Episode 3. Sell Your SaaS Products the Way Your Customers Want to Buy Them: Kristin Zhivago
How much time do you spend talking directly with your customers?
Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of American Express, became top dog at IBM in the 1990s when the company was struggling.
He spent about 40% of his time with customers and turned the company around.
How can you sell effectively to your customers if you don’t understand why they value your company and your products?
How can you direct product strategy if you don’t know what your customers want?
My guest in Episode 3 advocates talking to customers often to learn how to grow your revenue.
Sell Your SaaS Products the Way Your Customers Want to Buy Them. Episode 3.
Show notes, highlights, and resources
About the guest
Kristin Zhivago is author of the book Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy.
She now runs Zhivago Partners, a firm that provides coaching and digital marketing services to
For decades, Kristin Zhivago has been what she calls a “revenue coach.” Throughout her long career she has worked mainly with the tech.
She is a strong advocate of interviewing customers to learn what they want from you as a provider.
“I am so tired of the buyer-seller gap stopping people’s revenue growth. And it’s stupid when the customer’s right there.”
“And that causes what I call the gap between the buyer and seller.”
“The enemy is you… Actually, the enemy is us.”
The SaaS industry is so competitive that customers usually have many choices other than the product your company sells.
You can no longer count on your products features and functions to differentiate your product. A competitor will soon catch up.
In choosing vendors of intangible products such as software, customers strongly consider the quality of their buying experience. So
Customer buying behavior changes fast.
You can’t guess how people want to buy products like yours. You can’t assume how or why customers buy your product. You must ask them.
The best way to ask is through qualitative interviews. Surveys don’t give you the same insights.
Links and resources
Link to Zhivago Partners: www
Here’s a novel thought.
What if you sold your software the way your customers want to buy it?
What if you tailored your sales and marketing to your customers’ buying processes?
My guest today says it’s one of the best ways for all kinds of companies to increase sales.
I’m Dave Vranicar.
My guest, Kristin Zhivago, has for years been what she calls a “revenue coach” to the tech industry.
She’s also author of multiple books and founder of the marketing services company Zhivago Partners.
Kristin’s most recent book is Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy.
Published in 2011, it’s still 100% relevant today.
Forbes recently listed Roadmap to Revenue as one of the all-time top six titles on sales and marketing.
Kristin explains how a customer’s buying process varies with the amount of consideration they give their decision.
She breaks buying decisions into four of what she calls “levels of scrutiny.”
The differences among those levels are important to understand…
How do your customers prefer to buy your products?
And what do they value most about doing business with you?
You can’t guess.
Because their answers are not what you expect.
There are no shortcuts.
To help you talk to your customers, Kristin’s book provides a detailed, step-by-step guide for interviewing customers and distilling what they tell you. It’s almost like following a recipe.
Kristin, I’m so happy to have you here today.
Nice to be here. Thank you, Dave.
The importance of understanding your customer’s buying preferences
Kristin, today let’s talk about customers’ buying preferences. Because that’s really the foundation of a lot of the work
What have you seen
And how can companies provide a good buying experience for their customers?
For some years now I’ve been saying that the buying process has shifted where the salesperson has become almost irrelevant.
Especially for the low-scrutiny and the medium-scrutiny products and services. Or products in this case.
But the customer spends a lot of time researching and trying to figure out which product
But if you do that blindly, if you don’t really understand the specifics about what people want and the questions they have as they’re buying, it won’t sell itself. It will
So just putting it out there and putting a demo up or trying to do a little video that shows, you know, snappy commercial doesn’t work.
So if you
I remember a software company that did so well with their user interface.
And the CEO told me that what he did is the developers and the customer support people and the marketing and the sales people…
Pretty much everybody in the company…
Once a week got on the phone with a customer and shared a screen.
And the customer said, “Here’s my day. Here’s what I do. I go through here. I go through there. This is what I… I wish this was a little easier to get to because
There’s something I call the gap between the buyer and the seller.
And when you’re a buyer, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
You go to
Or you can’t find reviews on the
That’s changing with sites like G2 Crowd and
But it’s hard to find unbiased information.
And the problem that the vendors have is they assume that they know the questions that the customer’s asking and they think they know what the customer needs to see.
And so they give that to them.
And in my experience, interviewing literally thousands of customers over the years, what the company assumes and what the customer wants are always different in some critical way.
And that causes the gap.
And so you can do all that marketing and put all that effort into demos and everything. And you’re just…
If you’re just even slightly off, customers have the attention span of a gnat and they’re just going to click out.
