When does your relationship with a new employee begin? Much like relationships with customers, they begin long before you’re aware – from the first time the employee encounters your brand. From there, it’s a bit like a sales funnel as awareness increases, the prospective employee weighs their options, does some research, and finally decides to apply. The employee goes through the application and interview process, and – hurray! – they’re a great fit. They have a lot to offer you, you have a lot to offer them, they’re so excited to start their first day.
Fast-forward one year – that great-fit employee who was so excited to begin is gone.
The issues that lead to employee turnover may have their source in your onboarding – those first few, very important weeks of a new hire’s job. It’s why new hires are at a higher risk of leaving within their first year.
When you get onboarding right, retention rates rise, turnover falls, and you’ll see the ripple effects of higher engagement and productivity. Onboarding is an investment that pays off again and again over the course of the employee lifecycle.
“The seeds of animosity or advocacy are sown from and individual’s very first interaction with a company. The attraction, recruitment, hiring and onboarding stages – along with daily experiences that continue after onboarding – each affect how a candidate or employee feels about an organization and its promises… Gallup data reveal that companies are faltering even in the earliest stages of the employee experience.” – Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2017
Why Few Companies Get Onboarding Right
Too often, companies confuse onboarding with induction – the paperwork and mandatory tasks required to start a new job. Onboarding is much more than that. It’s your opportunity to set your employee up for success with their work, and engage with your company’s mission – the big WHY behind what you do.
“12% of employees strongly agree their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees” – Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2017
This is one of the missing pieces in most onboarding practices – sharing your ‘why’ and showing your values as a company. How do you help people? What impact do you have on your customers’ lives?
Aligning employees behind a shared sense of purpose has been proven to raise engagement levels — and with them, retention rates.
Sharing your purpose and values with your new hire will lay the foundations for engagement, but that’s not all they need to be successful. To understand that, you have to understand why new hires leave.
Why New Hires Leave
New hires are at the highest risk of leaving within the first year and a half, with the highest turnover happening within the first 45 days. What happens during that short period of time to send them running out the door?
“22% of staff turnover occurs in the first forty-five days of employment.” – The Wynhurst Group
“46% of rookies wash out in their first 18 months” – Leadership IQ, in a study of 20,000 new hired employees over 3 years
In one survey, 26% of departing employees cited mismatched expectations between their interviews and their actual work as the primary reason for leaving – and that’s an onboarding issue.
Onboarding is a time to make sure managers and new hires establish a shared set of expectations – hopefully the same set of expectations that were set up during the recruitment and interview process. At minimum, that means:
A job description that accurately and comprehensively describes the position.
A statement of how the individual position contributes to the broader purpose of the business (ie. how it impacts customers, why it’s important)
A discussion of the new hire’s goals, and what support they can expect from management
But there’s also a crucial, and less tangible, factor during onboarding – does the company culture match the expectations set during recruitment? If the onboarding experience falls flat, it can undermine the new relationship and cast doubt as to whether the new starter made the right decision.
“When employees don’t have the experience they were promised, they will likely make their unhappiness known – in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. They may start looking for new job opportunities, or they may become actively disengaged employees, meaning they develop such a distaste for their organization that they take deliberate steps to undermine its progress.”- Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2017
Get Onboarding Right & Raise Retention Rates Substantially
When you lay the foundations for engagement, success and aligned expectations, employees have what they need to do well in their work and feel part of something bigger. And that is a recipe for retention.
But those aren’t the only ingredients required. A positive onboarding experience gives employees a strong start, but you also need to follow through on those first impressions. Employees need to feel supported by management, able to connect their work to the company’s larger purpose, and feel like the company lives its values. It’s a relationship that requires care and feeding, like any other.
“Employees are consumers of the workplace. They are drawn to brands they can connect with. And they stick with – even advocate for – brands that honor their promises.”- Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2017
In other words, a great onboarding experience only works to increase retention when companies follow through and live up to the hopes of their new hires.
Do push notifications increase retention? Hah! I spent the first 10 minutes of my morning disabling push notifications AGAIN from my phone (because apparently app ‘updates’ = resetting my notification settings?).
This morning though, my phone was pinging for no reason I could find at all. Disable. Disable. Disable. Like someone from Facebook should have listened when PostFunnel’s Matt McAllister said “Push notification permissions are a privilege… Users can take them away at any time.”
So I’ve got this crazy idea:
What if we took another look at how we use push notifications, and this time, see it through the lens of Customer Success?
How can we use push notifications to *help* our customers be successful with our product?
Not just ‘ping’ them into submission.
Let’s think about that for a moment, in the context of what your app does, who uses it, and what their ideal real-world outcomes are. Can getting a message at just the right moment help them (not just you) be successful?
