Author: Peter Armaly

All AI Is Personal

If you work in high tech, or even if you don’t, you would probably nod your head if asked whether the following is on the top five list of most asked questions. Is artificial intelligence (AI) a good thing or a bad thing? 

AI is a hot topic and it’s probably because, as with any subject where potential impact is mostly unknown but highly anticipated, a broad spectrum of scenarios has been imagined resulting in an equally broad set of predicted outcomes. Whether it will be seen as benevolent or malevolent will probably boil down to how each of us perceives its immediate impact on our careers. Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O'Neill in the 1980s coined the phrase, “All politics is local”, which to him meant that no matter how high up a piece of legislation is crafted and then made into law, its impact is at a local and personal level. Maybe a good way then to think about society’s collective anxiety regarding artificial intelligence today is to say that “All AI is personal”.  

So if your management team announced that AI was being factored into the strategic plan for the coming year and that its focus would be how it might help increase the ability for the organization to advance the needs of end users, what would you think? Would you be immediately worried about your job? Would your answer depend on the field in which you work? Should that matter? Maybe not.

AI can be a friend or a foe

I had a conversation with a friend the other day that reminded me that it shouldn’t really matter. She updated me about her husband’s startup business and how it’s been growing rapidly through hard work and also because he’s incorporated AI into the product. He’s secured business from a couple of major hospitals and because his product is focused on allowing physicians to do more with less, it offers a compelling value proposition to cash-strapped funding agencies that struggle to keep up with public demand for high-quality care while operating in an environment of low to no tax increases. His product is successfully demonstrating it can make a difference one hospital at a time. As he scales his business, and as AI matures, it’s not hard to imagine that his business and the sector that it plays in will explode. And that will happen despite the concern from doctors that they might be replaced in the hospital setting or even that much of their own clinical work might be handled by AI

Cost, technology, and public expectations have been inexorable forces through history, especially in combination, and we should expect their continued influence on this critical sector of our society and economy. We should be optimistic that physicians who find they have more time available because AI-driven programs will pursue related research or clinical work during that freed up time. 

When we look at why AI is being adopted in the healthcare industry it’s relatively easy to identify the main goals as being cost savings, increased efficiencies, and (especially) improved health outcomes for patients. Studies have identified many of the tasks physicians perform that either lead towards or away from those goals. The argument then becomes the same as the one posed in high tech… if a task is deemed critical but repetitive (say, correlating a patient’s multiple and variable symptoms and making a diagnostic determination), and yet the speed of executing the task is detracting from those goals and constraining the organization’s ability to reach and treat more patients, why not accelerate things by offloading execution of those tasks to AI? After all, AI performs tasks much better, faster, more adroitly than humans. There’s no argument there. Where it falls far short, compared to humans, is in the application of common sense and human empathy that can only be communicated during human interaction and that’s where physicians offer the most impact from a patient’s perspective.

Caution - you’re about to enter the other half of a metaphor

Companies should examine Customer Success through a similar lens. One of the things that Customer Success Managers do is use tools that query databases in order to connect the signals that customers emit when they are using the product or otherwise engaging with the company’s services. CSMs, for example, look for patterns within the activities of a wide array of customers who might be experiencing certain challenges when they try to utilize specific features of a specific product. Some CSMs are able to do this well but the process is very slow, the scope of query often too narrow (and therefore the results are questionable), and they aren’t able to accomplish the analysis in anything approaching the milliseconds achieved by a machine learning and AI-driven program. So, we’ll repeat the same question… why not accelerate things by offloading execution of those tasks to AI? Would that mean then that CSMs won’t be required as much when AI takes on a larger role in Customer Success? The answer is that they won’t be required in the same way they were required before. Let’s look at another example.

When it comes to figuring out whether a customer is going to renew the subscription, an organization devoted to managing renewals look at all kinds of variables to determine a risk factor. Then they direct energy and attention to the kinds of accounts that provide the best opportunities for renewal and growth. And why not? Well, I’ll tell you why that’s not the best approach.

In order to have a much broader impact on the propensity of individual customers within their territory to renew, and a much larger impact on the growth prospects of their own company, the work CSMs should be focused on, if AI is able to support them and drive the efficiencies many of us envision, would be value-add responsibilities such as: gaining a better understanding of their client’s business and the forces that the client is facing that might mean changes are required in the way they better leverage the products and solutions that the CSM supports. It would mean that the CSM could better examine the experience the client is having with the solution beyond just the implications of, say, the KPIs that are listed as means for measuring progress towards the goals detailed in a success plan. Are the client’s teams properly enabled for success? What are the product adoption rates of the various teams? Do they differ from each other? If so, why? Would it improve the client’s business if all the teams adopted the product to the same degree? What are the observations the CSM has of the client’s use of the features of the product? What kind of direct feedback has the client provided that might benefit the product management team? How can the CSM encourage the client to join a community to share and to learn from industry peers? Should the CSM take a more active role in those communities? Knowing how the client has adopted one product, what can the CSM proactively do to educate the client about the advantages of an adjacent solution? If CSMs were to be able to operate in that manner, what would happen to the renewal rate? Through the moon, that’s what. And AI would enable that model to be executed at scale. 

