There are two funnels for SaaS companies. The first is all about acquiring new users. The second is all about keeping them. You can growth hack the first one, but to build a great business, you need to invest in the second one.
The key to solving the second funnel is onboarding. Great onboarding transforms new customers from fleeting visitors to lifelong power users. It’s a continuous process of ensuring your customers get value from your product at every stage of their lifecycle. The math is simple: good onboarding = higher customer retention.
“Great onboarding transforms new customers from fleeting visitors to lifelong power users”
The critical importance of onboarding for all businesses is why we built Product Tours. Our dead-simple tool lets anyone create rich interactive guides to onboard their users – without needing to involve their engineering or design teams. Our customers who use Product Tours see 7x more engagement than email.
In a recent webinar, our co-founder Des Traynor and product manager Patrick Andrews sat down to discuss exactly what it takes to level up your customer onboarding. They explain where to start, what to look for in user interviews, why onboarding needs to evolve as your customers and product do and much, much more. They also share an inside look at Product Tours. Check out the slides from the webinar below or on SlideShare:
5 best practices for onboarding new customers
Short on time? Here are 5 best practices for customer onboarding that you can start implementing today:
Interview relevant groups of users. Do not try to design onboarding without talking to your customers, and do not talk to every customer. You should split users up based on their behavior. If you offer a free trial, you might group them using these four actions: ghosted (i.e. signed up and left), converted, cancelled and actively trialling. Each of these groups will offer new insights into their initial experience with your product.
Work out your “why.” Part of your goal with onboarding is to convince your customers to continue to adopt your product. To do this, you need to maximize their reasons to switch and minimize the reasons to stay with their current solution (if there is one). You have to get customers to the point where switching – or simply overcoming inertia – is a no brainer.
Define who your onboarding is for. The reality is you can’t onboard everyone. Just like when you are coming up with a marketing plan to acquire new customers, you need to know who your audience is for onboarding. The best people to onboard are the ones who need your product, want it and are capable of using it.
Always onboard with context. You need to understand your customers’ definition of success and then break down the barriers to get them there at just the right time. You wouldn’t showcase keyboard shortcuts to someone who just signed up. Contextual onboarding is about slowly spoon-feeding the information that’s relevant to your customers when they are ready to hear it.
Define your “active” users and measure them. One of the most important questions you can ask is, what do your most successful users achieve in their first “‘X” days? You should know whether any changes to your onboarding will impact this or not – with the goal of driving as many users to that “aha” moment as quickly as possible.
The design industry speaks English. The articles we read, the tools we use, the conferences we attend: we all speak the same language when it comes to design.
If you are investing in self-development and learning about UX, it’s highly likely the materials you use are in English. In fact, right now you are reading this blog post in English.
At the same time, for the overwhelming majority of people in the world, English is a foreign language which they need to spend time and effort learning. The stakes are much higher again if you want to challenge yourself by working in an English-speaking country. It means that English suddenly becomes your primary language. Life changes, and that change is big enough to scare some people out of the very idea of relocation.
I’ve experienced this myself in the past year as I’ve relocated to Dublin for my role as a product designer at Intercom. In truth, I’ve been scared a lot, affected by misconceptions about working abroad: “my level of language doesn’t feel high enough,” “the culture abroad may be too different,” “the roots are too strong.” Now, after a year overseas I have some learnings to share.
Tech companies are filled with people from a variety of countries who speak with each other in their second language and face very much the same difficulties as you. I was greatly surprised by the variety of backgrounds people at Intercom have. In my particular team, for instance, each person is from a different country.
That gave me a great opportunity to absorb knowledge and get some support from others. It also meant that no one expected me to speak fluently with a perfect accent from day one. Moreover, I’ve heard a vast variety of accents around. We are all in the same boat.
What’s even more important, since it’s such a common situation, companies empathize with the difficulties that relocated people face and can provide the support (such as online-courses tailored to improve written language skills).
