The Keys to Really Knowing What Makes Your Customers Tick: Ryan Gibson


Sadly, most marketers don’t really know their customers.

They have buyer personas and ideal customer profiles.

But these tools barely scratch the surface.

The only way to know your customers is to talk to them.

Yet many marketers don’t do it because:

- They claim to have no time

- They have bigger priorities

- They’re afraid doing hard work

- They don’t get why it matters

That’s not good enough.

Ryan Gibson not only believes in the value of talking to customers, but he pivoted his consulting business to focus on “customer investigations”.

It is insightful and often surprising, he says, what customers and prospects will tell you if you ask them questions.  

Welcome to marketing spark. Knowing your customers inside out matters. The better you know your customers, the more successful your marketing and sales efforts will be. But truth be told, many marketers don't know their customers well enough. It means they're making educated guesses rather than decisions based on insight and knowledge, and one of the keys to truly knowing your customers is simple talk to them. On the podcast today I'm excited to have Ryan Gibson, founder at content lift, which does investigative customer interviews, also known as customer research. Welcome to marketing spark. Thanks mark, thanks for having me. Before we get into it, I wanted to talk about your career path and how you have evolved from being a fractional CMO, a job that I do, to being focused on customer research. What triggered the change in direction and did you have an epiphany or was it something that evolved over time? Yeah, how far back we go? Well, you could go far back enough, but when? Don't you give you the Reader's digest version. Yeah, that's a good version. So I am. I started in marketing at the beginning my career work in food service, B Toc, and I had done a lot of market research. I worked as a directive marketing and I was doing market research, customer researchers part of that role and I love did and a I was so brazen I would even go into the lineups of competitors and start pulling people. You know, we have a chain in Canada called importance. I worked for a competing coffee chain. So I just go and start talking to the customers in real time. I just need to understand why, right, like, why them? You know, what was it about them? What was driving their decisions? And I really enjoyed my time in that industry, but I sort of burned out a little bit and I made a career change and I ended up taking broadcasting in college and I became a repteeving radar reporter at CBC here in Canada, and that was amazing. It was a fantastic job and you know, that really got me into storytelling communication, but also the interviewing side. Right, how to structure interview, the psychology evening people, how do you get to an objective, especially if you're doing something that you're trying to get to a certain point of the objective of the interview, and also you know, just having a fun time telling stories, right. So I did that for a few years. I decide I want to go back in the marketing worked few companies, work for some nonprofits, worked for some tech companies running marketing, but I I I lean more into the content and PR side of things and branding side of things. I sort of had abandoned my research background and when I left tech I was like, well, I'm going to be, I think of fractional marketer, fraction roll CMO and help companies out that way. And I was fine for a while. But what happened was I just wasn't feeling a lot of the same love that I was from marketing, you know, over the last twenty years. And then out of the blue I got a call from an old coll league who said, I remember used to do customer research back in the day. Do you do that still? Like yeah, I still do. So I work with on their clients. We went through that whole process that loved it. I loved it. We did some more and then it started getting all these calls about wanting to do people asking for this service, and that's what youse funny asked. Root it epiphany, I tell you, I I for the life of me, I never put the two together, like, wait a second, I used to do this. Then, I interview people for a living. I really liked it. Well, I know, I just do this, so I niche down from being a fractional. I'm still doing that work, but now all I do is what I call investigative customer interviews, and my whole goal is I just want to understand why, because that's really if I just...

