Author: Peter Armaly

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 Clicktale.com

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.

Can Data be Exciting?

The answer depends not so much on how the question is asked nor on what the subject of the data might be. Rather, it depends on the spirit of the individual who’s looking at the data.

Looking Ahead with Excitement

My niece is entering the University of Michigan this fall to begin her undergrad years. She’s chosen to enter computer science, but she’s sparring with her father (a senior scientist for a chemical company) over how she intends to channel her curiosity. He wants her to take a methodical approach (especially in her free time) and learn how to code websites, for example. Or to code programs that run games. He believes the fundamentals should be interesting enough for her and that she should be excited at the notion of acquiring skills to create products that people find useful and helpful.

She says she gets his point, but that she wants to solve problems she hasn’t thought of yet. She wants to explore data and be able to recognize patterns as they surface. She wants to discover.

I don’t think either of them is wrong, and so my advice to her is to take the curriculum, apply yourself with discipline, AND surrender to your curiosity. Pursue your passion for chasing meanings hidden from view in the data. That’s where value lives.

Skills for the Future

As I think about my niece and the world she’ll graduate into, it strikes me that she is positioning herself appropriately. I found support for my faith in her in this McKinsey study called, Ops 4.0: The Human Factor—Planning for Tomorrow’s Roles. In stage two of their four stage approach, they recommend this to those looking to acquire skills for the future, “They’ll need expertise in your organization’s specific domain, the ability to solve problems and execute continuous improvement activities, and the ability to work with data and advanced digital tools.”

When we look to the future of customer success and try to understand which character traits will emerge as most important, we shouldn’t assume anything based on what worked in the past. It’s a fool’s game, anyway, to blindly go with what worked before while ignoring the rapid evolution in business that’s taken place over the last decade.

Cloud, as the saying goes, flipped the paradigm. Urgency is in. Fast thinking. Look over your shoulder to make sure your competitors aren’t gaining on you, and you’ll quickly learn that was the wrong way to turn your head. The future of business is unpredictable, of course, as it’s been for some time now, but we do know one thing with certainty: Customers are emboldened, and what’s really interesting is that, for the majority of people, they don’t even realize it. It’s just the way of the business world now. There will be no putting the cloud genie back in the bottle.

Still, We Know Some Things

There are two things we know about customers. No matter the size of the business:

  1. Value can only come from a two-way partnership.
  2. Customer value is a construct that we, as a vendor, can immensely influence if we take appropriate action against customer experiential data that we approach with curiosity.

Curiosity about how we can improve the ability for our customers to achieve success is a driving force behind Oracle’s efforts to pay close attention to how our customers consume information from our new portal. And curiosity is behind our efforts to monitor and iteratively improve how our customers will experience an acceleration toward their goals by using the advanced services component of the new service model we’ll be releasing soon.

Are we excited? Yes. As excited as my niece is about discovering new things? It’s a toss-up.

While you're waiting for the new release, learn how you can skillfully decipher, understand, and leverage the abundance of available data to engage with your customers and prospects. Download the Data-Driven CMO Report.

Data-Driven CMO report

Millennials Are Taking Over, And It’s All Right

"Millennials have replaced baby boomers as the major consumer segment, so we are seeing a change in what is being demanded. Millennials want more than price and availability; they want speed, convenience and they want to be involved in the co-creation of the product.” Steve Melnyk, Michigan State University

I’m on the tail end of the baby boom generation, and yet reading this quote didn’t freak me out or make my eyes roll. It didn’t make me feel that my sun has set or that a group of individuals long considered entitled is usurping my space and those things I feel I’ve earned. It actually makes perfect sense to me, and my advice to business leaders is this: Figure out even more ways to accommodate, leverage to your advantage, and even be led by, this generational cohort.

In some ways millennials are similar to all preceding generations. Those generations also embraced the technological advancements of their day (e.g. telegraph, telephone, television, and radio) and vigorously resisted social conventions of gender, race, religion, and class status. They pushed for change with the hope that it would provide them with more information, safety, comfort, opportunities, and convenience.

This push for change was usually an unconscious effort and mostly executed without a clear, coordinated strategy. Even this haphazard effort lead to societal evolution.

Despite those broad similarities between generations, there is ample research that shows millennials behave differently. The differences may be due to the widespread adoption of mobile personal computing devices or perhaps to the fact that young adults today attain university level accreditation at much higher rates than previous generations. Whatever the reasons, the differences are measurable and are manifesting in behaviors that are visible even in the business world and its relationships with customers.

