Customer Success

Five Levels of Rethinking Recurring Revenue and Retention

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Many B2B businesses either have shifted or are shifting to some form of recurring revenue business model. When they do, one of the first things they learn is that renewals by current customers are just as important as — and often more important than — initial sales. If the customer doesn’t stick around for, typically, three to five years, then you’ve lost money on them.

But renewal rates seem to be stuck. Companies I work with are ones that have been trying to increase their renewal rates through a variety of tactics, but none seem to make much of a difference. They need to significantly increase renewal rates to achieve the growth their investors demand and their team wants.

These companies usually rely on two approaches to maximizing renewals. The first is an activity-driven approach, usually focused on adoption. The intent is to determine which activities your customer performs with your product that tend to lead to renewal and then to build a program to encourage your customers to do more of those activities. The second is a conversion-driven approach, where you ask customers for renewals, maybe making special offers for early renewals or upgrades, and expect a percentage to accept your offer. This is very much like your demand-generation process, where you expect a given conversion rate from a marketing offer.

Both of these are good approaches, and they work. But if you’ve spent time trying to improve your renewal rates, then you probably have that gnawing feeling in the back of your brain that wonders why this is so hard and why it takes what seems to be either a patchwork or a Herculean effort to make any significant uptick in renewal rates.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re missing something: You’re not paying attention to what your customers really needed in the first place. You’re probably working with each customer on a plan for what you think they define as success, which is typically a list of activities you’ve developed that you think, statistically, lead to renewal.

But renewal is not the same as a successful customer. We have all become so programmed to define success as a collection of metrics that we miss out on what we really mean by being successful.

What customers really want

I’ve heard any number of marketers and salespeople say to me that customers buy only two things: cost reductions and revenue increases. You might even hear the (highly coached) customer attest to this in case studies. But this is not what the customer really wants.

To build a strong relationship with your customer and ensure they renew year after year, you need to understand both their concerns at every level and the kind of relationship your customer needs to have with you.

Note that concerns in this context are not worries. Concerns mean the things with which your customer or its people, are concerned with, think about and hope for.

The model I use with my clients surfaces customer needs, concerns and aspirations in five different ways. It looks at the questions you are asking and about your customer’s business and how you are addressing the concerns and aspirations you identify. This model is based on a model of understanding concerns written by my good friend Jennifer Kenny.

Key QuestionIssues AddressedCustomer PerceptionRelationship Level
What makes their day?Are you helping them make a difference in their company?
Are you delivering personal wins and turning your customers into heroes?
You are fulfilling both their personal goals and their company missionTrusted adviser
What are their outcomes?Are you helping them achieve outcomes?
Are you making their plans come to fruition faster or better?
You are making their outcomes better and helping them fulfill their promisesPartner
What are their responsibilities?Are you helping them do something better, faster or more cheaply?
Do you help them improve their day-to-day processes and activities?
You are improving their work and making them more effectiveCredible source
What are their tasks?Are you helping them achieve outcomes?
Are you making their plans come to fruition faster or better?
You are simplifying their lives and making their work easierTransactional
What’s broken?Are you solving a critical problem?
Are they not making enough revenue?
Is a key process broken?
Once the problem is solved, your customer really needs little interaction with you.Commodity

When you use this model, it’s important not only to understand what your customers need, what they are concerned about and what their aspirations are, but also what you can actually deliver. You will not be a trusted adviser to all your customers. Some companies will be transactional with all of their customers. Most will have customers at every level of relationship.

When you understand your customers at this deep level, and you know how you work best with them, you then have an approach to creating, building and maintaining relationships that will lead to renewal year after year after year.

Customer Success

Want to Avoid Customer Rejection? Here’s How NOT To

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Here’s a lesson on how to create customer rejection in 30 minutes or less.

I heard a story from a friend today.  She bought what she hoped would be a useful and productive accessory for one of her tech devices.  Nothing fancy, just one of those things that makes your device go from “pretty useful” to “part of my everyday work.”

I can safely say she will avoid doing business in the future with the company that made the device.  And I’ll bet she’ll happily tell all her friends (as she told me) about how well they knew the art of customer rejection.  I can’t tell you how many potential customers this company lost today, but I know of two, and based on her influence circle, I’ll bet that’s a few orders of magnitude off.

It turned out this effort by the company to lose customers was pretty simple.  They spent a total of half an hour of work on it.  The customer rejection professional involved (maybe in charge of this particular effort?) was efficient, effective, and, I’d bet, well-rewarded for his or her efforts.

In fact, if your company is looking to lose some customers fast, I’d try to hire this customer rejection expert ASAP.

The whole thing was pretty simple.  When my friend received the product, it was broken and did not work.  She wanted it replaced; I’m pretty sure I would have, as well.  She emailed them. They asked for pictures.  She sent them.  They asked her to call.  She spent half an hour on the phone with the very competent customer-rejection professional who told her the replacement was out of stock and could not be sent.  Going above and beyond their duty, the same customer rejection professional added that no advance order could be placed for the item to ensure it would be sent when it was back in stock.  The apology acting, I’m told, was extraordinary (maybe the customer rejection professional also is an aspiring actor?).

My friend tried to respond to the company’s email, but the email message bounced. In the bounce message, she was directed to a web page to file a complaint, but the web page produced errors that could not be deciphered (Note to web professionals: If you want to contact the company to help resolve this, remember that is at cross-purposes with the responsibilities of the customer-rejection team).

