Machine Learning, Predictive Analytics, and Customer Success

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“The future is independent of the past, given the present”
-Andrey Markov

Big Data has informed our world with insights and has brought technology closer to people and customers in meaningful ways. Not only are we able to understand more about behaviors and how to personalize experience but we are actually able to learn from these behaviors and predict what can reasonably occur next. The opening quote from Markov describes a memoryless property within statistics that was initially discounted in the late 1800’s when first theorized but has in the Big Data age enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. From speech recognition (as an example) to other machine learning applications we have come to understand a probabilistic future not in terms of a known past but a catalogued present. Through automation and deep learning we are able to rationalize the present as it occurs and extrapolate a broader real-time sample set that informs a probabilistic future.

The above has enormous reach and implication on how we build software and solutions that will over time enrich experience based on a more personalized and known set of user behaviors. As it stands today, if you are not leveraging these predictive models you are missing an opportunity to understand what is happening as it happens. In the world of SaaS, this methodology is a key tool to help align your technology and business focus on real derived value and where you can advance customers in the success of your solution. Today customer success teams are focused on the front lines of building blueprints, scorecards, and working with customers without often having key data and insights that are needed to help progress customers along their journey. Broad general trends are followed and all too often time is spent reacting to customer needs and expectations which expire as soon as they are considered. The customer journey evolves in real-time which means customer success teams need to stay ahead of the curve, to anticipate what can occur next and have an answer. This goes beyond understanding NPS scores and retention (also important) to focusing on workflow completion percentages, abandonment rates, and other key conversions against outcomes. It is these points of friction that require the most consideration and often indicate areas that need direct engagement or complete redesign.

It’s an exciting time to consider the possibilities of recasting traditional customer lifecycles and leveraging Big Data to further our insights and proximity to customers. The time is now to innovate and build new strategies based on predictive measures and to push the boundaries of technology and what it can help individuals and organizations achieve. Is your organization taking a leading position or on its back foot?

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Designing Customer Focused Services: The Inner-Company Experience

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Focusing on designing meaningful engagement and experience is the key to winning customers and retaining them. Countless examples from varied industries have proven that even in commoditized markets the key to winning is differentiating on the uniqueness of your brand experience. It is clear that growth comes from this focus as loyalty and retention are key factors towards driving company performance. The challenge is how to design an experience for your customers that is relevant, sincere and enabled by the company and its employees. Considered this way, it really becomes a question of creating human relationships at key touch points between your company and your customers. But think about the complexity of human relationships and how hard they are to determine or maintain. How does your outer-customer become part of your inner-experience as a company?

Design. There has been a lot of recent focus on this topic and specifically looking at design more broadly as it applies to experience and engineering context. A company such as Apple has successfully capitalized on matching design to customer desires and creating a meaningful and lasting relationship. Just think what the Iphone means to consumers and how they interface with current communication and media channels – for most it has become indispensable. What is important to understand in this relationship with Apple is that this customer experience and engagement was designed from the ground up as context that customers want to engage with and personalize. It’s acknowledging form and function such that a customer walking into a genius bar is nearing the end of a user-journey that begins with salvation. In other words, you can and should predict what will happen and determine the appropriate experience, product, and services all in conjunction with enabling success. This requires vision and building intangibles by informing your relationships with insight, context, and personalization. This is where insights matter and where you maintain an edge by knowing what your customer wants before they want it without saying “I told you so”. This is where the cross section of big data, social media, and mobile all lend themselves well towards closing the gap between customers and companies.  Consider leveraging fundamental design principles to create form and function and a place and time that draws your customers in – “if you build it, they will come”.

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Field Technical Services Align for Todays Software Customers

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More and more software companies are moving towards aligning their technical field organizations to a unified engagement model. SaaS companies have already crossed the chasm out of circumstance with Customer Success strategies / leadership and now traditional software companies are following their lead. In the age of the “Customer Company” this transition is much needed and requires integration where common practice was to separate presales functions from post-sales. Clearly, these practices are distinct and separate but in the eyes of customers the engagement model and experience stand as the same.