Or go back to my friends and, you know, have them tell me what they think.
Even early in the buying process, they’re trying to
And in a lot of cases, especially with B2B products, they have to justify their decision to their boss.
Because the first thing their boss
And if they don’t have answers, then their whole argument for that
And the meeting falls flat
So not only do you have to sell to the original user, customer, manager, whoever’s making that core decision, but the people below him and above him who
And you need to provide… You need to arm that person with the right information.
And the advice from all of this is you absolutely have to know exactly what your customers are looking for and answer those questions.
And then everything else is secondary to that. If you’re doing that, you
Well, Kristin, you raise a really,
Which is something
The person who often is making the initial decision…
It’s not a big decision about whether to recommend this software vendor or that software vendor over another…
The first decision they often make is it’s a scouting decision.
So that’s the first hurdle you need to get past.
And often that person is not an expert. He or she is often a lower-level person.
And what they’re looking for is
So they have
And one of their personal goals is not to
Yeah. Now you’re coming back to my whiteboard theory.
I’ve done a lot of marketing and sales department turnarounds in my years as a revenue coach.
And one of the first things I noticed about corporate life is, one, I had to calm myself down by about 80%.
Because everything goes much more slowly in a corporate environment than in the entrepreneurial environment.
And two, the minute you walk into a corporation and
And every time you make a mistake, there’s a black mark on your whiteboard.
You know, everybody knows how many black marks everybody has.
And they’re not erased. No one ever forgets that you made that mistake back in, you know, 2015 or something.
They lose credibility, right? But-
Yeah. People just roll their eyes, “Oh, that’s Bob. He always says that. Remember, though, that he made that mistake back in, you know, 2001.”
So the fear of corporate embarrassment is
Especially the high-scrutiny sales where there’s multiple people involved and…
And, you know, literally, people’s careers can
And then you discover, three or four months in, that that
And your client has only five or six products, but they have 20 different sizes or 40 different sizes for each one. And so they’re over the limit.
And things like that really put a big black mark on your whiteboard.
It’s a big mistake because now
Yeah. And I want to bring something up
And there weren’t very many companies that did that…
But let’s assume that you understood what they needed. You spent a lot of time interacting with them.
You interviewed them
Now, those companies are very rare. They tend not to do it. But that was enough. Now it isn’t enough.
The new competitive environment is like warfare
Now the whole competitive landscape is so intense that I honestly think
This is war
The problem is the enemy is not your
The enemy is you, actually. The enemy is us.
Because we get immersed in our little company club. And we spend all day with our company people.
And I keep going back to Lou Gerstner, who was a customer of IBM before he became the CEO.
And I worked for IBM before, during, and after his tenure. And during his tenure, those 300,000 people working at IBM became
And he literally spent 40% of his time with customers.
How many CEOs can you say spend 40% of their time with customers?
And then when I say that, then you have to…
And part of what I do as a revenue coach is you
So the things
Kristin, could we bring that down… I mean, that’s a
It’s still a
Can you think of any specific examples? Any stories you might share about organizations where you’ve seen that happen?
Where I’ve seen what happen?
Where the CEO avoids doing things because they are things
Well, I’m laughing because it’s true of every single company, including my own.
I mean, I’m watching this happen. I’ve got 25, 28 people working for me, right now.
And I’m watching myself and seeing that the things
So you really have to overdo. You have to over-discipline yourself,
And get help in those areas.
Find it, face it, fix it
I have this mantra the last few years which is, “Find it, face it, fix it.”
So that’s where part of what I do as a revenue coach is I’m the one who speaks that truth without being worried about being fired or whatever.
And then you have to find it and then you face it. Which is the hardest
Or, “No, I can overcome that with my personality.”
Or whatever. You think
They’ll just get bigger. There’ll be bigger problems. It’ll permeate the company.
But then when you fix it…
What you do is you find people who are
And you learn from them.
You know, it comes back to the E Myth books where they talked about if you’re a baker and that’s all you do, that makes you good at baking but it doesn’t make you good at running a company.
It doesn’t make you good at accounting or at sales. So you need people to help you with that.
Now, here’s the problem. If you’re weak in that area, you won’t be that effective managing it.
Where they say, “This is what you need to do. I’m an SEO guy, so
Or, you know, they have
The number of questions to answer on your website
Now, you make the point in your book that these high-scrutiny sales typically involved many, many more questions than a low-scrutiny sale.
