Lessons after the game

CJR basketball hoop

My high school basketball coach was short at 5’ 5”.  About 45-years old, with a brush-cut head, and a solidness around the waist from, he said, daily sit-ups. He had a spring in his step and steel posts masquerading as forearms. He sank series of jumpers from 30 feet away and also toughed it out under the boards during our scrimmages. He was fair-minded and laughed easily. His biggest strength though was that he possessed a strategic and tactical mind that could capture in a glance the entire arrangement of players and movement on the basketball court. That beautiful complexity of mind was constantly exercised during games and, with even more precision, during our punishing practices. It was always one or two, maybe three, steps ahead of our feeble minds and our comprehension of the plays unfolding on the court.

He also loved cigars. He’d light one up in our dressing room after games and we’d squint through fog as he drew on the chalk board a few key plays he felt we had failed to execute well that night or that we had excelled at, whichever he felt could be more instrumental in determining the outcome for the next game. We were having a stellar year so most of the drawing he did in that room was of a few badly executed plays.

I think he knew he was creating memories for us of lessons learned in that room.

  • Pay attention when someone speaks
  • Listen to understand
  • Be honest
  • Explain your point of view with calmness and clarity
  • Accept criticism
  • Be gracious when speaking of rivals
  • Be grateful, proud, and modest when praised
  • If the team was successful that night, enjoy the moment and work on repeating it

I would add “Don’t smoke cigars” but then it wouldn’t fit nicely with what I see above is a list of lessons we took with us into the various careers we chose to pursue.

 

 

Idea sharing but not caring

story-telling

Who owns an idea on the Internet? Apparently, it’s difficult to say since ownership of one, which to many people is something ephemeral, seems to depend on who capitalizes on its advance the most and converts it into revenue. If you write something down on Facebook that you feel is original, or even if you take a picture and post it on Instagram, and then someone shares it and eventually that idea goes viral and then becomes the topic of someone’s story or movie, should you share in whatever compensation results? Many people think no because while you had the idea, you stopped after the act of posting.

An article in the New York Times this week called, the Internet is where we share and steal the best ideas, doesn’t really clear up the debate but it’s still worth reading. It contains many of the fundamental elements of the kind of story that our societies seem drawn to these days. Innocence, theft, greed, personal affront. There’s no redemption, or at least nothing more than a whisper of it at the very end, but there is a kind of hope in the simple act the writer made of calling out the subject.

That subject of borrowing, stealing, copying ideas is worth considering in the business world where, it seems, most messaging are a rehash of other messages, either a company’s own or someone else’s. It’s difficult to be a marketer today with the widely available channels of communication and the endless deluge of messages our audiences receive each day from hundreds and thousands of people and companies. What target audience can absorb all that? It’s why in the Marketing world there is such intense conversation around the need for story-telling, to stand apart by being original. We’re focused on that because we’re worried that only original-seeming content has the chance to cut through the chaos and the noise of the Internet and stick in the eye (and hopefully the memory) of our target audiences.

We’re right to worry about it. Over 200 million people now use ad blockers, which tells you that they only want to see something they’re interested in. How to get around it as a marketer is to learn how to tell a story. It’s a struggle though because there is a fear that all the stories have already been told. There’s an old canard that all the world’s melodies have already been written and while most of us nod solemnly when someone states that as fact, other people dispute that claim. This guy even applied math to address the question and worked out that the world has 2.6 trillion years worth of melodies (humans have only been around for 200,000 of those years so there’s plenty of music ahead).

Taking other people’s ideas, co-opting them, spinning them, tossing them around to see which ones land and stick… we all do it but it doesn’t work over time. It actually works against us and if you’ve ever been in front of an audience and you present ideas that you know everyone has heard before, you feel diminished and (too harsh?) fraudulent. So let’s try to be original even if those ideas take flight and someone else profits. People tire of hearing the same thing over and over and so even if just a few people are positively affected by something original that we’ve said or written, that’s just fine because it means it is memorable. We’ll be remembered.

The importance of reading everything

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My parents had a rule for us when we were young. Well, they had many rules but this one applied only in the summer during our school break, regardless of the weather. They required us to read for one hour after our lunch. It seemed strange to us then, embarrassing, in fact, since none of our friends suffered under such an imposition and we were the targets of mild ridicule.

It challenged us at the time but I warmed to the activity after the first couple of years. After I plowed through the entire World Book encyclopedia set I turned my attention to something a bit more esoteric. I read the Warren Report.  At the age of eleven (fact). It took quite a few days during which I blew past the obligatory hour of reading, which alarmed my mother. But her alarm turned to interest (and then maybe, later, back to alarm) when I shared with her all that I learned about bullet trajectory, Cuba, and some chubby guy named Jack Ruby.

I thought of this today when I saw a link on Twitter to yet another article that discussed the problems associated with too much information. I know life is hectic. I know the Internet age has ratcheted up the volume of written material. I also know we shouldn’t complain too much about that. We’re fortunate. Suffering from plenty is better than enduring the longing of scarcity.

In praise of contemplation

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While synapses are not commonly associated with computing or with business, metaphorically they may hold the key to understanding how to unlock real business innovation.

Medical science has known of their existence for decades, going well back into the 1800s, and even then referred to them by the name we use today. It wasn’t until Charles Scott Sherrington conducted the research that eventually delivered to him the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology that the world came to understand that the electrical impulses occurring when brain synapses (the contact points of neurons) connect with each other is what activates the human body at the cellular level. If you’ve read any scientific literature on the subject you will have learned about the diffusion, the binding, the messaging, the triggering, and the reactions that take place at that moment of connection, moments that form the basis of all the activity we undertake through our lives. The connections are, literally, sparks of life.

Innovation, as a word, is a bit more problematic. It’s grown to become a business cliché and a catch-all for all kinds of activity that in less-breathy times we would have called work. Like a lot of other words that slide easily off the tongue without conscious thought, it’s become enveloped in fog and has lost its edges, its meaning. So let’s start then with a definition.

Innovation is the process of making changes in something established, by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Take a moment to think of how you may have used the word innovation when you’ve described some aspect of your own work, the processes that you execute, the stuff you produce to collect your salary. Was the activity you called “innovation” really that? Did it improve upon something or was it just a really good execution of something that already existed and that produced a great outcome? If it was the latter, that’s good but it’s not innovation (even if you did it with more enthusiasm than your predecessor). It would be innovative if you created a new way of executing tasks that produced a measureable improvement to the outcome’s speed of delivery, quality (reliability), or utility for the end user.

Having stripped the word innovation back to its essence we can now visualize it in the business world as meaning a process whereby companies create something new and that the market values or, even abstractedly and perhaps without direct attribution, benefits from. The pressure to do this well is increasing each week. Static companies are failing but companies that focus on creating something new that the market needs ward off threats of commoditization (as described in this HBR article about artificial intelligence) and survive for another day.

How to create something new? Obviously you must start with knowing what you do and what you’re good at. Then you examine whether that thing you do has upward resonance in the market. Meaning, sure it had appeal at some point but will it still have appeal going forward? You look at what the market needs and will need. Can you deliver? If not, what will it take to deliver it? Start innovating. Start utilizing all your neurons.

Neurons = your people

Recall that neurons are nerve cells and for our business analogy are represented by a company’s people. The synapse is a contact point on a neuron and it’s that point where an electrical impulse is generated and transmitted to another neuron.

Two of your people communicating about solving the same challenge = a synapse

Your people possess both considerable knowledge of discrete aspects of your processes and an informed, higher view of their purpose and the expected outcomes. There are no better individuals to consult with regarding process improvement than your own people. Why do you think management consulting companies insist on interviewing individual contributors when they begin their massive consulting gigs? They know where to go for the details, for the information that will fuel their own ideas for optimizing your company’s efficiency. But the neurons, your people, cannot do it alone. Here’s what they need.

Customers – By this I mean both future customers and existing ones. In both cases, through their behavior, demonstrations of interest and disinterest, pertinent statements on any channel, buying patterns, all should be viewed as critical data elements about the market’s needs, appetite for solutions, and validation for the very reason you exist as a company. Data collected about them is synonymous with fuel and the customers themselves as neurons.

Peers – their peers are their cohorts, the ones who are invested in the company and its success to a similar degree. They share the ups and downs of the day to day job. Their peers are the ones who’ve already shared complaints they have about processes, disappointing results, poor communication between teams.

Contemplation – the effort made to quietly, and thoroughly, examine a subject. Critically, undisturbed solitary time is required to allow staff members the opportunity to review all aspects of the processes they execute in their role. This should be a recurring activity for them and its output should become a recurring subject of staff meetings throughout the year during which staff members would be asked to deliver a brief of their ideas for revamping, improving, and perhaps even inventing new, processes. A prerequisite though is for staff members to educate themselves about their own company’s products, the company’s challenges, the customer’s business, and the market dynamics that affect the customer. Having the opportunity for uninterrupted thought will create the environment for the human synapses to fire and for them to generate ideas that can be shared with peers (through the business synaptic process, to coin a phrase and as shown below).

