Right now, someone is coming to your website or contacting one of your salespeople, already convinced that they need something similar to what you're selling, but not sure if they should buy it from you. They have questions.
They look for the answers to those questions on your website, or ask your salesperson. But they don't find the answers, or your attempts to answer those questions don't satisfy them. They walk away empty-handed.
You've just lost the sale. All because you didn't know what their real concerns were - so, of course, you didn't answer their questions successfully. Instead, you did what everyone does. You assumed you knew what their questions and concerns were and recited your boilerplate answers to the assumed questions. And, just like everyone else, you were wrong.
You could turn this situation around, in a couple of weeks, without spending any money, using the resources currently at your disposal. Here is a simple system that works - no matter what you're selling or who you're selling it to.
The system consists of three parts: Discovery, Debate, and Deploy.
Most people fail to sell as much as they could because they skip the Discovery part. They think they know, because their salespeople tell them what customers said. But customers go to great lengths to hide their real thoughts from salespeople, while they are being sold to. So this is misleading or incomplete information. Or, they depend on surveys, which don't even begin to reveal what customers really think when they're making a buying decision. People don't reveal thought processes in surveys.
Armed with insufficient and misleading information, company marketers jump right into the debate and deployment phases of their marketing effort, then discover that what they're doing doesn't work.
It's an incredible shame, because all that a proper Discovery process requires is a little bit of humility, a phone, and a set of open-ended questions that have been tested over thousands of customer interviews. (I list the questions and reveal the science and art of successful interviewing in Chapter 3 of Roadmap to Revenue.)
Your customers won't tell you what they're thinking when you're selling to them. But they will be more than happy to tell you what they were thinking if you ask them after they buy, the right way. They will do everything they can to help you be successful, because they want you to stay in business. They will be able to tell you everything about the buying process that went smoothly and everything that needs to be improved.
I ran across an interview recently of an entrepreneur (Marcus Sheridan) who figured out how to answer customer questions - the questions his customers were really asking. (Note: if you don't see the video in Firefox, try Explorer). He's selling fiberglass swimming pools, and one of the questions he answers on his site - unlike his competitors - is "how much do fiberglass pools cost?" That one blog post alone has generated over 200,000 views in 2.5 years.
He talks about leads being "sales ready." That is the key to the Roadmap system. You want to answer as many questions as possible before the customer contacts you or buys from you. But you have to know what the questions are. And you don't know, because by the time you hear from a customer, many of their questions have been answered by others, including customers, competitive content, blogs, and discussion groups. It's easier than ever to find others with similar needs or interests, and to ask them what they think of a product or service.
After conducting thousands of interviews for clients, I can say without reservation that your assumptions never, ever match the perceptions held by your customers, including what drove the customer to buy your product or service.
Almost all sellers fail to answer the questions that buyers have. Take a look at dozens of "About" sections on websites, for example, and see how many of them fail to include pictures of executives. Buyers come to the About section to answer this question: "Who are these people?" A mission statement about how you strive to be the best does not answer this question. To a customer, the missing pictures say, "We don't want you to see who we are."
When I conduct the interviews for my clients, I start to see trends by the fifth call. The trends are locked in by the seventh call. If you are conducting interviews for the first time, assume you'll have to talk to at least ten customers of a given type, simply because you'll get better as you go. That's what I've found as I train others to conduct these interviews.
What you learn in the interviews will tell you what you have been doing wrong, what you could be doing better, and what you have to do to make it easier for your buyers to buy. You won't be guessing anymore; you will KNOW what you should be doing to make more sales, and what you can and should stop doing. That confidence alone is priceless.
As John Jantsch says in a recent article, nothing matters more to business success than clarity. The fastest way to get revenue-growth clarity is to understand what your customers are really thinking.
You will share your findings with your team in a report (again, best practices are spelled out in the book), then meet to discuss the findings and decide what to do. This time, the customer will be "in the room" with you when you debate.
That matters, because only the customer can make your revenues go up. The decisions you make in this meeting will please new and existing customers. That matters, because prospective customers are going to current customers for recommendations, even before they go to Google. That's what buyers have been telling me this year.
This is yet another reason why calling current customers is so important. You'll find out what they're saying about you - and what they're saying about you either brings new customers your way or sends them away.
In your meeting, you will also map out your customer's buying process, so you can be in sync with it at every step. You will build an action plan - including a marketing machine. You will agree on everything that needs to be started, fixed, or changed. You will assign owners, timelines, goals, and metrics.
Everyone in the room will have created marketing and selling plans before, but their decisions were directed by their assumptions, not customers. Assumptions don't pay. Customer-driven decisions pay handsomely, every single time.
