1. Customers Drive Co-Creation and Innovation
Let’s go back to 1999. It was the early days of eCommerce, and I was with a company called Open Market, which had developed a multi-merchant eCommerce transaction engine, and then acquired two other vendors to add Product Catalog and Web Content Management to its suite.
The combined companies had previously only sold to Media and B2C companies that sold digital and physical goods to consumers and the CEO decided that to grow the company, we needed to enter a new market: B2B eCommerce. This meant handling things like purchase orders, electronic payments, and ERP integration, so they hired me because of my ERP background. There weren’t any off-the-shelf offerings on the market at the time, only home-grown solutions.
The first thing I did is bring together the few B2B manufacturing and distribution customers that had purchased one of the products, and asked them, “If you could wave your magic wand, what would an ideal B2B eCommerce solution look like?”
They gave us great insights into what we needed to buy and build to round out the solution. They walked through their workflows in detail. And they described the shortcomings of their current tech stack. We used this amazing input to fill our feature gaps and build our offering. That’s a CLG initiative on the innovation and co-creation side. Bringing these customers together and getting their input was critical to nailing the requirements and building something the market wanted.
When we built this B2B solution, we gave it a code name: Project Balboa. This name tied into our work in several ways. Both syllables of Balboa begin with B, so it was easy for people to associate Balboa with B2B. It also conjured images of Rocky Balboa from the Rocky movies, and we played the Rocky theme song, “Gonna Fly Now”, when we announced the solution at our Sales Kick-off.
2. Customers Drive Entry into a New Market
Since Open Market was so well known in the media and B2C Commerce spaces, and unknown in B2B Commerce, we had to figure out how to build credibility and get prospects who had never heard of us to look at our solution. The answer? Create a Customer-Led Growth program to drive entry into this new market.
We mobilized those same manufacturing and distribution customers that had co-created the solution in the first place. Since they felt like their fingerprints were all over the solution, they were glad to talk about Open Market’s grand vision for automating B2B eCommerce on webinars, in press releases, and in one-on-one reference calls. They excitedly talked about their plans for adopting the solution and how they planned to use it to streamline all the critical commerce processes and integrations, and how this would help them grow their online revenue. They also talked about the Open Market products they were already using and their experiences working with our company.
Since the CEO had made this a top company priority, I reported back to him every week on the status of this project with hard numbers on how many new sales opportunities came in from a customer referral or recommendation, or from a prospect interacting with one of our existing customers on a webinar or at a dinner. There is no way we could have gained market adoption for this new solution without tapping into the magic powers of our customers.
3. Customers Drive Migration from Legacy to Modern App
Fast forward and I got brought into Pragmatech Software, a proposal automation software company based in New Hampshire. The Board of Directors decided to do a total transformation of the company, to go from selling legacy client-server software to proposal managers, to providing a brand new SaaS Sales Enablement application to Sales departments. While we’re at it, let’s move the company from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, and oh year, we need to rename the company.
Wow, what a shift. It’s not too often that you get the opportunity to totally reinvent a company, so I jumped at the offer to become CMO. The challenge was that Pragmatech was the dominant player in the proposal automation space and all our revenue was coming from the client-server product. How do we cross this chasm and shift our revenue source to the new platform in a new market? By creating a Customer-Led Growth initiative to mobilize our customers to drive the migration from the legacy to the SaaS app.
First, we rebuilt just enough of the old proposal automation features into the new platform and added a few new bells and whistles that weren’t in the old platform, hoping to entice existing customers to migrate. We knew that these people hate change so not surprisingly, there was a lot of resistance to moving.
To break through the resistance, we identified a few of our more innovative customers and let them run both systems side-by-side. And what do you know? They really loved the new features, and that they didn’t have to do a reinstall to get the enhancements we released every month. We then mobilized these customers to create FOMO with the rest of the base, by having them talk about the things they can now do that they weren’t able to do with the legacy system. It didn’t matter how much our sales and services people talked up the benefits of migrating, they wouldn’t budge until they heard their peers telling them to take the plunge.