Having orchestrated these transitions they are not easy. There remains a stigma between pre and post-sales that their jobs are different and that a typical career path has you go from support to post sales consulting / training and over to presales. Indeed this is how it worked as software companies matured and understood how the needed to support and solution customers. This was the journey from product to solution sales. But the world has moved on dramatically and the solution mindset should now be firmly ingrained in every technology professional. Even value based methodologies and practices are now a common practice. And the next frontier is already here: insight-based selling.

Bottom line, customers have always enjoyed being delighted by vendors. Those vendors that stand out do so on the basis of their intent, originality, and ability to create an experience that sets itself apart as distinct and differentiated. In the context of traditional software companies the technical field organization is the pronounced face of the company. The time is now to focus on our craft of pre and post sales as a coordinated function that delivers solutions, value, and insight based on meaningful engagement and real customer success.

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4 Characteristics That Every Customer Success Manager Must Have

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1. Fanatical Drive for Success
You need to wake up every day planning on how you will make a difference. It’s not a competition with others as much as with yourself. How do you best solve a problem or make a impactful change? There is no ego involved here just pure ambition to want to make things better than they were yesterday. And the more you can affect others the more they will want to do the same. This is precisely how great companies are built and powerful cultures formed to solve problems in new and interesting ways.

2. Measure and Manage
The old adage of you can’t manage what you can’t measure applies. However, in the customer success world you need to have more than metrics but a strategy of how to avoid problems before they arise. To be proactive and anticipate customer needs and avoid constant fire drills and reacting to problems like a game of whack a mole. KPI’s are there to provide you with visibility markers but they will not deliver a decision matrix or specific action for thinking ahead of alerts. Whether its time to resolution, NPS, social engagement or any number of other metrics make sure to always set a bar above the trend line and push through what is directly in front of you.

3. Calmness in the Face of Fire
Escalations are a constant threat but need to be viewed as an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity to get to know a friction point with your product or service and to identify its root cause and how to associate solutions that will benefit many. There is nothing worse than panic during these moments and a loss of orientation that results in a temporary solution to an emerging or common problem. Composure is often gained from experience and balancing priorities to know how to separate the signal from the noise.

4. Ability to Engineer Experience
This is perhaps the most innovative aspect of what customer success managers do –  they have the distinct ability to serve on the front line of customer engagement by providing an experience that represents their company brand and mission. It is often experience that can take a fairly routine product and make it stand out from the crowd.  Customer experience can be engineered and despite the usual scripts there are plenty of new possibilities to keep your customers guessing. As an example, you can delight customer with a company persona that stands out while providing meaningful engagement. This should be a creative and fun process where you can mix in things like gamification and personas for your teams – success ninjas, sherpas, or superheroes that come to the rescue. When done well you would be amazed at the reactions.

 

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Managing Customer Success with a Customer-Centric Dashboard

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As a customer success manager, your primary role is to own the customer relationship, capture the voice of your customers, and focus on retaining and delighting your customers. This means that you need to flip your typical org chart on its head, place the customer at the top, and subscribe roles directly to manage different aspects of customer engagement and experience. Think servant leadership with a hub and spoke architecture where every branch of the organization interfaces directly with customers. The organization needs to be focused on delivering real value to customers and continually feeding the underlying technology with relevant use-cases and best-in-class solutions.

If you consider the age-old adage “you cannot manage what you cannot measure” then metrics in our case become more important towards understanding what strategies work or need improvement. Because customers engage with your technology directly there are a lot of metrics you can collect which also means you can easily fall into a case of “analysis paralysis.” In these cases, your judgment can be impaired with conflicting data which then needs substantial narrative rationalization. Avoid this pitfall by keeping your KPIs simple, consistent, and well defined. A simple and elegant dashboard when developed correctly will allow for easy interpretation and accessibility by your organization to find individual agency and route to customer value. There is of course the need for additional communication, training, and overall alignment to company strategy, charter, goals, and objectives but if your customer-centric dashboard is poorly articulated or mismanaged you quickly descend into ambiguity. Even worse, potentially a scenario where you are ultimately doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result that do not move the needle.

