Chasms of Failure

The Chasms of Failure: Growth Means Making Your People Successful (Part four of a five-part series)

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Growth plans are all-too-easily derailed, especially when the growth target is ambitious, leaving companies or products floundering in the Chasms of Failure™. In part one of this series, I reviewed some common growth tactics and why they might not go as planned. In parts two, three and this part, four, I discuss each of the three Chasms of Failure and how to identify what is going wrong. In the conclusion of this series, I will discuss how to identify and implement steps to help you recover and get your growth back on track.

In parts one, two and three, I reiterated a point I cannot overstate: Focus is the critical element of growth. I assume, for this discussion, you’ve already identified your target audience, you know their needs and aspirations, and you know exactly what promises you want to make to make their aspirations possible. Part three showed how getting your offering aligned to those promises is the next piece of the growth puzzle.

I’ll now shift to discussing the Chasm of Failure to Execute. If you’ve worked in any growing company, you’ve heard — probably quite often — that execution is the key to success. It is (it’s not the only requirement, but you can’t succeed without it). Achieving your growth plans is no exception to the rule that execution is critical.

Execution in this context, however, means specifically delivering on all the promises you have chosen to make to your customer. It’s not a set of tasks or a checklist of things you complete. Delivering on your promise means your customer has achieved what you promised they would by using your offering. If you want to make your customer a hero, you can’t count yourself successful until your customer is, in fact, a hero.


Falling in the Chasm of Failure to Execute is often as simple as a lack of communication. Maybe you didn’t fully understand what the customer meant when they expressed a given need. Maybe your sales team understood it, but didn’t communicate it as well as possible to your customer success team, which then missed some key action. Sometimes, it can be a result of a failure to act, but lack of communication is often the thing that pushes you over the edge.

When you are in the Chasm of Failure to Execute, it will likely feel frustrating. You’ll see symptoms such as increasingly unhappy customers, or customers you thought were doing well suddenly complaining or leaving. Your teams may have no good explanation for the sudden unhappiness or may find blame in other teams, leading to finger-pointing. You will likely see lots of meetings to review problem situations, and your teams getting more and more frustrated with endless questioning. If you don’t pull out of this Chasm of Failure, you may find an increasingly political atmosphere and key departures.

The Chasm of Failure to Execute might look something like this:

A mid-size software company was trying to restart its stalled growth. Using the Growth Driver approach, they started by looking at current customers and other potential prospects, and chose a segment on which to focus. Interviews and market analysis revealed an area of frustration for potential customers that no one else in the industry was addressing. They looked at the concerns map, alongside the capabilities of the company, and developed the short list of promises they knew they could make that would also deliver significant value, completing the “Promises” section of the growth puzzle. Then they built the product and validated it with key potential and current customers. With these companies excited about what they saw, they had completed the “Product” section of the growth puzzle.

When the product came out to market, it was well-received with lots of excitement. But it didn’t sell. Prospects said it sounded good, but the company’s salespeople couldn’t explain how it would achieve their goals. Other potential customers said they had the problems the product was designed to solve, but they couldn’t figure out how the product would solve them. A few customers who tried the product said their technical support contacts couldn’t help them find their way through complex operations.

What underlies all these issues is that the people who were ultimately responsible for keeping the company’s promises did not have the knowledge or understanding of the promises and how the company would meet them to keep those promises to the customer. Salespeople didn’t know how those promises made their prospects heroes, and technical support people didn’t know what promises were being made or how the company intended to fulfill them.

The company started a series of hands-on trainings that put salespeople, technical support people and others who worked with customers in the role of their customer and helped them understand what the customer was trying to achieve, how and how the company’s product helped that happen.

As those trainings took place, there were fewer and fewer complaints, and the product started to sell more and more to happier customers.

The Way Out of the Chasm of Failure to Execute

This bears repeating: Knowing the promises you intend to make to your customers is always the first step out of every Chasm of Failure. It’s not enough to choose promises to make, you must constantly validate them with your customers to ensure you are delivering the value you think you are — and that your customers expect.