...hear what I've just described, that's all I've ever wanted to do is understand why, like why are people making the decisions they are? And that's to me, just the most fun part. I hope that answers the question. It does. And was that? What's that? The Reader's Digest version or that? Yeah, that's their dus digest version. And I there's a couple of okay, good things that I draw from your answer. One is that one of the things that consultants need to focus on, and it seems counterintuitive, is the idea of focus. The more you focus, the more successful you are. In my case, the focus on BB SASS companies has been a really successful and effective move because it eliminates any ambivalence about what you do and who you serve. So I can totally empathize with your direction and falling into a place where, I guess falling the wrong word, but getting to a place where you're doing what you love, you're doing the work that excites you and that you're passionate about it. I think that's awesome. I think have a good point. I mean, I thought that the broad aspect of my business before I niched into custom research, was going to be the way to go, but I found I just there was just too much for me to focus on and I couldn't really enjoy a lot of it because it was I would say this is almost like I was restarting every single time with every client. But now I have a really good framework that I like to follow and it's I get more out of the work because I've narrowed down on something that I really like, because that makes sense exactly, and I have a I have my own methodologies and frameworks that I developed over the last year that I really meant my business more efficient, shifting gears towards knowing your customers on Linkedin, and I may be getting askewed do the world. There's a lot of conversation and many posts about the value of knowing your customers inside out. A lot of marketers are talking the talk, but I wonder how many marketers walk the walk. And the question to you, or the questions, would be, do you think that marketers fail to talk to their customers enough? Why is there so much focus on the importance of knowing your customers, and what does all the chatter say about the state of marketing and marketers? Yeah, so that's almost like three questions right. The first one is, I think you asked, is like our people failing? I don't know if I use the word failing, but they're struggling that. You know, when I when I decided I was going to sort of pivot into this, you know, I had been interviewing customers my entire career. That was always my go too, even when I was running technology companies, even want to work for nonprofits, my first step was always want to go talk to people that are the you know, there at the end game of this and they get our services or product. I want to understand what they're saying. When I talked, when I would started talking to VP's of marketing and CMOS and other marketing leads. The answers varied, but at the end of the day we'd like to do more. Right, we're not doing enough or yeah, we're not doing it at all. And when I worked for Tech Company, I've worked with tech companies for the last five years and I'm not sure if this is what you're you've seen. Where I find they the conversations have happen is either in customer success, which is great sales, or product, but more around feature sets. You know, how do we build the next thing within the product? And that's great, you should do that. Where I find people really struggle, and maybe it's just since I'm a marketer, and this is what I've noticed, is they're not really getting a good sense of all why? Why are they choosing us, and how did they actually even come to find us, you know, and what was the logical thought process they went through and the emotional thought process they went through? At the time they had no idea we existed and they just know they had something they maybe want to...

