that companies had not focused on. By learning and embracing these Rants, my clients were able to stop talking past their customers and prospects in marketing-speak and start being more relevant and engaging in their marketing and sales strategies. See examples here.

Happy listening!

—————

What did people say I’m great at during my listening tour?

The overwhelming majority of people I asked gave a two-fold answer: (a) engaging with a business at a deeper level and forcing them (in a nice way) to look at things from their target audience’ perspective to learn what that audience really thinks and needs; and (b) translating those insights (I call it them Elevator Rants) into hyper-relevant and laser-focused strategies that create competitive advantage. And this is what I love to do–ask my clients’ customers what really matters to them and then create marketing strategies that address those points.

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Over the years I’ve often found myself at odds with the marketing-industrial complex–the trends, shiny objects, parades and bells and whistles of tactics, strategies, channels and tools that seem to change in popularity every couple years. It isn’t that none of those things work–it’s that marketers will tell you they work before knowing whether they are actually appropriate for your business, given your stage, priorities, budget, target, etc.

However, I am very happy to report that one of the most stubbornly embedded and intrinsic aspects of B2B marketing may be shifting in the right direction: The longstanding tendency for companies to spend money on marketing and sales campaigns that portray THEIR perspective, not their customers’ perspective.

I call this Selfie-Style Marketing.

I’ll explain Selfie-Style Marketing by describing one of the best-received parts of my talks/pitches: First, I announce with great flair that I have brought a gift for the host of the event. I then show a slide with a huge picture of…ME! “I brought you a picture of me. Isn’t that great?” Big laughs. I then show a big picture of my host. “Isn’t that better? Can’t you think of all the ways you can use this?”

The point of course is that too often, companies invest in marketing that is all about them–which means it may not be relevant to the target audience.

Selfie-Style Marketing infects web sites, leave behinds (aptly named since customers usually leave them on the conference table), ads, speeches, sales scripts, social media (“Here’s a pic of our AWESOME team playing foosball at our AMAZING co-working space!”) and hundreds of other marketing activities.

Selfie-Style Marketing tosses fluffy narrative (“marketing speak”) in the path of customers who want details and substance so they can complete their buying research. Selfie-Style Marketing focuses on features when buyers are looking for use cases and proof. Selfie-Style Marketing makes me cringe.

Selfie-Style Marketing screams, “Look at me!”

But things may be changing for the better.

I hear more thought/opinion leaders trying to educate CXOs on the importance of understanding and addressing the customers’ perspective BEFORE deciding on a strategy and absolutely before spending money on campaigns. I see an increase in marketing activities that leverage insights about their customers to establish relevance.

I wish I could take credit for this trend. But kudos really goes to the customer. They are increasingly voting with their wallets by leaning towards vendors that “get it”–vendors that recognize that they cannot dictate what is relevant. As a customer, you may not even realize you are helping cause this shift. But keep doing what you’re doing–it’s good for all of us.

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After recently attending a massive trade show for the food and restaurant equipment industry, I have some important observations. First, I had no idea there were so many types of fake display foods that look so real. The rubber burgers and plastic sushi looked good enough to munch on. And I was about to steal a bite of a luscious-looking 9-layer chocolate cake until I learned it was synthetic–spawned from a 3-D printer.

OK, on to a more substantive observation: The food equipment industry–like any other tangible product sector–tends to lead with the products themselves to draw attendees in and elicit ooh’s and aah’s. I get that. If you were at a car show you’re there to see the latest Bugatti and Ferrari, not hear about warranties, right? And I admit I was blown away by the latest gleaming 12-burner gas stove, giant cylindrical rotating, 9-foot high, glass-front baking oven and unmanned, robotic floor scrubber. And I’m sure the performance spec’s (reduced time to max heat, cooking speed, low energy draw, etc.) were impressive.

But amidst all the shiny objects on display, one exhibitor, Perlick, drew by very large, sustained crowds throughout the show. Throngs of equipment dealers, food service managers and restaurant owners gathered to watch and hear this company’s pitchman give a 20 minute demo, which he repeated throughout the day.

