Software is eating the world, and the subsequent growth in the subscription economy has had a huge impact on the role of customer success.
While customer success orgs have always been focused on driving value and adoption for our customers, the need to deliver on this is more important than ever in a constantly changing SaaS landscape and in this article, I’ll share seven keys to doing just that.
My name's Ankur Patel and I'm a Customer Success Leader at Celonis, the global leader in process mining and process execution management.
In this article, I'm going to talk to you all about driving adoption in what seems to be a constantly changing SaaS landscape. Before I do, I want to go over a brief history lesson to lay the groundwork on how we are where we are today.
Software is eating the world
Software is eating the world, Marc Andreessen said this in 2011 when Hewlett Packard, where he was a board member, was contemplating spinning off many of its hardware businesses and instead investing further in software.
He went on to say we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swaths of the economy. Boy, was he right.
Andreessen's comments were the start of what could arguably be called the greatest technological decade in recent history. Just look at the Amazon's and Apple's of the world, where they were a decade ago and where they are today.
The software players, Microsoft's, Oracle's, ADP's, Salesforce's, and many of our own companies are coming and they're coming fast. Over the next few years, and still continuing today, there's been a further mass shift from enterprises relying on on-premise solutions to instead relying on SaaS solutions.
I don't want to bore you with what you already know but I do want to lay the foundation for the core of this article and that is why adoption is important and how you can successfully drive it.
We all know the main drivers and benefits SaaS has over on-premise for both the customer and the vendor.
- For the customer, its total cost of ownership that goes down and they get more contractual flexibility.
- For the vendor greater lifetime value of a customer.
This, however, has also left vendors more susceptible and vulnerable to churn given the customer optionality that subscription businesses create. For that very reason, organizations like all of ours are defining and constantly redefining our customer success frameworks.
- What makes a customer successful?
- What makes them healthy, and likely to renew and even expand?
- Is it value realized?
- Is it adoption?
- Maybe executive sponsorship, coupled with one or both of those?
It's likely all of that plus much, much more.
It's this, the growth of the subscription economy that is the single largest driver of customer success teams globally as seen by the hundreds, if not 1000s of enterprise software companies that have invested heavily in their customer success orgs over the past five to seven years.
The 2020 effect
Let's finally get to the dreaded 2020 and how that has impacted adoption of SaaS platforms.
In March 2020, our worlds are rocked, quarantine kept us away from work and loved ones.
Global supply chains turned upside down. Factories were shut, workers furloughed or laid off. Corporations were unable to procure the goods they need in turn, create products to sell creating shortages in things like toilet paper due to hoarding. We all remember those times.
Lumber because people were moving out of cities and building homes. Video games and furniture because folks wanted to get more comfortable in their homes.
This further drove organizations' priorities to shift overnight and companies that were ill-prepared found themselves immediately contemplating what mattered most, how to operate in the new norm.
The world as we knew it changed and we were all forced overnight into a new normal, one that frankly speaking, we're still figuring out today.
Going back to the corporations, however, Satya Nadella said it best when he called out that we've seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.
While companies are in fact refocusing their efforts on digital transformation, they're also revisiting existing budgets and what their tech stacks look like maintaining only the must-have essential software.
While customer success orgs like yours and mine have always been focused on driving value and adoption for our customers, the need to deliver on this could not ring more true than it does today.
The next months and years will separate the nice-to-have software's from the truly must-have SaaS solutions because corporations are rationalizing spend. Many are still today preparing for an inevitable recession and so for that reason, they're examining what the must-haves are.
We all want to fall on the right side of that chasm.
There is no stronger metric or KPI which separates a must-have from a nice-to-have then adoption.
With that said, let's now dive into what I've found are the keys to adoption.
Keys to adoption
1. Understand and shape your customer journey
Organizations carefully design customer success journeys early, but don't often objectively review that journey enough to be able to confidently assess whether the customer experience is truly what they aspire it to be.
Voice of the customer
One of the greatest exercises we've done here at Celonis to really understand our customer journey and how we stack up against the ideal design journey in the last couple of years was a voice of the customer exercise.
We spoke to 50 plus enterprise customers of ours about their journey and how various milestones and workshops throughout that journey were viewed by the customer, what the pain points were, what the challenges were, what could have gone better, what went well.
We cross-referenced this feedback we received directly from our customers with usage statistics, identifying key pain points along the way which we could improve upon.
Moments that matter
Once we had a sound understanding of what this customer journey looked like, we were able to define, as we call it, the moments that mattered in the customer journey.
So that we could not only rigorously and religiously execute on these but also memorialize these as key milestones in that customer journey. Things such as executive onboarding, go-lives, value realization, or success stories that were created, user rollouts, and so on.
For us, like many of you, one such example of this was executive sponsorship and needing to formalize this for each and every single customer that we have. These executive sponsors are bought into the sales cycle, but often can fall out after the sale cycle, so making sure they're engaged early and throughout was one of those key milestones we wanted to memorialize.