...throw money at dissolve a problem. And what was every step they took along the way to before they actually close the deal and and bought our product? That's the part I like to understand, because that's where marketing lives, right. How am I influencing that person? Sorry, the question would be I mean, it's a product centric versus customer centric view the world, and I guess what I'm asking you is what stopping marketers from talking to customers and prospects and getting that inside into their needs, their wants and, as you say, what are their motivations and triggers to actually consider making a purchase? Because when people buy a product or service, many of them are switching from one solution to the other and, like you, I'm fascinated with that journey and why that happens. Yeah, so I'll tell you what people have told me. One is they don't have time right their priority priorities lay elsewhere. It's hard work. What I do is not an easy lift. It takes time and you have to distill the qualitative data. It's a lot easier to do surveys and MPs scores and, you know, go to your crm and look at the data of what what's happened since they've hit your website. That's easy. It's a lot easier to get that, prioritize and invest time in that. Other things I thought like. I think people struggle with doing it. You know I've I'm working with a client now and I'm doing co interviews and you know just my tactics of how I can extract things are a little further along. I think there's a whole host of reasons that people there's never one silver bullet reason of why right. They just all seem to struggle with that part of it. When I think about your approach to customer interviews in the way that I look at customer interviews the condonnominators, as we were both journalists, I was a new stand that's right. A yeah, is paper journals for fifteen years. So asking questions of people that you don't know or you've barely met seems very natural to me. The ability to ask them things that may seem uncomfortable or things that you're curious about, to me is easy. It's just the way that you talk with people on maybe a lot of marketers don't have enough experience asking hard questions or trying to get dig into the real answers. I guess maybe that might be one of the biggest reasons and biget mons barriers to entry to getting the insight the marketers need. It's when I was watching them. I saw mark will bearriers, who was at Hubs Butt years ago. He was their chief revenue officer. I saw going to talk two years ago and one of his first tires, he said, was a journalist and for that very reason is outlined. You know, you have a certain set of skills as a journalist that you your whole role is. Okay, I have an objective and hypothesis. I have to go and see whether that's true or false. I have to eliminate as much of my personal bias and said cognitive biases, as I can. And and that's not easy to do when you're inside a company and you're feeling pressure to fill a pipeline, you're feeling pressure to decrease churn or you're feeling pressure to cross down new products. You're feeling pressure to hit growth metrics of a hundred percent because you just raised a series a or a series B and you have two quarters to hit right, like going out and asking customers how did you feel about that? It isn't often get prioritized. It's the other things that do. But what I find is, you know, let me take you through like I had an interview yesterday with it's one of a client, one of my clients are in tech. It's a a marketplace, a product like so it's a an APP that's an assass tool and we talked to with one conversation with a client that recently bought, which is who I like to talk to. I really... to talk to people that just converted, not too much who are using the product, because then the bind journeys very fresh in their mind of all the things they did, as fresh as it can be. And in that one conversation I was able to get, you know, really deep content, educational content ideas. I was able to get some business development ideas, because there were some there was some ways that he talked about how he used the product, from where he came from to where he is now that we were in thinking of before. Interesting those are. That's a whole new type of company that either I could cold outreach to or I could talk about in like a profile in some of my content. I got copy ideas. There was one a few things that that person said I sent right away to the creative team because they can put ads around it in real time. And there was also influencers that they talked about and one that I had no idea existed. So I went right away to their youtube channel, like interesting, and then I said that to the performative person. Maybe we can. There's something to use here, because this person who bought US said they listen to this other influencer. It really their words were. Everyone else is full of nonsense, but I really like this person so I want to capitalize on it. I wouldn't have known any of that if I hadn't and gone had that forty five minute conversation in depth with that customer. Now that's just one but if you repeat that over ten, you'll see trends and patterns emerge. But all sorts of things that you can do. Let's get into the nitty gritty of customer interviews. First question. How many customers should you interview and how often, and what type of customers should you be talking to? The rule of thumb that I've always seen myself another researchers talk about is eight to ten because I think again, this is not a five minute conversation. This is, you know, half an hour or forty five minutes, and your ropean over time and you're just doing the data. So you want to find a balance. There's a middle of the bell curve there, and the reason for that is if you don't have too little, it's enough, high enough of a sample size. Too many, you're just sort of going over the same things. Eight to ten seems to be sort of the sweet spot. If it's hard to get people on the line, and for some products it is, you know, especially if your early stage you don't have a lot of customers, I think you can get away with five to six. I've done that before, but I think eight to ten. And then who you should talk to? I think it depends on your objective. So if I want really good case studies, if I really want to understand the impact I've had on their business economics or where I want to understand, you know, I want a good, good social proof, I want to talk to super fans because I can engage them for my content, what have you. I probably want to talk someone that's been around for quite some time. If I really want to get a true sense of the current buying journey, I want to talk to something that just closed, because if I have a client customer has been around for three years and I just talk to them now about their buying journey. A lot of change in that three years. I mean the landscape moves so fast now that there could be things that are influencing your customers now that did not influence that customer from three years ago, but with the current customer I'll know that. Hey, I just joined a discord group three months ago and they mentioned your product. I just came straight to the demo. That's how stuff gets done now. So you need to sort of understand all the different ways people are coming to you. You don't have to be experts and leverage every single one, but I think you should have an understanding. So I would talk to I would. I think it depends on the objective to your question. What do you want to get out of the interview, and that's who you need to talk to. Here's a tricky question. What about interviewing x customers, people who have left you because they're no longer satisfied for variety of reasons or they found a different or better solution? That kind of insight strikes me as extremely valuable, but it's also a tricky going back to someone...

