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March 16, 2014


Marketers flawed in listening to customers

by Tom De Baere
listening process

When was the last time you listened to a customer?

When was the last time you spoke to a customer? Or let me rephrase that: when was the last time you listened to a customer?

Everyone knows you have to listen to your customers.

Practically the entire business of marketing revolves around customer insight.

The logic is simple: if we can understand them more clearly, then we can better connect with and serve them, with timely, relevant, useful and helpful information.

I love to use the word meaningful content, and so meaningful content is what is needed to connect with them.

Marketers are fooling themselves

Tell me honestly: when was the last time you really listened to customers?

I am not talking about a customer satisfaction survey, a net promoter score, a market research report. Not even a focus group session or formal ITIL “voice of the customer programs”.

So? When was the last time YOU talked to a customer? I mean this literally.

My guess is that you haven’t for a long, long while. And honestly, this has been one of my biggest challenges as a marketer myself.

At this point, you might be muttering to yourself, “That’s not happening here. I know what my customers want and how they buy.”

Are you sure? Who do you spend the most time with, every day? Your employees, or your customers?

One of the most impressive things about Lou Gerstner, when he was at the helm of IBM, was that he spent an average of 40% of his time with customers — in spite of the fact that he was managing a huge, complex public company with about 300,000 employees.

When you spend the bulk of your time with employees, you will end up making faulty assumptions about what your customers are thinking, and what your employees should be doing.

If you spend more time with customers, you will also uncover opportunities for new products and services. You will identify new sources of revenue that you didn’t know that existed.

Focus groups or round table discussions don’t work

An often-used tactic by marketers to gather market feedback and customer insight is to organize round tables or focus groups.

Focus groups are flawed because of:

  • The most influential customers often don’t participate to a focus group.
  • The group dynamic in the discussion usually gives the lead to a “dominator”, who starts leading the discussion of the group, and as such the outcome of the discussion.
  • People are not going to speak freely, because they do not want to embarrass them or their company.
  • They are difficult to organize in terms of time, money and resources if you are working in an international environment.

The solution – a structured listening process anchored into the organization

If you want to understand what’s happening in the world of your customers, you need to listen in places where they are:

  • What are the hottest discussions happening on LinkedIn groups?
  • Which search queries are entered on your website, because that says what your customers are looking for?
  • What are the major themes your competitors are communicating about?
  • What is trending on social in your domain of expertise?
  • What are the keynotes speaking slots about in industry conferences ?
  • What questions are sales people getting regularly?

Each of these listening activities is done by a person within your organization. In an earlier post on this blog you’ll find more details on how to listen to the content needs of your customers.

The most important about this process is that you formally embed it into your organization.

Don’t make this a marketing process. Create a company wide process involving sales people, customer services, finance, logistics, and any relevant department having customer touch-points.

In-depth interviews as a key listening tool

Something I haven’t talked a lot about on this blog, are in-depth customer interviews.

In complex B2B sales, the decision-making unit (DMU) usually consists of multiple influencers, and a couple of decision makers. This group of people all have a certain role within the company. These roles can be very divers, and can be any combination of people in sales, marketing, logistics, services, HR, finance, etc.

Imagine you as a marketer talking to a CFO. How on earth are you as a marketer going to have a deep discussion about the business of the customer from a financial viewpoint?

The conversation wouldn’t last for 5 minutes. You start of with a set of check-the-box and multiple-choice surveys. But these are flawed. Because the questions are composed by people who haven’t been talking to customers. Or by people who have no clue about what it is to be in the position of a CFO.

After 5 minutes you’ll loose credibility, and the conversation will remain at a very generic level, and the output will be stuff you already knew.

If you want to understand your customers you need to:

  • If you are selling to different types of customers, or have several product lines, you want to divide your customers into categories to make sure that you understand the buying process for each one.
  • Understand the world (challenges, opportunities, business issues) of your most profitable customers, so make sure to interview your most profitable customers.
  • The interviewer should be knowledgeable: your customer is knowledgeable, and to lift the discussion to a level where root causes are determined, or new insights are found, you’ll need the interviewer and the customer to be on the same level of expertise.
  • Ask the right questions. Ask what problems they want to solve. More specifically, start by understanding how customers perceive and talk about that problem.
  • Record everything, and have it transcribed.

The descriptions of these interviews will help you write relevant, meaningful marketing and sales copy using the same words and phrases that your customers use when they think about a problem.

What am I forgetting?

Warm regards,

Tom De Baere


  • Great topic Tom. I experience that even when conducting buyer persona research companies are somewhat reluctant interviewing their own customers. They are lacking confidence i guess. Still customers are your number one source for new marketing strategies. The best ideas are just one phone call away.

    • Thanks Aldo. Basically what I am pitching here is that marketers can only do a part of the listening. A large chunk of customer insight can only be discovered by non-marketers.

      Standard upfront prepared questions serve to get the conversation going during these interviews. But when you have 2 peers talking together, the’ll get to the root-cause source of problems. Or the conversation will transcend to a level giving new common insights, which can only discovered when peers talk on equal expert levels.

  • ctsmithiii

    Tom, you’re singing to the choir. Too many people I talk to think they already know what their customers, and even their management team, think — either they don’t want to know or they’re afraid of being proven wrong.

    • Hi Tom, thanks. I’ve read the blog post you added, and I guess we essentially are telling the same thing. Empower your employees to talk and listen to customers.

      – how do you intend to make sure employees do this,
      – and secondly, how do you make sure the organization actually does something with that information,
      – and thirdly, how do you suggest to communicate to your customers that you have done something with their feedback?



      • ctsmithiii


        To ensure employees do this, have c-level managers modeling the behavior they want to see from employees and empowering employees to engage the customers in discussions to better understand their needs/wants, how you improve products/services etc.Encouraging everyone to share their findings with marketing, and with each other, by telling a story about what they learned that they’d never heard before.

        Ensuring the organization does something with the information goes back to having buy-in from the top and having executives, as well as managers, integrate consumer insights into their strategic planning process to achieve their goals. Hopefully, one of which is to provide a better customer experience or improved levels of customer service.

        Communicate to your customers through your employees and through your actions. “Here are key insights we learned from our customers over the past 12 months and here are the steps we are taking based on those insights. Please continue the dialog so we can continue to improve and provide a better customer experience.”

        The key is key is having every employee understand the importance of engaging with the customer and sharing feedback and insights up the line to management. Likewise, management needs to celebrate the “wins” in learning key insights that will help improve products, services, communications and customer experience.

        • Thanks for drafting this lengthy answer, Tom! Appreciate it.