4. Customers Drive New Product Launches
That was the easy part. The real challenge was launching the new SaaS app to its intended audience: Sales Departments. I’ll skip over the part where we gathered input from sales leaders from our existing customers on what was needed in the product, since we covered co-creation earlier, and go to launch time.
The new product enabled sales enablement folks to build playbooks that guide their sales reps on the steps they need to do to follow their sales methodology and provide the content and coaching they need at each step. Sounds great, but anyone who has ever sold to Sales departments knows that heads of Sales are the most cynical people. But we also know heads of Sales wish they could clone their top sales reps.
We tapped into the Proposal Manager customer champions who had already migrated to the SaaS app and armed them on how to tell their own stories to their Sales leaders about how they had used the new platform to improve the quality and effectiveness of the sales proposals they generated. That was the attention grabber, then there was the ask: “This same vendor can help you, Mr. or Ms. Sales Leader, uncover the most effective strategies and content used by our best reps and turn that magic into playbooks that can be used by all your reps.” We would never have gotten in front of the Sales leaders without the help of our current customers.
Then the challenge becomes convincing Sales leaders that the playbooks will help their reps sell more, better, and faster. What’s the best, and only way to do that? Capture the voice of actual, feet on the street, sales reps, talking about how they increased their commission checks by having such great coaching and guidance at their fingertips. We led with those stories in our standard sales pitch to turn cynicism into credibility and it was a game-changer. This audience didn’t care what our own sales reps or marketing materials promised.
5. Customers Drive Competitive Positioning and Differentiation
Let’s fast forward again, and I decide to see what life is like on the other side of the industry analyst briefing table, and I somehow convince Forrester to hire me as a Principal Analyst, serving B2B CMOs, guiding them on how they can better engage their customers and unleash the potential of their customers to drive revenue growth.
Since it is so much more fun to do than to advise, the real fun for me began when the CEO asked me to do for Forrester what I was advising our customers to do, and I accepted the opportunity to become Forrester’s VP of Marketing.
Practicing what I preach, the first thing I did was to find out from the CEO the top pressures he was facing from the board. There were two: 1) We were not growing, while Gartner was growing at 25% a year so they wanted to gain market share vis a vis Gartner; and 2) They felt we were way under penetrated in our enterprise accounts. I turned each of these pressures into strategic growth initiatives.
Gartner was already entrenched at all our clients. To gain market share on Gartner, my research showed that we could not replace them, we had to convince company leaders that they needed both Gartner and Forrester, or what I called “the co-exist strategy.” I knew this because Forrester’s sales reps told me that their biggest objection in the market is “We’re already spending X Millions of dollars with Gartner, why do we need a second opinion?”
Those reps could talk until they are blue in the face about why they think customers need two analyst firms, but you know who can make that point better than anyone? Our customers. So I created a Customer-Led Growth initiative. I approached executive-level clients that were relying on both Forrester and Garter to make better decisions, and asked them two questions: “What’s the incremental value that you get from Forrester above and beyond what you get from Gartner?” and “What types of initiatives do you go to Forrester rather than Gartner for help?”
I packaged up their audio and video responses on a landing page and put it in the hands of our sales reps. I told the reps, “When you get that objection, don’t try to answer it yourself, instead use this to let our customers answer it.” It was an absolute total game changer for how the company did sales and marketing. I had one rep say, “Jeff, this is the best thing I’ve ever gotten from marketing here or anywhere else I’ve ever worked, because it does the selling for me.” Who would have known that customers can be your best sales and marketing folks?
6. Customers Drive Account Expansion & Renewal
Next, I needed to address the pressure of being under penetrated in enterprise accounts. At renewal time, companies would often reduce the number of seats, causing us to lose annual contract value. How do we reverse this? We did a little research and found out why it was that people weren’t renewing at the same levels as the previous year. It came down to three things: 1) They weren’t reading the research reports; 2) They weren’t doing analyst inquiries; and/or 3) They weren’t coming to our role-based conferences and events. Sounds like a great opportunity for a Customer-Led Growth initiative, doesn’t it?
That’s exactly what I did. I worked with the Account Managers at our largest enterprise accounts to identify the power users of Forrester’s services. Every customer has them, the folks who tap into every bit of guidance they can for help in driving their own strategic initiatives within their companies.