“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating”
I’ve learned that we cannot even imagine how adaptable our brain is. It does whatever it takes to smooth the stress when you put yourself into a new language environment. After just a few days of active interaction, you start thinking in English – your brain considers that to be less effort than constant translation and eases things up for you. At first, that process of translation requires considerable effort and concentration – in effect, a large part of your job is translating not just the words, but the context and culture.
These challenges and learnings are not specific to design, of course, but by the nature of our work, design demands more from us in terms of how we communicate. As Don Norman puts it in “The Design of Everyday Things”, “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” The centrality of communication to our field puts a greater burden on our linguistic abilities.
Beside pushing pixels, the essential part of our job is about being able to communicate clearly what has been done, articulate our decisions and fully understand our colleagues’ opinions. Your work won’t always speak for yourself, you have to speak for it. It only can be successful if you don’t waste your mental energy translating thoughts back and forth in your head. You need to absorb the language as a way of thinking, not just communicating.
Master your company’s ‘grammar’
Making a decision to try working as a designer abroad is only the first step forward. Real learning begins with your first day at work. Alongside studying the foreign tongue, you familiarize yourself with the language of the company.
On your first week, setting yourself up in the new environment, you get the “alphabet” and the basic “vocabulary” of the company. Your first interactions with colleagues give you a glimpse of how the company thinks and speaks, while the onboarding process exposes you to the company’s dialect.
Now you can talk to people, but your communication may not be that efficient without learning the rules of the language. The next step is understanding company structure and processes – the “grammar” of the language. My first few months at Intercom involved learning all about our comprehensive product, as well as the principles and processes we use to design and build. Beyond just knowing how the company operates, all of this knowledge enabled me to communicate proficiently.
“It is important to embrace company culture, which acts as a kind of an ‘accent’ on top of our language”
At Intercom, we emphasize working collaboratively. To do so in a sustainable way, we need to ensure that everyone in the company can understand each other and is on the same page. So after getting the “grammar”, it is important to embrace company culture, which acts as a kind of an “accent” on top of our language.
For instance, we do regular design critique sessions that I have found really helpful to build up articulation skills. Indeed, systematic crit presentations were pretty much the most powerful exercise that helped me adapt to the design team’s specific “accent”.
Eventually, your communication goes like clockwork with minimum lost effort. However, there’s a cherry on top of a cake that will let you become a fluent speaker. A layer of deeply ingrained traditions, norms, even specific vocabulary – the “idioms” of a company’s language. Internalizing them makes you truly articulate.
It took some time for me to fully internalize Intercom-specific terminology like “Intermission”, “Interconcept”, “wiggle week”, etc. Eventually it pays off as you ensure that none of the context is lost in translation.
Reaching fluency in your work
This process of absorbing and internalizing the “language” of Intercom was particularly important to me, as I immediately set out working on our design system.
This project was a comprehensive rebuilding of our existing pattern library, and in some ways it felt like I was helping to define the common language for the whole company. This helped me feel like I was not just learning the “local language”, but also contributing to it, making sure the whole company is using the same vocabulary in terms of how we build the product.
“As you increasingly contribute to designing and building new products, you will reach a turning point”
It also speaks to the power of design as a mode of communication – in practice, the refined design system is a highly formalized way of helping all of us work, communicate and think in an efficient way.
As you increasingly contribute to designing and building new products, you will reach a turning point, of sorts. This is what fluency really feels like – the point at which you feel you are shaping the language, and not just speaking it.
You learn fast
Nobody says this journey is not going to be an effort. Moreover, it is pretty damn hard even after a year. However, there are multiple tips and techniques that have proven to speed up the adaptation for me – if you find yourself embarking on a similar journey, these steps will help immensely.
Practice speaking regularly. Even if you have not relocated yet – maybe especially if you haven’t. It only makes sense to learn another language when it is being applied in practice. Online schools help with that a lot nowadays.
Switch to the foreign language completely. Your phone and desktop UI, things you read, movies/series you watch: everything should speak on that language to you. Surround yourself with it.
