Consider the job of marketing. Its purpose is to understand the marketplace. That plays itself out in all manner of ways—from segmentation to trade show posters to lead generation.

But, at its core, it's all about the same thing: understanding the marketplaces and letting them know that you understand them.

In other words, marketing is about listening.

Sales, on the other hand, is all about you and your products and services. Telling people what you offer, how they can buy it, what it costs. That, too, plays itself out in multiple ways—from proposals to catalogs to point-of-sales (POS) promotions.

But at its core it's all about the same thing: understanding your products and communicating information about those products to potential customers.

In other words, sales is about talking.

And sales can't begin until you've listened, and until the marketplace believes that you understand what they need. You have to listen first, and talk later.

This is one of my personal touchstones for determining whether I'm doing an effective job of marketing for my clients. A guidepost for every facet of my marketing planning and execution:

Am I listening, or am I talking?

A Guiding Principle

When we market, we are listening to the marketplace—not, as I've said before, listening to what they want, but listening to them explain what they do (and ,of course, observing them) . That is what research is all about, isn't it? Listening.

It's also what positioning is all about—finding an anchor for ourselves in the marketplace based on what we've learned by listening. It's what segmentation, and pricing, and channel development are all about—creating strategic structures that address what we've learned by listening to the marketplace, and which resonate with that marketplace because they are relevant to them.

That is, just as critically, what collateral and advertising and trade show signage and all our tactics are all about too: letting the marketplace know that we've heard—and understand—what they have to say and what they do.

As soon as we veer from that principle—as soon as we start talking about us and our products instead of listening and repeating what we've heard—we're no longer marketing, we're selling.

There's nothing wrong with selling. You need to sell to generate revenue—listening doesn't turn inventory. But before you can begin to sell, you must convince your marketplaces that you understand them. Only then will they start listening to you.

Only then will the marketplace give you permission to begin selling.

This is how people behave, and how markets behave. They give you permission to sell, but they give it to you only after you've convinced them that you understand their needs, their behaviors, their situations. And convincing them is our job—convincing them that we have listened and heard and understand is the job of marketing.

(Anyone who's ever started a sales pitch without permission knows this. They've seen the eyes glaze over, the watches checked, the fingers start drumming the tabletops.)

Are You Listening, or Talking?

Consider both your strategic and tactical marketing. Does your positioning statement, your vision-mission-values declaration, your segmentation—your entire strategic foundation—reflect what you've learned by listening to the marketplace? Or does it reflect what you want the marketplace to learn about you?

What about your collateral and advertising? When you do talk to the marketplace, are you talking about what you've learned about them through listening, or are you talking about you?

(Equally important, are you talking in their language, or in some product-centric babble, using words and phrases that would never come out of their minds or mouths?)

Here, we marketers can learn a ton from our first cousins in sales. They know this, and do this, almost instinctively. The best sales training programs and books teach this, without perhaps knowing it.

Consider one such sales approach—and the one I prefer—called SPIN Selling. SPIN is an acronym, the first letter of which stands for “Situation.” Its point is simple—the first phase of sales is about learning the potential customer's situation. It's about asking questions. Listening to the answers. And repeating what you've heard to make sure you've heard it correctly.

That phase of sales is really marketing.

Only when the customer gives permission—“so, does your product do this or that?”—does selling begin. And that permission is given and revoked many times before a sale is actually made.

Good sales reps know this, are sensitive to it, and will often stop pitching product when they sense that the permission to sell has been revoked, that the prospects want to talk more about their situation. When that happens, they stop talking and start listening again. They stop selling and start marketing once more.

Customers Care About One Thing—Themselves

Let's face it. Your customers don't care about you. Customers are, and should be, selfish and self-centered. They care about themselves, and they will let you into their lives only if they think you care about them too.

Beat your quality-product chest all you want: it will just put them to sleep. Strafe them with feature bullet points: they'll just get up and walk away. Point out every wire and solder point of your fine, fine machine—they'll only thank you and walk to the next vendor's equipment. And they'll keep walking until they find some who has listened.

But, use effective strategic and tactical marketing techniques, listen to them carefully and closely and sincerely, and let them know just this—that you've heard them and that you understand what you've learned by listening… and they will then give you permission to start talking.

In other words… Hush, we're marketing in here.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (, which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.