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Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

Random Thoughts on Customer Engagement, CRM, and Social CRM

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 13, 2014

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

Can Enterprises learn to talk WITH Customers rather than AT them?

I read with interest Paul Greenberg’s, “Random Thoughts on CRM.”  They don’t call Paul the “Godfather of CRM” for nothing, and this post got some old neural circuits firing again just like it was yesterday.

The gist of the article was about how a much larger market, called “Customer Engagement”, will eventually subsume CRM and make CRM just a feature of the larger Customer Engagement matrix.  The process of assimilation is already underway and presumably resistance is futile.  Paul characterizes Customer Engagement as involving all that is CRM plus the following:

 

  • Customer journey management
  • Customer experience management
  • Customer analytics including sentiment and text analysis
  • Social listening
  • Gamification engines and platforms
  • Customer engagement platforms (broad definition here)
  • Feedback management systems including ranking, rating engines)
  • Reputation management engines
  • Customer interaction engines (e.g. Epiphany, Exact Target)
  • Self-service knowledge engines
  • Community platforms
  • Social networks
  • Personalization engines
  • Communications platforms that foster customer communications (parts of unified communications fit the bill here though UC is a lot more than this)
  • Enterprise video chat/conferencing
  • Customer Effort Scoring (score on what you do. Thanks to Esteban Kolsky for this one). How much effort does a customer make
  • Loyalty and Advocacy systems

I wholeheartedly agree, and it was as I was reading that list that I suddenly had my epiphany:

Customer Engagement is nothing more than Social CRM writ large.

Or if you prefer to be a little less dramatic, Customer Engagement is the Second Coming of Social CRM.

Whether you believe Social CRM failed, was an idea before its time, or is simply percolating along and growing steadily, I can’t think of a better way to describe Social CRM than to say that it’s all about Customer Engagement.  The difference between Social CRM and Conventional CRM is almost entirely a matter of perspective:  are you talking WITH your Customers or talking AT your Customers?  CRM talks AT them.  It values them solely as leads to be qualified and sold to or as an expense area in the case of Customer Service to be minimized.  Paul’s list of Customer Engagement activities is nothing more than a list of what sorts of conversations can be had WITH Customers and what tools may be available to facilitate those conversations.

That problem of talking AT your Customers (and yes, “Customer” must be capitalized in this era when those who can’t learn to talk WITH them will start to increasingly lose) is a cultural problem born of seeing Customers as accounting line items and metrics rather than as PEOPLE who can choose to do business with us or not. Social CRM skeptics back in the day (seems so long ago since I was part of that world) danced around the cultural issues–they were sure Social in the Enterprise couldn’t work just because Enterprises were all about Command and Control and not what it takes to be Social.  Not all Enterprises are, BTW.  Companies like Southwest Airlines come to mind as counter-examples.  But by and large, Enterprises are very much about Command and Control.  I believe that a close relative of the Innovator’s Dilemma is what I will dub the “Politician’s Dilemma.”  It’s what happens when an organization grows large enough that the primary skill needed for advancement is not creativity or the ability to make good decisions, it’s the ability to be a good politician.  It’s been the undoing of at least as many large organizations as the Innovator’s Dilemma, and it is also closely related to those pesky cultural problems that prevent Enterprises from seeing Customers as Customers rather than $customers (and I wish I had an even smaller font for “customers” and a bigger one for “$”).

Here’s where I wonder about Paul’s view that Customer Engagement is, in fact, going to eat CRM.  I wonder because I can’t see much evidence these cultural biases that prevent Enterprises from being good at CRM have even remotely diminished.  Perhaps over time the Internet will exact a toll on their callous disregard for real Customer Service.  Certainly the frictionless exchange of information about what a Company’s products are REALLY like and what it is REALLY like to deal with that company help.  But, our fixation in the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s with reducing regulation and empowering ever larger monopolies (and hence the 1%) has been a powerful counterbalance to any renewed sense of egalitarianism the Internet brings.  Simply put, it’s business as usual for these companies.

Paul brings up the 4 largest companies in the CRM space:  Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.  It’s funny, but with the possible exception of Salesforce, you couldn’t ask for a stronger list of the Who’s Who of having abused their customers and maximized their Bully Pulpit Status.  Perhaps by being (or seeming to be) the exception, this is precisely what has driven Salesforce’s growth.  I certainly know people that work there and talk about it in much more glowing terms than the other 3.  Let’s leave Salesforce aside and ask about the other 3:

What are the chances that SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft can actually learn how to talk WITH Customers and not AT $customers well enough to participate in Customer Engagement at a more empathetic level than, say, researchers watching mice in mazes?

I’m not optimistic, and I don’t think Paul is either.  He offers the following critique of the four companies:

  1. Salesforce.com – They are getting so big and so process driven that a lot of the creativity that characterized the company is starting to seep out.
  2. SAP – The continuous politics at this company are forcing it to step on its own feet every time they make progress – and we start again.
  3. Oracle – They are totally locked and loaded into their customer experience messaging and it’s the wrong message to send to the marketplace.  This prevents them from thinking in terms of ecosystems – which is a 21st century requirement for a large company’s success.
  4. Microsoft – They are moving quickly but still don’t have the messaging down at all. They send mixed messaging signals to the market and they are hard to read. They need to clarify this right away, since they have successfully accomplished a radical transformation of their customer-facing applications for the better. Now the world needs to hear it.

Ask yourself whether the essential cultural virtues needed to thrive in a world of Customer Engagement are likely to be strong or weak in the light of those criticisms?  Even for Salesforce, eliminating personal initiative and emphasizing management by excessive process is a sure recipe for stopping any real conversations with Customers.  It’s hard to change for all the same reasons that once the Peter Principle has taken hold, you can step back from it.  People are hired by bosses who hire the sort of people they want to hire.  Bosses who think of Customers as $customers don’t hire people who think “Customer.”  They hire more $customer people.  Sure, you can add a few Customer lovers here or there, but they drown in the sea of $customer people.  It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be undone.  Command and Control never goes softly into that Good Night, least of all because it is very Commandingly In Control.

What does it all mean?

Optimistically, it means that these four will eventually give way to a New Guard of some kind.  I’d like to think that’s true everywhere and in every industry that finally understands the Customer is King.  Taking that view is a powerful Engine of Growth for new ventures.  It is disruptive in much the same way SaaS has been to Enterprise Software because where SaaS was a business model change that could not be achieved, Customer Engagment is a Cultural Model change that is too hard to achieve.  It’s relatively easy to hire a new CEO or merge to make a new entity.  So far, we are tragically short of good Existence Proofs that this New Wave is underway.  There are precious few Southwest Airlines and an endless stream of Ego-Du-Jour companies that power to the forefront or that cling tenaciously to the monopolies they already own.

Fundamentally changing the culture of a company?  That’s darned near impossible.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a successful example of it outside the fawning press releases and interviews telling us how transformative some new CEO has been, all of which turn out to be false hopes.  More’s the pity.

