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Forget the funnel – Claire Suellentrop on why the best marketers focus on customers, not just leads

Lucy Fuggle
07/06/19 05:20

“Marketing is not an acquisition game. Marketing is about creating a great experience throughout the customer’s entire journey. Yes, in acquisition, but also in onboarding and when a customer has been with you for six months, and twelve months, and twenty-four months.”

As a marketer, it’s all too easy to focus on driving new leads and hitting acquisition targets. But for Claire Suellentrop, that’s completely misunderstanding the role that marketing should play in SaaS businesses.

Claire is co-founder of boutique SaaS marketing and growth consultancy Elevate and the weekly marketing workshop series Forget The Funnel. She’s consulted on customer insights and growth strategy for Wistia, FullStory, MeetEdgar, Death to the Stock Photo, and many other fun SaaS companies. Before jumping into the world of consulting and entrepreneurship, Claire was the Director of Marketing and #2 employee at Calendly.

Throughout Claire’s career, customer insights have been at the heart of her success. She approaches marketing as a chance to build a true understanding of customers, get to know their stories and motives, and use those insights to build the best possible experience from the first brand interaction to years after sign up.

We’re super excited to hear from Claire in her first appearance on the Grow stage at Turing Fest this summer. Ahead of her trip to Edinburgh, we caught up with Claire on how the most successful customers collect and benefit from customer insights – and pinpoint what we can implement right now in our own companies.


Claire, you’ve co-founded Userlist.io, Forget the Funnel, and Elevate… three super interesting companies putting customer insights and experiences first.

I wanted to ask you about Forget the Funnel, and how you got to that name. What are your thoughts on the traditional marketing funnel? And what should marketers be focusing on instead?

The name Forget the Funnel really speaks to the marketing, company and revenue growth philosophy that my business partner Georgiana Laudi and I both share. For a SaaS business, the real factor in its success is increasing recurring revenue. It’s a subscription model, so it’s just as important to nurture and maintain strong relationships with existing customers as it is to gain new ones. Otherwise, you’re simply bringing more people in the door to replace churning users. That isn’t going to create a sustainable business over time.

Forget The Funnel is our shorthand for the statement that marketing really can’t only be about acquiring new users. You have to have a strong strategy in place for retaining and expanding the lifetime value of your existing customers and building strong relationships with them. It makes the idea of a funnel – where all of your efforts stop at the bottom once you’ve acquired a customer – irrelevant. As important as we think acquisition marketing is, customer marketing needs to be just as well-considered if a company is going to be successful.

Screenshot 2019-06-07 at 08.51.52

A slide from Ashley Greene, founder of Instratify, for the Forget the Funnel workshop "How SaaS Leaders Can Cultivate and Maintain Customer Empathy at Scale".

That’s so true. Despite the stats and pure common sense of prioritising retention over acquisition, so many teams seem to think that growth and success is new users, perhaps because their CEO, investors or board believe it’s what success looks like, so they reward on that...

To drill into things further, with all of the teams you’ve looked at, is there anything that the top performers have in common? How are they retaining their customers and increasing their value?

What I have seen time and time again, and what Georgiana and I work with companies on, is that the most successful companies have a solid collective understanding of who their best customers are, why those people choose to buy from them, and what their buyer journey looks like. This is a shared understanding across the whole organisation and in every department. Organisation-wide, every team is then able to make decisions based on what is best for that specific person, that ideal customer, and what that person needs.

Less successful organisations are often less successful because they lack that shared understanding. Think back to that really old story about several blind men and an elephant, where each person is touching a different part of the elephant trying to work out what it is. When a company is trying to develop a marketing strategy or an onboarding campaign or new features, it’s easy to build in silos. But that creates a really disjointed experience for that customer on the other end. It creates all kinds of friction and it makes it much harder for a customer to understand and access the value of the product.

What I have seen time and again is that the most successful companies have a shared understanding of who their best customer is. They use that as the rock that everyone within the organisation stands on and makes decisions around. I believe a strong understanding of who you’re building for, or who you’re designing and creating marketing campaigns for, as the key to being really successful.

claire-suellentrop-tf-1

That’s really interesting. In terms of achieving real customer understanding, do you think it’s primarily marketing’s job, or product’s job, or does everyone need to sit around the table and get it done together?

Amazing question. It doesn’t have to be the entire marketing, product and customer success teams. That would be unwieldy. But time and again I’ve seen that companies that bring in at least one person for each department are able to develop a much stronger shared understanding.

