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 yourcustomers inside out matters. The better you know your customers, the more successfulyour marketing and sales efforts will be. But truth be told, many marketersdon't know their customers well enough. It means they're making educated guesses rather thandecisions based on insight and knowledge, and one of the keys to truly knowingyour customers is simple talk to them. On the podcast today I'm excited tohave Ryan Gibson, founder at content lift, which does investigative customer interviews, alsoknown as customer research. Welcome to marketing spark. Thanks mark, thanksfor having me. Before we get into it, I wanted to talk aboutyour career path and how you have evolved from being a fractional CMO, ajob that I do, to being focused on customer research. What triggered thechange in direction and did you have an epiphany or was it something that evolvedover time? Yeah, how far back we go? Well, you couldgo far back enough, but when? Don't you give you the Reader's digestversion. Yeah, that's a good version. So I am. I started inmarketing at the beginning my career work in food service, B Toc,and I had done a lot of market research. I worked as a directivemarketing and I was doing market research, customer researchers part of that role andI love did and a I was so brazen I would even go into thelineups of competitors and start pulling people. You know, we have a chainin Canada called importance. I worked for a competing coffee chain. So Ijust go and start talking to the customers in real time. I just needto understand why, right, like, why them? You know, whatwas it about them? What was driving their decisions? And I really enjoyedmy time in that industry, but I sort of burned out a little bitand I made a career change and I ended up taking broadcasting in college andI became a repteeving radar reporter at CBC here in Canada, and that wasamazing. It was a fantastic job and you know, that really got meinto storytelling communication, but also the interviewing side. Right, how to structureinterview, 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 ofthe objective of the interview, and also you know, just having a funtime telling stories, right. So I did that for a few years.I decide I want to go back in the marketing worked few companies, workfor some nonprofits, worked for some tech companies running marketing, but I II lean more into the content and PR side of things and branding side ofthings. I sort of had abandoned my research background and when I left techI was like, well, I'm going to be, I think of fractionalmarketer, fraction roll CMO and help companies out that way. And I wasfine for a while. But what happened was I just wasn't feeling a lotof the same love that I was from marketing, you know, over thelast twenty years. And then out of the blue I got a call froman old coll league who said, I remember used to do customer research backin the day. Do you do that still? Like yeah, I stilldo. So I work with on their clients. We went through that wholeprocess that loved it. I loved it. We did some more and then itstarted 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, Iknow, 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 Icall investigative customer interviews, and my whole goal is I just want to understandwhy, because that's really if I just...

...hear what I've just described, that'sall I've ever wanted to do is understand why, like why are people makingthe 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 dusdigest version. And I there's a couple of okay, good things that Idraw from your answer. One is that one of the things that consultants needto focus on, and it seems counterintuitive, is the idea of focus. Themore you focus, the more successful you are. In my case,the focus on BB SASS companies has been a really successful and effective move becauseit eliminates any ambivalence about what you do and who you serve. So Ican totally empathize with your direction and falling into a place where, I guessfalling the wrong word, but getting to a place where you're doing what youlove, 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 customresearch, was going to be the way to go, but I found Ijust there was just too much for me to focus on and I couldn't reallyenjoy a lot of it because it was I would say this is almost likeI was restarting every single time with every client. But now I have areally good framework that I like to follow and it's I get more out ofthe work because I've narrowed down on something that I really like, because thatmakes sense exactly, and I have a I have my own methodologies and frameworksthat 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 gettingaskewed do the world. There's a lot of conversation and many posts about thevalue of knowing your customers inside out. A lot of marketers are talking thetalk, but I wonder how many marketers walk the walk. And the questionto you, or the questions, would be, do you think that marketersfail to talk to their customers enough? Why is there so much focus onthe importance of knowing your customers, and what does all the chatter say aboutthe state of marketing and marketers? Yeah, so that's almost like three questions right. The first one is, I think you asked, is like ourpeople failing? I don't know if I use the word failing, but they'restruggling that. You know, when I when I decided I was going tosort of pivot into this, you know, I had been interviewing customers my entirecareer. That was always my go too, even when I was runningtechnology companies, even want to work for nonprofits, my first step was alwayswant to go talk to people that are the you know, there at theend game of this and they get our services or product. I want tounderstand what they're saying. When I talked, when I would started talking to VP'sof marketing and CMOS and other marketing leads. The answers varied, butat the end of the day we'd like to do more. Right, we'renot doing enough or yeah, we're not doing it at all. And whenI worked for Tech Company, I've worked with tech companies for the last fiveyears and I'm not sure if this is what you're you've seen. Where Ifind they the conversations have happen is either in customer success, which is greatsales, or product, but more around feature sets. You know, howdo we build the next thing within the product? And that's great, youshould do that. Where I find people really struggle, and maybe it's justsince I'm a marketer, and