Postscript

Paul Greenberg’s response, via Facebook:

Bob, I read the post. I’m more optimistic than you on this, though I really liked your post. Also, these are random, and to be fair to the Big 4, I also noted what I liked big picture about each of them too. I just don’t have a black and white view of this at all. its a nascent, roiling market at the moment and lots to come of it hasn’t happened yet – and is indeterminate. Also, I agree with you totally that this is what you called Social CRM writ large though my take is a little different. You’ll see more on this in a series of major pieces that will be coming leading to the next book. Social CRM was the progenitor for customer engagement – it didn’t fail, like social business morphing in its short life to digital transformation, social CRM now CRM morphed to something much larger and more encompassing that the parent was/is. CRM becomes the operational components of the engagement market. You are a helluva writer, by the way. Seriously good.

Paul is not just a brilliant CRM analyst, but a gentleman and renaissance man of the sort that is seldom seen these days.  I know him via my past life in Social CRM and the Enterprise Irregulars.  Thanks Paul!

Posted in business, customer service, Marketing, strategy | 1 Comment »

Good Customer Experience Trumps Good Customer Service. Bad CUX Trumps All. A Tale of Chukka Boots and Photoshop.

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 22, 2014

ChukkaBootsGood Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service, even if you are Zappo’s.  My wife quit buying shoes from Zappo’s after they sent her the wrong pair of shoes for the third time and she had to return them.  They didn’t do it all on the same transaction, it happened over a fairly long period of time.  And yes, the Zappo’s Customer Service people were wonderful as always.  But it didn’t matter–the underlying Customer Experience was giving her the wrong shoes and she only allowed that to happen so many times before she gave up on them.

I had a similar experience with Zappo’s, but I didn’t even get as far as Customer Service.  I have bought shoes from them once–a nice pair of Clark’s Chukka Boots.   Great!

Some time later, I went looking for some tennis shoes.  I have a penchant for bright red shoes of the most exotic design possible that I wear when I go to hear live music.  I went straight to Zappo’s, found a pair of shoes I wanted, and tried to purchase.  I expected to be able to use my Amazon account, given they’re owned by Amazon and all, and it looked like I could do that, but I actually couldn’t quite make it work.  I don’t have an account on Zappo’s, because in a time of data breaches like Target’s, I open as few accounts as I can.  So I moved on.  It came time for me to buy another pair of shoes and I went  back to Zappo’s again, thinking that companies as savvy as Amazon and Zappo’s would surely have fixed the problem.  I found the shoes I wanted and tried once more to buy them.  No joy.  I could find no way to buy on my Amazon account and did not want to spend the time opening a Zappo’s account.

Not only did Zappo’s lose the sale of 2 pairs of shoes, but I just won’t go back there again.  It isn’t clear to me Amazon cares much, because in the end, I did buy those 2 pair from Amazon.  But if there was a good alternative I was familiar with, I would’ve skipped Amazon too, just for annoying me.

Now, how hard would it be for Zappo’s not to send my wife the wrong pair of shoes 3 times?  She doesn’t buy shoes all that often, so it was surprising it happened to her so many times.  And how hard would it be for Amazon to make it easy for me to buy shoes from Zappo’s with my existing Amazon account?  Come on, this can’t be rocket science for a company like Amazon.  If Google can figure out to put a birthday logo on their search page on my birthday because it picked up my birthdate somewhere in their far flung empire, Amazon can let me buy Zappo’s shoes with an Amazon account, right?

Fast forward to this morning.  I was doing something and fired up Adobe Photoshop CS3 (yes, I have had it for a long time!).  It immediately announced I had 2 days left to activate or it would die.  Great, I did remember it asking a few days ago.  I had tried and it kept telling me it had an Internet connection problem.  I knew it wasn’t at my end, nothing else was complaining, so I figured I try again–they surely had fixed their problem by now.

No joy.

I was forced to use their phone activation.  With some trepidation I dialed the toll-free number and waited.  I really hate phone support.  It just isn’t ever a happy thing.  Ever.

Eventually, it had me key in a 24 digit serial number followed by a 32 digit activation code using my phone’s keypad.  Wow, that was a joy–not!  But, Photoshop at least did pop up a box that had the phone number to call plus these two lengthy codes to make it easier.  Unfortunately, the phone robot announced my activation code did not have enough digits.

WTF?!??  This was exactly the same code that Photoshop was telling me was the one to use.  How could it be wrong?

I tried twice, to no avail, at which point it told me to hold for a support representative.  Good, I was ready to let some human being know what I thought about all this after having used the software for several years.  Unfortunately, after a 5 minute wait, the Adobe side announced that they were no longer handling activation problems by telephone and gave me a URL I would have to visit with my browser to fix it.  Of course my blood pressure went up to the next DefCon level.

I went to the page suggested and couldn’t find even a hint of clue about what to do.  It was kind of a haphazard FAQ that only listed a few things, none of which could possibly be at issue.  When I got to the bottom, there was a Chat button with a message that cheerfully informed me I could get on right away with an agent if I would simply click.  So I did.

Of course as soon as the chat window opened, it informed me there were other customers ahead of me in line.  WTF?

Okay, deep cleansing breaths.  After no less than 10 messages informing me I was still waiting (no duh, I know I am waiting), Kumar finally popped up.

Kumar is mostly robot.  He is no doubt based on the old ELIZA simulated psychiatrist program which would always turn your question back around without really ever answering much.  It’s a primitive AI technique that’s been around forever.  Try it if you like, it’s kind of creepy in the same way that Kumar was.  I had to provide a description of my problem up front, and Kumar would ask me questions that were phrased along the lines of what I’d already told it, but that didn’t really add much color to the situation:

“Hi Bob.  You’re here because you can’t activate your Photoshop?”

“Yeah Kumar, that’s what I said in the original description.”

This is where Kumar gets clever.  Every time I respond, I get back a message saying, “Okay Bob, I’ll be back in 2-3 minutes after I check into that and take the necessary actions.”  Literally every single response I made, it would do that.  This is because Kumar, or whatever the real human being is named, is sitting in a giant call center somewhere dealing with probably 100 customers simultaneously.  He doesn’t want to get back to any one of us too quickly lest we monopolize too much of his time and annoy the other customers.  So, he uses all this clever software mostly to stall us customers so he can handle more of us.  Sweet!

He asks me to type in my 24-digit serial number (DOH!), but fortunately, I can just copy and paste it (Hah, outsmarted you bozos!).  Then he goes away for extra long–longer than the 2-3 minutes promised.  When he gets back, he wants to know my email for my Adobe customer account.  Oh boy.  Each piece of information will be asked for at 5 to 10 minute intervals–this is going to be painful and I have an appointment in 10 minutes.  I call the appointment to say I am coming, but I will be late.  It’s taken me 45 minutes with Kumar to get this far.

