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Customer-led growth with Claire Suellentrop from Forget the Funnel

Episode #

17

Claire is the Co-Founder of Elevate & Forget the Funnel.  She has tremendous experience in SaaS marketing and growth.  Here are just a few of the topics we discussed in this episode:

  • What customer-led growth means and how to nail it
  • The difference between customer-led and product-led
  • The importance of creating the experience the customer needs
  • How to get started leveraging customer insights
  • How to think about the volume of customer insights you need
  • Getting started with better understanding your customers

Resources

Connecting with Claire

Stuart Balcombe
Hello and welcome to the Customer Conversations Podcast today. I'm so excited to be joined by the incredible Claire Suellentrop. Claire is the co-founder of Elevate, Forget the Funnel and previously led marketing at Calendly. She is an expert in all things customer insights and has helped companies like Wistia and FullStory unlock sustainable growth. Claire, welcome to the show.

Claire Suellentrop
Thank you so much, and thank you for that intro. That made me sound so cool.

Stuart Balcombe
You're pretty cool.

Claire Suellentrop
That was a very kind intro.

Stuart Balcombe
Claire is one of my favorite people in marketing. We've known each other for a while, so I'm really excited to dive into this conversation. I think for those people who don't know you and don't know your work with, I guess, Forgot the Funnel and now with Elevate, maybe you can tell people a little bit about what you actually do and what you help your clients do at Elevate.

Claire Suellentrop
Sure, absolutely. My business partner Georgiana Laudi and I are co-founders of a company called Elevate as you mentioned. Elevate, I would consider the consulting or client services arm of our business in which we work with SaaS companies really across the customer journey, so to speak, to help them identify where their biggest opportunity for growth is and then enable their team to actually act on that opportunity. So rather than what you might define as a "traditional marketing advisory team" that may focus only on acquisition, for example, we're really working full customer journey from acquisition all the way to implementing retention programs and everything in between.

Then the other aspect of our business as you just mentioned is Forget the Funnel, which is a, I would call it, we're still really playing around, honestly, with the best way to package up and describe Forget the Funnel, but a membership site honestly is the best way I can describe it at the moment. It's where we share tons of workshops and resources and all kinds of learning materials to help people really do on their own what we do when we work with clients.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. I know Forget the Funnel is such an incredible resource all by itself.

Claire Suellentrop
Thank you.

Stuart Balcombe
We have linked to it a whole lot in our content, so yeah, I know that there's a ton of marketers who are much better off from that resource being available and in the world. One of the things that I know you guys talk about a lot both on the Forget the Funnel workshops and sort of in your own writing, and I really want to sort of unpack in this conversation, is this idea of being customer-led or customer-driven, whatever you sort of exact terminology you want to use there, but the idea that the customer is sort of driving the things that you do. So I'm really curious to hear from your perspective sort of how do you define what customer-led growth means and what does that sort of actually mean in practice?

Claire Suellentrop
Sure. Thank you for the kind words about Forget the Funnel. That's so appreciated. Glad to dive into the whole customer-led, customer-driven concept, which is really how Gia and I began working together on Forget the Funnel several years ago. We met through a women in tech networking group and kind of realized through a quick call that we had very similar marketing and growth philosophies, and just recently have we really boiled that down into a more defined concept, which as you described, we're calling customer-led growth. We didn't invent the concept. It's been around, for sure, but we've just recently kind of put some words to it.

I would describe customer-led growth as a business strategy or a go-to-market approach, but leverages customer insights to first, I figure out at every stage of your customer's experience, how does your customer feel value, then operationalizes those value metrics so that your entire team can operate around and measure their performance against whether or not customers are receiving value at every stage of that journey. So it's not customer-led versus product-led or customer-led versus sales-led. It's more that customer-led influences whether you as a business implement strategies that are product-led or sales-led or engineering-led and so on and so forth.

Stuart Balcombe
Absolutely. That totally, totally makes sense. That was going to be my next question as you kind of touched on there is that obviously product-led growth as being sort of a trend that a lot of SaaS companies starting to adopt this time to sort of follow product-led growth practices and sort of use that product as a qualification mechanism as a way to show value upfront to help them drive greater adoption, greater retention in the longterm. So ow would you for somebody who sort of coming in thinking I know what product-led is, I'm thinking about that as an approach that I can can use in my go to market strategy, what would you tell them? How would you sort of position that against or compare that to what customer-led growth means and sort of how is that different operationally if at all?