A little time and effort spent on the Discovery phase makes all the difference in the world.
Steve O'Keefe, co-founder and COO of SixEstate, a newsblogging company, recently experienced the Roadmap to Revenue method for himself. He recently blogged about his experience, in an article entitled "Case Study: The Zhivago Method." Here's what he discovered - about himself, his business, and his customers. Reprinted with permission.
What are the factors that drive customers to your door? You might think you know the answer to that question. I thought I did.
Then I met Kristin Zhivago. She attended a webinar on The Benefits of a Top-Five Blog I produced for the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). I later requested a meeting at Book Expo America, but Kristin couldn’t attend. She asked for a phone appointment instead to discuss an online PR campaign for her new book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy.
We immediately hit it off. Kristin is a no-nonsense, get-down-to-business management consultant. We fairly quickly agreed to exchange online marketing services for management consulting, and we embarked on The Zhivago Method.
The Zhivago Method
I’m not going to review Kristin’s book because I think it’s unethical to review a book I’m being paid to promote. However, I’m on safe ground reviewing her services as a management consultant, which we have paid for.
Zhivago’s main principle is deceptively simple: If you want to know how to increase sales, ask your customers.
There is a whole philosophy twisted up inside that sentence. Notice that you don’t ask your employees, as some suggest, because they’re usually not your biggest customers. You don’t ask suppliers. You don’t ask the Internet. You don’t implement some plan you read about in a book or online — unless it’s based on first asking the customer.
Another twist in this sentence is: You can’t reason through this yourself — bright as you are, with all your experience running your own company for many years. The only one who knows what it’s like to be a customer of yours is a customer.
I feel like I know my business better than anyone. I’ve studied it, I’ve experimented, I’ve had the benefit of watching hundreds of students work out novel solutions to online marketing problems. My clients pay me because I am an expert. So why should I ask my clients how to run my business?
And there’s the next twist in the concept: Zhivago responded that I’m not asking my customers how to run my business. I’m asking them about their buying process. How did they come to choose me? Why did they choose me?
Once I realized my expertise was not going to be called into question through these surveys, I became less defensive. Only a customer knows how they came to buy from you. Ask them, and then reverse-engineer a successful sale and replicate it. That is The Zhivago Method in a nutshell. So we asked our customers.
Asking the Customers
Zhivago set up phone interviews from a client list we provided. She says email surveys, Web surveys, and written questionnaires simply won’t tease out the answers you need. Your customers have to be interviewed by someone who knows how to do it and, hopefully, also knows enough about your business to navigate the terminology.
Zhivago records the interviews and sends them out for transcription. She then pores over the interviews looking for common threads, which lead her to a summary document and a set of recommendations.
I didn’t think I would learn much from the interviews I didn’t already know. Was I ever wrong!
The first thing that struck me, reading the transcripts and summaries, was that my clients confused our firm with other vendors. They credited us with campaigns we did not do. They mixed up the services we offer with services offered by competitors.
Initially, I wanted to dismiss the results because they were partly about other companies, not ours. Then I realized that was the result. Your clients can’t keep you straight because they are focused on their own issues, not on you.
I was wrong about what the customers would say. I was wrong to try and dismiss the results. And I was wrong that you don’t really need to interview your customers to learn how to grow sales. There is simply no other way to get this information except by asking the customer, preferably in a phone interview by a trained professional.
Where Do We Go From Here?
You follow the roadmap.
Interview the customers. Summarize the results. Brainstorm with management. Adjust the company’s promises, practices, products, people, and policies. Now go out there and make happy customers!
Again, it’s deceptively simple.
For SixEstate, it means our customers are less interested in our process than their problems. Our site needs to focus on customer goals, not our methods.
From there, we turned the project over to a branding expert — my brother, Kelly O’Keefe, an entrepreneur and professor at the VCU Brandcenter. I’ll save the branding story for another post.
The Zhivago work plus the branding work led to a new vision of the company, a new logo, a new look for the website, and a renewed focus on customer service. We’ll be introducing the new logo and website later this month. The new mindset is firmly in place.
Following the roadmap is not as simple as it sounds. We’ve been at this for over six months. That’s a lot of time to spend on branding for a company that is just two years old. And we still don’t know how “The Shift,” as Zhivago calls it, will affect sales. I’ll report back on that next year.
We do know that following The Zhivago Method has dramatically changed our company - hardening our resolve about our mission, and committing us to our clients' goals rather than our processes.
