My biggest lesson in marketing so far: how to be a pain in the backside

This may come as some surprise to those who have always found me to be a pain in the backside anyway. But having to be one, professionally, was probably the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn. Why? Because if you’re going to do a good job as an independent business and marketing (marcom) writer, you need to ask awkward questions and be a total nuisance.

Do you remember that old legend about the Emperor’s new clothes? In a nutshell this little Emperor would dance around in the nude bragging about the new clothes his flunkies had misinformed him about, and his sycophantic followers would agree with him. Only one day some bright young child, obviously not a paid-up member of the entourage, said, “nonsense; you’re not wearing anything.” What a reality check, huh. But it was true, and truth won the day.

Sadly, the lesson you learn from reading this legendary story is one that often has not been learned by client companies, no matter how well qualified their internal sales and marketing staff were before they became indoctrinated in the corporate culture. Yet often it’s only by facing up to the truth however uncomfortable that is, that you can prepare the ground for a truly effective marketing strategy.

Why lifting up marketing stones makes me severely unpopular

When I started out working as a freelance marcom consultant I already knew (from years of working as an advertising copywriter) that often the brief you receive from clients is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard, because it’s totally subjective.

This is not a criticism, however. If you work for an organization that eats, sleeps and breathes its products or services it’s utterly understandable that you should be inclined to close your mind to issues like “never mind how wonderful we are, what do our customers really want?”

While I was working in ad agencies, asking the awkward questions was down to the account managers who did so – and took the flak for it. However once I was working on my own, I had to become my own devil’s advocate and rub clients’ noses in just this sort of home truth, myself. In fact you need to ask a number of potentially awkward and obnoxious questions that make you as popular as something which has just crawled up out of drain. For example:

  • What do your customers say about you behind your back?
  • What do your competitors say about you to their customers?
  • What makes you believe your products/services are better than those of your competitors?
  • If I were a potential customer, why should I buy from you rather than a competitor?
  • What weak links are there in your product/service offering?
  • If you could improve on just one aspect of your product/service offering, what would it be?

Believe me, no matter how many times you apologize to the client for asking such questions, you can still feel a bristle of resentment. Yet the answers you get to those questions (provided that they’re honest) are what you, as a marcom writer, need in order to create marketing words that will be bang on target.

People hate you because you can see the wood for the trees

This is another manifestation of the marcom-writer-is-a-pain-in-the-backside syndrome. You get the clients thinking along the right lines of “never mind how proud we are of the new IT system, what benefit does it offer our customers?” Then, they start coming up with more. And more. And more, until the whole pile of benefits turns back into one huge, sprawling mess of features again.

A few years ago I drove for 3 hours (that’s a long trip on English motorways) to a 9:00 a.m. meeting of a large chain of estate agents (realtors). I walked into the room to find a group of rather harassed company worthies who had been there for 2 hours, having been told to come up with the benefits to clients of their unusual – and excellent – services for selling homes.

They presented me with a list of about 15 benefits. My heart sank. It was make-yourself-unpopular time again. I told them as gently as possible that if benefits are to be used in a marketing concept you can’t buy them in as a bulk order. What is it, I asked with a gleaming smile, that all these benefits really mean to your clients? Blank stares.

“Could it be that the fact your company takes care of everything so efficiently, means what you’re doing is ‘taking the stress out of selling your home?'”

Smiles through clenched teeth, thank-you noises said in slightly squeaky voices. That’s how we developed the concept and it worked very well for them. But I’d put money on some of them having gone home that night, hand-sewed a pudgy blonde Suze doll, and stuck pins into it.

Can I really blame these clients? Can I deny that it’s intensely annoying for some snotty marcom writer to ask me what nasty gossip my competitors are spreading about me – or to point out something that draws together a concept which I should have seen ages ago?

Despite the unpopularity at times I believe it was important for me to learn how to be a professional pain in the backside. It’s an unfortunate part of my portfolio as a writer who helps people get better results from their business writing.

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  1. Good post Suze, asking the tough questions would make you disliked! And seeing the wood for the trees can be quite tough.

    Ever thought of hiring yourself out to play the “bad cop” in these scenarios?

    • “Ever thought of hiring yourself out to play the “bad cop” in these scenarios?”

      ROFL … actually that would probably be a more profitable way for me to obtain a decent marketing brief!

  2. Looking at that picture I can feel your clients’ pain….

    Good article though. You have to ask the tough questions – and which of us can always see the wood for the trees in our own business?

