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Positioning for growth using customer insights with Customer Intelligence Institute’s Lorin McCann

Episode #


Lorin is the Founder of the Customer Intelligence Institute.  She has worked with dozens of high-growth companies including best-in-class startups, emerging market leaders, and unicorn companies to contribute to successful exits and record quarters.  Here are a few of the topics we discussed with Lorin.

  • Early warning signs for companies that may have a positioning problem
  • The first step towards repositioning around your customer
  • Finding the customers, getting the conversation started and what to ask them
  • Making sure you’re actually getting valuable data from your customer conversations


Connecting with Lorin

Stuart Balcombe
Hello, and welcome to the Customer Conversations podcast. Today I'm excited to be joined by Lorin McCann. Lorin is a strategic consultant and founder of Customer Intelligence Institute. She has worked with dozens of high growth companies, including Best-in-Class Startups, Emerging Market Leaders, and unicorn companies to contribute to successful exits and record quarters. Her focus is helping business leaders eliminate something she calls, the buyer blind spot with customer intelligence. So they can create more profitable, go-to-market strategies without the guesswork. Lorin, thanks so much for being here. Welcome to the show.

Lorin McCann
Thank you for having me, Stuart. I'm really thrilled to be here.

Stuart Balcombe
Of course, of course. So one topic that we've talked about leading into this, and I know you talk about a lot with your customers. Which I'm really curious to dive deeper into is positioning and how companies can improve their positioning. How they maybe have changes that they could make to their positioning that would help them eliminate that blind spot that you mentioned and help them grow more profitability and faster. So maybe you can speak a little bit about that and how positioning fits into the work that you do.

Lorin McCann
Absolutely. Positioning is, I guess it's like a really common use case that pops up in working with clients. High growth B2B companies who are struggling and just the dots aren't connecting. Maybe they've had a few quarters of really slow growth or a drop off in revenue. Usually when they're thinking about doing something like repositioning, it's just, something's broken. However, sometimes nothing is broken and they will still try to reposition anyway.

So going in and doing the research and everything that we talk about a lot is one of the things that leads to the outcome of better positioning if it's used right, and implemented in a really thoughtful way. But positioning doesn't necessarily drive customer research, if that makes sense. So, but there are a number of positioning mistakes that are really common in popups so frequently with these companies. So I think it's definitely a good topic to dive into.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, absolutely. So I guess, so you mentioned that sometimes it's your working on positioning or repositioning a company because things aren't going as they expected. And sometimes it's because nothing is wrong at all. So what are some of the typical early warning signs for companies that they might have a problem with their positioning? Are there things that you specifically look for either, you mentioned qualitative research when you dive deep into. That kind of research or the things that you can see before you go deep on a research effort?

Lorin McCann
That's a great question. And it's sometimes it's one or the other. There are times where I can go in and start working with a company and it's very clear that there's a disconnect in terms of their positioning. Sometimes it's not obvious until we actually do the research. However, what usually triggers a repositioning initiative is just, something's not working. It's like something's broken, but we don't know what. So we're going to make some changes.

The other scenario is a new executive is hired. Like a company with a new CMO or VP of marketing or something. And they come in and they have this vision for what they want to do and the changes they want to make in the company. Maybe they did things differently in their last position. And so they come in with a plan and we'll go ahead and start implementing that plan without doing their due diligence. So, that's unfortunately a really common scenario. I've seen that happen a lot of times.

In the second scenario where your companies are moving the pain of knowing that the playbook that they have been using or whatever length of time, it's just not working for them anymore and they don't know why. That can also trigger a repositioning. And that's great. I think that, that's an appropriate way to go into a challenge like that. However, you can still get it wrong if know that something's not working and then gather a whole bunch of executives or the marketing team behind closed doors. And I can see you smiling. I'm sure you've encountered this before. And everyone goes in behind closed doors and brainstorms, what do we think this new positioning should be without actually understanding what's going on in the market and with customers.

