Driving customer adoption can feel like herding cats

TLDR: You defined the customer journey.  You onboard & train new users. You make support and knowledge resources available. And still, users don’t adopt your products in the timeframe and manner that you want.

To be great at driving adoption, we have to recognize that there’s no singular user journey.  Rather, there are many.  Get ready to herd some cats.

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“Train the Trainer” is a terrifying term

TLDR: If you provide software, data services or other online services to businesses, you might be familiar with the term “train the trainer”.  It’s a time-honored approach to deploying software to new users.  It should also strike terror in the hearts of vendors.

If you believe, as we do, that adoption of your product is critical to customer retention and growth, then training might be the most pivotal adoption milestone of all.  If it’s so important, can you entrust it to your customer?

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The future of business software

Tom Tunguz wrote an insightful blog recently comparing legacy software applications with the new, disruptive ones.

He writes:

“A senior SaaS executive once told me, “Reports sell software.” In a top down sale, that’s absolutely true. The CEO wants better predictability of bookings so she’ll buy a CRM tool to gather the data. Classically, software has been built for that mantra.

In bottoms up sales, workflow sells software. And new SaaS companies who aim to displace incumbent systems of record will architect their products in a radically different way. They will be event-driven SaaS companies (emphasis is mine).”

I couldn’t agree more.  

My start-up’s product is (was) event-driven

In the case of Bluenose, we were trying to help you unlock the value of user feedback (in the form of NPS surveys) and user behavior (in the form of product usage data).  

This data should flow into your company continuously, and produces many valuable signals:

  • As a signal about the health of your relationships with your users at a macro level
  • As a signal about the health of your relationship with each user
  • As a signal about where each user stands in their adoption journey

How can you use these signals?

The first signal unlocks the drivers of NPS, retention and churn in your business.

The second signal mobilizes your Customer Success team or guides your contact center agents.

The third signal enables you to target each user with relevant messaging on how to take their next adoption steps.

How does Tom’s thinking apply to your business?

If your job is to improve customer retention, “event-driven” is a provocative way to think about your customers and the events that should drive your engagement with them. The design of your customer-facing processes should be event-driven for sure.

If you’re in the role of designing products, it’s a clue about how to disrupt incumbent competitors (or fight off the upstarts if you’re being disrupted), by thinking about the events that should drive your app’s features.

If you’re in sales, it’s a way to frame your product as being different – and more valuable – than an incumbent product that doesn’t utilize events to drive a business process.

A final thought

One of the ways I like to think about customer events is how they drive scores.

You’re forecasting a customer renewal.  Should the forecast probability (a score) be based on customer events?

  • Sustained use of your app
  • Survey responses

You’re scoring each customer’s health as part of a weekly Customer Success team meeting.  Should the customer’s health score be based on events?

  • Recent use of your app
  • Recent responses to a survey
  • Recent support tickets
  • Changes in the customer’s team

Not only do events make for more accurate scores. They also pinpoint what’s changed in a score and make the next customer touch much more obvious.

Mining for gold: 3 sources of product usage data

Update: the vendor landscape described here has evolved considerably since writing this. But the basic concepts still apply.

In a prior blog, I talked about ways to drive revenue growth with product usage data. Including reducing churn, spotting up-sell opportunities, increasing trial conversions etc.

In a follow-up blog, I discussed the four dimensions of product usage that you need to analyze:

  • Frequency: how often a user interacts with your product
  • Features: which features are used
  • Volumetrics: how often a feature is used, or a data record is created
  • Configuration settings: ways a user configures the app to suit their needs

By now you’re probably interested to unlock the value of product usage data for your company. Which begs the question: where do you get this data in the first place?

There are three sources of usage data. Generally speaking, usage data comes from:

  1. Clickstream data
  2. Log events
  3. Database queries

We’ll review each in succession.

Clickstream data

Clickstream data is generated by an end-user’s interaction with your product interface. For example, logging in to a web browser. Or performing an action in your mobile app.

This type of usage data can help you understand frequency of use (usually but not always) and coarse-grained feature usage, depending on how you “tag” usage events from the browser.

Several products are good sources of clickstream data for your browser-based app:

  • KISSmetrics
  • Mixpanel
  • Segment.io, a popular Javascript plug-in that feeds lots of other clickstream tools

An aside: why not Google Analytics for product usage? Unlike these other tools, Google’s terms of service prohibit you from collecting user-specific data of any sort. Thus, it becomes very difficult to understand which user or even company is accessing your application and how. Stick to the products above.

Getting usage data for Mobile apps can come from several of the packages above, plus some that are purpose-built for mobile:

  • Flurry. Note that Flurry monetizes by driving ad placements, so it’s not for everyone
  • Tapstream

Pros of clickstream data

  • Easy to deploy
  • Little to no engineering team involvement
  • Good for basic engagement metrics

Cons of clickstream data

  • Not detailed enough to reveal important features and user segments
  • Brittle to maintain

Log events

Depending on how well your engineers have instrumented your server-side code, they may be generating usage data as log events. For example, your Web or App Servers might be generating Apache logs that contain details about the user’s actions, especially feature usage.

Pros of log data

  • Log events can be very specific and accurate in depicting feature usage, compared to page-level clickstream data from a browser

Cons of log data

  • Log events need to be parsed, which can be challenging if you’re doing it for yourself in a database or Excel file
  • Log events can contain types of events that aren’t meaningful to you, because they describe system behaviors not user behaviors (think error logs)
  • Your engineers need to be involved to do a good job of log instrumentation

Database queries

On the server side of your application is some sort of database (such as MySQL, Hadoop, MongoDB, etc.). Each user action may have a corresponding “transaction” or record in the database that forms a picture of usage. For example, if a user started a new “Project” in your Project Management app, then that record was created in the database at a specific time by a specific user.

These records can be queried from your database to produce events or counts of events (such as daily summaries).

Other functions of your application may behave as “set it and forget it” where your app is automating processes without requiring a user action each time. In this case, usage events are generated even though the user hasn’t logged in lately. Database queries may be the only means to collect this type of usage event.

Pros of database queries

  • The most comprehensive picture of usage

Cons of database queries

  • Your Engineering or Operations team has to retrieve the data for you

Conclusion

There’s no “silver bullet” to getting usage data.

In many companies, you have easy access to one type of usage data and not the others. And, no single source of usage data depicts your application’s usage in a comprehensive way.

Think of it as a journey. It’s best to get started with the data on hand. As you learn to make sense of it, and drive business results, you’re armed with the justification to get other types of usage data. Sometimes this means further instrumenting your product. In other cases, it’s simply about getting another team to help you access their data.

But the journey is well worth the effort, because usage data is the foundation of understanding the health of your customer.