And how about a crazier idea – most of the ‘push notifications’ we want to see are the ones alerting us that a personal friend, or a client, or a human (vs. a brand), or a member of a group we’re in, have said something interesting, that we might want to know about, NOW.
That’s right – the most effective push notifications are based on human relationships. Shocker!
This is actually great news when you’re trying to use push notifications to drive retention and engagement, because relationships also drive retention and engagement!
What if you focused on building relationships, say, with a social media community built around your product, and when something of interest is posted in that space, send a push notification to invite users into that conversation? I always want to know what’s happening and who’s saying what in my Facebook groups and Slack channels. That will always get me to click.
But when you start with what your customer needs and wants, they’re not going to spend their mornings like I did – disabling your push notifications!
Last year, there were more than 20 million apps on iOS App Store and 3.5 million on Google Play.
In 2017, the average person had 80 apps on their smartphone – but, only used half of those apps on a monthly basis.
The odds of someone becoming a long-term user are really slim. Only 29% of app users continue using any given app after 3 months.
In that landscape (appscape?), retention is an enormous challenge. And a lot of SaaS companies are trying techniques in Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, using push notifications and emails as “external triggers” to get people to essentially practice going to the app and building positive associations with it. Almost like building muscle memory.
Or an addiction.
But let’s look on the sunny side of the street (while acknowledging that the shady side is really dark) for a moment.
One of the ideas in Hooked that I like most is “habit testing” your product. The Habit Testing process places a lot of emphasis on understanding “Who your devotees are,” in addition to “what part of your product is habit forming, if any” and “why those aspects of your product are habit forming.”
Understanding your customer is where every retention effort should start.
Talking to your best customers to find out why they use your product, how they use it, and when is vitally important. Using that information to tweak your user flow to get your customers to their goals faster and easier is the raw material of retention.
But I would go farther. I recommend interviewing your best customers (or people you believe will be your best customers, if you haven’t yet launched) to find out what they’d really like to do, and how your app moves them closer to that goal.
That goal that lives outside your app.
Let’s take Facebook for example. My goal as a Facebook user is to stay in touch with my friends, feel a sense of community and camaraderie in my groups, and share photos of my cats. Facebook has won my long-term usage by making it easier (mostly) for me to do these things by suggesting “people you may know,” sending notifications when someone posts in one of my groups, and allowing me to upload kitten pics in HD.
And, of course, there are the psychological rewards built in – the dopamine boost of the “notifications” tab, the constant drip of “what will show up on my feed next?!”
But if it didn’t get me closer to my core goals? I could live without Facebook. Happily.
The ways in which you engage your customers should be ways that help them reach their goals. Whether those are emotional goals (I’m bored! I want to see kittens playing in boxes! Hello YouTube!), practical goals (I must budget! Baby needs a new scratching post!), self-improvement goals (I will eat kale at every meal!), or professional goals (I’m going to make Partner in 5 years!).
We can personalize in-app experiences to nudge people towards making real progress. We have that technology. And I predict that, when customers are tired of being manipulated into forming habits that may not be in their best interests, they will gravitate towards apps that are genuinely designed to help them become better versions of themselves.
If you’re charting customer success milestones into your user flow and/or onboarding processes, congratulations! You are way ahead of those who don’t. But before I can offer the panacea statement “You’re doing everything right!” – there’s one step you might be missing.
It’s easy to miss, because it’s counter-intuitive.
It’s counter-intuitive, because, being the very good CSM that you are, you’ve done ALLTHERESEARCH on your target customer. You know what they want to do and need to get done with your product. And you are building milestones into your product to keep them on track.
But here’s the missing link.
It’s easy to assume that time to first value is the same as time to first milestone.
And understanding the difference is very… well… valuable.
We’re talking dollars and cents, make-or-break your company valuable.
First, a couple of definitions for the newly initiated:
Your Milestones: Typical milestones include trial period, sale, onboarding, product usage, upsell opportunity, renewal, etc. These are your milestones – the things you’d like your customers to accomplish so your product is successful. These are not your customer’s milestones.
Customer Success Milestones: The steps a customer has to take in order to reach their desired outcome. (Lincoln Murphy’s definition.) You can also think of them as the little successes along the way to reaching the customer’s ultimate success.
Time to first value (TTFV): Time to first value is how much time it takes for the customer to get real, tangible value from using your product. And this is “value” by their definition, not yours. This first value is probably going to be related to your value proposition – that promise that got your customers in the door in the first place.
The onboarding process, in particular, is where we really win or lose customers – and the surest way to win them is to show them value. In The Most Important SaaS Metric Nobody Talks About, RRE ventures connects the dots between the value proposition and time to first value in a nice, concise way:
“Onboarding should emphasize and reinforce the value prop that drove the user to your product in the first place. Sign-up should be frictionless and deployment should be self-service to the point where the customer is up and running in minutes and, most importantly, getting value from your product a few moments right after.”
