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14 min read

CMOs: Know your customer, know yourself

B2B marketing

How much are you listening to your customers as a CMO? Let's be honest, probably not as much as you'd like.

And how active are you as the representative for the voice of the customer in your organization? We're guessing it's not as much as you need to be.

CMOs are perfectly placed in their organizations to be the evangelist for customer voice, able to develop effective, customer-centric feedback loops across pretty much every department.

As the co-founder and CMO of personal care brand Better & Better, Mary Costa knows how essential it is to be the representative of the customer in her role.

She joined our sister community on their podcast CMO Convo to share her insights on how and why you need to set up feedback loops for the voice of the customer across your entire organization. You can listen to the episode, or here's a full write-up of what was discussed below.

Introducing Mary Costa and her role at Better & Better

Hi, Mary. Welcome to CMO Convo. How are you doing today?

I'm great. I'm very excited for this conversation. Thanks for having me.

Thank you for joining us, Mary. We’re going to be talking about a topic that's very important to CMOs: the role of customer feedback and being the voice of the customer within organizations.

But before we do dig into that, maybe you could tell us a bit about yourself and why we're speaking about this topic today.

Happy to. I’m Mary, and I’m the CMO and co-founder at Better & Better. We’re an early-stage venture-backed startup making personal care products that make our health better and the world better. Our first product market is a clean, natural, organic two-in-one toothpaste that is infused with vitamins.

It's interesting to hear from someone who's coming in right at the ground level in the marketing function. We talk to a lot of CMOs in early-stage startups, and oftentimes they're the last C-suite hire. As a CMO and founder, do you find you're getting a seat at the table when it comes to developing the brand at this early stage?

That has been my experience in the past. I started my career at a direct marketing database firm that specialized in working with brands on customer retention, loyalty, and analysis, which is really where my foundational marketing professional career began – thinking about the voice of the customer and how that impacted the long tail of business.

As my career went on, I moved into larger organizations, and yes, marketing was often the last seat at the table. Prior to Better & Better, I joined another early-stage startup after a venture raise, where they were like, “Okay, it’s time to bring in a CMO-level marketing hire.”

When you’re the last C-level hire to come in, it puts you in an interesting position – it's time to put on your big boy pants. You have people that have been building a brand for years, potentially, so they're really invested in it.

The voice of the customer is incredibly powerful when you’re in that role because it lets you jump in and understand the business from the customer's point of view, rather than just the point of view of those internal stakeholders that are, especially in a startup, very emotionally invested in the business.

The reason I joined Better & Better in this capacity was that I, as a marketer, had a seat at that table from day one. There’s a fundamental belief within the organization that brand development needs to be there from the get-go. Getting to build this brand, design this voice, understand the messaging and the problems we’re solving, and integrate that throughout our business was really powerful to me.

That's how I've ended up here and what makes it exciting. Not only do I get to do the marketing that I love, but I also have a hand in product development and business development overall.

The vital role of the CMO in the customer feedback loop

We're sure a lot of our readers think we're preaching to the converted with this kind of talk, but why is it important for the CMO to be a major part of the customer feedback loop?

Different organizations have a variety of structures depending on their size, but ultimately, the CMO and the marketing function overall own a lot of data. That’s direct customer data, third-party customer data, insights from campaigns and messaging tests, shopping behavior data from your websites, and even data on how retailers want to market the product.

So marketing owns a lot of data, and that data, ultimately, is customer data; it’s the voice of the customer. And so whether the function is designed to be the voice of the customer and that's an explicit role for a CMO or not, they are inherently the owner of this data and the voice of the customer.

They're also often the ones best equipped to pull it all together. Marketing is an amazing function, and you get to work with all the different parts of your company. You need to work with your product team, your sales team, and other executives, and so you're bringing all of this together, which is what makes marketing fascinating. And because you own the data, the CMO is the perfect role to espouse it to the organization.

Not to sound churlish, but maybe it's the opportunity for CMOs to get their own back and start feeding things back to other departments, too. They get so much input and oversight from Product and Sales in terms of strategies, and how to run the department can be influenced very heavily by other departments, so having the chance to tell them what to do for once must be quite an enjoyable experience.

Yeah, I think owning that data is very empowering. It allows you to arm yourself. Everybody has hunches, and everybody comes to the table with their own priorities, so having as much customer data as possible gives you the power to say, “That assumption is correct. That assumption is incorrect. Here's what our customers are responding to or commenting on,” in relation to product features, messaging, and price.