In the interviews we conduct in our Voice of the Customer (VOC) program, we hear a lot of interesting things, but five big themes emerge that jibe with the quote above.

Millennials Insist on Flexibility

Deloitte found that 64% of millennials report being able to work from locations other than their employer’s primary site. That number is startling when compared to the way previous generations thought of the workplace. What has triggered the change?

The combination of mobile technology and the withering of the traditional employer-for-life social contract has driven corporations to respond appropriately to retain employees who feel no permanent allegiance to a company or brand. Flexible work arrangements and environments are a big draw for job candidates, and it’s about so much more than being plied with snacks and beer (although those things are not necessarily rejected). It’s about a coveted sense of control over time and space, seemingly rare commodities in today’s business world.

Citing similar pressures, the VOC members we speak with share how their businesses keep changing and that employees have to respond more rapidly to ever more time-compressed priorities. Some of these members suggested that, in order to adapt to that speed of business, it would be helpful if their vendors would provide them with the flexibility to pick and choose when they engage with or subscribe to specific services.

For example, education purchases that don’t expire would, arguably, promote faster product adoption and value realization than education that has to be budgeted for and doled out to team members on a time-limited and management-controlled basis.

Similarly, technical assistance for initiatives such as solution architecting or implementation of advanced integrations would be even more valuable if it were made available on shorter-term basis. And that would be especially so if the procurement process was as simple as “…going on to Amazon, selecting what I need, and checking out.”

We hear, “It would be nice if we could just pay for what we need when we need it.” Especially in the SaaS world, where choice and lower commitment thresholds are built into the model, services elasticity makes sense.

We’re listening.

Millennials Have Grown Up With Ease-of-Use

Who doesn’t love simplicity? Given the choice, most people will opt for a simpler way of doing something. It’s human nature, and we hear comments from our VOC members supporting that assertion:

My workload involves being responsible for solutions from multiple vendors. If I just consider your company alone, it would be great if I could just go to one site for all the information and assistance I need.

The truth is that each generation wants life to be easier. So let’s cut millennials some slack and accept that simplifying the complex is actually the definition of business optimization. Let’s embrace it and learn how we can put that drive to even greater use.

Let’s look for ways that the mundane can be automated and the tedious can be eliminated because the truth is, activities with those labels are soul crushing, and soul crushing is not a good recruitment tool. Check this Wall Street Journal article that posits ease of use and being mobile-ready as features of a workplace that appeal to millennials.

Millennials Want Speed And Accuracy

Millennials want convenience, but don’t we all? Here’s an example of a cry for help that we heard during the VOC interviews:

Our company is profitable, but like many companies, it expects more productivity from everyone. So, I can’t afford to spend time chasing down open service requests, let alone researching whether I should even open them in the first place. The best scenario would be for vendors to build failsafe products. More realistically, it would help if they could just get all the critical information I need on one website so I could figure things out for myself.

What is called out here is convenience and, in this case, isn’t speed its synonym? With loyalty a difficult thing to come by, and to sustain, for businesses, it’s critical that services organizations focus on delivering accurate information in a way that saves the customer time.

This Coresight Research study contains a cautionary statement for companies when considering millennials and their penchant for convenience, “… established brands and retailers are likely to face competition from newer companies, which may target millennials’ demands more sharply.”

The VOC interviews helped convince us that this advice rings true for customers of every generation.

Millennials Require Communication And Feedback

Millennials want to voice their opinions and be heard. Through their behavior and the attitudes they express they demonstrate a desire to influence the evolution of product more directly. They want more of a say and that presents a conundrum for the vendor. Which is, how to create a channel for feedback. Surveys have been the traditional way that we gather customer feedback, but consumers arebusy and increasingly reluctant to fill out surveys. So, vendors are rethinking its role as the main tool for gauging customer opinions and experience.

We’re seeing increased awareness for making surveys more relevant and for being considered a good use of the respondent’s precious time. This is good. The world can always do with higher quality everything, including communications. Oracle’s Chief Customer Office manages the survey strategy and execution, and in my discussions with him, I’ve heard an acute respect for our customers’ time. Surveys are here to stay, partly because our society is against more intrusive methods for taking the pulse of customers.