AI cannot perform in the same manner as the CSM described above, at least not yet. Much as a physician possesses the unique human quality of empathy and the ability to do a much better job of factoring into diagnoses and treatment plans the intangible quality of trust, so too do CSMs have the edge in those regards over AI. For the foreseeable future, only a human will be able to ponder how to deal effectively at a scale that humans relate to but they will need the assistance of AI if they want to make a broader impact across many humans, many territories, and many societies.

Take a listen to this Bloomberg Daybreak Asia's podcast: AI Can be Harnessed to Change World of Marketing featuring our Senior VP or Products, Shashi Seth.  

Is Our Job to Make Our Job Obsolete?

Way back in the Mesozoic Period of IT (about 1989) I had a boss who, while clenching a lit cigar between his teeth (yes, there was that back then), uttered these immortal words, “Your job is to automate yourself out of a job.”

That master of inspirational communications was on to something. He seemed to believe in motivating his people by obviating the eventual need for ever having to have us around. At first, it was confusing, I’ll admit that, but after a while it made sense. The future he painted was a blank slate but at least it was different than the discombobulated and patchwork state of how our systems and processes worked at that time, and about which we all complained loudly. He couldn’t tell us how that future would look when we arrived there, how the blank slate would get filled in, but he was good at describing why we needed to head there. He said it was “because the better we are at improving our efficiencies the faster the trains will run and the more cargo they’ll be able to carry.” (You probably guessed at this point that I worked at the headquarters of a railway) Looking back I think of him as the best first business leader a young person could ask for - talk about being able to draw a straight line from microscopic task to macroscopic impact. 

I was in the first of my IT jobs that required me to do a bit of programming, of basic operational routines frankly, not the coding of any sort of complex algorithms that would go on later to topple nations and disrupt elections or anything. Although who knows what impact my stuff had on Y2K. Anyway, they were just simple sets of instructions to move data around, perform some mathematics, and trigger actions. In other words, to automate as much as possible some of the repetitive activities then performed by computer operations personnel.

He must’ve noticed that we had an ounce of intelligence and could follow the path of logic towards some end state in the distant future because he described our job as “automate this, then automate that, then automate your own processes (which I did), then, you know, we’ll figure something else out for you to do.” The strategy worked so well that, six years later, the company ended up consolidating organizations and moving our department and whatever responsibilities we had left 2000 miles away to Calgary. I was invited to go but I quit and went to another company.

Fast forward a few decades and I’m sitting in the audience last Tuesday at Oracle Openworld when our CEO, Mark Hurd, spoke to how Oracle wants to make blockchain disappear completely. I sat up a little straighter when he talked about that, as I flashed back to those prehistoric early years of my career. The circle was complete.

Those of us in the tech industry tend to forget that customers frankly don’t want to think about us and don’t want to interact with us. They do want to interact with our products but they don’t want to have anything to do with us. Ultimately, they simply want our products to deliver value to them. We’re dazzled by what our products can do and so are they but the difference is that they’d rather not care about how things work. Think those train conductors cared what some young buck was coding back in Toronto even though the efficiencies that were improved as a result meant that the conductors didn’t have to wait as long at a switch, his manifests arrived in a timelier manner, and that the applications that monitored the machinery that checked for buckling and cracking of rails that his engine ran over were tested? No, and we didn’t expect him to care. We wanted what we did to be invisible to the end user.

So when I hear leaders speak the truth about what shouldn’t really be controversial things, I’m heartened. Blockchain is all the rage, and I’m a big believer in its massive potential, but it makes sense that in the not too distant future we won’t be talking about it as much and that will be a good sign that it’s become an accepted and standardized aspect of our infrastructures. We shouldn’t actually care or expect our customers and end users to think consciously of blockchain or any other fancy technology we dream up that drives the information they see and interact with on their devices. Their experience needs to be with the application, not the plumbing. 

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The Battle For Customers

“We tend to fight the next war in the same way we fought the last one. We are prisoners of our own experience.”

Sam Wilson, Lieutenant General US Army

He spoke those words a few years before the Vietnam War plummeted to its nadir (from America’s perspective). The conflict was gradually slipping out of control of the US government and a thought was emerging amongst a circle of military leaders, troubling and difficult for many to accept, that the US involvement had been predicated on a miscalculation about how wars should be fought. From the start, the war was different in the predominant mode of operations (guerrilla warfare) of the US enemy and in that respect, it had not followed the familiar patterns of the previous two significant conflicts (WWII and the Korean War). Leaders like General Wilson began voicing concerns that the US was up to its neck with the wrong strategy and that they couldn’t win if they maintained their current course. We know what happened after that. That message was smothered and so too were US hopes of victory.

While this article begins with a focus on war, the rest of it is not about that subject or geopolitics. It is about history, though—the history of business and how it tends to view customers.

Taking a longer view is a noble endeavor 

The second sentence in General Wilson’s quote came to mind when I recently read, Successful companies more likely to say marketing function “owns the customer” [stats] from Econsultancy, an agency I subscribe to and whose research I admire. This article calls for a reorientation of marketing’s mission so that it can begin focusing on working with a company’s existing customers in a similar way that it focuses today on buyers and prospects. In other words, cover the complete lifecycle of a customer, providing them with the guidance they need to make the best decisions at each step of their journey. That strategy is so virtuous that it’s hard to debate and as a person who spends a lot of time thinking about how the customer’s experience could be improved, it made me want to stand up and applaud.  