You don’t know what you don’t know
I'm not going to go into detail here because exec sponsorship is actually one of the other keys to adoption I'll be talking about. But the short story is this. You don't know what you don't know.
We all design customer journeys to be a certain way, but in reality, it's not exactly as you hoped. Invest the time and effort in speaking to your customers doing a voice of the customer exercise, for example, to really understand what the journey is and where you can improve.
2. Make user adoption a key company strategy
In today's SaaS marketplace, many organizations are moving to user-based or seat-based pricing models. That said the single biggest mistake an organization can make as it relates to driving adoption is assuming the sole responsibility of it will fall on the shoulders of CS and customer success only.
Ensuring all parts of the organization are bought into the concept of driving adoption together, essentially making it a core part of your company strategy is the single best way to tackle adoption.
Make this a priority
This is of course, way easier said than done. But CS leaders should make this case internally and make it a priority if you haven't already done so, to have the entire org focus on driving adoption.
Example: change management workshops
Let me share one example of why this is important. Celonis is a category creator, we are disrupting the way age-old business processes are run. In the same way that some of you are disrupting a known way of achieving some business outcome with your software.
Decisions to explore and ultimately buy software are done over very long drawn out sales cycles as we all know, by the likes of executives often C-level sometimes VP levels, who are ultimately the economic buyers and the champions who are bringing the software into their organization.
Given these extended sales cycles, we wanted to use a small portion of this cycle to extract valuable information that would ultimately lead to faster deployment and adoption, and in turn accelerate the time to value and success for our customers.
For this exact reason, we instilled what are called change management workshops into our pre-sales cycles to ensure we're getting ahead of the adoption topic. Identifying end users of the product even before the software is officially sold.
This way once the software is sold, customer success and professional services have a head start when it comes to identifying end-users, aka the beneficiaries of the product, depending on the use cases that are in scope.
Was this an easy change? Of course not, absolutely not. It required a strong business case and buy-in from our internal sales leadership and executive management teams. We showed them these abbreviated workshops would ultimately lead to more rapid deployment, and eventually more rapid adoption.
This results in a shorter time to value and here's the kicker, shorter time to upsell aka new ACV for the sales.
When user adoption becomes a key company strategy, you become customer-obsessed, and customer obsession is what leads to world-class retention rates. Customer success becomes a part of your entire organization's DNA as opposed to just a department.
When you have all parts of the organization from solution engineering to sales to customer success delivery and customer support, all the way to product and marketing. When you have all of these functions and more embrace user adoption and their role in driving it, it's truly amazing how much you can accomplish and how quickly you can accomplish it.
3. Strong executive sponsorship
I mentioned it previously, but an absolute must-have in driving adoption is strong executive sponsorship. Many of us again are disrupting some process or technology within our organizations.
As I mentioned previously, Celonis is a category creator and is changing the way age-old processes are run to be more efficient, intelligent, and frictionless. In order to sell to these customers, we need strong executive sponsors, but we must maintain this relationship and the executive sponsor presence periodically through implementation, and eventual rollout.
Maintaining some semblance of this top-down push is a key and no better source of that than your executive sponsor or economic buyer, who is essentially a believer or early adopter in bringing this technology into the organization to play that role.
Nurture the relationship
Having an executive sponsor isn't always enough, we also need to ensure we're nurturing and coaching that relationship accordingly.
It's important you do set the cadence for formal health checks in the form of QBRs for example, this will keep the executive sponsor engaged.
Also setting expectations of the executive sponsor, what role will he or she be playing during an implementation? As an escalation point? Creating top-down push post-implementation when you're driving change management?
Align on that change management plan with that executive sponsor, make sure they're aware of the key role they'll be playing in creating a top-down push.
Don’t wait to escalate roadblocks
On the flip side, we should not wait to escalate any roadblocks and challenges. Don't be discouraged also, if your executive sponsors immediate post-sale excitement waivers over time, implementations of certain software's can take time, and that is inevitable. No matter how hard we try.
Don't be afraid to prescriptively coach the executive sponsors on how to communicate, we know our product better than anyone else so be sure your executive sponsor is coached on the communications. Include your marketing or comms team internally to help with this.
We do that often for our go-live announcement when our product is implemented and ready to be rolled out to the end-users.
4. Effective onboarding
It's important you onboard new users the right way to keep them engaged. Some would argue you only get one chance and if you strike out, you're potentially losing out on that end user. The three key messages I want to send here are:
Keep user onboarding as prescriptive and simple as possible
For example, have onboarding playbooks or enablement plans. Try to keep the ask of new users as low effort as possible, but also prescriptive as possible.
Be thoughtful about who we're onboarding and when
Always look at it from the customer's point of view - what's in it for me? I'll come back to this point on the next key to driving adoption. But also think through when to enable technical resources versus business users, have a plan.
Create onboarding HyperCare periods
For example, we've hosted weekly office hours for one to two months post-implementation or after onboarding a new set of users to ensure they have continued support. And also so we can get feedback on the UX/UI and assess whether what we've implemented is sticky.
