My guest this episode is Philip Morgan, an expert consultant in positioning, and he is here to help you improve your company’s messaging step-by-step.
He specializes in positioning for tech companies and literally wrote the book on this topic, The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms.
Listen in as he explains positioning strategy and techniques useful for all digital marketers and shares his personal journey along the way.
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Louis: Bonjour, bonjour and welcome to everyonehatesmarketers.com, the digital marketing podcast for tech marketers who are sick and tired of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.Does it take you around 50 slides on PowerPoint to explain your business to a new client? Does your messaging sound exactly the same with your competitors? Well then, you probably have a positioning problem. Don’t worry about it because Philip Morgan, my guest in this episode, literally wrote the book about positioning. [Yo. Check out these 13 positioning principles.]
In this episode, Philip Morgan and I are going to go through the symptoms of bad positioning, the benefits of good positioning, good marketing positioning tactics, and a step by step framework to improve yours.
In this episode, I’m talking to Philip Morgan. Philip Morgan is an expert in positioning for technical firms. Technical firms would be custom development shops or software companies. It specializes in companies that have from one person, like a solo founder type of scenario, to 25 employees. His website is philipmorganconsulting.com and he literally wrote the book about positioning called The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms.
I know that most of you are not necessarily working for a technical firm but his advice works for any type of digital marketer working for any type of business. In this episode, he’s going to explain how he got laid off after the crash of 2008, how he rebounded from that and launched his first business, then after four years, launched his consulting business. He’s going to show a little bit of history.
Then, we’re going to talk about the symptoms of bad positioning. You’re going to know whether or not your company has a strong positioning. We’re also going to talk about why positioning is important and the benefit of having good positioning. Finally, we’ll talk about the step by step to position your business the right way. We’re going to go in a lot of detail into how you can actually interview customers or strangers even, to position the business and your marketing better. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
Hi Philip! Thank you so much for being on the show. I’m going to get started straight away into a question I wanted to ask for a long time. Your focus is on technical software firms with I would say less than 25 employees, I think that’s your sweet spot from a solo founder or a solo consultant up to 25 people. What would be the main symptoms for this particular type of business, the main symptom of pro positioning?
Philip: The thing that gets them in to see the doctor, the pain is their pipeline is unreliable and short; their pipeline of new business opportunities. Someone in a business of that size, I would almost bet money that 80% of the time, their business development is referrals, repeat clients, and basically luck.
That’s the main symptom, is that they feel very vulnerable to an unexpected change in a client pulling out at the last moment and that client was the bulk of their revenue or they just can’t really forecast with any confidence beyond about six months because most of them have projects that are three to six months long, sometimes longer. Not that many clients at once, which is fine, that’s not the real problem.
The real problem is they’re not sought out for anything. They’re not in demand in other words. That’s the main symptom, at least, that I deal with. There are other problems. People feel like pricing is difficult or they feel like client management is difficult. Those are all part of what gets a business like that to seek outside help but when they come to me, it’s because they don’t know how to generate demand for their services. They feel like it’s just luck really.
Louis: They get big clients from referrals but they’re not able to forecast things in the long term. I know your expertise is in this particular bracket, 1 to 25 people in a technical firm like software or that kind of thing. But outside of that, speaking more generally for digital marketers working for a business that could be something a little bit different, do you think there are common symptoms outside of that in terms of positioning issues with the business that could be applicable to any type of businesses?
Philip: My experience really is with services businesses. The sale for services business is so heavily based on trust. I think it is kind of different than let’s say if you’re selling a SaaS where someone needs to trust you enough to do a free trial, that’s a lot easier than convincing someone where we can deliver on a $50,000 mobile app project.
Most of my experiences on that side of things were what you’re trying to do through your marketing is to create trust and build trust as quickly as you reasonably can so that when the budget is in place and all those other pieces are in place, a client is going to choose you because they trust you to accomplish something that’s technically very complex and manage very large project sometimes.
This applies, I think, even on the smaller end of the scale. It’s not just $50,000 or $100,000 software projects, it’s also can you build a website or can you put together a marketing campaign. I’m not going to say much that’s useful outside the world of services where you have to build up trust. I guess that’s what I would say in response to your question. I think selling software or selling products can be a completely different game because sometimes it really is not about trust at all, it’s about something else.
Louis: Got you. Do you think there’s a link between a good positioning and trust? Like the more somebody would understand clearly what your business does and for whom, the more they’re likely to trust you?
Philip: I was going to say to define good positioning. I was going to put you on the spot.
Louis: Yeah, you define it for me.
