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Defining Customer Experience…in SaaS

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Introduction

The disruptive SaaS ecosystem is gradually overtaking the digital world. We live in an era where nearly everything is managed from the comfort of our screens. Consumerization further embraces this notion by encouraging the delivery of flawless product experiences in B2B too and elevating the product as the main growth lever.

The emerging Product-Led GTM practices only support that direction but not without bringing additional complexity to existing internal procedures. Product management is now in the foreground, addressing every step of the customer journey by following roadmaps’ inputs and multiple releases. Product data can pinpoint roadblocks and product delights. Those changes, force internal teams to adopt a more quantitative, customer-centric approach which becomes the single source of truth across an entire organization. That shift makes the greatest challenge following a Product-Led strategy the repositioning of customer experience itself.

Where does customer experience meet product experience? Where do they align? How can the product fill the customer experience gap by reinforcing the buyer-vendor relationship? These are just some of the questions we will try to answer,  with the hope that you can put those learnings to work and adjust them to your value proposition.

The Multifaceted Customer Experience

(a) What is customer experience?

According to Forrester, customer experience is the customer’s perception based on all interactions between him and a company. In the digital world where the channels of communication are going far beyond the traditional buyer-seller process, this term is very narrow.

In this instance, we are going to agree with Gainsight that Customer experience (CX) is a customer’s perception about a company, brand, or product, based on all touchpoints, interactions, and engagements. If you take a minute to think about it, you will realize that the plethora of social mediums, ads, social communities and WOM shape customers’ expectations before even considering to try a service. In fact, a McKinsey research shows that, on average, a B2B customer will use six different interaction channels during the decision-making process, while 65% will end up being frustrated by inconsistencies across these channels.

(b) What defines customer experience?

The answer to this question can have many interpretations when organizations strive to increase customer satisfaction and eliminate their losses. Depending on the lengths an organization is willing to go, customer experience can become the holy grail leading an organization to hypergrowth or the sole denominator making it go extinct.

Some of the common questions customer-facing teams may ask themselves prior to purchase can be:

  1. What is the context behind the customer’s use case? Role, use case, existing workflow, business goals
  2. What does he want to buy? Purchase history, proficiency level (newbie or proficient user)
  3. Why does he want to buy? Need that has to be fulfilled  (new or existing), buying journey so far, motivations
  4. Where and how she prefers to buy? preferred platforms, demographics, channels & touchpoints of engagement.
  5. How does the customer’s offering affect the purchase decision? Customer’s offering characteristics & alignment with solutions’ offering.
  6. Who is the purchase going to affect? Number of departments, end users & key stakeholders

Although all these questions successfully profile prospects’ intent, in the case of SaaS the basic parameter differentiating B2B customers from the rest is the “power of choice” hyper-competition provides. Make no mistake, that by competition we don’t refer to pricing or more advanced features. Nowadays, those things can easily be copied and iterated whenever applicable. A stellar product experience on the other hand, not so much.

The rise of consumerization shift customers’ standards by making them evaluate product experience next to the personal relationship vendors are so invested in. This tendency doesn’t go away, no matter the size of the deal. On the contrary, with the oversaturation of s/w services and the rise of technology, exceptional product experience should be the one feature a product doesn’t miss to deliver. This counts equally for buyers and end-users, as contrary to people’s beliefs the dynamic of the latter is equally important. Don’t forget that a traditional sales strategy may be named Top-down, but inside customers’ organization, it is inversely proportional. End users are the one barrier that eventually reaffirms the internal buy-in. Simply put the rising importance of exceptional product experiences, or their lack thereof may lead an organization to long term prosperity or eternal obscurity.

If we add on that inconsistency in GTM practices, limited experimentation, and infinite handholding we have the rise of an era, where a whole industry needs to reinforce the power of the “machines” in order to upgrade the human-assisted performance. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When adopting a Product-Led GTM strategy, organizations should go out of their way and discourage ongoing hand-holding by doubling down on products’ superpowers and breaking up silos.

Following that logic, Additional typical dilemmas internal teams may encounter are:

  • What affects customer experience product or human-assisted activations? Or maybe is it a composite of both?
  • How can personal outreach be replaced by product engagements without downgrading customer experience?

The number one question following this shift though is: Does customer experience has as a sole denominator the outcomes product experience provides? No. This is not an either-or situation. When anticipating the product as a growth lever customer experience can be reinforced by its features’ and engagements’ which when monitored and evaluated right can deepen the buyer-vendor relationship.