The examples and high-level category explanations below should serve as a good reference and help you get started on building you own dashboard or evaluating appropriate vendors. I have deliberately omitted cohort analysis as this deserves its own blog post and allows you to segment your data into time-series views for further trending and historical context. This will be covered later and also worth noting that the dashboard below does not contain real data and used for illustrative purposes only.

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CUSTOMERS
Customer data is core to your dashboard so be sure you are capturing this information accurately and from a single datasource if at all possible. Data derived from your CRM, accounting system, SaaS application, or service provider can all be different and introduce inconsistencies when data integrity is not carefully managed. Also, do not focus only on revenue generating customers but think through customers broadly as partners and prospects that are leveraging free tools – these are your brand ambassadors and ultimately promote your solution and can provide you with valuable feedback. Visibility on additional metrics such as customer acquisition rate, churn, and average subscription lifetime all become important towards building a profile of your customer which you can be further segmented into cohorts as you go.

FUNNEL
It is very important to understand your sales process and funnel as this becomes a leading indicator for customer success and what you can predict for customer on-boarding, headcount planning, and general capacity to sustain quality service levels. Sales funnels are obviously subject to buying cycles, seasonality, and are volatile but managing customer success against trends is critical. It is important to also rethink the typical sales funnel and extend it to include nurturing activities as part of expanding opportunities post the initial sale. If you get this right, your customer lifecycle will be directly aligned with your sales process and you will be able to develop the appropriate customer touch points matched to a broader understanding of the traditional sales funnel.

REVENUE
SaaS companies live and die by recurring revenue so having a pulse on customer acquisition costs (CAC), monthly recurring revenue (MRR), and customer lifetime value (LTV) is your lifeline. If you are doing things right overall you will see your LTV trend upwards while your CAC trends downwards. LTV in particular can be difficult to calculate as there are many factors to consider and can include sales and marketing spend, support costs, etc. but again start out simple and be consistent. As an example, you can get started by focusing LTV on profit over revenues as follows: (Average Revenue per Customer * Gross Margin per Customer)/Monthly Churn Rate = LTV.

LOYALTY
Any opportunity to solicit your customers directly for feedback or engage within a community should be taken advantage of. This can be done simply with emails, social media interaction, satisfaction surveys (NPS), and most importantly through direct contact and developed relationships. Keeping tabs regularly will also help you further understand dips in revenue, impact of feature implementations or version releases, and generally provide you with narrative that can help fill in the blanks. Make sure to have quantitative feedback in the form of net promoter scores and simple satisfaction surveys that you can easily display and aggregate within your dashboard.

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Re-thinking Productivity – 6 Must Have Considerations for Innovative Businesses

images-innovationRecent debates around “work from home programs” and whether these initiatives are effective have been covered with an almost fanatical sensationalism largely defining two camps – those that are for and those that are against. What is interesting about these debates is that by and large the focus of the conversation tends to be on whether these initiatives are good or bad for business. More specifically, for companies that require a turnaround such as BestBuy or Yahoo is there any other option but to disband these programs altogether to stand a chance in regaining their once held market-leading position. In my mind, the core of this debate whether pro or against misses the point altogether. Decisions around work style and what makes sense for business comes down to specific role and job function – it’s more a management and individual decision as to what makes sense and best enables productivity in the broadest possible sense of the word.

In this day and age, we are more connected than ever so a company’s inability to align on strategy, goals, objectives, and execution plans indicates that the problem may lie elsewhere and perhaps there are other more important considerations. I am not suggesting the above companies are not thinking through broader issues around how to stay relevant (even leveraging the press surrounding this debate as publicity) but typically these types of top down absolutist management decisions suggest desperation more than a confident plan that will fundamentally reshape their business and allow them to remain relevant.