Philip: Well, yes. I think it was a start of a really great way of thinking about it which is it’s clear. It’s clear who your services are for and it’s clear what you can accomplish for them. I think that maybe, in fact, the easiest and best way to define what a good position is. It’s actually clear. I always encourage people, when they’re starting to care about the idea of positioning, this is really most suitable for software developers, to go to a website called clutch.co and look at their listing of software development shops.
There are different ways you can sort them but just pick 10 and go look at the websites of those 10 software development shops. You’ll be shocked at how similar they are. Specifically, for a very narrow specific type of client, you’ll just see stuff like they claim how great their process is, they talk about how great their team is and all of those are I think somewhat important but those are like the table stakes. Those are the minimum things that you need to do professional services is have some clear idea of process and have a team that’s not terrible.
They’re kind of bragging about those things like they make them different or exceptional but if you just sit down and just scroll through 10 or 20 software development company websites, you’ll see a shocking amount of similarity. The first thing that a good positioning does is clearly differentiates you from those companies.
Sometimes, all you have to do is say, “We’ll do any kind of software development but we’re specifically focused on a particular market vertical or a particular type of client.” I guess first thing that’s how I would define good positioning at a minimum, is that it’s just clear and it’s specific.
For a larger business that is more sophisticated in terms of how they think about the marketplace and their place in the marketplace, the idea of being narrow that way maybe is not so terrifying. But I can tell you for people like solo operators, solo freelancers, solo software developers, it’s terrifying to do that, to narrow down in that way because you’re afraid you’re going to make the wrong choice because you feel like your experience is limited, you didn’t go to business school, you don’t know what’s best and you’re just afraid to make that choice.
Without clear positioning, it really does affect every aspect of your marketing in my experience, because it just makes it harder. I talked to people who are like, “I would love to do some kind of marketing so I’m not totally dependent on referrals but I don’t have any idea what I should write about. I should blog but I don’t know what I should write about.” That’s a very common thing.
That’s the symptom. The cause is of course you don’t know what you should write about because if you could write about anything because you have no focus in your business, then it’s going to be a constant struggle to figure out what to write about. But as soon as you add some very specific focus, that problem goes away for most people.
Louis: From my experience, usually when I meet starter founders or business or even digital marketers who are trying to explain what they do, as soon as they struggle to explain in one clear sentence what they do, I know that they have a positioning problem or something on those lines.
It’s very clear to me that as soon as we struggle to explain in very clear words, because that’s the other thing. If you make a very long sentence explaining what you do with very complex words that I don’t understand, then to me, that’s a clear sign of the fact that you still don’t have something that is clear about positioning. Before drilling down a little bit more into actionable items that we can explain and give away to the listeners, I’d like to dig into you a little bit more and get to know you a little bit better.
I met you a few months ago. I bought one of your books, first of all, which is The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms because at that time I was doing my consulting and it did help. Then, we had sort of a conversation over Skype to get deeper into our particular issue. Today, before I started to interview you, I looked at your background because I actually never really looked at your background, I just read your website and you got referred from somebody I knew that I trusted so I trusted you in return. You’ve been doing consulting, Philip Morgan Consulting for four years, almost four years?
Philip: Yeah, that’s about right.
Louis: Before that, you were a co-founder of an agency for four years, around that as well. I’m sure there’s a story there that you need to explain. What happened at the end of this agency, those four years? Any particular event that made you to decide I’m going to go on my own and do my own thing?
Philip: I think I wanted to try some things that were not a good fit for a business that was already up and running and had some direction and momentum. This causes me endless amounts of trouble but when I’m ready to try something new, I’m ready right away. As soon as I decide, I’m ready to make that change. It means that I can move very quickly from one thing to the next.
I wanted to try some different pricing models and try moving away from hourly pricing and try some fixed pricing. That was probably it. I was too willing to experiment and when you have other people who are a part of the business, we didn’t have employees but we had contractors that we hired, I see this was positioning too, as soon as there’s more than one person, there’s this momentum that is harder to change and that’s both a good and a bad thing.
The good thing is that momentum is what your business is all about. You want to build up that momentum so that you can survive a bad month or if someone could get sick and it doesn’t bring the whole company grinding to a halt. That’s the good side of momentum.
The other side is if you’re still trying to figure some things about how to be self-employed, which I definitely was at that time, then you want to try some experiment. It’s just harder to do those experiments with other people involved. I think that was the thing that led me to go out on my own. The other thing was that I was sick of the rain in Western Oregon where I lived. Are you still in Ireland by the way, Louis?
Louis: I am. I love how you’re linking the rain in Ireland.
