Four Things I Learned at Gainsight’s Pulse 2014

Gainsight held their second annual Pulse Customer Success Management conference May 13th and 14th in San Francisco.  With a reported attendee count of 900 (and as one of the 900, that number rings pretty true) and lots of breakout sessions, the event was full of people, content, and energy.  Here are my key take-aways, with the caveat that all those concurrent breakout sessions meant that I missed a lot of content:

1.  The Customer Success wave is definitely rising.  Between the turnout of attendees and the large number of high-quality speaker panels assembled, Pulse definitely made the case based on sheer quantity.  But beyond the numbers, the content of sessions and hallway discussions also evidenced the rising wave: this wasn’t a large collection of people collecting their swag; attendees were hungry for serious information and tips and advice on how to do things better, smarter, more efficiently.  The excitement around sharing ideas fueled the conference.

2.  There are real—and interesting—differences between the Customer Success challenges and goals across industry verticals.  While the core objectives and challenges in CSM—deliver and demonstrate value to customers; improve retention and CLV; define roles, responsibilities, and incentives for customer relationship management; develop and implement ways to measure and monitor customer health—are common to every team at every company, there are definite differences from one industry to another.  For example:

  • In the session on CSM in security, there was a discussion about the need for and challenges of demonstrating value and measuring customer health when an application largely works passively (i.e., email and other digital security threats are automatically scanned and stopped) and at least some value is delivered outside the product entirely (e.g., being a resource for authoritative information to combat ill-founded hysteria around a security threat).
  • In the session on CSM in HR, panelists highlighted the fact that they often have to think about not one customer persona but three:  in addition to the users (HR managers), they need to nurture relationships with the buyer (HR Director/VP), and even in some cases the candidates themselves.  If they lose sight of managing the relationships with any of those customers, it erodes value for the whole system.

3.  “Land and expand” is core to the SaaS model…but requires a commitment to and investment in  making up-selling and cross-selling effective and efficient.  A key part of the value proposition of SaaS—ease of deployment, controllable trial—naturally leads to the model of establishing “beachheads” within larger accounts and increasing CLV by expanding the contract footprint.  One problem with that: doing it with any kind of scale requires not only a rock-solid onboarding program to deliver a rapid time-to-value for that first customer, but an efficient and disciplined approach to leveraging the initial success to find and capture other opportunities.  Just as customer acquisition (aka, sales), has marketing support for lead generation, CSM needs support for building the pipeline for cross/up-sell.

4.  Strategy is a luxury in which many CSM teams don’t have time to indulge.  I think part of the reason for the high-level of conversations pursued in the halls and the significant numbers of attendees at break-out sessions is that many CSM team leaders and members simply don’t have time to grapple with strategic issues because they are too busy with tactics.  The good news is that conferences like this or virtual venues like the Customer Success Management Forum group on LinkedIn give practitioners the space away from the tactical to think strategically, learn about alternative approaches, and gain insights from their peers.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make it easier to keep strategy in mind when back at the office.