Climbing out of the Chasm of Failure to Execute means understanding that every single person who interacts with a customer in any way affects your company’s relationship with that customer — and how much they trust you. It may not be intuitive to train technical support teams on your customer’s every strategic business objective, but when they do have that knowledge, they can not only solve technical problems, but they can ensure those solutions help the customer achieve their goals. Getting everyone in the company to execute every single day on every single promise you make may sound hard, but it is also the focus, delivery and execution you need to keep your growth on track.

Having everyone in your company doing their job well makes for a job well done. When everyone consistently understands and delivers on the company’s promises, your customers will rave about their success — all because of you.

In the last part of this series, I will discuss discovering and making promises, building customer trust and how to scale your focus to become a market leader.

Chasms of Failure

The Chasms of Failure: Growth Means Delivering on your Promises (Part Three of a Five-Part Series)

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In part one of this series, I discussed some of the tactics companies use to create and maintain growth and the reasons those tactics don’t always work as planned: the Chasms of Failure™. In part two, I discussed the Chasm of Failure to Focus — the one that afflicts companies most often. In this post, I will discuss the Chasm of Failure to Deliver, how it happens and a path to recover. In the next part, I will discuss the Chasm of Failure to Execute, and in the final part of this series, I will conclude with insights on identifying when you have fallen into a Chasm of Failure and what to do if you have.

I noted in the previous two parts that focus is a critical element of growth. Now, I’ll shift from how to find your focus to what to do once you have found it. I’m going to assume you understand your target audience, you know what is valuable to them, and you know how what you do maps to what they think is valuable. I’m also going to assume you’ve done a good job of educating your team(s) and creating the processes to support fulfilling the promises you want to make to your target audience.

This Chasm of Failure is nearly impossible to avoid at some point in a company’s development. Falling into the Chasm of Failure to Deliver means that you know your audience and what promises you are making, and your people are ready to fulfill those promises, but you have missed at least some significant portion of what you are delivering — your product.

Keep in mind that your product is more than just a widget or bit of software. It’s everything you deliver. Everything that a classic marketer would call “product,” along with packaging, services, contract, terms and whatever ongoing support you will deliver, plus your roadmap and vision for the future, is included in what I define as “product.”


Falling into the Chasm of Failure to Deliver is often a result of simple mistakes. Sometimes it’s a misreading of how your promises translate into product, sometimes it’s small things along the way that accumulate. It’s probably not that hard for you to recall a time you bought or used a product and had the reaction, “That’s not how I expected it to work.” That means somewhere along the road, from understanding what the customer wanted to actually creating it, something might have been miscommunicated, or maybe someone thought there was a better way, or something was interpreted differently by different people. None of these shows an inability to build for a customer, only a typical challenge of communication in any organization.

Building a roadmap for your customer’s future is also a challenge. The goal is, when you present your plans to your customers (or prospective customers), they react with a deep appreciation of how well you understand the future of their business. If you’ve been in product organizations long enough, you know how hard it is to get that right for the promises you are making to that customer.

The Chasm of Failure to Deliver might look something like this:

A small software startup I worked with put a great deal of effort into developing a deep understanding of their customer, what their customer considered valuable, how they liked it delivered, and how their businesses — and the value they needed — would change during the following two years. The company had very ambitious growth targets and chose to use one of the tactics I discussed in part one: adding more products. They looked at the capabilities their customers were requesting for the products and what they knew about their customers’ businesses. When I showed up, they had developed a plan that specified how long it would take to build all those capabilities and when each would be ready. They added to this new offerings, which would carry their own pricing and which they expected would become valuable to their customers in the following two years. The result was a laundry list of product capabilities and a schedule.

They had some success in selling current and future offerings to their customers, and they saw some growth, but they also found it was increasingly hard — and expensive — to convince the targeted prospective customers to sign on, and there were more and more onerous terms that those prospective customers would demand. They were in the Chasm of Failure to Deliver.

We discovered the cause of these challenges was that customers are always skeptical of product plans from small startup technology companies (often rightfully so), and when presented with a laundry list, the discussion quickly focused on how the prospective customer would be certain their particular needs would arrive on schedule.

We worked to resolve this by reshaping the roadmap. We made it into a story of how the customer’s business might develop and grow, what they would need to make that growth happen, and how this company would deliver those needs. In other words, the story we created focused on what the customer found valuable, what valuable promises the company would make and how the company would fulfill those promises.