...who departed for whatever reason. Should you talk to them? Is the first question. And how should a company approach them in a way that doesn't seem defense of or why did you leave? Like you want to. You want to have the right approach or the right attitude when you approach somebody who's no longer a customer. I mean I think there's value. There are actually there are entire there are companies that all they do is focus on when back or close lost conversations. It's not where I live, but I can I can understand how to do that. I think it's important because you learn a lot of things. You learn one, why was the experience not matching what we want to give them? What did they have a perception of what the product could do that didn't map against what we actually delivered? Right where? They expecting something before they came to us and we didn't be weren't able to get the US. That's product related, but some of his experience related. When I talk to a lot of customers, mark and I don't usually hear a lot of issues with the product. It's usually how they treat me, the support I get and whether it's solved my problem or not. But to your point, yeah, you should. I think you should talk to them and then how do you approach it. You know, there's when backs and there's close losts. So I think you can understand if is this a client that I can probably get back, or is this a client that they're gone for whatever reason? So if it's a win back, I think you there tactics and tricks that I'm not fully as speed on it, but how can get that back. But from a close lost it's almost the same conversation for me and how I approach it is I'm not here to convince you to come back to us. I A respect this, as you made what we want to understand is where we drop the ball, how we can do better for other customers or any things we need to improve on, and I would really love your insights and feedback and be so valuable. I'm just hoping I can take up twenty minutes your time and then I wish you the best of luck in your career and thank you for, you know, being our customer. So long like that tell I would. Yeah, it's very it's a very positive approach. It's not defensive at all and it really is asking people for their inside and but surprisingly, when you talk to people and you ask them questions, they will tell you things that you may have not known before. Here's another question. Very it sounds like a straightforward question, but the answer probably has some nuance here is who should talk to your customers? When I do consulting engagements, usually what I insist upon is that I talk to them independently. I don't want the head of marketing or the CEO to be on the call because I feel the person's answers are going to be biased, because they don't want to offend the company. They don't want to say things that may seem out of turn or overly critical. But I'm wondering about your approach. Should the marketer be talking to customers directly or should it be somebody well else within this organization or somebody external, or a combination of all of the above? The answer who has haps. It depends, which is always a horrible answer, but it does depend, because the different parts of a company are going to want to have different goals and they talk to a customer. So I think everywhere everyone should talk to customers. But if I'm in customer success or I'm in sales, the context of how I want to talk to a person and what I want to get out of that conversation is different. I mean I see user research teams talk to everybody. I've seen that before and it's incredible who they want to go talk to you because they want to talk about the psychology of design and sort of people move through products. So for me, I always think marketer should talk to their customers, especially for what they need to get done right, because of what we talked about is the journey doesn't just start at the website, it starts much farther along. But you're what you just said about bias. Yeah, I think if you want an objective opinion, you want to try and eliminate as much bias as possible or have customers feel like there's a safe space, I definitely think you should talk to it, have someone externally do it. I've I've had my clients,...