Philip: You probably know what I’m talking about. The climate is maybe a little bit similar. I just couldn’t stand it anymore so I had to get out and I moved to California. It was a business where I think me being remote that way might not have worked so well. Those were the main reasons why I am more of a risk taker than I realized when I was younger. When I was younger I just wanted a job and stability but I seemed to be okay with making my own job and having variable amounts of stability depending on that.
Louis: When did this type of risk taking personality started to arise? Because I looked at your experience and I could see many full time jobs over the years and then all of a sudden, you start to shift into entrepreneurship and consulting and stuff. What happened there?
Philip: I think it’s kind of like when someone’s married and then their spouse suddenly leaves and they’re like, “Wait. I thought this was a stable thing.” That’s how I felt about full time jobs. My experience always was I decided when I wanted to leave a job. I always felt in control, like a job was stability and I was in control of the changes. Then 2008 happened, and like a lot of people, I moved out of the driver’s seat into this position of I got laid off at the end of 2008.
I don’t feel bad at all about that but it was kind of like, “Wait a second. This thing that I thought was stable and secure, this job, I just got booted out. I wasn’t in control of the timing.” I very arrogantly was like, “I can do better than that. I’ll start my own business and then I’ll be in control again.”
To a certain extent, I was a little more in control but also I started doing something I wasn’t very good at which was working for myself and being in charge of finding my own clients and that kind of thing. That actually was a huge wake-up call because I went into it with really a lot of arrogance like, “Oh this is going to be so easy. I know how to run a business. I see all the mistakes the guy I used to work for made. He had just one big client and I’ll never do that again.”
Guess what? Two years later, we had one big client who just suddenly left. I didn’t really criticize this guy directly but when I would think about what he should be doing differently in his business, I was like, “Oh, he should not have one big client. That’s such a terrible mistake.” I made the exact same mistake myself.
You said when did I start to embrace risk a little more? I think it was around 2008 because I just saw so many changes in the economy. I was like, “Well, things that I thought were really stable and dependable probably are not quite so stable and dependable.” That translated into me being very interested in helping people stabilize their business. That’s a big part of what I think positioning is moving into a more proactive place in your business.
Louis: That’s an interesting point. That’s why I was asking those questions because I could feel that there was something that happened. 2008, you got laid off and you started your own thing. You ran this business, this agency for four years and then as you said you moved on to consulting.
I’m just curious, you started to explain the fact that you like to do new things. When you decide to do something new, you just do it right now. What happened, you went to the office one day and you say, “Hey, by the way I’m quitting, go fuck yourself.” What happened?
Philip: It was terrible. I think I left a voicemail. I didn’t just up and quit like that. Obviously, I was a partner in this business so we had to transition out. But when I made the decision, I called right away, I left a voicemail. It’s just the worst, least kind way to tell your business partner you’re breaking up with them. It’s very much like that. I don’t have a lot of patience to wait for the current thing to wind down and the new thing to start up. It’s not a great quality, but oh well.
Another example of that is recently I was doing a little bit of copywriting work for clients. The part of my business where I provide advice to people about positioning started to grow. I said maybe I could just do only that and wind down some of these other services I was providing like copywriting. That’s another example of okay, can we just wind those services down very quickly, which I did and let me focus on this new thing maybe a little bit before it was quite ready to carry the business. I’m always just moving on to the next thing as quickly as possible.
Louis: That’s an interesting part of you, part of your personality. I have to say I’m kind of the same. When I decide I want to do something new, it’s very, very difficult to keep going on the thing that is currently there. I share your pain.
I appreciate you being transparent about it. It’s always nice to know a little bit more about the background and why you’ve been doing that. To me, that gives me a lot of answers to a lot of questions I had about your character. Let’s move on now.
You have Philip Morgan Consulting. You specialize in positioning for technical firms. But to me, positioning is part of marketing. You might disagree, you might agree, I don’t know but to me you’re a marketer. Even though you specialize, you’re a marketer. As a marketer, why do you think marketers have a bad reputation in general?
Philip: Yeah, I try to avoid making generalizations. They have a bad reputation because of so many reasons. I really was thinking about this the other day in terms of this question, this is related but I think I’m going to get there by way of a detour. Why is marketing hard for the solo software developer? I think because it’s so personal for someone who runs the kind of business that I help with, this solo services business. You can probably relate to this.
It’s just so personal because it’s so much about you and your personality and how your approach to services and you have this personal relationship with your clients. I think maybe when it becomes not personal is when marketers start to do the kind of things that they have a reputation for and people start to hate them is maybe when they don’t have as much skin in the game.