What was so special about this booth? Was it the product (a cocktail station)? Was it the pitchman’s humor? Was it the tagline high above the booth? Were they giving away free booze?

The answer is none of the above (although the pitchman was pretty engaging). It turns out, unlike most of the other exhibitors, Perlick made an intentional effort to articulate and lead with the customers’ perspective–or Elevator Rant, as I call it.

Here’s how they did it

The “pitchman” wasn’t just an entertainer. It was actually Tobin Ellis, a former bartender who’s now a leading hospitality consultant (known as “the Godfather of Flair Bartending”). In Ellis’ pitch, he explained from the restaurant/bar owner’s perspective the problems of inefficiency and lost productivity caused by typical underbar systems…resulting in sub-optimal return on investment. Ellis also demonstrated the literal pain bartenders feel as they contort their bodies in all sorts of unnatural ways to reach this bottle or that ice machine–for 8 hours a day. (“Now imagine doing this for 40 hours a week–for 10 years!” he said.) Talk about walking in the customer’s shoes.

Ellis showed how Perlick’s new underbar system was ergonomically and logistically designed based on actual input from bartenders to maximize efficiency and productivity and reduce the physical stress of reaching too far or stretching awkwardly, over and over again. So if you’re a restaurant owner whose Elevator Rant is around productivity and efficiency–or employee retention or turnover, sick days or health care costs, this pitch was spot on.

Here’s where the story gets even better

It turns out that Perlick had worked with Ellis to conceive and design this new underbar system to ensure that it incorporated bar owners’ and bartenders’ actual Elevator Rants. This is a perfect storm for marketers: By aligning the product development, the product, the value proposition, the pitch–and the pitchman–around the customer’s Elevator Rant, Perlick quickly generated credibility and authority, which in turn drew the large crowds–and kept them engaged.

What does mean for your business?

When planning your next product launch, PR push or trade show–or any marketing initiative for that matter–ask yourself these questions:

“Should we lead with the customers’ Elevator Rant (pain point) when developing and promoting our product or service–vs. focusing on features and benefits?”

and

“Do we know our customers’ Elevator Rant?”

The short answer to the first question is “absolutely, yes.” Here’s why:

In today’s increasingly customer-first world marketplace, B2B buyers perform more than half of their research and buying process online before they ever contact a vendor or dealer. Chances are they have read about your product and features–and your competitors’–online during their research process. So it’s harder to grab their attention and differentiate with a cool feature.

But leading with a statement that shows how well you understand their true perspective, problems, objectives and priorities (not the typical platitudes) is a proven way to grab buyers’ attention and differentiate your pitch. Remember, customers are human beings, so they have emotional reactions when a marketer strikes the right chord–as Perlick clearly did.

How to Discover Your Customers’ Elevator Rant

To discover your customers’ Elevator Rant and increase the relevance of your marketing and sales efforts, download a complimentary copy of our “Shut Up & Listen” Playbook. This step-by-step guide gives you everything you need to learn customers’ rants that you can turn them into competitive advantages.
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February 21, 2017

What is an Elevator Rant?

The Elevator Rant is what people in your target audience say about your business, your product or service or your industry when you’re not around (on the proverbial or literal elevator). They think the rant–but might not share it out loud. Or they share it with a colleague–but not you. Elevator Rants tend to come out before or after sales meetings–but not during.

Why don’t they tell you?  Perhaps you you didn’t ask the right questions. Maybe customers assumed their thoughts were outside the scope of your discussion. Or that you’ll get defensive or make excuses.  Or just maybe they don’t think you’ll take their comments to heart.

Elevator Rants might not relate directly to a customer’s primary pain point but rather a latent pain point or side-annoyance. But we’ve found that if enough customers experience that same side-annoyance, it can become your key differentiator. Rants are unvarnished and raw. They’re real and they’re powerful. And the amazing thing about customers’ Elevator Rants is that they’re their for the asking. You just need to pose the right questions in the right way. Chances are they’ll be the questions your competitors haven’t thought to ask.