    • That’s what tends to irritate people, Cathy. The fact that old big-mouth StMoo walks in and points out something that they haven’t realised, despite it having been sitting under their noses for weeks or longer.

      Part of my “marketing lesson” here has been a) to do this as tactfully as possible but b) not get depressed if I can see the client is brassed off…takes a bit of toughening up!

  3. If this approach is the antidote to bland business copywriting then all power to your elbow. If you really want to understand your business and the people who buy from you then you have to be prepared to address the difficult questions.

    • Thanks James – you’re right, of course. But having worked in the past with some pretty wet and weedy advertising account executives – who didn’t have the spherical objects to ask such pointed questions – I think you do need to acquire some courage to do it properly.

      Mind you, not all clients are so short-sighted and some actually thank me (or anyone else doing my job) for an objective view. I just wish all of them did….. 🙂

  4. Agree. I’m afraid it is a risk of the job. I worked a short time as marketing person for a Building Surveyors and, a new initiative, was sent out to obtain client feedback as follow up at the sixth month of work done. I met with one client, representing a Local Authority who expressed anger at my company. Having expressed this and not being argued with, with he relented enough to say well, maybe he would consider using us again after all, as we had troubled to come back to him and check on customer satisfaction, but returning with the feedback didn’t exactly endear me. One must proceed tactfully. Other’s dignity, job security, reputation, amour propre, so much rides on it. But one isn’t doing the job by fudging it either. A stirrer, and a pain in the arse…yes, from certain POVs.

  5. What that tells me, Katie-Ellen, is it was high time your employers obtained client feedback and they were lucky to have you there to pioneer it for them!

    Clients like that should be pleased to be asked for feedback, even if some or all of it is negative. As you saw with that Local Authority representative, the fact you listened without arguing with him made him feel a lot more positive towards your company.

    Even with work like mine where I have to ask really difficult questions, as long as the client has it clearly in his/her mind that the discussion taking place is for THEIR benefit, you shouldn’t get too many problems.

  6. Jane Hatton says

    I believe every company would benefit from a maverick who asks difficult questions that on-one wants to hear the answers to. Knowing those unpalatable answers could make the difference between survival and failure. If the company doesn’t have a maverick on their employee list, then it makes good sense to buy one in.

    • Absolutely Jane – in fact as I mentioned to Sarah who suggested I go into companies as a “bad cop,” it would probably be more profitable for me to hire myself out to companies as a maverick first and then charge them again for supply them with decent marketing comms!

  7. My favourite question is 4th on your list. When I ask it, clients usually go quiet.

  8. I’ll bet you’ve had some priceless answers to that one, too, Jackie … they often tend to come up with some the fashionable business jargon of the day, don’t they?

    1990s …”because we’ve got our fingers on the pulse…”

    2000s … “because we’re committed…”

    2010s … “because we’re passionate …”

    Sadly we writers need something a bit more substantial.

  9. It’s so true, I know clients have to believe in their business, but certainly from PR people they often ask the impossible. Can I be on the front page of the FT next week? Errr, No, They need people one step removed to tell them the truth, ask those awkward questions and they will reap the rewards in time.

    A great article.

    • Well thank you kindly, Eileen. Someone has to give clients like these a reality check and often it is down to us marketing and PR professionals to do it, whether anyone likes it or not.

  10. I’m not sure I agree with the dolls bit. When people do that kind of thing to me I go home and tell my wife
    a/ how clever the consultant was
    b/ how clever I was for hiring them.

    I’m sure some people sulk but my experience is that more people are genuinely pleased (to judge by the number of times we get asked back by our own clients at least – which is hardly a scientific research tool I admit! 😉 )

    • Wouldn’t it be great if all clients were like you, Simon!

      In general I find that at the SME end people more often are pleased to have an external supplier who speaks frankly – especially owner-manager types who are directly linked to the bottom line and so immediately appreciate the commercial value of finding answers to the “awkward questions.”

      Where it gets far more complex is in much larger organisations where politics prevail … “you’ve embarrassed me in front of my line manager by asking about something I should have known, and didn’t…”

      Takes some delicate handling!

  11. Great article Suze. Asking difficult questions is important, but also being able to see the whole picture, when your clients will only see a part of it.

  12. Thanks Dawn – often it’s easier for someone to come in from outside and get a grip on the big picture, than it is for people who live with it day in, day out.

  13. It’s not easy being the one who asks the tricky questions, but that’s often a benefit of gettting someone in from outside. They might not say it to your face, but I bet they appreciate it once they’ve got over feeling a bit embarrassed – the good ones will anyway.

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