Listen and Learn

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 10 Issue 1So, you’ve decided to listen to the market to become better informed about what people need from your products. You diligently line up appointments to meet or talk on the phone, getting that scarce time slot on the calendar of a user or critical decision maker. You show up for the appointment.

Now what? Do you fall silent? Do you immediately start probing for pain points? Do you start recommending solutions that just happen to align with your distinctive competencies? Authentically immersing yourself in the market takes a deceptively challenging combination of 1) listening and 2) learning. It’s part art and part science. Here are some effective basic guidelines for everyone from seasoned pros to new product professionals.


Starting your questions with “how” or “what” is a simple rule of thumb that usually results in more involved answers.

Conversely, starting a question with “is,” “any,” “can,” “do” or “will” almost always results in closed-ended questions that produce either a yes/no or a single-word factual answer. Don’t believe it? Take 5 minutes and brainstorm a series of questions using both sets of words and see what you come up with.

Sales professionals use closed-ended questions to enhance pain points and move a prospect or customer toward your solution—but sales is not your role when you are listening to the market.

Here are some example questions to get an interviewee to open up:

  •  What are your biggest worries?
  •  How can you explain these recent {adverse events}?
  •  What patterns are you noticing with your {problems}?
  •  What are your biggest competitive fears?
  •  How are your users reacting to your latest {event}? 
  •  What are others saying? 
  •  How are you going to address your {challenges or goals}?

Asking questions like these provides you the opportunity to listen and learn.  And being extra disciplined in sticking to the “how/what” rule helps those new to listening to the market further develop those skills.


For a more engaging conversation and to explore answers in greater depth, ask follow-up questions—ensuring you continue to follow rule #1. Examples include:

  •  What else?
  •  What more can you tell me about {blank}?
  •  What would it look like if you solved {blank}?
  •  What would it mean to your organization if you solved/didn’t solve {blank}?
  •  How would you feel if {blank}?
  •  What else?

 Notice a few things:

  • Keep your follow-up questions short. Your primary role is to listen, not talk.  Short and simple questions are the most powerful.
  • “What else” was listed twice. Typo? Nope! It’s a great follow up to get people to talk. You’ll be surprised how many times you can keep asking, “What else?”
  • Did you notice the “feel” question? Don’t be afraid to tap into emotions. Even highly analytical people from enterprise software professionals to financial product professionals can be sensitive to the challenges they face.  Connections are built when emotions are expressed.

Rephrasing can also be a useful technique of engaged listening. Rephrase what the interviewee is saying to clarify or drill down for greater depth. It keeps the focus on their challenges and away from your features, benefits and competencies. Rephrasing also keeps the discussion nonjudgmental about the interviewee’s issues, putting them at ease to be as transparent as possible.


Some sales professionals strive to “always be closing” (ABC). Sales representatives, be they consultative-sales professionals or transaction-oriented hunters, must be focused on getting a deal. That’s OK; it’s their job.

But listening to the market means never aiming for a deal, and market professionals should adhere to “never be closing” (NBC). Focusing on the deal can pollute the process of authentic listening, as well as risk your credibility with the interviewee.

NBC also means that we must resist the temptation to “jump to the solution” that the product provides when it fits with an interviewee problem. This may be particularly challenging for those closest to the product developers. There will be an understandable temptation to tout your distinctive competencies. Again, when you are listening to the market, your job is not to provide solutions, it’s to explore and listen for market problems, aspirations and knowledge.

Now, what do you do when you meet someone practically begging for your solution? In these cases, politely acknowledge their interest and give their contact information to your sales team so they can focus on their job, just as you focus on yours.


To the extent that your successful market visits produce “deliverables,” nothing is more tangible than what gets documented. Documenting is key for disseminating information and amplifying your volume as the “voice of the market” within your own organization.

Categorize participants based on where they fall in a variety of index ranges. Types of parameters can include:

  • Where are they on the spectrum of technical to non-technical?
  • Are they primarily driven by problems or aspirations? 
  • Are the main customers they serve internal or external? 
  • What is their short-term budget status vs. long-term strategy and financial position? Are they more attuned to one of those drivers than another?

 Document patterns you see across market visits and the various parameters.

Finally, have a mechanism for disseminating your documented information to constituents within your company. As the voice of the market, include sales, executives, engineering, client services and marketing communications as target recipients for your documented deliverables. Be sure to provide high-level summaries for all to read (2-3 minutes or less) and more details for those interested.

To paraphrase a common saying: If nobody ever sees documentation of your market visit, did it really happen?

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