The art of seek­ing (and em­brac­ing) cus­tomer feed­back

Why mean tweets could be the best thing

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ENTREPRENEUR - Ryan Holmes In­no­va­tion & Dis­rup­tion Fi­nan­cial Post

Years ago, I got an es­pe­cially mean Tweet. It said some­thing not quite as nice as “@Hoot­suite your UI is a piece sh* t and it screws with my per­sonal sense of well be­ing. I’m out!”

This hurt at the time. To­day, I see it for what it truly is: pure gold.

To be fair, our prod­uct wasn’t all that bad back then. But it did need a re­vamp. And this user took the time and ef­fort to point that out, in ... well ... the most force­ful way pos­si­ble.

Hoot­suite now has more than 15 mil­lion users. The ma­jor­ity of those use the free ver­sion of our so­cial me­dia man­age­ment plat­form. They pay ab­so­lutely noth­ing. But they mean ev­ery­thing.

Too many c om­pa­nies over­look the value of “free.” But free users — like the friendly soul who sent the mes­sage above — are hon­est. They’re de­mand­ing. They stress test your prod­uct in ev­ery way imag­in­able. They jump ship at the drop of a hat. And they in­sist on the lat­est fea­tures.

All of this comes in handy when, as a busi­ness, you turn your fo­cus to land­ing pay­ing clients — es­pe­cially the huge com­pa­nies that rep­re­sent the big­gest deals. For other com­pa­nies — sell­ing soft­ware or some­thing else — here are a few in­sights we’ve learned along the way on the power of free users and cus­tomer feed­back.

KEEP­ING YOUR EAR TO THE GROUND WITH FREE USERS

We started in 2009 as a tool to help peo­ple man­age mul­ti­ple so­cial net­works at once. Our plat­form was easy to use and free, and we had tens of thou­sands of users in the first months.

The best dis­rup­tors — whether that’s Google or the Dol­lar Shave Club — learn to lis­ten very closely to those ini­tial users. In fact, they have to. Be­cause the bar­rier to en­try is so low — with no con­tracts or long-term com­mit­ment — users are al­ways ready to jump ship to a bet­ter of­fer­ing. The only thing keep­ing them tied to the prod­uct is its in­nate use­ful­ness.

To keep and grow our user base, we had to de­velop a feed­back loop with the peo­ple who loved our plat­form. We set up fo­rums and am­bas­sador pro­grams, and we held mee­tups around the world — both vir­tu­ally and in per­son.

All this in­put was put back into our prod­uct. Even­tu­ally, we re­al­ized peo­ple would pay for a beefed-up ver­sion, and a “pro” op­tion was born in 2010, tar­geted to small and medium busi­nesses.

THE B2B BLACK HOLE

This or­ganic evo­lu­tion may sound in­tu­itive. But it’s ac­tu­ally the op­po­site of the ap­proach tra­di­tion­ally taken by tech com­pa­nies. Rather than cater­ing to end users, they fo­cus largely on sat­is­fy­ing the de­mands of IT de­part­ments and CIOs, the ones who are the buy­ers in large com­pa­nies.

This l eads to prod­ucts with ro­bust se­cu­rity and an en­cy­clo­pe­dic fea­ture set … that can also be ter­ri­bly un­in­tu­itive and dif­fi­cult to use. Com­pa­nies sink huge bud­gets into so­phis­ti­cated plat­forms, but they’re ei­ther dif­fi­cult to use or not flex­i­ble enough to keep up with chang­ing de­mands.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, the users them­selves get fed up. Used to con­sumer- friendly apps and hard­ware at home, they come to ex­pect that same at work. Clunky Black­ber­ries are aban­doned in favour of easy- to- use iPhones. Gmail over­takes Out­look.

We saw this same phe­nom­e­non up close. In many cases, users at big com­pa­nies were do­ing an end- run around t heir IT de­part­ments, ditch­ing stan­dard­is­sue com­pany soft­ware in or­der to use our plat­form. It only made sense to try to level up our ser­vice and go af­ter those same en­ter­prises.

Our f i rst “en­ter­prise” ver­sion came out in 2011. Look­ing back, our ini­tial ef­forts were scrappy … and maybe not quite ready for prime time. But just as with G Suite and Slack, there was a groundswell of de­mand from front­line em­ploy­ees.

It’s easy, even in­evitable, for the pen­du­lum to swing too far, how­ever. The scrappy up­start be­comes the in­dus­try l eader. In­stead of cater­ing to end users, at­ten­tion shifts to land­ing those huge deals.

There is an an­ti­dote, of course — stay­ing ob­sessed with the free users. Google, not sur­pris­ingly, is a master at this. To­day, Gmail’s bil­lion- plus monthly ac­tive users dwarf the three mil­lion busi­nesses who pay for G Suite.

That won’t change any­time soon. But hav­ing a fo­cus group that large en­sures that Google is al­ways miles ahead of its com­peti­tors. (Not to men­tion, lots of those free users will grad­u­ate to paid pack­ages.)

Big cus­tomers now form the heart of our mar­ket. But I’d ar­gue that the strong­est com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage is that we started with a small busi­ness fo­cus and still have mil­lions of free users stresstest­ing our tool ev­ery­day — dis­cov­er­ing flaws, de­mand­ing new fea­tures and del­i­cately let­ting us know when our “prod­uct is a piece of sh*t.”

Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hoot­Suite, is an an­gel in­vestor and ad­vi­sor, and men­tors star­tups and en­trepreneurs. Twit­ter. com/ in­voker; linkedin. com/ in­flu­encer/ 2967511-RyanHolmes

TOO MANY COM­PA­NIES OVER­LOOK THE VALUE OF ‘FREE.’

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