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Sell (and Market) the Way Your Customers Want to Buy – Kristin Zhivago
The Agents of Change

Sell (and Market) the Way Your Customers Want to Buy – Kristin Zhivago

We might think we know what our customers are thinking, but we’re wrong, according to revenue coach, Kristin Zhivago. And in order to really go down that journey of better customer service, you first need to toss aside any expectations of what you think your customers are going to say, and actually be willing to start talking to them. 

By doing this, you get to find out your company’s strengths and weaknesses. You find out the things you’re really good at that you want to promote, and the things that you need to fix in the background. And once you fix them, then you can promote those.


Rich: My guest today is the president of Zhivago Partners, a digital marketing management company. She’s the author of Roadmap to Revenue – How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy. Before founding her digital agency a few years ago, she was a revenue coach to CEOs and entrepreneurs, helping them sell the way their customers want to buy. During her career, she has worked with hundreds of business owners and CEOs and has interviewed literally thousands of customers for her clients. She and her team now specialize in helping businesses market and sell successfully to today’s digitally savvy customers. I’m very excited to have on the show today, Kristin Zhivago. Kristin, welcome to The Agents of Change Podcast.

Kristin: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Rich: So revenue coach, that sounds pretty interesting. How did you get into the world of revenue coaching? 

Kristin: Well, I actually invented it. There wasn’t a revenue coach before I came along. Actually my husband and I started a high tech ad agency. I’ve been in tech since I was 17. I was the first woman to sell machine shop tools in the country and learned a lot from that experience. Mostly that you needed to understand your product before you could sell it, and a miniskirt wasn’t enough.

Rich: I know I’ve tried it and really it just, yeah, it’s very distracting.

Kristin: Yeah, it’s very distracting. So then I was in sales and marketing jobs for some years and then I started a high tech Ad/PR agency in Silicon Valley, my husband and I did that for 12 years. But then when the Mac came out, I looked at my husband and said, “You know what, they’re all going to go in house and I’m not going to fight over the crumbs at the table”, like all the other agencies did for the next few, 10 or 20 years.

So he retired, this is back in ‘91. And I just decided I was going to help people in-house. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought CEOs don’t care about sales and marketing, they care about revenue. And I help companies make more revenue. So why not be a revenue coach? And it was a great elevator pitch, you know, if some CEO said, “Well what do you do? “ I’d say, “I’m a revenue coach. I help CEOs and entrepreneurs understand what their customers want to buy and how they want to buy it.” And that was it. I was pretty much hired after that.  I had a 90% closing rate. Yeah. So I did that for decades and it was fun.

Rich: Yeah. So then at some point you shifted back to agency work. What lessons did you bring with you from all this stuff that you discovered during your work as a revenue coach?

Kristin: Well, the biggest thing is we all think we know what our customers are thinking and we’re wrong. All of us. I mean, every single time I’d go to a company and I get all immersed in their technology and what they do and they’d say, “Okay, these are the things that are the most important to our customers.” And then I’d go out and interview customers. I insisted on doing that. And their customers always had a different list. Now maybe one or two of those 10 items were on the list, but they were at the bottom.

So the thing that the company thought was the most important thing that they publicize the most, customers were like, “Eh, everybody does that.” That’s like table stakes, so what. Planes are supposed to fly, boats float. Okay, got it. So you have to find that very specific thing that you do really well – which is why I interview current customers, not prospective customers – because they know you, they’ve worked with you, and they know what your strengths and weaknesses are and your dirty laundry.

And that was one of the things that always surprised the CEOs when I brought back the results word for word transcriptions, anonymous transcriptions, and they’d be, “Whoa, I had no idea that they understood we were struggling with that.” Or, “Gee, I didn’t even know that was a problem. Why aren’t we fixing it?” So I was looking for barriers to the sale and the secret sauce that makes them so exciting in the mind of the buyer. And that was the biggest lesson that just happened over and over and over and over again.

Rich: Can you give us an example or two of a situation where you brought something to light? They thought they were just selling flights and it turned out that actually it was because their honey roasted peanuts were better than everybody else’s or something like that, you know.