Taking a step back

A reorientation is indeed necessary for two reasons: 1) because we know marketing struggles to prove to sales (primarily its historical master) that the work it performs makes a difference in whether a customer decides to purchase and, 2) because effort spent working with loyal customers has a larger impact on profit over time than does the effort involved in securing new customers. Focusing on existing customers will be a departure for marketing, however, and will involve: an entirely new way of thinking about revenue, designing new processes that haven’t even yet been considered, cross-organizational conversations to drive decisions that produce mutually agreeable outcomes, and in convincing the entire company that marketing should take a lead role in influencing customer growth.

Prisoners of our own experience

And this is where General Wilson strides back on to the scene. Another perspective on the above-mentioned article would be to consider the idea from a wider lens, past just sales or marketing “owning the customer”. Setting aside the internal turf war that will eventually erupt because of that assertion, there is one perspective that isn’t considered in that scenario. When you think about it more expansively, the question of ownership has always been about money. Who has the relationship with the customer decision-makers? That’s why it has historically rested on sales to carry that responsibility. But what about in the new world of cloud where the customer experience is increasingly seen as the linchpin to renewals and growth? Is it marketing? A case can be made that they are better prepared for that than sales but how will marketing get the full picture of the existing customer without an intimate partnership with those organizations that work most closely with those customers? That would be customer success, customer support, and education.

Much of what’s being written about marketing’s new need to focus on existing customers, unfortunately, repeats the refrain (owning the customer) from an old hymn book and it sounds discordant in the world of cloud businesses. While I don’t disagree with the underlying research in the article, I do believe obsessing about who owns the customer is a waste of corporate energy that should be diverted towards more substantial concerns like organizational alignment around the customer experience. Wanting to be seen as the organization that owns the customer perpetuates a questionable strategy that has historically failed at addressing customer need and sees a company’s organizations pitted more against each other than in being cooperative. 

Who owns the customer?

No one really “owns” the customer in subscription companies. It’s actually more accurate to say that the customer owns the customer because, although many companies seem to have difficulty coming to terms with this truism, the customer is in control. McKinsey implied as much in this piece, called Organizing for the Future, in which they framed the need to redesign our corporations in response to digitization, which is ultimately driven by consumer and customer preferences.

Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, attempted to speak to this too in his book, Subscribed. Where he depicted a modern corporation operating in the manner shown below, one in which the customer forms the nucleus and all processes flow around them. That new model contrasts sharply with the conventional (and increasingly risky in the digital age) hierarchical model that sees the product as the source of a company’s work and its reason for being.

So instead of saying any particular organization owns the customer, it might be wiser and more digitally efficient and accurate to ask “since the customer owns their own experience with products and services, how can we all work together to make sure they get optimal value from those things?”

I’ve been calling for a convergence of customer success and marketing going back at least five years and if I co-opt the main message of that research I called out earlier, it looks like we might be approaching an opportunity for it to come true. If marketing and customer success can collaborate and build integrated and automated processes, they can drive the kind of digital transformation that would see the customer benefit in the end (and naturally, therefore, the company would too). Customers will receive the targeted guidance they need in near real-time and it will be based on a full picture of their preferences and on their rate of adoption against the business goals they’ve articulated for the solutions in which they invested. It’s worth mentioning that our recently announced CX Unity holds great promise for moving the industry down that road.  

Let’s break with the past

It has been said that the most difficult aspect of digital transformation is the "cultural". I see language as a key element of the cultural component. It can hinder or accelerate depending on how it’s used. For companies to be truly customer-centric in today’s economy, lots of things need to happen. But, first and foremost is the need for organizations, and the people who work within, to reimagine how they focus their effort around the customer. They need to understand that collaborating cross-organizationally is the only pathway to success.

With the power of AI, Oracle Marketing Cloud technology connects, thinks and adapts to optimize the CX journey with every engagement. Get our guides here.





Unintentional Traps We Set for Customer Success

There exists probably no more despised phrase in the Customer Success lexicon than “one throat to choke”. Ironically, it’s often used in a positive, inspirational way, as in, “This is critical. You’re our best and we need to prevent that customer from defecting. We’re going to give them one throat to choke. You.”

As if what customers really desire is to commit an act of murder. They don’t. What they really want is for the products to work and that they live up to even half the sales and marketing hype that they bought into. So if customers are reacting with annoyance and rage, and threatening to leave, offering them up a sacrificial lamb wrapped in a superman cape is not going to deliver any long-term benefits to anyone. In fact, it likely makes things worse because it deflects energy away from working on the real solution. At this point in the evolution of the tech business, hearing the phrase “one throat to choke” should be a signal to pull the ripcord on the commercial relationship because it’s likely already lost. 

Seriously, whoever thought it was a good idea to immediately disable the value of a customer-facing person by positioning them as a customer’s object of scorn and as a locus of rage, instead of positioning them as one half of a relationship of business equals, should be, well, throttled. That imbalance, one so emblematic of a reactive strategy, is what I refer to when talking about traps for Customer Success.

A proactive strategy that involves understanding the customer’s business goals and building a plan to systematically drive customer effort towards achieving those goals is a far better approach. It requires significant initial upfront work when setting up the Customer Success practice (really difficult to retrofit afterwards so a big caution there) and while it’s obviously better for the customer it’s also better for those poor individuals who are tired of having their worn out throats choked. Who wouldn’t be happier, more content, and enjoy a high degree of gratification and career confidence if they were able to focus on delivering a customer’s desired outcomes? 