But surveys, of course, even high-quality ones, are not enough. We need to create opportunities to sit down with our customers and have a conversation. Smart companies listen to their customers and that’s the primary reason we created the VOC program.

Millennials Want Transparency

ORC International reports, “Today’s younger professionals have firmly rooted opinions on what they should know about their workplaces and will ask questions to discover the answers. If they feel manipulated by their managers, underestimated by senior workers, or unfulfilled with their daily tasks, they’ll simply leave in search of another job.”

We also see this behavior in our customer community (not that we treat them dismissively) and we actually are keenly receptive to this trend toward self-fulfillment. Challenging norms and being challenged are the give and take of evolution. Smart companies embrace discussion and debate. It’s a healthy part of internal strategizing, and it makes sense that the same transparent approach should be taken with customers. After all, when it comes to product and service improvement, what is there to hide?

According to Pew Research, millennials are the largest cohort in the US workforce. Many of its members have entered senior management ranks and are involved directly in how our economies are shaped. Flexibility, simplification, speed, involvement, transparency - powerful and positive words if you consider them from a certain perspective. They shouldn’t be feared. They should be embraced as key enablers for success.

We paid attention to the research and listened to you. The outcome is Oracle's new Free Platinum-Level Support Services for Fusion Cloud Applications. The speed and flexibility you want - at a price that can't be beat. 

When segmenting customers, don’t forget your silent majority

Richard Nixon popularized the expression, the silent majority, when he used it to label the broad swath of Middle Americans who are reticent to publicly declare their opinions. To counter what he felt was a biased media, he appealed to them to emerge from the shadows and vocalize their support for his administration’s Vietnam War policy. He wasn’t the first to use the expression. In the 19th century the phrase was a euphemism for the dead, all those people who had died throughout human history. They were referred to in that way because there were so many more of them (14 times more) than there were of the living.

It’s that usage of the phrase that I find more interesting and profound. To me it speaks of respect for time and for dimensions of life and I think that the phrase can apply in the context of businesses and their symbiotic relationships with customers. As with human history, the longer a company remains in business the higher the odds that their silent majority (of departed customers) will outnumber their number of active customers. I know it’s a bleak thought, but it’s true. The challenge is in slowing that tide, to do what it takes to keep customers alive.

Staying alive

To keep them alive longer you need to know your customers and what makes them tick. And I don’t mean just by documenting a few items in the CRM. Knowing your customers requires you to be interested in their business, in the goals they plan to achieve, and in the capabilities of the people who operate the products you’ve sold. You need to know how they are progressing towards their goals and what more they need to get there.

Let’s look at some of your customers, many who will join the ranks of your silent majority

  • They love your products but think they require a lot of care and feeding
  • They love your products but you think the customer requires a lot of care and feeding
  • They love the fact that their own business is growing but they don’t publicly attribute any of it to your products
  • They love your service people but refuse to interact with your sales people
  • They love your sales people but refuse to interact with your service people
  • They love your EVP of Sales but no one else at your company
  • They love your products and your services and are concerned that your company hasn’t yet turned a profit
  • They love your service but hate your products
  • They love your annual conference and happily retweet your marketing tweets but never agree to speak to your prospects
  • They love your products but hate your service.
  • They love your products and services but their bosses have wandering eyes and are smitten by another

Besides the word “love” being in each of those statements, what else is common?

Ambiguity and contradiction

Customers are human and are fluid, and multi-directional, in the way they behave. Companies are too despite the preponderance of processes, governance, and standards. Ownership changes, priorities change, leadership changes, the employee base changes, competition grows more intense. All this leads to ambiguity and as a vendor your challenge is to recognize these situations and to deal with them in such a way that you keep the customer. Costly, you say? Yes, it can be.

Even more costly though is trying to understand the contradictions and dealing with them. Why would a customer love a company’s service but hate their products? The answer can’t be a nonsequitur such as, “because the service people are awesome.” Clearly, the need is great to dig a bit deeper and to understand why.

Hope for a brighter future

Anyone who has read my blog posts knows I always offer up the gift of information so check this out. It’s an article I urge you to read, written by my Oracle colleague, Peter Jeffcock, all about machine learning (simplified) and how it can help identify candidates for churn. I’m not being prescriptive here (that said, we’re already moving down this road) but in my opinion he offers up the best go-forward approach for Customer Success. If you want to understand your customers you’ll need to do it in excruciating detail and you’ll need to do it at scale. Machine learning. Machine learning. Machine learning.