My friend now has a broken product.  The company that sold it to her thinks this is as it should be.

I’d call this an example to follow of how to lose customers in half an hour or less. Customer-rejection professionals: are you listening?

Customer Success

Customer Service Success Is So Simple that It’s Hard

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We all love to complain about customer service.  Most of us have some sort of nightmare story at the ready anytime the conversation turns to the topic of customer service.  And collectively, we have classes of companies we just love to hate:  airlines and cable providers.

I know you can tell any number of stories about how some company (Comcast, anyone?) got it wrong (check out Mr. A**hole Brown has a really good one post).  I’m willing to bet you even have a few choice suggestions on how to get it right.

But your suggestions will likely only fix the issue in your case (or your type of case).  The company that is failing at customer service has a much deeper problem.

The issue is simple:  lack of empathy.  But the solution, which is also so simple—create empathy in your customer service staff for customer service success—is, in fact, very hard to make happen.

Why Is It Hard To Achieve Customer Service Success?

Allow me to start with an idea that will sound familiar from my earlier posts:  When someone buys a product or service from you, they are doing so because they expect that product or service to do a specific job for them.  Sticking with my favorite scapegoat, when someone buys cable television service from Comcast, they are expecting Comcast to deliver entertainment on which they can rely at all hours.

Here’s where it gets complicated (frankly, it’s not really all that complicated for Comcast, but it is for most companies).  The definition of “entertainment” varies widely among the millions of people who are Comcast customers.  Personally, I want my cable company to bring me intelligent, unbiased, detailed news coverage any time of day (largely the responsibility of the news outlets and not even within the control of a cable provider).  Or you might want access to a huge library of foreign films.  Someone else might want endless reruns of TV shows from the 1970s.

Sounds pretty simple for a cable provider, right?  So where do they go so wrong?

Customer service doesn’t happen until something goes wrong.  Service is out.  Channels with my entertainment disappear, or worse, move to a higher tier of premium cost.  Or the CableCARD stops working with the latest update of my DVR.

Then I have to call (chat, e-mail, whatever).  Someone explains the process of why it’s broken.  Then they explain the process the company has set up to fix it.  It’s going to take time.  It’s going to cost me money.  It’s going to require that I sit at home and wait for someone to show up.

There’s a lot of process.  There’s a way to handle the situation.  But there’s no empathy. There’s no one who is capable of understanding why I am actually disappointed and figuring out the best (maybe even the right) way to make sure I get what I need.

Empathy is not a process.  It’s not a set of rules.  It’s not a policy.  It is a human ability. And it requires the one thing the giant customer service organization fears most:  individual freedom to act.

Halfway There

I have a lot of respect for Frank Eliason.  If you don’t know who he is, he is the guy who started @ComcastCares, Comcast’s Twitter based customer service.  It’s generally believed that he singlehandedly taught the corporate world what social customer service means.

Frank recently wrote an article exhorting Comcast to improve its customer service.  He included five suggestions on what they could do to improve.  The last of these was, “Live up to being the Philadelphian that you already are.  We will support you, but you need to support us too.  Treat us in the same manner you would want to be treated.”

I don’t disagree with his first four suggestions.  But they are all process improvement ideas. They don’t do anything at all to get your customer service staff to understand your customers’ problems and help bring solutions that address the actual issues right there and then.

The fifth suggestion (quoted above) gets closer to the mark.  It doesn’t say it the way I would, but it suggests that each and every customer service representative needs to be a decent upstanding human to create successful customer service.  That sounds a bit like empathy to me.

Getting it Right? 

It is nearly impossible to train empathy into an organization.  It’s a uniquely individual skill. People can have empathy, while organizations can’t.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t let your customer service people use the empathy they already have.

Companies such as Nordstrom and Zappos became customer service success standouts for one reason:  every single employee can do (nearly) anything to solve a customer’s problem.  On the margin, this led to stories (unconfirmed) of things such as a customer returning a set of tires to Nordstrom (which has never sold tires), but these stories are a very small group of exceptions to the rule.

The policy of “do whatever it takes to make it right” doesn’t just let the front line employee use their skill and empathy; it challenges them to do so.  Even better, it challenges them to create a story in that customer’s mind about how amazing the customer service provided by that employee was. And it creates a culture that makes employees want to be better at serving customers with empathy because their peers are also doing it.

These companies don’t train an organization to deliver empathy.  They created a culture of customer service success that valued it, paid attention to it in hiring, and challenged their people to do it—and do it better.  This requires trust (often anathema to many large hierarchical corporations) as well as a different approach to dealing with your own people and your customers.

Can You Change?

The obvious question is can a company such as Comcast really change?  Could it ever figure out how to change from a policy- and practice-driven organization to one that lets their people make their own judgments about what is the best practice in every individual situation?

It would be hard.  And it would take time.  Maybe for Comcast, their newly hired chief customer officer will be a start.

What about your organization?  Are you telling your people how to solve your customers’ problems?  Or are you hiring amazing people and letting them figure it out?  If you are the former, can you change?  Do you think your organization can help your people develop empathy?

Customer service success is so simple that it’s hard.

Tell us in the comments how you think your organization might do it.