...customers, say to me when I talk to them, because I do things anonymously, and I say, well, you're just customer seven, I'm going to pull out your insights and it's going to go into report. They'll they won't know it's you. I've had them say to me, Oh, that's great. I've never said this before, but this and I think it's a fantastic way to do it because you will get so much richer insight when someone feels they can be fully honest about their experience or how they came to you. Who Else I talked to? It's it's very it's it's very eye opening when you go through that process this. But I think everyone should talk to customers because if you're not, then I think you're really doing yourself a disservice because I guarantee your competitors probably are. Here's another tricky question. What happens, and I'm dealing with this personally with a client, when a company has few or no customers, so nobody using the product, no one has gone through the customer journey and converted over time, no one has interacted with the sales and marketing collateral and you're dealing with a blank slate. What's your approach to that kind of situation? That's a tough one, but there's ways around that. If you are creating something and you think it's going to competitive in the market against Xyz and you've put his position to it, so when you've done all your research and you've mapped out sort of where you think the company's going to fit go and talk to your competitors, customers, if you can. I've done that, you know. I've found people through Linkedin, facebook, so and so. I told you he's to do it when I was in my old days is walk into people's lines like hey, right, well, know why you buy them. It sounds really brazen, but it is actually people love to talk about this stuff in my in my experience, and you just approached the same way that we talked about a close loss. Not trying to sell you anything. I'm just really trying to understand the industry, understand you and what you care about. There's other ways too. I've sent sent out surveys. If you can't get qualitative in information, to survey monkey for their paid audiences. There's a great site called the user interviews, which I'm a member of it, and what they do is they create boards or they create customer groups and you can find people in a certain space to go and interview. Right. So if I want to understand the buying journey of people in bbx, I can probably find those people through maybe user interviews or other there's other companies as well. I think winter, which is people a Ja's company. They do a lot of like testing, of messaging, and think he's starting to build user groups in those different spaces and verticals try and find those people. That's a, I think, a really esting way to get at people who could use your product and understand how they buy, how they evaluate, what's important to them and where they go to do all these things and how they research. If you don't have anyone that's come through your funnel, your pipeline, yet are your funnel? One final question. After you've interviewed customers, x, customers, the competitions, customers, how do you extract value and insight from all this information, like how do you share that information with the organization so that you can turn conversations into actionable items? Because it's one thing to know what your customers are thinking, understand what their needs are, problems, aspirations and all the insight that will raise your game from marketing, sales and product perspective, but what are the key he's to making sure that that information, to share it and proliferated. So I'll tell you what my how I do it. I look at blocks of okay, what was the journey? So there's always I fall a lot of the jobs be done methodology, but in people aren't familiar, that's Clayton Christensen who created that innovation framework quite some time ago now. But I look at it through a lens of marketing as opposed to innovation for new products. But their... sort of hand in hand. So I look at okay, what was the first point of the pain and what was their thought process around it? How do they move from passive searching for a product which is, you know, tap of funnel type stuff, or even now, prior to that, if we're looking at the current landscape, active search? So you know I'm I'm looking at the comparisons between products and I need information to do that and how would have fit into my business. And now I've brought in people, more people into the deal, if there's a buying committee, a broughten more people. And then to the user side of things. And that it did. It map against what I was expecting to happen. So I sort of pull out insights out of the interviews to map there and then what I'll do is for each segment of a company, so I have customer success at this development, I've marketing and subsets. Within those I'll take out all the insights that I think and all the trends and patterns I'm seen emerge and PLOP them in and say here's what you can maybe do next. Case in point I'm working with the actually marketing consulting a agency and one of the things is coming out is they are really good at this, but they are not really good at this. And I'm hearing the not really good at this consistently and the very good at this consistently. So already I'm like you might want to consider about reducing your service offering. We talked already about, you know, niche and down right and getting focused. They're killing it here. Here they're running to that sort of that traditional trap of well, we need another revenue stream here. Maybe you're rat maybe you just need to try and increase the amount of people you get in this pipeline for this core service. You do really well right, and I wouldn't know that, I wouldn't have seen that pattern emerge had I had not talked to age ten people. But I'm also getting really good copy and camping ideas. The channels are people are finding them. How wow, how people are deciding that over them versus their competitors. That influence of sales. So there's I take all these things, I put them to each function of the business and I say here's a possible next action for you. Because, to your point, yeah, it's easy to go and talk to people, but a lot of what I get in discovery calls and like with clients is well then what? Well, this isn't then what you know and the customers drive these things. It's so much easier rather than just sitting in a board room looking at the White Board and trying to figure out your next steps like you're doing that in, you know, in a vacuum. Your customers are really going to give you a good road map. Now you still need to have the intuition and the business acumen to understand how to apply all that, but it just it. You know that the the veil gets lifted, sort of speak, when you start going on talking to customers. Hope that answers the question. Yeah, it does. If anything, I hope that this conversation motivates or inspires marketers to talk to their customers and talked them on a regular basis because, like you, I see huge value and getting their insight and the more you talk to them, the more content ideas that emerge, the more feedback you get about what they like, about the product and what they don't, and it really sort of build stronger relationships and helps turn customers into evangelist and advocates, and I think that's it's important thing. So there's there's all kinds of reasons why you should talk to your customers. I just confused or puzzled by why marketers aren't doing it all the time. It's just a no brainer thing to do. You know, I don't regretge them for that. I understand sometimes it's even just anxiety, you know, picking up the phone and talking to people. I think there's all those the reasons. But to what you said, all those great things, and one of the things I've learned that was really surprising to me. Customers love to have thee beyonst their opinion, and I've heard them say this in interviews. You want like this is so great. I'm so impressed that you are doing this. None of them, none of the other companies that I buy from, do this. I this makes me have so much more respect for you. So just the fact that you're talking to them changes their perception of you. Just the fact you're doing it so if you can just get...

...into that, must exercise that muscle starting to talk to them. Imagine what you can do if it's becomes a regular part of your marketing and sales activities. Well, this has been great. Inside Ryan. Where can people learn more about you and content lift? Yeah, they can go to content lift dot I. Oh, I'm really active on Linkedin, just like you. How he's happy to chat people there. I have a free list of questions and broken down to the areas that I just talked about, which is, you know, first thought, passive Searche, act of search, some customer success, even branding questions. Conversation around brand identity isn't necessarily the same as you know why people bought you. Sometimes are similar. They can go there, they can download that, they can email me, reach my linkedin. I'm always have you to chat. I'm always up for that. Just tell people I love this like this is so much fun for me. So I just want to help people get better at it if they want to do it. Well. Thanks for listening to another episode of marketing spark. If you enjoyed the conversation, leave a review. Subscribe by Itunes, spotify. We're favorite PODCAST APP and share via social media. If you'd like to learn more about how I help me TOB SASS companies as a fractional CMO strategic advisor and coach, send an email to mark at marketing sparkcom. I'll talk to you next time.

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