Do you really know who your customers are? Is the information you have based on data supported facts or assumptions? If your assumptions are off the mark, then you’re straying from who your customer really is and what they care about.
By spending just a minimal amount of time doing some basic research and perhaps even interviewing a handful of your customers – past and present – to find out why they came to you and how you can make the process easier for both of you, you can reap the rewards of your diligence with a ROI that pays out in more customers and sales for your business.
Rich: Liston Witherill is a digital marketer and CEO at Good Funnel. He helps tech and info businesses understand their customers to sell more by improving conversions, copy, persuasion, pricing, positioning, and even automation.
After serving as Director of Marketing for a $10 million company, Liston declined their CMO position to instead pursue his own business. He has an MS in Environmental Science and a B.A. in Political Science an Economics. He’s an environmentalist and hip hop artist, too, but that’s a different story which maybe we’ll get to later in this episode. Liston, welcome to the show.
Liston: Thank you so much, I’m happy to be here.
Rich: Now it’s good that you help companies understand their customers more, because that’s what we’re here to talk about today, to get a better understanding of our customers. When you and I first chatted a couple weeks ago, you threw it out there that a day of research can double what you know about your customers.
So I guess my first question to you is, do we really need to do all this research? As marketers and small business owners, don’t we already know our customers?
Liston: Yes and no. So I think what we see often when we work with clients is that most of us do know our customers to a certain extent. But over time – without doing the rigorous research that’s needed to really have data to back up anything that we think we know about our customers – we tend to start to make assumptions and we have things called “heuristics” or rules of thumb that we make up and kind of fill in the blanks that we have about our customers.
So wherever we have missing data points, over time in a year or two or five or ten, we start to create all of these assumptions that we then take as fact about our customers, and often they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean they’re always wrong, but it means that as we stack up enough of these little assumptions that are off the mark, we’re going to be straying from who our customer really is and what they really care about. And so what I would pause at is just spending a day of research. And you said “all of this research”, so I think that’s a good thing to talk about, too.
Just a day of research to me doesn’t seem monumental, it seems like something that anybody can take on. And when I say you can double what you know about your customer in that time, I’m really being conservative. Most people will triple or quadruple what they know about their customer in just a day of research and it’s a lot easier than you think.
Rich: Alright, well I’m definitely guilty of just starting to assume I know what all my customers want and who they are and all that sort of stuff, and maybe have gotten a little complacent in the last 20 years. So what are some of the first steps that I can take to do this research? Do I just pick up the phone and start talking to my current client base?
Liston: I would encourage you to do that, yeah. Since you’ve been in business for so long, one thing that you have is a tremendous advantage in going through your books and looking at who are your best customers. And by that what I mean is who’s paid you the most, who’s bought multiple times from you, who did you enjoy working with the most is also a really important point.
So over 20 years, you can probably create a list of 20-50 people. And all you really need to do is conduct 5-10 interviews – I think 7 is about the sweet spot – and most data shows that in any random sample all we need is about 5 in order to get to 90%+, to get to the median.
So we’re not talking about huge numbers here, and so if I were you what I would do is go through who are your best customers, who did you really enjoy working with, who paid you the most. Since you’re in consulting, one thing of course that I would ask you to figure out is who are you able to charge more and deliver more value to. And then that would start to create a picture of who is your ideal customer, and then you go out and talk to them. Why did they choose you, what was their search like, what were their external triggers that caused them to search in the first place, all kinds of questions that you can start to answer.
Rich: Let’s get into that. Besides some of the ones you just mentioned, what kind of questions should we be asking people to get a better sense of where they are right now?
Liston: So if we’re interviewing our existing customers or past customers, I don’t necessarily want to know where they are right now. I want them to go back – and this is part of the interview process – I would ask them to think back a year ago when they first were thinking about hiring someone, what was going on in their life at the time that made them decide to reach out you. What was going on, what kind of problems were they trying to solve, what did that feel like?
