I’m co-founder and VP of CS of an Inbound Marketing SaaS platform. My company has now over 8000 customers. Now, let me tell you a secret: nobody wants to use our software. Moreover, nobody wants to use your software too. There’s no welcoming for yet another B2B tool. What companies really want is to achieve their desired outcome. What you sell may or may not help them with that.
You might defy that logic by saying that a good user interface can make people want to use a B2B software; after all, people spend hours on Facebook or Snapchat. That’s true, but the purpose is entirely different. People use Facebook not because they have a particular desired outcome to achieve — it’s purely low energy entertainment. Nobody wakes up and think “I wish I could watch more funny videos of cats, but it is so damn hard to use Facebook.” Unfortunately, that applies to B2B software.
Think of it as staying healthy and fit. There is no doubt that everyone wants that. So, why do so many people fail to go on a diet and to exercise regularly? Because for most of them those things are difficult, unpleasant and boring. Moreover, not everyone gets what it takes to stay healthy and fit. User Experience is not enough to solve that equation.
Over the last few years, however, a new modality of training has caught on, making people stick to exercises: CrossFit. There are a few concepts within CrossFit that engage people in it: clear goals, shared results, competition (gamification), leveling, etc. Some would call that a methodology; I see it as the Customer Journey.
I’ve always had a hard time thinking about how our customer journey at RD should be. There are so many different authors writing different concepts about it; also, there are so many different things a customer can do with our software that every time I started thinking about our Customer Journey, it seemed too big and too complicated; until I started thinking about it as a methodology.
A methodology is what helps people who want to achieve something difficult. Either it is learning a new language, staying fit or achieving a company desired outcome. It offers a baby-step path, shortcuts, specific learning methods, leveling and clear goals.
Designing the Customer Journey to be a Methodology
As I said, I like to see the customer journey as a methodology. A simple journey is a path, while a methodology is a path and much more. A methodology presents a form of leveling the customer, so not everyone has to start from the beginning. It defines the best format for the customer to do or learn each one of the steps. It defines how to assess if a milestone has been achieved.
Here’s an overview of our methodology:
4 Different Phases
Because each phase is related to the company maturity stage in Inbound Marketing, it usually takes time for enterprises to evolve from one phase to another: months, years maybe. By defining those 4 Phases we are helping our customer to see the long run perspective and setting the right expectations. They can see how a company needs to change its structure and processes along the way.
Each Phase is divided into an array of Success Milestones. A Milestone is something meaningful for a customer to achieve; when a real value is perceived. It’s not too big: one milestone does not fulfill all customer’s initial expectations. It’s rather a building block of value, a result towards the desired outcome.
Consequently, a Success Milestone is divided into Tasks. They are a set of relevant and sequential steps, that do not add value themselves, but need to be carried out in order to reach the success milestone.
One Success Milestone can be an abstract “stepping stone” in the customer journey. However, to benefit from a defined Customer Journey we needed a strict way to assess if the customer had achieved it or not. So we established a group of actions the customer had to carry out inside the software, and minimum values for certain KPIs the customer should achieve, for us to consider he had reached the milestone.
How we run the project
Creating the whole journey was a long process.
Before designing the journey above, we ran a project to understand what success really meant, from our customers’ perspective, in their own words. We created a ten people focus-group; including all the VPs, the CEO and some experienced CSMs, to run one hundred hours of customer one-on-one interviews. I’ll write more about that project in a next blog post.
After we had understood what “success” meant to our customer, the same focus-group worked together to define the path to reach it. This time, however, we used our own experience, rather than more customer interviews to determine the path. It’s ok to ask clients what their problems and needs are, but the vendor is the one who is the expert and have to define the best path to solve them.
We counted mostly on the experience we had had at RD to design the methodology. After all, RD had walked through a path of hyper growth, going from zero to thousands of customers solely using Inbound and our own software as customer acquisition strategies. The group was experienced and knew the details of the path which had been taken by our most successful customers. Ultimately, we had every knowledge we needed to design the best customer journey possible.
Probably the same holds true for your company. The knowledge is already in the minds of your leaders and employees. People just need to sit at the same table and use some sort of creative process to design a customer journey. There’s no need for something fancy or too complex.
The group brainstorming the Customer Journey on the glass.
As I said before, phases represent the stage of maturity of the customer with Inbound Marketing. The least mature company is the one who doesn’t use Inbound Marketing strategies yet. In such stage, all that matters is to Prove the Channel: that’s why this is the first phase. Usually, the ones who buy our software are people who want to prove that Inbound Marketing can be a new channel for deals, either to grow a company faster or to close deals more efficiently. No further or bigger investments will be made unless they prove it to their bosses, to their company or to themselves.
Phases also define requirements to start, and usual time frame to complete each one of them. The objective is to set the right expectations. Nowadays, even our sales reps show the prospects the Phases before closing a deal. Before that, it was common to see customers churning just because they had unrealistic expectations about the results. The customers need to fully understand what it takes to overcome each phase.