What’s the only thing stopping this from happening across our industry? This is going to sound harsh but it boils down to poor leadership. See this post I wrote after I attended the CS100 Summit 2018 for my thoughts on leadership’s role in changing the paradigm.

I’ll close with a story. Remember that last episode of Breaking Bad, called Felina, in which the Jessie character is working in a woodshop? The viewer immediately sees he’s focused on the delicate, final assembly of a beautifully crafted wooden box he built himself. We know he’s built it because his hands are shown conducting that final assembly process and because of the tools arrayed on the bench and on the wall behind him. As he bends to admire its exquisite grain and smoothness of surface, we assume he created it for a child or a lover. 

It must be the warm light of the scene that triggers the viewer’s confusion. Confusion that’s actually a welcome respite from binge watching the violent series because the mood of the entire scene is so incongruent with the mood of all the episodes of the previous five seasons. And because we are confused we’re surprised when forced to face the reality that the scene is a dream and Jessie wakes from his delusion to find he is still shackled, still held hostage, in the meth lab belonging to the latest vile gang (this one American as opposed to the previous Mexican one) that has intersected with his young, unfortunate life. The scene concludes with our depressed reaction as we realize Jessie, the volatile acolyte of the series’ lead character, Walter White, will spend his remaining days and years (depending on the good graces of his “hosts”) being forced to cook that exceedingly rare blue 98%-pure meth, the coveted substance, a proxy for all that’s wrong with our world, and that’s driven the Breaking Bad story for five seasons.

Think of Jessie’s daydream the next time you have the urge to take short cuts around the design of customer engagement. Your CSMs want to be Jessie in the daydream, creating something good and enduring.

Want to Help Your Customers Succeed? Get Personal

You’re a customer of business software. Your company spent a lot of money on a product it hopes will improve the speed with which you do your job.

Um, great. Pressure. Spotlight. Those things you try to avoid.

You think to yourself, “Why is it me who’s under the gun?” Which leads you to ask, “Isn’t this a two-way street?” Then you say, with some irritation:

  • It would help if the vendor would improve the speed at which I could learn their product.
  • It would help if the vendor’s support department would improve the speed at which they fixed things when I report a problem or even knew who I was when I called in.
  • It would help if the vendor’s marketing team would send me tips and tricks on what we have instead of trying to convince me to buy those things we already have or to buy something else.
  • It would help if the vendor’s salesperson, who seemed so interesting and interested in me at one point, would send me more than a templated Christmas card, likely signed by an underpaid admin.
  • It would help if the vendor would improve the speed at which I could talk to a real product expert if I got to a point where I needed just a little bit more knowledge about how to use the product and couldn’t figure things out from their documentation.
  • Most of all, it would really help if the vendor would improve the speed at which they learned about me. Me. I know all about them from their “About us” page, but how much do they know about me?

Is this you? Don’t lie. This is you. It’s me too. It’s everyone who has ever worked with any enterprise software program anywhere. Especially that last “it would really help.”

I made up all those thoughts you see above but you can probably identify with them, right? As the lead on our Voice of the Customer program for customer success, I hear all kinds of feedback, but the one that has the most powerful impact on the future of all of us is that last one.

Despite all the legitimate concerns about privacy, a desire for personalization is on the rise. It’ll require a delicate balance of respect and technology (see this piece by a former colleague), but it is possible for vendors to deliver what customers want and need. Convenience, speed, knowledge, and a relationship. 

Here’s a quote to close the post. Bain & Company recently released a report called, Customer Experience Tools and Trends 2018, which includes this:

“The toothpaste is out of the tube: More and more customers expect their vendors to provide a highly personalized approach, powered by AI.”

Customer Success Leaders: Think & Act, Then Think & Act

As a customer success leader, how many times have you been in a meeting where the VP of sales asks what you’re doing to get strategic customer, ACME123, out of the ditch so that her salespeople can more smoothly pursue and close a growth deal? Once? Twice? Dozens of times?

From an industry perspective, product problems are often cited as a primary reason customers find themselves in that ditch. That’s followed closely by poor responsiveness of support and a perception that the installed solution is rife with complexity. Aggressive competitors pounce on these situations to create FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the marketplace with marketing campaigns that attempt to woo away your customers.

So, what’s your normal response to the VP in those meetings? Do you try to deflect responsibility or do you assertively take ownership of the situation? After all, the VP looked around the room and communicated to all the other leaders what she knows the customer success mission to be. The words were familiar to you because you wrote them as your organization’s mission statement:

  • Ensure customers understand and adopt the solution.
  • Marshal all required resources to resolve situations that are inhibiting a customer’s ability to realize their expected value from their investment.
  • Be the customer’s advocate.
  • Create the right environment so the customer continues to renew the commercial relationship.

See what I did there? I used industry jargon to depict a common scene where someone outside customer success uses the jargon in an attempt to trap (maybe innocently) the customer success team into fulfilling a broad set of responsibilities it is believed belong to them.

What this power play scene boils down to is an argument about which side of a fine-edged sword the leadership team will choose. On one side is the clear language of that list. It’s tough to dispute those worthy goals. They’re clearly good for customers, and from the vendor’s point of view, they are abstract enough to not offend or overly inspire. It’s also too easy, though, to say that just because those items are on a list means that one organization can control everything required to achieve each goal.