Claire Suellentrop
Sure. That's a really good question. I think the first place that my mind goes in terms of how to kind of define the difference between the two. Again, not that it's customer led versus another, but let's pretend, for example, that you lead an organization or you work with an organization that is X-led. Let's say that you're at a product-led organization, right? Customers primarily come into your product via a free trial. There is no sales team. They decide whether or not to become paying customers on their own. At most, they have a support or success team that provides at-scale solutions to help them out. That is all well and good. Gia and I are both huge fans of the product-led approach.

But let's say at some point in your organization's journey of growing, your company decides to move up market. Super common stage at many companies' journeys, especially in SaaS. At that point, the idea of being fully product-led in many cases begins to break down because you are, in moving up market, targeting a customer whose needs require more handholding than a product-led experience solely can provide. So we in customer-led in that environment, I guess, to continue the analogy, being customer-led in that environment would mean redefining for this new, higher touch type of customer that you're targeting, figuring out, okay, how is this customer's needs different than the needs that we are currently fulfilling by supporting people only through our product? What are the new questions they're going to have? What are the new requirements they're going to have before they can make a purchase from us? What additional buyers do we have to cater to now? And so on and so forth.

So customer-led growth doesn't necessarily require that you pick product-led or you pick sales-led. It's more that based on where you are or where your SaaS is in its journey of growth, it's really a method of ensuring that the experience you're providing actually matches what that type of what that type of customer needs.

Stuart Balcombe
Got it. I love that idea that it doesn't have to be one or the other. It's not picking and choosing. It's picking the right tool. These are all tools to help increase revenue, increase acquisition, whatever metric you're trying to influence. And it's customer-led is sort of a, I don't know if framework is the right word, but it's a method or a process for identifying which tool is the right one to use at any given time.

Claire Suellentrop
Exactly, exactly.

Stuart Balcombe
You're great at setting up the next question, which one thing that you mentioned here is you need to in order to pick the right tool and to be customer-led, you need to know what's important to your customers. What do they value at each stage in the journey? So the next sort of step here is how do you actually do that? What are the customer insights that you're looking for that are going to sort of guide this approach and where do you start in collecting them, understanding them, and then ultimately making the decision about where go next based on those?

Claire Suellentrop
You are setting me up so well right now, Stuart. You don't even know. In a good way. And I say that because behind the scenes, to be transparent, Gia and I are working on a program called the Customer-Led Growth Program that will be available within one of the membership tiers of Forget the Funnel once it's finalized. And I am in the process right now of being forced to kind of put that, everything you just described done on paper. So this timing is like really great. And this will be a test run of what I've put down on paper. You can poke holes in it.

In terms of where you start, where you start gathering those customer insights and then how you go about gathering them, what Gia and I have landed on is, well, it first starts with how big, how big is the organization you're at, and therefore how many other team members you need to get bought on with this idea. If it's you as a founder or a series of founders, that's one thing. If it's you within a hundred person organization, you're probably going to want to build a team across you and your department and a couple other customer-facing departments to move this forward and get more perspectives. But in either case, whether it's you alone or you in a small, you and your customer-led team, so to speak, the first place you'd want to start is identifying what we're currently calling the across your customer journey, the critical business opportunity.

I say that because this idea that you've got this beautiful customer experience that you would have at every stage is really hard to achieve. Your customer and their needs are always changing. The landscape is always changing. Your company is growing. So you really need to zoom in and identify where within our customer's experience do we have the most room to improve or increase revenue or whatever it may be right now, or retain revenue that's currently disappearing cause we have a churn problem. So it starts with identifying where along your customer's experience you have the most opportunity.

Onboarding is a really hot topic right now. That's a place that it's a place that gets a lot of love. ProfitWell often talks about the value of increasing retention. So it starts with where do you have room to grow? And then from there, a method that I know you and I know and love very well is identifying your ideal customers who've gone through that stage in the journey and actually learning from them, especially via interviews. And I don't know how deep down the rabbit hole of like customer interviews you want to go. We could go there.

Stuart Balcombe
We can go down the rabbit hole.