As the sales team, supported by the product team, began to tell that story, sales became easier, fewer customers put their skepticism in the way of creating the envisioned future, and growth started to become easier.

The Way Out of the Chasm of Failure to Deliver

Knowing the promises you intend to make to your customers is always the first step out of every Chasm of Failure. It’s not enough to choose promises to make, you must constantly validate them with your customers to ensure you are delivering the value you think you are — and that your customers expect.

Climbing out of the Chasm of Failure to Deliver also demands an honest rethinking of what you are delivering and why. Looking at customer complaints can help, but it will only get you pointed in the right direction. Spending time fixing something to resolve every individual complaint will not get you to an offering that delivers on your promises. You have to take a hard look at what promises you are breaking in every case and why. Then you can reconsider how you are building your offerings to fulfill your promises.

Building a great product or a cool product or a leading-edge product is fun and exciting. Building a product about which customers rave, because it never fails to deliver value is the hardest and most rewarding product path of all.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss the Chasm of Failure to Execute. In the last part, I will discuss discovering and making promises, building customer trust and how to scale your focus to become a market leader.

Chasms of Failure

The Chasms of Failure: Where Growth Goes to Die (Part Two of a Five-Part Series)

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In part one of this series, I discussed some of the tactics companies use to create growth and some of the reasons those tactics don’t work as planned: the Chasms of Failure™. In this and the next two parts, I will delve into the three Chasms of Failure, discuss why they are dangerous, show how companies can easily fall into them, and explain how to avoid them and keep your growth on track.

I noted in the last post that the one thing you need for any growth efforts to work is focus. Focus is more than knowing what you do and sticking to it. Focus is knowing whom you do it for, why it’s valuable and what promise(s) it must fulfill to be valuable.

Focus requires that three elements of your business — Promises, People and Product — are in alignment and working toward the same goal.

The Chasm of Failure to Focus is the most common and the easiest to fall into. In simple terms, falling into the Chasm of Failure to Focus means you are delivering on your product plans, and your people are doing a great job, but you don’t know for whom or why.

Bright Shiny Objects

I sometimes call this the bright shiny object problem. You might have a business plan in place that defines your intended target market well, and says exactly what promises you make, to whom and why. If the discipline of focus is not embedded in your organization, however, it’s easy for your people to see opportunities outside the intended target market and start to take advantage of them. Those opportunities are certainly real and viable, but they are not in your target, and in this case, your people are, essentially, wasting time and not delivering on the promises you’ve already made.

The more common cause of failure to focus is either the lack of understanding of your intended (target) customer or the lack of any defined target customer at all. If your business plan says something such as, “We intend to serve any customer who needs the specific features our product has” — it won’t use those words, but it will be that ill-defined — then you don’t have a target customer. If your plans define your target customer by demographics or search criteria (e.g., some number of employees and use of a specific kind of technology), then you don’t have the level of understanding of your customer you need to create focus and ensure focus is embedded in your organization.

The Chasm of Failure to Focus might look something like this:

A mid-sized software company I worked with saw some success in a very broad, not-well-defined market. They decided to use one of the tactics I discussed in part one: more campaigns. They designed and ran more advertising and promotional campaigns. They ran those across more and more media, finding more ways to reach their own lists and the lists they bought.

They had some success. Part of the reason for success was there were specific segments of the market they were addressing who found exceptional value in their offering. But they didn’t know which segments those were. As you might guess, as the number and frequency of the campaigns increased, the return on those campaigns, in terms of engagement and revenue, dropped — slowly at first, then faster as time went on.

When we were able to put into place a strong definition of a target market, develop a specific set of promises, and focus their people and product around fulfilling those promises, suddenly their return on campaigns went up, even when running fewer campaigns. In addition, the value of those customers (measured in revenue) increased, and retention rates decreased.

The people, who were naturally skeptical that thinking smaller helps you grow bigger, started to see the success, and they got better and better at maintaining focus and fulfilling customer promises.