And then, a bit of magic happens.  Kumar comes back and says it’s all fixed, please try again.  I do, and low and behold, the Internet activation works.  A modicum of happiness ensues and I recall the nuclear bombers my DefCon blood pressure rise had summoned.  Then I started thinking about what had happened. Basically, the only reason online activation, had failed, the only reason I had worried whether I would fail to activate and thereby lose a valuable tool, the only reason I had to spend 45 minutes trying to tell Kumar the two pieces of information needed to fix the problem, the only reason I was getting really ticked off at Adobe, was because they wanted to associate my serial number (Kumar didn’t even ask me for the activation code) with my email.

Remember when I said I didn’t create an account with Zappo’s?  Well I also didn’t bother registering Photoshop.  It used to pop up a box about every 2 weeks asking me to fill out an elaborate form, and I would just tell it to go away.  Eventually it offered me the chance to tell it to never ask again, and I did so, thinking what a relief.  Nowhere did they tell me that eventually some power that be would decide they were going to force me to reactivate software that had already been activated and then put me through a painful experience of apparently having that activation fail, just because they wanted me to register.  A registration they no doubt needed so they can send me better marketing spam.

Can we see by now how to apply the maxim that Good Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service?  Adobe didn’t really give good customer service, BTW, it was terrible.  I don’t blame Kumar for it.  I blame a Draconian wall and a moat filled with alligators designed to keep costs down on a cost center (Customer Service) that was built by a left and a right hand not knowing each other in a large bureaucratic organization and a marketing organization that only cares about filling its lead hungry maw.  It’s about par for the course with large organizations but it also happens to small organizations that pride themselves on treating customers well.  Tragically, it is so unnecessary and counter-productive too.

Let’s take Adobe’s case.  One could argue they never should’ve resorted to all this to connect my email to a serial number.  Let the man not register.  Or, they could’ve just told me I had to register to activate.  Hell, they could’ve just asked for my email as part of the re-activation and I’d have been happy.  Or they could’ve asked me to login to my Adobe account, also acceptable.  There are endless up front Customer Experience things they could have done to eliminate the need for me to deal with Customer Service at all.  Ironically, it would’ve been cheaper to do that.  45 minutes of Kumar and all those automated voice response systems had to cost something.

I run a one-man SaaS company (actually there are a couple part timers, but I’m making a point).  I do all the Customer Service myself.  Whenever and wherever I can, I try to change the User Experience to eliminate classes of Customer Service I see over and over again.  I have to just to survive.  Best of all, it makes the Customers happier and less frustrated.  The next time you’re gearing up a new release of your software, e-commerce front end, or whatever, ask what you can do to reduce the need for Customer Service.  Find out what the common sources of it are.  Get rid of a few of them every time you ship another release.  It’ll be a Good Thing for all concerned, I promise.

Posted in amazon, customer service, Marketing, service, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Why Did Mailchimp Decide to Get Less User Friendly?

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 5, 2013

Mailchimp is the third email service I tried for my boostrapped company, CNCCookbook.  I generally like the service because it makes the email chores easier.  When you’re a bootstrapper with limited resources (heh, I’m a one man SaaS company), that’s important.

Did Mojo Jojo take out the original chimp and start implementing plans for world domination?

I ask because lately, Mailchimp seems to be losing its way in the making things easier department.

There’s been at least four changes made fairly recently that all bug me.  I’m sure they were all done to try to reduce Mailchimp’s costs–costs for database activity or cost for Customer Service.  But they’re making my experience the worse for the wear and making Mailchimp seem more like the big faceless services and less like, well, Mailchimp.

Here’s what they did.

Made it harder to search

I love the idea of a simple search type in without recourse to complicated database query UI’s that only thinly veil the SQL underneath.  Mailchimp used to have a search box on every page.  Type something in and it searched everywhere and quickly found every object in Mailchimp that related to the search.

I use search a LOT when I am tracking down various Customer Service issues.  Turns out which lists they’ve subscribed to is important for my business.  Bravo for making that so easy, Mailchimp!

Unfortunately, they’ve now buried that particular map with the treasure.  To search requires the following:

-  Go to the “Lists” list.

-  Pick a list.

-  Click the magnifier icon.

-  Now we finally see a search UI.  But, no joy yet, by default it only searches the current list.  I have to perform another manual step to make it search “Everything” which is not the default as it used to be.

DOH!  That’s less friendly, Mailchimp, and I have to do it constantly every day.

Made it harder to export list extracts

I export my mailing lists to CSV files frequently.  Sometimes it’s for backups, sometimes it is so I can re-import them for various purposes.  Don’t ask me why, but Mailchimp, why didn’t you make it easy to add any new names in one list to another?  Especially since it’s more money for you because you charge on list size.  Yeah, I know you prefer me to do that another way, like I said, don’t ask me why I like this way.

Used to be I could just click an icon and zippity-doo-dah it would shoot down to the bottom as a download in Chrome.  Nice!

But wait, that’s no longer possible.  Instead it gets sent to some queue, and a message pops up telling me they’ll email me the darned thing.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  I just love when businesses tell me that.  It’s never really for my convenience, is it?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The extracts show up zipped–hate that, now I have to perform another step to get at the data.  Come on guys, these files are a meg and a half in size.  Was it really worth saving those few microcents to make me spend that extra time?

Inside the zip file I will find my csv, and it will be named something like, “members_export_5eb7a8c2b4.csv.  Okay guys, are there really some propellor-headed beanies at your end that are going to make my life better by doing something with that whole hexadecimal 5eb7 blah-blah-blah number?  No?  I didn’t think so.  These files used to be called something like, “members_GWEdit_Trial_Nov_2_2013.csv”.  OMG, you mean I can actually glean some valuable information from my file name?  Was there really an important reason to quit letting me glean that valuable information?  Because it sure did result in a lot less user friendly file name.

Made it hard to get support and I have no idea how to give you my help

This one right here was the deal breaker that got me to write this post.  So I’m logged into Mailchimp and encounter these things and decide it’s time I made my voice heard.  I wanted to let the nice people at Mailchimp (well, I assume they’re nice since they have that nice chimp mascot and send me notes that are worded all cutesy and even used to give me a neat chimp link to entertain me every so often) know about all of this.  Because you know, I’m sure it’s just an oversight and if they could hear me and understand what they had done to me, they’d fix it.

Of course you can see where this is going.  There’s no sign of a support link anywhere in the online web-based Mailchimp app UI that I can see.  I think that’s a cardinal sin.  When you’re a web company with a web app, your web presence should be providing your tribe a seamless experience from learning about your company to buying your product to using your product to getting help with your product.  That doesn’t happen here.

Instead, I have to get out of the app and go to the Mailchimp main web site to find a “Support” link.  You go there and you’ve got one option:  Enter a question.  They tell you:

We encourage you to search our knowledge base for answers, but if you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ll find links to contact our support team after you search.

Okay, I’ve been there and done that.  In fact I think my old Helpstream company was one of the first to offer that approach in our Customer Service system.  BUT…

What if I don’t have a question?  What if I want to give feedback?