Modern business dictates a new view of customer management, one based on the entire customer lifecycle. And that means we must acknowledge that while customer success is indeed responsible for those things, they do not control the results of the efforts made by other organizations all along the way. This team must be seen as the organization that will coordinate and guide; they should definitely be seen as the vanguard for driving value, but the reality is that they inherit the customer. In a sense, customer success is in the odd position of being charged with making the customer whole while simultaneously exposing what needs to change within the vendor’s own walls. That’s essentially a case to call customer success a transformational change agent.

Back to that scenario, here’s what customer success should do.

Manage the Rescue, But Only If All Agree to an Autopsy

I know in this scenario the customer isn’t deceased. But having experienced those meetings countless times in a number of companies, I feel it’s safe to say that if they aren’t dead the first or second time they end up in the ditch, by the third time around, they’ll almost assuredly be dead. So, thinking radically, conduct an autopsy on something that still has a chance to live, instead of waiting for it to die.

For the good of the customer and vendor, customer success should agree to manage the rescue of the customer (really, who else will?) only when each involved executive leader of that customer’s lifecycle agrees to determine what caused the customer to veer off course in the first place. An autopsy would examine if the customer was in the ditch because of:

  • Inappropriate solutions sold at the outset.
  • Poorly designed/architected/developed/tested product.
  • Poor documentation in the CRM by the sales team of customer goals, skills, influencer information, expectations of ROI, impact to long-term business, etc.
  • Or, all of the above was documented but the post-sales teams had no visibility into the account records.
  • Poorly scoped and/or poorly delivered services engagement.
  • A real product flaw that’s reproducible and will take some time to repair.
  • Cloud provisioning was flawed in some small, obscure way.
  • Customer onboarding was non-existent, rushed, too high-level, or lacked oversight.
  • Customer support’s processes reward rapid service request closures – even if root cause is not identified. As long as a workaround is devised, that is seen as sufficient.
  • Customer success missed all the clues that signal a struggling customer.

To all the naysayers out there who argue that autopsies take too much time and most companies wouldn’t be able to cobble together leaders from each organization to participate in such recurring exercises, I say this. Good luck keeping up with companies that aren’t thinking that way and are beginning to exploit machine learning and artificial intelligence. Still, think it would be impossible to conduct this type of exercise for all your at-risk customers? Then allow me to pull another word from the jargon bin.


To execute proactively in anything, one has to be thoughtful. Knowledge about what to do to avoid or forestall a negative thing from happening requires one to consider the problem that should be avoided and put in place methods for preventing it from happening. Or as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it, “taking action by causing change and not only reacting to change when it happens.”

Own the Shame, But Learn from It

There’s a whole lot of shame that can be cast around when customers end up in the ditch. Some of it has to go toward the customers for their own shortfalls in process and talent, but much of it has to be worn by the vendor. Vendors are the ones who are the product experts, who know why the product even exists, who know how it can be fixed when broken, and who know what it takes for a customer to extract value from it.

Own it, but whatever you do, don’t let your go-to reactive response (rescue) dictate how similar scenarios should be handled in the future. That’s a recipe for more rescues and more support for those opinions in the market about the complexity of your solutions. Understand that many customer problems have common causes, typical patterns that result in outcomes they didn’t expect. Apply a scientific approach to the data associated with the customer’s experience and identify those patterns. Study what should change in your processes, your products, the skills of your people. Customer success should be the organization that leads that effort, but they can’t do it alone.

I’ll close with a story. I once worked for a large enterprise software company whose SVP of customer support was renowned as a great customer advocate, as someone who would do what it took to get the customer over the product bumps they were experiencing. I’d only worked with the company for a few months, but I became skeptical. I began to investigate those experiences with my portfolio of clients (I was in customer success at the time), and it quickly became clear why that SVP had the reputation he had. It turns out it was a completely internal reputation, not an external opinion that customers shared.

Here’s how things worked. Customers knew enough to game the system to the extent that they opened every single service request with a severity one. There they sat, even the most critical ones, until the customer raised hell with their sales rep. If it was important enough to the sales rep (meaning, there was revenue on the horizon) they would contact the EVP who would then triage that severity one against all the others he’d been alerted about. He would then direct the effort of the support organization accordingly.

We lived then in a world like the madness of Madness of King George (though he wasn’t named George for all you sleuths out there). What was he then, besides an impressive and logic-challenged human robot? He was a bad habit enabler. He was controlled by the sales organization. He was a culture and productivity killer. And ultimately, because of his 100 percent reactive style, he was also a very poor advocate for customers.

It wasn’t all his fault, but the company’s NPS never budged, and its reputation drifted aimlessly. He was canned after I left that company when customer experience became an industry focus and rose in importance to finally register at the board level.

Reactive doesn’t work. Think and act. Think and act.

Your Customers Can’t Wait Any Longer: They Need You to be Data Literate, Too

We in the vendor world like to talk about ourselves. A lot. We like to talk about how our products are so smart, so user-friendly, so useful, so valuable, and so mission-critical. So many pats on our own backs. I find it educational and humbling to sit back once in a while and observe the vendor activity on my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds.