Think in a foreign language. You wouldn’t achieve fluency by wasting your mental energy on translating thoughts back and forth. The brain will turn that switch on for you if you immerse yourself into language well enough.
Be patient. It might take a significant amount of time to achieve real confidence. However, you’ll absolutely certainly get there eventually once you put yourself into the foreign environment and start talking daily.
For me, even the process of writing this blog post is an act of translation and immersion. It may take considerable courage to move abroad, but each journey starts with the first small step, and investing time into learning a new language is definitely the most impactful first step you can take.
If you wanted to know your customers’ gripes and praises in the past, you had to assemble a series of questions anticipating their possible answer. Then you had to try to reach them via email and convince them to fill it out. But there’s a better way now.
Deepa Subramanian (a graduate of Harvard Law School and a veteran of Salesforce) set out to improve businesses’ understanding of the customer voice by co-founding Wootric, a platform that offers a range of feedback collection and analysis tools to help teams gain deeper, more relevant insights into their users’ desires and complaints. It’s all part of a customer-centric philosophy that emphasizes empathy and self-awareness over a staid corporate vision.
Deepa joined me for a chat about everything from ways to prioritize customer experience to going all-in on machine learning. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:
To be truly customer centric, companies need to break down organizational silos, understand how to collect feedback at the right time in the right place and invest in cultural transformation.
To understand the voice of the customer, companies need to measure three critical points in the user experience: onboarding effort, support satisfaction and an overall net promotion score that measures relationship health.
It’s time for product teams to go from being revenue-led or product-led to being customer-led. The customer defines the problem, but it’s on you to do root-cause analysis and solve the problem with your technology.
When building machine learning, large generic training models aren’t always the best. Wootric has been able to produce better results using small datasets and building different models for different industries.
While there’s always room for carefully executed customer surveys, companies need to think about creative ways to harvest customer feedback from all types of customer interactions.
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Paige: Deepa, welcome to the show. Tell us more about your career journey and how you found yourself founding Wootric.
Deepa: I love telling this story. I started in technology at Salesforce – I was their first female engineer and learned early on how valuable it can be to build a company from the perspective of your customer. Salesforce did this not only for their product; their entire revenue model is built around being easy and convenient for the customer. I think companies are realizing that the days of revenue-led, product-led company-building is over, and especially as you digitally transform, customer centricity is going to be your competitive advantage.
So I started there, and then I took a couple of detours, which will make sense someday. I went to law school, and I worked in technology transactions for a couple of years. And then the entrepreneurial bug bit, and I started a bagel company in San Francisco – which as far as product-market fit goes, it was so amazingly easy to get there. We had lines out the door the first time I put up a little blackboard. But I learned a lot from that, especially about how valuable it is to engage with your customer in the middle of the experience. There’s nothing like that person taking a bite of this bagel that you’ve just made and giving you feedback, like, “There’s too much cream cheese,” or, “This is too expensive.” There were a lot of takeaways.
Eventually I had to shut Schmendrick’s, my bagel company, for personal health reasons. But in reality I’m a technologist, and I should have been in technology all along. I feel much more at home at Wootric. The genesis for Wootric really came about from a conversation I had with Patrick Moran, then Chief Marketing Officer of New Relic. They’re a very successful company with a huge user base, but when I asked him one day what his biggest issue was, he said, “I have no idea how happy my user base is.” I found this really confusing, so I asked, “Well, how do you keep tabs on them?” And he said, “Oh, you know, every three or six months we send them an email survey.” And immediately I’m like, “Oh god, I’ve never answered an email survey.” Have you, Paige?
Paige: I avoid them!
Deepa: Patrick goes on to say, “We get back all these spreadsheets full of data and then I don’t know what to do with it.” New Relic is a developer platform, and their users engage with them primarily in product. So I said, “Hey, what if I built an easy way for you to engage with your customers in the product and let’s use something well understood and lightweight, like Net Promoter Score.” I started prototyping this for him.