Zooming in the first phase, you will see 4 Success Milestones. These milestones were designed to be perceived by the customer as a moment where they get real value out of the software. The goal is to show the customer that they achieved something to be proud of, that they are getting closer to their objective.
Aligning 1st Milestone with the Onboarding
The first milestone we designed is actually the value we expected to deliver during our onboarding time. An Onboarding must be more than configurations, integrations and training. A good Onboarding goes beyond “Go Live”, it delivers a first value. In our case, the first value is to launch a lead generation campaign.
A small lead generation campaign makes the customer try the full potential of Inbound Marketing and our software. Lead generation is also the core of the Inbound Marketing strategies and will be present in many future projects.
By aligning the first milestone with the onboarding project we simplified things. Our implementation services team not only works to set up the software for our customers, but they also help them hit the first success milestone.
The way we chose to chain the sequence of milestones was not necessarily to maximize end results. We crafted the methodology to maximize the throughput. The primary objective of a customer methodology must be to make customers engage with it and follow it until the end. If customers get stuck at some point, or if it takes too much time to see any real value, they are very likely to churn before they complete it. Particularly in the beginning of the journey, where time to value is crucial.
If you look at the first three milestones we defined, it might not seem the most logical sequence. The first step is a first lead generation campaign, a small batch of leads is expected, not enough to close deals. You might think that the next logical step should be a content plan to keep on generating more leads until it’s enough to close deals. But the truth is, a content plan is hard to do, it takes time and most of our customers get stuck in such a task. That’s why we defined Email Campaigns as the second step. Even though the customer doesn’t have enough leads yet, it’s easier to send good email campaigns for a few leads than trying to generate more. By doing so, they can get a sense of how they will nurture the leads they are still willing to generate. The customer sees value fast, they feel they are evolving, not stuck. Besides this, they also get engaged faster with different features of the software, which increases the lock in and commitment with the tool.
You must deliver some value before asking your customer to attempt harder tasks.
We broke milestones down into tasks with small objectives. A task list is a step by step to do list to complete a particular milestone. Tasks don’t add value per se but they are necessary to hit the milestone. The Task List for each Milestone gives the customer a plan. A plan minimizes decisions they need to make, making them focused on a straightforward path.
Does one size fit all?
There is one thing that freezes companies the most when designing a customer journey This was the strongest objection we faced during the project and even now, several months after it was launched, the idea that:
People often say that customers are not all equal and there should be a different journey for each persona at each stage. That’s true, one size does not fit all and the methodology we’ve designed is not the most appropriate for each one of the thousands of customers we have. However, you have to start from somewhere, and simplify otherwise the complexity will freeze you and eat you.
Consider the analogy with CrossFit I made at the beginning of this article. They may customize the plan for every CrossFit practitioner, but the methodology is the same for everyone. That’s what defines a good methodology: simplicity and success for the highest number of people who use it.
If you could design a lot of customized journeys, would it work better for your customers? Certainly, but that’s not what a SaaS is. A SaaS is not a consultancy company, or a product with a customized roadmap. The first thing you learn when building a SaaS software is not to add features just because someone asked. You try to build only one version of the software that fits the customers’ needs the most. The same holds true for a Customer Journey.
That’s why we started with a single path, only one journey. We may customize it in the future, maybe by persona, or by product plan. Even though, you can be sure that this Journey already works fine for at least 80% of our customers. Every customer thinks they are special and need something unique, but at the end of the day, if they have discipline and stick to a standard methodology they will achieve the results they expect.
Mapping customers along the Journey
After defining the Customer Journey, my engineer mind wouldn’t be satisfied if we didn’t have a way to assess which milestones each customer had achieved accurately.
That’s where the fun begins. If you automatically assess where the customer is on the journey, you can automate every message you send to him, or even customize the software interface, based on the Success Milestone he is at.
However, it’s not easy to setup such automatic assessment. A Success Milestone is often an abstraction and not a crystal clear definition. Take our first milestone for instance, “Lead Generation”, what defines a successful lead generation campaign may vary in different situations. We had to decide what we were expecting from a Lead Generation campaign to consider it completed. We ended up with a group of minimum actions and results like this:
Actions inside the software:
- Install the RD Station tracking code
- Create and Publish one Landing Page
- +15% conversion rate on the Landing Page
- +50 Leads
- +3 Qualified Leads
That may not be enough in some cases, or too much in others, but it is a crystal clear definition and it’s measurable. It’s a ‘checklist’.
We defined a similar ‘checklist,’ for every Success Milestone we had created.
Every morning Gainsight runs a rule (script) that assesses which customers have completed the ‘checklist,’ then it tags those customers with the correspondent milestone tag. It also, records the day when the “checklist” was completed. This process is critical, so we know, for every customer, what milestone they’ve achieved and when.
I’m pretty sure you can setup a similar workflow in a different tool if you’re not a Gainsight customer as well.