So what we’re really trying to figure out is what are those key pain points that people were responding to. There’s a stimulus out there in the world and then there is a reaction to it. So what we want to know is what was the stimulus and what was their reaction. Part of the reaction obviously is to look for help which is why they hired you in the first place. But also part of the reaction is what was the gut feeling. So that’s one thing.
Another thing I would always ask is, “How do you make a decision to buy from a list of different competitors, how do you choose the winner?” So that’s a very common sales question that we want to know up front in order to figure out which benefits that we want to message on the website, and also what is the process. What were the questions along the way that they needed answered that moved them to the next step and got them closer to making a buying decision.
Rich: Ok, that’s definitely helpful. Are there other questions we should be asking or is it time to move on and expand our research at this point?
Liston: The key to an interview certainly we want to ask what were the triggers going on in the person’s life, what did it feel like, how did they go about searching for a solution. When they found multiple vendors or ways to solve the problem, how did they reach a decision to solve it in a certain way, what were some of their outstanding doubts or objections.
And then also we want to document through a series of interviews – five to seven would be great – what are those repeating themes that keep coming over and over, we call this “store analysis”. So we’re looking for sticky messages, triggers, objections, and repeating themes. So that’s really what we’re looking for in these interviews and then we would move on to the next thing.
Rich: Ok, that makes a lot of sense. So let’s move on to that next thing. What happens after we’ve collected these 5-7 interviews with our best clients?
Liston: So you have to organize the information in some way, and that’s really where store analysis comes in. We’re really looking to categorize the information and err on the side of categorizing everything. So again, sticky messages, what are those things that are very memorable that are said in exactly the customer’s voice. So we’re looking for verbatim quotes that convey what was the customer’s experience like or how did they think about their problems.
We’re looking for triggers – which I talked about already – what were those external factors that caused them to think about buying a product or service like yours, what are their objections, before they bought what were some reasons why they might not have bought, and then what are those repeating themes that we keep hearing over and over again.
So you would just open up a spreadsheet, list them out, and then you would start to prioritize what are the best most important most memorable messages so that we have along the spectrum and then kind of ripen the order. Then we would start to think about how do we turn this into copy. And so that’s just one small piece of the research process.
The other piece of course, we want to know what your competitors are doing. We want to know how do people think about this problem in terms of their search habits, what’s the language that they use. And then you mentioned customer reviews, we’d also look at when someone reviews a product or service – either yours or one like yours – so your competitors may have reviews, what do the passionate people say about it. What do the people who give it 5 stars say, and what do the people who give it 1 star say. And often that verbatim copy will have that first category of sticky messages that we can swipe and then turn into headlines and other pieces of copy on our landing pages and websites, emails, whatever you’re doing.
Rich: So are we going to sites like Yelp and Google and Trip Advisor to find these types of online reviews, or are there other places as well?
Liston: Yeah, totally. You hit the nail on the head. Those are totally good places to go, and it depends on the business you’re in. So if you’re in a local brick and mortar business then Yelp is a great place to go. Google reviews are a good place to go. If you’re a local service provider for homes, think about something like house.com or Angie’s List.
We deal with a lot of technology companies so we would think about a place like GetApp, or G2 Crowd, or Capterra, but there’s all kinds of places out there. And then of course Amazon.com. So even if we’re not necessarily selling a consumer product, our customer type – one you’ve already gone through the trouble of finding out who your customer is – they’re going to buy products on Amazon that may be similar to what we have to sell. And they’re going to be on Amazon talking about their experience with those products, so that’s another good source.
Rich: Alright, so once we’ve collected all this information; we’ve interviewed our clients, we’ve gone to some of these review sites, we’ve made this spreadsheet. What exactly are we going to do with it? I mean, visiting this cart with red push pins and string that you see on a detective show. Is it anything like that or is it a little more virtual?