In the wheel below are depicted the various elements of innovation. The lightning bolts signify the locations where a synapse exists, where new information is communicated and where it has its moment to flourish or die.

Contemplation wheel.png

Without contemplation there can be no foundation for innovation. It is the element most commonly ignored in the business world. Make time for contemplation for it’s how ideas begin. An idea begins in the solitude of one person’s mind, as a spark between neurons. Those synapses will be more plentiful in the solitude that accompanies contemplation.

Make transformation mean something for them

Lincoln_the Smithsonian

They’re not buying it.

They hear the words the executives say about digital transformation but, unconsciously, they aren’t buying it. They read the periodic communiques from the management team about the various transformation initiatives that have been launched but the messaging doesn’t really stick. They may even take the time to read industry material that describes the urgency for companies to transform the way they operate and go to market but most of it gets sucked into the swirling dark matter of their mind. They attend the town halls and nod approvingly when each VP reviews their plan for the coming year, but they’re also thinking, obsessing, about that deadline that looms this Friday for their own project. They are as close to being riveted as one can get in a corporate setting when their dynamic and engaging CEO artfully tells a story for why the company needs to evolve but they can’t get past the fact they never see her at any other time than these town halls.

Then they go back to their desks.

If they are individual contributors they might first quickly check their Facebook feed to see what they missed before jumping onto the fileserver to locate that document they were looking at yesterday, the one that describes the steps they’re supposed to take when they want to requisition a new territory report. Then they go to lunch.

If they are a manager they might go back to their desk and make a quick note to include a brief reference to the town hall content in the next staff meeting scheduled for next week. Then they’ll quickly open the email app and start working through the backlog while munching a sandwich they brought from home.

The digital transformation messaging they heard in the town hall was both interesting and a little nerve-racking but at the same time it was abstract. If you asked them, they wouldn’t use the word skeptical or cynical about the prospects of the digital transformation initiative being successful or even mattering. Instead they might say this sentence, “I don’t see it affecting the way I work any time soon.”  Or this, “I’m glad the execs are the ones who have to worry about that. I have my own set of projects I need to focus on.”

Can a company’s digital transformation initiative succeed if frontline employees don’t buy into it, or if they don’t even understand it at all? Can sheer will of the management team, on its own, drive the initiative towards eventual success? What are the odds that redesigned processes will accurately reflect intimate knowledge of the customer if their creation excludes the involvement of people within the company with whom the customer most frequently interacts?

Bubbles can be beautiful… in bathtubs and kitchen sinks, or when blown by a child threw a ring. Management bubbles though can be deadly to business.

Communication is critical and we can see from the example at the beginning that the company is doing some of the right things. The missing piece though is their ability to ensure a sustained and clear flow of communication from top to bottom and, almost more importantly once the initiative is launched, from bottom to top.

So how can a company ensure its digital transformation initiative is both clearly understood at every level while being inclusive of every level at the same time? The same way any other successful company transformation has happened in the past, by practicing good, transparent, consistent, fair, and respectful management. By understanding that to be digitally transformed it means the entire company must be transformed. Each layer. Each process. Each person. Each partner.

Communication is the key enabler. Its power lies in its relevance for the listener. If you want the buy-in of your employees, make transformation mean something for them, for their daily work, for their hour to hour work, for the way they see themselves making a meaningful contribution to the company’s success.

I’ll close with this thought on communication. It is my Friday gift to you, the reader. This post is exactly 700 words in length. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, as mentioned in this article, was the same length.

Digital Transformation: Thinking to Level 2

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I attended my regular Friday morning BodyPump class today and the instructor didn’t show up. She called in sick but too late for the gym to organize a replacement and so since the class is filled with very serious regulars one of them simply walked over to the studio computer, tapped the BodyPump icon, and down came a massive projection screen. A 20 second countdown later and I was in my very first virtual class.

I know virtual exercise classes have been around for many years for both studio and home use so I’m not revealing anything revolutionary. What struck me as soon the class was 5 minutes old though was the realization that, in my mind anyway, our real-life instructor, the one I’ve been raving about for weeks as being the queen of the perfect cue and of the engaging and constant chatter, had been digitally transformed (replaced). Has anyone ever heard of Wally Pipp? He’s the New York Yankee who took a day off in 1925 and was replaced by some unknown bench warmer (to that point) named Lou Gehrig. The latter took over Wally’s spot and went on to play in the next 2,632 consecutive games over more than 16 years. I wonder if our real-life BodyPump instructor is going to become our very own Wally Pipp.

Afterwards, the situation got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of a gym utilizing a virtual class format over a real-life instructor. I wondered whether they’d tried it before on a more programmatic basis and whether they’d ever surveyed the members to learn whether there was an appetite for that kind of class delivery. What are the potential cost savings? What can virtual programming do to the cost structure of the gym when less people are required to administer, schedule, and deliver a set of classes?

I was Level 2 thinking.

Digital transformation is all over just about every form of media and yet for those of us buried deep in its strategy and roll-out we can easily forget that whatever it is, it’s not readily obvious to everyone. Sometimes we’re required to offer up an explanation to people who (mercifully for them… I honestly think this sometimes) lead lives that seem to operate at a wavelength that is at odds with society’s rush to embrace the digital realm. That’s why, for me, the story of our instructor being replaced by the pixels of five perfectly fit Australians, pixels that can be replayed a multitude of times all over the world at any time, is an apt analogy.

bodypump.png

When the business world talks about digital transformation, it isn’t just blowing smoke. It’s real. It’s significant. It’s going to separate the strong from the weak, the smart from the not-so-smart. And it’s going to trigger conceptualization on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. Why? Because while we can hazard guesses, we just don’t know the extent of change to come when we apply the power of computing (fast and cheap), robotics (eventually ubiquitous and infinitesimal), process automation (time compression), real-time customer and business process interactions (customers fuel the processes), and the limitless power of the human brain (it still confounds science). It means that for a company to get to the state of being truly digitally transformed it is going to have to systematically excel at exploiting those elements. It will have to have processes in place that automatically collect, compute, and perform actions against customer data. It means that a company will need to be a lot more intimate with the target of its affection. That’s you, the customer. Companies are going to want to get a whole lot closer to you. And you know what? You won’t mind at all. You will actually want them to because up to now through your actions and your choices for how you live you’ve demonstrated that you expect better products, better service, and better solutions, all at a cost you can afford. To satisfy you, to be that responsive and agile, companies are going to need data. Lots of automatically collected data about you, about what you want, what you expect, how you’re doing, why you did what you did with the product, how you managed to get the result you received, what you hope to do next. And this is where the human brain becomes a more significant factor. All that data can be taken at face value (Level 1 information) but what smart people do with Level 1 data is they start wondering about why the data is the way it is (Level 2 thinking). This eventually leads to Level 2 data.

Levels.png

Mostly, today, the data that companies collect is Level 1 information. It’s important but it’s high level and is for now just the first step towards creating stronger insights into their customers’ behavior. The pyramid above graphically represents the magnitude of expansive thinking (the amount of questions that are triggered) at each level of the data.

Let’s use the Marketing department to help explain.

When we consider what it means to measure the digital readiness of a marketing organization we right off the bat look for binary information like this:

  • is the Chief Marketing Office (CMO) a member of the senior leadership team?
  • does the organization consider itself customer-centric?
  • is there a systematic process for data cleansing?
  • are the processes designed to allow for consistent cross-channel messaging?

Those are just a few questions we consider and the answers to them provide us with high level information (Level 1) that helps inform us to a small degree about the state of the organization’s maturity and digital readiness. I say small because even though they are binary questions we actually think of them as open-ended because depending on the answers provided many other questions can follow on. For example, the fact that a CMO is not a member of the SLT and is instead part of another organization (typically Sales) that reports into the SLT tells us something about Marketing’s strategic relevance from a corporate point of view. Meaning, how seriously is the CMO seen as a strategic leader by the members of the SLT? Is the CMO new and relatively lesser known? How much of a voice does the CMO have in the industry through published articles in trade magazines? Likewise, if the Marketing organization has yet to implement a consistent messaging experience across multiple user channels, we can ask why not. Do they know how their peers are doing? Have they bench-marked? It’s highly likely they are behind the curve and are probably bleeding customers to competition that provides a better experience.

Level 2 information is a follow-on activity from Level 1 and a follow-on question can look something like this:

  • if the CMO reports into Sales leadership, how does the Marketing organization gather experiential data about existing customers?

Level 2 information is tougher to do in a binary manner. It’s not impossible but because the line of questioning is more consultative in nature, Level 2 questions tend to be more open-ended. They also tend to surface more actionable insight.

