We all know about the so-called honeymoon period in business: the time at the beginning of a new job when an executive can sit back and absorb and assess the way things work, who the power players are and where the bodies are buried–without being expected to make any great decisions or pronouncements. It’s a no-fault grace period which can last as long as several months depending on the role and company.

But there’s another less-talked about phase executives can leverage to their advantage: The Blame Window. This is the period during which you can legitimately hold your predecessor responsible for the challenges you are now facing.

One might naturally ask, as I did, how long after you’ve assumed a new role can you blame your predecessor? And how would one go about throwing him or her under the bus? My research yielded no credible answers to these questions, so I developed the following handy formula to help executives calculate their available Blame Window:

Here is an example–fictitious of course–to show how the formula works.

Let’s say Don takes over as President of a large, established enterprise (240+ years), which is struggling with how to maintain a leadership position in a global market. The company has significant debt ($20+ trillion) and a burn rate of about $441 billion per year.

After 4 weeks on the job, Don claims he “inherited a mess.” He bemoans the things that are not running smoothly, which is in turn giving employees fodder and motivation to leak negative stories to the media. Don’s predecessor held the post for 8 years.

Q: Can Don blame his predecessor?

A: Absolutely not! Using the former President’s tenure of 8 years, divided by Don’s tenure of 4 weeks, even when multiplied by the highest Problem Magnitude factor of 0.9 results in a Blame Window of 3.6 weeks. Since Don has already held the position for 4 weeks, he is already past the Blame Window. So his problems are his own. No blaming allowed.

Caution: If not used judiciously, this formula can be dangerous. Here are some important tips to remember:

First, make sure you get the math right. There is nothing more embarrassing than miscalculating the Blame Window and having the whole situation blow up in your face. Set some reminders in Outlook 90, 60, 30 and 7 days prior to the expiration of the Blame Window so you will know when to stop blaming your predecessor.

Second, do your homework before you start laying on the criticism. Was your predecessor revered or scorned? Respected or tolerated? Make sure to get these and other data points before you start spraying around accusations. The last thing you want to do is tear into someone who is a legend or, worse, someone who is deceased.

Third, make sure to select the right way of broaching the subject with your superiors. Here are some preambles to get you started:

Jocular: “Gee, if I’d known all this before I would have asked for a lot more money, ha-ha-ha!”

Nothing Personal, Just Business: “I’m sure <name of predecessor> was a good guy, but…”

Delicate but Direct: “I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone, but now that I’ve gotten my feet wet…”

Mildly Annoyed: “I have to tell you I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into here…”

Threatening: “If you think I’m going to take the fall for any of this, you can just find yourself another President.”

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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 had a blast being interviewed on the Bootstrapped podcast, courtesy of the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship where I’m privileged to serve as Entrepreneur in Residence. Co-hosts Elana Fine, Managing Director Dingman, and Joe Bailey, Associate Research Professor, Robert H. Smith School of Business, are excellent interviewers who asked me some thought provoking questions.  As you’ll hear there were plenty of laughs along the way.

Why should you listen? To quote the Dingman web site,

During a time when there is a constant “war for customer’s attention,” London advocates for listening. If your startup is not getting customers, try asking someone, “What would make you a customer for life?” Starting with a customer’s “elevator rants” or complaints about a product or service makes for a solid foundation for a new enterprise.

Enjoy the podcast.

Link to the Dingman site here.


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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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