Business

Putting your customers front and center – An interview with Kurt Daniel

By 09/06/2020 August 5th, 2020 No Comments

For today’s WonderTalk, we are joined by Kurt Daniel, the CEO of Ubersmith. Kurt has impressive experience in the software and SaaS industries. He has worked at companies like MongoDB (a startup now worth $12 billion) and other successful startups and larger companies, including Worklight (which was acquired by IBM), Parallels and Microsoft. 

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming Kurt to Wonderflow’s advisory board, which makes this the opportune time to sit down with him. 

As always, this interview series aims to talk about customer-centricity and what strategies and tools companies can deploy to empower their teams to deliver better products and services. 

We invite professionals to these conversations from different industries and with different backgrounds so that we can have open and transparent discussions and can help people to learn from each other. 

In this interview, we will talk about the ability to put your customer front and center, about driving change, and about lessons from open source for people in customer experience and insights roles.

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Kurt, can you talk a bit about yourself, your current position as CEO at Ubersmith, but also your past experiences?

I’ve been in technology for more than 20 years now, including B2C and B2B. For the last six years, I’ve been leading Ubersmith, a subscription management software company with customers all over the world. 

We help organizations of any size with: recurring and/or metered billing for anything you can imagine, customer management, sales quoting, order management, infrastructure management, help desk ticketing, reporting, analytics, and other functionality. 

We appreciate being able to help our customers automate and connect important parts of their business in an ongoing fashion to serve their consumer and business customers better. We’re always looking at ways to understand our customers better, serve our customers better with our technology and with our people, and track new metrics, both externally-focused and internally-focused ones.

Before Ubersmith, I worked at small, medium, and large tech companies serving consumers, businesses, IT departments, developers, and partners with applications, infrastructure, or tools. I’ve been lucky to work with great customers and great partners and work on important, future-oriented products in databases, analytics, mobile, and the internet.

Our listeners are often aware of the need to become customer-centric but are part of reluctant organizations. And when we spoke earlier, you talked about a very interesting point, which is the step after you have collected feedback from your market. The ability to start sharing the insights effectively and embedding them throughout your organization. How do you start motivating different departments to start listening to the customer more?

I think it depends on the company’s size and culture. Things I have seen work well are Town Hall meetings and Lunch and Learn meetings with the aim of educating, but also sharing information, data, and summaries via email, Slack, or other written methods and executive reviews of feedback. It’s important to share where and when it makes sense to offer short summaries with more depth for those who want it. So, we don’t force people into information overload. It’s important to spend more time with those who need to see it, and act on it to benefit the customer, whether this is a product, engineering, or support. 

At larger companies, you can spend more time and money on customer-centricity research. When I was at Microsoft, we would conduct focus groups around the country to deeply understand our competitors’ customers, not just our customers. I think it’s critical to use the right experts and tools along the way – industry analysts, product experts, solutions like Wonderflow.

Can you talk a little bit about the Town Hall meetings, how to put those to use?

These meetings are a way to make it a little bit more personal, instead of only sending out an email summary. At my company, we like to do this kind of meeting to show exciting new things that people haven’t seen before. We prefer not sending out summaries for important new things because they take away the surprise and excitement. So, having every person in the company, from the CEO to every employee involved, really brings light to the project. This is very effective and also more fun.

It’s also about building momentum, right? So, getting people on board and making them feel that they are involved in something exciting. 

Sometimes we do product demos, specifically with customer analytics. We treat it like a demo, even if it’s not a demo. And then we follow up, even during the meeting, sharing all the in-depth details with the people who care about it most.

Having worked at an open-source company, can you talk about how to build communities, and how you can leverage the feedback and input from those communities to improve your products and services?

I have been following open-source for almost 20 years. At Microsoft, I was closely following open-source as a sort of competitor, and now it’s more of a partner. It’s an interesting model, different from a proprietary and commercial business model. Firstly, it can help gather more and better feedback, rather than doing everything internally or with a more traditional model. Secondly, with open-source, the community can spread. Finally, it is also a way to help customers. In many cases, they are helping themselves by contributing to feedback or code. 

MongoDB was ideal for open-source because it was a database infrastructure product. In the applications space, I see less of this. 

We had a strong approach to the community in addition to differentiated products and technologies. So, very early on, the company offered free community support, which the sales team didn’t love, but it worked out great. Open office hours, whether in person or otherwise, online education, and customer advisory council with some of the largest and most interesting customers. Customer advisory councils were also done by Microsoft and other companies. You can have partner advisory councils as well, which is kind of related to customer advisory councils in terms of the feedback, particularly on new program ideas, policies, and new products. It’s a trusted group that gives early, very high-quality, and sophisticated feedback. 

To build the community, you can start with something with strong value. You also want to get the word out, tap into existing networks, and leverage this feedback that you can get uniquely from the open-source model or another community approach. You can’t act on every feedback item, especially if it’s a popular product, where you get flooded with many ideas. But it’s important to be at least aware of the feedback, and then you can choose what’s going to work best for you, for the market and the customer base in general. A side benefit for MongoDB is that they got known as a company that was great at building community, and it got talked about even outside the database market, and it enhanced the brand, bringing them additional customer interest, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Those are very good points. I love the aspect of tapping into existing networks. It’s something I see in my role. Still, I think it’s something that everybody should be looking at in their specific role because, as you said, you get high-quality feedback and talk to people in an environment they are more comfortable in. So, it’s easier to get conversations going, both online and offline. And then the fact that you can’t act on every feedback item, that makes a lot of sense. And I think this is something that people might struggle with. First, you’re struggling to collect feedback, and then you’re struggling to make sense of it and to rank it. It’s important to think about a strong structure with which to make sense of the feedback. 

