Marketing Career: How to become an indispensable asset to your company (even in a bad economy)


spottedFrom my experience, marketing and advertising jobs always get hit hard when the economy goes down. We aren’t directly involved in either “making stuff” or “selling stuff” and are too often seen as…probably the most dreaded word in a bad economy…mere overhead.

Ouch! Hurts…I know. But, as Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Because, much like the old Bard himself, we are master communicators. How do you think he got a few headline shows at The Globe Theatre? Or the thing built at all? Beyond the quality of his work, he had to sell himself in some way at some point.

Call it personal branding. Or perhaps just marketing the marketer. This skill is essential to succeed for any marketer in any company. Since I myself am far from expert at this task, I was quite excited when the MarketingSherpa “How to Become Indispensable to Your CEO” Special Report came across my desk. (Full disclosure: I oversee editorial content for MarketingSherpa, too, so I might just be a little biased).

Now I had someone to ask these pressing questions to. The kind of information I’ve been wanting to share with this blog audience for quite a while. That person is Kristin Zhivago, the author of that report, a revenue coach to company leaders, and the President of Zhivago Management Partners, Inc. A quick plug for Kristin – her clients range from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, including Dow Jones, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson.

Here’s what she had to say…

First of all, in my career I’ve worked with both sales and marketing organizations. And when it comes to proving your worth, I’ve got to say that it seems like sales has it good. The numbers are clear. Marketing always seems to have a tougher time. So how can marketing compete with sales for credit in the eyes of the CEO?

I’m sorry to say that many CEOs have become discouraged with marketers in the last few years. We all saw it coming, but then it came, and now it is ubiquitous. What happened was most marketers do a great job of “getting things done,” while giving short shrift to three key areas that are essential – to their careers and to the company’s revenue stream:

  • Regularly and personally interviewing customers by phone
  • Building measurement into all campaigns
  • Forcing themselves to continually learn new technologies.

Some marketers do some of these things, but very few marketers do them all.

Interviewing customers? Sounds like one way to get on equal footing with sales.

Interviewing current customers is the most important of these three activities. Without knowing why customers bought, how they bought, and what they think of the product/company after they bought, the marketer is flying blind. The marketer, in fact, has no power. None. He or she will be buffeted about by politics, subjectivity, dominant personalities, CEO pet people and pet projects, marketing myths, method biases, inappropriate strategy that “worked for us in my last company,” and so on.

Marketers who depend on outsiders to gather this information will always be handicapped. There is no substitute for personally interviewing customers – by phone – and asking open-ended questions, such as:

  • “What do you think of our company/product?”
  • “What problem were you trying to solve when you came to us?”
  • “If you were looking for this type of product/service again, what would you type into Google?”
  • “What was your buying process for this product/service – what were your steps, who was involved, and what were your concerns?”
  • “If you were CEO of our company tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would focus on?
  • “What trends do you see in your industry right now?”
  • “What’s your biggest challenge?”

It’s important for the marketer to make these calls personally, to get to know customers as real human beings. It’s also important to see this as a conversation – an exchange of ideas – rather than just a survey. Surveys are boring and insulting, and also tend to be driven by “what we already know” rather than “what new things we could be learning.”

By the way, if the conversations are each an hour long (quite doable if you make an appointment in advance), after the fifth conversation you will start to see trends, and by the 10th conversation there will be no doubt in your mind about the dynamics driving your market. You will be shocked at the confidence it gives you.

Again, no customer conversations, no power. No credibility. No fun.

Let’s say…just hypothetically…sales is wrong and you’re right about an issue. Sales always gets to pull the, “Well I talk to X customers every day, and here’s what they have to say…” Interviewing customers will certainly help with that. How else can marketers respond?

Same exact problem, only manifesting itself in a different way. The problem with salespeople (and I was one, and managed them, for years) is that they pay the most attention to the last person they talked to. It’s very rare for a salesperson to be able to see “the big picture,” whereas a marketer who has interviewed ten customers will see trends and understand what must be done.

Also, when was the last time you told a salesperson what you were really thinking? No one ever tells a salesperson the truth while the salesperson is selling to them. So the data gathered by the salesperson is inherently – and dangerously – flawed.

It’s only after the customer has purchased from you that they will tell you what they were thinking as they were going through their buying process. Existing customers have a vested interest in your success (because they’ve purchased something from you), they are happy to be helpful, it doesn’t “cost” them anything to tell you what they were thinking, and they like talking about their thought process.

If the interviews are conducted correctly (something I teach in my upcoming book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to sell the way your customers want to buy), essential information is extracted that leads to spot-on strategy.

The next time the salesperson comes into the room saying they talk to customers every day, the marketer can say, “I’ve talked to X customers this week/month, and have a report here showing how they perceive us, what they want from us, and how they want to buy from us. It showed me [what we need to do to increase our revenue].”