Just for fun, I typed in “What if I want to give feedback?”  No joy.  The #1 hit is “How do I know if I’m writing a good subject line?”  Hang on guys, let’s talk about, “How do I know if my users are having a good user experience?”

If you strike out on the question, you get an “Email Us” button.  This takes you to a blank form where you get to submit your trouble ticket.  Isn’t it a bummer that it didn’t stick my question or search words into the subject line?  Could’ve saved me a bit of typing there.

So, I have to fill out this big form.  And since the time of whoever reads the form is more valuable than my time, I have to pass the IQ test by filling out a captcha.  Doesn’t that make me feel like a valued customer?  Well, no, actually, not at all.  So, I go try to remember exactly what email and user name I use with these guys, and then it comes to me:

If they would let me click a support button when I was in the app, I would be an authenticated user and they would not need for me to give them my name, email, Mailchimp username, or captcha.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Now in fairness, I can’t do that for my own product, but I’m a one-man show here.  I would like to do better, and maybe with an API to my provider, User Voice, I could do it the way I am describing.  I am confident an organization the size of Mailchimp could figure it out though.  It just feels too much like they’ve reached that stage of Evil Corpocracy and Growth where they want to actively discourage Customer Service because some bean counter decided it was a cost center instead of the road to winning the hearts and minds of customers.

Hey, all I wanted to do was give a little feedback fer cryin’ out loud!

Here’s what I have in my little one man SaaS company app to help customers while they’re in the app:

GWHelpResources

BTW, after I had filed 2 support tickets I finally noticed there was a feedback link low and to the right on the page.  You can’t see it until you’re presented with the form, at which point your inclination is to fill out the form.

Template Madness

I keep my emails simple.  Part of my company’s persona is that we’re not all about the marketing spam–we are about providing high quality content for free.  Hence, I don’t use overly slick HTML email templates.  Yeah, maybe I could improve conversions, but they rock compared to everyone else I talk to, so sue me.

The latest Mailchimp UI for creating a mailing has just gone template wild.  There’s jillions of them buried many levels deep, some accessed with large text, some with small.  Turns out I don’t want to look at “My Templates” (I never designed any), “Email Designer” (I still don’t want to design one!), “Predesigned” (it’s a zoo, frickin’ sharks with lasers on their heads in there!  Plus, it leds with a buncha mobile stuff because “Android” starts with “A” or something–I don’t want email to send to mobile devices, thank you!), I don’t want to code my own (if I’m not going to design one I am SURE not gonna code one!), I don’t want to import one (in case I forgot, I DON’T HAVE ANY TEMPLATES!!!), hey wait, what’s absolutely the last thing in the list and in the smallest type with the most unsexyist icon possible?

Classic Templates!  OK, I think this is what I want.  Scroll.  Scroll.  Scroll.  There, “basic” is what I have always used.  Did I mention I don’t want to be too slick or spammy?

How about looking in yer lil primate database and seeing that this is the only template I ever use?  Could you make use of that information to maybe give me a choice of templates I have used in the past?  Would that be a cool thing to have right up front?

I know history lists are kinda avant-garde and they’re for leading edge products like (cough) Microsoft Office, but they can save me time and would’ve saved me time here.  Are you guys really betting your users want to see  your fancy new templates first before they see what they’ve been using for years?  Well maybe, but just know that’s the bet you’ve made with this new UI.  BTW, you can actually instrument your app to see how many people are wandering aimlessly through all those darned templates before they get to one they want to use.  I know my little one man SaaS company does stuff like that.  Might be a good idea, Elon Musk does it with frickin’ cars for Heaven’s sake!

Conclusion

Does Mailchimp have a lousy UX?  Certainly not!

But they’re starting to do some things that are less than optimal.  I write this piece slightly tongue-in-cheek because I want to pass along some feedback to Mailchimp and I want to give other software startups and UX Designers some notions about how to do a better job on some of these things.  I hope I’ve helped all parties.  I’m pretty sure no chimps were harmed in the writing of this piece and I hope none will be harmed by the reading either.

Happy holidays!

Posted in customer service, user interface | 3 Comments »

Feedly Progress Report: Not So Good

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 30, 2013

SadFeedlyI’ve been using Feedly since the demise of Google Reader and wanted to give a progress report on how that’s going.  Not that you won’t have already had to make a decision on an alternate, but perhaps this will be helpful for Feedly if not everyone else.

First the good news:  Feedly is great as a desktop browser app.  I am very satisfied, and if it weren’t for the mobile issues I’ll get to momentarily, I would be a committed and enthusiastic paying customers.

The bad news is all about the Mobile App.  Put simply:  it doesn’t work.  I started out fairly unhappy with Feedly’s mobile app, and I have written about it before.  Initially, it didn’t work at all.  Eventually, they fixed that bug, and now the mobile app doesn’t work because it is too frustrating to be useful.  I waited a reasonable interval before writing this to see if a fix would be forthcoming and whether it was just me.  No, and no are the answers.  You can Google “Feedly Mobile Crashes” and find plenty of references to this–there are even people commenting on Feedly’s Blog about it.

The problem is it crashes frequently.  If I click on every article I want to read, it will easily have crashed at least once every 10 articles.  The problem is, when it crashes, you lose the article you were trying to read.  The sequence goes like this:

1.  Click on article to read it.

2.  It starts loading.

3.  At some point, it may even look like you are done loading the article, Feedly crashes and you’re left staring at the iPad desktop.

4.  You go back into Feedly, and it has already marked the article as “read”.  It’s gone, long gone, and you’ve missed your chance to read it.

At this stage, the Feedly Mobile App is really only useful for clearing out articles you don’t want to read.  You don’t dare try to use it for reading articles you’re interested in, because sooner or later (and mostly sooner in my experience), it’s going to zap your article before you’ve had a chance to read it.  DOH!

It’s annoying as heck, though it hasn’t quite risen to the level where I am ready to drop Feedly altogether.  What it has done is made me spend less and less time reading feeds on my mobile devices (iPad mostly).

The thing that puzzles me is why they haven’t fixed it.  Even if they can’t fix the crashing (looks an awful lot like Safari crashing, which also happens a lot if you try to read Google News), they could change the software so it doesn’t mark the article as “read” until you get safely back into the list of articles without crashing.  That would make it dramatically less frustrating and stressful to use.

Of course I could also ask one more time (as many commenters on other posts about this have), why doesn’t feedly make it possible to simply use their browser version?

I recommend not paying Feedly for their enhanced version until they make a decent mobile app or get out of the way and let us access the service via browser.

Posted in customer service | 1 Comment »

How Many Software Companies Monitor Their Software as Well as Tesla Monitors its Cars?

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 14, 2013

The unfolding story of how the New York Times’ negative review of the Tesla Model S may have actually been faked is a cautionary tale for software vendors.  Basically, there is enough instrumentation and feedback built into the Tesla S that Elon Musk was able to “shred” the review, as Dan Frommer writes.  The graphical plot of exactly what was happening with annotations is particularly damning:

NY Times Tesla Speed Chart

It’ll be fascinating to see how the NYT responds.  Hard to imagine how they do anything but investigate Broder and ultimately move him along elsewhere.  To do much else would imply very little journalistic integrity.