Kristin: Yeah, yeah. So there was a company, I can’t remember the first name is Pioneer Software or something like that, and brilliant guy that ran the company. And it was a software application for companies that had field technicians, so people that went out in the field and did some kind of service, whatever it was. And it was the whole thing. If you could run your whole field service business on that app.

And the thing they were the most excited about is how elegantly they interacted or integrated with QuickBooks. Of course, they’d be excited about that, and it was very difficult for them to do it elegantly. So we went out and interviewed customers and they were like, “Yeah, yeah, okay. Everybody integrates with QuickBooks. So what’s the big deal?” And what it turned out that what was so special about them is when you entered the data the first time you talked with a prospective client, everything that you entered in went to the other respective places in the program. So the instructions to the guys in their trucks on how to get there or the address or the invoicing program. I mean it was entered once, populate everywhere.

Now you sort of take this for granted now, but when I was working with this company, it still wasn’t completely always that way and entrepreneurs really don’t like entering data twice. It sort of drives them crazy. It’s useless. So we came back and said this is the real deal. This is what they really care about. We ended up renaming the company to Field One as in field service, enter the field once you know the field like in the data record. And they ended up selling their company for many millions of dollars to Microsoft and he’s still working with them actually very happy and refers me to other people. But that was a major turnaround because of that one thing.

Rich: That’s fantastic. So it sounds like to go on this journey, the first thing we really need to know is kind of throw aside our expectations for what our customers are going to say and then actually talk to them. Now you do this for other companies. I don’t know if this is something that a company can do for themselves, especially if you know they’re just getting started or if they don’t have a lot of money that they want to put towards this. But how do we broach this subject with our current customers? What kind of questions are you asking people that are generating these answers that ultimately lead to this “aha” moment?

Kristin: That’s a very good question. I wrote a book and chapter three in that book is the exact instructions, because I didn’t want to just keep this to myself. It’s so important. And it kept reminding me how important it was every time I did it.

So I learned over time, lots of A/B testing kind of things. One, you had to talk to them on the phone. If you tried to get them in person or a focus group it doesn’t work. You just catch them in their normal environment, you make an appointment ahead of time and you talk to current customers because you’re trying to reverse engineer a successful buying process, and they know so much about your company.

Now I’ll talk about the startup in a second. Who doesn’t have any current customers? So you send out emails to tell them why you’d like to call – and you don’t tell them you want to reverse engineer the buying process – but you can say, “We’re trying to improve our processes and we’d like to spend, you know, 30 minutes with you”, open ended questions, not a boring survey kind of thing.

About a third of them will make an appointment the first time you send out the email. Then you send out a reminder and they feel guilty. You say second request, and another third do that. And then the last third never respond, which is fine. You just get enough email addresses to make it work.

Now here’s the interesting part. Oh and let me talk about the questions. So I developed over time some open ended questions that work in just about any industry. You could still add some very specific questions for your situation, but they are things like, “How do you feel about the company?” “How do you feel about our service?”  “If you were the CEO of this company tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would focus on or fix?” That’s a really good question. I get so many answers to that question. “What trends do you see in the market right now?”  “What are your biggest challenges?” “What’s keeping you awake at night?” And, “When you go into Google, what would you type in?”  And then, “How do you normally buy this?” “What’s your buying process for this type of product?”

Now as, as they answer these questions, they’ll sometimes answer the other questions or they’ll give you kinds of information that you want to drill down on a little bit. This is a conversation. And so you’ll do that. You’ll say, “Oh wait, wait, you said it was okay. That’s not really yes or no. That’s, ‘I need to tell you more’.”  And you, you hear those hints and I talk about all of this in my book. I gave away all my secrets on purpose.

Rich: And this is Roadmap to Revenue, your book?

Kristin: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s chapter three. And then there are situations, of course, let’s talk about the people who have startups and don’t have any customers yet. You definitely do not want to talk to your friends and family. That’s how entrepreneurs get in trouble in the first place because they’re talking to people who already trust them.

And the beginning of the buying process is, should I trust these people or not? So that doesn’t work. And they’re only going to tell you what you want to hear anyway. So you try to find prospective customers and talk to them about the idea and get as much data as you can.