As business leaders and entrepreneurs we need to rethink what is possible and consider management as a constantly changing system that enables individual and organizational success by promoting the development of thought leadership, fostering research and development, institutionalizing new learning and development models, and generally continually creating and re-imagining new possibilities out of what otherwise looks like the ordinary. In my prior examples, clearly we have an aging retail and search business model that desperately needs profound change and focus on what has not yet been conceived rather that more / less stores or a new home page. Whether employees work from home or not is irrelevant but the above coupled with the must-have items below will make all the difference:

Culture
Culture sits at the core of any organization and enables everything that comes as a result. Culture is fundamentally a belief and way of being that serves as a powerful way to unite people to a common set of goals and outcomes. If an organization cannot get their culture right or has lost their way the only way back is to define a set of values that provides direction and restores belief.

Innovation
Is a constant and requires proper investment, thinking, and systems to be in place. Once a business stops innovating its really just a matter of time before the competition catches up and you are no longer relevant.

Shared Value
Earnings and profits are a reality for any business but capitalism and free markets also have a social responsibility towards the communities and people that they serve. Companies need to engage in a broader dialogue and focus on long-term opportunities rather than simple short-term gains.

Sustainability
The statistic is startling, 80% of our production ends up in a landfill as a waste. This applies to human capital as well which suggests there is an opportunity to consider waste broadly and think through how best to leverage our resources to their potential.

Leadership
The old organizational pyramids and hierarchies simply do not work and ultimately distance employees from one another. Leadership needs to look at ways of collapsing boundaries and re-thinking organizational models in such a way so as to promote understanding and true collaboration.

Customers
Customers are ultimately who every company works for. Customer value needs to be continually assessed and delivered in order to shape products and services that are meaningful and make our lives better. Focusing on customer engagement, experience, and working on shared goals and objectives will only strengthen your business and relationships for the better.

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Customer Success – SoLoMo, Insights, and Services

ImageCustomer Success management for cloud-based applications or even traditional Enterprise technology companies comes down to values and a culture that enables employees to adopt approaches that align customer insights with company goals and objectives. It’s not just culture and values but also tools that empower organizations and employees to understand their customer and collapse the gap between company perception and customer reality. With the explosion of social media, localization, and mobile technologies companies now have even more tools than ever to gauge customer insights and deliver value when and where its needed. This is the world we live in and customers expect this level of engagement as they themselves are more informed and vocal than ever and prepared to be your best or worst brand ambassador.

SalesForce this week unveiled its new company message touting the “Customer Company” which replaced its prior slogan of “Social Enterprise” and effectively continues to build its relevance and revenues by taking customers into the cloud and empowering them and themselves in the process. There is a lot to learn from SalesForce in terms of their disarming messaging but also through their consultative approach. But its not just SalesForce but an entire movement with giants like IBM to smaller players alike all innovating and making the following areas all key to their strategy and success:

Social Media
Simply cannot be ignored and needs to be leveraged for direct customer engagement across all channels and tailored within customer field engagement functions. From technical support to education, consulting, and even sales dialogues need to be fostered, measured for effectiveness, and managed to a strategy of brand development and thought leadership.

Local
With localization technologies being so prevalent a company’s ability to segment customers and create situational fluency is unprecedented. Keeping up with customers on the go while also aligning them to communities and other customers that are local is imperative and there is no better way to build consensus than to have customers learn from each other.

Mobile
Mobile is the way we do just about everything these days. The way we work, live, and interact. The “applification” movement is creating applications out of the ordinary (what’s old is new again) and opportunities are everywhere to service customers in more relevant and creative ways. Its not just about building an app but servicing customers anywhere and anytime.

Insight Selling
Forget about solution selling as customers have moved well beyond this and are looking to think through solutions collaboratively and consultatively with informed business partners. Using Social, Local, and Mobile as a combined strategy will provide you with unprecedented information about your customer and analytics that you will need to understand challenges along with what would make a best-of-breed solution. Conversely, customers understand more about vendors so play to your strengths and know more rather than less. 

Services
Service economies continue to grow as virtually every product has a service component to it. Servitization (yes, it’s a word) is the norm and fundamentally a people business where an organization can truly differentiate itself by simply being more informed, more responsive, and the de facto thought leader in a space. You could even have an inferior product and win with superior service. Knowing your own products, industry, and customers is critical so services organizations need to be empowered with all of the above points and aligned to the overall customer success management objectives and culture. 

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