Today, your product team might take on this extensive customer research process and spend a month talking to customers and doing surveys. Then they say to marketing, “Hey marketing, your personas are out of date, you need to use our research instead.” Over on the marketing team, my team and I might be off to the races. We might have campaigns already running based on the personas we have developed ourselves. We might have messaging tailored to those personas.

There’s a lot more friction and emotional tension involved in saying “OK, we’ll destroy everything we’ve done and start over with your work” than if I as the head of marketing had been involved in that process too.

So build your resources and user understanding together instead of in silos. If you can get at least one person per department to go through a process of figuring out who your customer is, you’re going to be much more successful at developing that shared understanding company-wise and implementing changes. April Dunford describes a similar process to approaching positioning — see her book Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It.

Do you have any recommended exercises or resources for teams to use to understand their customers, especially early on?

Yes. There’s a specific resource I’ll share in my presentation at Turing Fest. Also, what I often recommend for teams – and what I regularly help teams to work through – is identifying 10-15 of your best customers.

When I say best, I mean this: they have the highest lifetime value... they’re not the penny pinchers. They don’t put a big burden on support because they really get your product. They’re highly engaged in the product, not people who started paying you eight months ago but forgot and haven’t signed back in. Your best customers are engaged and clearly getting value day in and day out.

Decide on a group of people to represent all departments... marketing, sales, customer success, and engineering. That team can then find your 10-15 best customers and get them on the phone for a series of short interviews. Even 30 minutes can be game-changing.

Hit record on a conference call with a best customer and just learn about that person’s story as a group. Really ask and get to the heart of, “Hey, before you even knew about our product, what did your life look like? What were you using back then? What happened that made you realise that the old way of working was no longer sufficient, it was broken, you needed something new? What happened that caused you to go look for new solutions? How did you find us? Did you ask a friend, hit up Google, see our name at a conference because we were sponsoring a booth? What made you realise that our product might be a great solution for you?”

I recommend making the effort to understand the timeline, story or journey that your best customer went through as they realised that they had a problem in life and went searching for a solution like yours.

If your team as a whole can understand what was going on in that customer’s life, document it, and find the patterns in the journeys of those 10-15 best customers, you will be so much more empowered to make marketing decisions that align with the channels that customers naturally use. You will be able to make product decisions and feature decisions based on what will really bring value to your customers’ lives. There’s a lot more structure to this exercise to make sure it goes well, of course. I’ll be sharing some resources for that in my presentation.

To build a deep understanding of your customers, you can also use frameworks like Jobs to Be Done (JTBD), which Claire shares in this free Forget the Funnel SaaS workshop:

Screenshot 2019-06-07 at 08.55.04

Amazing. OK, so say a small team has been through positioning exercises. They’re really clear on their ideal customers and their typical journey. What should they do next to maximise their budget and impact, should they double down on their usual marketing activities, like ads or content?

Once you and your team have done this work, you should have a much clearer picture of your customers: who buys from you, why they love you, and the problem they’re solving in their lives with your product. To maximise that impact, then I would go through the current experience your company provides with fresh eyes.

Do a quick Google search for your own company’s website and click on the link in the search results and start to look at your marketing, then your sign up flow, then your onboarding flow through the eyes of a customer. Do an audit, essentially. Start picking out areas where what your company and your product currently look like don’t align with what your customers say they need. Does your website copy match the language that your best customers actually use? If they say that there’s a particular feature that’s really valuable to them, is that feature easy to find within onboarding, or is it a little bit buried, do they need to do some work to discover it?

Go through your own marketing and product experiences and start making a list of all the places where there are mismatches or gaps that don’t match up with what customers say they needed or are looking for. That will give you a massive list of things you could tackle or improve to make it more likely that someone coming to your website will convert into a new trial user, or make it more likely that someone in a trial with your product will convert to a paying customer.

This is very high-level, but I am an advocate of looking at what you already have in place and highlighting the biggest gaps, then figuring out which are most valuable to tackle. That’s so much more effective than throwing money at an ad campaign when you have a leaky funnel (I hate the word 'funnel',  and I hate that I used it...)

If you can use your customer understanding to improve what you’re currently working with, in the future you’re much more likely to get a good ROI on your ad spend than you might be with what is obviously not matching up to customer’s expectations. Stop the gaps in your customer experience first.

That’s so true. And if you’re speaking in your customer’s language (as you reminded us to earlier), that’s going to match up with what they’re searching for, what they’re going to click on in ads…you boost all of your results across the existing channels running in the background.

During the initial and ongoing stages of understanding your customers, are there also any tools you recommend for tracking user behaviour or engagement?