My question for you is that since you’re reading this blog and are likely somehow involved in high tech hardware or software at some level, how does your product compare in terms of how well it can monitor what your users are doing with your product?

I’m fascinated with the idea of closing the feedback loop for the good of customers.  Yes, it’s great Musk can catch the NYT in a bogus review, and perhaps you will catch a reviewer too, but the potential for improving your customer’s experience is of much greater value to your product.  This may seem like a Big-Company-Only idea, but I’m pursuing it with a vengeance for my SaaS bootstrap company (CNCCookbook) because I need precise feedback that pinpoints where I can do the most good for my users with the scarce resources I have available.  I can tell you from experience that the tools are available and straightforward.  You can have the data for very little effort invested.

The next thing I am after is to automate responses to that data.  I’ve been reading the blog of a company called Totango with some interest.  They essentially want to provide SaaS automation for a Customer Success team.  Various folks have written about the importance of Customer Success and I’m also a big believer.  My thoughts at this point are to start out relatively simple.  I want to understand the early lifecycle of my products and be able to trigger automated actions based on that cycle.  For example:

Step 1:  Installation

Monitor the first time the customer has successfully logged into the product.  Offer increasing amounts of help via emails once a day until they achieve this milestone.  The emails can start with self-service help resourcs of various kinds and eventually escalate to offering a call or help webinar.  The goal is to get the customer properly installed.

Step 2:  Configuration

This seems like part of installing, but in fact there is significant post installation configuration needed for CNC Manufacturing software.  Same sort of thing: provide daily emails with increasing levels of help until the system determines that the user has properly configured the system.  Also, this is an opportunity to collect information.  We provide canned configuration for the most common cases and finding out what the next tranche of cases to target should be is very helpful.

Step 3:  The Path to Power Usage

It’d be great if everyone who signed up for our 30 day free trial actually got to see and understand all of the features that set our product apart.  I’ve seen some other products like Dropbox (Full disclosure: they give me another 250MB of storage if you use that link and then sign up. If you’d rather I didn’t get the extra storage, use this link instead. If you sign up, they’ll give you a link where you can get 250MB free too.) walk customers through a usage maturity exercise.  They’ve somewhat gamified it by giving out some of their “currency” in the form of extra storage if you complete the tasks.  My goals here would be to get everyone to see as many of our unique functions as possible during the 30 day trial.

Step 4:  The Holy Grail: Referrals

If all this goes well, the customer gets through the Trial, understands the unique capabilities of our products, and likes the product well enough to buy it, then the final stage in this incarnation is to ask them to refer others they know who might like the product.

That’s a pretty simple roadmap for how to create some closed-loop feedback of telemetry and drip email that improves your customer’s experience.  So I’ll ask again:

Is your company setup to monitor your users as successfully as Tesla monitors its drivers?  Why not?  I’ve used a lot of software where it is pretty clear they’re not monitoring much at all.  I’ve even talked to some of them to encourage change, and they seem receptive.

If you have a story about what sort of work along these lines you’re doing, please share it in the comments below.  I’m very curious.  I think we have the potential to personalize the experience for our customers like never before.

Posted in business, cloud, customer service, software development, strategy, user interface | 6 Comments »

Gaining the Wisdom of Crowds in a Bootstrapped SaaS Company

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 19, 2012

Beta Survey FormWhen you’re bootstrapping a small company, sometimes it’s hard to do the things larger organizations take for granted, like making sure you’re listening well enough to your customers.  On the other hand, you can take advantage of your nimble nature and the availability of some great technology to do some things that even a lot of larger organizations don’t manage to pull off.  At CNCCookbook, my small Manufacturing Software company, I’ve had to think long and hard about how to register the wisdom of my Crowds to make sure the company is on the right track with its products.  Lest you think small companies with fewer employees than you can count on one hand don’t have Crowds to learn from, CNCCookbook gets over 1 million visitors to its site every year and we’ve had over 15,000 machinists use the software to date.  We count some of the world’s largest manufacturers on our Customer List as well.  In short, there’s plenty of Wisdom to be had from our Crowds, it’s a matter of finding the right ways to capture it and put it to use.

Having come from a Social CRM background at Helpstream, the value of harnessing the Wisdom was not lost on me.  It was something that had worked well for me throughout my career and something I very much wanted to do well with at CNCCookbook.  Here is a brief history of how I went about it and which tools, techniques, and technologies were put to work to do so.

Phase 1:  Forums and Web Analytics

Right from the very start I deployed a set of User Forums which I called the “G-Wizard User Club” (CNCCookbook is our company and web site, G-Wizard is the software brand that labels our products).  Much as I miss the sophisticated capabilities we had at Helpstream (they haven’t been rivaled by any product since), I had to make do with what was available and what fit my budget.  I knew I wanted a SaaS-based service.  However easy it might be for me to install and administer phpBB or some other Open Source bulletin board, it would be one more thing for me to do.  As the sole person working in the company at this time, I made the decision to focus as much of my time as possible on things that were uniquely differentiated for our company.  Deploying phpBB wouldn’t even come close, so I went with an alternative that was both a SaaS service and ad-supported called ProBoards.

It has worked reasonably well, and served its purpose.  I moderated membership and got a lot of mileage out of the boards.  They continue to be popular to this day, and we have not quite 2000 members there today.  To make sure every User was aware, I also instituted an in-app button to take open the browser and take them to the User’s Club.

You can see there’s more than just the User’s Club there on that Login Bar, but it started with just the User’s Club and grew to encompass a number of resources every User needs to be aware of.  While our app doesn’t run in a browser (it’s an Adobe AIR app as disconnected running is often important to our audience), it behaves in every other way like a browser-based SaaS app and we have embraced a lot of the design concepts for such apps, such as seamless access to the important parts of our web presence and incorporating that presence as a first class citizen of our navigation structure.

Another critical source of the Wisdom of Crowds is your Web Analytics.  We use Google Analytics, and there is a wealth of information to be gleaned.  For example, our User Guides are entirely online and we can see from the Web Analytics which parts of the product are more interesting than others just by watching the traffic patterns.  As we do each new release we write a blog post that discusses the new functionality in the release and again this provides a framework for using Web Analytics to understand what’s going on with the product.

In app access to Getting Started Resources, our Support Portal, and the User’s Club Forums…

Phase 2:  Blog Comments, Social, and Surveys on the Web Site

CNCCookbook started as a plain old web site and went for quite a while like that.  We had an area where articles were presented in a quasi-blog format, but it wasn’t really a blog.  It didn’t take long before we’d outgrown that format and it was time to add a real blog based on WordPress.  If I had it to do over again, I would recommend that every company simply start with WordPress and eschew the plain old web site phase.  It’s a fantastic content management system that has a rich ecosystem supporting it.  In keeping with my SaaS philosophy (why would I spend my scarce time maintaining a commodity like WordPress instead of focusing on what makes our company different?), we signed up with page.ly to host WordPress for us.  We spliced the blog into our plain old web site using DNS Made Easy, a SaaS DNS service that’s been excellent.

