Latest POLYGLOTS News
Apr 8, 2019
What Product and Marketing Teams Can Learn From Polyglots Post written by Caroline Tien-Spalding Chief Marketing Officer for SymphonyAI , a leader in B2B AI. SymphonyAI is backed by Dr. Romesh Wadhwani with a $1 billion commitment. Share to facebook Getty In the realms of both product and marketing, the No. 1 fallacy is thinking that the customer is you. It’s not just a common mistake – according to research from CB Insights , this lack of product-market fit is the No. 1 reason startups fail. At SymphonyAI, a blend of venture capital and private equity, we see many different attempts at companies, and so I see this fallacy in action daily. Well-meaning executives and product managers project their own needs and their own thoughts, identities and struggles onto customers when they actually need to put themselves in the customers’ shoes. Successful product and marketing teams become masters at this skill. They learn how to switch to a different mindset to get at the heart of what their customers really want, and that’s no trivial matter. Product owners at the most successful startups obsess over what keeps people up at night – what problems bother them and what dreams inspire them. Their relentless detective work to understand their customers’ psyche is how they unearth these answers; and when they do, intuitive, innovative solutions come to life. Marketers go through a similar process. They interview, examine and study customers to imagine what it’s like to experience another person’s journey, someone whose day-to-day life is completely different than their own. As chief marketing officer at a portfolio of AI companies, I’m well-acquainted with these explorations in empathy for my work. As a cognitive linguist, clear parallels can be drawn between speaking a foreign language and navigating product and marketing challenges. How, you ask? Polyglots – those of us who speak multiple languages – have unique insight into cultures that aren’t our own. We become chameleons who shapeshift based on our surroundings, not just with our words but also in our mannerisms and cultural attitudes. Here are three of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a polyglot that can help strengthen product and marketing teams. Lose Your Assumptions I was born and raised in France, speaking only French at home with my Italian father and American mother, and studying Spanish and Latin starting in sixth grade. Fascinated by language and culture, I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cognitive linguistics, and I went on to learn Dutch and Mandarin. I don’t always tell people about my upbringing because they sometimes make untrue assumptions about me: that I don’t have mastery of the English language, that they can hear my French accent, etc. A misguided product manager would, with that idea in mind, propose an ESL (English as a Second Language) tool, and a marketer may target me for such an app or even classes. Paradoxically, I’d probably be the last user of such services. It’s a helpful reminder that when you start with assumptions, you’re setting yourself up to waste time and resources. Mistakes in fundamental assumptions are costly in product and marketing. When they’re tied to your inability to use empathy to imagine other people’s stories, relate to other people’s values or adequately assess behavioral patterns, your product line will likely be doomed to fail or limited in its potential market. My go-to tool to combat hidden assumptions is to list out hypotheses so that you can objectively evaluate and assess the reality of the situation against them. In the example above, you’d be able to infer from my lack of accent and use of sesquipedalian words that ESL wouldn’t be an appropriate fit. Listen First To Understand Being a polyglot takes an incredible amount of effort. When learning a new language, you first develop a passive understanding, meaning you can understand when someone speaks to you, but you can’t reply. As we see in young children learning to speak, this is a frustrating phase. Very slow to follow is active understanding, where you begin to respond and convey your intent in words. Much later, with lots of practice, you can achieve mastery, and the hidden rules of a given culture (which also often vary by region). While the language acquisition journey is long and challenging, it provides a valuable lesson we can apply to product and marketing (and beyond): Listen first to understand. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you must start by listening intently. You will absorb knowledge and insights from others, and eventually contribute your own to the conversation. But begin by opening your ears and your mind. Learn How Other Worlds Work As general manager at ArcSoft, I gave product and marketing 101 workshops to my Chinese teams. I would always start with this preface: “Your customer is an alien. Your job is to understand their planet and how it works. Know that the laws of physics are different than on planet Earth. Only with this mindset can you set yourself up for success.” Speaking a foreign language is a similar exercise. You have to understand that people may think about something completely differently than you do, and that the language and cultural rules may take years of practice to learn. When I was planning to move to California, I was given a simple warning from a friend: “And remember, if someone offers you food, say yes right away or starve.” That’s because in the French culture, the correct and expected behavior is to vehemently decline – it’s the proper way to handle a generous offer. It would be uncouth to say “yes.” And, sure enough, one late night, I was really hungry, and a friend offered to share their slice of pizza. I politely declined, expecting them to insist. They didn’t. I got really, really hungry. When you inevitably make mistakes in another culture, the consequences will vary based on who you’re talking to. In an informal culture, making a slight faux pas will be quickly forgotten. But in a culture that values hierarchy and respect for authority, this same error could have dire consequences. It’s essential to learn how these other worlds operate. Similarly, understanding your customer this thoroughly could result in an elated super user at first sight, instead of someone who actively advocates against your experience. So make empathy your starting point, and learn from polyglots. Take the time to catalog your assumptions, observe behaviors as if you were studying inhabitants of another planet, and carefully listen and understand before offering a potential solution. Each of these steps is a valuable investment of your time. Simply put, this process can make the difference between a raging success and a heartbreaking failure. Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?