Customer Success

Four Steps to Fixing Your Biggest Customer Service Mistake

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There’s one big mistake you can make in your customer service, and, if you’ve read my earlier posts, you know this is a pet peeve of mine:  Letting your process and policies govern how you deal with people.

This often happens even in the best customer service organizations.  In fact, this one mistake can sour great service more often in companies already known for great customer service than in ones where there is little or no customer service in the first place (though sometimes this is true because there is no service to sour in the latter set of companies!).

My Customer Service Experience

Here’s what one recent experience I had looked like:

My computer (partially) died.  It could do a few simple things, but it was useless for anything significant and pretty much stopped all my work and productivity.  My computer is from a company known for great customer service.  So I called.

They sent a technician to my office the next business day with a replacement part.  He opened up the computer, did his work, and left in less than an hour.  I was thrilled.

The people were helpful and friendly, the service was quick and personalized, and what could have been a lengthy loss of time and work for me turned into a quick repair without my ever leaving the office

Then things went sour.  It turns out there were two parts that needed to be replaced, and the technician didn’t know this.  But the company acted quickly, and the next day he was back replacing the second part, avoiding a potentially poor customer service outcome.

But while the technician was working on the second part, he broke an even more critical part.  He then spent two more hours in my office trying desperately—and unsuccessfully—to fix it.

So, again, I called.  The customer service department wanted to send him out a third time with a replacement for the broken part.  This was just a bit too intrusive for me.  The next best offer from customer service was for me to ship my entire computer to them—and be without it for 10 days.

Yes, there’s a lot of drama behind this story.  But the point is that it started out as a fantastic experience based on a set of customer service policy rules that allows the company to provide me with great initial service.  Then it turns quickly sour because the same set of policy rules which are intended to make the service great end up creating more pain for the customer.

And yes, you’ve done this to your customers.  I don’t know if you do it all the time, but I’m sure it’s happened.  And I’m sure you looked at how it happened and decided that the policies in place were really best overall and that the particular case was unusual.  But we’re all the unusual case.

How do you redesign your customer service policies to delight your customers─and keep delighting them even if things go wrong?

Develop People Centered Customer Service

Most customer service processes are designed to keep interactions short, solve problems quickly, and get cases closed as fast as possible.

People centered customer service does not lengthen the process.  Rather, it changes the policies and procedures so they work around how your customer works and what is happening to them.

Sometimes changing this focus is easy.  Car dealership service departments have been notoriously customer hostile, and they take your car (usually your primary mode of transportation) away for some inconveniently long period of time.  The key issue is that the car owner’s life revolves around his or her car, and loss of the car is a pretty big deal.

The solution to that, at least for some dealerships, was to set aside a fleet of loaner cars. Now, for some cars, when you take your car in for service, you drive away in a loaner car (if yours is like mine, a newer and nicer car than yours!) which you use until your car is fixed. Transportation problem and intrusiveness problems solved.

In my computer situation, the company was so focused on getting quick, personal (on-site) repairs scheduled, that they lost site of why it is an issue for me.  They forgot that my primary means of working is my computer.  They forgot that sending someone to my office to fix it is intrusive.  They forgot that every time they do a repair, I then have no computer for ten to twelve hours while my backup restores.

There was no process in place to allow the company to ask whether one more day, one more on-site visit, or one more restore would be just too much for me (The end of the story and the right answer is that they are sending a new computer but only after way too many hours on the phone arguing).

How do you implement people centered customer service in your organization?  Here are four steps:

1.)  Develop a model that helps you understand your customer’s life surrounding your products.

You might already do this to some extent for your marketing efforts.  And if you have lots of different kinds of customers who use your products in different ways, you will have to develop something such as marketing personas for describing the various situations.

Your model needs to ask questions such as:  How does this customer use the product?  How critical is the product to their work or life?  What will happen in the customer’s life if he or she is without the product for a period of time?

2.)  Develop your service, support, and repair procedures to fit the scenario this customer faces.

Ask questions such as:  How much are you requiring the customer to do on their own?  Can they do it, and do they have the skills?  Is it best for them to do it themselves?  How much can you do for them without intruding on their routine?  How can you choose routes to the solution that fix the problem effectively but minimize how much it affects the customer?

3.)  Ask.

Before you insist that there is a defined next step in solving the problem, ask the customer if that next step is reasonable.  Taking the same step three or four times may seem right to you, but it might not work for your customer.

4.)  Consider the context and what came before.

When you offer a next step in a solution, look at what came before.   Have you put the customer through significant burdens in the previous steps?  Are you asking them to accept the same burden one more time?  Your process and policies need to consider that when the problem is not solved on the first try, the tolerance of the customer is often challenged in subsequent attempts.

Don’t forget that this applies not only to previous attempts to solve the issue at hand but also to how you handled issues in the past.  If you need to ask the customer to do some work to resolve the issue, you need to know if this is the fifth time in six months you are asking.

Make sure your process allows for escalation and severity increases that go along with failures to fix the issue.

If you can design those four steps into your customer policies and processes, you will go a long way to making your customers happy—and keeping them happy.

And we know that a recurring or repeat customer is the most profitable of all.

Let us know how you are making your customer service people centric.

Customer Success

How Do You Define Customer Success?