Extending the life of your customers is vital in today's hypercompetitive business environment where your customers have plenty of alternatives and the cost of switching is so low. Examine your customer base and understand the steps you should take to sustain them. Don't let your silent majority grow unnecessarily.

Register for Modern Customer Experience 2018 here

Want more tips and tricks to know your customer better? Join other marketing professionals, industry influencers, product experts and Oracle executives to learn how you can use the entire marketing ecosystem to impact customer experience. Join us at Modern Customer Experience 2018. ModernCX’s Modern Marketing track offers more than 200 expert-led sessions  geared to help equip you with new skills you can immediately apply to your work.

See you in Chicago:  here.

Sifting Data to See the Customer

In a world awash in data about a person’s behavior, their characteristics, and their likes, how can marketers ensure the work they do doesn’t lose sight of the individual? Before you answer, consider this statistic from Analytics Week:

Data is growing faster than ever before and by the year 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. 

As a marketer, does that stat make you want to run and hide? Confronting and leveraging that type of volume is definitely a challenge. To be clear though, there’s no returning to the days of operating models that depended on someone’s gut instinct; data is here to stay as the method for finding the truth. But the more we rely on data in the context of measuring buyer engagement or the customer experience the more we run the risk of detaching ourselves from the reality of the person we are measuring. It’s like running up against the laws of physics. Just as how black holes grow so massive they consume all matter within the range-  including light, data about an individual can be collected to the extent that the actual person becomes abstract or almost inconsequential, as nothing more than a dot on a dashboard. Funny, the more we know about an individual and insert them into a process, the less we see them as individuals.

Marketing’s problem(s)

How can that conundrum be overcome when the following is true? In order to pursue revenue goals, marketing organizations are pressured to create multi-dimensional aggregate personas of buyers and customers so that any subsequent campaigns can be based on statistical averages that produce messages or content that are empirically (hopefully) more relatable, more appealing, and more personal (although that’s increasingly a loaded word) to the target group. More of those types of qualities equals more revenue. Or so goes the prevailing school of thought. In any event, vast amounts of data are required and it is not always within marketing’s span of control. Even when all the data sources are identified and access is granted it’s a rare marketing organization that has the sort of skills required to make enough sense of it all to drive meaningful insights. Now we have a skills problem and a data problem. And if you think about it a bit more, we have an ethical problem looming too. Once you have the combination of abundant data and advanced analytical skills, you have the means to build unconscious bias into your processes. Remember the individual we discussed? They’re getting further away.

Methods to help

Marketers have a tough job in front of them. Ann Handley of MarketingProfs touched on the challenge in this piece. So did Econsultancy with this one. Both pieces talk about empathy being the key to bridging what I’m calling the individuality gap. The thinking is that if a buyer feels the seller understands them and the experience they are having seems genuine and of value, then they will be more apt to purchase. But what is empathy? Here’s a definition from The Atlantic that sounds mysteriously like the one described in much more excruciating detail in this academic paper from Stanford University. This is a good starting point. Empathy, at the very least, means the customer is in your thoughts. But is that good enough?

Getting closer

We should go beyond empathy and feel something like compassion for our target audience. Compassion, according to UC Berkley, literally means “to suffer together.” Pretty stark language when we’re talking about customers but if we’re honest, sometimes suffering is the accurate word to use to describe their experience. So, instead of just being empathetic by putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining them interacting with our brand, our website, and our emails, we should, as best we can and more importantly, observe real buyer/customer experiences.

For marketers to build compassion into processes perhaps they need to rise above the data and do two things.

  1. Understand the value in finding the individual in the data, described neatly in this non-marketing article from Psychology Today.
  2. Assimilate the message of this story published recently by NPR. It’s an illustration of how being the customer (patient, in her case) afforded her the opportunity to truly understand their experience. And also in her case, it was real suffering. She took her near-death experience at the hospital in which she worked and eventually helped change the doctor-patient model to be more compassionate and personal.

