All posts by Shirley Robinson

The Circle of Life: Customer Engagement as a Cycle

Back in January, we wrote a post about developing tools and processes geared toward “listening” to your customers.  We established some main areas of need for companies wanting to establish a culture of proactive engagement:

  1. Well-crafted listening tools
  2. An efficient process for dealing with communications and turning over solutions
  3. People who care about building relationships

However, we didn’t go into great detail on any of these principles.  This post will go into detail about our own journey in one of these principles–#2, An efficient process for dealing with communications and turning over solutions. We’re calling this a “customer engagement cycle,” with the implied goal of maintaining the customer’s engagement beyond one-off customer service experiences.

As a company grows, this becomes more and more difficult.  These processes can quickly become bloated, unsustainable monsters that fail to serve even the most basic of purposes:  keeping customers happy and in the loop with relevant information.

If this wasn’t daunting enough, we also think an excellent customer engagement cycle goes a step further:  when interactions with customers reveal problems or gaps in the product, we should reward them for their input and let them know how their ideas have been implemented.  This is a great way of maintaining and developing their engagement.

So how do we decide on a course of action?  Start by thinking through what customer engagement is actually supposed to accomplish, and design your system around that.

The information is out there--but do you have the right tools to pick up on it?
The information is out there--but do you have the right tools to pick up on it?

What are the goals of a customer engagement cycle?

For us, proactive listening has several different functions that directly affect the health of the company.  We can choose solutions by considering each function specifically:

  1. To remain in contact with customers–following through on issues is part of the customer service process, even outside of any concrete gains to the system
  2. To improve the system in ways that we wouldn’t think to
  3. As system-level quality control–giving us an idea of where problems tend to cluster tells us how robust the system is in general.  We can then target those areas more heavily for improvement.
  4. To gauge the popularity of suggestions; this helps us figure out how to deliver a product a lot of people want.

A really good listening system will be able to accomplish all of these.  It’s a tall order, but there are some simple steps that can be taken toward creating a robust, productive, and sustainable system.  One of the most popular is simply establishing a dedicated public page where users can offer feedback.  Even this has its foibles, however…

The Problems with User Feedback Pages

Virtually every company has an intake mechanism for user problems and suggestions.  But simply having a system doesn’t mean that it’s working in the best interest of everyone concerned.  Consider the following real-life example:

A large and reputable software company has a Uservoice page for feedback on one of its popular products.  There are several strict rules for participation (restrictive word limits, complex guidelines for assigning votes, removing suggestions that don’t become features).  Although this is perfectly understandable from a logistical perspective–the company doesn’t want the page to become a sprawling, repetitive gripe-fest–it works against the intended purpose.  Systems like Uservoice aren’t just supposed to be a passive information-gathering tool; they’re also supposed to be a mechanism for public accountability.  Worse yet, having so many rules for participation can discourage a lot of potentially helpful customers from contributing.

At karma, we do make use of Uservoice to discover new ideas, as well as to find out how interested our users are in them.  But we don’t rely on it exclusively; many of our greatest ideas come from phone calls with users, support tickets, training sessions, and sales emails.  Only the most opinionated usually gravitate to a feedback page, so many of our users with great ideas wouldn’t be captured this way.  This is why employing a range of customer interactions for product discovery has been so useful.  Once we get the ideas, we can develop them right away–or we can post them on Uservoice ourselves!  The main idea is that these different interactions work in tandem.

Another process we’re experimenting with–with great results so far–is combining our internal changelog with notifications to users about their suggestions that have been implemented.  When we mark changes, we simply note whether a user suggested the change, then email the user(s) and change the status of the issue.  We hope one day to bring this into a public forum.  Sharing credit does us no harm, and gives customers something to feel proud of.  We don’t want to hide the fact that a customer has given us an idea–quite the contrary.  We hope that she will share it publicly!

Passively Agile via Active Engagement

Here’s another way to think of it, for those of you who are fans of Agile-type development.  Agile conceives of programmers, testers, and participating customers as a single development team.  Everyone is valuable and accountable.  Agile usually has to do with software that’s being custom built, but even proprietary software like ours can use this model.

