Editors Note: The following article is an excellent depiction of when top management become disconnected with their audience and the vision of their employees.

During the filming of A Separate Peace (1972), the cast and crew got together at the end of the day to have dinner, and the director, Larry Peerce, was at the head of the table. Every seat was taken, so when Larry’s mother appeared, a member of the crew got up, said he’d get himself a folding chair, and offered Mrs. Peerce his cushioned seat.

Larry leaped up, thrust out his arm in the young man’s direction, and commanded, “Sit down.” When the somewhat puzzled fellow was seated, Larry said, “Let her sit on the folding chair. She’s not comfortable unless she’s uncomfortable.”

More Presidents and CEOs have got to learn that lesson.

Small businesses and start-ups in particular tend to have founder’s myopia. They see what they want to see, and it’s usually the world through their eyes… and no one else’s. Yet unless they’re the buyers of the products and services they offer, they’re ignoring the people whose perspective really counts – their customers.

When the founder (or President or CEO) is the first and last word on what’s said in the company’s marketing and advertising, it’s often in a language that is foreign to the customers. And that’s bad. If you can’t communicate using terms that are meaningful to buyers, they’re going to talk to somebody who can.

Case Study 1: Image Counts, Customers Do Not
Consider this. A company that got along very nicely for forty years, selling nuts, bolts, screws and other fasteners to the construction industry, suddenly felt pressure from competitors. The founder, who was CEO and Chairman and also nearly 80 years old, decided the solution was marketing – something the company had never done before; they had only sold by sending reps into the field to construction sites.

The firm had made certain concessions under the guidance of the President, including the creation of a website (known informally - and primarily internally - as Fourpoints University) that connected various building code requirements to the appropriate fastening products.

The agency they hired began by talking to everyone inside and outside the company, and instantly learned several things:

  • No one gave a damn about the fasteners they used
  • The relationship with the field reps was significant
  • Delivery times were vital

With this new information, the agency proposed not doing “marketing” as the founder understood it – advertising, collateral and tradeshows – but making changes that would matter to customers. By listening to their customers, the agency understood that the most important thing was to add two more distribution centers so they could shorten delivery time to 1 – 2 days, instead of 3 – 5. That provided the greatest advantage to builders because it meant that they wouldn’t have to wait for materials which slowed down construction.

The other suggestion was to market the materials in a way that appealed to the workers and project managers who used and chose the fasteners. Since guys on jobsites wear t-shirts and sweatshirts, and the more outrageous (usually) the better, the agency proposed making some that the field reps could hand out for free. They would still say ‘Fourpoints University’ on the front – complete with the logo as a coat of arms – but the wording “Screw U” would be added to the back.

The President immediately approved the ideas and the sales people loved them. However, the founder said no way. That wasn’t the way he saw the problem, wasn’t how he wanted to solve it, and wasn’t the right image for the company which, of course, he considered an extension of himself. It made him uncomfortable.

Within six months the President quit, the company lost additional market share, and within eighteen months they were forced to sell out… to a competitor.

Case Study 2: Understanding Your Market Through Trade Publications
A more positive result involved a software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup whose cloud-based service connects enterprise applications to smartphones in a very simple, fast and unconventional way. The company was spending very little on marketing, and as a result, was spending too much time on the phone explaining how the service could provide an advantage. They needed something to raise awareness, generate “forward to a colleague” responses and bring in leads.

The founder, though equally cautious about image, gave in to a bold new approach that was proposed by their agency and endorsed by the top salesman - which of course made him very uncomfortable.

The campaign leveraged a recent cover article in a leading trade publication – a story about the rising popularity of smartphones inside major corporations – and used an email subject line that was designed to pique the curiosity of the allegedly strait laced, all-business recipients: “The smartphone that ate your laptop.”

Forty percent opened the message, eighteen percent clicked through and three Fortune-ranked marquee accounts were the result.

Was the CEO comfortable with that? Oh, yes.

So if, like the people in Harry Nilsson’s classic animated television special The Point!, you see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear, it’s time to open your eyes and ears and perceive the world through your target market’s comfort zone. Make them comfortable, and no matter how uncomfortable it makes you going in, you’ll be far more comfortable when the business starts coming in.

N.B. The names of companies mentioned in this article have been changed.

BlueSteps Member Guest Writer

Peter Altschuler Senior ExecutivePeter Altschuler handles marketing strategy and creative direction at Wordsworth & Company, a boutique B2B agency based in Santa Monica, California. He formerly worked as the marketing vice president at SaaS provider NetOffice, Group Creative Director at Anderson & Lembke, director of the in-house agency at Candle Corporation and, earlier, as a producer at 20/20, Childrens Television Workshop, and PBS.

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