At the very least, the marketer is now on equal footing with the salesperson, and if the data is organized and analyzed properly, and opportunities are identified and optimized, the salesperson will be completely repositioned (and the marketer will be elevated) in the mind of the CEO. Plus, you can always ask the CEO, when you have a moment alone with him/her, “When was the last time you told a salesperson what you were really thinking?” This will help your CEO see the truth about the “customer insights” coming from salespeople.

Another challenge I see marketers have is: they aren’t on the frontlines delivering the actual product or service for revenue. So in a down economy, the axe always seems to fall harder on those who work in advertising or marketing. How does someone in marketing prove their individual worth when it comes layoff….or, more optimistically, annual review time?

Yet another way of looking at the same basic problem. Some years ago, I started branding myself as a Revenue Coach, because it was obvious to me that 1) that’s what I was doing anyway – helping CEOs increase their revenue and 2) CEOs are really disenchanted with marketing (and sales, too, but less so).

Marketers have made a fundamental marketing mistake – with themselves as the “product.” Their first customer is the CEO, because if you can’t sell the CEO on doing the right thing, you may as well pack up and go home. Marketers have not viewed the CEO as their first customer.

For example, marketers should interview their CEO when they take a new job and every six months or so after they take that job. They should ask the CEO what he’s concerned about and how he feels about marketing in general. Ask “what’s working” and “what’s not.”

Marketers, working closely with the CEO from day to day, think they know what the CEO is thinking. My experience as a Revenue Coach is that they really don’t. Marketers are often missing essential concerns and clues that would come out in an interview meeting.

Asking the CEO to talk about what he/she thinks is working and what’s not will give you the insight you need to understand what matters to him/her – and what you can do to meet those needs. Note that I did not say, “find out what matters to him/her so you can successfully pitch your ideas.” The goal is to solve the CEO’s real revenue problem. The pitching is almost child’s play when you’re pitching the right solution.

It’s a little ironic that marketers, who can communicate about their brand so well, often have challenges marketing their own efforts in their own organization. When it comes to internal communications, where have you seen marketers fall short? And how can they do a better job at, well, for lack of a better phrase “marketing about marketing?”

I’m going to say something that will sound really harsh, but it’s important for marketers to hear this. If you’re selling what the CEO wants to buy, you won’t have to go out of your way to promote your accomplishments. Sure, I’ve always recommended that marketers post/send their latest accomplishments around to everyone every Friday, say, or every two weeks. But if you’re bragging about accomplishing things that don’t matter much to the CEO, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice.

CEOs are DYING for their marketers to be successful. If they could see revenue growth as a result of marketing efforts, marketing wouldn’t have to worry about its image. Since 1994, my branding mantra has been that “Branding is the promise that you make; your brand is the promise that you keep.” The same holds true for marketers. It’s not what you say about what you’re doing that matters. It’s what you’re doing – and the results you are getting from your efforts.

Once again, Mrs. Broken Record has to say that if you interview your customers, you will know what matters to them, what questions marketing should be answering, what they expect from your company, what they think of your competition, and how they want to buy from you. If you then work hard on bringing that reality back into the company, and using it to create relevant concepts, answers, and buying tools, your company’s sales will increase. Marketing won’t have to prove anything to anyone. The results will speak for themselves.

If you don’t do these things, you will be an example of the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If you want to change how someone perceives you, you have to change what you are doing. There is no other way.

A key buzzphrase lately is “transferable job skills.” I’ve noticed that recently many marketers seem to be opting-out from corporate marketing and using the skills they’ve picked up to either work with charities or start their own businesses. What transferable skills do you think marketers can gain? And where can that take them? Even for me personally, I think being in this field has helped me communicate better with my wife.

Marketers can always benefit from two things: learning new technologies (and mastering them) and learning how to create concepts that clarify and simplify complex products and services. Marketers have earned a reputation for shying away from things that cause your brain to cramp when you try to figure them out.

Over the years, I have forced myself – and I majored in music in college – to actually understand super complex things, like finite element analysis, the behavioral design of integrated circuits, and the entire networking environment, from the local area network to the phone company switching systems. I did this so I’d learn how to organize complex information so that anyone – including a C-level executive who was trying to figure out which one of these types of products/systems to buy – could understand the main elements and decide how they could use those technologies to solve their problems.

A lot of what I’ve talked about here is focused on B2B, but the same principles apply to consumer products. If you can understand something well enough to explain it, in a way that anyone could “get it,” then you have learned a valuable skill that will help you in any area of business. So much of the work I do – and it is intense, company-changing, revenue-growth work – involves helping companies understand how to explain what they do to their customers, in a way that is customer-centric. This is a much-needed and much-appreciated skill.