A few moments isn’t much time to deliver value, and if your product simply can’t manage that – you’re not alone.
Lincoln Murphy has been noodling over the idea of time to first value for a while – and I particularly like what he has to say about including “quick wins” in the onboarding process. Quick wins don’t have to happen within the first “20 minutes” like the RRE Ventures article suggests, but they do need to happen fast enough to prove that your product is worth the time/money investment before the customer loses interest (or patience).
Reaching that first value quickly is easier in simpler SaaS products. But what if you have a complicated product, one which does a lot of things and has a steeper learning curve? I asked Lincoln Murphy, Founder of Sixteen Ventures to weigh in on time to first value, and what the TTFV process looks like for a more complicated product.
Time to First Value (TTFV) Podcast ft. Lincoln Murphy
Lincoln on Time to First Value
Since there’s some confusion over value versus milestones, Lincoln clears that up first.
I like TTFV because it forces us to think about value; milestones can quickly devolve into the typical inward-focused CX of just trying to get a customer to do what we want, not what they need to do.
The purpose of milestones is to get the customer closer to finding value – I might have to go through several milestones to reach first value. If a milestone isn’t value-based – if it’s not moving the customer toward their Desired Outcome – it isn’t a milestone. Or it isn’t a milestone in the context of Customer Success.
Also remember that “first value” may be actual value delivered (or received, depending upon your POV) or it could be when the value potential is first recognized by the customer outside of their interactions with sales and marketing.
More complex products often take awhile for value to be truly recognized, so the value potential is what we focus on initially.
Lincoln on First Value when it’s Complicated
Onboarding design is usually about prompting the new customer to complete “setup” tasks and/or learning how to use the product.
It’s a bit like creating a new character when you want to play your computer game – you pick a name, do some cosmetic surgery on the face, choose a species (I know I’m not the only RPG gamer here). The best games make that part fun too, because they know that fun is their customer’s desired outcome. It’s not that different for SaaS products, but with SaaS products – especially those adopted by teams and businesses, you also have to manage expectations.
Setting up the system is part of getting to first value, but you need to be prescriptive and manage expectations with them along the way, meaning you really have to understand what first value actually is [for the customer] and design a process to get them there quickly.
Structure begets trust.
The more we can help our customer set things up and manage expectations on their end, so they can plan for it accordingly, the more they’ll trust us. Often it’s the unknown that causes our customers to lose confidence in us.
The unknown is problematic because it’s confusing, hard to plan around. Sometimes, onboarding processes are even confusing on purpose.
For most vendors, the onboarding process is a total black box, at least throughout the sales process, and only then does it become more apparent that it’s… not actually that great.
You see this when vendors try to hide the details of onboarding from their customers until it’s too late for customers to back out. We need to be open, prescriptive and structured with our customers.
That said, very often, the setup, implementation, data seeding, integrations, etc., aren’t necessary to getting the customer to first value. That’s a huge idea, because vendors often don’t understand what initial value is for the customer. They think that in order for a customer to get value they have to have everything set up. The customer has to have all the implementations and integrations complete.
The reality is that’s not true.
It may be true for the customer to get ultimate value, but that’s not first value. The critical piece here is understanding the difference.
Back to my role-playing games – sometimes the setup is more fun than the game. That’s doing it right. ie. finding the first value insta-fast. But in the serious world of SaaS, product development and sales folks are so concentrated on full adoption, that they miss opportunities to identify other, in-between ways in which their customers can get closer to their ideal outcomes.
Most vendors have an idea of value for their customers and that idea usually greatly varies from the idea of value that their customers have for themselves. The vendors’ idea of value is often full adoption, full breadth and depth. Customers must use all the seats and every feature or they can’t be successful, but your customers tend to have something else in mind. They have a business outcome that they need to achieve and that may not require what *you* think success really is.
The question is: do you care about what your customer sees as success? Or do you care about what you see as success?
You have to make a decision. If it’s all about you, all about that full depth and breadth of use, that’s fine, but know that’s not the same as your customer’s definition of success.
And that’s going to be a problem.
So how do we dig deeper and find out what first values to target?
We need to ask what is their ultimate business outcome and what would first value actually be?
Is it when they first get some real tangible value, or is it the first time, outside of sales and marketing, that they see the potential for value in their relationship with us? Figure out which one it is and that’s your onboarding goal.
Now we have to engineer a process to get them to that point.
Here’s the deal: We have this ultimate business outcome, and to get there we have to achieve these smaller outcomes along the way – an initial outcome followed by logical milestones.
If they don’t achieve those first few milestones, their ultimate goals don’t really matter because they won’t get there. This is why we see so much churn and non-renewal attributed to early lifecycle issues.
