Know Thy Customer ~ Unknow Thyself


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President Abraham Lincoln was a masterful communicator. What was his secret? It was his ability to prepare what he was going to say by thinking like the audience he was going to address. Mr. Lincoln was known to have said, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two-thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one-third of the time thinking about what I want to say.” Interestingly, President Lincoln spent no time thinking about himself.

There is an important lesson here for B2B marketers, especially those selling at the executive-level. President Lincoln, arguably one of the best message developers and deliverers of all time, purposely allotted the majority of preparation time to deepening his understanding of the audience (i.e. “customer acumen”) and the remainder of time to crafting a powerful tailored and aligned message (i.e. “solution impact”).

President Lincoln as a B2B Sales Coach

If Mr. Lincoln were coaching B2B sellers planning to spend 1 hour for an upcoming meeting with a customer CXO, he would suggest allocating 40 minutes contemplating what might be keeping this particular CXO up at night. And then he would coach the sellers in the final 20 minutes to predict the root cause and potential reasons for this insomnia. He would ask, “What are the critical success factors that will help this CXO get a full night’s sleep?” Importantly, he would suggest the sellers spend NO TIME brushing up on their solution talking points or marketing scripts. “Unknow thyself, my friends”.

Know Thy Customer (Especially Thy Customer CXOs)

President Lincoln’s preparation routine raises several important questions for sales people selling at the executive level. Do you allocate 67% of your precious pre-call preparation time thinking about how your customer executive thinks? Do you even know how to think like a customer executive when you have no business experience in the executive role? Do you understand the unique persona, orientation, and mindset of an executive, which are vastly different than the analyst and manager personas you are accustomed to? Do you think, as President Lincoln would think, about what the CXO wants to hear?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, you should feel comforted only by the fact that, as sales professionals, you are not alone. Most Account Managers (farmers) and Sales Executives (hunters) I work with in Business Advisor Training (BAT) engagements spend the majority of pre-call preparation time polishing their already highly-polished solution messaging and sales pitch. My frank advice to participants is, “Uknow thyself, your executive-level customer don’t care about you”.

Selling at the executive-level is outside of the comfort zone of most sellers because they are uncertain what customer executives really want to hear and they don’t want to damage their reputation and credibility going beyond their sales script. Perhaps this is why many sellers allocate most preparation time to gilding the sales pitch lily. The “Know Thy Customer” mantra makes sellers uncomfortable (as their ignorance might be exposed for all to see), so the safer course to take is to allocate preparation time to “Knowing Thyself” even better. What a colossal communication mistake!

Thinking Like a CXO Is Hard Work

It may be hard and uncomfortable, but you need to start THINKING like your customers. As a member of the lifelong learning club, I believe you never truly learn anything unless you at first feel uncomfortable, so plan to feel that way and start thinking! Henry Ford is attributed as saying that, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it”. Thinking about what the audience wanted to hear was the secret to President Lincoln’s success delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time.

I cannot help you with the personal commitment you need to make to allocate more time to pre-call preparation. But I can offer some tips for thinking like an executive and talking about things they want to hear.

Tip #1: Customer executives want you to PAINT A PICTURE with a few broad brush strokes.
Executives think big picture and so should you. Plan to paint a big picture and don’t worry about painting outside of the lines. The subject of your painting should be their company, its strategic journey, and how you can shorten, accelerate, or fund that journey. Since executives have a countdown clock in their head, it’s important you start painting early and fast in a selling interaction. After your last brush stroke, you want the executive to think, “This person has a high degree of customer business acumen. I get the picture they are painting for me. I see where this interaction is going and how it might benefit me and my company. I’m going to put some more time in the countdown clock and ask some questions.”

