I have a challenge for you. Everyone in your tech company should spend time with customers weekly. Yes, weekly.
Helping everyone in your organization regularly engage with customers—specifically team members in non-customer facing roles—is powerful and even transformative. In many tech companies, internal business metrics, as well customer behavior and usage analytics, are discussed and poured over daily. All teams look at their own version of quantitative data—new sales, leads, net retention, crash burn, uptime, active users—but not all teams actively pair this data with qualitative feedback from customers. Everyone, from engineers to accountants, can benefit from getting a better pulse on customer insights, imbuing the data they use to make decisions with more meaning.
When I was the VP of Product at Yesware, we designed a company-wide quarterly challenge, the “Voice of Customer” initiative, where everyone within the company was asked to engage with customers weekly for the duration of a quarter. We outlined different ways to engage, so everyone had options that were tenable (options that moved each person a little out of their comfort zone but still leveraged their strengths and interests). We shared learnings and customer stories from the experience regularly. As an additional twist, we tracked individual and team engagement towards a company-wide quarterly goal. The idea was to come together as a company to better understand our customers and do so in a fun way, using a challenge to build camaraderie and the muscle of goal attainment. In Yesware’s case, we wanted to build strong customer connections that would fuel better work, particularly for teams distanced from regular customer engagement.
More broadly, here’s why everyone in your company should learn from customers weekly:
Figure 1: Why Your Entire Company Should Engage with Customers
|Value of Engaging with Customers
||Examples from Yesware’s Experience
|Galvanize a broader cultural change towards customer-centricity
||Helped lead to a culture change within the Product team, which started engaging with many customers weekly, even after this initiative.
|Build a greater understanding of your customers
||Contextual customer stories—from site visits and calls—were shared more commonly when discussing product options and trade-offs.
|Better understand quantitative data and patterns
||Product team engaged with customers based on quantitative data around feature usage patterns to uncover why some users retained better
|Generate ideas and insights that will help create more informed business solutions
||Multiple hackathon projects inspired by engagement with customers. Led to the new reporting features and multiple product fixes inspired by insights.
|Create more empathy for both customers and customer-facing teams
||Countless anecdotes of customer connection shared in the company Slack and all-team meetings.
Increased appreciation for the work of Support, Success and Sales teams and their ability to deal with challenging situations.
|Create organizational connectedness, when everyone is doing something in common
||Increased collaboration and learning across departments (e.g. engineers creating quick-reply support responses).
Celebrated success in coming together in a fun way to attain a company goal.
|Build customer goodwill and delight, particularly if the effort provides customers with more hands-on support
||Many examples of customers impressed with goodwill calls and support responses where product and engineering folks fixed or triaged issues “live.”
So, how do you make the case that everyone in your tech organization should engage with customers weekly, set up a lightweight infrastructure, and crystalize the learnings along the way?
Making the Case
If you believe your organization will benefit from a “Voice of Customer” initiative, you will need strong alignment from the CEO and leadership team. You will need the buy-in from leaders across departments, given that there will be pushback from individuals who are being asked to participate. This is especially relevant in organizations with many teams that are siloed from customers—the exact organizations that are most likely to benefit from this effort.
Systemically, to get the CEO and leadership team onboard, you’ll need to determine your organization’s “why” for engaging with and listening to customers deeply (see Figure 1) and build a case around your specific purpose. It’s critical to connect the “Voice of Customer” effort to your organization’s business goals, objectives and quantitative outcomes. If the organization is seeking to drive product innovation, make the case for how engaged product teams—which are listening to customers continuously—will be better able to spot opportunities and be more motivated to solve customer problems. If your organization is seeking to improve customer satisfaction, paint the picture of how this effort will increase customer empathy and service quality by unleashing the ideas and skills of the entire company on the key issues of your customers.
If your organization is midsize or larger (over ~250 people) or has very few customers (e.g. serves specialty enterprise customers that are few and hard to engage), starting this initiative within particular departments, as a proof of concept, may be more palatable.
Finally, if you have a team focused on customer research, ensure that they are deeply engaged in the process and partner to co-lead this effort. They have lots of expertise in making research and customer insights more accessible, and can help reinforce that the goal isn’t professional grade research (that’s their job) but a taste of greater customer centricity.
Setting up a Lightweight Process to Engage Customers
Before you unleash your entire organization to engage with customers, you will want to address the following objections:
- We don’t have enough customers for everyone to engage.
- We don’t have enough capacity to take on another cross-organizational initiative.
The concern about having enough customers to engage with is valid, particularly in early stage companies and/or those serving specialty and hard-to-reach audiences (e.g. surgeons). First, start with a broad and generous definition of “customers.” These could be paying customers, prospective customers or those who fit the description of the target customer persona but aren’t actual customers. Include those who are instrumental in the buying decision, such as people you sell to or whose input is needed for a sale, but who are not the primary end users.
Figure 2: Defining “Customers” for More Accessible Research
||Primary users of your product, for whom are you are building the product
||Users of your product, who have underlying needs that your product serves, but are not the primary target audience for whom the product is built
|Decision-makers involved in the buying decision
||Decision-makers involved in the purchase of your product and who may use it for narrow use cases but who are not the primary audience for whom the product is built
||Potential customer; those going through the trial or buying process
|Non-customers who fit core or secondary customer personas
||Those who fit with your customer personas but are neither users nor prospective users of your product
Next, outline accessible ways to engage with customers, either by direct engagement or by shadowing someone who is doing the engagement. Active observer roles—listening in on calls, taking notes during a conversation—are great for learning and may be more fitting for some. A range of ways to engage with customers is key to broad organizational adoption. This range both acknowledges and validates that different people in your organization learn differently.