When we involve our broad base of users, they’re giving us use cases; they use the system in ways we can’t even imagine.  We try to be really broad minded and creative, but any time you’re really entrenched in a system, you get a little myopic.  Involved customers keep us honest, and that in turn makes us more effective as a company.

Share your own strategies for growing customer engagement in the comments below!

Making the Most of Your Social Media Leads

There are so many tools available to small businesses today, it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming and make you long for the good old days when all you had was a land-line telephone, a bottle of whiskey in your desk drawer, and sturdy walking shoes. As far as we’re concerned, the positives about the modern social networking age far outweigh the negatives – as long as you have the tools and support to take advantage of all the opportunities out there.

Social Media:  Being seaworthy on the vast ocean of information

One problem that arises for many businesses is that they concentrate, at first, entirely on building up their list of contacts – friends, followers, likes and connections. This is, naturally, the essential first step; you can’t implement a marketing strategy if you don’t have anyone to market to! But it’s just Step One, and all too often businesses don’t have a Step Two.   The exciting possibilities of social media can soon become insurmountable challenges if you don’t have a plan. What do you do with it all once you have all of these leads?

The obvious: lukewarm calls

If you’ve gotten a like, a friend request, a follow, or some other voluntary connection from someone on the social media platforms you utilize, it doesn’t take a brilliant intuitive leap to suggest having a sales rep contact them. One advantage here is that the psychological barrier isn’t as high as it is for cold calls: the person may not necessarily be thinking about getting a sales response from you when they click “Like,” but they clearly have warm feelings towards your business. In addition, social media users have become conditioned to expect reactions to their actions–you won’t be committing a faux pas by following up. Keep in mind that when you contact someone you’ve gathered via social media, you have a lot of information about them. Use it! Your sales reps can quickly get some idea of why they like your business and what their needs might be before they make that first outreach.

The less obvious: lead farming

One of the most powerful aspects of social media is, unsurprisingly, the “social” aspect. When one person invites you into their social media circle, you have access not only to one person who is at the very least interested in the type of business that you do; you also have access to their circle of friends, followers, or professional contacts. This is a perfect opportunity to spend some time looking through profiles and identifying other people in their circles who might be interested in your services or products.


Contacting people who have liked your page or made positive comments about your business and engaging them can lead to spontaneous,public endorsements of your product or customer service – public endorsements that are instantly transmitted to a wide range of people. This can be more powerful than simple advertising; in today’s world people are very aware of advertising and very distrusting of it. But personal recommendations by people they trust and admire remain absolute gold. On the flip side, the social media contacts you have acquired are also perfect opportunities for some active customer service outreach. Monitoring social media for complaints or comments about your company allows you to reach out to any customer having a problem involving your business, or to contacts having difficulty getting in touch with you, or even people singing your praises. Instead of passively waiting for customers to contact you when they need something, you can foster a conversation. When customers think of your business as a friendly, problem-solving entity instead of simply a service, they will be inclined to spend more time (and money) with you above other businesses.


The term analytics is becoming one of those buzzwords that everyone throws around to sound smart – but the fact is using analytics on the social media contacts you’ve built up is one of the best ways to make that data work for you. Analytics can be used in a variety of ways: You can analyze the contact list itself, looking for patterns. You can search through profiles and Twitter streams of contacts looking for keywords that apply to your business – if your service or product is in their conversation, they may need your help! You can also look at patterns in your contacts list to see where your new customers are coming from so you can narrow your outreach, or analyze which groups of your contacts do the most business with you, so you can concentrate on the groups you get the most back from. The information is there, it just requires a discerning human mind to leverage it.

Use social media smarter, not harder

No matter what you choose to do, the important takeaway is this: Once you’ve done the hard work of building those social media contacts, you have to integrate them with customer relations management strategies and tools to get the return on your effort. What are your thoughts? How have you used social media conversion to improve your business?

After we stopped blushing…

On Monday, January 31, karma got some fabulous exposure from Sarah Schmid at Xconomy Detroit, following a conversation she had with our founder JP Narowski late last year.  Sarah not only had some great things to say about the system, but the way we run our business as well.  It’s a well-known reality that small business is the great engine of the American economy, and our vision is to fire that engine with karma.  We then want to take what we’ve learned from working with other businesses to create comprehensive but very flexible resources for small businesses everywhere to improve their processes and grow sustainably.