Tip #2: Customer executives want your tailored point of view based on YOUR ANALYSIS of their organization. Customer executives prefer to deal with facts and analyses, not opinions and hyperbole. They are very interested in getting an outsider’s perspective on their strategic thinking. Now is not the time to be shy or timid. Since you have spent two-thirds of pre-call preparation trying to think like an executive, you should be ready to demonstrate the confidence that comes with proper preparation. But your point of view needs to be supported by insights and analysis of the customer’s current financial situation, focus business priorities, and critical success factors. That will require you to elevate your customer acumen.

Tip #3: Customer executives want you to talk about their FOCUS PRIORITIES and how to accelerate implementation outcomes. Customer executives think more about implementing business priorities than solving business problems. The former keeps them up at night while the latter is delegated to people lower in the organization who specialize in problem solving. If you deploy a traditional solution selling approach, you’re likely to get quickly pushed down in the organization to lower-level problem solvers. Instead, focus the conversation on the critical success factors associated with implementing the executive’s initiatives.

Tip #4: Customer executives want IMPLEMENTATION OPTIONS. Customer executives think about options and ways to mitigate risk when implementing business initiatives. They appreciate when others logically think the same way. Be prepared to discuss various options and strategies. Share your personal experience where you have helped others avoid execution pitfalls. Provide a recommendation.

Tip #5: Customer executives want you to talk about the IMPACT OF CHANGE on their organization. Customer executives think a lot about the impact of change on their customers and employees. Since you are an expert in change management (having helped other clients manage change while successfully implementing your solutions), you are in a perfect position to offer advice and counsel. Speaking with authority about a subject of mutual interest will increase your credibility with an executive-level audience and ultimately build trust.

1. What other pre-call preparation best practices can you recommend to your peers?
2. What do you do differently preparing for a CXO meeting (versus a meeting with managers)?

Image purchased under license subscription from Thinkstock.

Jack Dean
As co-founder of FASTpartners LLC, Jack brings extensive technology buying experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B technology sales training industry.He has facilitated client-sponsored business acumen training for 15,000 B2B technology sellers representing 150 global technology companies.Participants in Jack’s business acumen training have produced directly-attributed revenue of over $1 billion (in the 3 months after training) and training engagement ROIs averaging 500%.


  1. Thoreau said “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity”; and that quote is a useful metaphor for what is offered in this post. Principally,”unknow thyself”t is a simple, real-world formula for helping anyone selling a product, service, or idea (whether from inside or outside of the company) to concentrate on the customer, and the customer’s emotional and practical needs. Thinking like a customer, i.e. metaphorically actually walking in the customer’s shoes and wearing the customer’s clothes, offers a different perspective. It lets the light into dialogue planning and enables the “sales” call, and the seller, to more effectively prepare and execute.

    In Musashi’s classic work of personal and group strategy, A Book of Five Rings, he said: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world” It’s a great reminder about what is really important in these kinds of relationships: Focus on the customer and what is going on in the customer’s world.

  2. Hi Jack: I agree with the spirit of your admonition to think deeply about a prospect’s priorities and issues. But the behaviors and activities toward this objective depend on the situation, the rep, his or her style of learning, and how she relates to others. Lots of variables in there, including culture.

    In addition, asking a rep – especially a sales newbie – to think like a senior executive presents a high hurdle. Example: could a rep two years out of college realistically think like the PhD COO he’s calling on at a biotech company? Been there, done that, belly-flopped. But I think asking him to be sincerely curious, honest, humble, and to possess a sound approach to problem solving offers a foundation on which two or more people – no matter how different in education, experience, and background – can unite to achieve a goal or purpose.

    Above all, no matter where they are in the world, I believe reps who are capable of empathy will adopt the interpersonal skills needed for successful sales outcomes. I cannot prescribe ratios of how to divide time or how to prepare for a sales call – just that a rep must constantly be aware of how the world looks through a prospect’s eyes, and act on that insight with appropriate sensitivity and humility.