This would be a B2B sale… Let’s say you’re
You know, you don’t have a lot of questions to answer there.
Wow. You’ve got an endless number of questions to answer.
And I think in the past, organizations have tried not to answer so many questions online because they have the goal of driving the customer to talk to a sales rep.
And the sales reps endorse this because
What are your thoughts about providing this information online versus reserving it and encouraging or trying to force, in fact, a prospect to talk to a salesperson?
Well, you can’t force a prospect to talk to a salesperson anymore. It’s just not going to happen. You either give them the information…
And you can gate the information. You can have it be a downloadable white paper or something like that.
But honestly, the ones who win are the ones who answer the most questions to the customer’s satisfaction.
It’s not enough to just do a pitch, you
So, you know, I keep… I watch people who insist that you see a demo, but they never show
They should at least do that. Because we all buy software based on the screen.
And we’ve all… We all run our lives on software now. The whole business world runs on software now. So-
Importance of interviewing customers
Kristin, let’s focus in on this topic of interviewing customers, because you’ve mentioned that a few times.
It sounds… It might sound perhaps a little off-putting or more involved than it needs to.
In your book Roadmap to Revenue, one
So let’s take a few minutes and talk about that process.
In some arenas, people call this Voice of the Customer.
I’m not sure what you’re suggesting is quite that fancy, but how do companies…
How do you recommend that companies get this insight from their customers? What’s the process?
So before I wrote the book, I had done this for hundreds of companies and thousands of customers.
And I worked it out.
No one ever has a lot of time. It shouldn’t
One of them was the survey.
The problem with the survey is you’re asking questions based on what you already know and you’re putting them in a box.
And the best example of that that I have is the gal who was calling me once on the phone. You know, just a research call.
And she said, “Okay, multiple choice. Is it A, B, C, or D?”
And my answer was, “None of the above.”
But she didn’t have a slot for that, so she said, “Oh, I’ll just say B.”
And I thought, somebody’s
Okay, so that’s a problem. The surveys are your questions. You’re not allowing them to enlighten you with their issues.
And I wouldn’t say anything that came out of that was Earth-shattering where you
And I have had that happen, where people are like, “Whoa, we thought this and they thought
However, there was a priority and
This is what I normally find is that the customer has a particular focus or gating factor.
“If it doesn’t have this, I
Like, for me, in two seconds, maybe less, I can say, “This note-taking program isn’t going to help me because spend too much time on this round and not enough…
I don’t have enough space for my notes.
Okay, right away,
But people who make those note programs don’t even realize that’s the gating factor.
But anyway, after all these different focus groups, I mean, everything, I found that if I
We had to work on the list together.
You always have to get a proper mix of happy and unhappy customers and big and small and whatever your criteria is.
And they have to be people who have already purchased from you.
Because if you try to talk to people who haven’t, they don’t know your company’s weaknesses.
They don’t know how you screwed up or helped the sale.
And they’re playing poker. They’re still a potential customer.
And potential customers won’t tell you the truth. That’s just the way it is.
They will not tell you the truth. They’re negotiating.
So they have to be existing customers.
And then it’s harder than ever to get them on the phone.
People aren’t, you know, as open to that as they used to be.
But it is possible.
And the goal is to get five to seven people of a particular type.
And believe it or
Because you’ll find after even the third, fourth, or fifth in-depth… Open-ended questions.
“If you were the CEO of our company tomorrow what’s the first thing you would fix?”
“What was your buying process?”
You know, just asking them these open-ended questions, which I worked out over thousands of interviews.
And they’re all in the book.
Chapter Three is an absolute prescription. I
And I don’t
I am so tired of the buyer-seller gap stopping people’s revenue growth. And it’s stupid when the customer’s right there.
Because they want you to succeed because they’ve invested in you.
So it’s actually, they’re your friends.
The president of a software company got big value from loss-review interviews
I’ve seen that myself. Kristin, interesting…
I had a client five years
I recommended that they conduct
I thought it would be a really,
The CEO… Or excuse me… he was the president of this company.. was a little reluctant to do it.
He wasn’t sure whom he could talk to.
Wasn’t sure how much effort it would involve or anything of the kind.
We finally agreed on interviewing customers…
Or excuse me, not customers, companies where they had chosen against this company.
So they were
And so, again, the president went along with this reluctantly.
I came up with a full report. I followed your prescription. Did it exactly by the book.
And about a year
And he said, “Wow.”
He said, “This is the best marketing money I have ever spent.”
