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SaaS best practices: What to do when the customer isn't always right

 

A couple of months ago, our CEO, Rob Bernshteyn wrote an article titled The One Question Not to Ask Your Startup SaaS Vendor.  That question is, “how much individual attention will I get?”

 

Rob’s point was that while attention is important, the core value proposition from SaaS is the ability to leverage crowd-sourced best practices gleaned from data collected from all the users of the platform, versus the individual customizations that were prevalent in the on-premise software world.

 

The article resonated with me, (as well as some other SaaS folks) because as the leader of a SaaS customer success organization, I have to balance executing on the traditional customer service principle, “the customer is always right” with bringing customers into alignment with best practices that we know will ultimately lead to customer success. In my position, you don’t want to be the yes-man, but you don’t want to be the no-man either.

 

Say "no" to just saying no

When a customer wants to do something outside of a best practice, some organizations will just say, "No, you can't.” That leaves the customer frustrated and wondering what’s wrong with their way of doing things. It’s also not in the spirit of creating the kind of partnership that is critical for customer success with SaaS.

 

On the other hand if you just say yes, and you don’t dig deep enough, and talk to the right people, you can end up building something that institutionalizes a process that may not lead to success over the long term.

 

The answer is to dig deeper, and keep an open mind. I think the best approach is, "We do have the best practices in mind as we design our product, but what we really want is to work with you on what you're considering your best practices."

 

Instead of teaching implementation people to say no, customer success organizations need to say,  "Let's look at your business process and really understand what it is you’re trying to achieve with it. Is there flexibility as long as we get the desired outcome? Can we configure the product to get there another way?"

 

Learning from the customer

There are also times when what a customer is doing makes us reconsider what we think are best practices. As the platform company, we have a lot of insight, but we don’t always know everything. Sometimes we learn from the customer.

 

For example, we had an Oil and Gas industry summit here recently. Companies in that space came and spent the day with our product managers to discuss some of the best practices for their industry. It gave us an opportunity to understand at a deeper level what they’re trying to do and see how we can take some generic features of our platform and make them configurable to support the requirements of their industry.

 

Another example: We have a customer that operates a thousand healthcare facilities. We met with their executive leadership to go through their wish list of changes they’d like to see in our product. Three out of their top ten were around how the people in their clinics order. Executive leaders wanted the ability to combine requisitions into a single purchase order to cut down on shipping costs.

 

That’s a fair requirement, but when we sat down with the people in the clinics, and looked at their workflow, what they actually wanted was to be able to track what they needed throughout the day and then be able to submit one consolidated, clinic-wide order.

 

The outcome, a single purchase order with reduced shipping costs, along with greater visibility into order tracking, was the same, but the workflow functionality was different than what the executive team was looking for.

 

Looking beyond face value

If we had taken the request at face value, we would have built something that wouldn't have necessarily made a lot of sense for the broader industry. Instead, it was an opportunity to deepen our knowledge of their business and build something that addressed a core industry requirement across the board. That’s a lot harder than just saying yes or no.

 

Part of the skill-set a young SaaS company needs to develop is the ability to see beyond the customer’s unique view of themselves and get to the core issue at hand. You have to then be able to take that, and create a product or a tweak that works for a broader audience and extend it to include implementation, best practices and collateral so that it’s a complete package.

 

My experience is that customers are far more open to “push back” than you might expect, so long as it is done in the spirit of partnership and “no” isn’t the first word out of your mouth. They actually want someone to dive in and to understand at a deeper level what they're trying to do and come back with recommendations that will help them be successful.

 

When we can bring case studies, and benchmarks and have the right conversations with the right people, we can often reach alignment on best practices. And when we can’t, we can usually align on a path toward getting to best practices over time.

 

Ultimately, it’s not about the customer always being right, or the platform provider always being right. It’s about working as partners to be right, and successful, together. I think that’s what SaaS providers are striving for. It’s what I’m striving for.

 

Ravi Thakur is Vice President, Customer Success at Coupa.