this is what I've noticed, is they're notreally getting a good sense of all why? Why are they choosing us, andhow did they actually even come to find us, you know, andwhat was the logical thought process they went through and the emotional thought process theywent through? At the time they had no idea we existed and they justknow 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 closethe 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 versuscustomer centric view the world, and I guess what I'm asking you is whatstopping 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 toactually consider making a purchase? Because when people buy a product or service, many of them are switching from one solution to the other and, likeyou, I'm fascinated with that journey and why that happens. Yeah, soI'll tell you what people have told me. One is they don't have time righttheir priority priorities lay elsewhere. It's hard work. What I do isnot an easy lift. It takes time and you have to distill the qualitativedata. It's a lot easier to do surveys and MPs scores and, youknow, go to your crm and look at the data of what what's happenedsince 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. Ithink people struggle with doing it. You know I've I'm working with aclient now and I'm doing co interviews and you know just my tactics of howI can extract things are a little further along. I think there's a wholehost 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 thinkabout your approach to customer interviews in the way that I look at customer interviewsthe condonnominators, as we were both journalists, I was a new stand that's right. A yeah, is paper journals for fifteen years. So asking questionsof 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'recurious about, to me is easy. It's just the way that you talkwith people on maybe a lot of marketers don't have enough experience asking hard questionsor trying to get dig into the real answers. I guess maybe that mightbe one of the biggest reasons and biget mons barriers to entry to getting theinsight the marketers need. It's when I was watching them. I saw markwill bearriers, who was at Hubs Butt years ago. He was their chiefrevenue officer. I saw going to talk two years ago and one of hisfirst tires, he said, was a journalist and for that very reason isoutlined. You know, you have a certain set of skills as a journalistthat 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 haveto eliminate as much of my personal bias and said cognitive biases, as Ican. And and that's not easy to do when you're inside a company andyou're feeling pressure to fill a pipeline, you're feeling pressure to decrease churn oryou're feeling pressure to cross down new products. You're feeling pressure to hit growth metricsof a hundred percent because you just raised a series a or a seriesB and you have two quarters to hit right, like going out and askingcustomers how did you feel about that? It isn't often get prioritized. It'sthe 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 ofa 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 wetalked to with one conversation with a client that recently bought, which is whoI like to talk to. I really... to talk to people that justconverted, not too much who are using the product, because then the bindjourneys very fresh in their mind of all the things they did, as freshas it can be. And in that one conversation I was able to get, you know, really deep content, educational content ideas. I was ableto get some business development ideas, because there were some there was some waysthat he talked about how he used the product, from where he came fromto where he is now that we were in thinking of before. Interesting thoseare. That's a whole new type of company that either I could cold outreachto 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 personsaid I sent right away to the creative team because they can put ads aroundit in real time. And there was also influencers that they talked about andone that I had no idea existed. So I went right away to theiryoutube channel, like interesting, and then I said that to the performative person. Maybe we can. There's something to use here, because this person whobought 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 soI want to capitalize on it. I wouldn't have known any of that ifI 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 seetrends 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 manycustomers should you interview and how often, and what type of customers should yoube talking to? The rule of thumb that I've always seen myself another researcherstalk about is eight to ten because I think again, this is not afive minute conversation. This is, you know, half an hour or fortyfive 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 curvethere, 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 justsort of going over the same things. Eight to ten seems to be sortof 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 stageyou don't have a lot of customers, I think you can get away withfive 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 wantto understand the impact I've had on their business economics or where I want tounderstand, you know, I want a good, good social proof, Iwant 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 quitesome time. If I really want to get a true sense of the currentbuying journey, I want to talk to something that just closed, because ifI have a client customer has been around for three years and I just talkto them now about their buying journey. A lot of change in that threeyears. I mean the landscape moves so fast now that there could be thingsthat are influencing your customers now that did not influence that customer from three yearsago, but with the current customer I'll know that. Hey, I justjoined a discord group three months ago and they mentioned your product. I justcame straight to the demo. That's how stuff gets done now. So youneed 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 thinkyou should have an understanding. So I would talk to I would. Ithink it depends on the objective to your question. What do you want toget 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 leftyou because they're no longer satisfied for variety of reasons or they found a differentor better solution? That kind of insight strikes me as extremely valuable, butit's also a tricky going back to someone...