And I said, “Wow, I wish you had shared that with me a
But I asked him, “Why?”
And he said,
So that insight from this little study
Yeah. And lost sales… You can do those
I have a lot of sales consulting friends who do a lot of that lost-sales kind of research.
But it won’t tell you what the experience was for the customer after they bought from you.
Interviews can help you discover your weaknesses
Which is where you can lose a lot of sales because.
I mean, you talk about these software comparison sites like G2 Crowd and
Customers then talk to each other and say,
You know, all the bad experiences
But they also know… They know your weaknesses.
And this comes back to that issue of the CEO having a cold and the whole company has pneumonia as a
And even the ones… You know, these are people who’ve stayed with you
But they know it. They’re aware of it, and they will tell you about it.
You can learn why customers buy your product
So I think you can do both. And you can learn… And you can even put those two results together and say, “Wow, they didn’t buy because of this. They bought because of that, which isn’t what we thought why they were buying.”
And I have a good example of that
Made a software program for companies that had techs out in the field. So anybody who’s doing field service kind of work.
And the CEO who was a developer,
And everybody said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Everybody integrates with Quickbooks.”
To them, that was what I call an industry baseline promise.
So they were just taking that for granted.
But the thing
It was the directions for the
All of that stuff just automatically went everywhere.
And, you know, the guys who made the program thought, “Well
But that… That’s like the Holy Grail of
So we ended up renaming the company. It was like Pioneer something or the other.
We changed it to
And they ended up selling themselves to Microsoft.
It’s just… It can make, as you’re saying here, it can make an enormous difference in your overall revenue.
So just picking away at the little things.
Like, you know, changing your logo from blue to orange
What Zhivago Partners does
Kristin, could you talk a
I mentioned earlier on you’re in charge of a company called Zhivago Partners.
So from listening to this, people might get the impression
I know that’s one
Yeah. I was… As we know, I was a revenue coach for decades. Mostly to
We started the company about a year and a half ago. In our first year we tripled our revenue and doubled our client list,
And my goal was to set up an organization that did the best of each of the specialties.
Because digital marketing… Especially now, most marketing is digital… is a conglomeration of specialties.
Because if you
So these people…
And if they’re not the best people, we keep going until we get the best people.
And the goal is results.
And it’s not as easy as it used to be.
It really isn’t. You really have to have…
And you can’t just scattershot.
You go into it. You do the right things within that niche.
And then you’re in the war.
And while you’re in that war state of mind,
So I set out to create a digital marketing agency that covered the bases.
And we’re getting more and more towards the conversion side. Working on campaigns.
Getting very intense about, you know, what they traditionally call the funnel, even though these days buyers jump around all like crazy.
But just making sure
For all of our clients. And being very focused about it.
And expecting from them the same
Our best clients are mid-sized companies. And because of my tech background, we
Kristin, so are B2B
Yeah. It’s right in our wheelhouse.
We have several already. And I’ve been in the software business…
I mean, honestly I’ve been in the tech business as long as the tech business has been on everybody’s radar.
Well, Kristin, I think we’re coming to the end of this. Or close to the end. Are there any parting shots or any key points
No, I think we did a good job of covering it.
The enemy is your own characteristics.
And the first thing you have to do to
And then you
And understanding how your customers
I mean, embracing outside
The essence of our current society is that people
Just look at GoFundMe and things like that.
Well, that sounds like a nice summary and key takeaways. But if there were, you know,
start interviewing you customers
Well, first thing
You can buy my book. It’s on Audible now. And try again, Chapter Three, is
You can get somebody in your company to help you set up, get the interviews or the appointments.
And again, you need to speak to five to seven of each type.
Like, a purchasing agent versus a user versus the manager kind of thing.
So that would be like at least 15.
By then you
And where that common thread didn’t
And as a CEO, you then know what to do.
Once you understand the goal of the customer and what they’re looking for from you, you
I imagine you have had
Yes, every single one. Honestly. Because you waste so much time and money and resources and effort and energy and morale, even, on doing things the wrong way.
How to get in touch
Kristin, thanks again for sharing your insights with our listeners today. If any of them want to follow up with you, what do you suggest?
Well, obviously, there’s our website,
And would you spell Zhivago, please?
Yes. Good question. It’s Z like
And we have a lot of information on there. We have
And you can get to my book from that site. Or just go to Amazon and type in Roadmap to Revenue and you’ll find the book.
Terrific. Kristin, again, thank you so much. Have a great week.
You too. Thanks.