I can imagine that if I was doing marketing for some mid-size clothing brand, it would not feel so personal because a product business is not really about my services and it’s somebody else’s money. If I was in that position, I might be making different decisions about how I use this tool called marketing. This is very sort of abstract but I think that’s part of it. As soon as it’s other people’s money, you make different decisions about it.
I think that marketers are hated because they promise things that aren’t true. I think they are hated because they can look at people like numbers instead of people so let’s really get that conversion rate up. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but that can be part of a sort of an attitude and an approach that collaborates with some pretty nasty ways of marketing.
I think that’s part of it but honestly, I don’t know some simple answer to that question. But I think those are part of it, is that you treat people like numbers and you’re spending other people’s money in order to try to create a financial outcome that’s not based on a relationship or not based on really trying to help people.
Louis: Yeah, I think you’re making a very good point. The first point you made is particularly interesting. I know a few software developers or technical people. More in general, I know quite a lot of people who are not marketers themselves and have to use marketing in their business. What you say is very true, is that they feel that doing marketing and running the business is completely incompatible.
It’s like exactly as you said, because it’s personal, because running your business is personal or your thing is personal, therefore you can’t do marketing because by definition in their own mind, at least, marketing isn’t personal. Marketing is fake. Marketing is lying to people and manipulating them. But this is exactly why this podcast exists because I think that this is not true. This is a wrong type of marketing. You don’t have to lie to the marketing, you can be truthful and honest and position yourself very well and that’s marketing. That’s an interesting point.
What you mentioned about treating people as numbers is also another thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while. The root cause of that is, especially in digital marketing where we’re behind our computer all the time, it’s very easy to forget that we are talking to people. We look at spreadsheets, we look at Google Analytics, we look at all of that and there’s a lot of vocabulary around audience, leads, traffic, very impersonal but you cannot forget that those hits on your websites, those leads generated are actually people just like you and me.
That creates this kind of distance between the marketing and the people, which creates some sort of marketing tends to be impersonal, marketing tends to be less enjoyable for people. That’s one of the things that I’ve started to think about that happen.
Just to be clear, we’re not blaming marketers for doing that. On the contrary, I think they’re trying to do their job at the best of their ability but we need to recognize the fact that people are not numbers and good analytics is a good thing but it’s not the only thing.
But it’s something that you mentioned before in one of your interviews that I listened to is customer development, talking to people, actually talking to people and that could help any marketers, right?
Philip: I believe so. With my clients, I’m trying to help them essentially do one thing which is specialize in some way. As soon as you say to someone, “You’re a generalist. Right now, you will work for any kind of client. You’ll probably say yes to almost any project that they want help with as long as it’s basically within your skill set.” That’s a generalist.
There’s initially a sense of safety in being a generalist like “Oh, I’m so flexible. I don’t have to worry if the thing that I chose is a wrong thing because I’m not choosing anything. I’m just saying I’m a software developer, or I’m a web designer, or I’m a copywriter, or whatever, I’m a marketer.” That feels safe and narrowing down feels kind of risky.
You’ve got to have some way to take the risk out of making that decision about how to narrow down. That’s where I feel like research really comes into place. We all have ideas. As freelancers, we’re sort of like artists. We focus on our skills. We focus on the instrument we play or the media that we work in. That’s the kind of mindset that you typically see with freelancers. It’s wonderful but you also, I think, have to combine that with more of the way a business owner would think about doing things.
When you’re moving out of that mindset of I think Angular is the most amazing front end framework, or I think Rails is the most amazing thing, or on the marketing side of things, I think content marketing is the right way to do marketing, or I think SEO is or whatever. You’re kind of obsessed with your tools that you use to create results for clients.
When you’re in that mindset, you’re actually sort of unlikely to really understand what your clients think which is sad. But you can make that work for a while. It’s sort of like saying, “I have the equipment needed to build a house. If you want to hire me to build a house, I’ll use my equipment to build the house for you.” But again, when you start to specialize or narrow down all of a sudden, you’re moving away from thinking about your tools all the time and you’re now starting to think about what your clients need.
Most people don’t know and that’s where research comes in. I’ll pick on you and you choose an example. Maybe you think that sleazy marketing is a problem and there’s demand in the marketplace for someone who will stand up and say, “We are really good marketers but we don’t believe in sleazy marketing.” That could be true that there’s demand for that but how would you know without doing some research? That’s where the research comes in is validating that either it’s an assumption or something that you’re guessing because it’s just a hunch that you have.