Why does it matter where the CMO reports? Because knowing how a Marketing organization gathers knowledge about existing customers helps determine the state of their digital readiness and the state of their ability to optimize the experience of the customer through their entire life-cycle (not just when they were in the state of buying, which is the conventional focus area of Marketing). Why is that important? Because considering the customer as having an entire life-cycle with you, the company, is the first step in recognizing the need and opportunity for making improvements at each step in their journey. If Marketing reports into Sales they are less interested in pursuing the customer’s engagement post-sales. They have little incentive to do so.

For a company to be digitally ready they must view the customer as a living and breathing entity with a lifespan that can be influenced and enhanced with smart injections of specific and relevant attention and sincere interest at certain points in their journey. This approach ultimately drives up engagement and loyalty, which should translate into stronger revenue. If the Marketing organization is going to be responsible for managing that overall messaging then they defacto represent the customer inside the company. Having the Marketing organization on par with other SLT leaders therefore puts the customer in the same room.

Level 2. It’s richer information for our Transformation Services team at Oracle Marketing Cloud that allows us to plan a strategy for helping our customers evolve to become truly digitally ready.  Level 2 is also a way of thinking for any organization that wants to digitally transform. Level 2 thinking is not just for Marketers. Anyone who works with customers and is interested in evolving the relationship to a higher plane should exercise this deeper abstract way of thinking. It opens pathways to critical information that leads to full digital capability.

Think to Level 2. You don’t want to be Wally Pipp, nor do you want to be my Friday morning BodyPump instructor who was replaced today by a virtual version for a microscopic fraction of the price.

(Pssst…. I’m hoping the gym doesn’t find the cost-savings so compelling that they drop the real-life instructors. I’m still a little old school in some ways).

The best coaching is sublime coaching

 

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I came of age in the ’70s during a time of nuclear proliferation, the tail-end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, hyper-inflation that hit 20%, high unemployment in the double-digits, Soap (the TV show), drug culture, Three Mile Island, Johnny Rotten, and Watergate. These were just a few of the anxieties of my parents’ generation but they were nothing but noise to my friends and I. What we cared about were girls and sports.

All that other stuff, we optimistically figured, would get sorted out by people in some distant place and since girls were mysteriously beyond our abilities to comprehend or approach we latched on to sports as something to obsess about. It’s why we became such experts at analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various teams and leagues, both professional and college in both the US and in Canada, and why we dissected games on the following day. (Thankfully, for our future partners in life, most of us eventually grew up and developed more balanced pursuits) How else could we spend our time back then? Yes, school was important to us and we worked at it sufficiently well to smoothly sail through. But school was simply a vehicle that provided a way to put into action the fantasies of our minds, fantasies that our idols of the sports world ignited there. Being on our school’s sports teams was our way of conjoining ourselves with the larger world. And, although we didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, we benefited from good coaching. We just did what they said and tried to perform to their expectations. What we lived for though was the excitement of the games, the crowds, the noise, the pressure. It wasn’t until later, after college, that I really understood that the coach is the most critical element of the team.

Here’s what I learned from a couple of the coaches I had back then.

They:

  • conducted all their most important work in the days before the game, considering ways to leverage the individual strengths of each player by designing or choosing plays to accentuate during the game
  • forced us to practice, and practice, and get fitter, and fitter, and fitter….each and every (bloody) week. They say a near death experience makes you appreciate life and nothing in my life has brought me closer to that than running agility drills for 60 minutes.
  • supported the team during the game but never sought the spotlight for themselves. They stayed on the sidelines and never showed up the refs. If they had a beef they would, with composure, trot over and express their opinion. By preserving the dignity of the officials they played a long game that worked out better in the end.
  • protected the team by looking ahead at the schedule and planning a strategy for getting over and around obstacles. They were students of the game and students of strategy. They knew their players and they wanted to know the opposing ones as well.
  • screamed and yelled in the privacy of the dressing room but never called out any team member in public. Déclassé and disrespectful, otherwise.
  • always took the time to congratulate meaningful performance that made a positive difference to the outcome of the game. In the dressing room, in front of the team, called out the person by name, described what they did well, and why the performance mattered.
  • always privately consoled someone suffering from anguish about some performance glitch that had an equal but negative effect (I once missed two free throws with no time left in the championship game of a basketball tournament, a game in which we were down by one…. arghh, it still hurts to replay it in my mind)

Since I joined the business world I’ve had exactly one boss who reminds me of those coaches of my youth. One boss out of countless bosses spread over a 36 year career. Don’t you think that as business leaders we should all aspire to be the kind of leader who reminds our team members of the best coach they’ve ever had? Maybe though the secret to good coaching is that it probably isn’t found in a book. More likely it’s found in a person’s character and inner fortitude.

I’ll close by saying this. He wasn’t my coach but John Wooden made a large imprint on me by superbly and sublimely coaching the UCLA Bruins basketball team in the early 70s. His players (Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Marcus Johnson) inspired and awed me but it was Wooden’s style, intelligence, respectfulness, and grace that impressed me most of all.

Build the team of today and tomorrow

 

2GdakUgd

 

 

What do you do during the week you’re not attending your company’s user conference?

Catch up on reading?

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Exercise?

Ali

Hang with the dog?

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Yes, yes, and yes.

I wasn’t in attendance at this week’s Oracle’s Modern Marketing Experience (MME) conference in Las Vegas (long story) but I was still busy researching, writing, and having conversations with people like any other week. I also made the time to watch the live-stream of the MME keynote sessions from 3124 kilometers (or 1941 miles) away. This post will not be a summary of the event so change the channel if that’s what you expected. Instead, I want to pull out a couple of threads from those keynotes and weave them into a theme I’ve been discussing in recent posts.

Still with me? Okay, let’s see how this goes.

First, Steve Krause, Group VP of Product Management for Oracle Marketing Cloud (OMC), shared how the company is introducing artificial intelligence (AI) into the OMC platform. It’s exciting news but hardly surprising. Oracle is not alone in pursuing AI as a tool to augment its solutions and to improve the experience it delivers to customers. AI is seeing an industry explosion of investment and in growth in the sheer number of ideas for its application. In commercial business alone AI is taking on greater relevance because it is seen as an accelerant for future growth as is explained in this report  by Accenture. The flip-side of AI’s promise of more intelligent and responsive products is that it will improve internal efficiency too. Transformation in multiple dimensions that benefits customers and employees. How? By offering up exponential opportunities to innovate through the leveraging of new ideas that result from AI. It can be difficult to imagine the unknown but simply put, that’s what we have with AI in the business world. We’re seeing it in its infancy and the unknown of artificial intelligence will become known and in the process create new roles and new paths to solutions that we haven’t yet imagined. And through all that will be a requirement for the right kind of attitude (people) on the team.

That idea of having the right people on the team is something my boss, Catherine Blackmore, picked up on in her inspirational talk (I think she called it, What is your superman?) on day 3 of the conference.  She was speaking directly to marketers in the audience but her role as Global VP of Customer Success, and as one of the most prominent Customer Success thought leaders around, means she was also speaking to her own team and the Customer Success industry at large.

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“Build the team of today and tomorrow”. Build the team with people who embrace openness, innovation, partnering, and collaboration. Her talk and those characteristics she called out are interestingly supported by research for two specific generational groups.

Nielsen Norman Group researched the topic of millennials as digital natives. In the report you will see uncanny resemblance of the characteristics they list of millennials and the attributes that Catherine called out in her talk. Also, this was interesting too… “Many Millennials were in grade school or college when Google first rose to popularity, and it was a critical influence in setting the level of simplicity and directness that Millennials have come to expect from interfaces. They don’t care if (for example) your enterprise application has significantly more complex features to consider. When interfaces fail to live up to those unrealistic standards of simplicity, Millennials rarely blame themselves — unlike older users. Millennials are quick to criticize the interface, its organization, or its designers.” 

That is the indigenous (i.e. naturally occurring) behavior/attitude of a digital native.

And it calls to mind something I said in a recent interview with the online magazine, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. In the interview I said, “Here’s something to think about: if you ask a young millennial what the word “digital” means, more often than not you will be met with a blank stare. All they know is digital. So much so that they don’t even call it that.”

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While the millennial cohort has largely been absorbed into the workforce and is applying its own unconscious biases just as every generation has done before them, the next generation (Gen Z) is the one that will truly wipe things clean making business look and behave completely differently than it does today. Sorry Boomers, we’re almost through.

