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Everything I Know About SaaS Customer Success I Learned from “Love It or List It”

Everything I Know About SaaS Customer Success I Learned from “Love It or List It”

That’s not a clickbait article title. Well, OK, it is. But I’m also going to deliver on the premise so that you don’t feel let down.

I’m not an account manager (though I used to be), but I do work with Bronto’s customers, account managers, and managers of account management frequently. I am a sales engineer/solution consultant/whatever you call it at your company.

The ideal version of account management is having a proactive relationship with your customer, helping them get the most out of the platform, helping them focus on and realize their business goals. The practical side of this is monitoring customers ‘health’ especially as it relates to their likelihood of renewing the subscription for the next term (month, year, whatever you use at your company). The AM team is looking at Churn, Net Churn, Upsell, At Risk customers, and so forth. Bronto’s platform is more on the enterprise side of things; it ends up being a key component in the marketing stack. So this isn’t the kind of churn like with a mobile game. If a customer is contemplating leaving, or a general state of unhappiness, it’s kind of a big deal. A decision as weighty as, say, thinking about moving houses.

In which the author introduces a conceit

I realized this because my favorite recumbent bike at the YMCA is directly in front of the TV that always has HGTV on. And when I go to the gym, “Love It Or List It” is what’s showing. Like all reality TV, this show ends up being really predictable, and somewhat farcical. If you aren’t familiar, here is the setup:

  • husband and wife (sometimes, but not enough, husband and husband) unhappy with current living situation
  • one would rather renovate (love it) and one would rather move (list it)
  • HGTV sends in two outsized personalities, a designer named Hilary, and an agent named David, who try to woo the spouses to make a decision
  • a shit show ensues: suspiciously-scripted arguments, cliffhangers before commercial breaks, etc
  • honestly, don’t waste your time with this one

Like it or not, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate on this subject, looking up at the screen. There is no where else to look – straight ahead is someone’s butt, running on a treadmill, so, that’s awkward.

There are multiple levels of similarity between the ‘love it or list it’ situation and a customer wondering whether or not to switch platforms. Here it is recast in the language of tech business jargon:

  • customer is dissatisfied with current solution; could be lack of results, could be perceived difficulty of use
  • some customer stakeholders are somewhat willing to explore steps to improve upon current situation, others (a VP-level, a new hire) would rather shop for new vendors
  • incumbent account manager needs to engage in a success/retention plan; competitive vendors need to pitch the bridge to re-platforming with greener grass on the other side

So, I guess the Bronto account manager is Hilary. The other vendor sales reps are David. That makes me Desta, Hilary’s iPad-clutching assistant designer, because I end up coming in to help scope out the technical side (instead of the professional services side) of any proposed solution.

Not only is the general situation similar between homes and SaaS platforms, but the narratives share some key moments in time/hurdles.

Hurdles for ‘Love It’

1.Divergent stakeholders/ Conflicting Requirements

Often, one spouse is driven to the ‘list it’ solution because he (let’s go with he) can’t envision how any modification to the existing house can meet his requirements. He wants a room for himself, but that hasn’t been possible because of children, and in fact, she is pregnant with yet another one. He wants a man cave – she thinks everything would be fine if they could just push out the kitchen wall a few feet and get some additional storage. She’s sympathetic to the idea of a man cave, but truly, on the inside, she could care less. If anything she wants a dedicated playroom for the kids. The reason he wants that man cave is that work is stressful and nothing about the cramped layout of the home today invites him to relax.

In Bronto land, customer stakeholders include email marketing associates (end users), marketing managers, directors of E-Commerce, IT folks, finance folks. You’d better believe they’re juggling multiple projects whose priorities conflict.

Takeaway: The customer stakeholders need to recognize and embrace each others’ pain. With out an organized, written repository of requirements, without a set of overarching goals, the evaluation will not be successful.

2. Improper Vetting

One of the typical scenes after Hilary is given her design budget is her walking around the house alone, getting all excited about the renovations to make them ‘love it.’ Then Hilary goes back to the spouses and pitches her solution, gets them really excited. Invariably, in a later scene, one of Hilary’s contractors points out to her that any modification to the stairway to the third floor is going to incur massive code violations unless they replace the staircase altogether, and this would eat up half her budget. She mopes back to the spouses, gives them the news, and they get pissy and feel misled.

Takeaway: For goodness sakes, any-customer-facing-person-at-a-tech-company, do not, I repeat, do NOT finalize a solution, and especially present ANY pricing, until you have engaged your industry/domain/technical experts (like me) to make sure everything makes sense/suss out the ‘gotchas’.