Claire Suellentrop
But essentially, once you've identified where within your customer's experience do you want to focus, we'll say onboarding because what the heck, why not? We'll talk about, we'll say maybe we've got an onboarding problem. We're driving in new trials and they're not converting to new customers the way we want them to. Your next step is figuring out of the customers that you have converted or of those who have gone through your trial who've converted to customers and are a good fit, they are not a huge burden on support, they're super engaged, it depends on your pricing structure, but they have a healthy LTV, what was it that convinced them to go all the way through that experience and what were the gaps for them?

Again, this is such a ... I'm talking about standard jobs to be done stuff here, ll of which you know, and I'm sure you've discussed with many of your other guests, but we typically recommend a combination of interviews depending on the size of your customer base. We might use survey to help further identify patterns across the customer base. We can't speak with everyone, of course. There's leveraging your, your team's collective knowledge. Those are all. I know I'm kind of skimming the top of many ways of gathering insight, and that's only because I'm not sure how detailed do you want me to get.

Stuart Balcombe
We probably shouldn't rabbit hole on too many things. We can be here for hours talking about offering customer insight.

Claire Suellentrop
So I guess to bring myself out of the rabbit hole, that the multistep process in terms of getting started with or orienting your company around customer-led growth is assemble your team. If you are at an organization where you would need to get other champions bought into this idea with you, assemble your team, identify the biggest opportunity along the customer journey, and then zoom in on that opportunity and start learning from good customers who've gone through that stage of the journey. That's the TLDR version so far.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, that totally makes sense. I think onboarding is a great example of this because it's very measurable. You see numbers of X number of people and why people came out as successful customers however we define that, whether it's revenue, whether it's engagement, whatever is meaningful to that particular company.

One thing that I do want to go a little bit into the rabbit hole on is because you mentioned both interviews and survey data and interviewing team members who maybe have direct interaction with customers on a regular basis. What's the right mix there? Because this is a question that I get all the time is, or an objection that comes up when I'm talking about have you interviewed customers? A common objection is, well, no, but what's five interviews going to do or what's 10 interviews going to do? We have thousands of customers or tens of thousands of customers. Is that representative of our customer base at large and can we actually use that to make decisions? So I'm curious to get your take on that, especially working with companies who have large numbers of customers, have large sort of potential pool of insights to pull from.

Claire Suellentrop
That's the million dollar question. So much of that is going to depend on the target market that you're focusing on. The amount of customers you may need to learn from to represent a customer base that is only a couple dozen, maybe a hundred or a few hundred customers because you're serving an enterprise market is really different from trying to get a representation of a customer base that is several thousand customers large, so typically lower ACV self-serve product.

So you do have to start there and you do have to ... I would say it's a bit of an art and a science in that there's not going to be a perfect formula for every single company. What I have had success with, and I say that in terms of my own research when I was in house and then also in working with clients, so to start with what I've found to be valuable in selling this idea internally that it is a worthwhile exercise to get customers on the phone is asking someone who has decision making power, "Well, do you know why this type of customer..." Let's pretend we've identified what ideal customer is here. "Do you know why this person decides to buy today rather than six months ago or six months from now? What is the thing that makes them decide to buy today?"

And typically internal team members have ideas and theories, but it's very rare that that level of granularity has been captured internally, and not knowing that and realizing ... shit ... there's a major gap in our internal knowledge is often a good motivator to get people on board and say, okay, yeah, this is probably an important thing to learn.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. I think it's really nice to be able to boil that down to ort of one question. I think that's a great takeaway for people listening to that. I might steal that one as well.

Claire Suellentrop
Go for it. Let me know how it goes.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, yeah, to have that sort of one point of sort of reference to come back to to get buy in for this sort of thing. And that's something that you can continue to revisit. What was true, the answer to that question six months from now may be different than it is now as markets change, which is obviously sort of particularly relevant at the moment with COVID and everybody's buying behavior changing.

Claire Suellentrop
Exactly. Right. Yeah. We just did a Forget the Funnel Q&A session the other day and that was a topic that was discussed. What do you do if your market has entirely changed and you're now in a situation where your traffic has dropped or your trials have dropped and so on and so forth? You're totally right that in an economic shift like this, those who are now buying from you may be entirely different and their reasons may be entirely different than those of the customers you served six months ago. So this is actually an ideal time to be revisiting these topics.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, absolutely. And of course it's made easier if you've implemented sort of systems and process internally to sort of continually capture these insights and sort of make sure that you always have that gut check of, do we know why customers buy?