Clients need to write checks for that kind of market position to be successful. For them to write checks, they need to know that there’s a problem and seek out a solution to that problem. Again, that’s where I think research becomes incredibly valuable. When I say research, I think a lot of people are going to think it has to be scientific research. It has to be highly structured, very disciplined, very controlled. I’m going to have to do a focus group, invite people into a room with a mirror on one side. That’s not true at all. It really is just asking the right questions, listening, and ignoring your own assumptions for long enough to gather data.
Louis: Let’s get into that a little bit more into technical stuff because I’m very familiar with customer development as well but you’re probably even more knowledgeable than me. For digital marketers, digital leaders, or anybody in the tech industry that we need to start doing customer research, to actually understand what the hell our customer really want. What would be step one? What would you advise them to do?
Philip: I’m going to tell a brief story. I recently watched this movie Deepwater Horizon which was about the oil well here in the United Sates that was one of the biggest oil drilling disasters ever. They did a pressure test to see at a certain point whether this mechanism that was sealing off the oil well would hold back all the pressure. It was like the sequence of tests. That’s kind of how customer development is.
The first test is to see if you can get someone to agree to talk to you. For a Fortune 500 company, they’re doing this kind of stuff all the time, it’s no big deal. But for a solo freelancer or a small shop, they’ve never done that. They would reach out to a stranger. Usually, it’s a stranger although you can start with past clients, that’s a nice way to make it easier is just interview a past client and basically say, “When we were working on that project, I was kind of heads down and actually don’t know as much as I would like to know about the business problem we were solving. Could you talk to me about that?”
That’s a safe place to start but most people have never reached out to strangers and said, “I am trying to find the answer to something. I think you can help me avoid making a mistake. Would you help me by talking to me?” That’s the first pressure test is can you reach out to 50 or 100 people who are in a market segment or who are a member of an audience or whatever. Can you get them to agree to be interviewed?
If you cannot do that, what chance do you have of ever marketing to that market? It’s not that all 100 of those people. Even if you can just get 10% of them to agree to an interview, that’s usually a meaningful amount of response. At least in terms of how most internet marketing works where it’s really based on a direct response model, if you can’t get a response to even something free, what chance do you have of selling services to that market? Do you agree with that based on your research?
Louis: I’m shaking my head but the listeners can’t see that, but yes. I wanted to add to that. The critical thing to think about is that nobody cares about you. That’s the truth. Nobody cares. For example, imagine you’re going to streets. You get out of the building and your task is to make 10 people sign up to your free newsletter. Only that and I can guarantee that it’s going to be a hell of a struggle. People will say, “What’s in it for me? Why should I subscribe?”
It’s only free, it’s a free thing and you wonder why the hell are they saying no? Then imagine the next step which is trying to sell something worth money. I agree 100% with you. One tip for this first phase is if you contact people who don’t know you or where you don’t have a lot of relationship, I would advise to tweak the email or whatever you use to contact them into saying you’re the expert in this field or in this industry and I very much look up to you. I love to learn more about you and your process, your industry, your business. We’re deframing into it’s all about you. I want you to talk about me and people love to talk about themselves. Would you agree with this approach?
Philip: Yeah. In fact, I would say that’s probably the whole secret of marketing. This is more true of professional services. How can you make it about your client than about you? That’s the other thing if you go to clutch.co and look at 10 or 20 websites of software development firms, so many of them will be about the company rather than about their clients and their clients’ problems. I agree completely with that, that’s really why that’s the first sort of pressure test.
If you can’t figure out how to get somebody to tell you about their problems, a lot of people will pay a psychiatrist $200 or $300 an hour to have that privilege. If you can’t get somebody to treat you as their business psychiatrist, then I think your chances of actually marketing to that audience around some problem are actually quite low because you’ve proven that you don’t understand their world enough to even get them to respond to an email.
It’s not like you’re trying to trick somebody, it’s just that you’re trying to give them a good reason to take time out of their day. You said something and I think the answer is people are trying to protect their time and attention, whether they know it or not. If you went out on the street and try to get 10 people to sign up to your free newsletter, why would they say no? Because they’re trying to protect their time against time vampires and leeches and things that will suck away their time and attention and not deliver a positive return on investment. I think that’s why.
People know what’s a waste of their time. Maybe they have to get multiple reminders of how this would be beneficial but there needs to be a clear what’s in it for them. That’s the big part of the value of research is it sort of shows you where your value proposition is weak from day one. Even if you’re doing a research for a value proposition you haven’t really figured out yet, still, it’s the first part of figuring out is doing that research.
