Customer Relationships through Digital Communication

A talk by Dan Moore for The Connected Enterprise Podcast on September 16, 2020

How to build solid customer relationships through digital communication technologies. Dan leads Vaporware's strong customer relationships in consulting, which is mostly virtual due to COVID.


Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise Podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Dan Moore. Dan is the co-founder of Vaporware. Dan, please tell us about yourself and Vaporware.

Dan Moore: Thanks for having me, Carl. We founded Vaporware in 2013 to help customers take their ideas to market. I graduated from Georgia Tech, and my background is in computer science. I help people with problems they want to solve and ideas they want to take to market, including explaining what customers will pay for and how to build a scalable company based on that.

Most of our clients are software as a service (SaaS) companies. We help them on the initial product market side and the business operation side – scaling, automation, etc.

Carl: Interesting stuff. What trends are people doing regarding new buzzword things, like automation, the internet of things, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc.?

Dan: A lot of trends constantly change, and new technologies come out. From the automation standpoint, data analysis has gotten to where artificial intelligence – more specifically, machine learning – can look and find patterns and identifiers to data.

During the pandemic, many successful companies have pivoted to meet changing customer behavior and events more quickly than they had previously been able to. So, looking at their data and using key metrics, flags, or identifiers before the bad event happens that they're looking for.

In our industry, it's all about SaaS churn. We ask, “What are the pre-identifiers to churning users to accounts or individual users unsubscribing from some of the SaaS platforms?”

Carl: I hadn't thought about that. Predicting when a customer might want to discontinue service is a great thing. It helps you be proactive.

Has the pandemic affected your customers? Starting projects? Accelerating projects? Pivoting? Are they doing more or less because of the pandemic?

Dan: Absolutely. Outside the software space is where we've seen the most traction. Software is mostly insulated from the pandemic's direct effects, although that seems to be changing.

But most of Vaporware’s work is in the services space – everywhere from home services and tracking pest control vehicles to recruiting and hiring services. One of the common threads that’s changed during the pandemic is how companies communicate with customers.

Regarding automation, it's difficult to have a great communication strategy at scale because that's where these businesses fit in. They provide specific service value, and they want to have one operator communicate with 500 customers versus the 50 they’ve previously communicated with. It's the economies of scale effect that comes in specifically around customer communications.

Carl: Interesting. As people have been making these changes, what are the biggest challenges they face when putting in a new system, bringing their software up to scale, or automating projects?

Dan: There are tons. That's why they pay us the big bucks to do it! It's not easy. There's no silver bullet, despite what many platforms tell you. But coming at it from the consulting end, we realized we can take learning from other scenarios. If we communicate this way or automate that way, experience shows if it does or doesn't work. We know where the common potholes are, but we don't know the answer going into the relationship.

It's different for every scenario. Even the day of the week is different for how you communicate with customers, if the moons align – it's a lot of trial and error. Doing testing, testing multiple times, and having hypotheses are where the real work is.

So, we deploy new technology, but that's just the platform. That's not the business results they want; those are another five steps away. The iterative process of carving up a project’s budget appropriately is the real battle. Deploying the technology is as simple as signing up for an account online in many cases.

Carl: Customers sometimes believe you’ve done this before at an identical company. I must have heard that a thousand times in my career. It's not the case. You could have three companies that manufacture the exact same thing but view the world completely differently. There’s no such thing as one size fits all.

Dan, if my listeners want to do a system enhancement and use automation in their business, how would you advise them to make their relationships with consultants work well?

Dan: Several things in the core philosophy of how we work set us apart from other people and lead to successful relationships. And when we pick up old relationships that hadn’t gone well and improve them, there's a night and day difference.

There's the common, everyday stuff that many consulting companies miss. We like to have a single person focused on a single project. That embeds our employee in the client’s team and allows them to focus and align themselves with the business goals.

The other big thing is that the business goals are the outcomes we're shooting for. Our work often starts with, “Something’s broken. We need to fix it.” If we fall in love with a project and focus on the problem instead of the solution and the technology we can use to solve the problem, we can try new technology and new solutions no one's ever used in this context.

It's a lot of pulling in ideas. For example, I was at a sandwich shop, and they were communicating X way. What if we apply that to this manufacturing company and how they communicate between two steps of their process? There’s a quick trial and error regarding, “Yeah, that would work, but let's tweak these three things.” And if it's a working and flexible solution in the context of the problem, we solved the problem and can meet those business opportunities.

Carl: You said something interesting, and I want to be sure I understood. It sounds like you have a policy of putting a person on a job and keeping them on that one job, so they aren’t distracted with other things needing their attention. Is that right?

Dan: Absolutely.

Carl: That would make many projects better. Companies are challenged with how to deploy resources, which sometimes makes it difficult for consultants to do right by the voices in their heads.

Dan: Absolutely. We, as people, always have distractions that come up in being flexible and understanding that flow.

We typically work with weekly contracts instead of on an hourly or monthly basis like other consultants. We’ve found that setting goals for a week and letting everything else inside that be flexible to solve that problem within that week is a strong strategy.

And if a problem's too big to solve in a week, we break it down into subproblems. And having the people who do the work as part of that planning process – we call it the shaping process – of a problem is important. It requires a special kind of person. There's a great book called Range by David Epstein that talks about this kind of person and being diverse in capabilities and understanding.

And when we need more than a single person can handle, we build a team – aka a pod or squad – of people and say, “Let's all focus on this one problem for this one week.”