Now, if you’re brand new and you’re doing that, you need to talk to more than 10 people. If you’re talking to your current customers and if they’re in segments, you have to talk to a certain number of each segment, like the business buyer or the manager or the doer or the purchasing guy or whatever, or the husband or the wife or whatever it is. So you have groups of people you need to talk to and you can mix it up. The list is very important, like big customers, small customers, regular customers, whatever.

And then here’s the interesting part that again. I’ve conducted thousands of interviews, by the fifth to seventh person of any given type, you will start to hear the same phrase, the exact same phrase over and over again. They have never talked to each other. This is how they see the company and their experience with you. Because the truth is, you are who you are. They’ve experienced you and they’re telling you about that experience. Guess what? They all pretty much have the same experience.

So you find out your strengths and weaknesses. You find out the things you’re really good at that you want to promote, and the things that you need to fix in the background. And once you fix them, you can promote those.

Rich: So that sounds on one hand, obvious and simple, and yet obviously that’s not always going to be the case. So let’s say we’ve done these interviews, we found a few core things that we need to improve on. And some other things that it’s like, wow, I had no idea that that was such a big thing. And maybe other people here. How do you start to implement that in your business? I guess that’s my first question. How do you start to implement the changes?

Kristin: Well it comes from this, you end up with two reports, the way I do it. And by the way, we should address something that you brought up earlier for a second, which is do you make these calls yourself? What’s interesting is they’ll be more polite and say less fewer negative things if you’re conducting the interviews.

Rich: Interesting.

Kristin: You can still conduct the interviews. I don’t have any problem with that at all.  That’s why I wrote the book. I wanted everybody to be able to do this. But I highly recommend that you hire someone who’s somewhat familiar with your industry and knows your business enough so that they don’t ask stupid questions or they don’t just go, “Aha”, when the person has given them some big hint about drill down please. So you want somebody who is objective and they have to know that person’s objective. Because sometimes they’ll say to me, Oh well you guys do this and that and I’ll stop them and say, well actually I don’t work for the company, I’m a hired consultant. And then they open up more.

They tend to be very polite when they’re talking directly to your face. They’ll water it down like crazy. I had a situation with a guy where he had this enormous machine that this company made and he was running a factory in Los Angeles somewhere and he was really ticked off. I mean when the machine went down, he was out of business. And this company had reliability problems and he got on the phone with me and just gave me an ear full, I mean swear words, he was just livid. I said, “You know what? Usually I keep these anonymous, but this time I’d like you to talk to the CEO because he really needs to hear this.” The guy said, okay, so I got them on the phone together. He was like a little lamb sort of meekly complaining about the product, “I know you’re trying really hard, but you know, this is a big problem for us.” It was like Jekyll and Hyde. I was like, excuse me. So that really taught me, you have to find somebody who can be that objective third party, and tell them at the beginning of the conversation I’m recording, because I can’t type as fast as they talk, but that the reports are going to be anonymized and categorized by subject. So everything’s taken out of context and then they just open up.

Rich: Right. That sounds great. So we were starting to talk about, let’s implement. Yeah, so we’ve got some good information. What are some of the tactics we can take to start implementing them? So we improve what we need to improve on, and then we can get into promoting this through different channels. But what are the steps you need to take?

Kristin: So right after the interviews, the next thing that comes out is a conversation report, which is as I described, here are all the answers to this question. Then you have clumps of paragraphs of this person saying, “Well, in my opinion, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and next person, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we do take out company names and so on. We keep our promise about them being anonymous.

It’s very powerful for a CEO or an entrepreneur to see, here’s what everybody says about that. And they’re all saying the same thing. It’s very eye opening. And these reports can be 50 to 150 pages. And every single executive I’ve ever worked for reads the whole thing because it’s like somebody telling you your life, you know? So it’s fascinating reading.

Then I take that and with some help of my assistants and stuff, we condense, we pull the pertinent content out of those, just the perfect statements and we put them into a summary report. So you see a bullet list of what everybody said about that, just the high points. And then from that I build recommendations and I summarize, I say, “Look, this is the big thing. Everybody cares about this. That’s where we’re going to promote. You definitely have a problem under here. And so now we have to build a plan to fix that.” And that’s basically the revenue coaching that I did. And I would also turn around marketing and sales departments all the time for companies, everybody including Dow Jones, IBM, you know.