Meanwhile, I did a little bit of market research, and I found this problem wasn’t unique to New Relic or SaaS companies or really any size of business. Every business everywhere needs to keep a pulse on all of their users, their buyers, their product users – and they need to do it at every point in the customer journey.
“Every business everywhere needs to keep a pulse on all of their users, their buyers, their product users – and they need to do it at every point in the customer journey”
I got very lucky in that an old friend of mine, Jessica Pfeiffer, whose background is in sales and B2B marketing, came aboard to be my co-founder. We have very complementary skill sets, and we have been working on Wootric for four years now. So what started as an in-app Net Promoter Score (NPS) service is now a framework around very rigorous customer experience metrics, customer effort scores and customer satisfaction (CSAT). We tie them to your CRM events so you’re triggering the measurement at the right point and the right time. Our approach to service has always been from the perspective of the person giving feedback. So we make that experience really beautiful, lightweight and rigorous so the feedback you collect is high quality.
In the last year, we’ve really invested in machine learning and AI to shift the discussion from “What are my customers saying?” to “What are they doing in my product with my other business interactions?” and “Why are they doing it?” AI really helps you tease apart all of the qualitative customer feedback you’re getting – whether through surveys or your support tickets – and it elevates the voice of the customer outside of organizational silos to a strategic decision maker.
What’s keeping companies from prioritizing customer experience?
Paige: It sounds like you want businesses to make customer experience a top priority. That seems easy to say but quite tough to do. I’d love to hear more about what’s preventing businesses today from doing that.
Deepa: I see a couple of things that stand in the way of companies being able to do this at the organizational level. Most businesses are still very siloed. As a customer, I don’t care if I’m interacting with support or sales or customer success or marketing. All I’m thinking is: “You know me. Get my story straight, and don’t make it hard for me.” Elevating the voice of the customer out of these silos is really important.
“Elevating the voice of the customer out of these silos is really important”
Another thing we encounter is that, just as companies are discovering how important customer feedback is, survey fatigue is also setting in. It’s not just about sending surveys; you’re going to overwhelm customers if that’s the only approach you take. Customers love giving feedback, but you have to build that experience very carefully. You want to be smart about asking the right question at the right time in the right place to the right customer. You know so much about this customer. Be really creative about reaching them or engaging with them.
And then finally, it’s cultural – and cultural transformation is really hard. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no top-down mandate. It takes time and courage and persistence and tools that help you tease apart the noise from really what’s important to customer centricity.
Paige: What are the ingredients for scaling a personal customer feedback model? As you know, it’s not super scalable to have one-to-one conversations, especially as businesses grow. We really have to balance being personal versus using automation to gather customer feedback.
Deepa: The easy answer is automation, right? But again, you need to come at it from the user’s perspective. When we think about automation, we’re talking about having systems in place that ensure someone is not getting surveyed too often and that you’re in fact asking the right question. If you’ve only seen me interact with you via chat, it’s highly unlikely that if you reach out by email, I’m going to respond to you. You already know this about me as a customer. So you have to be really smart and use automation and operational data to your advantage.
The other perspective to this is that there are ways to let the customer know they’ve been heard. One thing we encourage for those businesses that work with us and have high volumes of customers (e.g. a consumer enterprise like DocuSign or GrubHub) is to make their customer feedback programs public and tell their communities you’re doing this.
Buffer’s public customer feedback program
When you get feedback back from customers, blog about what you’ve learned. And then by all means tie this to your product management tools. When you actually build a feature someone has asked for, there’s nothing that makes a customer more happy than hearing: “We listened to you. We added a new cream cheese flavor.” There are ways to make them feel heard even if the first interaction feels automated.
Measuring the customer journey
Paige: You mentioned the importance of asking the right questions. I’d love to hear more about how you help people who are using Wootric do that, because it’s a little scary. It’s easy to get wrong.