To be fair, my company is as guilty as any other company in the way product information and its importance to business is trumpeted across networks. Also, and again to be fair, this is not a bad thing on its own. After all, it’s just advertising. It’s bad though if your customers grow weary of the onslaught.

Do you know if they are?

The onslaught of anything causes deflection or shutdown. I know I switch the channel on the treadmill when commercials come on, just as I do when I click on a link and it opens a website that includes autoplay of a video. Close it down, shut it off, make it stop. Those kinds of consumer reactions are not what marketers envision from their campaigns. The same principle — and same set of reactions — holds for existing customers on the receiving end of your messaging.

So What Do Customers Want?

Good question. They want lots of things. They want products that are easy to use and do what the vendor says they will. They want accurate and fast basic service when they need it, and they want real expertise available when they are in a situation that warrants it. They’re willing to pay for that last piece, by the way. Are any of those things unreasonable? No.

Customers want more because we vendors have elevated their expectations. We’re delivering more features, functionality, and business value through our products and solutions all the time. While their lives can be more complicated as a result, the net effect is that technological solutions are having a positive effect on their businesses.

That’s one form of onslaught, but it’s a form that customers are attracted to. An onslaught of value is a good thing.

The scene turns sour, though, when our vendor voice drowns out their customer one. When customers feel they have to struggle to get those (in their minds) minimum service expectations I listed above met, that’s when they feel vendors are only interested in themselves. There are Voice of the Customer programs, which, of course, have the potential for offering tremendous listening value, but how else can vendors show they care?

Climb The Mountain of Data

How about using the vast amount of data collected each day from your customers’ use of your product? How about leveraging the data that you already know about the kind of business they’re in and how successful they’ve been, the products they subscribe to (yours and your competitors’), the trajectory of their spend with you, about the roles of the individuals employed and who serve as your contacts in all those accounts, about the business goals they aspire to and that they’ve already detailed for you?

All of that should be stored in your CRM.

How about reconciling all that data with what you should know about what’s happening in the national and international economies where your customers conduct their business? How about taking all that data and, without even a hint of alchemy, turn it into insights that you can action with customers? In addition to great solutions, this is what customers really want.

Getting From Here to There

If heightened expectations mean customers want more insights, what does that mean for vendors? Vendors need to accelerate the data literacy of their workforces, particularly those in their customer-facing organizations. They need to evolve their teams to a point where customers and opportunities are represented by data that can be distilled into meaningful action.

Data literacy is the ability to read, understand, create and communicate data as information. It’s the ability of a person to be comfortable operating in an environment where automated work processes are fueled by data, mountains of it. Digitally transformed businesses can only be so when they can say that their processes are operating from a foundation of data, which, of course, dictates that people responsible for operating the processes need to be as data fluent as possible to participate fully in an environment of iterative improvement.

Sadly though, Capgemini reports that only a minority (39 percent) of businesses feel they are digitally capable. And, although this next piece focuses on this issue specifically as it pertains to the US federal government, according to this Nextgov article, organizations aren’t doing enough to advance the data literacy skills of their workforces.

Broadly speaking, data illiteracy hurts a company’s ability to meet business targets, and, in the future, it will more severely compromise their ability to compete. As stated in the article, organizations should make driving up data literacy rates across their workforces a high priority “instead of depending on a few experts who hold the keys to the data kingdom … .”

Does Customer Success Play a Role?

Carrying over from a recent post I wrote called, Customer Success: An Instrument for Change, there is no more logical organization to lead the effort toward digitally transforming a company so that it revolves around the needs and experiences of customers. Why? Because no other organization has as close proximity to the customer’s business as customer success. No other organization is as weighted with responsibility for ensuring customers stay customers over the long haul. And no other organization is as increasingly looked upon as integral to a customer’s ability to achieve their business goals.

But in most cases, customer success is not quite ready for such a key role in a digitally transformed landscape. More change needs to occur and the most fundamental one of all is elevating its members’ level of data literacy so that the following example can be digitally and procedurally handled instead of the way it typically is today in almost all companies, by executive escalation and disruptive panic.

Example: Customer A bought Product B from your company. Customer A is a financial services firm whose flamboyant CEO loves speaking to the media about the future of fintech. She’s recently announced a new initiative that will see her firm invest millions into a new lab to exploit that technology because, as she says, her customers are becoming increasingly data literate. But that will only happen once they complete an internal review of the performance and relevance of their existing technology investments and associated vendors. Do you think that might produce some important action for the customer success team? Do you think it might trigger them to redouble their efforts at ensuring Customer A is successful in achieving their business goals through Product B so that your company lands on the right side of that assessment process?

A vendor with a data literate workforce would have an edge. A data literate workforce would already know whether the customer is achieving success or not and would already have been executing a plan to keep things moving in the right direction.

You get my point.

Data literacy drives more intelligent decisions. And while they might not be saying it or even thinking it, data literacy is what your customers need you to have. 

Choice and Respect Don’t Have to Be Mutually Exclusive

There’s a great line in this Wall Street Journal article about airlines and the way they structure and price their fare classes. The CEOs of Delta Airlines and American Airlines were interviewed, and at one point, were each asked to comment on the size of the seats in coach or economy class. Here’s the reporter’s line:

“Neither apologizes for packing in more, skinnier seats. Their message: If you want more space, buy it.”

Being a frequent flier myself I know that’s the choice for customers of most airlines. Still, even if it is the right business decision, I would’ve advised some gentler messaging. Hearing that is like being on the wrong end of the sort of back-handed comment that can leave a scar. Ouch.

