Getting Executives to See the Light

By Kristin Zhivago August 31, 2011

It's tough being a product manager. You have almost as much responsibility as a business owner, but with much less political authority. You have incredibly deep product and market knowledge, usually more than other meeting participants. And yet, your input only carries the same amount of weight as the lesser-informed. Quite often, you can see the direction the company should go in, but it's often tough—seemingly impossible—to get the rest of the company's brass to see the light.

You do your best, but at the end of each working day, you have to admit that your progress was incremental and even a bit disappointing. Major issues always remain to be resolved. Numerous people still need to be convinced. Most distressingly, they aren't embracing the all-important big picture that you keep trying to illuminate.

You're not about to give up; it's not in your makeup. But you do wish you could make better progress, for your company's sake.

To complicate your life even further, marketing and selling just aren't the same as they used to be. Buyers have used the Internet to take control of the buying process away from sales and marketing. Buying patterns have changed radically; sellers are currently flailing around, searching desperately for a silver bullet.

The typical buying process starts with a Google search. The customer pores over various discussion groups, reviews, and other customer-generated content. Customers get many of their questions answered by other customers, whose opinions they trust more than the information provided by those who are selling the product or service. Company-generated content was never particularly credible, but now there are easily accessible alternatives. Customers don’t have to rely on sellers' self-serving copy anymore.

Another reason that customers ignore marketing-generated copy is because the selling content written by one company reads almost exactly like the selling content written by a competitive company. It seldom answers the specific questions about the particular requirements that customers have about the product or service.  

Customers also try to avoid salespeople, because by the time they are ready to contact a salesperson, their questions are beyond the salesperson's knowledge. Asking their very specific questions will only result in the salesperson dancing around the question, promising to "get back to you" (yawn), or outright lying. Salespeople are only trained to answer the generic questions that customers have at the beginning of their buying process—the questions that the customer has already answered with online resources.

Worse yet, a potential customer can research your product or service—and decide it's not for him—without ever contacting you. Perhaps you might have been able to help him see the light, but you'll never get the opportunity. These are the lost leads you never see.

In this new world, you actually have very little control over what customers think of you.

Your life doesn't have to be like this

There is a better way. In fact, it is a works-every-time way to increase your authority and your results.

It is possible to be irresistibly relevant. It is possible to know what the customer wants to buy from you: the specific problems he needs someone to solve, and the exact words that he uses to describe his problem and the solution. It is possible to know what search terms he is using--when he first starts his search, not after he has tweaked his terms and ended up at your site (note that the tweaked terms are the only ones recorded in your web tracking logs).

You can know each step in your customers' buying process, so you can support him every step of the way, making it easy for him to find you, realize that you have what he is looking for, and buy from you. You will meet him at every step, with just what he needs to proceed to the next one. Because it is so painless to check you out, he will naturally zero in on your solution.

Alternatively, you can assume you know what his preferences are and what his buying process is, which is what most people do. But you will be wrong. I guarantee it. I can say this with full confidence because when I am brought in to help companies increase their revenue, the company managers always tell me what they think is important to their customers, how their customers describe their needs and hoped-for solutions, and how they are using the product to solve their particular problems.

Then I interview their customers and get a different story. Every single time.

Change one thing and see the difference

Changing your working life for the better (by giving you new authority and making all your efforts more successful) will require that you do one new thing, and then follow through once you have done it.

After you take the steps I'm going to outline, you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner. If you don't do this, you'll never know just how different—and satisfying—your life could be as a Product Manager with Authority.

First, stop being one of the Assumers. Swallow your pride and interview your existing customers, the right way. (Shameless plug: you'll find precise, step-by-step interviewing instructions—and every other detail of the Roadmap method—in my new book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy - available everywhere, in print and e-book form).

You will interview customers on the phone (this is definitely the most effective way). You will ask open-ended questions, refined over thousands of interviews and designed to effectively encourage them to reveal all the information you can use to position your product properly, generate relevant and compelling content, and sell more.

Why interview existing customers? Because people never tell you what they're really thinking when they are buying from you. But after they buy, they're more than happy to tell you what they were thinking, what they were looking for, what their concerns were, what their questions were, what their buying process was, why they bought from you (it won't be for the reasons you assume!), how they would "sell" you to others, what you do well, and what needs fixing. As current customers, they are quite familiar with your company and products, have a vested interest in your success, and will give you the information that you need—if you ask them the right way.

Armed with this information, you will be able to reverse-engineer successful sales and manufacture new sales in quantity. Instead of "marketing" and "selling," you will be supporting the customer's buying process and helping them choose your product or service. You will be making it easy for them to do what they are already trying to do. You will be placing a trail of tasty breadcrumbs along their path, right where they expect to find them. They will discover that you have just what they need.

One of the nice things about this method is that it doesn't take dozens of interviews to learn what you need to learn. I have found that if I talk to five people of a given type/function (IT managers, for example), the trends start to emerge. By the seventh interview, the trends are locked in, and by the tenth interview, I know exactly what my client should be doing.