Louis: We are talking about technical firms in particular because that’s where you specialize in but I think this advice works for anybody. I believe 100% that any marketer, wherever they are, should talk to customers face to face or over the phone at least once or twice a month, minimum, and do customer research interviews. So many are not doing it and I’m not blaming them because I understand how busy they are and I understand they have to do a lot of things. But this is so, so valuable.
Step 1 we try to get them to agree to something that is just maybe 20 minutes or 30 minutes of their time. They’re going to talk about their problem, they’re going to educate us about their problem and the way their industry works. What’s your advice about what to ask? What should those people ask them?
Philip: That’s where it starts to depend on who you’re speaking to. One shortcut when someone is thinking about specializing their services is to find a few other people who are consultants. If you’re thinking about specializing on a market vertical, try to find a few other consultants who also serve that market vertical.
Let’s say you’re a software developer and you want to focus on dentists because you think that the more successful dentist, the bigger dentistry places might need custom software. Let’s actually say you’re a website developer and you want to focus on dentists, that makes a little more sense. I would find consultants who serve dentists and interview them to start with, to very quickly get a high level understanding of what are the problems for someone who runs a dentistry business? What are the things that they’re always complaining about? What changes 5 or 10 years from now are clearly coming their way that they’re going to have to deal with, that are going to be challenges for their business?
How do they make money? They make money by charging money for their services, that’s not what I’m saying. How exactly do they make money? Do they sell teeth cleaning at a breakeven price and then try to upsell you on other services or is it a completely different model? You see what I’m saying? When I say how do you make money, it’s really understanding what makes them successful financially and how financially does your business work.
You do not need to know enough to be a dentist yourself for the research to be successful. You need to just not be a dummy. You need to not be an ignorant of the basics of their business. You can get a shortcut by just talking to people who are already consultants who are focused on that market vertical or that industry or that audience.
Louis: I can hear the question of listeners in their heads straight away saying why would my competitors or future competitors agree to talk to me?
Philip: Because some people don’t fear competition. Some people do, a percentage will be like, “Wait a second. It seems like you would just compete with me and so, I’m not going to help you.” Actually, I talked to the other guy last week who is doing this and that was one of the responses he got. That’s maybe 20% or 30% of people.
Many more will be like their spouse doesn’t care, their friends don’t care. They just would love to have somebody to talk to about what they do all day or they would just like to help somebody out who is clearly just starting out and they’re not afraid of the competition because they know they already have more work than they can handle. Some people will not fear that.
The other thing you can do is try to find the consultants who are not directly competing like if you’re a web designer and you want to focus on dentists, maybe you find someone who is a dentistry business consultant who is advising on how to run their practice but really doesn’t design websites so they do not see you as competition. It’s not as big of a problem as you might think.
But the other thing to be aware of is you might start there but you should also speak to dentists or people in the actual industry. The kind of stuff you’re asking them, it really depends on your level of knowledge. The question you would like to be able to ask towards the end of that call after they trust you a little bit is what keeps you up at night about your business? What are some problems that have been persistent problems for three or five years or longer that you just have not been able to make go away?
I’m sure you know this. It’s kind of a balancing act. If you’re a web developer, you don’t want them to be spending the entire interview talking about how difficult it is for them to fill teeth and really the problem is that clients are feeling too much pain and they wish they could get better at sedating clients or something. That’s not helpful. That is a problem for them but there’s nothing you can do with that. You’re looking for that overlap between where you could help and where they have some problem.
Obviously, to stick with our example, it’s a web developer or a marketer who wants to focus on dentists. They need to be saying, “Thank you so much for talking to me for the next 15 or 20 minutes. I’d really like to learn more about how you get clients, or what keeps clients from coming back, or what kind of marketing problems you’re dealing with.” You have to have some context, some scope so that you’re focused on the issues where you potentially could help.
But the problem is if you get too specific, they will not talk about something that could be an amazing opportunity or a real need that you don’t know about. It’s a little bit of an art and that’s why it’s so intimidating to people. Most people are not willing to ask for help from a stranger like could you take 15 minutes and give me the gift of your knowledge and your insight. I have nothing I can give you in return. That’s hard for people to ask that but it’s one of the most valuable skills I believe, that’s out there for a business owner.
Louis: Yeah. But what you said before I don’t believe that they have nothing to offer in return. Exactly what you said before, you offer an ear, like listen to their problem. I don’t think they should feel about it. I do receive a few emails every now and then of people asking for help, like new stuff or some stuff. I actually usually am delighted to do it because I’ve been in this position.