Whether you're stepping into a brand new role, you've been hired for an existing role, or you're even being promoted, getting your hands on as much voice of the customer data as possible in those first 90 days lets you shape a view of your customers’ experience and expectations. And being able to share that among colleagues allows you to step into your role very quickly and own it.

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The most valuable sources of customer data

You’ve mentioned lots of different types of customer data. What are the most important sources of customer data for the marketing function?

When it comes to voice of the customer data, you're collecting it through social media – both listening to your customers there, as well as possibly looking at how customers respond to your ads – and that's a great testing ground, right? You can also have direct conversations with your customers. That's pretty hot, especially in startup culture. You can call them, talk to them, and listen to what they have to say.

Surveys and other sources of direct customer feedback, whether that be support tickets or product reviews, comments on blogs, or content that you might be publishing, are also really valuable. And then there are the more objective components of voice of the customer data, like shopping and purchase behavior.

I think what's really important is that your team has an objective for what they want to do with this voice of the customer data. If you have no goal in mind and no specific questions you want to ask, you’re gathering data for data's sake and you're going to feel like you're spinning your wheels.

As an example, in my role as a founder, I’m looking to our customers so I can learn about product expectations. We’re always looking for feedback on our product so that we can iterate and define our product roadmap. Things that are important to that are reviews, customer support tickets, purchase behavior, and repeat purchase behavior because we also have our subscription business.

Now, one thing I'll say about the priority of data, especially when dealing with product feedback, is that customers sometimes have a hard time articulating what they like or don't like.

Better & Better sells an essential good. We make toothpaste. Everybody brushes their teeth – or at least we hope they do – twice a day. That’s one of your foundational keystone habits. For most people, toothpaste is not a considered purchase, yet it goes in their mouth, so it's ultimately very personal to them, right?

Even so, why they've purchased a product is sometimes hard for them to articulate because they're not considering it. For years, people just walked down the aisle, picked up a tube of toothpaste, and in the cart it went. Then they’d taste it, and they either liked it or they didn’t. That's pretty much how that conversation or consideration went for a customer.

Now we're trying to change that conversation. When we talk to customers, we’re trying to get them to articulate why they made a purchase or what's keeping them coming back – really getting to the underlying power of our ingredients, messaging, and story. It can be tricky to get customers to give that information, so thinking about purchase behavior, how they move through our site, and what content they're engaging with is really valuable.

How to gather clean objective customer data

When it comes to hunting for that objective feedback on what customers like about a product, how do you approach that in a way that's not going to bias the results? You have an idea about what you want them to say, but at the same time, you don’t want to risk skewing the data.

I think it’s very easy to skew your data with your personal biases because, especially as a founder or a C-suite executive, you're coming into it with a point of view. But there are lots of helpful tools out there to devise to design customer surveys and ask open-ended questions that let customers share more. As an example, “Is this toothpaste too minty or not minty enough?” is a very subjective question, so is the answer going to be helpful? It isn't.

Price is another example. If you give people a price to respond to, they’ll often tell you that it’s too high. People have a sort of gut instinct to negotiate down, so instead, we should be trying to get at value – if you were presented with this price, based on these characteristics of the product, do you believe that the value is excellent, good, or average?

I think trying to be as unbiased as possible and collecting as much data as you can to understand customers before you get any feedback from them is really important, especially for an early-stage company. Surveying people at the very beginning and getting their feedback before we had any messaging was so helpful because it gave us pure, clean feedback.

Moving on to the second stage, once we have some messaging, we're setting expectations. We want to test how that now adjusts customers’ feedback on the product. Finally, we talk to customers who have been using the product for a while to find out what kind of results they’re seeing and what value they receive from that.

Understanding where the customer is in the funnel of customer loyalty is also important when gathering feedback and being able to implement that across your brand strategy.

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Sharing the voice of the customer with other departments

Let's talk about how customer feedback works in other departments and how you feed that back. A lot of product departments have product roadmaps and development cycles to stick to, so they might not want to hear about wild changes to their carefully thought-out plans. When customer feedback shows that there is a need for change in the product department, how do you communicate that?

As we were saying earlier, data for data's sake is not helpful. As you're communicating with your counterparts you need to understand their data needs and how the voice of the customer can help them. That's the key. How can the data help them perform their role and develop the product better? You need to listen to your stakeholders just like you're listening to the customer.

You need to understand Product’s timelines and listen when they’re talking about features, how they want to iterate the product, how long it takes to get inventory, and what the supply chain looks like. That way, when you go and get that information from your customers you can make sure you have enough time to deliver it to your peers in product or operations so that they can actually implement it.