Deepa: I’ll tell you where we are today in this approach. We’re not SurveyMonkey. We’re not going to make you think up an entire “Voice of the Customer” (VoC) program. We have frameworks and defaults that will help you navigate all of the pitfalls of survey fatigue.
We’ve found that for SaaS companies there are really three critical journey points you should absolutely engage with your customers on for feedback. The first is onboarding, and the absolute best way to get a grip on onboarding is to measure customer effort at that point. So we recommend that at the onboarding stage, depending on your product, maybe you ask a single-question customer effort survey (CES) in-product.
At the same time, there are a lot of support interactions going on, and at the end of a support interaction, it’s a fantastic time to ask about CSAT: “How satisfied are you with the agent and with the support interaction?” Intercom does a very fun emoji thing. I think that’s a journey point that you do not want to miss feedback on.
But with these two in the background, over the course of your relationship with your SaaS customer, about once or twice a year, you want relationship-based feedback through a metric like NPS.
What to measure in the user journey
And you want to do this in a way that they’re not receiving two emails in the same week. They’re not receiving a ping and an SMS. We have all of the background intelligence to make sure your measurement is executed in a really lightweight way.
So this is one framework that we use to guide SaaS businesses to execute a lean, but effective VoC program. And of course, as your business gets more complicated, the journey changes, but the approach is really the same. When you ask them, reduce bias, and then it’s really about finding a benchmark, finding out what’s going on and improving your scores.
Paige: I’ve heard about NPS and CSAT and used them quite a bit in the past, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you measure customer effort.
Deepa: Like NPS, there’s a quantitative piece and qualitative piece that’s driven off the question, “How easy was it for you to do X, Y or Z? How easy was it for you to check out?” It’s traditionally a 0-to-7 scale, followed by the question, “Tell us why you gave us the score that you did.” Ease is particularly salient to onboarding.
There was this one particular customer who implemented CES for their onboarding, and they discovered whenever one of their customers was using a custom solution versus a standard solution, their CES scores were so low. When they engaged with the qualitative feedback, they discovered that it was more cost effective for the company to actually set up professional services when customers with custom solutions needed onboarding. Now, if you weren’t checking in with the customer at this time, you probably would have missed this business-changing strategic decision.
Building a customer-led product roadmap
Paige: I’d love to hear more about the toolset that helps product teams really get the end-to-end feedback they need – and allows them to build a roadmap that really fits the business.
Deepa: This can sound like an overwhelming answer, but every tool you use can give you information about the customer experience. So your behavioral analytics are relevant, your support ticket data are relevant, your Intercom attributes, that CRM metadata are relevant. So all of these tools should be factoring into your understanding of the customer’s experience.
But if that sounds overwhelming, I think a very lightweight, traditional survey tool is not going to hurt. Just be cognizant of not asking too much of your customer. You’ve got to start somewhere.
But I’m a product leader, and for me, being able to bring together something as simple as NPS by the devices that my users access my product on is really revealing. That only happens when you can bring together various data sources from different tools.
Think holistically about all of your customer data sources.
“The customer is defining the problem space, and it’s on you to discover the root issues and causes behind their feedback”
Paige: You spoke a little bit about the evolution of companies from being revenue led to product led and now, trying to bring them into a new era of being customer led. I find that newer PMs really tend to be naturally customer-led, because it’s a source of meaning and insight. But sometimes they can be a little bit more likely to translate the exact feedback they get into a feature request. The customer feedback becomes the to-do list, which becomes the roadmap. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you think about customer led companies and the strategic vision there.
Deepa: I think it’s a really important question and a trap you can fall into – prioritizing your roadmap based on just what the customer’s asking for. Here’s a better way for entrepreneurs and company builders to think about the roadmap: innovation is your responsibility, but you don’t innovate in a vacuum. The customer is defining the problem space, and it’s on you to discover the root issues and causes behind their feedback and solve for the whys and the problems with your product or technology. That’s what I mean by customer-led.