We asked them to tell us about the initiatives they were crushing with Forrester’s help and had them call out specific examples of where they tapped into Forrester’s services for guidance. In other words, we gave them the opportunity to brag about their proudest achievements. Then we made it drop-dead simple for them to share their stories with their colleagues in other roles and departments within their company, including a way for those colleagues to ask about accessing Forrester’s services themselves.
The result? By embracing a true Customer-Led Growth initiative, we were able to double the contract value of many of these large enterprise accounts.
These two initiatives were transformational to Forrester’s growth strategy, so morphed these efforts into a global customer marketing and engagement program that I branded Forrester Frontlines. I invited about 3,500 customers into the program, and throughout the year we offered customers opportunities to showcase their knowledge, experience and advice in ways that shined the light on Forrester’s products and services.
Customers loved the program, but it was very labor intensive to run because there wasn’t any technology on the market to orchestrate Customer-Led Growth initiatives. That was my inspiration for starting SlapFive, to fill this gap in the market.
7. Customers Drive Product Portfolio and Packaging Shifts
One more fast-forward. I’ve launched SlapFive, and it’s taking the market by storm. One of my customers was in a situation that will likely sound familiar to you, as it happens to every company at some point. After making several acquisitions, the company found itself with a portfolio of point products. The sales team had been running some cross-sell plays so there were a good number of customers using two or three of the products.
One day the CEO announced that it was time to relaunch the company, transforming from offering a bunch of individual products, to offering a single integrated suite. As you would expect, there had been some R&D going on to create a consolidated dashboard for giving users the impression that the products work together, but the executive team wanted the sales reps to start selling the combined value proposition of an integrated suite.
I can’t think of a better way to tackle this than to whip up a Customer-Led Growth initiative. And that’s what we did. First, we identified customers who were using two or three of the point products. We pulled them together so the strategists who were setting the technology direction for the software suite could share their vision, get feedback from those customers, and make them feel like they are part of the grand vision.
We then captured stories from those customers about the combined value they were experiencing from using multiple products together. We had those customers tell these stories on webinars, meet-ups, videos, and press pitches. The customers loved sharing because they felt like innovators who were helping the company deliver on the grand vision. And the market ate it up so much that the company was able to raise its prices based on these value stories which resulted in a big increase in average deal size.
8. Customers Drive Buyer Mindset Shifts
OK, this is the last fast-forward, I promise. Remember I mentioned I’ve done thousands of buyer interviews working with The Buyer Persona Institute (BPI)? A couple years into SlapFive, BPI became a customer, because they needed to mobilize customers to overcome the fantastically outdated thinking in the market about buyer research.
Adele Revella literally wrote the book on buyer personas, and the firm she founded delivers buyer research studies that help companies go beyond defining the stereotypical “Buyer Persona” – you know what I mean – “Jane is a 36 year old mother of 2, she works as a Marketing Manager at ABC Co. She drives a Toyota Sienna and plays Pickleball one night a week.”
BPIs studies tell you things like: What causes your customers to make solving the problem a priority, what are their desired outcomes when they set out to solve it, what perceived barriers do they encounter along the way, what decision criteria do they use, what steps do they take in their buying process, who do they trust for answers to their questions and doubts, etc.
The outdated thinking she needed to overcome was notions like: “We talk to customers all the time; we already know how and why they buy.” “We can just have our sales reps interview buyers.” “We need to interview everyone on the buying committee to get anything useful.” And “If we gather these insights, I don’t see it changing anything in our company.”
What better way to change this outdated thinking than by whipping up a Customer-Led initiative. So I interviewed eight of BPI’s clients who had long ago moved beyond these notions. I didn’t ask the traditional BS case study questions. I got way more surgical and simply asked one question for each notion we needed to correct. I then collected the audio responses on a “Mindset Shifting” storyboard that BPI uses on their website and sends to prospects who show indications they might be stuck in the past.
There you have it, eight examples of Customer-Led Growth initiatives. I could go on but this covers the breadth of market-facing challenges that companies face today.