Stuart Balcombe:
Sort of to wrap this, also round out this process, this customer-led sort of growth approach, now that we know where the biggest opportunity is for growth in our business, we have our team, which I guess is the other way round, team, our biggest opportunity, and know we know why best customers buy how do we actually apply that to decision making, which ultimately all of this stuff sort of up to now doesn't do anything by itself? You have to actually apply that to the work that you're doing sort of moving forward. So what's sort of the for lack of a better word, I guess, the implementation plan for taking these insights and turning it into, I guess, money on the backend?

Claire Suellentrop
Totally the important part. The reason we have jobs. The place that my head typically goes right after, and again, I recognize that what you and I are describing is a process that takes teams months to do. Get buy-in, identifying the opportunity, get the customers on the phone, parse the insights, and we're flipping through it like la la la la la, okay, you've got your team. But let's say you've gone through that. You've gone through a process like that in your quest to or in your mission to create customer-led growth. And you've gathered these insights, you've learned from customers. This is why they went and they sought us out. This is what convinced them that we were the best solution. This is what they saw or experienced with our product that made them realize, yes, I'm sticking with this blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They had a successful experience with you all the way through.

The next step is in most cases, in almost every case that I've experienced is reevaluating what KPIs you currently use to measure success against what signified within that customer story that they felt value. And if it's helpful to kind of make that a bit more tangible, I had a really interesting conversation with the head of growth at a SaaS company about a year ago. He had just come on board, he was super excited, and he was in that phase of just getting started with the job where he was trying to assess how are we performing at every stage? And he had happened to build out a dashboard and using pirate metrics. So he had acquisition, activation, retention, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, or whichever order they go in. I feel like it's changed and people have added an extra A and another R.

Stuart Balcombe
Retention, revenue, referral.

Claire Suellentrop
Yeah. I know the idea of pirate metrics is familiar, but it's morphed over the years. All to say, we were looking at this dashboard together that he had built out and he was struggling because he was looking at on his dashboard, he was looking at the column activation. He had it set up in a spreadsheet, and I was asking him, so what does activation mean for your customers? Does that mean that they have started the trial or does it mean that they reached their a-ha moment where they're like, "I get it. I'm going to stick with this thing?" Does it mean they've subscribed and they're paying you now.

And he kind of sat back and he was like, "Huh. I don't actually know which of those things it means," which is not to say that he'd done a bad job of building a dashboard, but he was leveraging metrics that we use generally to describe a customer's experience going through a SaaS product, but they weren't actually representative of what his customers went through step by step. So once you have gathered those customer insights, you're in a much better position to map out for our ideal customer, what are each of the stages they go through and how do we quantify those stages to better understand where they are dropping off and where we're doing a good job.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. That totally makes sense that until you align what you think is valuable with what your customer thinks is valuable, you could be optimizing or working on things that are just not remotely relevant to actually moving the needle on growth or whatever your goals are.

Claire Suellentrop
Right.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. So I guess sort of to, we could talk about this for this stuff for hours and hours, but to just sort of tie a bow on this, for somebody who is maybe the, and this I think is pretty common at least for the people that I've spoken to, they know that they should be more customer-centric. They should be talking to more customers. There is value in better understanding your customers. Where do you start, right. What's the, the very first thing that you can go and do today, this week that, and like you say, we sort of breezed through all these steps pretty quickly, but for somebody who can sort of do something and get the ball sort of moving in the right direction, what's the first thing that you would recommend they do?

Claire Suellentrop
It's going to, like everything, depend on what role you're in and what type of company you're working at. What's your priority? If you are in a marketing role and you are mainly tasked with driving more traffic, you have one priority. If you are in a product role and you're mainly tasked with increasing an engagement metric of some kind, it's going to look different for you. The best place typically to start, the content of what I'm going to is going to say will change depending on your priorities, but the best place to start is gathering up a up list of your ideal customers who've recently taken whatever leap of faith with you that they're supposed to take.

So let's pretend. Again, I'm going to go back to the marketing example because I'm trying to make this a bit more tangible, but let's say that you are tasked with driving traffic to your company's website and you're trying to understand what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong. I would start by ... actually traffic is even tougher because you're talking about people who have not converted. That's like a level two example. Let's take it one step further inside the customer journey and you're trying to understand from people who signed up for the trial, why did they trust in you or why not? What would have stopped them?

