Customer Communication: What You Are Doing Wrong

Editor’s note: the following was written by a guest writer. If you are interested in contributing to our blog, please contact ellen@productschool.com

“Tomorrow we are moving all our customers to another cloud provider. Can we send out an email to customers today asap!” said the Head of Engineering at a hurriedly organized meeting between engineering and marketing. This is a true story that happened at a SaaS company I know.  

There are two BIG mistakes here. 

Dropped ice cream mistake

Mistake #1

You should never migrate all your customers at once. You never know what’s going to break. Ideally, you should categorize your customers into 3 groups by value and start with the least valuable. This way, you can learn from your mistakes the first time round and correct them the next time.

Mistake #2

You need to give your customers way more heads up than 24 hours for such a big announcement. If there is any chance of a product outage, you should warn them repeatedly through varied mediums, weeks in advance.  

So why did this happen at this company? It boiled down to one thing. There was no clear owner for customer communication.  

Who owns customer communication at your startup? Is it customer support or maybe customer success? Wait a minute, did I hear no one? Oftentimes, there may be no clear owner just like the above example. As a result, your customer communication tends to be:

  • An afterthought
  • Reactionary 
  • And overall sloppy

Here are some other mistakes, I have seen companies make:

  • Shock customers with new product releases with zero communication/training
  • Combine communications for prospects and customers with no segmentation
  • Let communication happen on an ad hoc basis

Why Change?

Change is coming

Late and lack of communication tells a customer that you don’t really care about them. Remember only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers complain. The rest churn, according to research by thinkJar, a customer strategy consulting firm. 

Poor communication is a costly mistake that SaaS companies just cannot afford to make as your most loyal customers are also your most profitable ones. With everything being on the cloud, customers can easily refuse to renew and go with a competitor. If you can relate to any of the above-listed mistakes, you need to fix your broken communication system. Otherwise, customers will churn the minute they find an alternative. This is ever more pertinent in these uncertain times when new sales is dull. You have to keep your existing customers happy, engaged, and reassured to keep the lights on. 

More mature organizations may have a customer marketing team to handle customer communication. But if you don’t, this is a great opportunity for product marketing to jump in and devise a proactive customer communication strategy. Driving such a high-visibility initiative will not only showcase product marketing’s value to leadership but will also broaden your engagement with customers. In the rest of this post, I will cover how you can go about driving such an initiative. This is based on my experience of having been part of several customer-centric initiatives at multiple companies. 

Start with Research

Dig around within your company to see how customer communication has been handled in the past. Why is it the way it is? Is communication a low priority or is it a lack of resources? Once you have all the background information and context, talk to a varied set of customers to understand:

  • How often do they hear from your company?
  • How do they hear of product releases and new product launches?
  • What are their preferred mediums of communication – email, webinars, community portal, in-app notifications etc.?
  • What kind of messages would they benefit from:
    • Product-related updates and training
    • Best practices sharing from other customers and industry experts 
    • Industry news, trends, analyst reports and the like

If you are in the B2B SaaS space, chances are your product is pretty complex and your customers will want some product training. If they are ambitious, they will also want to learn best practices from their peers.  

You might also be interested in: Why Qualitative Research Can Make You a Better Product Manager

Once your customer research is complete, prepare a presentation on your findings. Be sure to include direct customer quotes on how they feel communication has been in the past. If customers feel neglected and ignored, state that upfront. That will make all stakeholders sit up and take notice.  

Woman doing research

Brainstorm With the Internal Stakeholders

Call a meeting with key people from customer support, customer success and product management. Present your findings. Contrast the present state of affairs verus what customers want.  

Brainstorm with the stakeholders to see how best these customer needs can be met.

Chalk out the following:

  1. Decide on a Communication Goal: This could be to increase customer retention, raise product awareness or more narrow like feature adoption. 
  2. What’s the Content: Chalk out what all content you want to cover and what mediums you want to use.

Based on my experience, here are the main types of communication: 

MessageMediumTip
Product releases HTML Email + Webinar + Landing page + 60 second release overview videoDecide what all assets you need based on how complex the new capabilities are.
Anticipated product outages or instabilityEmail + in-app banner warning Communicate this at least two weeks ahead of the planned outage with reminders
Customer newsletterHTML Email Keep it more educational and less promotional
Event invitesEmail inviteProvide a readymade justification letter which they can give their boss
Unanticipated crisis situationsEmailEven if you don’t have all the answers, reach out and reassure them
  1. Set a Cadence: Set a fairly regular and manageable cadence for communication perhaps on a monthly basis. To start with, this can closely follow your product release calendar. Classify your releases into major and minor. While you may not want to communicate every minor release and bug fix. Be sure to go to town with your major releases, competitive differentiators and use of new, bleeding edge technologies. Let your existing customers know that you are constantly improving the product and that it benefits them to always upgrade to the latest release. Make them proud to be your customer! More on release communication in another post. Once you are able to communicate the basics around product releases you can add in more initiatives such as events and newsletters.   
  2. Decide on Ownership: Decide who will own what. This will bring clarity to the execution of this initiative. 