The Way Out of the Chasm of Failure to Focus

In order to create focus, you have to define well what you are choosing to focus on. This is never easy, as it involves the very hard choice of not focusing on something else that seems promising. It’s also important to understand there is not one right choice. There might be several excellent candidate markets in which to focus. But in order to accelerate and scale growth, you need to make the hard choice to focus on one.

That’s not all. Once you make that choice, you must gain a deep understanding of your target customer. Not just their demographics, but their challenges, needs and aspirations. You need to know what keeps them up at night and what delivers personal wins. You need to gain an understanding of the concerns they tell only their most trusted advisers. Then you turn that into promises on which you can deliver, fully and consistently.

Once you know the promises you will make, your whole team can learn to focus on fulfilling those promises. That creates the focus you need to accelerate growth.

In the next two parts of this series, I will discuss the Chasm of Failure to Execute and the Chasm of Failure to Deliver. In the last part, I will discuss discovering and making promises, building customer trust and how to scale your focus to become a market leader.

Chasms of Failure

The Foundation of Sustainable Growth (Part One of a Five-Part Series)

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If you are CEO or CMO, growth is at the top of your priority list. You and your team are putting a lot of your time, effort and money into creating plans to fuel your growth and then into executing those plans.

Companies I’ve worked with typically attempt to create growth in one of three ways:

More Campaigns

One approach to creating growth is to increase the number or breadth of the campaigns your marketing team is running. You can contact your current list more often, buy or develop new list(s), segment your list and run more targeted campaigns, and run a range of test offers to a selected group. More approaches to this might include targeting your current customers for upsells or referrals, or finding grassroots ways for people to self-select onto your list(s).

More Sales

If you have the pipeline to support it, you can add more salespeople and possibly close more deals. If you don’t, or you don’t know if your pipeline will support it, you can add BDRs, SDRs or other pre-qualification methods to see how much you can squeeze out of your current pipeline. You can even expand your internal or outsourced direct contact campaigns, such as outbound calling.

More Products

Upselling and cross-selling are often reliable ways to create additional revenue from your current customers. You can add products to your line, extend your product line or even introduce entirely new but related products to convince your customers you can add more value and that they should spend more money with you.

All of these can work. But the question I put to companies who think just expanding efforts will increase sales is: Will this increase your sales enough to reliably and regularly hit your growth targets?

I can almost see you shaking your head.

The good news is any of these (or combinations) will work well — when you have built the foundation for rapid growth. The one thing you need for any growth efforts to work is simple:


I didn’t say it’s easy. Achieving the kind and level of focus you need to make your growth possible and sustainable is not easy. It probably means a change in how you operate, how you direct and incent people, and how you make hard decisions. But getting to growth means building your tactics on top of focus.

Focus means a narrowly targeted aim at one particular type of customer. In my last post, I discussed how best to understand your current customers to ensure they keep coming back. This is the exact same approach to use to understand your prospects and how you can best meet their needs.

Step one: Promises…

And the most important step in creating focus, is making and keeping the right promises to a specific type of customer. This means using the Concerns Mapping™ approach to develop an understanding of what your prospects need from you, then mapping that to your current and planned capabilities. It also means making the hard decisions to not spend time, effort and resources on anything other than your chosen target prospects.

Once you know which promises are valuable and which you can keep:

Step two: People…

Is ensuring everything your people do is in the service of keeping the exact promises you chose to make in step one. This requires not only ensuring you have the right training, processes, technology, etc. in place, but also that you and your team are not distracted by the proverbial bright shiny objects that may look like good opportunities, but cause you to lose focus and fail to deliver on your promises.

Once you have your people ready:

Step three: Product…

Means making sure your offerings (products and services) are, in fact, delivering on those promises. More than that, it means your future plans and your product roadmap show your prospects how you are going to fulfill the promises you are making now and into the future. Your prospects should clearly see their business in your roadmap.

The companies I’ve worked with to implement this model describe their growth efforts before developing focus as driving a broken-down car and fighting to keep the wheels from coming off. Several have described those same efforts after developing focus as sledding smoothly downhill.

Creating the focus needed for sustainable growth relies on all three of these pieces — promises, people and product — coming together. It is tempting (and easy!) to work on only one of those and assume the others will fall into place. This causes the company to fall into one of the Chasms of Failure™ (in red in the diagram above) and is the most common way growth efforts derail.