So that whole thing, that process is first you get the data, then you get the data digestible so they really get the message. And then while they’re sitting there with their mouths open and their eyes open and they’re like, “Oh my God, I had no idea.” Then you say, “Here’s the plan”.  And it works because you’ve got executive buy in to fix the problems that a lot of the people in the company already knew you had, but you were ignoring.

Rich: Makes sense. So when we, you know, obviously this a digital marketing podcast, so let’s, let’s kind of bring it down to some of the tactics we often talk about. So we fix some things hopefully, and we’ve got some things that we didn’t know were important to our clients that now we get that. So how do you recommend that we let people know about these things, either that have been fixed or that have always been there but we didn’t know were so good? You know, like from a search engine standpoint or from a social media standpoint or email marketing channels. What are some of the things we can do to really grow that revenue through our digital marketing? 

Kristin: So great segue. Good question. I am a revenue coach still at heart. I’m somebody who helps businesses grow and now I’m growing my own business, which is lots of fun. But I’m also a content person. I’m a writer and I’ve taught writers all over the world. I’ve managed writers now, I’ve written thousands and thousands of pages of content. And to me, once you understand what the basic headline is, the ad or the blog or whatever it is, kind of writes itself because now you understand this is the thing we should be always emphasizing. This is the thing that matters to people. Now you have the really holy grail of content, which is relevancy.

You know when you go to shop for something, even on Amazon, you have a very specific requirement in mind. And if they don’t meet that specific requirement, then you go somewhere else. And if we know what those specific requirements are, then we put that in all of our content. Make sure it’s in the headline, make sure it’s at the top banner of your website. And then that big question they have, the most important gating question, “If it has it, I buy it. If it doesn’t, I don’t”, is answered right away. I want to answer that as fast as possible.

One of the things I go into great detail about in my book is the buying process. And I have to say I’m a little bit proud of the fact that I was one of the first people in the marketing industry to recognize that marketing and sales is not about marketing and sales. It’s about supporting their buying process. They have a buying process and we’re not in line with it. We won’t sell successfully.

So I came up with this whole idea of scrutiny, which is that every single product and service in the world falls into one of four scrutiny categories; light scrutiny, medium scrutiny, heavy scrutiny and intense. And you have to know where you are on that spectrum so that you don’t do a newsletter about chewing gum. You don’t overdo the relationship when there’s no need for the relationship.

You know, nobody wants the car dealer showing up for dinner. I mean it’s just people got way off on that whole relationship thing. People want to buy and they want to buy efficiently. So your big questions that matter to them have to be answered right away. So your ads, all your Facebook stuff, all your blogs, everything you’re doing, the chatting, the whole positioning should be aimed at answering those big questions first. And then there are other specific details. And this gives all of your writers, designers, everybody working on all your digital stuff, the relevant data they need to create a decent campaign.

Rich: So if I’m hearing you correctly, content obviously is critically important. We need to educate our customers, or our prospects in this particular case, based on what we’ve heard from our clients. But we need to be putting this out as blog posts, podcasts, email marketing, a website, and all that sort of stuff. It’s got to be across the board and it’s just a matter of making sure that we’re communicating using the words of our customers.

Kristin: Yes. Now you bring all this up and honestly what you’re describing is omni channel marketing, which is where we are now. I’m so sort of disgusted and sad about people who’ve come to us and said, “Well, I tried Facebook advertising, didn’t work. And then I tried SEO, didn’t work.” The problem is you need to do it all right now because all of that stuff is just a click away for your customers. They can learn everything they want to know about you in five minutes clicking around to LinkedIn, going to your profile, going to your ‘About’ page. And by the way, big hint for anybody who’s selling a service, you better have your team on your about page, and their pictures and their bios, because every single B2B buyer I’ve ever interviewed says when I asked him, “Where do you go to the website first?”  They always say, “I go right to the ‘About’ page.” They want to see who’s running the company and if they can trust them or not.

Rich: That’s interesting because I don’t always go to the about page, but I’ve heard from many people that it is a critical piece and certainly we’re actually at flyte about to launch our newest version of the website, and it’s all about transparency. And in fact part of it is, is we’ve got video and photos of all of our staff. And I think that’s just the level of expectation these days that people have when they do business, especially in B2B.