Yes, sometimes, it’s counter-intuitive. You might get a lot of people asking you for something which you know it’s not going to be appropriate for your vision. And sometimes, very few people or even just one person can give you some feedback that you should act on because you can see how it really fits with the unique value proposition that your team uniquely built.

Yes, it’s the short-term gains versus the long-term strategy. Obviously, it doesn’t always make sense to listen to the customers, but it’s not an easy or logical first step. From your experience, do you have examples of times when listening to the customer wasn’t so easy or logical?

Sure, I can think of a few. When I was an executive at Worklight, we had to learn to avoid listening too hard to certain innovation groups, like very large banks and other organizations, that often would not deploy a new idea or solution into production because they were only conceptually interested. We helped them reach innovation goals but not core business goals; there wasn’t a hands-off for the business to sponsor the project and move forward. That was very frustrating, but I’ve learned a lot from that. In some cases, you can successfully work with a group like that; you just need to be more careful. We also had to learn to listen most to the customers who could understand our unique value proposition. We are in a crowded market with many different offerings. The customers who understood and appreciated what we did were the ones we had to pay more attention to, in order to maximize our success.

Listening to the right customers in the right segments at Worklight saved our startup from going out of business. They helped us reach product-market fit and helped us flesh out our solution.

The way we approached it internally was to use marketing to help find the prospects we could talk to. And, these prospects, with our sales team, helped make our product gaps very clear much faster than we could figure out on our own. So, that was a great learning experience. 

When I was an executive at Parallels, seeing some negative customer reviews online used to drive us crazy, including our CEO. Even when they were far outweighed in quantity by positive reviews. We had to learn to view them less emotionally and more rationally, and we realized that if you have enough customers (we had a huge number of customers all over the world), you are going to have some bad reviews, you can’t please everyone. Those bad reviews can help you pinpoint things to prioritize for improvement (not always true, of course, but often true). It’s not logical to act on every customer idea, or your product will become too bloated or never released. Of course seeing great reviews, on the other hand, can really make your day and give you and your team a nice energy boost. 

As a side note, it can be even harder to hear negative employee feedback, in my experience as a CEO of a company that takes employee feedback very seriously. We’ve done various employee feedback projects like employee surveys and analyses of reviews on Glassdoor. And it feels more personal. You can have very good relationships with your customers, but because you’re spending so much time with the employees, the negative feedback feels more personal. So, it’s important to take a deep breath, read through it, and understand what motivations there might be, also remembering that the feedback is there to help the company be better. The more negative feedback you have, the more things you can start working on to improve them.

That underlines the need for having unstructured feedback, where people can really talk about what they care about. You can have a one-star rating, but you can also have a one-star rating with a text that will give you much more information. 

It’s interesting that you bring that up. We are currently reworking our NPS surveys. Right now, we are using an internal and an external one, and we are going to be running them this month. Last year we went a little overboard, and we had too many questions. It was fine for the employees because they took the time to complete it. But customers are busy, and they are constantly receiving survey requests from many different companies. So, this year we are taking an extreme approach. We are going to have the NPS question and an open-ended box. In theory, the open-ended box should provide us with detailed information about what the customers really care about. 

This is the way that larger e-commerce platforms handle a lot of the feedback requests as well. So, that should have a very good impact. Then it’s up to the company to make sense of the feedback. 

Yes, in some cases, you want to go very deep. So, you want to have very long questionnaires. Maybe your Customer Success team or your Head of Product want to talk to a customer in person, in an interview, or over the phone. But in this case, we are sending the survey request to the entire customer base.

I think this is about finding a balance between the ability to listen to a large group of people and being able to take a deep dive. 

In my company, we like to segment on roles, so whether you are in finance, IT, sales, or operations. We also like to segment on company size, and industry, even in cases where the product isn’t different. 

Looking at both B2B and B2C, how do you see customer feedback making an impact? From experience and the world around you.

For both B2B and B2C, customer feedback and customer feedback analysis are critical. Customer feedback benefits customer success, product management, innovation, and support. It also helps you become a more successful business with better customer loyalty, expansion, and lifetime value. The best organizations do a great job in gathering feedback, analyzing it, presenting it, and acting on it. Additionally, the best organizations use the best tools and analytics to accomplish the work, and this is a great advantage for them. Going forward, I see organizations using new tools and new approaches in customer feedback to gain further advantage and stay ahead in competitive global markets, whether B2B or B2C. 

Yes, I love the point you made about the fact that the best organizations do a great job in gathering and analyzing feedback. And, I think that the core message here is that you should start early on because feedback gathering and analysis is a very important building block for organizations. 

How you act on the feedback can have a positive or negative impact, but I’ve never heard anybody saying that talking to your customers or gathering feedback is a bad thing. The idea of listening, observing, and measuring is hard to disagree with. How much time you spend on it, how much you invest in it, and how good are the tools you use can differentiate your company. I think all organizations want to do well on this, but some do better than others. 

I think that the intention is usually there. Very few people are going to argue that putting your customer at the center is not a good idea, but I think that making it happen is what organizations are struggling with. We talk to industry analysts, and what you hear is that even the largest companies right now are struggling to put everything together to get one clear, unified image of “the customer” or the customer interactions. And that can happen at a micro level but also at a macro level, having a clear image of how we are handling customer requests, how well we are dealing with complaints and all these kinds of things are missing from a lot of organizations. And I think that’s why you need to start early and look at scalability as well. 

Yes, and scalability becomes more important when you have many customers. If you have two customers, you can call them or visit them to have a conversation. But, if you have millions of customers or more, that’s not going to work.

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