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Customer success is a very hot topic (rightfully so).  With the rise of the subscription economy, companies are more obligated than ever to make sure their customers are happy with their products and services.  Companies from to Dollar Shave Club are adding “customer success’ departments (or the like), appointing chief customer officers and finally paying attention to what happens after the initial sale.

But what constitutes “customer success?”  Regardless of your business, it’s a hard question to answer.  For a company such as, one customer might be successful if they use the software to track and report on sales reps, but another might be successful if they can establish and enforce a sales process.  For a company such as Dollar Shave Club, a customer might be successful if they get a close shave from the razor blades, while a different customer might be very happy as long as the blades are delivered on time.

Not My Definition of Customer Success

Here’s a personal story of how a large subscription economy company failed to understand customer success:

A few weeks ago, I was watching television one evening.  The picture became pixilated and then disappeared, leaving me staring at a blank screen (Have you guessed that I’m going to pick on my favorite target:  my cable television provider?). After ruling out all the other equipment in my home, I determined the CableCARD device that my cable company provides was malfunctioning (A CableCARD allows a third-party device to decode the encrypted signal sent by the cable company, meaning you don’t need extra boxes in your house…sometimes.).

When I called the cable company’s “customer success” line, they walked through it with me again and agreed with my conclusion:  the problem was with the CableCARD.  They said they would send a technician to install a new one in three days.

Three days (!) seemed a long time to wait just to be able to watch television again.  When I challenged this, I was told:

This is not a priority issue.  We are successfully delivering a signal to your home, and a malfunctioning CableCARD is not important enough for us to send someone tonight or tomorrow.

I reiterated that I felt they were leaving me without their service for three days, and that this is a failure to deliver the service promised.  They reiterated:

We are successfully delivering signal to your home, so we are successfully providing service.”

Our definitions of “success” did not match.  Theirs was “signal on the cable wire,” while mine was “seeing a picture on my television” (I’ll spare you the rest of the argument; it didn’t go well from my perspective.).  Maybe there are other customers who use their signal differently and who consider “signal on the wire” to be success, regardless of whether their TV is watchable.  Not I.

As I reflected on this discussion, I thought about all the other companies that fail to make sure I am using their service successfully, and only focus on the limited set of issues they choose to define as success.

recent study showed that 53% of Americans would choose to switch cable providers if they had the choice (cable television service is a monopoly in many parts of the country).  If the monopoly is broken, it does not bode well for these providers.  Not only does it mean customers will be looking to leave and take their recurring revenue elsewhere, but it opens the market for disruptive competitors who may be more than happy to meet the needs that the current providers are not meeting.

The important question for your business is this:

Do you know how your customers define “success”?

If you don’t know that, you can’t help your customers be successful. And their definition is the only one that matters (cable companies, be damned).

An Approach to Customer Success

One company that is making a good effort at answering this question is Contactually (a social CRM product I use in my own work).  Susan Watkins, their newly appointed head of customer success, tells me that when a customer shows up, Contactually contacts the customer and offers to help them get started, including personal tutorials on how to do the things the customer hopes to do with the product.

In that process, they discover how the customer intends to use Contactually—and how the customer defines success.  When renewal time comes, they can then contact the customer and, instead of just asking for a renewal, ask how they are doing against that definition of success and how Contactually can help them be more successful.

Their data is not in yet, but I’ve seen this approach reduce churn by 5% to 10% in other companies.

In the subscription economy, if you don’t help make your customers successful—by their definition—you won’t be in business for long.

Post a comment and tell us how you figure out how your customers define success.


Customer Success

Four Ways for Your Customer Service Team to Make Your Customers Less Angry

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When your customers contact your customer service team, are they already angry?

Last month, I interviewed Carolyn Kopprasch, chief happiness officer at Buffer. She said:

“We live in a culture that has trained customers to start on the offensive just to get good service…Often, you don’t get to talk to a manager or someone with authority to solve your problem unless you say a curse word.”

This is, sadly, the case for many organizations.  Consider companies with which you do business in your personal or business life.  If something goes wrong and you need help, what happens?  How do you find that help?  And how do you feel by the time you call or send them an email?  I’m going to venture a guess that by the time you make that contact, you’ve tried a number of things—to no avail—and are pretty angry.

In fact, a recent report (“Duck and Cover:  More Customers Are Experiencing Rage”) on customer rage shows “customer satisfaction over a company’s ability to solve a complaint is no higher today than it was in the 1970s” and “customer dissatisfaction over complaint resolution has increased eight points in the past two years.”

This culture of anger is the result of a widely practiced approach to helping customers that is designed to lower costs for the company.  This approach is also thought to improve the speed of resolution, but it often just creates bad experiences.

The practice is one of self-help or community driven help (the latter being very common in the technology business).  Companies will try to figure out what most customers need help with and then post those issues on their websites in some form of FAQ.  The assumption is that most people will go there, find the answer, and solve their problem.  The advantage for the company is there is zero marginal cost to help each customer.

The second step of this practice is a community driven approach. The company will form some sort of online forum and allow customers to post questions and answer each other’s questions.  The underlying assumption is that someone else has had the problem before and can help solve it.

This is not a zero cost approach, as many companies also have customer service team members watching the forums, adding comments and solutions and, sometimes, looking for common problems or requests that can point to product improvements.  But it is a very low-cost approach to helping customers.  And it puts a big onus on customers to seek and provide their own support.

