401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

The Biggest Mistake that Marketers Make

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.


  1. Kirstin

    this is a great article and so true in my experience. I have undertaken senior roles in both sales and marketing and I have always been stuck by the amount of effort it takes to keep the two functions aligned and working together. Sales try to limit direct access to customers by marketing in the misguided fear they will lose control. Marketing is often reluctant to engage directly with the customer in case their preciously held theories and views of the world are sullied.


  2. yes, it is about control – two groups that are always trying to prove their worth to management tend to be hesitatant to “give any power away.” Which, of course, only hurts the company and the company’s chances in the marketplace. Thanks for your comment.


  3. There are millions of customer stories, mostly about consumer product they experience, published online. They are written or told by customers who want companies to know how to make and sell their products better. It is amazing to me how little attention marketers pay to this information, and those who do are mostly interested in a “reputation” of their brand as if they can actually do something about it. You don’t control that anymore – customers do. Your customers will share their experiences good and bad, and they will influence the decisions of others. Shared experiences contribute to a collective reality that may differ from how you market and sell your brand today.

  4. Great way to put it, Gregory. That “collective reality” can be in complete opposition to the “manufactured reality” that a company can be generating, in vain. Customers can now find each other – I mean, before reviews and discussion groups, how on earth would you find other people who had bought some product or service? Just wasn’t possible – or certainly not convenient! Now the information is right there, in the same place you’re going to buy it! Companies are so blind to this fact now. They are still operating as if customers can’t find and talk to each other. It’s “back in the day” marketing! :-)


  5. Kristin, terrific points. As someone who had the privilege to work for you, I confess I didn’t appreciate how this activity would affect revenue growth. Now I completely get it. It makes me wonder why “talking to clients” isn’t an embedded critical objective for every marketing team. Why don’t we dig deep and learn how what our products and services are doing to solve — or not solve — our client’s challenges? I think it’s because some marketing people believe this is a “product development” exercise…or maybe it’s because marketing isn’t a key player at product strategy meetings, well then, we don’t have a vote, so why bother? Now I know it’s the marketing person’s DUTY to capture “voice of the customer” and reveal actual “external” market conditions, loudly and continously! The impact on product strategy and revenue will only make the marketing department more critical to operations.

  6. Rob, I always appreciate your take on these issues. That’s why I talked about you in my book. When you get it, you get it GOOD.

    I confess – my life goal now is exactly what you describe – “It makes me wonder why ‘talking to clients’ isn’t an embedded critical objective for every marketing team.” I think that’s exactly what should happen. Marketing without this happening, especially in this day and age, is not marketing. It’s like marketers are getting paid to throw darts at a dart board, while blindfolded. Such a waste.

    So please help me spread the word: this is what every marketer should be doing, and if every marketer did, they would have a place at the leadership table, they would be powerful beyond their dreams, and the things they did would actually move the revenue needle – in the right direction.

    So nice to hear from you.


  7. Knowing your customers is a challenge that few companies can meet. The costs associated with this type of research are very high and secondly, most of them are not even what to do with this data!

  8. Golly, Eric, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Did you read the article?

    What I’m suggesting solves all of these problems. The marketing person makes some phone calls to a half-dozen customers of a given type. NOTE: No monetary expense!

    As the marketing person interviews, they should be smart enough to recognize when the trends are developing – it’s not that hard, frankly. When each person is saying the same thing, you start to get a clue!

    Then, the marketer organizes and analyzes the data and presents it to management – and gives managers a chance to read the conversations THEMSELVES so they, too, can see the trends and the reality of the situation.

    Yes, there is some deep thinking and wisdom and experience that comes next – the people looking at the results have to be smart about what they do (mostly it’s making the tough decisions), sometimes it requires some real out-of-the-box thinking – which is where I often bring a lot of value to the process, just because I’ve been around the block a few hundred times. But even without someone like me in the discussion, the CEO and other leaders will see what isn’t working and what would work, and they can start moving in a customer-pleasing direction.

    Sorry, but I think you’re way off base on this one. Thanks for your comment, though.


  9. I’d like to chime in on this

    1. “the marketer organizes and analyzes the data and presents it to management – and gives managers a chance to read the conversations THEMSELVES so they, too, can see the trends and the reality of the situation.” – I would like to point how important that is to provide “evidence” when presenting to management or socializing your findings. Too often people react with denial when presented with findings that disagree with their beliefs. While it is difficult to argue with your superiors, it is easy to let your superiors to argue with their customers-if they want to.
    2. The cost of doing this is your time and effort if you are in B2B environment, as you know (or should know) who your customers are and how to reach them. If you sell to consumers there are reasonably priced tools that can find, aggregate, filter and analyze this information and convert it into knowledge. Disclosure – my company http://www.amplifiedanalytics.com builds and markets such tools.

  10. This post inspired me to purchase your book. I check-in regularly with my colleagues to see if the work I do for them “hits the mark” and I was in the market for standard questions I wanted to ask about my own services, even though I don’t generate revenue per-say; and along came this post ;). Now that I’m in the middle of your book, I see revenue-limiting mistakes by businesses large and small EVERYWHERE!! My husband is starting up a small business, and I can’t wait to pass your book on to him; I want to do his customer interviews!

  11. Thanks, Monica. I love the phrase “revenue-limiting mistakes” – that businesses large and small make – everywhere. You are so right. I would love to hear how your interviews go for your husband – great idea. I would also love it if you would post a review on Amazon when you’re done – so important, especially for someone like you to do it, since you understand this not just in terms of the seller, but in terms of the buyer as well. Excellent!


  12. I talked to my husband about conducting customer interviews last night: he’s game and I am making my list of his contacts tonight! I will definitely post a review on Amazon when I’m done those interviews.

  13. I’m so glad to hear your husband was game. Smart man! :-) Thanks in advance for the review and let me know if I can help you in any way. email is kristin at zhivago dot com.

    Happy interviewing!



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