This transition marked a big step up for us in a whole lot of ways.  There were obvious SEO advantages that were very visible in the Google Analytics reports.  It became much easier to manage our content and we did a major upgrade to the site’s look and feel (it’s getting close to time to do another, I think).  Best of all, we now had comments on every post and could deploy a host of social widgets to help harvest as much feedback from our audience as possible.  One of the first things I did once WordPress was up and running was to go out and survey key sites to see what sorts of plugins they were using with WordPress.  My approach was to use a variation of a Blackjack card counting strategy I had perfected to decide my Social Widget strategy.  I’ll say more about the Blackjack in a future post, but suffice to say I analyzed the widgets used by a number of top marketing blogs on the theory that these people should know.  I went to companies that clearly had lots of experience with conversion and A/B testing like Unbounce.  I went to specific marketing gurus like Neil Patel’s Quick Sprout blog.  It was an excellent way to focus my efforts and populate the CNCCookbook blog with what I think are an excellent set of Social plug-ins to maximize engagement.

Having done that, I turned to Surveys.  While it was kind of an expensive luxury, I bought two different tools.  I wanted a survey tool that would be innocuous and unobtrusive.  I hate visiting a site and getting hammered with a full stop “please answer our survey” ten seconds after I get there.  At that point, I have formed no opinion but a negative one about the damned survey.  At the time, KissMetrics had an awesome tool called KissInsights that would slide up from the bottom of screen in a very low key way.  That tool is now sold by Qualaroo and works great.  It’s biggest issue, and the reason I don’t use it for all my surveys, is it is limited to simple surveys.  So, I also subscribed to SurveyMonkey.

I use the Qualaroo tool to derive a Net Promoter-style feedback score on the overall product (ours is very high) and I use the Survey Monkey to do more detailed surveys aimed at understand the details of my audience.  For example, I have done surveys of which CAM software they use or which CNC control is on their machines.  Not only is this invaluable data (sort of like surveying which PC, OS, or browser a PC software audience uses), but it makes great content to publish on the blog.  Some of my all-time best traffic articles are just the results of such surveys.  Apparently others also want to understand the Wisdom of Crowds.

Phase 3:  Ideation and CRM

For Phase 3, I wanted some Social and Conventional CRM.  It was time to get a Trouble Ticketing system going.  I chose a vendor called UserVoice for several reasons.  First, it comes with a very nice Ideation App.  Ideation gives my audience the ability to suggest new features and vote on them, like Dell’s Ideastorm.  This is an extremely powerful capability for a small organization to use to focus scarce development resources.  The results will often surprise you.  Ideation is one aspect of what we had at Helpstream, so it was nice to get some of that back.  Second, it’s SaaS.  And third, I got a great deal on it via AppSumo.  BTW, AppSumo has yielded several good deals for my bootstrap venture.  I’ll warn you in advance, they’re very spammy in their email and you really have to know what you’re looking at when you consider the products they push, but if you are patient about wading through some spam and have a clear idea what your business needs, you’ll find some great deals to keep the overhead down.

One of our products, G-Wizard Calculator, is much more mature than our later products because it has a 2 year head start on them.  While I still have a lot of ideas about where I want to take that product, it has a solid conceptual foundation.  What I mean by that is that it is ready to be steered to a much greater extent by customers.  Ideation tools are a great way to do this as they force customers to ration their votes.  On our site, they get to use 10 votes, and can vote no more than 3 votes on any given idea.  Submitting a new idea uses up a vote.  Once the votes are used, they have to wait until the fait of an idea is decided, they are either implemented or rejected, at which time they get the votes back, or they can redeploy the votes.  This scarcity of votes gives a clearer signal of what really matters to your tribe.  Any time I am preparing to do a new release of the Calculator, I always start with our Customer Support Portal and look over the Ideation results.

Phase 4:  In-app Feedback and ET Phone Home Telemetry

This brings me to our current stage of evolution–In-application Feedback and Telemetry.  In keeping with our theme of making the product behave like a web application, we added a Beta Survey popup such as you see above.  This has been a very useful way to monitor our progress from Beta to release-ready.  After spending 10 days focusing development entirely on issues raised in the Beta Survey, we’ve been able to move to 81% of respondents scoring the app during the last week as either “3 – I could use this” or “4 – GWE rocks!”  For the period older than 1 week, the score was only 47%.  Clearly, users were able to tell us what they needed that was missing from the app.  We intend to continue for a while longer until we see a point of diminishing returns and then we’ll declare the Beta done.

In addition to the Beta Survey, we also receive what I call, “ET Phone Home Telemetry.”  This is basic telemetry on which parts of the app are actually being used and how well they perform.  For example, the centerpiece of the application is a complex 3D graphics simulation that shows how the machine tool cutter will move as it executes the g-code program loaded into GW Editor.  We monitor and report back the longest runs so we can get an idea of how the system is performing and whether we need to do more work on performance.  We also track usage information like how many times the user has logged into the app.

The technology that makes the in-app telemetry and Beta Survey easy is something called “Mandrill” that is offered by the MailChimp people.  Rather than having to build back-end server infrastructure that loads all this data into some form of database using an API, the app simply emails it back to us with Mandrill.  The volumes are such that it is very straightforward to collate the information in Excel for analysis.  Building a full-on database application for a 2000 person Beta test would have been needless complexity and time taken away from our focus on doing what differentiates our software.  Mandrill is what MailChimp calls “transactional email”.  I take that to mean email generated by machines, rather than by people, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here.  MailChimp has a Freemium model, and at our level, Mandrill is essentially free.  Not only was it very easy to implement, but it doesn’t cost us anything.  For bootstrappers, that’s a hard combination to ignore.

Conclusion

Just because you’re bootstrapping and have minimal budget and resources is no reason to ignore the Wisdom of Crowds.  In fact, I’d argue that having the Wisdom of Crowds helps you to allocate your scarce resources where they will really matter.  Towards that end, what we do differently at CNCCookbook as bootstrappers is build as little software as possible.  We want to focus every line of code written on problems that you simply can’t get solutions for elsewhere.  Problems that are unique to our audience of CNC machinists.  The more of those problems we can solve, the more value we bring to our customers.  Everything else is just overhead.  Towards that end, we have relied heavily on SaaS, on the Amazon Cloud, and on our ingenuity to lash together the available off-the-shelf technologies to give us the ability to deliver an overall User Experience that is arguably better than almost everywhere I’ve ever worked.  This despite every where else having vastly more budget and resources at their disposal.