The next step is to contact someone at the company on a customer service team.  While a few companies don’t provide any direct contact capability, most do, either by telephone or email.

But by the time the customer reaches that point, they have probably tried to solve it through the other two methods, maybe had some unpleasant exchanges with forum members or employees, and have probably been forced to search the FAQs repeatedly to try to solve the problem on their own.

In other words, they’re angry.

Four things you can do to avoid this:

1.   Stop making it us vs. them.

When your customer contacts you and is frustrated, angry or worse, it’s your customer service team’s job to take the company’s side. However, your rep should take away the need to take sides at all. The conversation should never be about what the customer wants vs. what the company will do.

The only conversation your customer service team should have with your customer is about the result they need to achieve and how they can help the customer get there. If every interaction is not designed around that idea, your customers will see your customer service team and your company as “against” them, and they will get even angrier.

2.   Know why your customers are getting angry.

Don’t just ask. Measure. Don’t be biased by the loudest and angriest customers (perpetuating your contribution to the anger culture), but look at all your customer interactions and know why escalations happen.

Once you identify points of frustration, you can act to intervene. Depending on the issue, you can post simple solutions on your help pages or accelerate personal contact when a particular issue is raised. The better you get at directing more of your customers to their desired outcome, the happier your customers will be.

3.  Learn your customers’ interaction preferences.

Some of us like to talk through our issues with someone. Others like to do research and solve it themselves.

Do you know what your customers prefer? Are you providing it? Or are you making assumptions that result in more escalations than needed?

Talk to your colleagues in marketing, and steal one idea. Ask who is good at developing what marketing people call “personas,” and create the ones you need. Figure out how to identify what type of problem solver each customer is and what you need to deliver to have them walk away happy.

4.  Be honest.

If your customer has a problem, you have a problem. It doesn’t matter if it might be their fault. If you don’t eliminate your rep’s need to take sides and help your customer get the outcome they need, it’s going to be your problem, one way or another.

When you have a problem, admit it (“yes, I can see how the instructions are not that clear about that”). Show understanding. If it’s not your fault, help your customer get past it. If it is, be direct and just fix it.

When your customer service reps get to the point of quoting warranty limits, user agreements and company policy, you have lost — not just the conversation, but the customer — and you can kiss repeat business goodbye.

Are you already doing some of these?  Are they working?  Tell us what you think!

Customer Success

Building an Exceptional Customer Success Culture: How Buffer Does It

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If you’re like most recurring-revenue companies, you’re not just looking for skills when you hire customer success people, you’re looking for cultural fit and that intangible-but-oh-so-important natural customer-happiness focus. If that’s the case, the person you’d want to hire is Carolyn Kopprasch (@carokopp). Sorry, she’s not available.

Carolyn is chief happiness officer at Buffer (full disclosure: I am a user of their service), a social media posting service that schedules or meters your posts (for me, it keeps me from inundating my followers). I quoted her in my previous post on customer success culture as a great example of how to get customer success right.

I had the pleasure recently of interviewing Carolyn to find out why she is so good at customer success and how she hires and trains Buffer’s people to make sure they are, as well.

If you are leading or part of a customer success team, or you want to be, there’s a lot you can learn from her.

Making empathy a part of the culture

“One aspect of Buffer’s mission is to set the bar for customer service,” Carolyn says. She adds that the definition of customer success is evolving as the company grows — and as the Happiness team doubles in size from three to six people.

I’ve had a number of interactions with Buffer, most with Carolyn herself. Her direct honesty and ability to make me feel cared for impressed me. Why is she so good at this? She points to two things:

First, she was a user of Buffer before joining the company. Having “been in [customers’] shoes and experienced their frustrations” gives her the ability not only to understand the situation, but also to know what will help this particular user get what they need.

Second, she cites empathy as critical to great customer service. “We have to be able to understand not just what the customer means, but their frustration, obstacles and needs.”

To even be considered for a job at Buffer, you have to be an established customer and be familiar with the product. When hiring, Buffer is looking for “someone who has used [Buffer], run into the little frustrations, been confused by this or that, who generally has experience using technology for a purpose and knows how joyous it can be when it’s successful and how frustrating it can be when it’s not.”

Carolyn says this ensures there is some basis for empathy in everyone they hire. This is true not only in the Happiness team, but throughout the company. The people on her team feel “privileged to be doing what we are doing and to have customers who give us the opportunity to do what we are doing.”

Buffer also puts prospective hires through what sounds like a practical exam. Candidates are given a series of actual requests from customers and asked to respond. How they approach the response is a key factor in the hiring decision.

But the culture of empathy extends beyond the walls of the company. “If you are not practicing [these values] in your everyday life, then it’s really challenging to put away your habits and just start it when you show up for work. So we do it in every area of our lives,” she says.

[Note: If this sounds like you, Carolyn is hiring. Just remember they only hire Buffer users.]

Creating a new kind of customer success culture

Buffer handles customer success differently from most organizations. “We don’t assign cases,” Carolyn explains. The team is still small enough that everyone can see all the open cases, and everyone is tasked with taking whatever action they can to help. With a team that now spans the globe, cases are often resolved overnight while the U.S.-based team is sleeping.

This makes communication important. “We have weekly meetings and an ongoing exchange of ideas” to keep that going, she says. The email threads among the Happiness team at Buffer include everything from making sure a response actually meets a customer’s need to discussing the most understandable tone and words to use in email.