It is most powerful if you can create alignment between areas of engagement and someone’s expertise. For example, having engineers working on data products answer questions related to data in the support queue or observing usability research related to the products they are working on creates the tightest feedback loops. At Yesware, we had just launched a new Email Templates feature during this initiative. The team working on Templates frequently responded to support questions or issues associated with the launch. Customers were delighted to speak directly to people designing and building the feature. Engineers, product managers and designers got to see their product used. Issues were uncovered and resolved quickly (in a few cases we triaged bugs live with the customer) and it became infinitely easier to prioritize quick follow-up, since the team was so close to the feedback. Moreover, having the entire team (not just product managers or designers) closely engaged with user feedback allowed engineers to have more informed, user-centric opinions. In turn, this way of working set the foundation for team collaboration and co-creation.
To ensure that this initiative is highly accessible across your company, define, set up and train on organizationally relevant options for customer engagement.
Figure 3: Examples of Customer Engagement
|Options for Engagement
|Do customer support
||Answer tickets in the support queue, set up calls with customers who need support, answer the phone support line.
|Make goodwill calls
||Place cold calls to customers to thank them and solicit feedback / ask if they need support or have questions. Ensure that this is being centrally tracked to avoid reaching out to customers twice.
|Do customer feedback follow-up
||If you are collecting feedback or want to collect feedback (e.g. NPS, in product feedback, review sites) follow up with customers who reply in a personalized way.
|Shadow customer facing teams (e.g. Sales, Customer Success, Support)
||Listen in or take notes as customer facing teams engage in conversations (e.g. sales calls, account reviews, trainings, troubleshooting calls)
|Shadow research teams
||Listen in or take notes when design or research teams engage in user, market or usability research.
|Conduct site visits / contextual observation
||Observe and chat with customers / proxy customers in the context where they use or would use your product. Observe them using your product, if relevant.
|Conduct persona interviews
||Interview those who align with your target customer persona (non-customers) to better understand their needs.
|Support training and onboarding
||Create and conduct more customized onboarding and training experiences
If your organization is not already engaged with customers in some of the above ways or if the engagement is limited, it may be prudent to set up a few lightweight ways to “recruit” customers for research. Here are some great details around how we scaled and automated research at Yesware.
A few of my favorite suggestions around recruiting customers for accessible research and learning are:
- Allow customers or prospects to opt-in to provide feedback contextually. For example, add chatbots to landing pages or product feature pages asking customers or prospects if they are willing to chat about a specific issue or feature. You can control when and how these are shown, so that they appear at a time when you are online and ready to chat, disappear after you recruit the target number of people or are only visible to those who display a particular behavior.
- Use your data analytics tool (at Yesware we used Amplitude) to create cohorts of customers based on behaviors, such as their retention profile and feature usage, to target customized outreach to these cohorts.
- Follow up to customer support requests with an offer to chat about the issue, particularly if you are seeking to better understand how a product is being used contextually. Oftentimes a screen share and a conversation provide much more powerful context relative to email troubleshooting.
- Allow customers to book 1:1 training or new customer onboarding sessions and use these as an opportunity to not only train but also learn about their needs.
- When reaching out to customers, experiment with asking for a short time commitment: 15-20 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much your response rate improves relative to longer time commitment requests.
- Compensate people for their time, especially if it’s purely a feedback session for your benefit.
When you have a menu of engagement options for everyone in your organization to select from, remember to provide basic training. Some aspects of customer engagement, like responding to tickets in the support queue or conducting primary research, require a higher level of expertise. When training how to engage in these different approaches it is particularly useful to:
- Have the people closest to this work create training content (e.g. designers, UX researchers, product managers, account managers, support personnel) and have the content available asynchronously.
- Simplify the opportunities to engage (e.g. only allow responses to support tickets in a specific low priority queue).
- Encourage shadowing for more complex opportunities.
Finally, remember to set reasonable expectations. The majority of people in your tech company are not professional researchers. Don’t expect polished research. Expect a better connection with, empathy for and understanding of your customers and their needs. Expect new ideas generated from customer insights. Expect quicker bug fixes and triage. Expect more energy around your organizations’ purpose and understanding of the impact you are having. Expect better cross functional relationships and empathy for customer-facing teams. Expect more camaraderie around purposeful goal attainment.
Crystalizing Learnings and Wins
As you orient and engage your entire organization around customers, continually reinforce progress. If you are running the initiative as a competition, share the progress and leaderboard regularly to continue generating momentum. Find lightweight ways to share learnings and wins, particularly as they relate to your company’s specific objective for doing this work. Put insights, wins and anecdotes into a Slack/Teams channel. Connect quantitative data you are seeing with the qualitative feedback from this effort, to paint a full picture. Talk about learnings during team and company meetings, specifically encouraging those with the insights to share them directly. For example, one of Yesware’s Product Managers, Jamie, shared the following experience of learning from customers, in context of this initiative, during an all company meeting:
Being on the front line with users helped me get a lot of color and identify patterns that can get lost in translation. If Michael [in customer success] had mentioned to me, “We’re seeing a lot of users run into XYZ issue,” I would have asked him – how many users, is there a workaround, are we sure this is all the same issue?
But by talking to users first hand as they’re experiencing problems or have feedback, it’s a lot easier for me to observe – oh, there might be five different cases of user error here and only one bug, but they’re all connected to a single root cause. There are too many steps in this flow that require reading and thought.
Ultimately, the lasting value is beyond a time-bound initiative: it’s a kick start to making accessible engagement with customers a way of working for your entire organization. Now, that’s transformative.