Jeff Ernst here, co-founder of SlapFive. People often ask me where my inspiration for starting the customer voice company came from. Well, pull up a seat and I’ll tell you the story.
Sometimes I’m in my own startup. Other times I’m helping an established software company grow. Wherever I am, I’m the customer-obsessed guy. The “voice of the customer”. The one who knows the customer inside out, their problems, how they buy, how they use, and why they stay. The one who takes on the customer conferences, user groups, and advisory boards. The one who runs the reference programs, satisfaction surveys, enhancement voting…you get the idea.
After 20 years in software, I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the briefing table as an industry analyst at Forrester, and of course I chose to research B2B buyer and customer behavior, and advise companies on how to inject these insights into their customer engagement, marketing and sales strategies. Survey after survey, interview after interview, all revealed the same thing:
Customers trust their peers and colleagues much more than they trust your marketing and sales messages.
Then I was asked to move into Forrester’s own marketing department, and challenged with creating demand that could support the goal of increasing growth to 20%.
The marketing team was already doing a great job getting people to show up for webinars and field events, open emails, and download content. But not enough of those people were turning into sales opportunities. They’d take the free content and run. If I was going to move the growth needle, I had to do something different.
But before jumping in, I knew I needed a better understanding of buyers. So I put my analyst hat back on and did what I had done for many Forrester clients in this situation…I did a buyer persona research project. I interviewed buyers of research and advisory services to understand their journeys and uncover their perceived barriers to doing business with us.
What I learned was eye-opening, some of it very different from what I had heard from the salespeople. Four buyer personas emerged, bucketed not by role or title but by goals and needs, and the real insight I uncovered was the questions, fears, and doubts (QFDs) of each persona.
For example, the persona we all know, that is most often shopping for research is the “Decision Validator”. He wants unbiased, expert advice to inform or confirm big decisions he has to make. These decisions are often around the purchase of technology or services, and his neck is on the line to figure out the right vendors to consider, narrow down the list of options, and make the final choice. His biggest objection: “We already spend several hundred thousand dollars a year with Gartner, why do we need you?”
It was clear to me that no amount of thought leadership content, brand messaging, or product collateral would overcome this resistance. More sales enablement wasn’t going to do the trick either, because the sales reps were already armed with battle cards for each competitor. Buyers didn’t always voice this objection to the sales rep, but when they did, the rep would try to tell the story about how “Forrester is different because our research focuses on…” And the response from the buyer: “Your competitors say they do that too.” Uggh.
We had to find a way to convince the Decision Validator that Forrester wasn’t just a second opinion. We needed a way to describe the huge value that we deliver that none of the competitors could match. To find the answer, I turned to the source: our customers.
I reached out to about a dozen executives who used both Forrester and the biggest competitor and asked one simple question: “What incremental value do you get from working with Forrester above and beyond what you get from the other guy?” Notice that I wasn’t asking them to criticize any of their vendors, which these customers won’t do.
What I captured from them was pure gold.
They didn’t reply with the language we had armed our reps to use. They told genuine, heartfelt stories about major initiatives their company had done, and how Forrester guided the decisions along the way to make the initiative successful.
A couple of examples:
An executive from a clothing retailer told me about how they set out to increase customer loyalty and frequency of store visits through a new digital communications strategy, and how Forrester helped them understand their target buyer behaviors, along with the practices and technologies used by the other big retailers, and advised them on how to upgrade their marketing technology stack.
An e-commerce leader from a heavy equipment manufacturer told me how they needed to build greater mindshare in their dealer network and leaned on Forrester for help to identify the critical touch points with the end buyers of their equipment at each stage of the customer lifecycle, and how to use digital media to drive more frequent interaction between the buyers and the dealers.
I knew this was gold, but I needed to figure out how to get these stories in front of Decision Validators. It took a boat load of manual effort, but I carved up audios from my conversations into mini-stories and put them on a webpage. I gave the link to a few sales reps who had buyers stall or bail with the “why do we need you?” excuse.
The reaction was incredible. One guy told me that “This is the best thing I’ve ever gotten from marketing at any company I’ve worked at.”
This told me I might be onto something, so I tried it again for another persona. And the result was the same. So I decided to create a Customer Voice Program and made it my number one initiative to drive revenue growth.
But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. When I described my plan for the Customer Voice Program to my colleagues, I got pushback. One person said, “all we need are testimonial quotes,” and another claimed “our clients would never want to talk about how they use Forrester”.
Fortunately, in building the business case for the Customer Voice Program, I dug pretty deep. Even though the sales team always asked for more testimonials, they didn’t use the ones they were given. Why? Because though they were full of praise and were great for reading out loud at company meetings, these “happy quotes” were so broad and high level that they didn’t address the specific issues or objections of our buyers. Once I showed this disconnect, I started to get buy-in for taking a different approach.
We now live and work in a trust economy. I’ve always known that earning someone’s business means first earning their trust. Which is harder to do than ever, because as I said earlier, “Customers trust their peers and colleagues much more than they trust your marketing and sales messages.”
I believe that capturing and unleashing the customer voice is the most important thing B2B firms can do to grow their companies. And it is the last bastion of competitive differentiation. Competitors can copy your product features, clone your service offerings, and steal your employees, but they can’t tell YOUR customer stories.
It is from this experience, designing a Customer Voice Program, that I proved that nearly every question, fear or doubt (QFD) that your customers encounter, at every stage of their lifecycle, is best addressed by your best customers, telling their stories, in their own voice.
But what I didn’t have was a technology platform that enables and scales all the different workflows that we need to perform in Customer Marketing. I had to piece together 6 different technologies to do it. And though I had plenty of anecdotes on the value of the customer stories, it was a very manual effort to quantify the impact that the program was having on revenue.
There had to be a better way. That’s why I decided to start SlapFive, to develop and launch the first Customer Marketing Software platform, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to be getting such rave feedback from the early adopters.
But for marketing, sales, and customer success teams to embrace this, it requires a new way of thinking. It requires recognition of why traditional forms of customer proof are not helpful to buyers, and may even be pushing your buyers away. It requires a deep understanding of your buyers, their buyer journeys, and their QFDs.