Buffer does not try to scale its customer support with technology. They have made the decision not to try to push customers toward helping themselves, but rather to focus on hiring more people to respond to and support their growing customer base. They will add online help (“some people just like to figure things out for themselves” Carolyn says), but they will continue to make email support the primary way customers get the help they need.

Buffer also publishes — yes, publicly — a monthly happiness report on their blog and on Facebook. Here’s the October report (note the summary graphic at the bottom of the post). They let the entire world know just how well (or not) they are doing. It’s a manifestation of their transparency value, and it lets all their customers know they are a part of Buffer’s ongoing improvement.

Measuring customer success can be challenging. Unlike many companies, Buffer does not count the number of replies or exchanges it takes to close an issue. “We disregard replies per conversation. Most customer success teams look at this as speed to resolution, but we know that happy customers reply back and forth a few times,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn has two measures of success for her team: “First we work on the hypothesis that a faster answer leads to a happier customer. So, we track how fast we respond to the first email and get the solution started. Second, we track self-declared happiness. Every email to a customer has emoticon ratings (provided by Hively). We track how many customers are happy with our solutions. Or not.

“Customers can also add comments to their rating, which only go to the support individual who responded, not for review or to management.” This, she explains, allows the “Happiness Heroes” to learn what they have done well and what they have not.

The best possible response to being hacked

Buffer was hacked recently. Their response was impressive, fast and very revealing, and customers responded with astonishing support. I asked Carolyn how they put together an effective customer communication plan so quickly.

“There was no plan. There was no one person defining the voice. It was a natural reflex for us to tell everyone,” Carolyn says. “That was the extent of the plan. We could not have imagined it going any differently.”

Buffer posted several times per day on their blog and social media on their progress and about the resolution. Instead of one “please change your password” email, customers knew every detail of the issue and resolution, and exactly what to do about it. Look at the overwhelmingly positive and supportive response. It’s the kind of response of which most companies dream.

Changing customers’ expectations

Carolyn sees Buffer’s approach of quick and direct responses as starting to overcome a culture in which customers expect to be angry and frustrated before they even get the help they need.

“We live in a culture that has trained customers to start on the offensive just to get good service, and it’s really easy for the customer service rep to react to that,” Carolyn says. “Often, you don’t get to talk to a manager or someone with authority to solve your problem unless you say a curse word.”

Carolyn and her team are working to get better and better at providing help that takes away the customer’s frustration and, she hopes, changes the starting expectation of her customers.

It’s working

Buffer’s and Carolyn’s ideas on how to create a customer focus in the business are groundbreaking. Even for those of us who are working to disrupt the customer relationship models that have done so much damage to the tech industry over the years are moved by companies such as Buffer to rethink our assumptions. Buffer is an example of what can be done when you throw out your experience and start with a customer-focused set of assumptions.

Buffer is a young, growing company, but it’s experiencing very low churn rates (5-6% at last count). Only 2% of customers are paying for the service, but they see conversion rates increasing month-to-month (note that the Happiness team is not compensated for conversion).

I say it’s working.

What do you think?

Customer Success

Customer Service Culture Keeps Customers Coming Back

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Here are  examples  of two very different customer service cultures.  Which would you prefer?

Let’s say you have to bring your car in for repair.  The mechanic diagnoses the problem. Would you choose:

A)  The shop where the mechanic tells you:  “This is a simple issue.  We fix these all the time.  It’s not going to be any problem at all.  Your car will be good as new in a few hours.  Just go about your business, and I’ll call you when it’s ready.”


B)  The shop where the mechanic tells you, “Your car’s coolant system has three leaks in different hoses.  The hoses are easy to access, and I have replacements in stock.  It will take me two or three hours to replace the hoses and test them to be sure they are working.  I’ll call you as soon as I’m done.”

If you’re like me, not only do you prefer option (B), but if you run into the mechanic in option (A), you’re likely not to come back (and maybe not even leave your car in the first place).

The reason is we don’t like to be dismissed, and we don’t like condescension.  The mechanic in option (A) was condescending and a bit insulting. She assumed we not only have no idea how our car works but that we don’t care to know and will trust her implicitly. The mechanic in option (B) showed respect for our knowledge, ownership of the car, and likely, our time.

Is your company’s customer service  insulting your customers without even knowing it?

I’ll give you another example of good and bad customer service.  Recently, I contacted technical support for two different software products.  Both are websites that run SaaS products.  Both issues were simple ones that required little explanation and should have been easy to identify as issues (I can’t say how hard they would be to fix).

Company 1 responded like this:

We really appreciate you bringing us this kind of issue affecting our software’s performance.  Rest assured our developers are fully aware of the changes and the glitches that occurred after the software update.  They have made these adjustments their top priority to ensure our software is as stable as possible.

Thank you for your patience and understanding during this time.

Company 2 responded like this:

Thanks so much for writing in!  This is a great question, not too odd at all!   I’m afraid there isn’t a great solution for this at the moment.  Sorry about that.   We haven’t figured out a great way for it to know to re-look for the image and description if nothing shows up at first.  Great idea though, and we definitely see the value of it.

Sorry I don’t have a better answer for you on that one.  Is there anything else I can do to help or any questions I can answer?