Carl: I like how you said it's important to keep your focus on the actual problem. Most projects grow in scope because we find other issues. We’re here for problem A, but this person cares about problem B, and another person cares about problem C, so the original problem gets lost in the melee of requests, changes, and additions. Great tidbits in there, Dan.

You mentioned communication and how it’s changing what people are doing now versus before the pandemic. What about you? Has the pandemic changed how you communicate and work these days?

Dan: Absolutely. I wish I could say we had figured out online working and ultimate flexibility before the pandemic, but it's not true. There are tons of challenges, and in-person, face-to-face communication surpasses so many challenges we still have on digital interactions.

For example, one of our core services is a design sprint process. It plans an idea, and as you discuss the scope, it scopes that around a single problem and timeboxes it. And putting everyone in a war room and having them focus and riff off each other to find the right solution as a team is difficult to replace with online communication.

We have several tools that help us – many we used before the pandemic. For example, Miro. It used to be called RealtimeBoard or something similar. It allows us to do virtual whiteboarding sessions. If you're not great at interacting, or haven't used it before, you can click someone's profile and follow them around as they control the whiteboard.

Tools like that allow us to be flexible in how we work and go in different directions during work, but nothing replaces in-person. I think we’ll get to a point where flexibility and working from home is great for heads-down work, but collaboration work is best in person.

Carl: I'm a fan of in-person myself. I'm concerned that businesses will learn too much during this pandemic and then initiate policies to reduce travel, face-to-face time, and collaboration – because hey, we can do it virtually. And we'll save money.

That leaves out some of the most critical aspects of projects – that togetherness factor you can't get any other way. I mean, you and I are having this conversation. You can see me; I can see you. But it's not the same thing. You just don't pick up as much as you do in person.

And I say that selfishly because most of my skills are people skills. During the pandemic, I’ve felt a little bit put on the shelf with what I eventually do, but I've adapted as best I can. You sound like you're in the same school of thought.

Customers are always working with third parties. That's how they see consulting companies and other agencies they bring in to assist them with projects. What are the most challenging parts for customers when working with third parties?

Dan: In the initial relationship, it’s overcoming a trust barrier. And it comes down to every single detail in a legal contract, the frame of reference, or a shared background.

And going back to in-person communication – these digital communications in this third-party aspect all lead to, “How do you build a strong relationship?” To the point of feeling like you're on the same team, wanting the same outcomes. How do you build collaborative versus adversarial relationships and avoid getting hung up on details? We have a few tricks, for lack of a better word – things we do that help connect us in different ways.

For example, most companies we work with use Slack. One of the best things we can do is open a Slack channel between our groups. It allows us to avoid email and makes communication available quickly. We can spin up calls fast. We can check in, drop in gifts, be more casual, and avoid interacting with them only in the formal relationship.

It requires a specific level of commitment from many people, and getting there is challenging. We've deployed strategies, like a ramp-up service process where we start small, test the waters, and build from there, even on a single project. We don't start with a huge multi-month or multi-year project.

We're shortcutting that barrier as fast as possible, but some parts can never be short cut. We always close relationships softly – we check in with past clients monthly and continue relationships, subscribe when we can, etc. We're customers of theirs. We try to understand their challenges and what they're going for, so we follow them on social media and other channels to see what their companies are up to, what motions they have inside their companies.

It's all about building trust and making sure relationships exist – it’s not a project that starts and ends, and when we finish our part, we go.

Carl: There’s a book by Stephen Covey entitled The Speed of Trust. The essence is when trust is high, it's easy to make decisions. When trust is low, decisions are delayed. When trust is high, projects go fast; when it’s low, projects go slow. I think you're aiming at something valuable when you aim for that, because that’s absolutely been my experience.

And the times we're in make this stuff harder. We used to do a lot over lunch. You could informalize a lot of the relationship. That's much harder to do. I'm worn out on virtual happy hours. There's always one person who dominates, and it's hard to keep it moving. Have you automated things at Vaporware?

Dan: Yes. We've automated some of our front office sales and growth strategies, particularly around communication and being authentic about who we are and the kinds of people we talk to. On the back end, we have SaaS software tool overload, where we've built integrations and custom channels communicating between them, so moving data from point A to B and using APIs is essentially a requirement.

Once we have a process we like, we start automating it. And not much of that is new or has changed because of COVID, but it's working well.

Carl: That's good. Do you track or measure automation in terms of pluses and minuses?

Dan: We don't have to track a lot. We know when stuff goes wrong because it's almost like we can't operate without the automation. Also, we don't have a dedicated sales team. We're not a large organization. We're very lean in what we do. We're all busy doing delivery and client work, so anything that takes us away from that, and that goes all the way down to our P&L of being in the consulting field.

I track my hours on everything I do. I want to know how much time I spend on tasks on a weekly or monthly basis. How much time is spent on which activities, and is that acceptable? Is that valuable? Is there waste? It's difficult if you're not used to it, but it’s been phenomenal for improving our performance and capabilities.

Carl: Yes. One of the hardest things to learn as a consultant is how to track your time and make every minute of your day valuable. Some people are cut out for it; others aren't.

Well, Dan, this has been an interesting conversation. Thank you for making time for me today. Hopefully, we’ll talk again soon.

Dan: Thanks, Carl.

Carl: Everyone else, thanks for tuning in, and we'll see you next time on the Connected Enterprise Podcast. Stay connected.

This talk originally appeared here and has been posted with permission from The Connected Enterprise Podcast.