Most people actually are very happy to talk to people and help them because it makes them feel good as well. Let’s not lie about ourselves. It makes us feel like we’re knowledgeable in this area and somebody is seeking my help or my knowledge so I’m more than happy to give that to this person and it makes me feel better about myself because I helped somebody today. I think it’s a win-win.
Philip: Actually you’re right, that’s the reality. But people think that it’s just one sided thing. But you’re right that’s the reality, it is a sort of equal exchange.
Louis: That’s what people need to think so that they will not be intimidated about it. Step one, the first pressure test is trying to make them agree. Step two is trying to frame your question like if you’re to take your example again, if you’re a web developer and you’re thinking about specializing in working for dentists in particular, you maybe have to ask them about the business side of things, you shouldn’t really worry about the medical side because you can assume that you can’t really do anything about the medical side, perhaps.
Trying to frame that into maybe business in general, what keeps you up at night in your business in the business side? You have that, step one and step two. Then what’s the next step? Once you have asked those questions, once you get to know their business better, what should they do?
Philip: You’re looking for patterns. That’s part of step three. Step three could be a couple of things. One is you’re looking for patterns so you have to have more than one of these interviews. You’re looking for that point when you just know what someone’s going to say before they say it. You ask them what’s the biggest marketing problem you have and you’re not surprised when they say whatever it is. Maybe it’s like customer retention or getting new business or whatever. You’re just not surprised.
With me and the people that I work with, one of those things is going to be the biggest problem is I don’t know where to get started or the biggest problem is referrals are so great, I’m just afraid to try something different, or whatever. You’re just not surprised. Step three is you start to identify a pattern. I think part of that is you’re willing to try a different hypothesis or a different market.
With positioning, with narrowing down and specializing, which is really for the type of people I work with that’s really what positioning is. There are other aspects of positioning like pricing and so forth but for most people, it’s just making a decision how am I going to narrow down? How am I going to focus my business?
I’ll give you an example of a guy I worked with where the market that seemed to make the most sense for him was financial services, like companies that manage people’s portfolio of investments. There are just tons of those. He had some pre existing access, he had contacts in that market vertical. It just made a lot of sense.
The service that he offers seems like it would be very valuable for this type of client. This is actually I guess not step three, this is step one. They would not respond to emails. He just did try everything you could try really with trying to reach out, be a cold email to this market, no response. Then he’d ask somebody he’s like, “What’s going on?” Somebody who works on that world. They said, “Oh, nothing. You just have to call us. We as an industry just ignore cold emails. We’re happy that I answered the phone though and talked to you.”
That just wasn’t going to work for him because a really good reason is he just didn’t want to have to do business development by calling people and I totally understand. The point I’m making is you have to be willing to say, “Okay, that market is not going to be a good fit. Even though it seems like a good fit on the surface, in reality it’s not.” You just have to be willing to let the data help you make your mind up rather than ignoring data.
I guess that’s really what I’m saying is a big part of step three is to really see the data for what it is. Maybe what the data is telling you is that this is a market that has so many problems but they do not value the thing you do at all. Start-ups often are not really appreciative of technical talent. Like tech start-ups because they’re drowning in technical talent, that’s where people with software skills and a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm to try new things, they gravitate towards the tech startup world.
Tech startups, if you come to them and say, “I have all these great skills.” They’re like, “Yeah, well so do 10 other people who sent us their resume this week.” You may find in step three, after you’ve talked to some people, you start to see some pattern. The pattern might be they don’t value what you do at all and they’ll never pay you to apply your skills to improve their condition.
That’s really I guess step three is just being willing to be wrong or seeing the data for what it is and believing the data. The data is again not highly scientific data. It’s just what you learned through really listening to people and really asking the right kind of questions. That’s what the data is. The data might tell you that you are wrong and you should try a different market. That’s hard to be at that place but anyway, go ahead.
Louis: I’m sorry to cut you. How do you know whether the person you’re talking to values what you might be offering on those?
Philip: The conventional advice is you just try to sell them something. I mean not while you’re doing your research. I’m not saying you should never combine a sales call with the research call but that’s sort of the conventional thing. Would they pay money for what you’re doing? You can’t really do that as a part of research.
A lot of it is discovering if they have a history of hiring somebody like you or some kind of a specialist to solve this problem that may come out during the interview. Do they have a history of spending money in a similar way? After you see the pattern, a lot of times it would just be there’s no pattern that overlaps with what you do.
Maybe you’re selling Facebook ad management services and they’re like, “What’s most effective for us is in person events and we know that works.” You just know from talking to them that they’re not open to the idea of something like Facebook advertising. That’s the other way you know that they won’t value your services. You just kind of infer, you read between the lines.