I’m guessing you know which one I thought was well-done and which I thought was disingenuous

Company 1’s response is more troubling than just a dismissive response.  It points to a customer service culture that assumes customers want reassurance and kind words above all else.  It suggests that the company’s customer service protocol has guidelines or even templates that advance the idea that customers are to be dealt with and dismissed as quickly as possible.

This was reinforced after my follow-up question asking if they knew about the specific issue and might be working on it.  I was told there are many issues on which the developers are working and that I could be certain they would be informed of this one.  Further reinforcing the dismissive approach, five days later the company announced an update that resolved the specific issue.  I have to assume someone there knew that this update was coming yet failed to communicate that to me.

Company 2’s response points to a customer service culture of openness and honesty.  Telling me that there is “no great solution” admits the software has shortcomings and just can’t do everything all the time.  This is true of all products of all kinds.  Being direct about the limitations and aspirations of your product shows both honesty and confidence in your ability to deliver value to your customer.

My cultural assumptions were reinforced on follow-up exchanges, where I offered an idea for a solution, and an interesting discussion on how to best get the specific value I needed from the product ensued.

Evaluating customer service

Far too many companies evaluate the performance of technical support or customer service success on how quickly issues can be resolved and how friendly the language of the company’s representative is.  Both of these measures lead the customer service teams to shorten their responses, use more reassuring and friendly (not honest and direct) language, and to be dismissive of customer issues in the hope they will accept answers such as those above from Company 1 and go away.

But customers are evolving the other way.  Customers demand more details and honestly from companies, as well as more and more transparency.

In order to meet the needs of this evolving customer, companies must also change their customer service culture and the metrics that support it.  For example, rather than measuring duration of interactions, you might measure how many interactions it takes for the customer to consider the issue resolved.  You might also want to measure how much progress each interaction made toward resolving the issue (if it makes no progress, you are wasting time and angering your customer).  Your metrics should always focus on what the customer perceives as progress and what your customer perceives as a resolution.

Is your company’s customer service  culture dismissing and alienating your customers?

Try acting like a customer with a problem for a day, and go find out.  Then tell us your story in the comments.

Customer Success

Three Keys to Increasing Renewals

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(this is a repost of a post written by me for Totango.)

This happens to you more often than you’d like to admit. Your sales team lands a new customer with great potential. You work hard at the on-boarding process and hit all of the milestones. Roll-out is on schedule. Over the year(s) of their contract term, you resolve every issue quickly. Then two months before renewal, you get the call: They’ve decided not to renew.

Wait. What?!?!

This probably came as a surprise to you. You probably have a list of reasons these customers give for not renewing. Some of the items on that list are understandable, from product shortcomings to changes in the customer’s business (such as acquisition). Others you know are just excuses, such as pricing, or that one support issue that was only 90% resolved.

Now tell me, honestly: Was there something you could have — or should have — known that would have let you save this customer?

There are three things you should be examining closely every day to get a deeper understanding of — and a deeper relationship with — each and every customer:

1. Ask good questions

In an earlier post, I discussed the idea of measuring customer success from the customer’s point of view and choosing the right measurements. You have to help your customer use your product, but you also have to help your customer get the value they need from your product.

Your market is crowded. You are competing not only against companies that provide similar products, but with all the other investment priorities of your customer, and your customer is deciding whether whatever work you support is worth funding at all.

One of your first tasks when you assume responsibility for a customer is to understand how your customer will measure their success because of your product. If they are not clear, help them define that measure. (Again, suggestions are here).

One company with which I’ve worked offers tools to bring social information into the selling process. If you ask generically how they make customers successful, they might say they increase revenue. Well, yes. But so many factors affect revenue and the effect of their product may be small compared with others, so it’s a meaningless measurement. They could also quote their marketing material and say they provide a deeper understanding of each prospect. Again, yes, but can you measure that? And is it a benefit or just a thing the product does?

While the product provides many benefits, one that is particularly interesting is it shortens the sales cycle (decreasing time to revenue). So they ask every new customer how long their average sales cycle is. Then they look at the users of their product and ask them three months, six months and nine months later how long their sales cycle is. The length drops every time.

The customer is now convincing themselves that the product has significant benefit. And you know exactly how much and why they should renew (and how to sell the renewal).

Pick your measurements. Ask good questions. Make sure your customer realizes value. And they are less likely to leave.

2. Social engagement

I don’t think I need to convince you business is social. Your customers are in the social channels, discussing their business challenges and issues, as well as the products and services they like and don’t like.

The best possible case is when your customer loves your product so much that they recommend it to their friends and colleagues. You can see this from high NetPromoter scores or by looking at your brand advocates with services such as Zuberance.

The worst case is when they don’t talk about you at all. Remember the adage, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” If your customers are indifferent, they are not getting value from your product, and they are less likely to renew.

So, listen and engage. Follow your customers on whatever social networks on which they are active. Connect to their professional networks. See what they are up to. Talk with them. Focus on issues and items of interest to them.

LinkedIn offers advice to recruiters about retaining candidates. They suggest adding new employees to your network, then watching their new connections. If you see them connect to a bunch of people at your competitor all at once, there’s a pretty good chance they’re interviewing.

Do the same. If a new competitor comes up, and suddenly your customer connects to lots of their people, it might be time to strengthen your connection.