It’s your job as the vendor to know what that initial outcome is and help them achieve that in the appropriate way, and you have to know what those milestones are on the way to the next logical outcome.
But because software vendors often invest millions and millions into features, they want to shove those features on customers as quickly as possible instead of understanding what the customer needs and just giving them that.
Instead, vendors tend to overwhelm their customers with too much stuff – features, tasks, integrations, enhancements, training, whatever – and the customer never gets any real value because they’re never really onboarded.
And how does timing work in this onboarding process? It’s not tied to the typical 30 days – that’s for sure!
I see a lot of vendors tie their onboarding to some artificial time frame, usually 30 days. And they say, “Well, they’ve been a customer for 30 days, check that box, they’re onboard now.” So even though they have an onboarding process, they have some arbitrary time frame, they overwhelm the customer, and then they say after that 30 days, the customer is onboard.
This makes no sense.
Then, of course, the customer complains they’re not getting any value and the vendor blames them for not finding value from this – obviously – super valuable product. There’s a mentality that has to change here.
Treat time to first value as a goal.
Every customer achieves success in their own timeline. We have to set a goal for them. We would like our customers, or at least a specific customer segment, to achieve first value either by getting actual value from their relationship with us, or, for the first time, see that real value potential in the product.
We want them to achieve that milestone in 30 days, but that’s a number we made up. It might take them 3 days, or three months. We might have to intervene, or it might be fine. It’s a goal. And we want to make sure that, if things aren’t fine, we intervene before those 30 days are up and get them back on track.
Instead of saying we have a complex product, we should start viewing it as a complex customer relationship. If they have a more complex goal, we’re going to have to work with them in various ways to help them achieve that goal. It’s not a complex product – the product is there to facilitate success through this relationship. It’s a different way to look at things.
But at the end of the day, you need to know what the ultimate value is, and you need to know what first value is, so you can design and engineer a process to meet them where they are and get them to that first value.
What other people are saying about TTV
Of course, Lincoln isn’t the only one talking about time to first value. Here’s what other SaaS industry insiders are saying.
“This is surprisingly tricky to define, because on the surface it would simply be “the amount of time it takes for someone to experience value from your product,” but HOW MUCH value is necessary for you to officially call it “finished”? Ideally, you provide some value in your product’s very first experience, but if that was also equal to all of the value someone COULD EVER get out of your product, you probably don’t have much of a product at all. Instead of coming up with a rule of thumb for when it’s “enough value to count”, I would instead focus on something like “value per minute”, wherein you focus on delivering more and more value more and more efficiently, kind of like this concept in video game design.
Of course, the people who NEVER receive value will skew that ratio way down, but, well… that’s sort of the point!”
“Are you familiar with the character Walsh on Firefly and how he uses the word “Shiny?” When I’m thinking about this in my own head, I think Time-To-Shiny. You’re looking for a combination of both a) delight and b) either demonstrably improving someone’s life or credibly demonstrating that you have the capability of doing so. Twilio, for example, has among the best Time-To-Shiny of any complicated, development-heavy software product you’ll ever use. You can credibly promise a massive improvement in folks lives as soon as their phone rings in response to code they have written; Twilio can have that happening in ~30 seconds or so for a new user if they’re being guided; perhaps ~5 minutes or so if they’re a motivated self-starter. How to improve it? One, figure out a way to track it obsessively. Two, cheat like a mofo; ruthlessly defer as much as possible about the full experience until AFTER you have achieved that one moment of concentrated joy. Exact tactics for doing this depend a lot on the product at issue; often they involve (e.g.) having fake data pre-loaded in accounts so that someone doesn’t have to do weeks of data entry prior to seeing any improvement in their lives, scripted onboarding experiences, etc.”
“Studying survival analysis taught me a great rule of thumb for this. The highest likelihood of TTV is always the moment after signing up. This is when the user is active, it’s only downhill from there. Having realized this, I’ve guided the team to really focus on onboarding well. Incorporating UX research is invaluable to get customers to TTV faster. TTV is a curve. Some reach it in seconds, other years or even never. I think of it in terms of influencing a curve rather than a discrete point. The key is using statistics to measure TTV, but qualitative UX research to guide the improvements.”
How are you building value into your product or onboarding process? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!
When you make a sale, what is the first thing on your to do list? Happy dance? Happy hour? A night out on the town?
May I make a suggestion?
How about making another sale? And another, and another.
This isn’t a fast-talking sales technique or a short-lived marketing gimmick; it’s the result of customer success done well. When you have a robust customer success program, you can start celebrating multiple sales within much shorter periods of time.