The other way is that usually at the end of these research interviews, this happens a lot, clients will say, “Now what do you do?” You’ll kind of say, “Thank you so much for talking to me. Are there any questions that I can answer for you before we wrap this call up?” They’ll say, “Now, what do you do?” Almost exactly like that. Then you’ll just describe what you do. Often, that will be the moment when you discover if there’s any interest in them, finding more about what you do.
There’s no one way to know for sure. I really encourage people to do the research and then make their best guess based on the data and assume that it’s not going to work. If there’s any sort of indicators that this type of client is not going to value what you do, it would be better to move on and do more research than to take a big risk and assume that the data is wrong.
Louis: Yup, I can’t disagree. Another thing that you’ve said that to me, is very interesting, very important for customer development interviews is that as you said it shouldn’t be a status quo. People should avoid trying to sell anything to these people or trying to convince them that their way of thinking is the right way. Because that’s one of the biggest mistake you can make is trying to influence them.
The way I explain it to people is trying to act as a journalist, to be genuinely curious about their business and genuinely curious about the problem they are facing. This way, they will be to truthful and you will stop trying to sell them something because as soon as you start to sell them something, you end up skewing the data altogether.
Philip: They’ll smell it on you, even in that initial email, if your intention is to sell them something. They’ll just know somehow because people have developed these defenses against marketers and salespeople for good reason because of what we’re talking about earlier.
Louis: Yup because of the M word. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years?
Philip: I think that marketers should be thinking in terms of how can I narrow the scope? How can I try to reach fewer people? That’s the way I can phrase it that is I think going to be most upsetting to people, is not how can you reach more people but how can you reach fewer people.
Louis: But better.
Philip: That’s the by-product isn’t it? If you say, “Okay, I only want to affect 100 people with this marketing campaign instead of 1,000.” Divide your goal by 10. If you start thinking in that term, I think it will open your mind to what can we do if we were only trying to reach 10% of our target? I think it will open your mind to stuff that ultimately is more effective, which is what you’re saying.
Because if your goal is smaller, then you can maybe approach things in a way that you know is going to create a deeper impact or a deeper connection with those 100 people instead of 1,000. I think that that change in thinking might for a lot of people mean that you do reach 1,000 people but in a much higher quality.
That’s what I think, is just try to get smaller in terms of your number targets and bigger in terms of the impact or the connection or the quality. I know that’s a very sort of high level but it’s really a mindset shift that I think can be very powerful for people.
Louis: Yeah because imagine those 10% of people you get 10x more out of each of them because you’d be in so much targeted and much more helpful, they are willing to pay for way more services or products that you’re offering. What other top three resources would you recommend to digital marketers out there?
Philip: I’m going to recommend a book on negotiation because it has this mindset baked into the book on negotiation that I think is very powerful for marketers. I think a lot of us think that what we’re trying to do is get a yes from clients but I think if you think in terms of getting a no, then the yeses that are left over after you’ve got a bunch of no’s will be more powerful yeses.
The book called No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home. This is by this guy Jim Camp. People should get the paperback rather than the Kindle, which they look almost like the same book like different versions or something but the paperback version is much better or the paper version rather than the Kindle version. That’s a good one.
I think Seth Godin’s blog can be a resource because of these little bite-sized pieces of information, encouragement, and thinking every day that contribute to, I think, a good mindset about marketing.
What’s the third resource that would make any marketer more effective? Just learning something about email marketing I think, but that’s a little specific.
Louis: Yeah, sorry to cut you there but I received your email for a while now and you are very good at it. You have this way, it’s weird. I don’t know how you do it. It’s just a very personal way of writing emails to a lot of people which is quite interesting. I would say the number three resource is because you’re too nice not to plug your own stuff, is to subscribe to Philip’s emails and see for yourself how he writes his emails so you can copy him and tweak it and do it your own. I think that’s the third resource. Where can people connect with you and learn more from you?
Philip: I chose two marketing channels for my business some time ago and they’re the ones that I emphasize. One is email marketing. They can join my list using a course by signing up for an email course on positioning, positioningcrashcourse.com. Why that’s good is because I will invite you to email me, we can start an email conversation. I don’t really use social media very much. It’s awesome but I don’t use it.
I have a presence social media but it’s not a good way to connect with me because I’ll ignore it. If you email me, I’ll get back to you with something good, especially if you have a question. I’d say go to positioningcrashcourse.com and sign up and see if you like what you receive and if you do, then we probably have lots of things to talk about. That’s probably the best way for folks to find out more.
Louis: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time once again.
Philip: Louis, it was awesome to be here.
Louis: Talk to you soon.