Liston: Well, we’re more digital than analog. We’re definitely using a Google spreadsheet in order to organize the information. By the end of this process let’s say we have something like 40 data points. Let’s say we have four categories of 10 different data points in each category. What we would then do is start to – first of all there’s an art and a science – the science is how do we gather all of this information in a credible way where we’re not tainting the results. And then the art is deciding how do we apply it.
So this is to your question. The way that I have found to be the most effective to translate the data into something that’s useable is to first figure out what are all the places of interaction with our clients or customers. So for us that’s on our website, that’s on our landing pages, that’s through emails. I’m guessing it’s something similar for you, Rich.
Rich: I was going to say that for flyte new media it absolutely is. Most of our stuff is online, although I do presentations and other networking events. Then we also have the Agents of Change Conference and that obviously has a physical manifestation once a year as well where we get 400 people and they leave reviews. But there’s also that networking aspect with people in real life, so maybe a little of both in that category.
Liston: Right, and so the reviews for your conference would be a great place to look for ways to update and improve your messaging for your conference. Maybe your business too, but not necessarily, right.
So as I’m thinking about how do I want the flow of my website to go, so when we think about copy and conversion here’s really a few things that we think about. One is who are we targeting, two is what are we saying to them, three is how do we say it, and then four is how does that take shape in terms of design and structure and order of things we’re asking them to do. So when we’re thinking about #2, what are we saying to them? That’s where all of this really comes in strong, #2 and #3, what do we say and how do we say it.
So what I would recommend is as you have these data points – I talked about 10 points in each of 4 categories – start to lay them out and try to narrow it down to 5-10 messages that are really key that you need to communicate. The way you message people should reflect the data that you collected.
Rich: Just to make sure I understand this, when you’re talking about data points, these are perhaps quotes that we got from clients and we start to see a certain amount of repetition in some of these quotes?
Liston: Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. Their quotes, their themes, what are their concerns, what do they really need when they’re buying from you or someone like you. Yeah, exactly.
Liston: Did I answer your question?
Rich: Yeah. I was just trying to think that for a company different than a digital agency it might be something along the lines of I want to get my social media done but I don’t have the time to do it. So I keep on hearing things like I don’t have the time, all that sort of stuff. Then we can talk about how we take things off your plate and free up your day, something like that.
Liston: Yeah, exactly. And for that example it’s probably some combination of we don’t have time/we don’t know what to say/ we don’t have the right people in house to do it/we can only tackle part of the social media posting demands. So yeah, basically we would want to know what are those top messages that we want to say, and then that would be kind of a reference document.
So whenever we’re writing a new landing page, updating the homepage, whatever we’re doing for us or for our clients, we want it to be reflective of what we found that our customers actually need and want based on what they’ve told us directly or indirectly.
Rich: Ok. So when we’re using this in our messaging, it makes sense to put it on our websites. So you have any suggestions on exactly how to use it on our websites and landing pages, and if there are places that we should use it that are maybe not just on our website?
Liston: Yeah, sure. So there’s all kinds of different uses for this so I can think of lots. In terms of how to actually use the information, it would go into your headline. It would go into how you’re laying out your page. It just depends on what you’re finding through the research process so it’s just very hard for me to sit here and give you a definitive “step 1-5” because it depends on the business.
So for you Rich, maybe you’re learning that a section or a type of service that you offer that you never messaged before should be on your homepage but it’s not. That may be something that comes out of this. It may be the subheads or the key messaging for your SEO practice need to be realigned. So it could be lots of different things.
Now beyond the website I can think of lots of use cases. One thing that I do a lot is I reach out to people on podcasts. So I’m doing cold email outreach, which is another thing that I know a lot of companies are doing. So that’s a place where you can start to weave in these key messages as you’re doing cold email outreach. Of course we also do social media ad buys, we also do pay per click. And so the way we construct our ads online obviously is very critical to get clicks and attention. And then when they go to a landing page we want that to reflect not only the ad, but the key messages that we’ve already uncovered.