The first place to start is gathering up a list of people who appear to be good fits. So in a trial experience, for example, that would be people who have already reached the activate. They've already reached whatever a-ha moment you want them to reach. And shoot them a quick email. It doesn't have to be fancy. It doesn't have to be something big and automated. It could literally just be an email from your personal email address sent from your G-suite inbox that says, "Hey, my name is so and so. I'm in charge of X at this company and I just wanted to know what was going on in your world that led you to sign up for product name." That would be the simplest place I would start.

Stuart Balcombe
Right. What's amazing, too, is that taking that simple approach, you're probably going to get better response rates and better responses.

Claire Suellentrop
Totally, totally because it looks like a real email.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah, exactly. It's amazing. Samuel Hulick actually who was on the podcast, we just released this episode recently, too, said exactly the same thing?

Claire Suellentrop
Really? That's great.

Stuart Balcombe
Yeah. Even his personal user onboard site doesn't automate email. Just looks through the list of people who signed up the day before.

Claire Suellentrop
And it's like, "Yo."

Stuart Balcombe
Sends you a personal note. And it's amazing the things that people say in those emails, and the things that because it's coming from your customer and not from somebody else on your team or somebody who's working on your product or in marketing every day, they're sort of things that appear out of left field, but maybe that are actually not really out of left field. They're just things that are from your customers, not from you.

Claire Suellentrop
Honestly, Stuart, you bring up a really good point there that we kind of glossed over when we jumped from you gather insights to you quantify them and you look at your KPIs. The quantifying of insights and measuring performance against those insights and generating revenue is obviously critical, and that's a major part in selling the idea to an exec team of being customer-driven, customer-led. But one thing you've touched on just now that we didn't talk about was how powerful internally conducting this type of or doing this type of work can be in humanizing your customers and making your team as a whole more aware of who it is they're serving.

I know I always hesitate to talk about this aspect of customer research because it feels so fluffy. I don't know, it feels like a nice to-have, but in working on the customer-led growth program, I have been looking through case studies of companies who transformed their business really by adopting a more customer-led approach. And one of the biggest transformation points typically is when an internal team sees the faces of customers and hears audio transcripts and is like, Oh. There's a big mindset shift moment. There that's super important and harder to quantify, but it's still such a game changer in how the team typically operates.

Stuart Balcombe
Right? Yeah. I think that's so true that, I mean, it's the same thing that we talked about with customers, getting people to that aha moment of, "Oh, this was not expected. This is not the way that I was thinking about it, but that totally makes sense." And I don't know if this is one of your examples, but I know that there's certainly plenty of other examples of companies that have done this, but I know Superhuman has a wall of the customer's faces for exactly that reason. These are real people who are buying and using a product. Knowing them at that level makes it so much easier to do everything else.

Claire Suellentrop
Right. Right. And to build with that person in mind. And when I say build, I mean build marketing campaigns or build an onboarding experience or build actual new product.

Stuart Balcombe
Right, yeah. Everything counts. It's all about the experience that there is no siloed customer experience. They have lots of touch points across lots of different channels, lots of different mediums, and yeah, they all count and they all get sort of weighed up in your customer's mind.

Claire Suellentrop
Exactly. Yeah.

Stuart Balcombe
Cool. This has been really awesome. I know like I said, we could keep talking for hours and hours. We've covered a lot of stuff here, and I'm sure people, well, we've already mentioned Forget the Funnel and Elevate, but if people want to sort of continue the conversation, learn more about the things that you're doing with customer-led growth, get their hands on the framework itself once that's ready, where should they go to find you online and keep in touch?

Claire Suellentrop
Hell, yeah. Twitter is the best water cooler chat option, for sure. I do hang out on Twitter. Forgetthefunnel.com, I would say is best option number two if you become a member there. We have a totally free membership and the free membership gives you access to literally all of the content we have produced over the past three years, and that's also the best place to then in the future find out about the customer-led growth program once that rolls out later this year. And then claire@heyelevate.com is I would say option number three if you might get in touch with me directly.

Stuart Balcombe
Cool. Well, we'll certainly link all of that great stuff up in the show notes, but thanks so much for doing this. This has been really amazing. I can't wait to share it.

Claire Suellentrop
I'm super excited to have been invited, so thanks so much.

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