...who departed for whatever reason. Shouldyou talk to them? Is the first question. And how should a companyapproach 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 theright attitude when you approach somebody who's no longer a customer. I mean Ithink there's value. There are actually there are entire there are companies that allthey do is focus on when back or close lost conversations. It's not whereI live, but I can I can understand how to do that. Ithink 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 didthey have a perception of what the product could do that didn't map against whatwe actually delivered? Right where? They expecting something before they came to usand 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 solvedmy 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 youcan understand if is this a client that I can probably get back, oris this a client that they're gone for whatever reason? So if it's awin back, I think you there tactics and tricks that I'm not fully asspeed on it, but how can get that back. But from a closelost it's almost the same conversation for me and how I approach it is I'mnot 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 toimprove on, and I would really love your insights and feedback and be sovaluable. I'm just hoping I can take up twenty minutes your time and thenI 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 alland it really is asking people for their inside and but surprisingly, when youtalk to people and you ask them questions, they will tell you things that youmay have not known before. Here's another question. Very it sounds likea straightforward question, but the answer probably has some nuance here is who shouldtalk to your customers? When I do consulting engagements, usually what I insistupon is that I talk to them independently. I don't want the head of marketingor the CEO to be on the call because I feel the person's answersare 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 customersdirectly 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. Itdepends, which is always a horrible answer, but it does depend,because the different parts of a company are going to want to have different goalsand they talk to a customer. So I think everywhere everyone should talk tocustomers. But if I'm in customer success or I'm in sales, the contextof how I want to talk to a person and what I want to getout of that conversation is different. I mean I see user research teams talkto everybody. I've seen that before and it's incredible who they want to gotalk to you because they want to talk about the psychology of design and sortof people move through products. So for me, I always think marketer shouldtalk 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 totry and eliminate as much bias as possible or have customers feel like there's asafe space, I definitely think you should talk to it, have someone externallydo it. I've I've had my clients,...