I’ll give one last plug to SaaS and the Wisdom of Crowds.  We do as much testing as possible, but again, as a bootstrapped organization, we don’t have large numbers of testers.  Our software quality is therefore a focus of three things.  First, unit testing is important.  Whenever complex new subsystems are added to the software, we make sure there are unit tests.  I personally believe in single stepping the debugger until I’ve seen all the lines of code executed and verified the intermediate results are good.  Unit Tests not only help tee up the execution of all the paths, they also ensure that down the road we can validate intermediate results as changes are made.  Second, we release often.  I don’t like to change too many things without doing a release.  This means that the amount of testing per release is relatively contained to new functionality and our scarce testing capabilities can be focused.

Lastly, we use what I call a “feathered” release methodology.  Each time we release, there is a 7 day cycle.  On each day, we expose an additional 1/7 of the user base to the availability of the release.  Customers that insist on having the latest and greatest can change a setting so they see every release immediately, but most stick to the default.  This ensures that if anything is too badly broken, we’ll hear about it before a very large fraction of the installed base is exposed to it.  In this way, we’re also using the Wisdom of Crowds to help safeguard the quality of our software, and it has worked extremely well to date.

So, whether you’re a bootstrapper or a big company, think about how you could take advantage of the Wisdom of Crowds.  Not only will it make a big difference for your software, but it’ll show your audience that you care and that they have a voice.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, customer service, saas, software development, strategy, user interface | 7 Comments »

Those Special Customers Developers Love (Well They Should Love Them!)

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 3, 2011

Do you have any special customers that your developers hate?

These are the customers that can mysteriously break your products over and over again, even though perhaps thousands of others report no problems.

How does this work?

First, understand the psychology of bugs.  Developers don’t consciously create bugs, they come about as errors of omission, misunderstanding, distraction, and incomplete thinking.  Sometimes they’re a result of interactions between complex connected systems that the Developer does not understand or did not foresee.  Most Developers are pretty conscientious about not wanting customers to see bugs, and about getting them fixed quickly.  At my last startup, the Developers were part of the Customer Service crew, which gave them an even keener sense of the customer’s perspective.  Believe me, they wanted their bugs to stop hurting these customers!  BTW, I use that language of “bugs hurting customers” on purpose, because that’s what it feels like to Developers when they get to experience the customer’s pain firsthand.  I highly recommend it!

Yet, we still have bugs.

Second, consider how it all looks to the customer.  The first thing you have to do before you can put Developers on the phone is to get them to quit taking bugs personally and assuming the customer is wrong.  The customer reports a problem, and the immediate assumption is it is the customer’s fault somehow.  At least that’s how it can feel to your customers.  In reality, the Developer doesn’t literally think of finding fault, but they know the customer is doing something different, something they didn’t think of, and they have to get to the bottom of that as soon as possible.  In the worst case, it feels like a witch hunt to your customers when it shouldn’t.  If customers understood why the questions were being asked and why were they asked in that certain special Developer bone headed way, they would understand more.

Getting back to those special customers, they are the ones that do things differently than the vast majority, for whatever reason.  For example, if I talk to a customer that works in IT, I always take a mental deep breath.  These are the sorts of folks that will customize their browser’s security levels, erect additional firewalls, and do almost anything else to really customize their machines to work the way they want them to.  The vast unwashed are going to run their machines pretty much as they come out of the box.  So, the IT guys see some bugs that the vast unwashed don’t, simply because their configurations are different.

If I’m in a crowd with my wife, trying to find seats, I always follow her.  She’s left-handed and she will make different decisions than the vast unwashed, who are largely right-handed.  We will magically wind up getting to a shorter line or finding the better seats that are still available.  If you know a left-handed person, try following them.  It isn’t just a matter of picking left instead of right.  They perceive all of the cues around them just a little bit differently when making their decisions.

Look for people with different hardware.  They’re travelling the less traveled road.  They will find things your mainstream may not.

I have known dyslexic people who did the most amazing things with software.  I have seen problems uncovered through random behavior.  To a certain extent, I have also seen concentrations of bugs as indicating not just that an area of a product is buggy, but that it has poor User Experience.  Why?  Because areas that have poor User Experience cause people to do all sorts of crazy things as they try to guess at how to work the feature.  Hence it flushes out the bugs.  Always consider UX as a possible source of bugs!  And while you’re tracking these bug concentrations, recognize that unnatural locuses of bugginess are either indicators of Bad UX, Bad Architecture, Bad Developer, or something really really hard that you’d better invest more systematic testing in.  Let’s call these “Areas of Special Interest.”

I unwittingly became one of those “Special Customers” for KISSInsights during the last week (cool service I will have more to say about in a later post).  I had a problem with my account they kept trying to fix and couldn’t.  I escalated all the way to the CEO.  Not only did the problem not get fixed, but problems like making me a premium customer for a month for free were apparently being broken.  Both sides were becoming increasingly frustrated.  Then we discovered the real issue–I had two accounts.  They were fixing the older one and I was viewing the newer one.  DOH!

So what’s the moral?

1. Embrace your special customers.  Reward them.  They are like gold because they’re finding bugs that others haven’t found.

2. Seek out people who experience the world differently when using software.  I don’t know if you can go to the extent of trying to make sure your testers include South Paws and Dyslexics, but OTOH, maybe it’s a good idea.

3. Keep an eye on bug concentrations as a potential early indicator of Bad UX, Bad Architecture, or an Area of Special Interest.

4. Make sure everyone involved recognizes that positives that come of an effective quality process.  Never focus on blame.  Reward progress in discovery, correction, and avoidance.

Posted in customer service, software development, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Dim Dim: The Risk of Being a Salesforce Customer

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 7, 2011

unhappy customersMy title is a bit of a play on ReadWriteWeb’s title about the Risk of a Free Service, but I raise the issue in all seriousness because I think we should be looking not at the seller (hey, at this price, this was not exactly a sale from strength) but at the buyer.  Dennis Howlett, in writing about the transaction, is doing a little bit of looking at the buyer, but I want to go further.

The way a company handles the customers of an acquisition is an indication of how they may someday feel about their own customers.  When you buy the company, you bought the customers too.  Sure, it’s all fine and well to argue that you bought the technology and not the customers and it’s not your fault that the customers don’t fit in with your plans and so won’t be treated well.  But when you hear that rationale, ask yourself,  “What happens if I’m a customer of such an organization and suddenly I don’t fit in with their plans either?”  There’s not really a difference, particularly not if you are a just one customer among many of a large company.  If Salesforce was going to do what I’d want it to do if I were a Dim Dim customer, they’d be grandfathering me in and extending me full benefits of being a Salesforce customer.  They’d be welcoming me to the family instead of disinheriting me.  I’d be 10x more likely to want to buy something from them if they did, and I’d be 10x more likely to sing their praises and those of Dim Dim going forward regardless.   Unless I miss my guess, Salesforce is going to be doing a lot more acquisitions, so take note of the tone they’re setting.