What is the reason why whatever we're putting out isn't resonating? And it can sometimes be that a specific product needs to be repositioned, or it could be that the brand as a whole needs repositioning. So there are some of those factors that are just so easy to get wrong. And they're also, it's simple to get it right, but it's just, it's too easy to get it wrong. Because we don't really have standard procedures or a standard mindset around what it looks like to really mindfully, strategically reposition a company.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. That totally makes sense. It's interesting. So you see me smiling, that's certainly something that go into or come across relatively often. Is decisions made behind closed doors? It didn't include the customer, that subsequently missed the mark on actually driving the results that you expected. So, I guess, the inverse of that is hopefully true. If we make decisions that include the customer or get to the decisions that we make by including the customer.

We should be able to more consistently improve whatever metric it is that we're typically looking at. Which has maybe a question in itself, but for a company, you sort of mentioned this, that doesn't have a standard procedure for thinking through repositioning, or, I guess, repositioning is just one option when something's broken. But what's the first step that you take to help a company make better decisions that include that customers? Where's the starting point?

Lorin McCann
Yeah. Okay. Great question. So it's really simple. The first step is always talking to their customers. And it's not running a survey and keeping in mind the types of companies you work with are B2B, it's usually a complex sale. And so in other situations, customer research via surveys are appropriate, but we just skip right to actually doing customer interviews and doing a certain volume of interviews as well. So, we'll explore whatever area of their business, whatever buyer persona.

Let's say that they have in mind, if they really understand their persona, whatever level of understanding they're at with their buyer personas. We'll say, okay, which segment of your buyers are expected to drive the most revenue in the next 12 to 18 months? And then focus efforts there and really understanding the buying process, the internal decision making process, different needs and values which amount to buying behaviors, essentially. What's going on in that segment? We'll have conversations. So they're anonymized to a degree, the company will get those transcripts back.

They'll get our reports back from all of these interviews. But during those conversations, the buyers who we're speaking with have this sense of safety and anonymity, that we can really be very honest and open in those conversations. And it's just wild. I mean, I've had failed leaders look at like, paged through the transcripts that after we've done a bunch of interviews and just say, "Oh my God, I can't believe you've got all of this information. They won't even tell us this stuff when we're on the front. And we know these people, we have relationship, they won't even tell us this stuff." Just because I think people are polite and they don't want to hurt someone's feelings or divulge their internal buying process if they feel like that could be leveraged against them somehow.

But that's really the starting point, is actually having those conversations and being able to actually bring actual intelligence, market intelligence back to these teams. So that they can get the lay of the land and not just be working on guesswork or data points and certain ideas and theories that are spread out, and the institutional knowledge of their team. We get a chance to validate or invalidate whatever internal hypotheses there are around the market, around buying behaviors. And so that's really where I start. And then from that point, the leadership at whatever company we're working with, they have to really sit with that information and decide, okay, what are our options here? How do we want to approach this? And so that's the first step. We can get into that in more detail, if you think it's relevant.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, absolutely. There's so much to unpack there and it's interesting you started this with, it's so simple. All you have to do is talk to your customers, but for a lot of people that I know, I'm sure you talked to, that I talked to, that feels like such a huge first step. It's such a huge undertaking to say, okay, we're actually going to talk to our customers, even though just about any business is talking to their customers every day.

They're just not talking to them in this context where the goal is learning and the goal is really understanding the customer, rather than fixing a problem in support or making closing a sale and sales, whatever it might be. It's typically not this disarming conversation, which is, well, just tell me about you, right?

So one of the things that I'm sure be really valuable to listeners here is like, how do you start that conversation? How do you find those people? Like you mentioned, picking what you perceive to be the most profitable segment for the next 12 to 18 months. So that gives you some direction, but then how do you actually get the person on the phone and then what do you ask them?

Lorin McCann
Yeah. Okay, great, great questions. And so, yes. Just to address some of the things that you opened this next part of the conversation with. It is simple to do, but it's not necessarily easy, right? So it is pretty straight forward, but this is something I struggled with for years as well. Because I did not start out doing, engaging in this process in a really effective way. Just because it's unfortunately not very common to have habits in place around qualitative research.

And I should mention the interview that we did. That's the topic of the interview that we did. So anyone listening should check that out, as well. So, basically what you want to do when you're thinking about who should we interview. Again, I always start out with who were the most high value buyers in the next 12 to 18 months. That really simplifies things because some companies have lots of segments by your segments.