To discover your customers’ Elevator Rant and increase the relevance of your marketing and sales efforts, download a complimentary copy of the “Shut Up & Listen” Playbook. This step-by-step guide gives you everything you need to learn customers’ rants that you can turn them into competitive advantages.
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What the Dalai Lama actually said was,

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”  

But if I’m being totally candid, sometimes I wish the Dalai Lama had been a bit more direct in explaining the value of listening instead of talking. Especially business people–and marketers in particular.

If you think about it, the vast majority of time and money we invest in marketing and sales is on outreach. Social media, content marketing, email campaigns, telemarketing, inbound marketing, events, account-based marketing. Sometimes it feels like the flavor of the year–or month.

And when you add it all up our customers just hear and see a giant wall of noise. Which of course makes it harder for each subsequent marketing and sales message to get through. That about sums up today’s marketing-industrial complex, a battle of mutually assured destruction where companies are trying to break through the clutter–but end up just creating more of it.

What can we do to prevent wasting our collective breath (and budgets) shouting at the marketplace? The answer–which I’ve learned over the course of 20+ years in the marketing wars–is shockingly simple:

Before we open the marketing an sales floodgates (or shoot the lock off the company’s wallet, as a former colleague says), we must spend more time getting the customer’s real perspective. It’s there for the asking.

By posing the right questions in the right way–in the right setting–you will get new insights that will supercharge your business. Clearer positioning, more meaningful differentiators and more relevant messaging.

These are the foundations of successful marketing and sales that too often get overlooked.  Get them right and all of your marketing and sales investments work harder.

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I see so many sales people going into battle unarmed.  Not just lacking the right materials but the right value proposition and differentiators.  So they have to hack away in the Commodity Sand Trap, chasing large quantities of prospects and hosting luxury suite or Scotch tasting events.

When the Marketing Gods do hand down a carefully crafted elevator pitch, it’s usually so crammed full of generic pablum and complex jargon that the customer either drifts off to sleep or has to hire a lexicographer to decode it. So Sales dutifully tosses it and creates their own version–which is usually more connected to the target audience’s real world situations.

Let’s be clear: It is Marketing’s job to develop a razor sharp value proposition and hyper-relevant differentiators. They need to “hear through” the feedback from sales (and other sources) about why customers do and don’t buy and be able to abstract or boil the information up (or down) to its essence. Developing a great value prop and differentiators requires two things:

  • You have to actually say something: No vaporous phrases like “multi-point solution provider” are allowed. For them to stick and have any impact, the value prop and differentiators have to have some teeth. Which means you have to stand something–preferably one thing–and trim away the fat. Invariably, someone in the organization (perhaps even the CEO) will say, “You left out the fact that we are global,” to which you can reply, “I know.” If they persist, tell them, “For our investor relations and global sales messaging, we will definitely include ‘global.'” But for 95% of our sales folks, it just adds words that clutter up the main message.” If they keep pushing it, look for another job.
  • What you stand for has be incredibly relevant and valuable to your target audience: This sounds obvious, but if everyone abided by this advice, we wouldn’t be hearing all those instantly forgettable, toothless elevator pitches every time we go to an event. The challenge here is that being relevant requires someone in the company (I’m talking to you, Marketing) to actually go out and talk to real decision-makers, human to human. I usually recommend 5 – 7 conversations with each of the following: current customers, active prospects and those who haven’t engaged with your company at all. By asking the right questions, you can learn what real humans think is the sweet spot of your company / product / service (the problem you’re better than anyone else at solving); their purchase and decision drivers (so you can improve your top-of-funnel messaging); and why they decided to buy from you–or not. Bottom line: Only by engaging with customers in a non-sales context can you (ahem, Marketing) understand what the world looks like from their perspective. Which then allows you to craft a relevant an powerful value prop and differentiators.

So Sales–next time you find yourself editing an Elevator Pitch late one evening, stop. Instead send it to Marketing with a note that says, “Hey, Bob London says this is your job!” and then go have a cocktail.

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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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