An article by Pew Research called, digital natives are born global citizens, elaborates on the characteristics of Generation Z. It’s the generation that follows Millennials and was born (approx) around the year 2000. They aren’t ready for the workforce just yet but soon they will be. If you really want to go deep on this topic, download the PDF from that Pew site and discover some interesting bits of information. It may disturb some preconceived notions you have of young people the world over. One stat that jumped out for me is this one:

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It jumped out not because it surprised me that young people are tight with technology. Everyone can see that. Why it jumped out is because of the faith they have that technology is so consequential to the hopefulness of their future. It’s sweet and it should cause us (older generations) to pause in contemplation. Young people are not misguided to believe that technology can be a force of good. Let’s make sure we deliver on our part of the bargain. Let’s be open, let’s embrace change, let’s innovate, and let’s do it together.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Team

INSEAD team

What do CEOs expect from their Customer Success (CS) organizations? There is fluidity around this topic but stripping it to its essence we can say they expect their CS orgs to take responsibility for these things:

  • higher retention of existing customers
  • higher revenue attainment from existing customers
  • movement towards building an organization that operates under its own P&L, with healthy margins, etc
  • customer satisfaction goals that can be demonstrably proven to result in higher retention rates

What’s missing from the list is any explicit mention of product adoption and that’s because CEOs would say that adoption is a fundamental expectation that should be covered off by the drive to retain and grow customers, and by the strategy CS deploys to increase customer satisfaction. Fair point.

How are these expectations acted upon at the CS organizational level? There have been countless blog posts and articles written about best practices for on-boarding, education, driving successful renewal programs, measuring NPS and customer effort scores, and in developing billable or fee-based services within Customer Success to drive adoption. This article though will not add to that body of work. Instead, it will address a fundamental behavior (and yet a particularly difficult one to master) of professional organizations that aspire to deliver on those CEO expectations, leadership. By leadership I mean senior management that consistently demonstrates its ability to clearly communicate, inspire, model, and coach.

So VPs of Customer Success, this article is for you.

The recent Harvard Business Review article on the mediocrity on teams lists four leadership practices that lead to performance excellence. Most pertinent for this article is leadership practice #3, Establish Peer Accountability, which I believe can help Customer Success reach the elusive goal of C-level legitimacy that it’s been striving to attain since its inception. A common refrain heard in Customer Success circles is that it’s difficult to get complete organization-wide buy-in for CS at that level. Why is that? I believe it’s because CS struggles to empirically prove it can hit its KPIs across the board, quarter after quarter and year after year.

There’s an emerging practice for people who manage a team of customer success managers and it starts by drawing on something that sales organizations have been doing for decades. Senior sales leaders have their account executives present an overview of their territory to their peers on a quarterly basis.

There are all kinds of ways to improve your Customer Success practice and getting the team together to triangulate on the business costs (comparatively) next to nothing.

The typical agenda for a quarterly sales meeting will look something like what you see immediately below. Each account executive would be required to prepare a presentation that covers all the points.

Quarterly Sales Meetings Agenda

  • Overview of territory
  • Revenue attainment to date
  • Top opportunities (or, how I’m going to make my number)
    • Hurdles
      • Product support cases in the critical path
      • Competition
      • Action items to close
  • Competitive wins/losses in last quarter

Marketing is represented in these meetings and will typically deliver a review of activities they led in the last quarter to support sales as well as provide a forecast of activities to be conducted in the upcoming quarter.

Benefits of these meetings:

  1. Transparency
  2. Opportunity for account executive to demonstrate full grasp of the business
  3. Peer review and assistance
  4. Leaders get to publicly lead

I’m not sure how prevalent it is for Customer Success organizations to have adopted these types of meetings for themselves (I rarely heard of it during my time as head of Customer Success research with TSIA) but even if there are some that do conduct them, it’s highly unlikely they would approach them as comprehensively as what I outline below. For these quarterly customer success meetings, each customer success manager (CSM) would be required to prepare a presentation that covers all the points.

Quarterly Customer Success Meetings Agenda

  • Deep dive of one account
    • their business and its challenges
    • why they bought from the vendor
    • their health (or, what’s going on?)
  • Top customer achievements this quarter
    • measurable progress towards business goals
    • explicit examples of adoption
    • innovation using the vendor’s products
  • Adoption challenges in territory
    • trends, patterns
    • plans to address
    • communication with critical parties
  • Revenue (renewals, growth)
    • Top opportunities
    • Action items to close

Benefits:

  1. Transparency
  2. Opportunity for CSM to demonstrate full grasp of the business
  3. Peer review and assistance
  4. Leaders get to publicly lead

Because I’m a believer in the elimination of barriers there should be representation from Product Management, Sales, and Marketing at these meetings. All those teams would add tremendous value to the meeting and it’s important that they learn from the CSMs and hear details, patterns, trends of the customers’ experience with the products and the company from the one organization that has the most intimacy with them, Customer Success. Those organizations could then leverage their specialized expertise to offer ideas, clarification, and education for how situations and processes could be improved.

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the detail that can potentially surface from and about the CSM during these Customer Success quarterly meetings.

  • Assess the CSM’s business sophistication
    • Are there unique challenges inherent in the customer’s business that affect their ability to fully adopt our solution?
    • Is the industry or sector in decline? How is the customer addressing that reality?
    • What pressures is it facing from new technologies and new consumer behavior that are affecting the team that Customer Success works with?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to employ all available tools/methods 
    • What methods are you employing to increase your understanding of the customer’s challenges?
    • are you comparing or benchmarking the customer and using the resultant information to help educate them?
    • how are you utilizing social media to learn more about the customer?
  • Assess the CSM’s product knowledge and their ability to match product to business need
    • Tell us about some of the customer scenarios (use cases) you’ve observed that could help mature our product.
    • Tell us why the customer may be ready or not ready to invest further with us
  • Assess the CSM’s knowledge intimacy of the playbook and their ability to think creatively for how it might be improved
    • Talk to us about our customer success playbook. Based on your involvement with customers over the last quarter, what suggestions can you make for improving our customer success playbook?
  • Assess the CSM’s knowledge of how the work of other organizations integrate with or otherwise could be leveraged to help Customer Success deliver better service to customers
    • How can other organizations within our company help you do your job?
    • How is the CRM fulfilling its purpose as the repository of customer truth?
    • How does the content you produce, or repurpose from other organizations, and transmit to customers resonating with them? How do you gauge its efficacy?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to monitor and coach the customer and to discern from data what actions should next be taken
    • Have your customers always followed our script for on-boarding? If not, do you know why and how did they respond when you informed them that missing or skipping steps prevents them from moving forward on the adoption path?
    • What clues do you see in the dashboard and reporting data that support opinions you have about the customers’ odds of success?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to speak to client experience
    • As the person most knowledgeable about the customer, based on your experiences and observations what can you tell us is the common perception customers have of working with our products and our company?

Senior Customer Success leaders should view these types of meetings as their Sales counterparts see theirs. The best ones see quarterly sales meetings as opportunities to build a pipeline of leaders, as creating an environment of collaboration that drives improvement, and as a crucible for vetting sales opportunities and refining plans to bring the deals to closure.

Senior Customer Success leaders should see CS quarterly meetings as opportunities to surface future leaders, to raise the bar of expectations about what it means to know your customer and to know their business, and to articulate a strategy for driving the customer towards their desired outcomes.  Finally, senior Customer Success leaders should honestly look at these meetings as opportunities to test their own ability to lead and to drive the organization further towards achieving those expectations of the CEO I laid out at the very beginning of this article.

For all kinds of practical and psychological reasons, coaching your Customer Success organization to improve is extremely difficult on a one-to-one basis. Those types of meetings are good for maintaining a communication flow and for very targeted and specific coaching. But some research from Stanford points to the fact that people learn better and improve faster in groups and in environments where they can present to and collaborate with their peers. INSEAD elaborates on this from the angle of compensation design in what it refers to as goal-framing theory in this article.

Coaching teams of Customer Success Managers is critically important because they, like Marketers, are on the forefront of technological innovation that revolves around the customer. The data onslaught will only grow and skills such as a person’s ability to think critically and in multi-dimensions and to communicate professionally and with precision will become even more valuable in the years ahead. Take a look at the table below from MIT Sloan extracted from this article. Artificial intelligence (which is coming on faster than most people realize) will be increasingly seen in the client experience space in the near future. Customer Success needs to prepare itself for how it will leverage and exploit new machine-led ways to touch and learn from customers. New roles will be required and current teams can adapt to them if the right environment exists now of looking at the customer from many dimensions and collaborating around strategies for improving their experience and their ability to succeed. Quarterly meetings as I described above will help stimulate and nurture the kind of culture that will be ready to assimilate and exploit AI to benefit Customer Success organizations and their customer engagement models. Senior leaders can prepare their organizations by creating now a mature culture that collaborates around the customer’s business.

