Kristin Zhivago: How to put yourself in your customers shoes

Video and transcript from the “How to put yourself in your customers shoes” briefing by Kristin Zhivago at the March 2022 Lean Culture meetup.

Kristin Zhivago: How to put yourself in your customers shoes

Today, we will be talking with Kristen Zhivago, president of Zhivago Partners. She is a revenue coach, a digital marketing expert and author of “Roadmap to Revenue”. I was impressed at how clearly she outlined the customer interview process in her book.

About Kristin Zhivago: Kristin Zhivago is president of Zhivago Partners, a digital marketing management company. She and her team of experts provide digital marketing services for companies in all industries. Kristin, an expert on the customer’s buying process, spent years as a revenue coach, teaching CEOs and entrepreneurs how to sell more by understanding what their customers want to buy from them and how they want to buy it. She is the author of the 5-star book, Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy, named one of the top sales and marketing books by Forbes. Kristin is an avid sailor.

Edited Transcript

Here is a transcript for the event, it’s been edited for clarity and hyperlinks have been added to provide context.

Sean Murphy: Hi, this is Sean Murphy for SKMurphy. It’s my pleasure today to be interviewing Kristin Zhivago, President of Zhivago Partners. She’s a revenue coach, a digital marketing expert, and then the author of Roadmap to Revenue. I was impressed by how clearly she outlined a customer interview process in the book and recommend it to anyone in the audience. I’ve been following Kristin for years. She’s a thoughtful pioneer of the customer interview process. She recognized early that “your brand is the promise that you keep” and that you must put in place processes that ensure that you deliver. She takes an end-to-end view of product marketing that starts with understanding customer needs, designing your product and related support activities to meet them, establishing the measurements, and committing to ongoing conversations that ensure you follow through and improve.

Kristin, do you want to amplify on that? Can you talk about your background and how you landed marketing?

Kristin ZhivagoKristin Zhivago: I’ve been working with engineers, technical people for decades. I was a headhunter in Silicon Valley for a number of years. I was the first woman to sell machine shop tools in the United States back when I was 17, so that was a long time ago. Basically worked in Silicon Valley, ran a high tech agency for several years with my husband, and then shifted over to becoming a revenue coach where I help CEOs and entrepreneurs make more money by understanding what their customers want to buy from them and how they want to buy it. As you said, I’ve written the book, “Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy.” And I’ve become an expert on the customer’s buying process and how to figure out what they really want from you. I now have a digital marketing agency, Zhivago Partners,  that I’ve founded and have been running since 2017.

Sean Murphy: I really like your book Roadmap to Revenue. You detail your process for conducting customer interviews and focus on the need for conversations, not surveys. My question is, when you talk about engineers and scientists, many of these people go into those careers so they don’t have to talk to people. How do you get them to learn how to do this effective

Kristin Zhivago: Well, they shouldn’t conduct the interviews themselves. You always want to have somebody knowledgeable enough to understand what the people are talking about when they give their answers and someone who’s a good listener and able to draw out the customer. Use phone interviews, which are way better than in-person ones because of all the body language aspects. Also, people are more comfortable just sitting wherever they are with their cell phone or headset for a Zoom meeting. Don’t turn on video on Zoom and just do an audio conversation. Don’t do surveys because surveys are your ideas superimposed on the customer. What you want to do is you want to learn new things from the customer. You want to learn the specific things that drove them to make that purchase. In addition to mapping out the buying process and the buying journey and all that, I have come up, in the last few years, with something I call mindset-driven marketing.

To me, the mindset of the buyer, when they set out to buy, consists of three things: their desires, concerns, and questions. If you address those three things, the desires, their concerns, and their questions in your marketing materials–especially your website–then you’re going to engage them in a way where you learn exactly what they want to buy and how they want to buy it. The beauty of this method is that you only need to talk to five to seven people of a given customer type to get on the right track.

Over the last few decades, I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs. Every time I started working with them, I would ask them, “What do you think is important to your customers?” And they would tell me, and then I would go out and interview their customers, and the list the company gave me and the list the customer gave me were completely different. Things that the client thought were important were not important to the customer. They just assumed everybody did that. It’s like restaurants are supposed to feed you food that doesn’t poison you, airplanes are supposed to fly, and boats are supposed to float. It doesn’t matter to them how hard it was for you to create something. They have specific needs, and when they come to you, they’ve already done their research and want those particular questions answered.

Sean Murphy: You talk a lot about answering the real customer questions in the book. You offer an example of selecting a stereo, identifying key questions prospects have that are not obvious to the stereo manufacturer. What’s the location of the wiring connections so I can figure out how to mount the unit in the cabinet? What are the dimensions? Our audience today is primarily early-stage entrepreneurs with few customers–but hopefully many prospects. Do you have any suggestions for how they can develop empathy for a prospect’s fundamental questions about their product?