I should also note that many marketers are dropping out of marketing because they’re so frustrated by their status (or lack of it) in the organization, and the complexity of the technical tools they must master now. Some marketers have even told me they are just trying to keep a low profile and get by until they can retire. How sad…and how dangerous! Many are depending on their stock-based pension plans for retirement, and if the Dow crashes, they’re going to have to keep working. Plus, it’s not really good for the soul to “give up.”

The answer is so simple. Sure, it will require a conscious decision to make a change, and then actually do it. But it is not impossible. Not by a long shot:

  • Get on the phone – start interviewing customers. Start to KNOW what they want from your company and how they buy.
  • Force yourself to get as savvy about tech as you can – and NEVER say, “I’m not technical.” That’s a cop-out. In this day and age, we are ALL technical. Interview technical people. Learn how stuff works. Keep asking questions until you get it.

If you do these two things – interview customers and truly understand technology – every single one of these questions I’ve just answered wouldn’t apply to you. You’d be a vital, valuable, indispensable resource to any CEO.

Related Resources

MarketingSherpa “How to Become Indispensable to Your CEO” Special Report

SherpaBlog: Marketing Layoffs – How to Flourish Despite Them

MarketingExperiments Careers

Photo attribution: laverrue
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  1. Beth Ryan says

    I have always believed that the essential role for marketers is to speak regularly with customers both on the phone and at trade shows; I find we have very constructive conversations because I am not trying to sell them something directly. I do think, however, working in industrial B-to-B, that there is an audience segment that does not want to talk to anyone with any title associated with a supplier company therefore those customers who do let you in their confidence are absolutely a priceless asset. I always endeavor to be an advocate for them as well so we have a mutual beneficial business relationship.

  2. Kristin Zhivago says

    So true, Beth. What has surprised me over the years is the willingness of even the most “industrial” customer to open up, in a phone interview, if approached correctly. I ask for the interview via an email, saying I was hired by the CEO (always true), and that their comments will be anonymous (also true). This allows them to open up and I get great information. Out of literally thousands of interviews over the years, I have only had two potential interviewees question whether I was “legit,” (e.g., not a competitor digging). I simply suggested they contact my client, which they did, and we ended up having a conversation after all.

  3. Shawn says

    I agree with everything in this article. As a marketer I have tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to communicate with upper management and bring reporting to them on a regular basis. I have worked for small to medium sized companies – my expertise developed in these areas over time and I am good at it! Yet the closed door reality has been my problem. Most of my CEOs, Marketing Directors, or even sales people do not want to practice common sense business practices, much less listen to marketing tell them about what customers are saying or how they are missing the mark on communicating their value to those customers. They wanted me to follow what they have been doing over the years – but be an agent of change and bring new and fresh ideas to the table (I am always learning and researching new technology solutions that will reduce manhours as well as bring more insight to my efforts)….I was told to bring these ideas by the CEO but when presented in charts, tables and powerpoints, I am told that they do not want to change or provide new resources or tools that technology has given marketers to use to validate their value to the bottom line. I am frustrated and can’t trust management to back me up any longer. I cross my fingers and hope I can bring value within the old structures that do not seem to connect with clients or customers any longer….Thank you for confirming that I am on the right track even if I am not valued by my company.

  4. Jeffrey Tarter says

    Shawn, people rarely reach the upper levels of corporate management without developing some healthy skepticism about “charts, tables, and powerpoints.” They also *tend* to get to the top by doing exactly what Kristin recommends–talking to customers, and developing solutions to the pain issues they hear. (Sometimes they get to the top by solving the pain issues of their political allies, but it’s really the same process.) If you can say something like, “I had lunch with the CIO of our third-largest account yesterday, and he’s losing sleep about the sluggish performance of his CRM system. If we developed a tune-up service, I bet we could close 20 deals in a week just on the phone”–you’ll get attention. You’ll still need the charts as a reality test for your anecdotal data, but that’s literally just an afterthought.

  5. Kristin Zhivago says

    Shawn – glad it helped you. You sound smart and hard-working. So…have you been interviewing customers?

  6. Joe McGrattan says

    It still amazes me that CEO’s hold the sales organization primarily responsible for understanding and communicating customer needs and dissatisfactions. What a mistake. To begin with, most customers aren’t honest enough with salespeople for this to be an effective approach. And even if a customer is completely honest, most salespeople don’t have the right questioning and listening skills to do a good job of gathering and then translating the input into useful information for Marketing. Maybe it just comes down to the mentality a lot of execs have that Sales “owns” the customer. Little wonder then why more harmony doesn’t existing between sales and marketing teams. I’ve been on the sales side my entire career and have never understood why there is such division in roles & responsibilities between the two groups in many companies. I attribute it to simple bad management and shortsightedness.

  7. Shelby Jacobs says

    Love the reminder to interview customers – Thanks for the set of questions!

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