Maybe they have a really extensive product portfolio. So we want to start with something that we can get results out of and a limited amount of time. So let's say in under a quarter, we want to go in and explore a certain segment and be able to come out with really actionable on data. So the way that we actually get those people on the phone, once we've identified, okay, this is who we want to talk to. We'll just incentivize them with gift cards. It's very, very simple. And this is something that I actually...

There's some debate or I think differences in opinion, with different people who do this customer research. Some will say, "No, no, no, don't incentivize." I think when you're working with really early customers and you're still trying to find product market fit, and you're just looking for who are our best customers. It's not as important to incentivize these people, really, they will want to talk to you. But as a more mature company with a larger customer base, you found product market fit already and you're in a different phase of growth.

Your buyers are going to be different. And we want to have conversations with closed one and closed loss accounts. So, just to level the playing field and eliminate the possibility of bias from like, so who was even willing to talk to us. We want to talk to people who don't necessarily like us and we want to talk to the people who love us. This is not a case study exercise. This is really objective what's going on.

We want a mix of those interviews and that feedback and getting to get them on the phone. I found that it's really important to incentivize with a gift card and think about what level of that buyer is at. If it's an executive, I think about what might their hourly rate be. If you want to get them on the phone for a half hour, 40 minutes, compensate them in a way that makes sense and is worthwhile for their time and feedback.

So, that's how we get them on the phone. And it's like an outbound sales outreach, essentially to do that recruiting. Typically, the easiest way to go is to just recruit from the existing customer base. So, from accounts that you've already closed, don't ever try to go into an interview with a deal that's still in play. Everything needs to already be closed one, closed loss. And so that's just the basic mindset and methodology around actually going and getting those interviews.

Stuart Balcombe
Totally. Yeah. I think it's interesting to bring up the difference or really depends what type of company you're working with, what stage of the company are these customers interacting or what stage is this company? And what's the maturity of the customers with that company, right? Are they long time customers? Are they people who have...? How they view the company, it really impacts how you recruit. So to tie this back to positioning and talk about what actually happens in this interview.

What are the things that you need to ask in the interview? The questions that you need to ask that will actually help inform positioning. I don't want to make any assumptions here, but I have some thoughts. But anyway, how do you make sure that you're actually getting the information or the data in an interview to make sure that you can inform positioning segments?

Lorin McCann
Yeah. So it's a great question. And I actually don't typically go into these interviews with a scripted list of questions. That's probably an intimidating idea for people listening, is to go into interviews like this without a scripted list of questions. And the reason for that, is that this should feel more like a conversation. It should be an actual conversation. And one of the reason that this type of qualitative research in an interview format is so valuable is because we're getting rich, rich context.

And so just to clarify a little bit more when in the context of this idea of customer research, we really focused on the buying experience. So not the customer experience, not the user experience. What was the buying experience like? One of the levers, I guess, in getting that feedback about positioning is just that we're really focusing on the buying experience.

So not going into, what was onboarding like? What's it like using the product? That might come up a little bit, but it's not the focus. The focus is, what prompted you? What was going on at your company internally at the time that you began your search? So, that's the one opening question. This is something that Adele Revella, who of the Buyer Persona Institute, she uses this methodology. And I think it's a great way to go in and to keep it open and capture insights that you maybe didn't even think to ask for. So you just hold that space and guide the question. It's really like the conversation that we're having right now. Now the caveat though, is that you need to have someone who's comfortable leading a conversation in that way.

I will know what gaps I need to fill in for that particular company. Where is the blind spot the most? Where are we sensing that blind spot the most? We don't know how many people are really on the buying committee or we're losing all the deals at the 11th hour. And we just, we don't know why they never tell us, why they just ghost us. It's crazy.

So with some of that information ahead of time, I can understand how I want to guide the conversation or bring in back up questions, but I don't go in with a whole list of questions because it can just feel like an interrogation. But you really have to have someone who's practiced enough and comfortable enough using that format. For a company who's trying to do this internally or themselves, it's fine to have a list of questions. So don't be afraid to go off script, if that's where the conversation goes.