Kristin Zhivago: You develop empathy by asking your customers these questions. If you’re starting out and have prospects, then it’s a little harder because they haven’t yet experienced the product or service. When you interview people who’ve already bought from you, they’re interested in helping you because they’ve purchased something from you and have a vested interest in your success. They’re normally happy to talk to you. They will not tell you what they’re thinking when you are selling to them because they view it as a negotiation; they’re playing poker and don’t want to expose any cards. So it can be hard to get them to reveal what they’re really thinking. But after they’ve purchased from you, they will.

Again, five to seven customers of a given type are enough to gain actionable insights.

If you have that many, you’re in good shape. If you don’t, then you have to go to people who might be potential buyers. It can’t be your friends or people who already trust you. That’s a big mistake entrepreneurs make. They make all their initial sales with people who know and trust them. Then they hire a salesperson and wonder why it’s so hard. It’s hard because establishing trust is a crucial part of selling to strangers. Strangers are skeptical and worried about being disappointed.

So you have to call in favors–don’t ever pay them for this–and ask people who are potential buyers open-ended questions. They’re in the book, but here are some examples: “How do you feel about this type of product or service?” “What trends do you see in the market right now? What are your biggest challenges? If you were the CEO of this company tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would focus on or fix? What’s the problem you were trying to solve?” Or you would be trying to solve if you were buying this kind of product. You have to use your imagination a little bit. I talk about this in the book: if you don’t have customers, here’s how to deal with it. It’s a little more complicated, but it’s not impossible. It is possible. We have done it.

Sean Murphy: I haven’t seen you use the term job-to-be-done, but I think your approach fundamentally aligns with the core idea that customers hire a product to do a job for them to fulfill a need. You wrote an older article called “The Promise Keeper,” where you wrote that when a prospect asks, “Why can’t someone make something that does this task well?” That frustration is a market opportunity for founders.

Kristin Zhivago: Absolutely.

Sean Murphy: How do you help founders shift from focusing on their solution to the customer’s pain?

Kristin Zhivago:  We do a lot of search engine optimization for our clients because everybody’s using Google these days to find solutions. But one interesting thing is that the B2B (business-to-business) buyers looking for services don’t use Google. They might use Google to check up on something or see who else is out there, but they all go out to their network and ask people they know, “Do you know who’s good at this?” So you’re not going to get much research help from Google.

But a tool like Google Trends will show you popular searches if you’re entering a market. This list of popular searches can tell you how people describe their needs or problems they have. It can also tell you if there are related phrases that are more important.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with a CEO or an entrepreneur and had Google Trends up on the Zoom screen and just said, “Okay, this is how you think of this product and what you say about this product, but let’s look at how people search for it.” There are other tools like Keywords Everywhere that also show you trends. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on what Google recommends at the bottom of its results page for the terms you like. It will often suggest phrases that reflect how prospects think about their needs more accurately than your keywords or how you talk about the product. This is very important: you can miss a whole market if you don’t understand how people describe their problems or needs in the search box.

Sean Murphy: Do you often see that they search by describing the problem instead of the solution?

Kristin Zhivago: Yes. You’ll become more conscious of the way that you craft search phrases. Once you start thinking this way, you’ll realize, “I didn’t say such and such company near me. I said, my thing is broken. How can I fix it?” For a simple example. It’s the moment of need that drives us. We may not use the “official solution name” because we don’t know it. Sometimes, we find out what solutions are available when we describe our problem. Google is your first gatekeeper. You’ve got to get past Google, and there are only ten spots on the first page, which is the only page anyone reads.

Attendee: Kristin. Basically, I wanted to ask, how can you reach US customers? I mean, what are the best ways to reach US customers?

Kristin Zhivago: This is a very tough question to answer. Not because I don’t know the answer, but because I know a million answers. There is no one single mindset for any… I mean, if you said to me, “How do I sell to Indian customers?” You’re in India, right?

Attendee: Right.

Kristin Zhivago: You would say, “Well, that depends. What are you selling? Who are you selling it to? What are their problems? What do they care about?” So there is no single American consumer. The first thing you need to do is figure out who you’re really competing with and do some analysis of them and what they’ve done and go to a tool like SpyFu or Semrush, which will help you see the keywords that those companies are being found for.

That will help you understand what people search for when they look for that. You must understand what’s driving them: what is the problem they’re trying to solve? One good thing about today’s market is that there are many forums out there. For example, you can find out that I’ve been using QuickBooks for years. I hate QuickBooks. It’s one of the worst programs ever. I mean, they have a menu item called “New.” New what? New to you, new to me? And under that one menu item, New, there’s like 25 things. So they couldn’t figure out where to put it, so they just did a kitchen sink, a kitchen drawer kind of solution where they’re just saying, “Okay, we’re just going to throw it in under New.”