And what if there’s pushback? What if, hypothetically, you come with customer feedback – not that this has necessarily happened at Better & Better – about a need to change the recipe, but Product don’t want to hear it? You might have data to back up your argument, but at the same time, you’ve got to maintain your working relationship with the product team.

I think you need to do your best to advocate for the customer because you are the voice of the customer. All you can do is advocate with as much compelling information as possible.

It's about understanding that person's role and goals and trying to source data to back up your story in a way that resonates with them. Sometimes an individual customer anecdote will be more compelling, so maybe they can watch a focus group taking place and hear that feedback for themselves. Charts and compilations of collective data might be really helpful for someone else. You have to tailor your presentation of the voice of the customer to the stakeholder.

When people keep pushing back against that data, especially at the top, these are probably less successful businesses, frankly. If you ignore the voice of the customer data and choose to say, “We believe that the market is going in this direction. We are ahead of it, and we know better than the customer,” that’s going to get you in trouble.

When it comes to sharing data on the voice of the customer, how important is transparency? Is it all about shared dashboards, or are you taking raw data and collating it into something digestible for other departments?

All of the above. People internalize data and use it differently, so you have to know your internal customer as well as the customer that's buying your product. I'm not hiding anything as a CMO – I want everyone to have as much access to this data as possible and I’m happy to provide it in a way that is usable for whoever needs it.

I have colleagues that are very data-minded. They want to roll up their sleeves and get into those dashboards. There are other people that just want the top 10 takeaways. They’re like, “Tell me what the learnings were. You do the synthesis. You do the analysis. Just give me the bullets.” Not a problem – I’ll just give them the bullets.

Sharing the wins

So far, we’ve been focusing mostly on the negative side of feedback, which is all too easy to do. Let's talk about sharing positive customer feedback. Why is it important to hear the happy voice of the customer rather than just the angry voice of the customer?

It's easy to overlook the happy voice of the customer because, firstly, you often don't hear from those customers as much. People are more inclined to reach out with a problem than to say, “Hey, I love you.”

When you have the opportunity, it’s great to share the wins because happy customers also provide valuable information. You want to find the customers who love your product and can articulate why they love it. You can improve your product for people that have issues with it, but from a marketing perspective, you want to find out what it is that people love about it.

It’s also just great for morale. Running a business, especially an early-stage startup, is a roller coaster, and seeing happy customers makes everybody feel good. It recharges you when you see that you’re solving a problem for people. That’s so meaningful.

Golden rules for creating a customer feedback loop

We’ve covered a lot, Mary. Let's sum it all up. What are the golden rules of the ideal customer feedback loop?

First and foremost, your customer feedback loop starts with setting a goal and defining a set of questions. If you don't know why you're gathering data, don't bother yet – you're not ready.

Second, you need to determine how you're going to obtain the data and the hierarchy of the data sources. As a CMO, you can be the voice of the customer, but that doesn't mean you own all the data. Talk to your colleagues; how are you going to obtain this data? Who owns it? Then, based on your business objectives you can decide which types of data are more important.

Step three is to get that data within a defined timeline – it should not be going on forever. Of course, you're going to constantly be gathering data over time, but when you’re thinking about a very specific goal, set a timeline for it.

Step four: synthesize and analyze that data and then disseminate it. That dissemination needs to be throughout your organization, not just at the C-suite level. There are valuable insights that impact everyone's role and help them feel empowered.

You also need to make sure that as you share it out, you're sharing it in various ways – raw data for the data nerds and top-line bullets for the people that just want it to be easily digestible. That might mean creating charts and graphs or presenting it in a more narrative way for those who prefer to read open-ended survey responses.

Lastly, you need to go back to that original goal and look at how to apply that customer feedback to help you reach it. It’s time to focus on business fundamentals as they relate to customer data to really move your business forward.

From a startup perspective, the success of customer data can impact a ton of things. It can impact product development, pricing strategy, positioning, messaging, customer acquisition costs, customer retention, and profit margins. Ultimately, every aspect of your business is amplified and enhanced by customer data.

The message is definitely clear about the power of the voice of the customer, and no doubt many CMOs are in full agreement with the power. You've given some great advice today, Mary. Thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Don't forget to get your tickets to our upcoming Revenue Marketing Summit in 🗽New York on December 8 for non-stop networking, knowledge sharing, keynotes, and panel discussions.

Written by:

Will Whitham

Will Whitham

Will has written copy and content both in-house and agency-side for a broad variety of brands, industries, and international audiences. He's the host of the CMO Alliance podcast, CMO Convo.

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CMOs: Know your customer, know yourself