Advantage via necessity

In her article, Sarah described us in a way that inspires us to work even harder:  responsive, community minded, lean, and agile.  What does that mean for us?  Let’s dissect those terms a little bit.

“Lean” and “agile” can sometimes have connotations of haste, flying by the seat of your pants, and incompleteness, but for us that’s really a virtue.  Like the great majority of our customers, we are a small business, and like most startups, we are bootstrapping our operation.  In these situations, efficiency is not a nice thing to have, it’s a requirement if you want to continue doing business.  Large enterprises are often counseled to “think like a startup,” but for us, necessity really is the mother of invention.  Rather than bringing in a massive infrastructure, we add value by being responsive and personal.  In return, we gain value by listening to our customers and bringing them on as co-creators.  Moving to an agile-type model of software development is something we are concentrating on now, and we think it will have a lot of benefits for us and for our customers, especially as we move toward karma2.

In the real world, doing it well often means doing it well enough

When you’re creating any product, it’s very easy to become addicted to perfection.  Obviously, anything worth doing is worth doing well.  But the danger of adhering too closely to that approach in the productivity software business is that the architecture of the software becomes the end itself, and not the means.  We think of karma as being a functional thing–it meets its goals when it’s useful.  What we are learning to do is to embrace the idea that moving quickly on something and adapting to customers’ needs is its own form of “robustness.”  It’s a robustness of process and customer engagement.  There are short, well-defined cycles:  not only are customers involved, but both they and developers see the fruits of their labor quickly.

Share what you’ve learned

Do you have any success stories?  Any hard-won wisdom on iterating and innovating?  We’d love for you to share your thoughts!  Add your comment below.

Developing Tools, Processes, and People Geared Toward Listening

[This is a follow-up to our December 27 post, “Being customer-driven means sharing power, and that’s a good thing.”]

We think karma is a pretty excellent CRM, and we’re continually working to improve it.  But you may not realize just how many of the best parts of karma began as customer suggestions.  Task participants, a “companies” tab, important dates, and so many more have come from our wonderful users.  Karma would not be what it is today without direct customer engagement, and we are so grateful for that.  Since we’ve benefited so much from customer input, we should continually be trying to find new ways not just to help our customers, but to learn from them. So, how do we ensure that this dialogue continues?

Until now we’ve been talking in pretty abstract terms, and it’s all too easy to pay lip service to the idea of customer service.  But here’s the main idea, in terms of actionable solutions: If we’re really going to establish a partnership with our customers, we have to learn to listen. Active listening in business is very much a skill that can be built, as long as you have a willingness to learn.  A lot of our interactions with customers come in the form of support tickets and short emails.  There’s a lot that can fall through the cracks.  What we (and others with similar goals) need are the following:

1. Well-crafted listening tools. Our customer support system needs to be clear and easy for the customer and for the company to use, and its design needs to facilitate timely, effective responses.  We use Zendesk and Uservoice in tandem.  We can manage tickets and suggestions straight from email, then aggregate and analyze the information to see if there are any important trends.  We’ll soon be growing our Uservoice page into a full-fledged community page, where we’ll showcase some of the improvements we’ve made that have come straight from customers.  It’s going to be fabulous, so we hope you’ll join the fun!

2. An efficient process for dealing with communications and turning over solutions. This isn’t just an issue of getting the right software, but of having an intelligent business process in place.  Think about it–do you have a standard procedure for maintaining service information so that customers don’t have to dig up old tickets themselves?  If you have an escalation process, is it mercifully quick or is it a nightmare carousel of pass-offs?  A little time on the front end can save you and your customers not only time, but a lot of money in headache pills.

3. People who care about building relationships. Customer service work is absolutely integral to a company’s operation.  People who do these jobs have so many important roles–they’re the gatekeepers, the teachers, the change management front line, and the point-of-contact sales force for existing customers.  Their performance makes or breaks a company’s health, especially in subscription-based products like ours.  They should be hired and trained with great care, and they need to be shown how valuable they are.  Thinking about how much risk you run by not attracting and rewarding the best customer service reps should really give you pause.