(c) Who owns Customer Experience?

The short answer to this question can be: The departments responsible for the sum of touchpoints and product delivery. That realization instantly sums up activations delivered by Sales, Marketing, Customer Success and Product Management to begin with. All these Product-Human Assisted engagements are subject to the product offering which adjusts their analogy according to customers’ needs and velocity.

1) The Product Imperative

As a rule of thumb, organizations in favor of a Top-down sales model deliver more complex products, followed by equally complex sales cycles. The same stands for customers’ needs. The more demanding and complicated customers’ existing workflows are the more complex the solution’s deployment. While those two factors are not exhaustive, they can set the basis to get the conversation started.

If we consider the table’s two main axes customers’ needs and products’ complexity the two top options favor a Top-down approach while the two in the bottom a Bottoms-up. So, there is a case sales delivery to be no touch and as its complexity grows, the organization to incline towards a traditional sales model.  Alternatively, the opposite can happen, since a product may target high tier customer segments and then decide to alter its offering and move down market. The only thing we can take for granted is that Sales’ activations get less automated and scalable as the offering gets more sophisticated.

The third wave of SaaS products gradually alters this mindset by revolutionizing how people try, buy, and use the software. The buying process is not anymore neither predictable or requires direct interaction between buyers and sales teams. Buyers can now access product-related content through a variety of channels and devices and assess what to expect from any solution before even signing up for a trial. As a matter of fact, two-thirds to 90 percent of the buyer’s journey can now be completed prior to engaging a salesperson.

The challenge at this point is not only to effectively manage customer experiences reflecting on customers’ needs. Organizations need to also sustain those processes across an array of devices and channels while delivering a stunning product experience at the same time.  

2) High trajectory customers

High trajectory customers’ needs, go beyond educating key stakeholders and users about products’ functionalities. In this instance, a systemic process enabling customers to grow and SaaS organizations cope with multiple requests needs to be in order. Internal teams acknowledge that and develop more structured workflows at work. By default the involvement of human element is increased throughout the customer lifecycle, to sustain alignment with customers’ desired business outcomes and empower a bond between the two parties.

From the customers’ side, this mentality is inevitable to be reinforced. The employment of multiple end users and departments that need to be in perfect sync make them rely on human-assisted activations, which guarantee availability whenever it deems necessary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that buyers don’t favor scalable practices but once they encounter a heavy administrative part, they will seek help from CSMs who know the use case next to automation. This is how they secure, they are getting the most out of their investment.

The fact that each product engagement can now be mapped and evaluated gives each department a different perspective on how its deliverables affect customer experience. This shift inevitably affected the traditional sales model too. Sales & Customer Success, the owners of customer experience so far, have to insert measurable product measurements in their evaluations. This fact alone brings Product Management into the discussion. On the downside, the SaaS industry has still some miles to walk until it harmonizes each team’s inputs throughout the customer journey since in our recent research Customer Success (76%) and Sales (69%) still have the majority of ownership while Product Management (38%) and Marketing (23%) come last.

But are only those departments accountable? Assuming a product is hired by an enterprise organization, Customer Support, and Professional Services may also be part of the equation. Similarly, top-level management, hold the reins of any final decision needs to be taken. So, who owns customer experience after all?

While it’s obvious that ownership is dispersed, the discussion does not seem to slow down. On the contrary, as long as there are no clear lines distinguishing roles and responsibilities businesses will struggle to define hierarchy and offer consistency across the customer journey.

3) Self Serve customers

Self serve customers, on the other hand, represent the other side of the same coin. Both parties here need to shorten Time to Value and increase conversions. So far, Marketing was responsible for acquiring and nurturing customers down the customer journey. The emerging product management practices though, put product activations in the epicenter, aligning them with customers’ ongoing growth. Something that may have lowered Marketing’s prevalence but for sure has not taken it out of the equation.

What about the human element? In a no-touch approach, the product is the growth lever, replicating human assisted activations. Does this fact annihilate the importance and role of customer-facing teams? No, it does not. On the contrary, the product is in the epicenter holding the reins of customer experience and capitalizing on the lessons learned from human-assisted activations.

This is the point where, product experience becomes synonymous to customer experience by delivering a more humane, tailored to users’ needs approach. Product Management needs to insert those learnings into the product itself and effectively reduce customer-facing teams interference to the minimum. This, however, may still be far from the reality since our research showed that Product Management (81%) and Marketing (77%) may be highly involved but Customer Success (68%) and Sales (40%) outreach is still in order.