You might also be interested in: Product Management Skills: Stakeholder Management

For instance, if email communication is to be your primary channel then who owns the email list, the message, handling responses to monitoring the metrics. Customer support + Marketing can often be a winning combination. 

Here’s what the division of labour could look like:

InitiativeRoleResponsibilities
EmailCustomer SupportEmail listSending the emailHandling the responses
Marketing which includes product marketing, design, and email marketingEmail design and copyTest for deliverability A/B testingMonitor email metrics likeOpen rateClick through rateUnsubscribes
Product ManagementProvide product release overviewReview product-related content
  1. Set Measurement Criteria: There are a few different things you can measure. 
    1. Is your customer email list becoming more complete? Often your email list will have invalid addresses and may not cover all customers. Task someone to clean it, update it, and add all the latest customers. 
    2. Track Email CTR (Click Through Rate)
    3. Feature adoption metrics 
    4. Run a customer survey to gauge customer sentiment on the new communication initiative. 

Once all this planning is done. Record the meeting notes and share it with all stakeholders. From then on it is all about coordination, collaboration, and meticulous execution. Have a running meeting to facilitate the process. 

Other Customer Engagement Initiatives That You Must Work Towards

Apart from getting your communication right, you need to run multiple initiatives to broaden the engagement. This can be a two-way street where both parties benefit. You learn what customers want and continue building the right product. Leverage them to win new business. Meanwhile, they feel special and well taken care of. Here are some customer engagements efforts I have seen work:

  1. Build a CAB – If you don’t already have a Customer Advisory Board, work with product management to set one up today. Otherwise, you risk building a product that is totally irrelevant in the market. The customers on the CAB can be enlisted as your beta customers for every new release, giving you early feedback. Plus, they get the unique privilege to share insights and shape your product roadmap. 
  2. Consider an Online Customer Community – A virtual place for your customers and partners to ask questions, share best practices, and continue their product learning. Something as simple as a Slack channel can be an easy way to get started. You could offer structured product certifications to make your most earnest learners feel recognized. Your product manager can host an AMA to make your customers feel special. 
  3. Organize Meetups – Once a quarter organize a meetup for the end users of your product. This should be a gathering of practitioners who actually use your software on a daily basis. The idea here is to encourage customers to learn more about your product from their peers. Customers can share their stories, experiences, specific use cases, how they solve particular problems etc. Product managers can also use the stage to showcase the latest and greatest release functionality. Under today’s circumstances this will have to be a virtual event. But when things do get back to normal, you can host the first one in your office and get customers to host subsequent meetups in their offices. All you need to provide is a big meeting room with a projection screen and some snacks to nibble on. 
  4. Pamper Your Best Customers with Small Networking Events – As and when in-person events are back on the table you can consider small and intimate breakfast or dinner events where you invite the top brass. These are the executive sponsors who sign the cheques. Your executive team should be the host for such events. Invite some prospects to mingle with your happy customers. This can help push many bottom-of-the-funnel deals to close. 
  5. Host an Annual User Conference – Every SaaS company worth its salt has an annual user conference. If budget has been a concern so far, this year, it’s far less expensive to pull one off with everything being virtual. Invite the whole industry from analysts, influencers, media, customers, prospects to partners. 

Host sessions on:

  1. Product roadmap 
  2. Customer stories
  3. Best practices sharing
  4. Industry trends…and the like   

Final Thoughts

If you are in SaaS you really care about customer churn. You cannot afford to have a broken communication system which is last minute or sloppy. Product marketing can pick up the game on this and drive a proactive customer communication strategy based on actual customer needs.

Decide with your different stakeholders on the goal, the content, the cadence, and the measurement metrics to get communication right. Start with the basics of product release communication and once that process matures, you will be better placed to handle more complex scenarios like an unanticipated crisis. Deepen the engagement several notches by setting up a CAB, host customer meetups, and networking events. Such initiatives will not just keep your customers engaged and happy, but will also help you build a better product. 

Meet The Author

Poornima Mohandas

Poornima Mohandas is a business-journalist-turned-product-marketer with over 14 years of professional experience. She runs productmarketingfortech.com, a product marketing consultancy based out of Bangalore. She has handled incredibly successful, multi-million dollar enterprise SaaS products in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as emerging products in the more nascent Indian startup ecosystem.

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