MIT_newjobs

I’ll close by saying I realize there are many companies with dozens of CSMs in their organizations and that would find the prospect of having each CSM present in the meeting a daunting and near-impossible task. For large organizations like that I suggest that you map out the year and split up the presentations accordingly. The important thing to remember is that the benefit of having the CSM stand in front of peers and demonstrate a firm grasp of business is powerful and will dovetail nicely with what should be your company’s secret weapon, a strong, open, and outward-looking culture. That culture though also happens to be the trickiest thing to build, nurture, and sustain.

Can math help clarify the CS mission?

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Customer Success professionals need to start thinking of their mission in a similar way that professionals in Sales and Marketing see theirs. On the Marketing side, they see their mission as finding, nurturing, and qualifying interested parties and moving them further along towards a decision to commit to a financial contract with the marketer’s employer. Straight-forward. On the Sales side, they see their mission as helping those interested parties make that decision to sign the contract thereby securing new revenue for their employers. While the processes and tasks executed by these organizations can be complex and fraught with bumps, their missions are simple.

What is the mission of Customer Success? Is it as clear-cut as those other missions? What is it primarily about?

  1. Renewing customers?
    • Goal = keeping customer numbers up to improve the vendor’s balance sheet
  2. Expanding the business with customers?
    • Goal = growing revenue to improve the vendor’s balance sheet
  3. Helping customers adopt more of the product’s capabilities but motivated by how it benefits the vendor?
    • Goal = helping customer utilize more of the solution so that they feel invested in it and have more of a propensity to renew the financial contract. Symptoms of this behavior are when Customer Success is asked to intervene in sales-sensitive situations to clear technical challenges that are perceived as hurting the chances for renewal or expansion.
  4. Helping customers adopt more of the product’s capabilities but motivated by how it benefits the customer?
    • Goal = helping customer achieve their business goals so they can improve efficiency, or increase market share, or solve other business challenges that prevent them from growing
  5. All of the above?
    • Goal = do whatever is needed

Usually the answer is #5, which makes it not so straight-forward nor so simple. If companies take an honest look at it though, they might admit that they have their Customer Success teams focused on achieving #3, which when it’s considered as starkly as it’s written above, sounds crummy, like it’s short-changing the customer and causing damage to the relationship.

Unlike Marketing and Sales, whose missions are clean and easy to understand, Customer Success is too often charged with having to equally prioritize the following: implementation, enablement, support, consulting, coaching, nurturing, negotiating, selling, closing deals. Why the lack of focus? Pardon the straying into the theater of politics but it almost sounds like Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It’s all over the place, it’s inconsistent, it sends mixed signals, satisfies very few, accomplishes only a fraction of what it hopes to do, and is confusing to the people it’s meant to deal with.

There needs to be some order introduced into the Customer Success world so to make things easier I propose applying some basic math.

Adoption = quality product + clearly defined outcomes + enablement + quality, timely guidance
Renewal = adoption of the solution + quality relationship based on trust
Expansion = adoption of the solution + quality relationship based on trust + clear business need

Looking at it in reverse, Expansion won’t happen until there is Adoption of the solution, the relationship between the parties is good, and the customer has a clear business need for investing more with the vendor. Renewal won’t happen unless there is Adoption of the solution and the relationship is sound. Adoption won’t happen unless the product works, the customer has articulated clear business outcomes, they’ve been enabled with the right skills and knowledge to use the solution to achieve those outcomes, and they’ve received high quality guidance in a timely manner along the way. This is obviously a proactive methodology that prioritizes Adoption above all else. When you see things laid out mathematically they make sense. The logic flows. Changing the equation to prioritize Renewal or Expansion before Adoption defies science and human nature. It might work for some situations but it’ll work against you over time.

To close, and speaking of proactive, I’ll leave you with a line from Silje Nergaard‘s song, Two for the Road.

“I’d rather hit the road than have the road hit me”.  

Maybe it should be on a t-shirt.

 

 

Blockchain and my dad

wikipedia chain.jpg

My father first taught me about the physics that underpins a chain. He was no craftsman but he could manage his way around most small projects involving hammers, saws, and screwdrivers. Because of our humble situation though, he ended up having my brother and I do all larger home repairs with him, everything except repairing the roof of the house two stories above the ground. But that was only because he didn’t want to buy a 28-foot ladder. One time he had us loop one end of a large 30-foot chain around the car trailer hitch and loop the other end around the corner post of our old dilapidated garage that he wanted pulled down and demolished. It was before demolition permits were required and before anyone had awareness of the need for safety glasses or even steel toe boots. It was that kind of time and no one blinked an eye that two boys in shorts and running shoes were given the task to climb all over a crumbling garage. But one thing my dad did for safety reasons is explain how chains work. We were about 13 and 14 years old at the time and despite the fact we knew everything there was to know about the world we still paid attention as he explained that the health of each link is critical to the overall strength of the chain. One weak link compromises the whole and so with decapitation on our minds we checked each link for the smallest evidence of weakness. Since we didn’t possess an electron microscope we had to put a bit of faith in dumb luck too. Cutting to the chase, the chain was sound, the garage collapsed when the car gently pulled the chain that pulled the post, my mother didn’t speak to my father for a day or so, the neighbors were unhappy with the dust, our two younger sisters cheered from the porch, my father saved a few bucks, and my brother and I lived another day. Lessons learned? Motion, force, energy… you know, physics. Oh, and teamwork of the links-in-a-chain kind.

Baffled as to what this has to do with business? Maybe this will help.  I was reminded of that long-ago story when I read this article from MIT Sloan about how Blockchain technology will transform how businesses are organized and managed. The message of the piece… that the strength of a chain, with verifiable and trust-worthy links, and the fact that each link is dependent on the other, is a perfect analog for how business processes can be improved. Think of the links as your current internal organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, etc.)  They can be connected to provide a more seamless and reliable process flow and experience for the customer. In short, they can be made to improve your business.

The Blockchain value proposition dovetails nicely with a message I conveyed in this recent talk at Totango’s Customer Success Summit 2017. In that talk I made a statement that businesses need to re-imagine their processes so that the customer is represented horizontally rather than be dealt with in the conventional vertical organizational fashion that exists today and has existed for a hundred years or so. Why change? Because the customer is not efficiently served via the conventional approach, and you’re losing business as a result. The experience the customer has is disjointed, being touched as they are by different people from different teams with different agendas, and the overall messaging they receive and the impression they have of your brand is often incoherent, at best.

Today’s organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer, Success) hobble themselves with too many barriers that prevent them from collecting and sharing critical customer-relevant data, or from holding each other accountable for the delivery of some aspect of the customer’s experience, and from having visibility into whether the customer is achieving the outcomes they expected, and hoped for, when they purchased the solution in the first place. My colleague, Chloe Basterfield, touches on this from a marketing challenge perspective in this blog post.

Even before Blockchain invades the business world, smart executives can begin to build that horizontal flow with the organizations they have now. Encourage the breaking down of silos by organizing the leaders and rallying their teams and missions around the need to improve the process through which the customer is dealt with by your company. Conceptualize the flow as linked tasks that together form a rolling chain that pulls the customer smoothly through their journey with your firm.

You too can do this without safety glasses and steel toe boots.

Customer Success Plans. Really, they’re not that hard.

INSEAD crisis

In a call earlier today with my good friend, David Sakamoto, Head of Customer Success for the Americas at Cisco, a wide-ranging conversation eventually turned to customer success plans. While we are each big believers in the tool and have had great experiences utilizing it with enterprise customers, it seems to have fallen a bit out of fashion lately. We’re not seeing success plans as a topic very much on conference and meetup agendas. If I do, it is only given the surface treatment as in, all customers should have a success plan. But no detailed sharing of experiences and of empirical proof that they matter to customers. Nor do I trip across blogs that touch on them. So I did some random, unscientific inquiries with people I know to see whether their organizations utilize the tool. The results were spotty. Some do, many don’t. Some produce them but only for strategic customers. Some only for customers that demonstrate some sort of need for one (I can’t figure out that rationale), and one that does it for all their customers (but it’s a manual process and they are a small SaaS vendor with only 50 accounts). So I dug into this topic a bit more.

A year ago, TSIA, published in their annual State of Customer Success the following graph that details how CSMs in their community of enterprise companies are spending their time. Nowhere on the list is “success plans”. What you do see are “get well” plans but you can also see from the definition that those types of plans are reactive (details the steps to put out fires that threaten future revenue) versus the proactive nature of a success plan (details the path towards achieving business outcomes).

image (2).png

So what gives? Why aren’t organizations producing success plans more broadly, as a best practice, for more of their customers? How do people offer proactive guidance that drives adoption, especially for larger and more complex environments? Is the answer to just do weekly phone calls, as if we’re still in the 20th century? Could it be that companies are now producing software solutions that are so solid, so easy-to-use and implement, and so intuitive that customers easily adopt them without the need for guidance? Ahem.