Attendee Yes. For the business owners to operate QuickBooks, especially people who don’t have an accounting background.

Kristin Zhivago: I use it because my accountant needs it for taxes. I have certain things I do in QuickBooks for my accountant. So you have to figure out whom you’re competing against, and then you must find people using those competitive products. You might be able to find them in some forums. You might be able to go to your social network and say, “Look, we’re trying to sell this kind of product to these kind of people, does anybody know anybody who’s using this kind of product because I’d like to talk to them.” Then you interview them.

There is no magic bean. There’s nothing where I can say to you, “Everyone’s on social.” Not true. I mean just the fact that B2B buyers won’t even use Google, and Google owns 95% of the search market. So there is no blanket answer. You have to do some detective work and figure it out; then, you’ll be able to start getting specific.

Sean Murphy: One way to think about your competition is, what does a customer stop doing when they start using your product? For example, what do they stop spending money on? Or what activities do they stop engaging in? These questions can help you identify and focus on your actual competition.

Kristin Zhivago: The worst competition can be the pain of changing software. So part of your value proposition might be that we make it very easy to transition from QuickBooks to our tool. We have a transition team, and these import features make it easy to change. In the American market, you can seldom go wrong if you make things easier for people.

A related example for website design is “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.

Audience: My question is, what is it’s our product that a competitor is trying to displace? How do we protect our interest and engagement instead of getting totally booted out?

Kristin Zhivago: If the customer is not happy, you are in a terrible fix. But your customer is standing at your door with money in hand saying, “This is what I want.” You can’t say no. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not what we want to sell. That’s not how we want to operate. Our business model is this.” You can’t say no. You can’t close the door. So you should be embracing it and saying to yourself, “How can we make money from the customer even though they’re saying to us, we don’t want all of our product, just these parts. How can we still make money there? How can we provide a product that would be valuable to them?”

You’ve got modules and features they don’t want to pay for. It could be that they are unhappy with your implementation or don’t think they need it. If they are unhappy, you need to find a way to improve the module or feature or agree to let them buy an alternative and support integration. If they don’t think they need it, then you need to do a better job explaining why you included it. If they have not been using it, you need to clarify when they will need it: situations they have not yet encountered. They don’t know what they don’t know, and you may have to help them understand.

We recently helped a client draft a checklist for Ultra-High Performance Concrete (UHPC) called “Questions You Should Be Asking Your UHPC Supplier.” We did this because the client is in an emerging market, and there are other firms in the market making promises they may not be able to keep or leaving out some critical details of what selecting their solution implies. So in the article, we said here is what you should be asking any UHPC supplier. For example, ask them if they did accelerated heating to make the concrete cure faster. And if they did, did they check for faults? Because that’s what happens when you do that.

This approach may also help you. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What questions should they be asking about any potential solution to minimize mistakes? Help them identify potential traps.

You may have to reinvent yourselves. I had to do that when I ran a very successful Silicon Valley ad agency with my husband, and the Mac came out. We were happy as could be and at the peak of our earning power. And I looked at my husband and said, “Our clients are all going to take their work in-house. Once they have the Macintosh, they’ll do it inside, so why do they need us? Agencies will become less relevant, and we’ll be all fighting over crumbs under the table.”

I told him, “Just retire.” So he did; he was 52. He started inventing and making things, and I reinvented myself into a revenue coach. For three years, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do every morning when I got up. It was tough, but I did figure it out, and I did help people market in-house.

It’s painful, but that was the way they were standing at the door with money in their hand. They needed somebody to help them, so I did marketing and sales department turnarounds and all sorts of things and was very successful at doing that.

I reinvented myself again when I started Zhivago Partners because I saw so many mid-size companies with great products and great people out-marketed by new digital companies. It was hurting them. I felt sorry for them, so I opened up an agency to help them.

You might have to reconsider what you’re offering if it’s too hard to get people to want the whole thing. You might have to change how you offer it up and maybe parcel it out in pieces instead of a single end-to-end solution.

Sean Murphy:Kristin, you’ve suggested that buying is driven first by desire and skepticism and then by a willingness to compromise here and there, as the customer finds something that comes close, all while being guided by someone super helpful. Your “super helpful” model is quite different from the traditional “hire a higher pressure salesperson.” How do startups make that switch?

Kristin Zhivago: The whole high pressure sales model is so dead. I mean, it’s been dead for 10 years.

Sean Murphy: You wouldn’t know that reading all of the sales blogs in Startup Land.

Kristin Zhivago: I know. But talk to your customers. Ask yourself:

  • Who likes being sold to?
  • Who likes being pushed and bothered and pressured?
  • Who wants to talk to somebody on a commission which means you can’t trust what they’re saying?