There are definitely many tools out there, Hotjar is an excellent one for heatmaps and they have many other features that make monitoring your customer experience really easy. Another one I absolutely love is FullStory - I highly recommend that if your team has the budget or ability to implement it. From there it’s also really worth installing those tools within the product itself, so you can really see the entire experience, not just what someone did on your website… then a black box after they’ve signed up. There are loads of tools to monitor if customers are making progress within your product... and of course analytics tools like Mixpanel, Heap, etc.

What about customer surveys like NPS and CSAT… do they tell the full story? Or are they too prone to impulsive and unrepresentative feedback?

Great question. I think NPS can be a valuable tool but in very specific ways. Using your company’s Net Promoter Score to predict whether customers will churn is not the greatest way to leverage NPS. Let’s say you offer a product that is multi-user… like Slack. Fifty people in a department might use your product, but only one person (perhaps the department head or CFO) has buying power. You might get extremely high NPS scores from the users who love using your tool, but if the buyer at the higher level makes the decision to churn (say they’re trying to slim down the budget or go to a competitor for some reason), the NPS of the users within that account is pretty worthless.

NPS can be really helpful for doing other things, though. Let's say that a user replies to your survey and they are really frustrated and give you a 0. That’s an excellent opportunity to trigger an email to that person saying, “Hey we’re really sorry you’re having a bad experience. Is there something you’re looking to do with our product that you couldn’t?” NPS can be used to save customers who might be having a bad experience, but with the right nudge actually could become really engaged.

On the other hand, say someone really loves your product and rates you an 8 or a 9 or a 10 within an NPS survey… that's a great opportunity to trigger a different email to that person saying, “Hey, we’re so glad you love our product and to have you as a user, have you considered reviewing us on a platform like G2 Crowd or GetApp, or referring us to a friend?”

I find that NPS is less of a tool to predict things, like churn and retention, but it’s extremely useful in correcting an experience that might be going poorly for a user, or leveraging a user when they’re having a great experience.

Completely agree. I think that NPS is another thing that is often siloed... do you have any tips for marketers to have more contact with how customers are doing? Should we all be speaking to customers regularly regardless of our role in a marketing team?

How can you market a product if you don’t really know who you’re speaking to? I do find it a little bit crazy that as marketers we tend to get so far removed from the customers or the audience we’re trying to reach, and I don’t think that’s marketing’s fault necessarily. The old assumption that customer support or success owns customer data contributes to that.

As a marketer, find an ally on the customer success team and forge a really good relationship with them. Learn what they’re working on and what their priorities are right now. Establish a rapport so that if you need customer information you can reach out to that person. You’ll then be very well set up for success.

To take it a bit further, let’s say you have some departmental decision making power. If customer success and marketing can team up and run a project collaboratively, like an NPS survey with follow-up emails based on a user’s response, then you can start to break down that silo where only customer success owns customer data. I’m a really big fan of cross-departmental projects whenever possible. They help teams get out of this mindset of “customer marketing is customer success’s job” and “bringing in new customers is the marketing team’s job." Cross-departmental projects help bring back that idea that we’re all trying to serve the same people. The less siloed we can be when doing that, the better.

To build a better understanding your customers, draft two surveys: a website survey and a customer survey. The slide below is from "How to Quickly Create a Killer SaaS Value Proposition", one of Forget the Funnel's free SaaS workshops. You can also get Claire and Gia's free website and customer survey website templates here.

Screenshot 2019-06-07 at 08.58.11

So true. I think you have to be so conscious of maintaining that shared customer understanding when your company scales. When you’re no longer all sitting around the same meeting table in the office and talking about customers together, it’s so easy to be siloed different rooms and not having those conversations.

You’re so right about that. This gets more and more difficult as a company scales. This could be a whole other interview… how do you scale good customer-centricity?

I think a lot of your resources are a great help there. Especially if individuals in companies can really set aside the time and focus to sit down with the right people and work through them.

The last thing I wanted to ask you: in terms of your career so far, have you always been so focused on customers? Or is there anything you’ve learned the hard way that you wish you knew earlier?

One is really a reiteration of the fact that marketing is not an acquisition game.

Marketing is about creating a great experience throughout the customer’s entire journey. Yes, in acquisition, but also in onboarding… and when a customer has been with you for six months, and twelve months, and 24 months. Marketing really is a team sport.

The more marketing can integrate itself with product and with customer success, the more successful it will be as an organisation. I wish I’d had the confidence earlier on to champion marketing as the department to help all of the other departments. It impacts so much.

Resources & further reading

 

Hear more from Claire on the Grow track this August!

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