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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Message to Marketers--Listen!

People often ask me to look back over my long career and tell them what the single most important quality is for one to become a good or even great marketer. I always smile and answer immediately. To me, it is so very simple--you need sharp listening skills.

Spending much of my career at ad agencies, it always stunned me how often my colleagues dismissed our clients as morons. One fellow told me that we knew what was best for them and we simply had to lead them. At times, I must admit, after an awful client session or new business pitch, I joined in the chorus of people laughing at clients or prospects. Day to day, however, it was a different story for me.

Some years back, a very large client was often the butt of cruel jokes by many of my associates. At one session on a Thursday afternoon, he asked for an analysis that had everyone rolling their eyes. I asked him an innocuous question or two and the agency’s management representative later thanked me for not laughing in his face. The next day, I told the young account executive on the business that he had not mentioned the client’s inquiry in his call report. The twenty something fellow replied, “Mr. X is an idiot. We do not have to respond to his stupid ideas.” I told him that there was a meeting with the same client on Monday and his boss would be there as well. His response was a shrug and he left my office.

That afternoon, I made a few calls to some media executives in New York. On Sunday, I camped out in my office and put together a simple power-point that shot down the client’s idea but eased the pain by stressing (truthfully) that his idea was a few years ahead of its time.

On Monday, the meeting progressed fairly well. Then, near the end, Mr. X’s boss said,“I gave Tom (not his real name) a media idea last week. Could I have a report on that now?”  The account team froze with the classic “deer in the headlights” look. I jumped up, said, “of course”, and fired up the power-point. I dissected the big man’s idea as tactfully as I could and he shook his head in agreement.

As we were leaving, Mr. X asked to see me in his office. I was prepared for the worst. Instead, he thanked me profusely. “I cannot tell you how much I appreciate what you did today. Your company does good work but you are the only one over there who listens to me.” His comment remains the most meaningful professional compliment that I have ever received. A few weeks later we were fired. Mr. X and I stayed in touch and I considered him a friend until his death.

I did not do anything special--what I did was my job in a service organization. My colleagues thought that they were smarter than Mr. X. Perhaps they were; perhaps not. To me, Mr. X was a decent guy who was helping in a big way to pay my childrens college tuitions.  He was important to me.

The first rule of listening is to be be present and ACTIVELY listening when you clients or customers want to talk. I was always stunned when Chief Marketing Officers would say  that they rarely visited their stores or talked to their customers. They occasionally watched a tape of a focus group or read an executive summary of a research report. The best marketers are involved. They talk to a fair sample of customers at every touch point in the relationship--when someone sees the advertising, buys their product, uses it, and perhaps most importantly, when something goes wrong.

Sam Walton to his dying day was out in his stores talking to his blue collar customers and listening to them. There he was, an early billionaire, but he knew who his customers were, respected them, and responded to their needs. Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, often spends her weekends in supermarkets talking with shoppers and sales clerks. She tries very hard to stay in touch with her base of snack food junkies.

Sadly, given the lack of vocabulary in America today, there are over 20,000 sites with the suffix “sucks.com”. The clever marketers do not let the angry comments gather dust. They make a spirited attempt to link people to their proprietary customer service sites. This lets people vent but also they can gather some valuable information. If someone bothers to write to a site, they are angry and may have good reasons. If you can turn some of these people around, you can do your brand a big favor.

Sharp marketers make it easier to reach their company with good and bad feed-back and suggestions. Also, and very importantly, when they respond they make certain that there is a caring human being at the other end. By building a dialogue, they can understand their customers needs much better.

Today, everyone preaches that you do not talk to customers. You need to engage them and create a relationship. Well, too many marketers are committing the error that
 dooms many relationships and even marriages. They simply do not listen.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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