Let’s be honest, most CSMs don’t create success plans for their accounts for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. They aren’t required to
  2. Time constraints
  3. Not enough information about the customer
  4. The customers have not shown an interest in the past

All these excuses (sorry, reasons) are why there are so many “get well” plans in existence. So, let’s tackle each one:

  1. They aren’t required to – This tells me CS management themselves don’t understand the value of success plans and probably (I can almost guarantee) haven’t discussed them with customers.
  2. Time constraints – This I understand and appreciate but have you tried to automate the creation of the success plan?
  3. Not enough information about the customer – Huh? Don’t you have a CRM? Hasn’t the salesperson captured most of the pertinent information already?
  4. The customers have not shown an interest in the past – I bet they haven’t and it’s likely because they’ve not received enough value or have had very little follow-through from the CSM.

Let’s dive into #3.  Even the world’s worst salesperson will have this information documented:

Section A

  1. what industry the customer is in
  2. what they bought
  3. what they spent
  4. their renewal date
  5. the names of key contacts in the account
  6. the names of key vendor contacts (account manager, CSM)

Better salespeople will have this data as well:

Section B

  1. why the customer bought the product/solution; what are they trying to solve?
  2. partners they might be using and how (implementation, staff augmentation, etc)

In addition to all that, the best salespeople I’ve ever worked with will include the information below and be able to recite, without notes, an elevator pitch around it:

Section C

  1. a breakdown of interest of each key stakeholder in the account
  2. particular business challenges facing both the company and the industry that they are in and how the vendor can help them successfully face these challenges

Let’s not even consider AI software that can, and eventually will, vastly enrich the overall knowledge of the account that’s contained in the CRM. An example is AI software like this in the financial services industry that factors in demographic, geographic, and publicly available tax information to produce a full picture of expected costs and returns for a financial customer. Basically, they are hell-bent on replacing costly financial advisors. That’s the future and I suggest that more companies start getting serious about producing success plans for all their B2B customers.  I can hear screams of “WHAT?!?!? There’s no time!” In answer, I return to #2 in the reasons above. Have you tried automating the process?

It’s not that hard. Have your IT or CRM administrator create a form that looks like the kind of professional success plan you’d present to customers and that gets automatically generated when they sign a contract. Have that form populated with pertinent, customer-facing information (stored in CRM fields) that should already have been collected during the sales process, such as:

  • items 2, 4, 6 from Section A
  • items 1, 2 from Section B
  • item 2 from Section C

The program could also map out a timeline for the customer’s expected adoption of the product (based on best practices you should already have learned and documented from other similar size and type customers).

Once the form is auto-populated, have it sent to the assigned CSM for review before they send it on to the customer. Or go full-on automation, if you have the confidence, and have it sent straight to the customer. Am I forgetting anything?

Thanks for reading what I think is probably the most mechanical blog post I’ve written in 10 years. I hope it didn’t hurt too much.

 

 

 

 

The lab coated CSM

I’ll say it now.  In five years the job of a Customer Success Manager will be almost 100% focused on managing the performance of algorithms that drive the customer towards achieving their goals. We’ll see a 180 degree flip in how things are largely done now. CSMs in that near future will spend their time reviewing new findings of consumer/customer behavior and the data that show the progress customers have made towards their expected outcomes. They’ll use that information to tune the algorithms. CSMs will be more data scientists than customer relations experts. Provocative? Not really. Inevitable? Yes. Impersonal and detached from the reality of a customer’s experience? I can see that it might be perceived that way but, no. How can I be so confident? Because this type of work style is already being done everyday by a department employed by most companies but whose mission is aimed at a different target group (buyers) than the one targeted by Customer Success. Modern Marketers conduct themselves more or less this way now.

In the April 3, 2017 edition of The New Yorker magazine is an article entitled, The Algorithm Will See You Now. The piece mainly states that medical technology is advancing so rapidly and the pressure to reduce costs of the healthcare system is also increasing at a similar rate that the two together are forcing a rethink of how diagnostic medicine can, and should, be most efficiently and accurately delivered. My quick take for you from the article (written by a biological scientist)… it’s cheaper, faster, and in some cases, more accurate for machines to do the job of radiologists. There are limitations though that have to do with what are referred to as factual knowledge and experiential knowledge and while the state of the technology is quite sophisticated and there is enthusiasm for its ability to augment the diagnostic process, it isn’t yet seen to be a complete replacement of the human expert. Pick up the edition and read the article to get the complete picture. I can’t do two things here: 1)I cannot include the link because of the paywall, and 2) I cannot give the article the justice it deserves.

image (2).png

A similar state exists in the Customer Success industry. Many people operate on experiential knowledge (gut) without a lot of factual knowledge. Conversely, we have vendors who focus a bit too much on factual knowledge and don’t give enough weight to experiential knowledge. That’s what I meant last week at the Toronto Customer Success Executive Breakfast (sponsored by Gainsight) when I said that the future of Customer Success will see smart people focused almost entirely on managing processes. They’ll exercise a blend of factual knowledge (from tools like Gainsight) and experiential knowledge (a highly mature gut instinct stemming from the experiences they’ve had themselves working directly with customers and also from conclusions reached by AI machine learning software) to determine the most accurate course of action that should be taken in order to improve the algorithms. Otherwise, how will it be possible for Customer Success to effectively perform, scale, and personalize its approach so the customer feels they get the right attention at the right time? This is especially true when you consider the implications of the data represented in the McKinsey chart below.

McKinsey

IoT, automation, escalating customer expectations, increasing calls for higher share value, accelerating business disruption… all these things and more are conspiring to force companies to deliver increased, personalized customer attention faster and at less cost. Scale is the only option but not just any scale. Personalized scale.

Do you have difficulty seeing this evolution of Customer Success? If so, I have one question for you. Is diagnosing customer health any more complex than diagnosing the health of the human body?

A Pattern Language

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My wife gave me a book way back in the late 1980s when she realized I had a strong interest in buildings and architecture. A blog I wrote for Eloqua back in 2012 called, The Thoreau Guide to Marketing Automation, touches on that particular, and amateur, passion of mine. As an aside, the blog post was re-branded when Oracle acquired the company and soon after that event came erasure of my authorship. 🙂

The book, written in 1977, is called, A Pattern Language. It discusses societies’ building of their physical structures and the impact that collective and independent decisions have on fundamental needs of the human psyche. It was, and apparently still is, considered a bit of a bible by people who look at the bigger picture of how the most people-oriented communities function and are organically built, of how design and choice of construction materials can promote healthy minds, bodies, and relationships. The relevance for this post is that A Pattern Language was influenced by the then-emerging language to describe computer programming and design. One of the authors, Christopher Alexander, said, “A pattern language has the structure of a network. It’s an idea that comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.” In other words, the best ideas are community-generated, and even though that might intuitively suggest there is no overall design, there actually is. Collectively, we’ve mostly built what we need by following an unconscious pattern of (building) evolution based on need, utility, and personal preference. A pattern language, if you will. Peril comes when organic need is superseded by abstraction, when there is too much form and not enough function, or when the well-being of humans is a lower ranked factor in design. The language breaks. It breaks because it no longer serves.

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I was reminded of this book recently when I observed our dog during one of our walks. Watch your own dog and the way they relate to the physical environment that is external to their home. They expect the familiar because they associate people and places with indelible imprints those things have made in their memory stores. The world works for them because our buildings, streets, garbage receptacles, trees, and people have helped our dog build a wealth of pattern-generated memories that enable him to conduct himself in the world without having full accessibility to our human language. He knows where he lives, he knows where he should and shouldn’t toilet, he knows about cars and trucks and skateboards, and based on their demeanor he even knows what type of person would most likely respond well to his greetings. He’s the recipient of a language that humans have physically built with their surroundings and in the way they individually present themselves to him on a daily basis through their unconscious behaviors. You might think your daily walk from the parking lot to the subway goes unnoticed but it isn’t. He’s expecting you. You might think your stumble at the curb went unnoticed. It wasn’t; it made him stop and stare. You broke the pattern. Your zigzag walk out of the pub at midnight may have seemed straight as an arrow to you but it made him stop and tilt his head as he tried to understand why you’re behaving differently than others. Patterns are rules (scientifically referred to as behaviorism) for dogs. They adapt but only when new patterns emerge. So if you continue to teeter towards your Uber ride night after night your doctor will take notice from the results of your next blood test but my dog won’t because that’s what he expects of you now.

Here’s where I bridge this blog to business.

Over centuries commerce developed organically from small transactions between a shopkeeper who had something of value that someone else (the customer) felt they needed to much more complex arrangements in which a company organized itself to sell more of a product to a broader market of customers. Sales became an occupation and these people sold through a small number of direct channels to prospects who were reliant on the salesperson for information and for all other aspects of the transaction, save for the actual decision to buy. Once they made the purchase it was up to the customer to figure out how to derive value from the thing they bought. A pattern had developed over a couple hundred years from the belief (and proof) that that’s how business is done and that’s how money was supposed to be made. It had become what we had all expected it should be. Until the pattern was broken.