Another key to the power of this method is the fact that you are gathering this information all at once. Rather than obtaining disorganized, temporarily disparate data fragments from social media feedback or one-by-one interviews, you are seeing the customer's personal reality as a coherent whole.

You will see that many of your customers think alike; I find that customers even use the exact same words and phrases to describe things, even though they have never talked to each other. The important motivators will become obvious.

Following through

It's not enough to gather all this great information. To get full value out of it, and to truly start moving the company in the right direction, you need to put the information in usable, compelling form. This is the "following through" part of the change-your-life-forever plan.

The conversations you have with these customers should be transcribed and turned into a report. Everyone on the leadership team should read the transcriptions. For the first time, they will hear what customers say, in their own words. Your executives will finally see things in a completely new light:

  • They will understand how the company and its products are perceived by customers, including real strengths and weaknesses.
  • They will see where they really stand in comparison to competitors.
  • They will understand what they should have said to the customer as the customer was in the process of buying.
  • They will realize how so many of their ideas have been missing the mark—and more importantly, which new ideas will work better.

Your life is not the only life that will be changed.

To help everyone focus on the right issues, you will also create a Summary/Recommendations Report. This report will help everyone see the big concepts, and to give direction to the discussions you will have in your meetings.

The next step is to have a brainstorming meeting where you come to agreement on your product's actual value from the customer's perspective, build buying process maps for your different products and buyers, and create an Action Plan for product development, marketing, customer service, and sales. All of these steps are explained in great detail in my book.


All of this seems like common sense. You may have had conversations with customers as part of your work, and you are surely monitoring social media channels.

But there's something extra-powerful about interviewing a group of customers at once, making their cumulative, personal reality available to your company's leaders, putting it right under their noses, and having those leaders "hear" those comments in aggregate. They will see how customers agree on most points. They will understand what is important, and what is not. The trends, implications, and appropriate actions will become crystal clear.

One of the most common outcomes goes something like this: One of your executives has been saying for ages, that "X is not important. It's really low on the list of priorities, too expensive, and doesn't matter much to customers." But your research has revealed the opposite. Customers, quite contrary to popular belief, all agree that X is not only important, it's the very thing that will make them buy your product! End of argument.

You will have to read Roadmap to Revenue to do all this correctly. The book contains the techniques and details, gained over decades of experience that will make your efforts successful. This book isn't one of those "one idea with many cherry-picked examples" business books. This book describes, step-by-step, a tested, successful process.

There is power in the knowledge acquired in these interviews, and you will be associated with that power. You are the person who will be gathering, organizing, and presenting this eye-opening and clarifying data. You will be the person who made the customer's personal reality "obvious" to your company's leaders. Their decisions, going forward, will be guided by what you have done.

Given that the most common cause of company failure is a disconnect between what customers think and what company insiders think, this is no small accomplishment. Given that most companies are actually making it difficult—not easy—for customers to buy their products, what you learn will definitely help you increase sales. All of your marketing and selling efforts will be more effective.

From a personal perspective, you will notice a change in how people perceive you and interact with you. Because you will have conducted the interviews and prepared the reports, you will be the company's leading authority on the customer's perceptions, needs, and buying process. You will be able to use the information gathered in those interviews to make your point or guide a discussion in the right direction. Everyone in the company will appreciate the increased sales and prosperity. And they will know you made it happen.

Years ago, a marketing person looked at me in disgust after we left a meeting where his CEO agreed to a course of direction that I had recommended. "I've been trying to get our CEO to do that for six months now," he said. "You walk in here, and within 20 minutes, he's fine with the idea. It must be because you're a consultant." But that wasn't the reason. It was because I had just interviewed their customers and could speak with confidence on their behalf. It wasn't my opinion versus the CEO's opinion (the CEO tends to win those arguments, whether you are a consultant or an employee). It wasn't my opinion versus the opinions of all the other executives in the room. It was the customer's opinion versus the company's opinion. And since the customer is the company's only source of revenue, when the information is presented properly, the customer should—and almost always does—win.

This is the secret to true political ascendancy. Once you have tasted it, you'll never want to go back to your old life.

Categories: Personas Go-to-Market Leadership Roles & Activities
Kristin Zhivago

Kristin Zhivago

Kristin Zhivago is an expert on the buying experience. In her role as a "revenue coach," she helps CEOs and entrepreneurs increase their revenue - by making it easy for buyers to buy. Kristin publishes a blog for company leaders called the Revenue Journal, and is the author of Rivers of Revenue: What to do when the money stops flowing. She is working on her second book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to sell the way your customers want to buy.

Kristin published Marketing Technology, an e-zine for marketers, from 1991 to 2004. Her articles and monthly columns have appeared in numerous trade and business journals since 1984, and she speaks at conferences worldwide. She founded Zhivago Marketing Partners, Inc., in 1979, a consultancy that has served hundreds of clients, from startups to Fortune 100 companies, including IBM and Johnson & Johnson.

Looking for the latest in product and data science? Get our articles, webinars and podcasts.