The intriguing thing about The Zhivago Method is that you are most likely going to get a completely different set of solutions by interviewing your customers. For our company, the message was to be client-centered, not company-centered. For your company, you simply won’t know until you ask.
Steve O’Keefe is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of SixEstate Communications. He has taught Internet PR since 1994 for Tulane University, Stanford University, UCLA Extension, Publishers University, and the PRSA, among others.
Selling was something that worked when the customer knew less than you did. Selling was something that worked when customers had to depend almost exclusively on companies for information about products produced by those companies. Selling was all about "convincing" someone that they "needed" something.
Well, those days are gone, over, kaput. Not in the minds of company managers, sales managers, or salespeople, mind you. Nope, they're still playing the game as if selling still works, and selling still matters. It doesn't.
Customers begin their buying process with a need and a set of questions. Note that the need already exists. They start their research doing one of two things: they search on Google (for Low- to Medium-Scrutiny products and services) or they talk to their peers (for Heavy-Scrutiny and Intense-Scrutiny products and services). They start getting answers and recommendations, from other customers who have purchased the same product or service that they are thinking of buying. In other words, they turn to the Customer Community for answers - using reviews, discussion groups, blogs, and direct contact via email and conversations.
By the time these customers come in contact with a salesperson - or a website serving the role of a salesperson - the Customer Community has already served the role that the salesperson used to perform. Most of their questions have been answered, and the answers have steered them in a particular direction.
So why do we still need salespeople? Well, at some point, towards the end of the customer's buying process, especially in the case of a more complex buying process, some questions will have to be answered by a knowledgeable person. They are situation-specific questions, and questions that involve what it will be like to work with the company selling the product or service: Will this work with MY thing? How much will you charge ME? How long will it take for you to do THIS thing I'm thinking of doing? Will this fit me or my situation? Will I like how you do business with me? Are there people on your staff who can help me? And, the Big Deal Question most commonly asked by buyers and most commonly ignored by sellers and marketers: "What's going to happen to me after I buy?"
In the end, the sale will be made by the company that answers these very specific questions most successfully. "Hunter" salespeople aren't really good at this. "Nurturer" salespeople are much better. They are patient. They don't push. They just keep answering questions or getting the answer from a company specialist until the customer is satisfied.
Unfortunately, most salespeople are only able to answer the questions that the customer has already answered for himself. Salespeople are also trained to "convince" the buyer, which is really stupid, because the buyer already had the need when he started his buying process. His buying process is a search for the best solution to his problem, if a solution exists. It is now the salesperson's game to lose.
We are now experiencing the biggest disconnect that has ever existed between the buyer's process and the seller's process. Buyers are frustrated. Here are just two examples that have landed in my email the last few weeks:
- Very savvy manager is looking for a cloud-based PR/marketing system. "I first contacted them over 5 months ago after responding to an offer for a free iPod in return for sitting through a 30-minute demo online. I was intrigued by their technology. The presentation by the salesman was mechanical and showed no signs of homework and its relevant application. After a month and no followup or iPod, I called them. Turns out my presenter was MIA. After talking with a manager, I was assigned to another salesperson. He was conscientious, but still didn't get what was needed to position their system's offerings to our needs. I am still waiting for the iPod's arrival. Talk about lousy first impressions."
- Another smart business person is looking for a CRM system. "I was asked to sit in on a sales pitch for an accounting package that has CRM and eCommerce. I walked out of the presentation in less than ten minutes. The sales guy was a wind-em-up talking suit, all buzz words. 'We sell to big companies, small companies, 10,000 companies, so buy from us. We are the only alternative of choice versus Oracle and SAP for any high-growth but medium-sized company.' Yada, yada, yada. When my CFO asked a particular question, the guy had no idea which companies were actually like us. When I went to their website, it was all generalizations. No pulldown on CRM, though I eventually found it under the products tab. The different elements of CRM shown there were the right ones, but the descriptions were all too vague to mean anything. 'Gain real-time and accurate visibility into pipeline and forecasts, boost sales efficiency...' I want to talk to someone who can tell me about the struggles of putting it into practice and living with it day-to-day. It was clear from the 5 - 10 minutes that we spent with this guy that he was not going to be able to address any of the practical issues."
These salespeople UN-sold these prospects. These prospects came to them hopeful and left discouraged, even disgusted. They will look elsewhere.
By the time a customer has come to you, the Customer Community has answered many questions, and you are now on the prospect's short list. If your salespeople are selling the "old" (normal) way, you will lose the sale.
- Interview customers who have already bought from you, asking them what their concerns were as they were buying and how you finally successfully addressed those concerns. Map out their buying process and make sure you are aligned with it, at every step. When they take their next move, you should be right there, with exactly what they need. (Instructions here.)