As you know, the new customer sales journey is a long and arduous road. But the current customer sales journey? It’s like a quick trip down to the market to pick up a carton of milk – at least in comparison. Numerous studies show that current customers are far more likely to buy again than prospective customers are to buy the first time. Customer success capitalizes on this, and so can you.
You know that space, perhaps a vast expanse or a narrow gorge, between what your customer wants to have happen, and what your product actually delivers? Lincoln Murphy coined a term for this – he calls it the “Success Gap.”
But in between your customer’s desired outcome…
And what your product does…
Is a space brimful of opportunities.
But it’s also where many companies run into trouble.
As Murphy says – you might think you have one gap to bridge, but you actually have two. The first gap is between your product’s functionality and your customers’ hopes. The second gap is between what you assume your customers’ successful use of your product is – and what success means to them. Watch out for that step, because it’s a doozy.
What a customer’s success looks like to you (don’t be fooled)
Let’s say you’re tracking customer usage of your product (as you should be) and you notice that a customer is following all of the patterns that you’ve seen make for a successful, long-term, happy client. That doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a gap. Even if they are completing all the tasks, do you really know whether they’re reaching their desired outcome?
What if their desired outcome is out of your control – and far outside the scope of your product?
You might be thinking, “well, then there’s nothing I can do. Not my problem.”
Oh, but it is your problem! It’s your problem to solve. Because that’s where the opportunities live.
See, while you may be selling a product, that’s not what your customers are buying. They’re buying a desired outcome, and if they don’t get that desired outcome, they feel like they’ve wasted their money.
Therefore, if your customers are using your product, it behooves you to know whether they are finding success with it – by their definition – and if not, you have a chance to help.
Opportunities in the gap
This is where customer success content can make a huge difference. Let’s say your company is an e-newsletter service that captures email signups and lets users create simple newsletters with templates. Your customer Robin sends out a newsletter every month for six months, but his open rates are dismal because his newsletters are staggeringly boring!
Robin might be faithfully using your product, but that’s a far cry from getting the kind of engagement he dreamed of when he signed up.
If you’ve set up the right data, maybe you can target exactly what is going awry for your less-than-successful customers and create a content strategy around that. But, even if you don’t have that kind of data set up, you can think in terms of “What does my customer need to do his or her job better?” Create content around that, and you’re narrowing the gap.
But, content isn’t the only way to bring the two sides together. You could also develop additional services, add-ons, or partnerships. Maybe better templates that include grammar-checks and suggestions for how to craft titles for higher open rates? Maybe you form a partnership with a copywriting company to do a webinar on writing attention-grabbing copy?
Use that success gap as a jumping-off point for ideas to make your customer go “Oh? Yeah!”
I think Lincoln Murphy sums it up best: “If you know a customer is not achieving their Desired Outcome, either automatically or because the customer self-reports, don’t just let that stand… give them something to do, read, watch, or otherwise learn to improve the result next time.”
But I would add this: People are busy, distracted, and have other priorities. Because of this, we want solutions delivered on a silver platter and we’re willing to pay for the privilege. So don’t stop at instruction delivered by webinar, blog, email or newsletter – find ways to build these success lessons into the product itself.
Existing customers are where successful B2B SaaS companies make money, which makes reducing churn the key to sustainability, growth, and — what we all want — swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck.
But in today’s highly competitive market, you’ll need more than a lucky dime (or even a really great product) to prove your ongoing worth to your current customers. You need some serious SaaS retention hacks.
Let’s take three things as given:
You have a great product that solves somebody’s problems.
You are already attracting your ideal customers.
Your challenge now is keeping them.
Stop Churn Lesson 1: Listen to the signals your customers are giving you
A good animal trainer knows that before an animal misbehaves, it will give a cue. Whether that’s the cock of an ear or the swish of a tail, there’s always a sign. And, if you catch that sign in time, you can prevent the behavior. People are no different. When someone disengages with your product, there are signs, and you can track them.
If you’re not sure what to track in the beginning, look for gaps in activity, or if you have something like an e-mail marketing service, see if anyone is downloading their list of contacts. You may even want to have an exit survey. Once you know which behaviors indicate imminent departure, you can start to construct a plan.
Stop Churn Lesson 2: Easy Fixes
Don’t let credit cards expire. Don’t let credit cards expire! It’s really simple and it’s easy money. The only trick is to find a billing system that provides a credit card updater service, which will automatically let users know when their cards are about to expire.
Stop Churn Lesson 3: Learn Why They Came in the First Place
Conducting an onboarding survey, when clients are just signing up, can give you invaluable insights into what your clients are hoping to find and expecting to get. It doesn’t have to be a survey in the Survey Monkey sense — having questions as part of your onboarding drip is an awesome trick of itself. You can use this information to drive your Customer Success initiatives and increase engagement. To help your clients use your product successfully, you have to understand what success means to them. Entrance surveys will also tell you whether you’re setting yourself up to over-promise and under-deliver.
