Customer Engagement Groups: NOT One-Size-Fits-All

September 22, 2022
24 Minutes
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In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.

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One-size-fits-all seems to work fine for a few things. These arguably include: plastic rain ponchos, ping-pong paddles, the Flexfit ball caps that my dad likes to wear, and those awful grippy-socks handed out on trans-oceanic flights. For everything else, though, one-size-fits-all is brutal — always sub-optimal, often ineffective, and sometimes flat-out painful.

This principle holds true in many aspects of the small-scale SaaS world. And yet, we SaaS leaders consistently fall into the one-size-fits-all trap when it comes to customer engagement and setting up a formalized channel for soliciting actionable client feedback. There are many reasons for this including the fact that early-stage SaaS businesses often entirely lack an intentional approach to collecting market feedback; and launching an inaugural customer advisory board (often referred to by such acronyms as CAB, PAB, SAB, PUG, BUG, etc.) legitimately represents a major leap forward. Really, it does. Still, a one-size-fits-all approach to customer engagement can sometimes create as many problems as it solves. To describe and to combat that, this post draws on observations across many years & multiple companies to offer a framework for thoughtfully selecting an approach to customer engagement that best suits a business’ specific needs.

First, let’s introduce a few terms that will be useful to any discussion about programs for soliciting customer feedback:

· Focus groups / 1-on-1 Interviews: When conducting a focus group, researchers gather a group of clients / customers / users together to discuss a specific topic (or they do it on a 1-on-1 basis). Usually, the goal is to learn people’s opinions about a product or service, not to test how they use it. On this point, let’s draw a distinction here:

o User Testing: This is the process by which a company endeavors to validate the demand for a product or service. The earlier this happens, the better.

o Usability Testing: This is the practice of evaluating the functionality and design of your product or service (or website) by observing visitors’ actions and behavior as they complete specific tasks while using it. Although also important to do early, this generally happens a bit later on.

· Surveys: Standardized data collection from clients / users on a defined market or particular product.

· Tools / Data: Methods for gathering broader insights, including product usage stats, industry data, heat maps, A/B testing, etc.

· Client Groups: Convening knowledgeable clients who provide insight on the market and feedback about your solutions via the methods described above.

To be clear, all of these can be valuable, but this post focuses on the last of these forms of engagement — client groups. While there are arguably countless different flavors of client groups, we’ve observed three general types, as follows:

1. Strategic Advisory Board: This is a market-focused body, usually comprised of more senior client leaders. It is designed to provide strategic insights on the industry and offer informed, high-level feedback on strategy and roadmap.

2. Product Expert Group: This group shadows the SaaS company’s product management team and offers product feedback from roadmap creation, MVP definition, story finalization, and sprint updates. It tends to include super-users and expert system administrators. Meetings should be recorded for other members of company to listen.

3. Project Steering Group: This forum provides deep subject matter expertise for a specific project, product capability, or design approach. Such projects have specific kickoff and end dates. These often include more tactical users of a B2B SaaS solution.

Hopefully these brief descriptions make a clear case for how each of these groups would serve vastly different purposes on behalf of a business. The graphic below double-clicks further into how these groups typically differ in terms of size, meeting frequency, and longevity of commitment.

Client Groups by Size / Frequency / Duration

To summarize:

· A strategic advisory board is a longer-term commitment (often a couple years or more) for a very small group of people who meet only a couple times a year.

· A product expert group is comprised of a small group that tends to meet more frequently, but whose tenure can be shorter than the strategic group.

· A project steering group should provide a lot of data from a broad group of people on a tightly defined problem or project for a finite period of time.

The table below adds some quantifiable detail around how we tend to think about and structure programs for each of these types of groups.

Client Group Distinctions

To go one step further, and for those so inclined, it is also worth expanding upon this table as your programs become more formalized. We tend to add the following rows to nail-down additional criteria, including:

· Company resources responsible for / assigned to leading each group

· Funds budgeted to supporting each group

· Modality for how each group will meet (e.g. in-person, remote, hybrid, at Users Conference)

· How / to whom to internally distribute the information received from each group

In closing, a few words about why these distinctions actually matter: Most importantly, small-scale SaaS businesses have a finite set of resources; and engaging with these groups is hard(!). We think about the challenges of managing user groups in two categories, as follows:

I. Time & Resources — it takes a lot of both; below is a set of related tasks:

· Selecting / enlisting client participants

· Scheduling / coordinating attendance

· Setting agendas / managing participant expectations

· Preparing for the research / ensuring that what gets collected will be actionable

· Hosting / managing meetings (note: this can get expensive fast, depending on meeting modality)

· Follow-up communications / secondary research

· Actually IMPLEMENTING the feedback (you are now largely on the hook to deliver)

· Various clients with different objectives; different perspectives / different agendas

· Truth can hurt: any participating party may learn things they aren’t quite prepared to hear

· More harm than good (an extension of the prior point), sometimes less engagement is just…better

· Input scarcity: There is rarely enough data to be statistically valid, so some inherent guessing / risk remains

As a SaaS business evolves its programs for engaging with customers, it would be ideal to simultaneously manage a portfolio with one (or more) of each of these user groups. Sadly, (to repeat) small-scale SaaS businesses constantly balance the tension between an infinite set of possibilities against tightly constrained resources. Given that, it’s important that they ruthlessly prioritize in all areas, including how to programmatically solicit strategic / product feedback from their clients. So…with many small-scale SaaS businesses looking first to mature to the point of having even just ONE of the customer feedback groups described above, it’s important to do so with intentionality. Because, as with most things, one size does NOT fit all…avoid the plastic poncho; and choose wisely.

A word of thanks to Paul Miller, ardent product management leader, now CEO, and previous thought partner to this blog, who recently helped me to crystallize “what good looks like” in terms of customer engagement programs.

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