CEOs: Go Deep for your Customers!

CEOs: Go Deep for your Customers!

by Deborah Fell

A Sea of Sameness

“So, what do you think of our website?”  This was a new client—at my first on-site meeting with the CEO. 

“You have great product merchandising, well-written features and benefits. Could use some work on the ecommerce side,” I replied.  “What I’m not clear on, though, is this, ‘Who is your customer, and how do you help them?’”

Fact is, your customers don’t care what you do… they care about what you do for them.

They don’t care about your company or your product… they don’t even care about you.  They want their problem solved, their families happy and safe, and all their dreams to come true.

“People don’t want quarter inch drills; they want quarter inch holes.”

Because they are busy, they don’t have time to translate your products and services, what you do, into how it helps their business or their lives. They have urgent, more pressing demands.  

So often, companies are marketing what they think are the big, differentiated product or service benefits, whether B2B or B2C.  But more often these are just table stakes.

It’s like a clean hotel room: back when hotels were very inconsistent on this measure, if you were known for ‘clean,’ you could garner a larger share of the market.  Today, you will not even be in the consideration set without a clean hotel.

The resulting sea of sameness from website-to-website focuses buyers’ attention on one aspect of your product—price.


Today, companies need to know much more about their customers.  What’s important to them—far beyond the features and benefits of your product or service.

If you are looking at your client or customer through the narrow aperture of what you have to offer, you sell both them and yourself short. You need better insight into their world, their motivations and beliefs, within the industry context. 

Gathering Human Insight

In Part 2, we discussed the IT firm committed to helping their clients and themselves acquire and retain top millennial talent.  Here’s a little more to the story, a little more insight:

The firm’s clients’ (CIOs) budgets were declining or flat over time while other non-IT department spending on technology and related services increased.  In fact, 40% of company IT spending fell outside the CIOs’ control. 

Additionally, more than 75% of the CIOs’ budgets were tied to maintaining legacy systems. And, they were further constrained to choose maintenance and risk management vs. innovation.

In most cases, the rest of the business felt like the IT department was standing in the way of innovation, impacting company goals and talent retention. 

Yes, my client, the IT services company, could offer their services to other parts of the business with funding. Or… they could step back, dig deeper, and propose services that would help CIOs (and the whole enterprise) have oversight and tools to support collaborative decision-making.

Proposed solutions might include flexible technology tools—think integration—to help everyone involved.  And finally, they could support CIOs with transition plans to reduce the dependency on and drain of legacy systems. 

The Client’s Perspective

What does this have to do with clients as humans? 

It’s about deeply understanding the clients’ needs from their perspective. In this case, listening to the challenges the CIOs faced yielded a deeper understanding of the problem.

In addition, seeing the issues from the department heads’ point of view generated a broader view of the impact across the enterprise.

While other IT services companies were selling their wares, this company could thrive by providing lifelines to build and retain talent. 

Rather than incremental program benefits, this client had tools to improve collaboration, productivity and retention, not to mention reduction of CIO stress!

To be clear, this story is not about IT services—it’s about insight.

So why do we still see on website after website, in proposal after proposal, the relentless focus on services or products—on “what we do” and “who we are?” Because, you have to go deep to acquire insight!

“Insight is like a big fish—if you want small fish, you can stay in the shallow water.  If you want true insight, you have to go deeper.”

Most customer research probes company and competitor attributes, features and benefits, satisfaction, etc.  Most competitive reviews gather the exact same information from the same sources to compare vendors. 

Is it any wonder why such a sea of sameness exists, or why you’re always fighting discounts—from your sales executives and clients?

The key is to see, from the point of view of your client, the obstacles and issues they face, their greatest issues and angst—not from the perspective of your services or products. 

And the starting point is just that simple and direct. 

A Word About Focus

No business can be all things to all people. There aren’t enough resources to make that happen. A common business problem is the failure to focus on serving a distinct market segment or segments (it’s hard to do more than three effectively).

Part of an effective strategy, then, is to identify the markets your business will serve and with what offerings. Staying focused on your target market(s) helps you to understand your customers better, enabling the development of products and services that solve their problems. Likewise, too many products dilute your brand and the effectiveness of your efforts

When it comes to markets and products, less is usually more (success). 

Relationships Sustain the Business

While it’s true that strategy is about aligning the right services with the right markets,

Developing the kind of enduring relationships that sustain a company requires that you become obsessed with what your clients care most deeply about. 

Build the relationships and the business on being the advisor for and solver of those issues. You will stand out by going where your competition never thinks to look—deeper. There, you will acquire the insight to increase the value of all that you have to offer.

Our next segment takes insight in another direction. Part 4 is about proactive awareness applied to the ongoing task of protecting your business from your competitors’ efforts to win it from you. Read on to learn what you must do to stay one, two or several steps ahead of the competition.


Bonus Exercise 3 – Acquiring Insight

There isn’t a magic formula for acquiring insight. However, there is a helpful starting point:

  1. Meet with a few key customers to ask about the biggest problems they face.
  • How is business overall?
  • What kinds of issues are they wrestling with?
  • What are the major impacts?

Find out a key issue or two, and ask how important it would be to them—in specific terms—if you could solve it.  What would that enable for their companies or their customers? Growth? Innovation? Retention?

  1. A lot of marketing research is designed to ask questions about customer needs from the narrow lens of product or services. You and your team must take a different road.

What you really need to uncover are:

    1. The underlying themes and issues that represent the biggest problems and areas of need,
    2. Their corresponding impacts across the company, and
    3. What happens if the problems aren’t solved, and if they are solved.
    4. Then, determine if the solution is a product, a service or a collaboration.
    5. Is it infrastructure services, or could it be—significantly—retention of employees, as in our example from Part 2? 
    6. Think through what you have to offer and how it could address the real issues for the client.

Part 3 Takeaways

  • Your customers don’t care about what you do… they care about what you do for them.
  • Focusing on services and product features results in a sea of sameness that focuses buyers’ attention on price.
  • The key to insight is to discover, from the point of view of your client, the obstacles and issues they face—not from the perspective of your services or products.
  • Build client relationships and the business on being the advisor for and solver of the issues your clients care most deeply about.


I really like this.  It is an “easy” jump to think of this in reference to job search and how to position yourself in all of your marketing materials and interview language. When in an interview it is important to identify what you can do for the company opposed to what you have done in the past.



Originally published on August 14, 2017 in the Chief Outsiders blog by Deborah Fell, CMO, Chief Outsiders, and Miles LeHane consultant. Deborah is an expert at helping companies identify where the opportunities are (whether growth strategy or marketing productivity), and help them assess and develop more actionable and effective marketing strategies.  This article is part of a seven article series: Creating Sustainability for the Business.


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