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Strategy Spotlight: How to become your own Chief Listening Officer

Julie Neumann
August 23, 2017

Strategy Spotlight: How to become your own Chief Listening Officer

bob london headshotBob London, founder and CEO of Chief Listening Officers, helps B2B companies develop marketing strategies by tuning in to their customers’ challenges and priorities. We sat down with Bob to discuss how vendors can capture the customer’s voice and put it to work in marketing and sales.  

When did you realize the value in listening to customers?

Over the past 20 years, I have worked with a lot of B2B technology companies as a marketing executive and outsourced CMO. When these companies would share their marketing and sales strategies with me, many of them were very confident that they knew what was important to their audience. But once I began asking more diagnostic questions, it became very clear that they were simply speculating on what their customers needed, and that their assumptions matched the products that they’d built.

About six years ago, the pattern became clear: Companies that were more curious and wanted to know what the world looked like from the customer’s perspective were growing. And the companies that just plodded along, guessing or assuming what’s important to customers, were plateauing.

That’s when I decided to develop and promote a more customer-focused listening approach for B2B companies. I formally launched Chief Listening Officers in 2017 to help companies listen, gather insights and translate those insights into meaningful marketing strategies, as well as teach companies how to listen for themselves.

What are some of your proven methods for listening to the customer’s voice?

I begin every engagement with deep one-on-one conversations with decision makers in my client’s target audience. I focus on the customer or prospect’s unique challenges, and make a point to ask thought-provoking questions. For example, I don’t ask what keeps them up at night, because they’ve been asked that many times before and tend to give rote answers. Instead I ask, “What are the first three bullet points on your next board update,” and “What’s one thing your team needs to get better at this year?” These questions generate much more interesting and actionable answers.

To complement this human-based approach, I also use and recommend solutions like TrustRadius. Think of it as a watering hole where your customers and prospects congregate. I always encourage clients to monitor those watering holes, listen to what’s being said and contribute to the conversation.

This entire process leads to some unbelievable insights that help inform marketing strategies and execution. Because your messaging cannot just focus on what you’ve built — it needs to highlight some unique value that is relevant from the customer’s perspective. Understanding that perspective results in more sales and marketing traction, and ultimately more growth.

What is your favorite success story of a client who embraced better listening?

One software company I work with started as a broad, multi-featured platform for managing the public cloud. They believed they had a panacea product, designed for big enterprises, that required a lot of integrations but could solve the problems associated with cloud management. However, two years in, they weren’t getting anywhere near the traction they needed.

I began talking to their beta customers and early prospects, and most of them said they didn’t intend to buy the product. Many realized they weren’t at a stage where they could implement all the features yet. They also said the product’s Swiss Army knife approach was a red flag — the platform was trying to do too much, rather than doing one thing very well.

But over the course of about 20 discussions, I repeatedly heard them talk about the challenge of controlling and optimizing their public cloud spend. Basically, they wanted a programmable on/off switch for their cloud resources, which mapped to one the software’s strongest features and would result in significant cost savings. The idea was that when you’re not using your cloud, you should be able to just park it, like you do a car. So we bounced that around with beta customers, and the feedback was very positive — there was clearly potential for a stand-alone product focused on the “parking” concept.

Fueled by these insights and several other factors, the CEO and the board agreed to pivot the entire company to a single-purpose web application called ParkMyCloud. They went from negligible sales in two years to having 90 enterprise customers.

ParkMyCloud has continued to embrace listening as they’ve grown. I’m also a big believer in using real language in the marketing — I don’t just mean customer quotes and testimonials, which are of course important, but to take it a step further and develop messaging that sounds like your customers. Before the pivot, ParkMyCloud talked a lot about “governance” and “orchestration” because those were terms that Gartner used. But when you talked to the target audience, they used more straightforward terms like “start and stop AWS instances.” Using real language instead of some puffy narrative, being more transparent rather than relying on marketing speak, really works with today’s buyers.

In addition to using more authentic language, how should marketing teams leverage customer voice in the buyer’s journey?

I’d encourage B2B marketers to fully embrace this movement towards transparency. Buyers have become immune to marketing claims, and that is only going to become more of a hurdle as millennials come of age as software decision makers. Buyers are not only numb to marketing speak, they have actually begun to resent it.

One of the things I’ve heard directly and indirectly in my conversations is, “I’m tired of talking to salespeople who are just trying to push their agenda but can’t answer any of my questions.” Prospects don’t want to talk to someone unless that person can add value. Whether it is connecting them to sales engineer or another customer, make sure they get the insights they need.

It’s the same thing when it comes to your website. I have seen this trend of marketers including narrative on every page of the website. People get two or three pages deep, and they are still getting fed a story on why this problem is important, rather than getting facts about the product. By that point, buyers have already decided this is an important problem, so essentially you’re just putting a layer of unnecessary content in their way. Don’t make it so hard for them to find the data and proof points they want.

This is why buyers lean so heavily on product reviews. Because they don’t trust marketing claims, they are looking for a place where they can get unvarnished truths from people like themselves. And they want the whole spectrum of feedback — does the product work, what is the support like, do they adhere to their road map, all that. Plus they get to hear it in real language, not marketing speak. It is easy to recognize when a review was fed to the customer or cleaned by the company — in addition to being too positive, it is too polished, it isn’t authentic.

It is also why free trials are so popular. Whether they believe the marketing or not, buyers need to actually use a product to see if it’s right for their situation. Theoretically, all this transparency is good thing for everybody, since buyers can weed out the software that isn’t right for their needs and vendors don’t have to worry about pursuing prospects that aren’t a good fit.

What is your advice for marketers who are ready to become the Chief Listening Officers in their organization?

To me, everything starts with having genuine curiosity. Get the heck out of the building and have those open, inquisitive conversations with customers and prospects that help you see the world from their perspective. Don’t ask about specific features, don’t use it as an opportunity to up-sell, just have a human-to-human interaction that focuses on their challenges and priorities.

Next, tackle what you can do out in the market. You know buyers want transparency, you know they want to hear from their peers, so make sure you have a place like TrustRadius where they can get that type of in-depth, real, trustworthy content. There is a lot you can leverage from reviews and communities, so investing in this area can impact all of your marketing and sales activities.

It’s always amazing to me that companies invest time and resources in review sites but then don’t analyze and leverage the content. So you have to have a plan for that. Ideally, the feedback should influence your product, marketing and sales activities. Use it to inform what you’re selling, what your value prop is, what you’re messaging is.

Finally, make this content actionable for your buyers as well. Proactively share it with prospects. That is one thing I especially appreciate about TrustRadius — there are these interesting tools and integration points where you can bring that content into your sales and marketing flow. For example, buyers go to your landing page and this peer-to-peer feedback is right there.

As marketers, we have to learn and respect what it is like to be a buyer. We pay attention to what the buyer might need, we listen to their pain points and figure out what we can sell them. But we also have to consider how we sell it to them. That is a crucial part of being a Chief Listening Officer.

About the Author

Julie Neumann
Julie Neumann was the Director of Content Marketing at TrustRadius, where she focused on educating and engaging our vendors. A journalist turned tech marketer, she has built programs at Yahoo!, MapMyFitness, Bigcommerce, Clearhead and more. Julie has an MA in journalism from the University of Texas and a BA in English and Economics from Vanderbilt University.