- Make sure their concerns are all addressed on your website, answering the question, "What's going to happen to me after I buy?" Be sure you answer these questions in your content marketing as well, including blogs and emails.
- Make sure your salespeople can answer the very specific questions they will be asked when the customer finally makes contact with you, after the customer has gotten the "generic" questions answered by the Customer Community. If a salesperson can't learn what he needs to learn, or doesn't have the patience to answer questions properly, replace that pushy, superficial hunter with a nurturer. Personal experience with clients has proven to me that nurturers can outsell the hunters.
Buyers have already changed their buying process. You must change your selling process - now - if you don't want to be left in the dust.
I recently gave two keynotes for MarketingSherpa's B2B Summits, and am also doing some webinars for MarketingProfs. Prior to these events, I interviewed marketers who would be attending, so I could meet my goal of delivering presentations that were helpful, eye-opening, and radically career-enhancing.
These interviews are a good example of the Roadmap method in action, and the results were predictably successful. When I did speak in Boston and San Francisco, no one was doing their email or playing with their iPads while I was speaking, and there was a long line of very enthusiastic marketers getting their books signed after I spoke.
During the course of the interviews, one of the questions I asked was: What is the source of your information about customers?
They all said the same thing. Every single one. Small and large companies, newbies and veterans, all kinds of industries.
Their answer, in essence, was: "Everyone else." In other words, they depend on salespeople, third parties, and surveys. They never, ever talk to customers personally.
This is why marketing is broken. This is why so much marketing barely gets a twitch out of the revenue needle. This is why CEOs have so little faith in their marketing people. This is why customers go to websites hoping to find answers and end up clicking away, discouraged and disgusted.
This is the biggest mistake marketers make, and it causes everything they do to be ineffective.
What's absurd about this scenario is that marketers are hired to communicate with customers. Is it possible to market effectively to someone you don't know personally? Nope. Is it smart to depend on "other people" to tell you what customers are thinking? Ridiculous. If someone asked you a series of multiple-choice or true/false questions, would they learn what you were really thinking, what drove you, what you wanted? Would they really know you? Not a chance.
Here's why the three main sources of customer information are so useless.
Depending on salespeople. When was the last time you told a salesperson what you were really thinking? None of us do. We know that if we raise an objection, the salesman will hammer away at it, until we cave.
Customers will not tell you what they are thinking while you are selling to them, but they WILL tell you what they were thinking after they have purchased from you. In their own best interest, for your continued success, they will be incredibly helpful.
Leaving customer contact up to the salespeople means that the salespeople are the only ones in a meeting who can say, with authority, "That's not what our customers want," even though their input is based on the evasions of the last few customers they talked to.
It's the marketer's job to know who customers are, how they think, what they want, how they buy, why they buy, and how they expect the company to treat them. This is why marketers are hired, and their failure to do it is what puts them in the doghouse. They just start cranking out copy, and experimenting with various channels. They can be, and often are, completely off the mark, not supporting the customers' buying process at all, and never addressing the customers' real concerns.
Third-party analysts. When I read any analyst’s report on marketing, half the time I'm gagging. I read one recently where the author was telling marketers how to proceed with their social media strategy. Where were they supposed to start? By interviewing their CEO. Now, that's not a bad idea - I recommend to marketers that they do that every six months, to make sure they're still aligned with the CEO's thinking. But at no point did the author recommend that the marketer primarily interview customers.
So the analyst’s “strategy” really boiled down to this: Want to succeed? Kiss up! Find out what the CEO wants, and give it to her!
This is the well-trodden path to failure, with ruts in the road a mile deep. Its practitioners will be fired within a couple of years. Real-world CEOs don't want flattery. They hate it. They see flattery as a red flag. They want the truth - and results. I've been very successful delivering those two things for years now, and my secret weapon has been exactly what I'm now trying to teach all marketers to do - interview the people who have already bought from the company, put what you learn into action, and everything will start to work.
Surveys. Sellers think like sellers, not buyers. If you put together a survey without interviewing customers first, it is riddled with your seller assumptions. All you're doing is asking your customers to verify your assumptions, so you can go merrily along in the wrong direction, under the delusion that you are right.
Marketers spend most of their time on internal politics, and on learning as much as they can about marketing methods and channels. They don't pay much attention to the very people they've been hired to convince. Any occasional marketing success is the result of close-enough product development, or the customer’s desperation.