Stop Churn Lesson 4: Stay on their Radar
Whether they’re in your app or on their Facebook page, you should have a presence on their desktop, smartphone and tablet. But, you have to do it the right way. With strong content marketing that provides value and interest, combined with responsive, fun and friendly social media staff, you can continue to develop relationships (read: engagement) with your clients all day, every day.
Don’t be afraid to interact with them. Joke with them. Answer their questions. Offer tips. Sharing your helpful blog posts is just the tip of the iceberg! Most importantly, become your clients’ friends. Friends don’t leave friends for cheaper friends — you know what I mean?
Stop Churn Lesson 5: Partner Up
Developing partnerships with complimentary services is a great way to expand your reach, increase your usefulness, and make it more difficult for people to leave. You can either join an established group or form your own by inviting companies to build add-ons and integrations for your product.
I’m going to let my Geek flag fly high for a moment and cite the Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim. By opening up Skyrim to amateur and professional mods, they continue to add interest and value even if you’ve beaten the game five times already. They’ve partnered with their users and that game may outlive us all.
Well, so far I’ve cited Scrooge McDuck and Skyrim, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead and just say this: When your customers can unsubscribe any time, you have to keep providing compelling reasons to stay. Customer Success and churn reduction are two sides of the same coin — or even, one might say, the same Number One Dime…
Not just when you’re developing or marketing a product, but through every stage of the customer lifecycle.
It sounds simple — but it’s not easy: talking with your customers through every stage of the customer lifecycle.
There’s been a lot said about the value of talking to your customers before you build the product to ensure market fit, but very little said about continuing the conversation past marketing and past the sale.
Why do I know talking with your customer is *the* very best predictor of, and contributor to, SaaS business growth? Because creating a constant flow of customer feedback, input, and conversation makes Customer Experience (CX) better.
“User research saves time. Period. When you actually understand what your user needs before you build things, you have a much lower chance of having to go back and rebuild everything after shipping something that nobody uses.”
But what does “talking with your customer” really mean?
It’s not like you’re inviting them over for tea and cookies every week for a casual catch-up (though that would be awesome, and you should do that and invite me).
When we say “talk to your customers,” or “listen to your customers,” I usually mean getting on the phone with them (or better, meeting up with them in person). But, it can also mean sending surveys that include long-form response fields, or building quicker in-app surveys into your roadmap to uncover moments of friction.
And, of course, if you’re earlier in your business, there’s the Lean approach of interviewing dozens of target customers in person and over the phone — groundwork that helps founders (and product developers and marketers) form better hypotheses around what will deliver the best product-market fit.
There’s also user testing.
These are all valid ways of listening to your customers. But I’d like to advocate for doing all of these things and going several steps further. I’m talking about combining all of the above and adding genuine conversations to the mix.
It’s just not input. It’s just not feedback. It’s getting to know your customers as human beings and building relationships with them that drive positive CX far more powerfully than any of these elements could do alone.
So much has been written about interviewing customers prior to developing products that I’d like to focus on how to keep communication lines open after the launch, after customer acquisition, starting with onboarding.
Track more than actions, during and after onboarding
The first key to ensuring communication stays clear and open is to observe your customers. We communicate far more by our actions than we do verbally, and tracking the actions of your customers, especially (but not limited to) during onboarding can tell you the truths you need to hear.
Tracking customer behavior during onboarding and throughout product use allows you to see:
Time to first value (how long is it taking?)
Where customers run into trouble and need tech support
When customers typically need Customer Success help to reach their desired outcomes
Which customers reach their success milestones (the points in their user journeys where they see real progress towards their ideal outcomes)
And which customers don’t reach their success milestones
Yes, you want to track how well your customers accomplish the required tasks outlined in your User Flow, but usually, tracking stops there. If they press the right buttons at the right times, if they input the requested information, if they log in relatively regularly, it’s easy to assume customers are happily using your product.
But that’s not always the case. There may be ‘success gaps’ you can’t see that are causing churn. FYI: A ‘success gap’ is “the gap between what you think represents the customers’ successful use of your product and what they think equates to success,” according to Lincoln Murphy.
This is where aptly timed in-app surveys come in handy, which I’ll get to in the next section.
Segment for easily managing your tools without dev
Check in with event trigger-based surveys
While you’re tracking user behaviors, successes and failures, you’ll also want to check in with your users in an unobtrusive way to get their feedback at specific points in their user journeys.
For example, if you identify a page or prompt during onboarding that tends to ‘lose’ people, have a trigger-based in-app AI chatbot pop up and offer to clarify, or transfer them to an agent. (This, incidentally, would have saved my relationship with more than one app! If you hit a ‘wall’ during onboarding, the odds of completing the process and becoming a successful customer are terrible — unless you get timely help).