Stuart Balcombe
Totally. Yeah. That absolutely makes sense. It's interesting that you bring that up as the first thing. It's one of the things that I always get asked when I'm working with clients or working with companies doing interviews is, what are you going to ask them? Which is a hard question to answer, because you don't know until you get into the interview.

You have some guardrails and you have, maybe, a list of questions that you're trying to answer. Like, what are the goals? Not really, what are your goals, but where are the gaps? You mentioned this around. How many people are on the buying committee? Or other questions of that nature. But yeah, it's interesting when, sort of touch a lot of people doing these interviews. And it's never, the answer is never. While I asked this question, then that question, then that question. It's a lot of thought.

Lorin McCann
I would love to do it. Yeah. I would love to do it that way because it would be so much easier to process all of the feedback. I mean, it's a lot of going through the transcripts and looking for patterns. In some ways it would be easier to do it that way, but you just say the intel on the feedback is not necessarily going to be as high quality in that sense. And so also in terms of guardrails, actually, I almost forgot to mention this, but this is really important.

Is when you're doing research into the buying experience or customer experience, buying experience, user experience do not combine these interviews or case studies. For example, this is something that comes up a lot as well is, we'll just pull from case studies. But your best customers or your marquee accounts or whatever, don't necessarily reflect the same experiences or needs or behaviors that your buyers in the next 12 to 18 months are going to be expressing or what they're going to be needing from you.

But I do keep in mind during these interviews about the buying experience. Different stages of awareness, yo want to start out with what was going on internally that prompted this search for a solution and understand what was driving that search. And then just go on to problem awareness, solution awareness and understand what is happening at each of those critical junctures. Where are there holes in the process of where things not making sense?

And so coming back to positioning, this is where it starts to become very clear. If there are gaps in positioning or if it's not working well, because there will be confusion about, it could be about the product, it could be about the company. There's just some disconnect. And if so, if you hear your buyers, if they're not mirroring back to you in these interviews, what you're putting out or what you think you're putting out into the world and not mirroring it back to you in a way that is positive. Then that's a really good sign that there's something that needs to be adjusted and repositioned.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. I really like that way of thinking about it. What your customers say about you should be what you say to your to customers, right? So that's a great, I guess, connecting the dots between the research and the qualitative interviews that you're doing with how that actually impacts positioning. So one thing that I'm always curious about and this often comes up is, okay, we've done whatever it is, 10 20, 50 interviews, however many we've done, but we have hundreds or thousands of customers.

How can we know that what shows up in these transcripts is actually representative of the larger group? How confident can we be that we should actually go and change our website or change our sales deck, or change the target segment that we're going after, all the target accounts that we're going after in the sales process? How do you handle that with customers? Or what would you say to somebody who maybe has that objection that this can't possibly be enough data?

Lorin McCann
Right. I totally understand that because that was actually my mindset before I really started doing this work exclusively. So I haven't always done customer research. I have a background in sales and marketing for almost a decade, where this problem pops up consistently. I didn't always know how to tackle it. I knew it was an issue. I knew we needed to put more energy into understanding what was happening in the market.

When I started really thinking seriously about, okay, this is a skillset that I need to have. This is before Customer Intelligence Institute. I was concerned like, oh my God, how many interviews do we actually have to do? I mean, it's mind boggling and really overwhelming to think about. But in practice, I found that about 10 to 12 interviews per segment, actually it works beautifully in most cases.

And once you get to that level, the patterns will become very, very clear. So recently a project we did with, it was a high-growth B2B company. I mean like very, very well known, like explosive growth. It was really cool what they were doing, but that started to slow down. And so we came in and did this project with them.

And so they wanted to start out with three different segments, how they were dividing their marketing into SMB, mid market and enterprise and by job title. Which is a really common way to think about segmenting buyers, because that's how we can do it. That's the best we can do based on qualitative data, I think is, job title, industry, company size. So we start there, we start there with those segments and just see what shakes out.

The actual buying behaviors that come out of it are almost never the same as the buckets that they've been segmented into.