It is evident that Self Serve adopters strive to balance the involvement of Sales and Customer Success organizations’ in an effort to activate and retain an account. While this sound controversial, keep in mind that products’ complexity and limited investment (5%) in tailored onboarding flows (per user type & proficiency) only reinforce this outcome. It is obvious that even on a Self Serve approach customer experience is subject to the composite of touchpoints internal teams provide.


Making the Transition

With Product-Led practices underway every internal department has to shift its mentality and practices by following a product-centric approach, that ideally becomes the extension of customers’ needs. The analysis below is an attempt to map those changes on a higher level.

Marketing Organization

Before: Marketers’ goal was to enable growth by increasing acquisition levels, without being able to retain them. As a result, customer journeys did not focus on product features and users’ needs. Something that downgraded customer experience, increased negative WOM and skyrocketed churn levels.

After: The strength of social mediums, advanced product content and increasing competition shifted customers’ mindset on products’ deliverables and made them even more selective. Product-Led Marketing teams double down on the benefits and insights product experience provides and deliver content tailored to users’ needs, by segmenting their use case, role and context of usage.

The Marketing organization, always reliant on prospects’ online data finally capitalizes on product insights too, on every stage of the customer journey:  

1. Marketers are aware of activation points along with engagement and conversions levels. Following that logic, they capitalize on those insights to produce marketing & product content (in and out of the app).
2. Silos abandonment, enables Marketing to deepen its roots in the customer journey. When cooperating with Sales, Customer Success and Product Management, Marketing is able to makes retention its North Star metric and pursue ways to further educate and turn customers into advocates.
3. Despite the rise of multichannel touchpoints Marketing delivers sustainable market positioning, by focusing on how it can be sustained across those mediums attracting more PQLs.
4. Conversions are not the scope but the outcome of marketing activations. WOM, content delights and product education are the main KPIs evaluating its practices.

When striving to evaluate customer experience the Marketing organization should consider:

  • Which are the most critical points for users throughout the customer journey?
  • How does positioning differentiates per medium?
  • How the learnings derived from product engagements can find their way into marketing activations?
  • What lessons learned from customer-facing teams touchpoints, should be delivered via marketing activations?
  • Does content “speak” users’ language per use case /role? Or does it need to include different keywords and expressions? (aka how tech savvy users are?)

Sales Organization

Before: Sales were reaching out to customers relying on metrics related to prospects’ online behavior and sign-ups. The customer wouldn’t taste the product before the deal was sealed and had a high-level idea of how it was affecting the existing workflow. In addition ignorance of in-app engagements effectiveness, even when a POC was in order, increased CAC and reduced ROI.  

After: Sales teams break the shackles of product demos and become part of the onboarding process. This fact alone radically affects customer experience and makes Sales accountable for the delivery of initial adoption.

This fact alone implies that:

1. Sales enable customers realize initial value sooner in the customer journey.
2. Based on the effects of targeted data driven engagements delivery, airtime conversation for product capabilities is eliminated and both parties focus more on whether there is an actual fit or not. Something that gives Sales teams a consultative approach, drives CAC down and shorten the sales cycle.
3. Sales can suggest ways to streamline the onboarding process by passing necessary feedback to Product Management.
4.Being owners of both trial data and business acquisition metrics Sales are able to deliver better projections on upcoming ROI.
5. The onboarded team(s) can act later on as the product’s evangelist across customers’ organization and ease the burden of Customer Success which concludes the onboarding process. This helps customer-facing teams deal with the human hurdle, one of the main barriers towards successful adoption, and get the internal buy-in sooner.

When striving to evaluate customer experience the Sales organization should consider:

  • What are the scalable ways to shorten the sales cycle without compromising customer experience?
  • How is customer satisfaction measured? Which metrics follow live and scalable interactions?
  • Which features are neglected during trial and/or used extensively by the various teams and why?
  • In which ways can the Sales organization streamline the onboarding process to increase customer satisfaction, while harmonizing scalable and human-assisted interactions.

Customer Success Organization

Before: A traditional Customer Success onboarding starts with understanding customers’ workflow and where the product fits in it. Following that, related milestones leading to success and associated high touch techniques are set. Unlike the self-serve approach, where the customer may be totally autonomous in all the stages of the customer lifecycle, the scalable high tech techniques are subsequent to the high touch ones.