We approach choice a little differently. Our own experiences and observations in the high-tech industry have taught us that offering a service that is too prescriptive, one designed to serve everyone the same way, while being cost-effective, almost always ends up being a poor deal for the customer.

Why is that?

Because, in the software world, even when it comes to SaaS-delivered software, each customer feels that their implementation is different enough from everyone else’s that they need some special variation of a standard service, one that addresses their unique needs. So what’s a vendor to do?

Offering Too Much Choice Can Be a Cost Sinkhole

One sure way for a service or support organization to raise the ire of a CFO is to continually ask for more budget when, in return, that offers no substantial, measurable financial impact to the company. They can point to abstract measurements of successful implementations, increased customer satisfaction, and greater customer engagement but those things, unfortunately, are not linked return on investment.

And if that organization were to expand exponentially and offer many different packages that attempt to meet the unique needs of all their customers they would quickly set off alarm bells. Left undeterred, that would eventually imperil the company’s bottom line. So a compromise is needed, but that doesn’t have to mean an inferior and uncomfortable experience for anyone.

We believe the compromise is to keep it simple but comfortable (unlike airlines that seemingly focus only on the simple) and still make available to those customers who feel they need them, a number of add-on services they can purchase.

Even though a core value proposition of the cloud is speed, cost of deployment, and a faster time to value, in the business world it’s impossible to escape the reality that each business has its own particular reasons for designing processes that use the software in a certain way. This can be very challenging for software vendors and whether customers are aware of it or not we can’t say, but there are endless debates within the walls of those vendors about the wisdom of providing too much choice.

Still, as Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora, says in his recent book, Subscribed, on the topic of churn and retention, “The takeaway is pretty clear: the ability to solve for a broad range of customer problems, with a broad range of solutions, increases retention.” Even though he made that comment in the context of selling to customers, I believe the same principle applies in after-sale scenarios just as well.

Respect is Not Such a Difficult Consideration

At the end of the day, again to simplify, all we’re really talking about is respect. Not all customers are the same. Not all business challenges are the same. Because one company needs to buy more service to accomplish its goals shouldn’t infer that another company that chooses to go with the base service is worth any less. As long as the base service contains sufficient value and provides a good experience for the majority of customers, the vendor can feel confident that any list of extra services would be finite and manageable. Customers will notice and appreciate that kind of choice. Those vendors that recognize this and understand how that fundamental trait factors into enhancing the customer’s overall impression (and therefore, how it weighs heavily on how they would judge their experience) will be the ones who see higher levels of retention and lower levels of churn.

What’s My Message to Airline CEOs?

No one disagrees that a business needs to offer only those services it has determined it can afford to deliver while keeping an eye on achieving healthy margins. Everything and everybody that constitutes a flight on an airplane comes with a price and so it makes sense to have different classes of service. It also makes just as much nonsense to offer nothing but business class seats. And yet, there is that nagging issue of (what should be) the need to show respect for all customers.

Choice is good for customers, and it really is a smart business practice. But even the lowest class of service needs to be as pain-free as possible. Why wouldn’t you make all classes of service as valuable as possible for customers in each class? Doesn’t it make sense that when they receive (and in the case of airlines, feel) value, that they will return the next time?

It Takes a Village: Why Self-Service Learning is So Effective

Have you ever wondered if there was a better place to grab a burger or a quicker way to get somewhere you frequent? Ten years ago, information like that wasn’t nearly as easy to come by as it is today. Now, we can post our question in a forum or on social media and have instant access to a network of thousands of our peers.  

Personally, this is how I learn about go-to restaurants when I travel, find a new pediatrician for my kids, and locate just the right hotel for the family vacation. We spend about one-third of our life at work, so why wouldn’t we apply these same methods of learning when it comes to the tools we use to get our jobs done?

It’s not hard to imagine:

Your company invests in a new technology. You’ve completed the online training but are in the middle of a project when a question comes up. Instead of calling someone or emailing and waiting for a reply, you hop into the community for a quick search. It's not surprising that someone has already asked that exact question. Better yet, several people have offered up solutions that answer your question, and you are back to work.

Having a digital space where you can interact with peers, ask questions, and share best practices can radically enhance learning and your user experience. That’s why we recently shared how self-service can equal great customer service.

Don't Just Take Our Word for It

Zendesk Research found that “as many as 67 percent of consumers prefer helping themselves to speaking with a customer service agent.” Community and peer-to-peer interaction can play as big of a role in a successful self-service model as a knowledge base. In fact, Aberdeen reports that savvy high-tech companies with well-oiled online communities see 3.1 times greater customer satisfaction rates.

The self-service and peer-to-peer community interactions aren’t the only benefit either. Another study by Aberdeen found that 17.5 percent of learning something new applied to relational learning – which happens during collaborations and using social networks and communities.

The research is clear; there are big benefits to joining digital communities. We hear our customers ask for more and better learning options, and so we’ve raised the bar.  Oracle LaunchPad, our new free learning tool, has its own community forum where you can ask questions, search for answers, and share your best practices!

Check out all of Oracle’s communities - there are already more than 450K active users there. What are you waiting for? Join the conversation today!

Customer Success: An Instrument for Change

In a talk I delivered last week about our new service model at the Customer Success Summit in Toronto, I referred to customer success as a function that should be seen in the age of the cloud as a company’s most vital instrument for transformative change. It’s a bold statement since that’s not how companies typically view the function.

For sure, customer success is seen as important and as playing a pivotal role in helping customers survive business-impacting crises of one flavor or another. But transformational? Rarely.

For proof, follow the money. Where do organizations typically invest money and resources when they decide on a go-to-market strategy? If we’re honest, the answer is that customer success is usually seen as a subordinate partner to sales. That, my friends, is the kind of thinking that belongs in the past. In a time when our business world is moving toward a heightened focus on the client experience, that’s the kind of thinking that puts companies at increased risk of irrelevance.

Going all in during that talk, I extended the meaning of "instrument for change" to suggest that the opportunity for significant change through customer success exists for customers and for virtually all of a vendor’s organizations — and for each of the individuals who populate the teams contained within.

Customer Success Should be the Linchpin

That broad interpretation is a departure from how customer success is too often viewed. Which is to say, through a very narrow lens. It’s too often viewed as an organization operating in only one dimension: as providing service to customers to help them be successful with the product they purchased. That sounds sensible, I know, and while there is, of course, value in that, the vagueness of language and the open-endedness of the promise is a bit of a trap. Not to mention that it’s problematic that the value proposition is invented solely by the vendor and is difficult to measure in any business sense with precision.

That’s why we find ourselves facing a real dichotomy between the positioning statements used by vendors when deploying a customer success service and how that service is perceived by many customers. That value, again, is defined by the vendor and it tends to emanate from a reactive posture, which is not the kind of posture a company should adopt in the fickle, forward-moving world of cloud.

Proactive Not Reactive

Proactive is where the real value lies for customers. And what makes proactive highly relevant and critical is that it’s something customers crave and require. Receiving knowledge when they need it helps them achieve their articulated business goals. Whether it’s through a direct human-to-human connection or through a programmatic and machine-generated action, proactive outreach is what benefits customers most. (Spoiler …  we’ve validated this supposition with customers in our Voice of the Customer program.)

Beyond the Simple Definition

Seen in that light, the simplistic view of customer success as crisis mitigation or as  a service to help customers be successful with the product they purchased becomes a limiting construct. Why? Because it should be so much more than that.

That simplistic interpretation prevents customer success from living up to its potential. It should be seen, instead, as a force for delivering strong transformational value in three directions: toward the customer, the employer or vendor, and the individuals who hold the role of customer success manager.

Proximity & Data: Twin Advantages of Customer Success

No other organization or function within a company has the license to have such close, observational and influential proximity to the digital behaviors customers exhibit, to the experiences they have while using the product, to the actual businesses of their customers and the goals they aim to pursue, and to the decision-makers charged with making sure their pursuit results in positive business momentum.

Each of those items can be captured and documented in digital form. Each offers gateways into additional opportunities for collecting more data that can be used to better understand and substantially improve the customer’s experience with the products and the services. Data collected through customer success processes and digital interfaces should result in critical insights and these should be seen as essential fuel rods for the vendor’s corporate nuclear core.

Insights gleaned from customer success data can fuel many things:

  • More compelling and impactful success plans. Success plans have been around for many years, but from an industry point of view, their efficacy at driving real business results is decidedly poor. Too often they are reactive in nature, focused on obstacles rather than milestones, on problems rather than opportunities.
  • Business reviews that offer powerful targeted guidance. Customer success data should inform the kind of business reviews that customer executives have been wishing for and that they have found wanting in most customer success deliveries to date.
  • Improved product management processes. Customer success data should provide product management with a near real-time view of the full customer experience and (at least in theory) help them design better products in more powerful and immediate ways. What could it mean for product managers and their ability to plan for future technology solutions if they were able to depend on a steady diet of solid and programmatic customer feedback (via customer success-generated insights)?
  • Remove the middle man. If customer data was as enriched as I described, the customer success team could identify and act on the best opportunities for upsells and cross-sells (especially if the CRM system automated recognition of the customer data signals that suggest the time is ripe). In its LAER model, TSIA touches on such a future-oriented capability for customer success, as long as a data and insights engine exist (they refer to this as Consumption Analytics).
  • Reduce reliance on customer support. Ultimately, customers do not want to interact with your support organization. They would much rather find success using the product without having to contact anyone. Think about it. When you buy a product, is contacting the hotline or support line something you hope or expect you will have to do?
  • Elevate customer success. If customer success-generated insights drove process improvements and customer success moved into the forefront of where the economy is focused (CX), what might that do to the careers of the customer success individuals? As data and insights become more of the thrust behind the engine of the entire company, how will that enhance or alter the skillset and the aspirations of people charged with its management and implementation? I’ll give you a hint … it will enhance them. The World Economic Forum touched on this topic in this recent blog post as did The Boston Consulting Group in this post.

The future of customer success is about finally being able to exert maximum force on executing a proactive customer engagement model. Proactive does not mean providing a customer with information when they stumble. It’s too late at that point. Proactive means getting ahead of customer need with knowledge so that they don’t stumble at all. We shouldn’t want them to even be aware that the sidewalk is cracked.

Insights, not just data. Knowledge, not just information. These are the transformational precepts upon which customer success needs to operate for they offer the chance to influence across the dimensions of business, organization, and role.