Just like our software, our complement of listening tools is constantly being developed.  We have the passion, now we need to invest our time and resources into making our customer service even more awesome!

What do you think?  Share your ideas and impressions in the comments.  What innovative listening tools and processes have you discovered?

Further reading:

Being customer-driven means sharing power, and that’s a good thing

We at karma are all about you, the customers.  Isn’t that obvious?  We’re a CRM after all.  Of course, being a CRM isn’t the same as being customer-driven.  You are the focus of our company — your experiences, both good and bad, help shape and improve our system.  Solving your problems doesn’t only help you, it helps your peers AND us.  We love hearing from all of you.  When you are willing to work with us on your issues, we’re able to make karma better.  We’ve promoted this spirit of cooperation from the beginning, and we couldn’t be happier with where we are today and where we’re heading tomorrow.  There should be no question what is at the philosophical and operational center of karma. The answer is simple: fostering genuine relationships with all of you, and creating new ones.  And that means sharing ownership of the company’s public face.

Customer service isn’t the new marketing:  they’re part of the same process

This concept of being customer-driven can be applied pretty broadly, and it’s been on our minds a lot recently.  Denis Pombriant wrote an excellent article for SearchCRM on December 17 (“Social media sets the stage for improving customer service”), and our founder John Paul Narowski felt compelled to comment:

To us at least, customer service and marketing not only employ a lot of the same channels nowadays, they are also under the same big umbrella of outreach. The people we want to have ongoing conversations with about our brand and products are much the same people we want to assist and impress with customer service. And really great customer service is its own form of marketing anyway; it’s communicating with existing customers about our values as a customer-driven company in the way we help them with their frustrations. Then when they have a great experience, they mobilize for us.

And indeed, you have been incredible allies to us!  But we have to be mindful that it works both ways.  As Peter Stark said, if we don’t bend our ear to our customers, they’ll find a way of making their displeasure known, usually publicly.

Whether in ketchup or in digital ink, the truth will out

And they should!  We as a company have a much bigger sphere of influence thanks to social media, but we share that sphere and its power with our customers.  Our marketing isn’t about hard selling or trickery.  It’s about reaching out to like-minded people who vibe with what we do and could benefit from it.  By the same token, customer service is about widening our channel of communication with the people we’ve established a connection with.  It’s all part of one big process of relationship-building.

What do you think?

What innovative approaches have you taken in opening and growing a dialogue with your customers?  What missteps have you seen that made you cringe?  Share your tales of triumph or disaster in the comments!

Our Favorite Articles This Week

There’s been a lot of great writing recently on CRM, customer service, social tech, and all those other good things.  Here are some of the best we’ve read this week:

Leonard Kile at destinationCRM, “Customers Should Help Create Major Innovation”—86738.aspx

This was a great piece about how to engage with customers and why they are among the most valuable partners in innovation.  Our next blog post will touch on this theme, and Leonard’s post was a big source of inspiration.

Rami Khater at the Huffington Post, “Social Media Evolution, not Revolution”

Rami writes about the normalization of social media in journalism and the effect nationalist control of social media has on what we still think of the “social media revolution.”  It’s a prescient look at a lot of different influences on the marketplace of information and what it will become.

Brent Leary, “Enter Sandman: the Bullpen Cometh”

This was an exciting post from industry thought leader Brent Leary about a research group he and three other CRM luminaries (Paul Greenberg, Denis Pombriant, and Esteban Kolsky) are forming.  We can’t wait to see what insights will come from this collaboration!

Kelly Liyakasa at destinationCRM, “Badgeville CEO Chris Duggan’s 2013 Gamification Predictions”

Kelly interviews the CEO of Badgeville, a gamification platform provider. We’re fascinated with the idea of gamification (the practice of incorporating game elements into other areas of life to encourage certain behaviors, like repetitive work tasks), so this discussion with a major player in the field was extremely interesting.

Denis Pombriant at SearchCRM, “Social media set the stage for improving customer experience”

Customer service is the new norm, and social media has a lot of opportunity to improve customer service drastically.  It has even greater potential pitfalls.  Denis Pombriant applies his usual incisive analysis to warn us that a bare-bones approach of simply answering questions is no longer enough.