...customers, say to me when Italk to them, because I do things anonymously, and I say,well, you're just customer seven, I'm going to pull out your insights andit's going to go into report. They'll they won't know it's you. I'vehad them say to me, Oh, that's great. I've never said thisbefore, but this and I think it's a fantastic way to do it becauseyou will get so much richer insight when someone feels they can be fully honestabout 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 processthis. 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 probablyare. Here's another tricky question. What happens, and I'm dealing with thispersonally with a client, when a company has few or no customers, sonobody using the product, no one has gone through the customer journey and convertedover time, no one has interacted with the sales and marketing collateral and you'redealing 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 creatingsomething and you think it's going to competitive in the market against Xyz and you'veput his position to it, so when you've done all your research and you'vemapped out sort of where you think the company's going to fit go and talkto your competitors, customers, if you can. I've done that, youknow. I've found people through Linkedin, facebook, so and so. Itold you he's to do it when I was in my old days is walkinto people's lines like hey, right, well, know why you buy them. It sounds really brazen, but it is actually people love to talk aboutthis stuff in my in my experience, and you just approached the same waythat 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 youcan't get qualitative in information, to survey monkey for their paid audiences. There'sa 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 youcan find people in a certain space to go and interview. Right. Soif I want to understand the buying journey of people in bbx, I canprobably 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 alot of like testing, of messaging, and think he's starting to build usergroups 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 useyour product and understand how they buy, how they evaluate, what's important tothem 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, yetare your funnel? One final question. After you've interviewed customers, x,customers, the competitions, customers, how do you extract value and insight fromall this information, like how do you share that information with the organization sothat you can turn conversations into actionable items? Because it's one thing to know whatyour customers are thinking, understand what their needs are, problems, aspirationsand all the insight that will raise your game from marketing, sales and productperspective, 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 doit. I look at blocks of okay, what was the journey? So there'salways I fall a lot of the jobs be done methodology, but inpeople aren't familiar, that's Clayton Christensen who created that innovation framework quite some timeago now. But I look at it through a lens of marketing as opposedto innovation for new products. But their... sort of hand in hand.So I look at okay, what was the first point of the pain andwhat was their thought process around it? How do they move from passive searchingfor a product which is, you know, tap of funnel type stuff, oreven 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 productsand 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, ifthere's a buying committee, a broughten more people. And then to the userside of things. And that it did. It map against what I was expectingto happen. So I sort of pull out insights out of the interviewsto 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 trendsand patterns I'm seen emerge and PLOP them in and say here's what you canmaybe do next. Case in point I'm working with the actually marketing consulting aagency and one of the things is coming out is they are really good atthis, but they are not really good at this. And I'm hearing thenot really good at this consistently and the very good at this consistently. Soalready I'm like you might want to consider about reducing your service offering. Wetalked 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 trapof well, we need another revenue stream here. Maybe you're rat maybe youjust need to try and increase the amount of people you get in this pipelinefor this core service. You do really well right, and I wouldn't knowthat, I wouldn't have seen that pattern emerge had I had not talked toage 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 decidingthat over them versus their competitors. That influence of sales. So there's Itake all these things, I put them to each function of the business andI 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 lotof 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 atthe White Board and trying to figure out your next steps like you're doing thatin, you know, in a vacuum. Your customers are really going to giveyou a good road map. Now you still need to have the intuitionand the business acumen to understand how to apply all that, but it justit. 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 orinspires 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 moreyou talk to them, the more content ideas that emerge, the more feedbackyou 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 andadvocates, and I think that's it's important thing. So there's there's all kindsof reasons why you should talk to your customers. I just confused or puzzledby why marketers aren't doing it all the time. It's just a no brainerthing to do. You know, I don't regretge them for that. Iunderstand sometimes it's even just anxiety, you know, picking up the phone andtalking to people. I think there's all those the reasons. But to whatyou said, all those great things, and one of the things I've learnedthat 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 isso great. I'm so impressed that you are doing this. None of them, none of the other companies that I buy from, do this. Ithis makes me have so much more respect for you. So just the factthat you're talking to them changes their perception of you. Just the fact you'redoing it so if you can just get...

...into that, must exercise that musclestarting to talk to them. Imagine what you can do if it's becomes aregular 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 reallyactive 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 thatI just talked about, which is, you know, first thought, passiveSearche, act of search, some customer success, even branding questions. Conversationaround 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 canemail 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 isso much fun for me. So I just want to help people get betterat it if they want to do it. Well. Thanks for listening to anotherepisode of marketing spark. If you enjoyed the conversation, leave a review. Subscribe by Itunes, spotify. We're favorite PODCAST APP and share via socialmedia. If you'd like to learn more about how I help me TOB SASScompanies as a fractional CMO strategic advisor and coach, send an email to markat marketing sparkcom. I'll talk to you next time.

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