This is part one of a five-part series on building the foundation for growth. In parts two, three and four, I will discuss the three Chasms of Failure™, how they derail growth, how companies fall into them and how to successfully avoid them.

Chasms of Failure

Five Critical Steps to Knowing Your Customers

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It’s a trap into which marketers of all kinds fall:  assuming your customers are just like you in their preferences, desires, and buying characteristics.  It can happen because we lack information to figure out what customers are really like or because our own inherent biases cause us to ignore information that would contradict our assumptions.

In a series of studies (published in the AMA Journals), Hattula, Herzog, Dahl and Reinecke found that marketers putting themselves in their “customers’ shoes” were more likely to assume their customer is just like them rather than the generally expected outcome that they would understand their customer’s needs and desires even better.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Hattula noted, “That tendency [toward egocentrism] is so strong that we’re willing to ignore objective data when we make predictions about others.”

You Are Not Your Customers

Yes, he is saying that in our data-driven world, the more empathetic (and maybe more expert) we become, the more likely we are to just ignore the data and use our own intuition to make assumptions about our customers.  If you’ve been in a marketing organization for any length of time, this should not surprise you (though it may be hard to admit).

Simply put:  The more you assume your customer is just like you, the farther you get from building a relationship with and serving that customer.

In our daily lives, we develop relationships fully realizing that the people with whom we become friends or partners or any other form of relationship are not exactly like us.  Success in each relationship requires that we develop an understanding of what drives the other person and how we fit into their lives—and how they fit into ours.

Consider this:  You walk into a room, and a man approaches you.  He tells you why he is in that room (at that event or party) and then proceeds to tell you he knows you must be there for the same reason.  Maybe he harangues you to engage in ways that suit him well or to help him meet the people he wants to meet.  You can tell pretty quickly this person had no interest in you or your needs.

When you make the assumption that your customer is just like you, you start off your relationship with that customer on the footing I described in the previous paragraph:  you alienate your customer and make them feel like you have no real interest in meeting their needs.

This can be exacerbated by the common marketing practice of developing customer personas.  Personas are just descriptions of prototypical customer types.  If the egocentricity bias that Hattula describes enters your persona development process, the personas can start to look an awful lot like the people who are developing them (One way to check this is to ask someone who knows you but was not involved in the process to look at the persona and describe how much like you it is—as long as you can trust that person to give an honest answer.).

The Importance of Data

Marketing has become, for the most part, a data-driven endeavor.  Marketers work hard to gather and analyze data on the actions of those who engage with the company, on how those actions lead to (or don’t lead to) sales, on the costs and ROI of specific marketing activities, on how customer usage leads to repeat sales, and on so many more things in your everyday activities.  One of the things on which marketers have relied for a very long time is market research.  Assuming it uses well-designed research, the data gathered can inform many marketing decisions and challenge many assumptions.

But challenging assumptions, especially within an organization, is very hard.  When the data clearly contradicts any assumption we make about our customers—from buying habits to feature preferences—Hattula’s study shows we tend to just ignore the data—even when we know the best course of action is to adjust our own assumptions to match the data.

Where Does This Lead?

Hattula’s study suggests that employees who are disengaged from customers are in the best position to understand objectively what the data they receive is telling them.

My own experience says that getting a direct, personal understanding of your customer, including developing empathy (maybe by putting yourself in your customer’s proverbial shoes), gives you insights that data just can’t.

The irony is that in order to truly understand your customer well, you need to do a good job of both getting closer to them and distancing yourself from them.  You need to:

  1. Gain direct exposure, understanding and empathy with your typical customer’s needs, preferences and desires.
  2. Ensure you are gathering good, unbiased data on customers’ needs, preferences, and desires
  3. Pay close attention to even the smallest hint of contradiction between your empathetic understanding and what the data is telling you.
  4. Get objective viewpoints that can tell you when your assumptions about your customers are really just a projection of your own needs, preferences, and desires.
  5. Have the courage to challenge organizational assumptions about your customers.

Did I promise this would be easy?  It’s not.

But if you want to stay close to your customers and continue to succeed in delivering what they want and need, in the way they want and need it, you will have to make sure you are meeting their needs.

Not yours.