For marketers, as I said, data is here to stay and so is scale. Those do not have to be sacrificed. Marketers can and must leverage the data to increase scale but they can also emulate the doctor’s experience when she became a patient by doing the next best thing in their own line of work. It’s not realistic to expect marketers to call buyers and customers directly. Typically, the role is not positioned to have that level of contact. They can, though, sit down with their services and support colleagues, those people who work closely with real customers. Gather critical stories from them about what they observe in their customer community. What are the day to day concerns of customers? What do they like most about your company? Least? What about competitors? There’s a vast amount of information contained in the heads of your colleagues that, from my observation, rarely if ever, gets captured in a CRM. That’s not a knock against them. The same can be stated about sales people.

Empathy, compassion, whichever word you choose, they will both get you moving in the right direction of ensuring that while you’re touching more of the world with your messaging, you’re not doing it from the vantage point of the equivalent of 40,000 feet.

Do you know which questions to ask in order to yield relevant customer data? Once you have that data, you need to know what to do with it. Download this guide to Maximize Your Marketing to learn how to use the right data at the right time to drive real results.

Connecting at scale: is it possible?

If you’re in marketing, there are days it feels like the most enviable occupation in the world and on others, the most accursed. This is a logical condition since, historically, marketers have been both praised and vilified (think of the series, Mad Men) for the work they do to manipulate their fellow humans and in trying to steer their buying decisions one way or another. Under the intense glare of fraud and privacy concerns in the Internet age, the applause and the brickbats are equally deserved. The vilification though is funny because while our societies have for the better part of a century complained and fretted about the manipulative nature of advertising and marketing, we’ve also emotionally invested in the stories that were told and the images that played out in front of our eyes. In many cases, we love what we see and we act on it. Does manipulation work, then? Yes, of course but we would prefer to call it something else. It sounds better, and more constructive, to call it influencing. Terry O’Reilly of the CBC has a rich source of material called, Under the Influence, which I highly recommend.

Influencing and influencers

By Influencer Marketing, I am not talking about celebrities selling stuff on social media. For the purpose of this blog, I want to talk instead about the countless technical possibilities that exist to help marketers understand, and influence, their customers’ wants and desires. The marketing automation product landscape seems to be as crowded as the beach on a hot summer day and the focus of much of that community of solutions is to try to influence buyers over social media, email, and websites. For marketers, it’s exciting, confusing, and terrifying all at once. However, is it possible that all of the solutions are missing something? This report by The Journal of Advertising Research purports to prove that the most effective advertising campaigns, in terms of stimulating an emotional connection, are actually a combination, and a coordination, of television and those other vehicles. It seems that the human brain while attracted to, and increasingly addicted to, participation in the online world, still fundamentally responds best to television imaging. Does that information upset any notions of how all old technology must always make way for new? It seems the world is too complicated to draw that conclusion and so too is the human brain. Marketers are going to need even more science to handle complications. And that’s another thing that’s funny. The more scientific we become with our marketing approaches, the more critical it is to understand the emotive power of the human brain.

Artificial intelligence

Digging beneath the surface of any subject can sometimes reveal more than you want to know but it also typically reveals greater understanding. That’s why as we continue to evolve our marketing practices, it’s important to incorporate methods that accelerate our ability to do more but to also do it in a way that gets us closer to truths. Just as we conduct A/B testing to discover the best tactics for attracting buyers, it’s worth the effort to try and go even deeper in trying to understand the buyer’s preferences. Test the channels, test the combination of channels, monitor the buyer’s activities, look for patterns, connect the dots, make decisions based on associations. Ah, forget it. Marketers will not be able to do that at scale. That’s why AI holds such promise. It’s the only way marketers will be able to do their job more effectively. There’s a statistic making the rounds that by 2025 there will be 100 billion connected Internet devices, about 12 devices for every human. Not only will there be a lot of humans, there’ll be a lot of ways for those humans to communicate in some form or another. If you’re a data nerd, it will be more your time than ever before.

Open up and be introspective at the same time

To be successful in the future, marketers are going to have to develop methods for touching buyers and customers in ways that connect with them at an emotional level. It’s the same phenomenon we are witnessing now with a desire for longer-form content. Humans are desiring authenticity and messaging that connects with them at a personal level. That’s the trick and the challenge for marketers and if we are going to be successful in the exploding world of multi-channel messaging on new technologies and on old, we’re going to need to be open minded about how our processes work and how our technologies enable us to be nimble. If we can achieve that, then those will be days we’ll feel we’re in one of the more enviable occupations in the world.

If you would like some practical tips for bringing AI into your marketing, don’t miss:  

Adaptive Intelligence: Practical Tips for Bringing AI into Your Marketing