The Success Funnel
Now that we could segment customers based on the Success Milestones, the first report we created was a funnel to map the distribution of our customer base along the journey. It was something like this:
The Success Funnel (not real data)
The graph above shows the Success Funnel. We used it to find the bottlenecks in our journey, and where our customers got stuck the most. That way, we could focus all our Customer Success efforts on removing that bottleneck. By doing so we could maximize throughput of the funnel, which means more of our customers will achieve success faster.
We also compared the milestones with churn rate and the result blew our minds:
Churn VS Success Milestones (not real data)
The Milestones were (and still are) strongly correlated with higher retention and therefore customer success. That changed everything! Our obsession became making the customer hit milestones faster. A much more noble objective than firefighting churn, yet, still yielding concrete results.
When we compared Milestones with Health Score (product usage) the result couldn’t be different:
The further the customer goes in the Customer Journey, the more engaged he become. (not real data)
Aligning the Journey with the CSM work
One of the most important tasks of a CSM is to keep up with the Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) for their customers. A good QBR depends mostly on the CSM experience and talent. Every good business review should end with a plan for the customer to follow. To create such a plan, first an analysis of the customer must be done. A good CRM can help by summarizing the customer profile and history. Then, in our case, an analysis of their last inbound marketing campaigns and current results is needed. With these in our hands the CSM can put the puzzle together, and use his experience to suggest the best actions to take next. These actions can vary a lot given that Inbound Marketing strategies are broad and complex.
Before we launched the Success Methodology we depended solely on the CSM talent to run great QBRs. They could literally do whatever they wanted when doing proactive outreaches. We needed very experienced CSMs, with extraordinary Inbound Marketing background and sharp analytical thinking, to expect good results from him. This is a profile of a CSM that is very difficult to hire or train.
Now the Customer Journey helps with the analysis and the plan. The CSM just looks at Gainsight and knows which Milestone the customer is at. For each milestone there is a standardized success plan for them to take (the Task List for that specific Success Milestone). It’s an extremely productive and scalable process. Training got much faster too, now we just need to certify our CSMs in our methodology so each one of them become an Inbound Marketing consultant. They get more confident in dealing with customers, and all of our customers can count on a standardized quality of the service.
It’s common to use Gainsight to generate CTAs (tasks) to the CSMs automatically. The most common rule is to generate CTAs for the CSMs to run QBR for every customer every quarter. With the Success Milestones we’ve been doing something different lately. We don’t generate random QBR CTAs every quarter, we only generate EBR CTAs for the customers that are stuck in the Milestone 2- our current Success Bottleneck. An EBR is an Executive Business Review, similar to the QBR but not tied to a quarter. We now tie EBRs to Milestones.
In the next month, we plan to configure Gainsght to generate CTAs when a customer gets stuck in any Milestone for more than three months. So CSMs can make proactive outreaches only to the customers that are falling off the track, at the time they are falling off the track. This is a much more productive process, that is also more relevant to our customers.
The Rule that generates daily CTAs (tasks) to the CSMs:
- Before: QBRs for every customer that hasn’t had one in three months
- Now: EBRs for customers that are stuck in Success Milestone 2
- Next: EBRs for customers that are at the same milestone for more than 3 months
A good Customer Success Methodology always counts on excellent educational resources. As an Inbound Marketing company, we are never short of educational resources. We have a dozen of eBooks, videos, webinars and thousands of blog posts. That volume of content works great for marketing, while for customers it gets them confused. Blasting customers with every content produced by our marketing team make them lose focus. There are infinite possibilities in Inbound Marketing, but if a company tries to do a bit of everything it achieves a bit of nothing.
Our Success Methodology is helping us organize content to present to the customer only what is best for them to learn, in the best possible format. We created a methodology portal with all Success Milestones organized as a chain of projects. There is training content for every step of these projects. We try to block customers from campaigns with content not related to the milestone they are at. That way, they get focused on overcoming that Milestone.
The methodology portal also works as collateral material for the CSM job. It’s easier for them to train customers in our methodology, they just need to refer to the right content.
Product Team Objectives
The Product team must also be accountable for making customers hit the Customer Success Milestones. Today at RD, every time they modify the product, an increase in the Success Funnel conversion rate is expected. That’s one of the ways we’ve been measuring the effectiveness of software improvements.
Start Creating Your Own Journey Now
We’ve just scratched the surface of the possibilities a Customer Journey offers to the CS organization. I am a big advocate of it and I hope that this story can help you to build or improve your own Journey.
Start simple and create one path with a few steps. Use your experience and a white board, customize it later. Remember, you don’t have to make it perfect for every kind of customer. It only has to engage customers and get them focus on the next step.
Make it measurable. The best benefits of designing a Customer Journey comes when you start using it as a Success Funnel. Knowing the conversion rate of a funnel makes you able to predict its throughput. Focus on these conversion rates, remove the success bottlenecks, and you will turn your CS organization into a “machine” that delivers success in a predictable and measurable way.