There are really two kinds of successful businesses out there:  There is the business that would do anything for its customers, and then there is the business run by the numbers that is without soul or pity for their customers.  I won’t be disingenuous by claiming the soulless kind doesn’t work, neither will I argue that one is better.  We have big and successful examples of companies that do as they please with their customers–Oracle and Microsoft have both been accused of such more than once so it should be no secret.  We also have examples of companies who have put their customers above all else–I like companies like Zappo’s and Nordstrom or maybe Amazon and Apple (in a curious way, they do care, they just think they know best).  Some of Hurd’s problem at HP may have been putting a numbers guy in charge of a culture driven more by ideals.  We will see whether Apotheker is a better fit.

When the pure numbers companies make an acquisition, it’s pretty clear how things will work.  Fellow Enterprise Irregular Naomi Bloom has a wonderful post out about fairy tales in the land of HR software that describes some of the goings on you should expect:

- We (the acquirer) will continue to support all product lines fully:  Of course we really won’t, we can’t afford to, but we don’t want to tell you that too soon.

We (the acquirer) are delighted with our new colleagues and expect to retain all of them:  Even if we do retain them, and we won’t, they will be disempowered and will be bent to our culture and management.  Expect many to leave as soon as the handcuffs are off.

- Our customers can expect to see only improvements in their support, product roadmaps, and overall happiness as a result of this event:  Well, maybe, if it’s a technology acquisition.  If it is a market share acquisition, we are reducing the competitiveness of the market so that we may extract more profit while delivering less.

To those Fairy Tales, meaning if you hear them you should see them as red flags, I will add that if you see one of your vendors acquire a company and fail to welcome its customers with open arms to the family the way you would have liked to have been treated, that’s a red flag too.

There’s another thread I want to pick up on before I leave this one.  When we look at the two types of companies, ironically, making the customer King often leads to excellent profitability and shareholder value, but focusing on short-term numbers tweaking does not.  One of the disappointing things for me is how often products that were once great and companies can fade into obscurity.  I asked one of my favorite mentors one time what he was proudest of about the company where we had worked together.  His answer was very telling–his biggest accomplishment, he felt, was in creating a great culture.  This was a company that cared foremost for customers, and that culture resulted in an employee base that was very resilient to adverse conditions and very talented.  Later, the company got numbers focused and it has since lost that culture and most of those people.  Culture is the currency for a company that cares about its customers, but what is the currency that makes a big company out of one that cares for numbers?  Looking around for that answer I can only conclude that it is monopoly, customer lock-in, and the inertia that comes to all things big.  These are the only reasons for customers to put up with a company that cares more about its profits than about the customer.

Last point:  I read with interest Chris Sellend’s (lots of us Enterprise Irregulars with something to say!) prediction of a coming Social-Media-in-Marketing backlash.  Riffing on @pgillin, he calls for a Social Marketing Hangover.  I think folks calling for this backlash are right, but perhaps not in the way some of them are thinking.  Think about the two kinds of companies then think about what Social is.  The answer is obvious (to me at least):  companies that have a culture that cares about customers can be wildly successful with Social while customers with cultures that only care about the numbers are doomed to fail.  There is some question in my mind about whether they should even try, though there is a sentiment that feels opening themselves up to customers will let the customers rehabilitate them. 

The real tragedy is it will never occur to the number crunchers what is wrong and the pundits will watch the train wrecks and simply conclude Social was more hype than reality.  The customer-centric crowd won’t notice anything big either except that they can suddenly do what they do best a whole lot easier.

Posted in business, customer service, enterprise software, saas, service, venture | 2 Comments »

WordPress and the Dark Side of Multitenancy

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 11, 2010

Quite a bit of hubbub over WordPress’s recent outage.  A number of high profile blogs including Techcrunch, GigaOm, CNN, and your very own SmoothSpan use WordPress.  Matt Mullenweg told Read/WriteWeb:

“The cause of the outage was a very unfortunate code change that overwrote some key options in the options table for a number of blogs. We brought the site down to prevent damage and have been bringing blogs back after we’ve verified that they’re 100% okay.”

Apparently, WordPress has three data centers, 1300 servers, and is home to on the order of 10 million blogs.   Techcrunch is back and talking about it, but as I write this, GigaOm is still out.  Given the nature of the outage, WordPress presumably has to hand tweak that option information back in for all the blogs that got zapped.  If it is restoring from backup, that can be painful too.

While one can lay blame at the doorstep of whatever programmer made the mistake, the reality is that programmers make mistakes.  It is unavailable.  The important question is what has been done from an Operations and Architecture standpoint that either mitigates or compounds the likelihood such mistakes cause a problem.  In this case, I blame multitenancy.  When you can make a single code change that zaps all you customers very quickly like this, you had to have help from your architecture to pull it off.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for multitenancy.  In fact, it’s essential for many SaaS operations.  But, companies need to have a plan to manage the risks inherent in multitenancy.  The primary risk is the rapidity with which rolling out a change can affect your customer base.   When operations are set up so that every tenant is in the same “hotel”, this problem is compounded, because it means everyone gets hit.

What to do?

First, your architecture needs to support multiple hotels, and it needs to include tools that make it easy for your operations personnel to manage which tenants are in which hotels, which codelines run on which hotels (more on that one in a minute), and to rapidly rehost tenants to a different hotel, if desired.  These capabilities pave the way for a tremendous increase in operational flexibility that makes it far easier to do all sorts of things and possible to do some things that are completely impossible with a single hotel. 

Second, I highly encourage the use of a Cloud data center, such as Amazon Web Services.  Here again, the reason is operational flexibility.  Spinning up more servers rapidly for any number of reasons is easy to do, and you take the cost of temporarily having a lot more servers (for example, to give your customers a beta test of a new release) off the table because it is so cheap to temporarily have a lot of extra servers.

Last step: use a feathered release cycle.  When you roll out a code change, no matter how well-tested it is, don’t deploy to all the hotels.  A feathered release cycle delivers the code change to one hotel at a time, and waits an appropriate length of time to see that nothing catastrophic has occurred.  It’s amazing what a difference a day makes in understanding the potential pitfalls of a new release.  Given the operational flexibility of being able to manage multiple hotels, you can adopt all sorts of release feathering strategies.  Start with smaller customers, start with brand new customers, start with your freemium customers, and start out by beta testing customers are all possibilities that can result in considerable risk mitigation for the majority of your customer base.

If you’re a customer looking at SaaS solutions, ask about their capacity for multiple hotels and release feathering.  It just may save you considerable pain.

Posted in business, cloud, customer service, data center, saas | 10 Comments »

Podcast: From Soviet Era CRM Command and Control to Social CRM

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 20, 2009

I recently did a couple of podcasts with Phil Wainewright to talk about the evolution of CRM from its original command and control origins to the Social CRM that companies like Helpstream are delivering today.

I have to say it was a lot of fun working with Phil on the podcast.  I’ve also got another one coming with Brent Leary.

To hear (or read) the 2 ‘casts with Phil, try these links:

From Soviet-Era CRM to the Social Fabric of the Web

Bringing the Service Ethos to Sales and Marketing

Enjoy!

Posted in customer service, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

 
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