But time and time, again, like after about 10 to 12 interviews in each segment, those patterns will emerge and they might, you'll see them to reorganize into different buckets, different behavioral driven profiles. But it really doesn't take too much more than that. If however, after doing 10 to 12 interviews in each segment, it's still a little bit fuzzy, that's when you want to move on to surveys.

And that's when you using surveys to supplement this really context rich foundation that you have with the customer interviews. So it's still quite a lot of work and investment if you've never done it before. And you're just figuring out as a company, how do we make this happen? It can be a bigger lift the first time you do it, but it's actually, it doesn't take as much work overall as it might. It might seem in the beginning before you've done the process.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. That's certainly been my experience as well. The number of interviews, exact number of interviews is not always the same. But relatively early on and typically earlier than you would expect the patterns start to emerge. Once you start hearing the same thing over and over, you're at the point where you can move on to the next thing. So, one thing that I want to tie all this together.

You mentioned at the very start of this, about buyer personas and you just mentioned here, like creating new behavior driven profiles that often differ from what you might've gotten out of qualitative data. So what is the output of all this qualitative research look like? That ultimately somebody, an executive can look at it and say, "Okay, I see this is not what we had before. We're going to make a change." What goes into that behavioral profile?

Lorin McCann
Yeah. Yeah. That's a great question. So, the way that we do outputs is very tailored to sales and marketing use cases and stood in at the executive level strategic positioning as well. So we'll put together something called a buying committee profile or target account profile that has an overview of the entire buying committee. Because we're able to get intel on what's happening within the entire buying committee from these interviews.

So we'll put those together. And again, it's very different from how we think about traditional buyer personas. Which is again, job title and company size and industry and demographic info, and very like, what do they think about the product? Oh this, whatever IT director loves using XYZ solution for whatever reason. It's usually made up or it's from very limited data that we get from sales.

When we look at the behavioral profile, we look at what's motive, really, what are the differences in drivers and how these different buyers approach the buying process. So what usually shakes out is that we'll have a mix of job titles and company sizes that actually executives uses, whatever. From different company sizes. And they will actually fall into the same behavioral bucket, which means that the content that you want to drip them, the messaging, the sales and marketing messaging is the same.

And the job title and company size and industry might be completely different. But really we find out what's right for this specific group of buyers. It's just not what we thought it was before. So it's very helpful to get that clarity and understand that really true buying behavior doesn't come down to job title or something like that. As simple as that. It would be so nice if it did it. It would be so much easier for marketing and demand gen and everything, but it just usually doesn't shake out that way.

Stuart Balcombe
Right? You have to go peel back the layers of the onion, so to speak, to really get to that depth. So we've talked about so much great stuff here. You've talked about so much great stuff here and to address, to wrap this up and address something that we talked about already. But that getting started with this customer research can feel like such a big undertaking. What's the one piece of advice that you would give an executive at a company that is starting to see their growth slow down, but starting to see revenue [inaudible 00:31:18]? What's the one thing that you would tell them to help them, either get started with this or hire somebody like you? What's first step of the process?

Lorin McCann
Yeah. I would tell them not to panic, first of all, because sometimes when things start to fall apart, it just means, congratulations, you've made it to this growth milestone and you just need to update your playbook. It's not that you were doing something wrong necessarily, this entire time. It's just, the market has shifted. Something has changed externally and it's just time to upgrade and figure out what that is.

So, really the advice that I would give, don't panic and go engage with your market and actually have conversations, before making any changes, before going into that room and closing the door and freaking out. Often it's really just, they've been doing a lot of things right and there have been changes and they just need to get back in touch with what's happening outside and go from there.

Stuart Balcombe
Great. Yeah, that's certainly really assisting, I think, a great takeaway from this conversation. So finally, for people who want to learn more about you, who enjoy this conversation, want to talk more about it, where should they go to find you online?

Lorin McCann
Yeah, they can find me on LinkedIn.  If you want to find me, you can go to customerintelligenceinstitute.com to learn more about customer research and all of the fun outputs of this qualitative research.

Stuart Balcombe
Amazing. Well, thanks so much for joining me. This has been really, really great.

Lorin McCann
Likewise, thanks for having me, Stuart.

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