Other ways to get creative are to also create SLAs for the period immediately after an onboarding, informal SLAs that is after onboarding new users. For example two hour response times on troubleshooting, we don't want to lose the momentum and the excitement these new users have coming onto the platform.
Because if you don't get them to be sticky early it could lead to significant challenges down the road.
5. Tie your efforts to larger strategic initiatives
I can't stress this one enough. Going back to the sales cycle, economic buyers and exec sponsors bought this into the organization for some reason, likely a larger strategic challenge or initiative the organization was facing.
It's important to keep this in mind, but also to trickle that down to how and why end-users should use the platform, keeping in mind the "what's in it for me".
Let me give you an example.
Example: accounts payable
I'm going to use the accounts payable solution many of our customers purchase Celonis for. From the sales cycle, it's often CFOs or VPS, that would care about an accounts payable process, and are the ones that are purchasing this offering.
We also know the strategic initiatives for which they're purchasing Celonis. But it's important to think about the end-user and to ask again, what's in it for them?
In this example, the end-user would be an accounts payables clerk, let's say her name is Mary, or his name is Mark. Mary and Mark had been doing their job paying vendors one way for 10 maybe 20 years in some cases.
Why would Mary want to change the way she's been executing her day-to-day for the last 20 years, if there's no benefit in it for her?
Well, that's what we need to show. It's one thing to have exec sponsorship and buy-in and the strategic initiative they bought the software for, but another to show Mary how she can impact her day-to-day and her KPIs better by also playing into that larger strategic initiative.
How can she use Celonis, this new software not only to achieve the CFO strategic initiative but also to improve her day to day and KPIs that impact those larger strategic initiatives?
We use value trees like these to define end-user persona, and how they can benefit from our solution to ultimately impact the largest strategic initiative.
Then when you think about this at scale, think about a large organization, payables clerks in this example, there are hundreds if not 1000s of them in some organizations. So we want to be able to take this playbook and then roll it out further.
6. Have a change management strategy
I'll keep it high level here but again, we're disrupting or replacing an organization's way of doing something - their business as usual. To effectively do that you need a strong well thought out change management plan.
Change management framework
Ensure you have the right governance structure in place, not just for implementation, but post-implementation, adoption, and value realization.
Think through your enablement plan. When will you enable different types of users? What enablement mechanisms or resources do you have to do this? Have a plan.
Define where the product fits within the organization.
- Who will be the initial users onboarded and when?
- What does expansion to additional users look like?
- How can we create a demand pipeline for new potential users or areas of the org to expand to essentially becoming a revenue generator for your organization?
Define your operating model. Is there a health check cadence in place? QBRs or EBRs in place?
Finally, underlying all of this is the communication plan. How are we communicating to the org the rollout of this solution? As I mentioned, executive sponsors should be a part of this.
- Do we have a mechanism to celebrate successes?
- To drive awareness?
- Celebrate successes? And
- Develop the broader user community within your organization?
Build awareness early, often, and continuously
This leads to my next point within change management, and that is how can you drive awareness, celebrate successes and ultimately build a community? I'll briefly touch on this.
We've done countless things from newsletters, roadshows, company dashboards to company Facebook's, and innovation weeks.
On the celebrating successes side, we've had user of the month rewards, awards for improvements on specific KPIs, conference keynotes, success videos that we've done with our customers.
Establish a community
And on the establishing a community - lunch and learns, innovation weeks, Slack groups that are created so you can really start to establish that user community within your organizations.
There are so many effective methods to drive awareness, celebrate successes, and build user communities within your customers.
Work together with sales, marketing, and others to get creative in doing so.
7. Use your data
Continue to adapt, monitor usage and adoption, and continue to have the conversation with your customers where there are dips or downward trends.
Instill early warning mechanisms that trigger your CSM when certain thresholds are breached as it relates to adoption. For example, if the average DAU drops 25% week over week, or if weekly average usage drops 20% month over month.
This will empower you to ask the right questions and have data-driven conversations with your customers.
What mattered then may not matter now
What mattered then may not matter now, because we've seen that in COVID, as supply chains were turned upside down organizations had different priorities the very next day. Regardless of why your customers bought your product to begin with, COVID, for example, introduced new challenges overnight and they looked to us at least to help solve them.
Rather than taking a reactive backseat approach we introduced a COVID outreach program specifically for our customers during this time where we proactively reached out to all customers with some of the main challenges we saw our other customers facing as a result of COVID, and how we can help them.
This required sponsorship from the top in our organization and a joint effort from product, sales, customer success and services. But most of all, it showed empathy for our customers, as we went above and beyond to support them during their most trying times.
I'll leave you with a quote from Peter Thiel that sums it up perfectly in my eyes. Customers won't care about any particular technology unless it solves a particular problem in a superior way.
Make sure you always know what the problem is that you're solving, and adoption will come.