Having human assisted activations delivering a custom treatment is more of a priority call here rather than a choice. Customers are ingrained into multiple complex procedures, difficult to be mapped down and fit into specific buckets. It is essentially the survival of the fittest and organizations try, not to cross this fine thin line between delivering scalable automated results and a fair amount of custom practices that reinforce customer experience.

After: Customer Success remains the customer’s gatekeeper, but this time reinforces its actions with the feedback provided by any department affecting products’ deliverables. Customer health score takes a product-driven approach and is narrowed down to in-product activations in conjunction with expected KPIs related to revenue and accounts expansion.

Additional shifts in Customer Success activations may be:

1. The accelerated onboarding process enables both CS and stakeholders to move forward and deepen discussions regarding adoption and overall deployment.
2. CSMs move the conversation one step forward as Sales have set the initial success criteria during trial.
3. CSMs are aware beforehand, if there were discrepancies during the trial and are able to be proactive and further optimize the onboarding process.
4. Customer feedback is narrowed down in terms of the initial behavior the onboarded team(s) demonstrated and buyers have already a high-level estimation of the onboarding process critical steps.
5. Stakeholders are aware of the products' capabilities, and able to elaborate on pain points and how the product match their use case.

When striving to evaluate customer experience the Customer Success organization should consider:

  • How much was the onboarding process accelerated per department/use case? Have Sales encountered barriers to entry?
  • Which success criteria are remained to be established. What could have been evaluated better during customer’s trial?
  • Which trial discrepancies were not able to be avoided and why?
  • What does the preliminary customer (passive & active) feedback show?

Product Management Organization

Before: Gut feelings and isolation from the customer journey was perhaps the two main characteristics describing Product Management until a while ago. Product Managers would launch features embracing products’ value proposition but without employing valid product metrics supporting their claims. In addition, Product Management deliverables were measured solely on whether a release was made on time, and not be evaluating the positive or negative effects on customers’ growth and expectations.

After: Seamless product experiences have risen Product Management’s prevalence throughout the customer lifecycle. Customer feedback via the product itself has given a new whole perspective on Product Managers’ role and influence across an organization.  Product Managers now have to design products which deepen customer usage, capture user activity and align with customer-facing teams to exchange insights driving revenue and expansion.

Additional concerns following Product Management’s role may be:

1. The level of involvement on every stage of the customer journey and how product experience will become an intentional effort across an organization.
2. Product teams must consider how to create product experiences that actively accelerate user’s proficiency, by considering any form of feedback received (active & passive).
3. How product engagements can effectively include the composite of touchpoints customer facing teams provide and lead users to initial and true value seamlessly.
4. Onboarding flows should be tailored to users’ roles & proficiency
5.The set of product metrics established to evaluate workflows’ with a concerted focus on users’ role and customer lifecycle stage.
6) What data and KPIs follow features’ development and how consistent they are with products’ vision

When striving to evaluate customer experience the Product Management organization should consider:

  • Where product activations upgrade or downgrade customer experience?
  • Is product design intuitive and how does it affect time to value?
  • Are onboarding flows targeted and delivered per role/use case?
  • On what context does each flow capitalize upon?
  • How much does user proficiency increase per flow?
  • Which non-product metrics complement onboarding flows’ results?
  • Which KPIs reinforce each stage of the customer lifecycle?

Conclusion

The transition of customer experience from a human assisted approach to the product itself is only achieved if it becomes an intentional effort across an organization. Internal teams cannot get there overnight, and neither should they. Turning the product into the center of attention means that all processes focus on how the multiple touchpoints follow a consistent process embracing product capabilities.

If you are making the transition to Product-Led GTM practices your success or failure will be a function of how well the organizational practices and structure are aligned across various channels while sustaining your value proposition.

No matter your executive role inside an organization, consider to:

  1. Assess your knowledge, skills, and ultimate effectiveness throughout the customer lifecycle by practicing some of the main points discussed in this paper.
  2. Constantly revise your practices and create a feedback loop with teams affecting product delivery.
  3. Develop a common set of metrics each team can use to assess product experience, which will be supplemented by business and marketing KPIs.
  4. Be prepared to constantly evolve your practices, towards a customer-centric approach. Make no mistake, this is a work in progress.
  5. Seek professional help. There are multiple ways ReinventGrowth’s research, professional services, and content resources can help you achieve your desired business outcomes.