So there are tons and tons of places, really this is limitless and I think what I’m recommending when I say double what you know about your customers is when you find this information and you prioritize it, that should be kind of your bible for how you’re going to message in the future and how you’re going to make updates just so that all of your messaging is cohesive and it matches up to what you already know your customers want.
Rich: Liston. Is there any way we can kind of test this, or does that just come through in the number of leads and sales we get and see an uptick in something like that, or are there any other ways that you can think of that you might just want to measure the ROI of investing this time?
Liston: I can’t think of a better way to figure out if you have ROI than actually getting more sales or less sales as a result of it. That would definitely give you a definitive answer. A faster way you can find out is if say you want to have either a lead gen campaign or a “get appointments” campaign, one thing that we like to do is put up two different ads. So different headline, different print creative, different text on the ad, and see which one gets the most interest.
So one way that you can figure that out is what your relevant score is, and also what your cost per conversion is, so that would be a good way to figure it out. Same thing on Google ads. you have way less room to work with on Google ads, but it’s a great way to test is this message performing better than this other one, assuming you’re targeting the same groups.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. And I was thinking, it makes sense to try that on some sort of digital ad where people may not see your whole message and this way you’re not changing your entire website, but now you have an opportunity to actually see what gets people’s attention more and what also drives them to click.
Liston: Yeah, exactly. It’s way less work to put the ads up, assuming you already have your accounts.
Rich: Right. And are there any mistakes that you see people make when they’re doing this kind of research and/or in the implementation of what they found?
Liston: Yeah. So the biggest mistake that we’ve seen is people coming in with their assumptions and not checking those assumptions at the door. So they’re not even necessarily aware that they are making assumptions that may or may not be true.
Another mistake that I see really commonly is when people do interviews of their customers, they tend to ask very leading questions and they tend to ask “why” questions. We recommend that you don’t do either of those. We recommend that you ask very open ended questions and then just wait for the person to talk because your role as an interviewer is to ask a question and then listen, which means you’re listening 80%-90% of the time.
And then you don’t want to ask “why questions” because people will feel the need to give you a reason even if they don’t have a reason for what they did. So whenever you ask “why”, someone will be inclined to answer the word “because” and then fill in the blank. They want to give you an explanation even if they don’t necessarily know of one. So we tend to ask more “how” questions, “how did you make a decision?”, “how did you arrive at that conclusion?”, “how did you search for a provider?” And then just listen. So those are the big things that I would avoid.
Rich: Awesome. I totally get the leading questions, but the whole “why” versus “how”, I wouldn’t have seen that one. So that’s definitely something as I interview my own clients going forward, I’ll have to make sure that I avoid that at all times.
And lastly, give us the elevator pitch on your hip hop career.
Liston: The pitch on my hip hop career is that I dropped out of college undergrad when I was 19 and started pursuing a music career when I was in an 8-piece band called The Jimmy Spot. I lived in LA at the time and we played shows up and down Sunset Boulevard. Then my buddy and I – who is still a successful musician – we started doing commercial production so we had songs placed in national TV shows and commercials. And I decided I didn’t want the life of a musician after 5 years of doing that, so I went back to school and that concludes my hip hop career.
Rich: Excellent. Well I’m sorry to hear that that chapter in your life is over, but where can we find you online these days?
Liston: You can find me online at goodfunnel.co, I also have an email course based on a lot of the things I was talking about here, and that’s buyerinsghtscourse.com. And you can also check out my personal website at listonwitherill.com.
Rich: Awesome. And as always we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Liston, thanks so much for coming by and I know that I’m going to put some of this stuff to work right away.
Liston: It was my pleasure, thanks for having me.
- Liston Witherill has taken the art of knowing your customers to a new level. You can check him out online, have a listen at his podcast, and see how his business is helping others achieve success.
- Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!