Software as a Service (SaaS) turned that paradigm on its head and we see now that customers have taken control. Through the exponential power of the Internet they educate themselves and through the simplicity of the subscription model they can make easier choices to move from one company to another. Customers expect superior service and superior ease of use. Quickness to value is the new rule and software companies are now the dog tilting its head as it tries to understand why the old pattern has been broken. Patterns form a language that allows us to function, until the pattern breaks. Take it from Blackjack.
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ABM and Customer Success, two ships passing in the night.

ships

At what point does a phrase or term become a cliché? Who decides? When I took creative writing classes a number of years ago, the professor critiqued our work by spotting cliches with the tenacity and ferocity of someone who perhaps had once been mortally wounded by one and was out for revenge.

The word cliché is defined as:

a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as: sadder but wiser, strong as an ox, happy as a clam, as old as the hills, every cloud has a silver liningour company is customer-centric

Of course I added that last example but let’s talk about it. It seems every company is either saying they are customer-centric or they are on their way to becoming customer-centric. Usually they can articulate a definition that approximates this…

We are working from the outside in. We are placing the customer at the center of everything we do. They fuel our processes and inspire our people. They are the reason we exist as a company.

Can’t argue with that passion. It’s actually the correct way for companies to strategically think in today’s business environment when disruption not only creeps up on you but given the right conditions it can swamp you in a matter of weeks. The customer must be the center of everything a company does. Anticipation of their needs, wants, hopes, and expectations must fuel your processes. The alternative is failure.

Still, if so many companies understand this and so many companies are seemingly headed in the right direction, then why does customer-centric sound so resoundingly empty? Can we call it yet? Can we say that customer-centric is a cliché? Not yet but we’re getting close. It doesn’t mean as much anymore when you read it or hear it. When a phrase is uttered and it doesn’t register a brain wave, it has become a cliché. Or when a phrase irritates and forces you to probe and dig deeper to really understand what the speaker meant, then it has become a cliché.

Words need to mean something so let’s all try to avoid clichés. Let’s agree that if we’re going to continue using the term customer-centric we will be prepared to describe how our companies have organized ourselves and our processes to encompass the entire experience of the customer, from their unknown buyer state all the way through purchase to their eventual state of organically-felt advocacy on your behalf.

Okay, Armaly, we need an example.

As both a marketing and a customer success professional I am accustomed to looking at enterprises and seeking opportunities where these two disciplines could be cross-leveraged, opportunities that might be overlooked by those with a more discipline-specific focus.

The classic (simplified) pre-sales portion of the sales process calls for Marketing to find and nurture leads and to pass the qualified ones off to sales who close the deal. Typically, the only post-sales involvement of marketing is leading the customer reference program.

The classic (yes, simplified) post-sales process calls for Customer Success to lead the effort of ensuring the customer gets properly on-boarded and that the path they need to take in achieving their desired outcomes is detailed, made smooth, and governed. Typically, there is close to zero customer success involvement in the pre-sales portion of the sales process.

Let’s move on to ABM (account-based marketing). ABM is the hot, new(ish) thing of marketing and ITSMA, which bills itself as “the leading source for insight, community, and hands-on help for B2B marketers in the connected economy”, explains it this way: “ABM is a strategic approach that combines targeted, insight-led marketing with sales to increase mindshare, strengthen relationships, and drive growth in specific new and existing accounts.” In essence, ABM is about focusing specific messaging on detailed personas in key accounts. There is a lot of increasing interest in applying Artificial Intelligence in this space. Nudge is one company keen to be a player here. See also, this post from Oracle Marketing Cloud for additional clarity on ABM. So rather than marketing to the masses of unknowns, ABM is about focusing your marketing on identified accounts, where the odds of success are greater, and tailoring your messaging so that the recipient feels it is meant just for them.

All good, right? Well, yes, except when it’s not enough. What do I mean? So far, ABM has been all about targeting accounts for new sales. While I have no argument with that, I do wonder why it doesn’t go further.

Where is Customer Success in the ABM play? With its rich knowledge of the customer’s experience with your solution and with intimate knowledge of the customer’s relationship with your company (good, bad, indifferent) along with knowledge of all the strengths, weaknesses, and quirks of the various stakeholders, the information collected and influenced by the Customer Success team should be seen as a perfect input into the ABM process. Wouldn’t ABM messaging be even more precisely tailored for the audience if Marketing knew that their audience (the customer) has been suffering trying to implement or adopt a certain feature? Or that they’ve been wildly successful with it and have been championing it on social media? If ABM factored that side of the equation in, then that would be how a customer-centric approach is demonstrated. Because it would be about the complete customer who is experiencing everything your company intended to do and didn’t intend to do in all your interactions with them.

A phrase is a cliché when it’s meaning is lost. Customer-centric is not a cliché when the customer feels they are at the center. It is a cliche when they don’t.

Oh, and yes, I realize the title of this post includes a blatant use of a cliché.

Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor

 

Renewal play? Not so fast.

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A few weeks ago we each had the opportunity to attend and to speak at the Customer Success Summit 2017 (Totango’s annual conference) in San Francisco, CA. This year’s event again brought together customer success leaders brimming with thought-provoking ideas – some that we didn’t necessarily agree with and some that were affirmations of what we are already doing, or anticipate seeing and doing, in customer success (CS). Like many customer success management conferences this past year, the general themes were: how to scale the CS organization, the role artificial intelligence and bots should play in services; cross-organizational implications of customer success effort; and the need to focus more intently on designing processes and activities that accurately target and nurture the customer along their journey.

These are all extremely vital and relevant customer success topics and the industry’s collective energy around generating best practices for each will likely yield big business benefits in the years ahead. We caution though about the tendency to draw attention away from a topic that is even more fundamental and yet has been insufficiently addressed. We decided to collaborate on this post because we believe the industry is in a rush to get to the finish line before it has figured out the answer to “what is the primary role of customer success?” To answer that, we need to state this. We consider the customer’s ability to adopt a  solution the key building block to success and to the customer’s likelihood to continue their investment in the product.  Persistently high churn rates and persistently low retention rates offer the most obvious proof of that and that much work needs to be done to develop best practices for adoption.  Before you can even start talking about renewals and expansion opportunities we believe goal-based adoption must become the main focus of a customer success manager. Because before you can even think of talking to a customer about a renewal you need to have the answers to the following questions:

  • who are they?
  • how would you characterize the health of the relationship between your company and the customer?
  • what challenges did they overcome to derive business benefit from your solution?
  • where are they on the solution maturity scale?
  • when did they expect the solution would address their business goals?
  • why should they be excited about reinvesting in your company and your solution?

If they haven’t adopted your solution, what do you think the odds are of you having answers to these questions?

In its most recent customer success industry baseline survey, the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) reported in this publication that only 45% of those companies have their customer success organization focused primarily on driving adoption. Another 45% reported that their CS organization is focused primarily on driving retention. The remaining 10% of companies say that they have their CS org focused on driving growth. While acknowledging there are all kinds of companies at all levels of maturity and recognizing that companies are still looking at pulling as many revenue-generating levers as they can, we find it counter-intuitive to believe there can be any long-term success in achieving and maintaining high retention levels (let alone growth) without first achieving the hard part, successful adoption of the product/solution. We feel strongly about this especially when we read a blog like this from Kissmetrics in which they explain how customer analysis can significantly reduce churn rates. They argue, (and we agree with them), that [customer] “Research matters because it offers your team the opportunity to create the ultimate customer experience. To satisfy customers, you must understand their behaviors, needs, and wants. You need to know the why and how behind all their actions.”

Does customer experience factor into their propensity to renew? Does it factor into their propensity to invest more with your firm? We feel foolish for even asking those questions because the answer is so obviously YES to both.

We all know the success of a SaaS company hinges on many factors like showing your potential investors low customer acquisition costs (CAC) while amassing a recurring revenue customer base that is continually expanding and renewing over time. How do you build and expand your company in a way that is scalable and retain customers over time? It isn’t by forcing the latest feature on your customer or simply by getting them live on your platform, without having identified any real value just so you can recognize the revenue. The path to success is identifying what problem your customer is seeking to solve and delivering on a promise to solve it in a fairly seamless and effortless way.

Don’t just take our word for it. The highly regarded VC firm, Bessemer Venture Partners, included extensive evidence substantiating our claim  in this report, but we’ll call out just two: 

“Wall Street investors and your customers hate to see a large mix of services revenue in cloud businesses. You should focus your product development, sales, and client success teams on reducing the implementation friction, time, and cost as much as possible.”