Nobody. Nobody. And the same time, entrepreneurs start out and say, “Wow, I’ve got to hire a sales guy and we got to make cold calls, and we got to push, push, push, push, push.”

It’s not working. Caller ID means nobody is answering their phone if they don’t know the person. I get calls all the time from Block Island, which is a little island off the coast of Rhode Island. The only thing there are little B&B tourist traps and people on their bicycles. I know there’s not a legitimate prospect in Block Island, so when I get a call, there’s no way I will answer.

We’ve all gotten really good at avoiding being sold to, but we’re still trying to subject our customers to that. It’s stupid, and it doesn’t work.

We are a digital society with Google, forums, and people connecting on social media. It’s a very different world from when these sales approaches were first developed: customers are no longer buying that way. The only time somebody wants a salesperson is when they’ve decided what they want and have a few questions.

For example, a friend of mine went into a car dealership recently. He knew the car he wanted but had one question. And the salesperson says, “Before I answer your question, let me tell you the history of our dealership and the history of this car and my career talking about selling cars.” True story. He said, “Please answer my question so I can give you the money and walk out of here with a car.”

There’s an enormous gap between people selling and people buying right now. We’re making it harder for people to buy. I have a client who got rid of the salespeople and put customer service people in the job. We bring in the leads for them, and then the customer service people make it easy for the customer to buy, and their sales have gone up. This client is an established company that’s been around for a long time. That whole sales push thing is a dream in the entrepreneur’s mind, and it’s a nightmare for the customer. It doesn’t work.

Sean Murphy: You do a lot of work with entrepreneurs. What are some critical mistakes that you see entrepreneurs making when they first start a company?

Kristin Zhivago: I’ve mentioned a couple already. Here are three more.

They begin by selling to their friends and then think that’s how it will be, but it won’t continue that way. The buyer coming in from nowhere will not be that same kind of buyer.

The second thing is that they fall in love with spreadsheet projections. They are up at three in the morning telling themselves, “Wow, if I sell this many, then I’m going to make this much money.” And they think that’s going to be a reality, but they can run out of the money before you ever get near scaling up. When I advise entrepreneurs on the reality of startup costs, I tell them to take their estimate for how much money they will need to get started and reach profitability and multiply it by three. Why? Because there are many costs and delays that you won’t be able to predict. It just takes longer to make things happen.

Another critical mistake: entrepreneurs don’t ask their customers what they want and what they will pay for. Instead, entrepreneurs will ask friends who are not representative of the target customer or make educated guesses that turn out to be wrong. So their product fails, and they run out of money.

Sean Murphy: I think you mentioned another one that’s worth calling out. They form a clear idea of  how you’re going to succeed and the product you’re going to sell. Then customers show up and say, “I’d like to buy this from you.” And instead of saying “Great! they say “No, that’s not what I had in mind.”

Kristin Zhivago: Right. They say, “You’re wrong. You want this, not that.” And the prospect replies, “No, that’s not what I want.”

Sean Murphy: There can be outliers, one customer does not prove the existence of market. But if two or three show up  all making the same request, then maybe it’s not them that’s wrong, maybe it’s you.

Kristin Zhivago: Well, that’s starting a market. If you have two or three people making the same request, there’s an opportunity there.

Sean Murphy: Right. Then there’s clearly an opportunity.

Kristin, any final remarks before we wrap?

Kristin Zhivago: There is always money somewhere. More than $3 trillion passes through the banks every single day in the world. It’s probably more than that now, but that’s where it was some years ago. So that taught me that there’s a river of revenue somewhere. So I called my first book “Rivers of Revenue: What to Do When the Money Stops Flowing.” And the whole idea was if you keep going down to the same river and it starts to dry up, you can’t just keep going. You have to face the facts and do something different. You have to be brave. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s well worth it. So you follow the money: go where the opportunity is.

When I was way younger I’d come back to my husband and say, “Well, I’ve left that job because I was bored and I’d done everything I could.” And it’d be Friday afternoon and he’d be like, “What are you going to do?” And I’d say, “Well, on Monday, I’m working on this company,” and I’ve placed myself in this, I just went where the money was and kept going. Don’t deny it. Don’t say, “No, I can’t go there because that’s not who we are.” Figure out how to make money with what they want.

SKMurphy Take

Zhivago has a very active intelligence and a no nonsense approach to marketing and sales problems that I found very refreshing. I recommend both of her books:

Roadmap to revenue offers a wealth of practical advice on how to interview customers to understand their needs and constraints and is a good fit for startups. Rivers of revenue addresses some of the issues related to recognizing when the products, services and practices that got you to where you are won’t take you much farther.

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Image Credit: Kristin Zhivago headshot (c) Zhivago Partners, used with permission.

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