    A vital counter-weight to that difficult ideal is ego – something that Lincoln most assuredly had, despite the popular lore about his humility. I have worked with reps who have un-tethered their egos, and been utterly selfless in working with clients. So much so that many allowed themselves to get abused regularly. In biz-dev, we have adopted a cruel-sounding vernacular to describe them: doormats. In fact, in my early days of selling, whenever I copped an I-don’t-care-whether-you-buy-from-me-I’m-only-here-to-help attitude, my efforts were sometimes viewed with suspicion. So, just like Lincoln needed, I believe effective reps also need to know where they want to lead people – which takes ego. I am not sure why this characteristic is so under-emphasized in selling. Perhaps because it can amplify into arrogance, which is a near-surefire deal killer.

  3. Michael, I agree that “Unknow Thyself” is the simple yang message of my yin-yang post, but the yin part, “Know Thy Customer”, remains an abstract aspiration for most B2B marketers rather than applied Customer First behavior in the field. Warm, fuzzy and nice sounding but the CX of BUY-side executives from interacting with today’s Me-Me sales nation is alarming. Perhaps I’m being too generous:)

    BTW, interesting your reference to Thoreau; he also was known to have said, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I LOVE TO BE ALONE. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude”. Tongue in cheek? (I think not.) Rather than “Unknow Thyself”, David would have embraced “I Prefer Myself” rather than “Unknow Thyself”, don’t you think?

  4. My reference to Thoreau, and actually to Musashi as well, was largely about reducing your title concept to its most basic, and essential, elements. By simply focusing more on the customer’s emotional and tangible needs, the salesperson will reframe what is emphasized in the sales preparation and the actual dialogue.

  5. Hi Andrew! I always enjoy your point of view. You raise a number of interesting points, but I want to focus on your comment, “asking a rep … to think like a senior executive presents a high hurdle”.

    I think you have hit on the crux of the issue in my post; thinking like a customer executive is INDEED a “high hurdle”, not to mention hard work. And beyond thinking, actually applying a customer-centric preparation method to change/reframe conversations in the field with real live customer executives is EVEN HARDER, especially for “newbies” who are born into a company-centric comfort zone and probably have only gone through internal product training.

    While I agree that interpersonal skills (demonstrating empathy/sensitivity/humility, listening, communicating, etc.), healthy in-check ego, and a customer-first mindset are table stakes for making the executive connection, I also believe that “harder” business-based customer acumen skills are needed to clear this high hurdle (along with the support mechanisms to reinforce behavior change – group/individual coaching, sales enablement support, self-help resources, formal training curricula, etc.)

    I think customer executives want sellers who are “Investors”, a profile I describe in a recent post on CustomerThink (Customers Profile Sellers as INVESTORS, SAVERS, or TRADERS). “Investors” aren’t afraid of working hard to earn credibility with customer executives.

    This skills mismatch manifests as a CX issue for buy-side executives seeking value out of a sales engagement. Most of my professional colleagues have come from the “buy-side”. They say the CX has never been lower from interacting with B2B sales/marketing. I see it myself and decided to chip in with my own POV in an upcoming post to CustomerThink titled: The ALARMING Decline of Executive-Level Selling Skills (“Clinical” Observations of a BUY-Side CXO).

  6. Gautam, great point. IMO it starts the mindset change with the title change to “Customer Consultant”.

  7. The mind-set changes start by calling the COO the Chief Customer Value Creator and the HRD Head the Chief Employee Value creator and the CEO the Chief Value Creator.
    More importantly the executives have to discard theie executive hats and wear the Customer hat.
    We also suggest a Customer Strategy and starting Customer-centric circles for the front line people
    How’s that for a start

  8. Gautam, love it! As you, I think titles are important symbols for raising the “expectations” bar … for both customer executives and for employees. They signal “purpose” and “passion” and “direction”. I work with a F50 company who embraces the “Customer First” label/message and that purpose trickles down into most everything they do. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Hi Jack,

    I can’t add much to your article except to say well done, I thoroughly enjoyed it and you clearly got into the executive mindset.

  10. Thanks Steve, knowing the executive persona and perspective is step#1 in changing/reframing the marketing message.


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