You can set up event trigger-based surveys to deploy when users spend too much time on a page, ‘click away’ before completing the action, or when they’ve been ‘dormant’ (not logging in) for a while.
By giving customers opportunities to tell you they’re confused, are experiencing failure, aren’t getting the results they’d hoped for, or are suffering from a lack of time/motivation/technical skills etc., you will know who is really at risk of churning in time to save them, and really impress them with your customer service skills.
Finding friction with customer effort scores
Another place where checking in with your customer can really pay off is after the onboarding sequence is complete. It’s a perfect time to ask “How difficult was this?” (aka. A Customer Effort Score survey). The easier a process is, the less friction people experience, and the more likely they will be to complete your desired actions and reach their desired outcomes.
Then, after your new user has had a chance to put your product to work, you should send out a Net Promoter Score survey (NPS) to find out how they *really* feel about your product. Do they like it enough to recommend it to a friend or colleague? That’s an excellent indicator of how well they’re succeeding. And be sure to send an NPS follow-up question to understand the why behind the score.
Tools that can help:
Wootric: For these types of in-app surveys, I recommend Wootric. Their dashboard makes it very easy to understand what you’re seeing, and they do great work with extrapolating insights from qualitative data questions too.
The Game Changer: Have real conversations in your community
Tracking what customers do and asking them what they think at strategic points is a very good start; the trouble is, that’s where most B2B SaaS companies begin and end. But B2B SaaS businesses are subscription-based. They’re in this for the long-haul. They depend on customers sticking around (customer lifetime value! retention!).
And that means you also have to build relationships with your customers.
This is why I so strongly advocate that B2B SaaS companies build social communities around their products. It’s an opportunity to relate to your customers as people.
The bonuses are many. B2B SaaS product communities give you:
An on-tap resource of customers who are delighted to answer your questions and give you real-time feedback on everything you do
A straight line to your most engaged customers
A real-time capability of helping customers in trouble and creating delightful experiences for them, on a public forum, with everyone else watching (warm fuzzies all around!)
An opportunity to cultivate a culture around your brand and a genuine community
The most important thing to remember about building a community is that it’s not a one-sided arrangement. This isn’t a place for you to ‘shout into the void’, post blog posts nobody reads, try to ‘sell’ or advertise. It’s a place where you and your customers can come together around your common interests. Human to human.
Tools that can help:
Your social community of choice!
Bring it all together now!
When you are tracking user behavior in your product, identifying predictive patterns of behaviors/successes/failures, locating trouble-spots and offering timely help, checking in with surveys to ask your customers what they think — in their own words and with numerical ratings, AND forging human-to-human relationships in the casual setting of social media groups, you’ll see a few things happen…
Your referrals will skyrocket as more customers achieve success
Your retention rates will go through the roof
Your acquisition and product development spend with become more efficient (as you target the right prospects, and use customer feedback to guide your iterations)
This is a guest post by Sue Duris, Director of Marketing and CX at M4 Communications.
Every startup wants to succeed. Startups want it bad. They know nine out of 10 startups fail. They want to be that one that succeeds!
They spend all their time first making that great product. And trying to make it better. They add to it. A new bell here. A new whistle there.
And when they think they have the next big thing that’s going to disrupt the market, they go hunting for capital, trying to get any venture capitalist and angel investor they can to fund them.
“Capital first” is the battle cry so built into the startup community that whichever startup event people attend, the conversation seems to always be about raising money.
Yet, when a founder does get an investor meeting, typically investors want evidence to support founder claims. They want to see metrics such as monthly and annual recurring revenue, active users, renewal rates, customer acquisition cost, customer lifetime value, and the like.
They also want to know about the market and the customer, in addition to your product. Is the market big enough? Who is your customer? What value do they get from your product? What kind of traction do you have in the marketplace?
Do you know this info?
While startups make their primary focus about raising capital, they place their secondary focus, if at all, on the customer.
Many times I hear startups tell me “I’ll focus on user and customer research after I get funding”.
Too many startup founders feel that getting funding is the magic pill that will solve all of their problems and put them on some fast-track to success.
But, don’t investors want to know about your customer strategy – i.e. how you make money – before they give you money?
Raising capital is very important. But to focus on it first is the wrong approach.
The first thing a startup should do is achieve product-market fit.
It is everything.
It typically determines whether you succeed or fail. It’s what sustains a startup and enables it to grow.
Make something people want.
It seems basic.
Creating a product that doesn’t fit what the market wants is silly. Yet, many do exactly this.
And if a startup doesn’t achieve product-market fit, chances are it will fail.
According to CB Insights, who has been compiling failed startup post-mortems, the #1 reason startups fail is because they don’t achieve product-market fit. This is cited by 42% of CEO’s of failed startups.