3. Infrastructure Prevents New Feature

There is a variation on the above where I am much more sympathetic to Hilary, and more judgmental of the homeowners. In this version, Hilary knows full well that the spouses want to finish the basement, add a guest bedroom, a guest bathroom, and so forth. She spots early signs of water damage, brings in an expert who confirms that the house has been neglected for years, rainwater drains towards the foundation, and regardless of anything else, they absolutely must do a project to improve the foundation, divert the water, for any person to continue living there safely.

On the tech side, it ends up being my duty to research, and articulate to a customer (and sometimes a prospect) that “hey, that fancy new real-time feature you feel like you must have? Yeah, you are not in a place to leverage it. You aren’t sending the right kind of data into the platform, and it sounds like doing so would be difficult because you haven’t upgraded or maintained your database/ERP/CMS in years and years and years.”

Takeaway: Maintain your tech stack! You don’t have to obsess over always having the latest and greatest, but, the more you can form a collaborative relationship between your IT teams and your business stakeholders, the more your business strategy can define your IT purchases, the more likely you will be better positioned on top of the fundamentals (aka storing and moving data around and having your platforms talk to other platforms) to leverage cool new things with quicker implementations.

On the flip side, if you are grilling potential vendors about features and functionality, and you find out that you have an upstream challenge that makes you not a great fit for one of their features, don’t take it out on them…please?

Hurdles for ‘List It’

1. Ideal Solution Not Feasible

David Visentin usually starts of his real estate sales process by taking the spouses to a house that hits on every single one of their collective requirements – 3000 sq ft, fenced in backyard, upgraded appliances, AND it’s still in your same neighborhood. They get amped up going through all the rooms and then they stand outside and talk numbers. buhBAM – it’s $35,000 over the max budget you gave me!

This is a risky tactic that can go either way, but I appreciate that David dramatically makes a point – ‘With the budget you gave me, it is impossible to deliver on everything you want. Especially staying in the same neighborhood. This market has gone up in value since you moved in, which is great for you selling, but as far as buying, I’m going to ask you to be open to the idea of neighborhoods further afield.’

Takeaway: Expectation management. Early and often.

2. Risk of the unknown

Indeed, it is often the case that considering new neighborhoods opens the couples to more options around house size. Though the show only focuses on the ‘features and functionality’ aspect of a house, a real world living situation is much more holistic. It takes into account neighborhood, similar families, public schools, property tax values, work commute. In software land, we might talk about the ‘ecosystem’ – programming languages, partners, integrations, developer community, do other companies like me use the same tool, and so forth.

And if the decision is trending towards ‘list it’ instead of ‘love it’ it is often the case that one stakeholder is in a tougher spot than the others. In our example, it could be the husband who currently enjoys a mere 20 minute commute to work but hates that he lacks personal space at home. They could have the house of their dreams, he’d get the man cave, but his commute would double to 40 minutes. The decision is mutual, but he is being pressured to try to anticipate/visualize/quantify the impact on his quality of life of a longer commute but a better home. Humans tend to be bad at accurately envisioning outcomes and consequences of future realities.

Vendors selling in to companies who are contemplating a platform switch are facing the same situation with the same level of impact: a single decision that will affect the family (or business) for anywhere from two to ten years and will cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars and set the tone and framework for daily life.

Takeaway: Well, this could be an entire sales book. And it’s already been written many times over. There is a reason that people talk about not just ‘painting a picture’ of goals but also of clearly and compellingly demonstrating what it is like to ‘build the bridge’ from the current situation to the future/ideal situation. A colleague of mine recommends “Demonstrating To Win!: The Indispensable Guide for Demonstrating Complex Products” by by Robert Riefstahl.

Thrilling Conclusion

What is both predictable and compelling about watching “Love It or List It” is that the spouses have to make a decision. After seeing their home renovated, after seeing some options on the market, they have to have “the talk”, weigh the pros and cons, flip a coin, whatever, and make a firm decision to go down a path. 30 Minutes of reality television cannot accommodate “analysis paralysis” – we have to see them choose! And so it is in real life – if a situation is dire enough that it merits evaluation, it is a shame when that evaluation cannot lead to an action.

As you can see, I am probably in fantastic shape, because I’ve had a LOT of time to think about this extended metaphor at the gym. All joking aside, I really do think that “Love It Or List It” makes for good television for anyone in sales or customer service. There are things to learn about selling skills (expectation management, getting buy-in, identifying with your prospect) as well as things to learn about customer success (risk factors, stakeholder analysis, the art of the compromise).

But if HGTV isn’t your style, in a future blog post I’ll write about my take that “The Martian” is essentially the first procedural sci-fi book/movie to take highly formalized, enterprise-level project management and somehow make it exciting. Seriously, all it is is one clever guy in space talking to the ground crew, then the ground crew goes to their engineers to state the requirements and tell them to solve a complex problem, then those solutions get communicated back up, and they have lots of meetings about it in the interim. That’s all that happens in that book. Also, Mars.