It's so sad, really, because marketers could make a half a dozen phone calls (done correctly, as worked out over thousands of interviews, and yes, spelled out in my book), and they'd suddenly be the customer expert in the meeting, the one that even the salesperson will come to respect. Most marketers have never felt that respect, the same kind of respect that the CEO gives other executives in the company. Instead, they always feel like second-class citizens. If only they realized that only a few phone calls stand between them and their only true source of knowledge, power, and success.
Every marketer I interviewed said, "I'd love to talk to customers, but my salespeople won't let me." This is one of those times when marketers need to slam their proverbials down on the conference table. They need to say to those salespeople: “But I’m already talking to your customers, with every word written by myself and my team. All of those materials – including presentations – would be much more effective for you if we were writing to people we had talked to personally.” If the salesman still has doubts, slam my book on the table next to your proverbials and say, “Here. Read this, and then you’ll get it.”
If you're a marketer reading this, don't take no for an answer. You can and should interview customers who have bought from you. You can and will discover absolute trends, the right message and positioning, and the best channels for your messages. You will know what channels you should be investing in and what you can safely ignore. You will be able to LEAD the company in a customer-driven direction, instead of meekly trying to catch the crumbs falling off the salesperson's table. That's no way to live or work.
You can do better. Much better. Your career - and your company's revenue - depend on you understanding who your customers are, what drives them, and how they want you to sell to them. Read this. Do it.
If you stopped reading EVERYTHING you read about marketing and sales, and spent that time over the next two weeks interviewing your customers, you'd be so far ahead, you would barely be able to contain your joy and enthusiasm.
I know, because I do this for my clients, and that's what happens to them. I just did this for a big organization and several very small ones. In each case, the CEOs, partners, managers, and VPs were flabbergasted and thrilled, all at the same time.
"Now we know what to do!"
"Oh, wow - no wonder that wasn't working!"
"Finally - direction. This is so helpful."
"This is priceless stuff."
The eyes open. The fog lifts. The uncertainty vanishes. The pride swells, although it is tempered with the humiliation of all those things that seemed so important, which turn out to be unimportant - or even an impediment to growth.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take the place of the advice that your own customers can give you. They went to all the trouble (and it was more trouble than you can possibly imagine) to find you, figure out what you're selling, and buy from you. They are now experiencing your company, products, and services.
They have plenty to say about how you presented yourself, what actually happened, what they wish would have happened, what the tradeoffs were in their minds as they were considering you, why they bought from you after all, and what they are now telling others about you. Yep, that's priceless stuff, stuff that sends you running in the RIGHT direction.
I make a point of keeping up on the latest advice dished out by all the pundits out there. And I find myself cringing every time I see an article that says that doing X will result in more leads, or this company did Y, so you should do it also.
Yep, you could imitate what others are doing or suggesting. It might work for you. It also might be a big, fat disaster.
Why? Because you are unique. Your company is unique. Your customers - and how they perceive you, are unique. Your competitors, and how they compare to you, are unique. Your products and services are unique. Your character, your motivation, your processes, your policies, your people, your pricing are unique. I could go on, but you get the message.
What your customers expect from you is completely different from what they'd expect from someone else. How can you possibly make generic promises or apply generic methods, and expect them to resonate in their hearts, and then inspire confidence in their minds, when everything is different?
If you really want to take my advice and interview customers, you should read my book first - because that's where you will find precise instructions on the whole interviewing/discovery process, and then advice on how to put what you learn into action.
It takes about two days to read the book, according to my readers. Usually they do it in two sessions, one session per day. Then, after that, given a little bit of prep work, and scheduling phone appointments with your customers, it will take you about two weeks to conduct the interviews (seven to ten customers of any given type).
As the data starts to accumulate, you, too, will barely be able to contain your joy and enthusiasm. When it's all gathered and analyzed, you will know exactly what to do. It's a great feeling.
You don't have to hunt for the answers. You don't have to waste money experimenting. You don't have to imitate others, hoping it will work for you. You just have to know how to ask your customers the right questions, the right way. They will then show you exactly what you should be doing.
Stop reading what everyone is telling you to do. They don't know you. They don't know your company, situation, customers, products, services, etc. Instead, turn to the very source of your revenue: your customers. They have the answers. Buy this, read it, do it.
P.S. I read an article recently where someone said that interviewing customers will not help you figure out what to do; that their advice will be all over the map. Thousands of customer interviews have convinced me that this is an outright lie. Your first five interviews will bring the top three or four "ah-has" into perfect focus. Subsequent interviews will confirm these issues, and add some texture to them, but that's all. That's what is so great about this method. A half-dozen phone calls from now and you would be able to RUN in the right direction.