Product-market fit is hard work and it takes time. There is no doubt about that. Yet, it’s too much work for some founders. They want the glory but not going through all the blood, sweat, and tears to do the work.
This is where things become paradoxical.
These are the same startups that worry about churn.
“We have to eliminate churn,” they say.
But to ultimately reduce churn means you have to first retain your customers, build loyalty and drive customer lifetime value.
So what is product-market fit and why does it matter?
You have to keep on working towards it. You have to give your customer that experience. The experience is the product. And it all starts with product-market fit. And making everything about the customer.
To get to product-market fit, ask yourself:
What is the unmet/under met need my company or product is attempting to fulfill?
How do I meet that need?
What value do I deliver to my customer that enables them to achieve their business outcomes? What is my customer’s WOW or aha moment?
That moment is what gets you to the value. But it isn’t only the value, it’s how quickly you can get to that value. Time-To-Value is key.
You have to know your why – why do they buy from you?
You have to know the what – what is resonating for them that is compelling them to buy from you?
Then you must know the actions and behaviors they have with you that’s helping them be successful.
Knowing your why, and how customers use your product is what will sustain you.
This is THE WORK.
And, you’ve got to do the work if you want to drive revenue, growth and customer lifetime value.
This work will get you to a minimum viable product, which you can use to gain traction, which you can use to get noticed by investors, which will help you get funded.
Having the insights from product-market fit is what drives and sustains growth.
Can product-market fit be measured?
It’s questionable. But there are certain trends you can look for in the product-market fit path.
Retention is the social proof to product-market fit. Other metrics to be watching for product-market fit include NPS, Customer Effort Score (CES), increased sales (upsells, cross-sells, and greater share of wallet). Win-Loss can also hold insights to how healthy product-market fit is.
I scratch my head when companies don’t focus on retention. They should double-down on it. Yet, for many, it’s an after-thought.
44% of respondents don’t know their customer retention rates, that’s one in three companies don’t know this vital info!
This aligns fairly well to my research that 2/3 of marketing budgets focus on acquisition activities and 1/3 is focused on retention.
This is another head-scratcher.
Companies place more resources on acquisition and feel it is more valuable than retention. Forget about data points from Bain – it costs 6-7 times more to acquire a customer than retain one – or Gartner – 80% of your future profits come from only 20% of your existing customers.
There are numerous reasons for the push on acquisition.
This is the culture of the organization and how it measures success. Marketing doesn’t view itself as responsible for retention (to this I find fascinating, considering many marketing departments feel they own customer experience). Retention gets passed around so many times that ultimately no one ends up owning it. Investing and analyst communities place high value on acquisition and so CEO’s follow suit to be in lock step. Leaders have number-envy.
Ultimately, retention must be a mindset that is engrained in the culture.
It also troubles me when I hear people say product-market fit is elusive.
You want to determine product-market fit?
Get out there and research. Find people. Ask people. Take the data they give you and identify insights to help you craft your business model. Do the work.
Raising capital is vital. But it should not be the first plan of attack. Startups must make product-market fit job #1. All roads to startup success begin there.
There’s no one B2B SaaS marketing strategy that will win the day all by its lonesome self. A good strategy will perform best when grounded in a holistic, company-wide commitment to customer success.
With that in mind, here’s my ‘recipe’ of sorts:
Analyze what your customers need to succeed with you (aka. Their ‘success potential’) and check for customer fit. This will help you target your ideal customers – the ones who need your product, can succeed with your product, and will probably love your product.
Create a customer-centric onboarding (not product centric) process that moves the customer closer to their ideal outcomes. Ie. rather than just teaching them how to use the tool, move them through the process of using your tool to get measurably closer to reaching their goal (and then celebrate every milestone so *they* know they’re getting closer to their ideal outcomes!). In-app messaging, with tools like Intercom, are ideal for this.
Drive engagement through Customer Success. This can be done with the SaaS marketing journey that Trevor Hatfield and I devised. Inbound marketing alone isn’t sufficient for SaaS; it leaves out a vitally important part of the equation. Writing customer success content (content that helps customers reach their ideal outcomes) is the other part, because successful customers increase referrals and decrease acquisition costs.
Design a solid offboarding experience to win back customers who are considering canceling (they haven’t churned yet!). Consider creating an ‘offboarding workflow’ that asks the user what their reason is for wanting to cancel, then presents a solution – like educational content or contacting support – as an alternative to cancellation.
Yeah, none of these fall under the typical marketing purview, I know. But, in my opinion, these are the steps you need to take to build the kind of sustainable, customer-centric business that’s so beloved, your customers will do your marketing for you. (Don’t worry Marketing department, they won’t take your jobs – just make them easier!)