Mark Gally | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Gally


Boston-based Zaius is a business-to-consumer customer relationship–management platform that empowers B2C marketers to create more timely and effective campaigns and better understand why and how their customers shop. As a senior executive with more than 20 years of experience leading software companies, Mark Gally has scaled and managed companies with exponential annual growth and has held positions at TribeHR, MicroStrategy and Siebel Systems. 

The Mistake

This mistake goes back more than 20 years, to when I thought I knew more than the customer and didn’t take the time to listen.

At the time, I was heading a customer-success division in the Pacific Northwest, and I was trying to enforce my will upon a specific client. I had a timeline I was driving to, and I believed I knew the metrics of that project better than the client did. I was kind of cocky, and I’d only been in the job one or two years. The client went to my boss and said, “He’s not listening to us,” and I was moved off of the account.

I got crushed by the client. What really rattled me was the economic buyer of that client called me [by mistake], thinking that I was my boss. When he called he said, “I’m looking for [boss’ name] and I said, “Well you have me, is there anything I can do to help?” And the client said, “I need to speak to [your boss],” and he then called her. I knew at that moment I was in trouble.

When you’re out in a field-level position, you ultimately have to rely on yourself to be successful. The fact that I was thrown off the account — I could recognize what I had done. No one else was responsible. I wasn’t listening to the client, and I was trying to tell them what to do.

You can’t perfect a product or a company in a vacuum; you have to listen to your customers.

The Lesson

The lesson learned is that you can’t perfect a product or a company in a vacuum; you have to listen to your customers. I learned that I wasn’t [doing that] at all. I was fundamentally trying to impart my will and coming up with success metrics and project goals in a vacuum.

I’ve been helping startups for more than 13 years now, and what’s been successful in growing all of them is using sales, marketing and customer success to listen to the customer. There isn’t a faster way of getting feedback when you’re trying to launch and sell a product or service than by going through your customers directly.

Sometimes organizations will leverage internal knowledge only, and they’ll take a lot of time to perfect a product, but they don’t take it to market, and they don't try to sell it.

Every time I go into a company, I’ll put together a small go-to-market team with two salespeople, and for the first six to nine months, I’ll act as a salesperson, so I can understand what the clients want. I can’t teach someone how to sell or market a product if I can’t do it on my own. I spend that time really listening to the customer. Instead of taking that time to try to perfect the product, I work on driving leads to real customers who expect to pay.

Everyone in an organization, whether they’re on the customer success team, in engineering or in sales and marketing, should ask themselves, “Am I helping make the customer’s life easier?” It’s not what you think the customer is doing [that counts]; instead, it’s what the customer really wants to do.

Zaius is on Twitter: @getzaius.

Photo courtesy of Mark Gally