“It’s very difficult and expensive to grow subscription businesses if you have moderate customer churn– and prohibitive if your churn is high.  As detailed financial models of CLTV (Customer Lifetime Value) and Free Cash Flow demonstrate, the single biggest driver of long-term profitability for your cloud business (and thus valuation) is the renewal rate of your customers.”

Still not convinced? Think about your own buying behavior. Would you renew a contract for your home Internet Service Provider(ISP) if it never delivered a consistently reliable performance? If it failed to provide the ease-of-use and speed that was advertised and promised by the vendor? Of course not. Now think of your customers. You shouldn’t really be surprised that they decided to not renew when you should have been aware that:

  • they aren’t using the product to the extent you had expected
  • the tickets they’ve opened with your contact center indicate a pattern of usage suggesting they are at a very immature stage of adoption
  • they aren’t responding to your communications
  • they aren’t even opening your communications

So how can you get out of this rut?

There is a plethora of publicly available written content that focuses on user adoption tactics, best practices for utilizing the various customer success tools that can help with this process, how to scale while improving your ability to factor in your customer’s behavior and anticipating their needs, and how you can prioritize adoption as the most powerful process you will ever have with your customer. It’s the one that matters most to them and should therefore matter most to you.

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This blog was co-authored by:

Emilia D’Anzica is the Vice President of Customer Engagement at WalkMe. In the span of her career, Emilia has received several awards for being a top client service manager and leader while scaling global customer success teams. Emilia is a certified Scrum Master, active PMP certified Project Manager and a Trans-Global Executive MBA graduate from St. Mary’s College of California. She is based in San Francisco, CA.

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Peter Armaly is a Principal Transformation Advisor at Oracle Marketing Cloud. He is a senior-level customer success and digital marketing transformation professional with extensive experience working with wide-ranging clients of both SaaS and On-Premise engagement models. His career includes working for companies as varied as: Oracle, TSIA, BMC Software, Eloqua, CA Technologies, Rogers Telecommunications, Canadian Tire, and CP Rail. Peter is a visionary leader in the Customer Success industry and has made solid contributions of quality content (presentations, blogs, podcasts).  He is based in Toronto, Canada.

 

Yes, it’s about the customer but it can be about you too

In the first post of this series I mentioned I believe there is a need to bring digital transformation down a level or two, to make it practical. Now I’ll add the word actionable. First, let’s agree on a definition of digital transformation for today’s business. Many definitions are afloat and this McKinsey piece describes a particularly good executive level one but I think we can make it more actionable and relate-able to the front-line employee.

So let’s work with what McKinsey said but let’s do less skirting of the details and elaborate to the level of our target audience. Digital transformation means companies will re-imagine the way they work so their processes: a) are data-driven and automated; b) are focused on data that’s about customer behavior and experience; c) are administered by employees who are so absorbed with the mission that they attack their work each day with a sense of purpose and a belief that everything they do, even if it’s upstream, makes a difference to the customer’s experience. To borrow a phrase, now that’s transformation you can believe in.

If employees could start now and apply a digital mindset, what would that look like? Want an example? I have one that’s about 5 years old, ancient and almost quaint now in this digital age, but it’s illustrative of how employees can tackle a problem themselves and make a big, measurable impact on customers.  It happened during the time I was the head of Customer Success for the Americas for BMC Software.  A persistent problem for us was that the company offered no Spanish speaking support and for my Customer Success Managers in Mexico that created a huge productivity hit. During their onboarding phase new Spanish-speaking customers invariably called my CSMs seeking assistance to overcome problems, sucking up approximately 25% of the CSMs’ month. 25% is a lot when you’re expecting staff to develop and execute strategies to proactively support other clients. When we examined the problem a pattern emerged in the types of questions asked by the customers and we soon realized we could address it at scale by creating a video of the guys walking the typical customer through the product configuration steps. So that’s what they did. But to make it a digital process we did this:

  • we embedded a trigger in the CRM so when the welcome package was sent to Mexico-based customers of the products in question, it included a link to the video
  • we collected stats on the consumption of the video
  • we wrote a program that compared the video consumption statistics against support cases to see if there was a correlation between the two and produced a report
  • during our QBRs we shared information with the customer about what we observed about their adoption rate vs their consumption of education, including the video

How did we do? For those accounts we increased NPS by 10 points and we were able to transfer that 25% of CSM time that was previously spent on providing repeatable onboarding work over to a proactive adoption focus with other clients.

That’s digital transformation.

The peril of stasis

When considering how to infuse the customer’s experience into your business it’s important to recognize that the corporate culture is likely the biggest challenge you will face. To design and implement a process that digitally represents the end to end experience of the customer is the easy part. You begin by empathizing with the customer and mapping their journey through their engagement with your company. It’s a fun exercise and a humbling one. Everyone should do it for it focuses the mind and steels the resolve. It brings teams together and it raises their collective heart rate when the realization dawns of how far the company is falling short in ensuring the customer’s experience is as friction-less as it can be.

Addressing the inhibitors that are revealed by that journey mapping exercise is something else entirely. That’s when the corporate culture often presents formidable obstacles to significant change. I think this is because many corporations suffer from a condition known in evolutionary biology as punctuated equilibrium. Assuming that you need an assist with that one… punctuated equilibrium is a theory suggesting that once something appears in the fossil record it becomes stable and shows little evolutionary change thereafter. Doesn’t that sound like how Sales, Marketing, Service, and Support have worked side by side like well-oiled and independent machines, doing their own thing while barely casting a glance at each other for probably close to one hundred years now?

If we want to have processes that reflect the customer’s journey why don’t we design them so they cross organizational boundaries and are bound by timed steps? Why doesn’t the Marketing to Sales lead management process include a timer to ensure that Sales takes action against the Marketing qualified leads? When Sales closes a deal why do we allow the deal to be booked when they haven’t inputted all the critical details about the customer’s goals into the account record? Why doesn’t the action that formally closes the deal in the CRM also kick off an onboarding step, which too is timed so that Customer Success is held accountable for taking action? Finally, why aren’t all these steps linked together so that no one gets paid for success until the customer receives value?

Maybe the answer to all these questions is because corporations suffer from punctuated equilibrium.

Thanksgiving

It’s the day before the long Thanksgiving Weekend and I have a moment after signing off from work to write a quick post.  For a number of reasons all pertaining to work, it’s been the most brutal of weeks for me. Though I accept it as a price of the role I’m in, in this IT industry, and in this time.  Despite the intensity of conversations I have had and the range of emotions covered, I remain thankful for a great many things. They can be symbolized by a million photos but in this moment I choose this one.

Toronto

I took the photo from the Toronto Islands towards the city in August one evening when Mamie and I were there with our nieces and a group of friends.  Yes, the silhouette of the towers set against that Raphael sky is striking but here is what I think of when I see this picture.

  • People and dreams
  • Faith and luck
  • Hope and future
  • Peace and thoughtfulness

Happy Thanksgiving

Of half-skinned steers and moonshots

In this summer of the soak, this reign of rain, and with the sun’s kiss so rarely offered, my mind wanders to reading. Perhaps it’s also because of the perceptibly slower pace of the city. Business loosens its grip enough to notice a few less cars on the street, a few less frowned and earnest foreheads in suits walking against the traffic lights. Summer is 30 on the speedometer of life. Reading in this time of the year further calms the heart and nudges the mind.

Interested readers of this blog will know I have my favorites.  For fiction these days, I cannot get enough of Cormac McCarthy. Everywhere there is sadness and hope, there you will find his characters, fascinating, awful, and proud. His work is weighty and light, easy to read and difficult to accept. Sometimes I read one of his sentences and I pause to stare at its brilliance. How is it possible for a writer to describe a scene of such vividness in so few words? Annie Proulx is another.  Her depiction of the beauty and danger of place and people rivets me. I have read no other who can give me the perspective of a half-skinned steer  as it exacts its revenge on a mean farmer. Who else? Alice Munro. Around 80, she can still write a short story that runs gently over the surface of normalcy then turns a corner and confronts some sort of dread of physicality or spirit. I am glad I’ve read their body of work before the imaginations of these giants go silent.

But I also read non-fiction and I’m particularly attracted to writing that timelessly speaks of universal truths. Often such pieces are in the political realm and I will end this post with something I came across today. Remember Apollo 11? Its mission was the first manned moon landing. I was 10 when it took place and I distinctly recall thinking, “What happens if something goes wrong and they can’t get back?” What I don’t remember is anyone asking the same question out loud, on TV, on radio, or among the people who populated my little life. Well, apparently, I was not a unique thinker. As it turns out, it was a thoroughly thought out scenario to the extent that William Safire, President Nixon’s speech writer, wrote a speech in the event the President would need to bid farewell to the astronauts. I close with the link to the letter. Enjoy your summer reading.

In the event of a moon disaster