Kristin: Yeah, and the other thing that’s really shifted for business owners that they don’t realize has even happened is we’ve all, we talk about social media as like Twitter and stuff like that, but the truth is we now all live our working lives online. And we talk to our buddies and we interact with people and you can’t set it and forget it anymore. You can’t leave it up to somebody else. You actually have to integrate or interact with the people out there who are in… the community has shifted. It’s online, it’s on LinkedIn and other places where you have to actually show up. And that’s, that’s time consuming. That’s hard to do when you’re running a company. It’s really hard to do. So you can help people kind of get you out there and make some introductions, but you still have to participate every single day. And that’s where the referrals are. And that’s where the activity is happening.

My first book was called Rivers of Revenue – What to Do When the Money Stops Flowing. And it’s all about the fact that the money is only where the customers are. That’s it. There is no money where there are no customers, unless you’re shorting.

The thing that’s complicated things, I have to bring this up, is we now have another customer or a couple and those are the monopolies like Google. They still have like 95% of the search market, and Facebook, which is becoming more and more popular. So the ad things are really heating up and a lot more people are advertising right now. And the people who work on those for you, the specialists that do nothing but Google ads or nothing but Facebook, their first customer has to be Google because if they don’t pass the rules that Google makes about those ads, it doesn’t work. They can’t get in it.

So they tend to be kind of nerdy because they’re pleasing an algorithm every day that changes his mind every two hours or when they change their algorithm. So that’s kind of thrown a wrench in things and the business owners don’t understand those algorithms and what they really want. And a lot of the people who do the work still don’t understand it because it changes so often.

Rich: Kristen, I want to bring it back to this whole idea of these digitally savvy consumers and basically selling the way that our customers want to buy. So what are you seeing out there right now in 2020 that you’re like, this is what businesses need to be focusing a little bit more heavy on? Whether it’s a channel or an opportunity or an approach that you’re like, everybody should be doubling down on this right now.

Kristin: Okay. So the thing that they’re kind of ignoring, much like they’d never talked to customers, is they are not realizing where customers are gathering and already talking about them. Like people go to Glass Door to see if a company’s really helping its customers and a good place to work before they hire them for a service thing. Or they go into Google My Business to those knowledge graphs on the right side of the search results and that panel that comes up and they read the reviews. And there are so many people who don’t even read their own reviews, they’re not keeping up with them and they realize they don’t know they have three or should I should say 30 one star reviews and only 5 five star reviews in Google My Business or something.

So part of this work is going out there and I have a lot of research people on my staff and all we do is go around and look and check and test and you know, I build systems just for seeing what’s happening out there in the customer community. And you have to be there. If somebody does a one star review, you need to come back and say, “I’m so sorry you had that experience. I’d really like to help you. How can we get in touch or let me talk to you.” And you have to be fast about it. This is day by day kind of stuff. So there, there needs to be a whole separate effort in your marketing that says I’m on top of this. I know what the community is saying, I’m involved, I’m participating. It’s really important.

Rich: Kristin, that’s great advice. If people want to learn more about you, we mentioned the book which is called, Roadmap to Revenue – How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy, available on Amazon and likely at a bookstore near you. But where else can people connect with you online?

Kristin: Obviously our website, which is zhivagopartners.com and Zhivago is Z H I V as in Victor, A G O, like doctor Zhivago, zhivagopartners.com. That’s the best place. All my blogs are up there. I’m also starting to write sort of a side blog called Kristin’s Wisdom where I’m just trying to help the up and comers and the entrepreneurs and people who are just struggling a little bit with their business life and trying to figure out what to do. Because I just have a lot of things that I’ve learned and I really don’t want to leave this earth not helping somebody with some of the things I figured out.

Rich:  The person who dies giving away the most advice wins, it sounds like.

Kristin: Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. Right. Exactly.

Rich:  Kristen, this has been great. Of course, if you’re listening and you were driving and you couldn’t take all that down, we have all of those links in the show notes, so be sure to check them out. And Kristen, thank you so much for stopping by today. It’s been great.

Kristin: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

Show notes: 

Kristin Zhivago helps businesses understand what their customers want to buy, and how they want to buy it. Definitely check out her book where she lays it all out with actionable items anyone can do.  

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing