Author: Peter Armaly

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.

A Small Glitch or Evidence of Impending CX Disaster

Interpreting what you customers mean from their interactions with you is key to creating valuable digital experiences that will make them return to your site. Let me elaborate on this from an experience of mine.

I tried to book a hotel room at the website of a global chain for the upcoming wedding of a niece. She had given me the code for the block of rooms she and her fiancé had arranged to be set aside at an attractive discount. The process to choose a room was simple and easy, and everything was fine until I had to fill in my personal details. First name, last name, phone number, address …

All was good until I clicked on the postal code field, and I was presented with only a numeric keypad. Postal codes in Canada are a combination of letters and numbers. I was using my mobile and the user interface would not let me enter any alphabetic characters. Odd. Did I do something wrong? I checked the country field. Nope, I had specified the right country.

I closed the session and tried again, thinking that’s what their help desk would advise me to do anyway. Didn’t matter. I ended up with that same infuriating numeric keypad when I clicked to enter my postal code. I was stuck and couldn’t pay for the room. Or was I?

I was indeed stuck if I wanted to stay at that hotel, but I wasn’t that stuck given there are lots of competitors out there. I simply closed the site (with relish) and went to the website of a boutique hotel located down the street and EASILY booked there. And for $5 less.

Do We Know What Customers REALLY Think?

I texted my niece and gave her a rundown of the situation (I write long texts, yes). She replied, with an apology, and said she would call the hotel on my behalf (as if I’m some befuddled old uncle). I thanked her and declined the offer, telling her that I booked a room down the street. I then told her I’d be writing this personal story into a corporate blog post. She replied, “LOL.”

Would the first hotel care if they heard my story? Maybe.

Should they have been able to know I was having difficulty at that one step? Yes, but they probably didn’t and the very idea that they should understand the real-time customer experience to that extent probably never occurred to them.

Would they be able to convince me if their argument was that I should’ve used a browser on a laptop instead of my mobile to book the room? No. The interface shouldn’t matter.

Would they have any idea how much revenue they lost that day, or for however long the mobile site hasn’t worked properly for Canadians? They probably have no clue, but if they were to ask, I would tell them they lost at least $200.

Should I have called the hotel and told them about the situation? Sure, but I was irritated and didn’t want to.

Moral of the Story?
  1. Don’t expect your customers to report a problem they might be experiencing on your site. That’s a reactive strategy.
  2. Don’t expect your customers to help you solve your problems. If you want their help, you need to make it worth their time.
  3. Never expect your customers to be patient, as a rule. Most will be, until they aren’t. Most customers will cut you loads of slack on other things as long as they get what they need when they need it.
  4. Errors, easily caught in a QA process, should never be promoted to the level of stupid errors. That happens when they are exposed to paying customers. Don’t skip steps. Skipped steps are more expensive than you’ll ever know.
  5. Vendors, be proactive. Don’t wait for your customers to stumble. Make sure everything you put in front of them to use is working as it should.
  6. This story is one about a B2C experience, but the lessons apply equally to B2B. Just because you’ve got a customer locked in to a subscription for a year doesn’t mean they won’t exercise their choice to leave at the end of that year. Make their experience with your sites consistently valuable for them. So much so that they will return.

And that last point is how I will end this piece because it ties into what I said in my previous blog post:

“… smart companies are using self-serve to better understand their customers through the ability to measure engagement and interaction and, in return, they use the knowledge gained to turn around and more personally nurture their relationships with customers.”

Paying attention to the usability and workability of your websites is a crucial way to productively engage your customers. It’s also a powerful way to collect insight into your customers’ preferences and behaviors, both of which are high octane fuel for making iterative improvements to your sites, your services, and your products.

Take your customers’ experience to the next level. Download Customer Experience Simplified: Deliver The Experience Your Customers Want to learn how to craft an outstanding experience for your customers.

Customer Experience Simplified Ebook

Adapted from the original post on

Why Learning is Now The Hot Word in Customer Enablement

Learning seems like a straightforward proposition. You want to achieve something; let’s call that something A. To achieve A, you need to understand, and make use of, some other important thing; let’s call it B. Once you learn how B works, you can use that knowledge to accomplish A.

Pretty clear, right? Sure – until something muddies the water (i.e. time, money or other people).

Think of it another way. If there was a world where time, money, and other people didn’t matter, you’d be able to architect and build your own suspension bridge. The bridge would be A. However, to build the bridge, you need to know algebra and understand parabolas, which, even though you didn’t realize it in high school, offer important guidance for suspension bridges. Parabolas would be B. If you get them wrong, then, well, the bridge won’t work. It won’t suspend. So, you probably shouldn’t attempt to architect a suspension bridge until you first understand algebra. That’s also a good cautionary tale for the world of business software.

Charging for Education

For decades, vendors have offered product information to help their customers learn to properly leverage the solutions they’ve purchased. More often than not, though, vendors charged customers for the information. After all, the vendor had made a considerable investment to create and deliver material, so they felt that they’d want to recoup the costs (and maybe even squeak out some profit in the process). That approach made it more difficult for customers to to learn “algebra” and achieving A was that much harder.

We heard this loud and clear (not the algebra part) in our Voice of the Customer program. Our customers told us that fee-based education was slowing their teams’ ability to adopt solutions. We like to think we’re bright people, and so it wasn’t hard for us to imagine where that story could end.

Cloud Sometimes Presents an Off-Ramp

As with so many other aspects of modern business, the cloud has upended that traditional vendor approach. Rapid on boarding and customer enablement are now seen as far more important than recouping costs (with apologies to CFOs everywhere for that blanket statement). Cost pressures have forced a shift in preferences to cloud-based, in-the-moment education. The shift is significant, and it’s borne out in studies, such as this one from the research firm Software Advice. Retaining customers is a key board-level cloud metric for vendors and to retain customers requires that they be successful in the pursuit of their own goals. A straighter line has never existed, as one does now, between customer solution knowledge and higher rates of retention and growth. That’s why education has become one of the great enablers of a customer’s ability to be successful in the cloud. It’s understood that you can’t easily achieve A without being able first to consume B.

Oracle’s Exciting New Learning Platform

That’s also why Oracle has introduced a free digital learning platform designed to help customers take advantage of Oracle Cloud Applications. Called Oracle Launchpad, the goal is to assist our customers in achieving their business goals. Providing knowledge, not just information, is a plank in our customer success strategy and one we anticipate will help our customers realize a faster time to value. The onus is on us to clear the path as much as we can for our customers as they pursue their goals.  

Read more about what the press thinks of our new strategy here, here, and here.

High Touch or Low Touch? Maybe That’s Not the Right Question

There’s an assumption in our industry about customer success (CS) that says that companies wanting to establish CS organizations need to quickly decide on the type of engagement model they’ll deploy for their various segments. The debate typically argues the merits and demerits of a high touch strategy versus low touch. The answer always boils down to people (high touch) versus technology (low touch).

Man wrestling robot arm

Intelligent and helpful examples of blended models have been proposed, but it seems that the more variations entertained, the longer it takes to come to a conclusion that the company feels suits their needs. Therefore, close attention is directed at determining which customers will receive high touch and then relegating everyone else to low. Or maybe a model is designed that sees a well-defined high touch, an ill-defined and very squishy medium, and a low that looks like, well, just about every generic campaign ever designed and executed by a marketing organization.

Confused? So are your customers. And, by the way, they may also be insulted. 

Would you be able to tell?

man scratching head

While the segmentation exercise offers speed and certainty for the company, it tends to reinforce preexisting biases and often suffers from faulty logic. In the end, this can result in very limited value to the average customer that can take many months to play out. And (here’s where temperatures rise) this applies even with a company’s most strategic customers.

A rebuttal to my point (I can hear it being yelled) is that vendors must preserve the ability for their highest ARR (annual recurring revenue) customers to be successful at all costs and that high touch programs offer the level of attention those customers expect and require. That’s fine, I get it. But if you honestly probed the subject of what level of attention those strategic customers expect and require, you might be surprised. Your customers’ definition of what constitutes success is likely different than your assumptions.

Let’s expand on that point.

Customer Success High Touch as It Is Normally Delivered
  • People, usually very experienced: low CSM to customer ratio.
  • Informed oversight of implementations, onboarding, upgrades. They also share, to some extent, governance of the account relationship with sales.
  • Quarterbacking of escalations; act as “single throat to choke” (I can’t stand that phrase); do whatever it takes to get the customer out of crises.
  • Conduct regular cadence of check-in calls.
  • Deliver occasional business reviews focused mostly on the customer’s support experience and what’s coming from product management.
The Value in That Approach
  • A human relationship, a name
  • Immediacy, responsiveness, customer account, and, inconsistently, business knowledge
  • Security
  • Comfort, familiarity
  • Some sense that by meeting there will be an improvement in the support experience and a clearer picture of how the solutions impact the customer’s business

In our Voice of the Customer program, we’ve explored this topic and have learned that, sadly, customers are often left frustrated even when CSMs deliver consistently against all those items listed above. Why would they still be frustrated? Don’t they realize the amount of effort and energy the CSM is expending to serve them?

Actually, they do.

Time and again, I hear from executives who say they love their assigned CSM, and that they do X, Y, and Z (the items listed above) phenomenally well. It’s just that they feel their own teams have not made enough progress with adopting the solution and they wish the CSM could get in front of the challenges. In a nutshell, they feel there isn’t enough proactive guidance to help them achieve their goals.

Before any competitors read this and declare a scoop, let’s all be honest and admit that our company is not unique in this regard. My own experience with previous employers, big and small, my time spent in a research firm talking with hundreds of executives, and the research from industry firms (e.g. TSIA, SiriusDecisions, IDC, Forrester, etc.) have all made the correlation between the limitations of existing customer success models and persistent high rates of churn. Those findings are also supported in the countless stories CSMs tell at conferences and meetups. There just hasn’t been enough demonstrable future-oriented business impacting value in the existing dynamic. That’s why we’ve rolled out a new model to address the imbalances of that dynamic.

We believe that what’s been missing all along has been customer-generated and controlled data, data that we should be able to consume to turn back around and provide more relevant and personalized service.

As a relevant aside, it might surprise you to read that for B2B enterprises, the world of global financial trading offers good guidance on this topic. Whether an engagement is high touch or low, the engine that powers the engagement must be a firm layer of customer data-driven insights and appropriate automation that acts upon it. We believe that philosophy will reveal what’s missing from high touch and will make low touch a more powerful and relevant experience for all customers.

What we envision is this.

Customer Success As It Should Be Delivered to ALL Customers
  • Business knowledge for the customer as job No. 1. We should be able to answer the question, “How can this Oracle solution help me solve for _____?”
  • Highly responsive, clear, and professional communications.
  • Information and guidance ahead of need.
  • Deliver service that says, “We understand you, we understand your business, and we’ll be your advocate within Oracle.”

We believe all our customers deserve the best service, and we also believe that the best can only be provided by getting close to our customers, by listening to them, by partnering with them, and by improving our capabilities based on what we can learn from them. We have confidence this is the right approach because we hear our customers express this desire in the comments they make in our customer satisfaction surveys, during the in-depth interviews in our Voice of the Customer program, and from the insights we glean and extrapolate from engagement data collected in our digital interfaces.

Whether it’s high touch or low touch, our new approach means we’ll provide consistent, and proactive, expert guidance. 

Customer success should not be about heroically supporting and leading the charge against escalations. Don’t get me wrong, customers applaud that and are grateful for it, but they’d much rather the escalations never happened. They believe customer success should become more instrumental in preventing escalations from ever occurring. 

man shaking robot hand

Customer success is about simplicity and speed, it’s about clarity of process structure and language, and it’s about an accountability for those deliverables that will drive momentum toward the achievement of customer business goals.

That’s what customers want. That’s what we’re going to deliver.

Check out our recent announcement of our new service model.

Self-Serve is a Great Model for Vendors – and Customers

Let’s get it out there right away. Self-serve is an effective, cost-saving strategy for software vendors. While some critics see the move to self-serve as a cynical attempt to offload costs (time, expense) to customers. But there’s also a huge benefit to customers – if done correctly. Self-serve can allow customers to access training and get answers when they need it.

There’s a precedent for this. For example, think back to the 1970s and 1980s when corporations offloaded all the clerical work formerly performed by legions of administrative personnel onto the workloads of pretty much everyone left after the cuts. It was essentially self-serve enabled by advances in technology. And while workers reacted negatively to losing secretarial assistance for report generation and letter-writing, the adoption of new office productivity technologies that accelerated in the ensuing years validated the decision to expect employees to assume more responsibility. It took time but eventually, we all became expert email and excel users.

Similarly, the mathematical cost calculation for providing a self-serve portal to customers is so clear it’s exhausting to imagine disputing the strategy. The industry has moved definitively in that direction. And in case it isn’t obvious, Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) in its recent Technology Services Heatmap produced a table showing the adoption of 42 technologies employed in the post-sales world of enterprise software. Self-serve is one of only four technologies deployed in more than 75% of enterprise companies.

2018 TSIA Technology Heatmap

Peak self-serve? Perhaps but don’t be fooled into thinking the bargain is all in favor of companies. Customers enjoy significant benefits too, as highlighted in this article in the Harvard Business Review. It offers them convenience and speed and in this age of choice those attributes can help address imbalances presented by the eternal yin and yang of SaaS, retention, and churn. Both customers and vendors benefit from self-serve because it places the concept of customer value front and center. Vendors commit to providing what customers need and customers commit to doing many things for themselves as long as they continue to receive, through the portal, what they need.

Upon deeper consideration, this matter of evaluating self-serve through the lens of customer value is actually the more important factor of the self-serve equation and smart companies recognize this. They recognize that they need to invest in a comprehensive strategy that forces them to carefully tend to their side of the equation. If they hope to maintain the ROI of the technology, links will need to always work, documentation will need to be current, relevant, and acutely accurate, and interactive features will need to be, well, interactive. Furthermore, smart companies are using self-serve to better understand their customers through the ability to measure engagement and interaction and, in return, they use the knowledge gained to turn around and more personally nurture their relationships with customers.

Self-serve is a critical, and modern, customer-enabling strategy and it constitutes a major plank in the platform of our new service model announced on May 7.

In the end, smart companies know that the question of helping customers achieve their expected business outcomes isn’t really about what those customers want. Smart companies know the more relevant question revolves around what customers need and to answer that, self-serve removes a lot of the guesswork by opening a window and letting the customers in.