3. Look at the data

You have data. Lots of it. Don’t be afraid to use it. But don’t get caught up in the “big data” hype. Here’s how to make it useful:

You already track every single action your customer takes in your product. You know every interaction, and you probably know the results of those interactions. All of this may not be well organized, but a close approximation will work pretty well for this purpose. And your data analysts can help you make sense of it all.

The key to analyzing large amounts of data is asking the right questions. You should be asking one or both of these:

1)    What specific actions predict either renewal or non-renewal?

2)    What are the relevant (predictive) differences between customers who renew and customers who don’t?

If you know the answer to one of those questions (they are just two sides of the same coin), you will have a much better idea much earlier whether any given customer is on the path to renewal.

It’s important that you not just look at this data when it’s time to ask for the renewal. You must look every month (ideally) or periodically throughout the contract term. Don’t wait until they’re ready to say No to talk them into Yes. Get them on the road to Yes much earlier.

This can feel like a lot to do with each and every customer, and you might be thinking you can only do all of this with your largest customers.

I warn you: That is a mistake. The biggest danger for non-renewal — and for large revenue losses — lies in the middle of your customer base, with those customers who matter, but still fall outside your high-attention area (e.g. your enterprise group).

There are lots of technologies available today that allow you to watch large data sets, interpret social streams and collect customer data. Even I, as an independent consultant with no staff at all, engage and monitor social streams for clients, prospects and new business opportunities. Is easier — and cheaper — than ever to scale these efforts.

Now what?

1)    Pick a question or two to ask your customers every month.

2)    Choose a set of customers with whom to engage on social networks.

3)    Ask your data analysts one of the two questions above.

Most importantly, start counting your surprise non-renewals and the number of customers at risk of non-renewal. And (this is how I deliver value to my clients) watch the numbers drop.

Tell us what you choose and how you do in the comments.

Photo Credit: .krish.Tipirneni. via Compfight cc

Customer Success

Investing In Your Customers (and How to Avoid Churn)

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I had lunch with a friend recently who ran customer success for a SaaS  company.  Customer success in the SaaS business is typically responsible for handling customer support and service to build renewals when they come due while avoiding churn (customers who do not renew).

As we discussed the issues surrounding delivering a great customer experience and handling renewal sales, he commented that his biggest surprise was how much churn hurt his business.  He noted that every percentage point increase in churn had a multiplier effect on the top line for the business.

I had lunch with a friend recently who ran customer success for a SaaS  company.  Customer success in the SaaS business is typically responsible for handling customer support and service to build renewals when they come due while avoiding churn (customers who do not renew).

I’d be repeating myself if I included a rant on how keeping customers coming back is the only way to realize the return you expect on your investment in customer acquisition.  So instead, let’s talk about investing and how you can apply some very simple investment concepts to your marketing ROI.

Let’s talk bonds to demonstrate churn.

I know:  bonds are much less exciting than stocks when it comes to investing, but if you’ve listened to any of the decent advice out there, you probably have a reasonable percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds.

Here’s the thing about bonds:  they provide you with an income stream.  You expect the issuer to pay the coupon on the bond (the debt payment) at the scheduled interval. The market places a value on the bond that is largely based on the dollar amount of those coupon payments, the time over which they will be paid, and the current market interest rates.  If all goes well, you invest a lump sum and get paid back with interest over time.

Sometimes, all does not go well.  I hope it’s rare for your portfolio, but defaults happen. Companies (sometimes even governments) fail to make the coupon payments.  When this happens, you lose your money.  Yes, it’s part of the risk of investing, but it also means your money is gone.  Not exactly the outcome you wanted.

Connecting bonds, marketing, and churn.

Marketers have been talking about a concept called “customer lifetime value” for the past few years.  Whether you are in a business that depends on subscribers or repeat customers, you can look at your customer the same way you look at a bond:  you pay some amount up front (your acquisition cost), and you get a revenue stream that comes in at predictable intervals over time.  As with the coupon payments on a bond, you can use the risk of the market and net present value formulas to determine the value of a customer’s revenue.

But sometimes customers don’t come back or don’t renew.  The difference is that this happens at a much higher rate than bond defaults.  For some SaaS software companies, churn (the rate of non-renewals) can be as high as 30% annually.

Let me show you what this does to your portfolio or your top line in marketing terms.

For the sake of simplicity and illustration, let’s assume you have 1,000 customers today, and those customers are paying you $100 per month for your service.  Let’s also say you are a fast growing company, hitting growth rates of 50% annually.  Here’s what churn (or customers not coming back) does to your business over three years.

On the chart above, the green line shows monthly recurring revenue (MRR) growth over three years, assuming there is no churn.  The yellow line shows the same growth rate, but assumes 10% churn.  The red line shows the same growth rate, but assumes 30% churn.

If you lose 30% of your customers every year for three years, your revenue is lowered by 56%.

If your portfolio underperformed by 56%, I’m guessing you’d be looking for a new investment adviser.  Likewise, if your revenue is 56% below where it should be, I’m wondering if your CFO isn’t thinking about a new CMO.

I’ve been fortunate to work with many companies who understand the financial leverage keeping customers holds for your company.  And I’ve helped a few gain insight into this leverage.

Which leads me to ask:

– Are you investing appropriately in keeping those customers?
– Does your company know how many customers it’s losing?

Tell us how you’re getting it right (or wish you were) in the comments.