Lessons on building machine learning
Paige: I’d love to hear about what it really looked like when your teams went all-in on machine learning (ML) and the lessons you’ve taken away building it into your platform.
Deepa: It was chaos! No, but one thing about our approach that’s helpful to know is that there are a lot of out-of-the-box text and sentiment analysis tools available. This is a wonderful thing. Google, Amazon and Microsoft all offer these tools now, but 10 years ago we wouldn’t be able to do this with a high quality. The real danger then – and this is the first lesson we learned and it bit us hard – is that they are trained for corpuses that are very different from what customer feedback looks like.
Generic solutions and generic models don’t work. Customers have a very specialized way of communicating with you. Furthermore, customers in different industries have a very different way of communicating with you. So we realized very early on if we were going to build something high quality, we would have to take an industry-based approach. All of our machine models are different for SaaS, for eCommerce, for insurance-based healthcare, etc. This allows our customers to give us a data source (like their surveys, app store reviews or Intercom support tickets), and we can classify it out of the box without having to train on your data or your industry. And the results have been quite amazing to see. So that’s one lesson.
Your models must reflect the tenor and the lexicon and even the length of the texts that you’re analyzing. We’re a small team and everybody knows that larger training data volumes lead to better results. We don’t have the luxury of creating these large volumes either by paying for it or classifying ourselves, so we had to be really creative about working with small datasets.
Paige: What advice do you have product teams working on ML?
Deepa: Try to build your models for both the specific space and speaker. Whoever’s generating the text probably has patterns of speech, a lexicon – all of which are really important. And the other thing is, don’t be intimidated by large competitors who claim to have better models because they have better training datasets. There are creative ways to get to high quality models without that.
Paige: It was really fun watching the teams here at Intercom build their first ML product. When we launched Answer Bot, I think we experienced quite a few of the issues you just described, so they definitely resonate.
Paige: What’s next for the Wootric product team?
Deepa: I love this question. Our vision has always been twofold. As you may have seen, the dynamic is shifting away from surveys as the only source of a voice of the customer. With that in mind, we are really starting see the market ask for how we can harvest customer feedback from all of the other customer data sources we have – especially support conversations for product teams. There’s so much there, and the insights are shifting away from the traditional survey space.
But that being said, there’s always room for a carefully executed survey program. But I think adaptive surveys (surveys that can respond to the questions or issues customers are raising), and getting the right time, the right question, the right place right are all hugely important for us. And I would say the end goal for us is to see a company transform into being customer-centric. If we can drive more action and more organizational cohesion that would be the holy grail.
“The dynamic is shifting away from surveys as the only source of a voice of the customer”
Paige: Wootric’s been around since 2013, and I’m pretty impressed by how much the team’s accomplished in that time. What’s your advice for other founders and leaders about really building out a team that will last?
Deepa: I’m always honored to share this, but we’ve been around since 2013 and have never lost anyone on the team. I’m so grateful for that. But if I reflect on it, there were a couple of lessons here: We developed our core values very, very early on in the company, and we hire for those values. Not in an exclusive way – it’s an additive culture. And one thing I really treasure is that everybody brings their whole selves to work, whether it’s Lisa (our VP of Marketing), who loves to talk about how dance inspires her, or myself as a new mother who’s kind of obsessed with child development. Everybody gets to be their entire selves at work. I think that’s really important for us and my team.
Another thing that’s been a great for us is that we have a DNA of customer centricity. We use Intercom as a sacred place for everyone on the team. Everyone is on it, everyone is talking to the customer, and I think you can’t build what we’re building well without that.
Of course we’ve made mistakes and I would share this one: We’re a lean team, but it’s good to give your team some stability. Don’t move offices all the time. There was a period when we were moving every six months, and this seems like a small thing because at a startup you want to be agile, and you want to save money, but it’s important to create space for people to grow and develop together.
Paige: Thank you so much Deepa. It’s been a pleasure. Where can people stay up to date on your thinking?
Congratulations on your new job! You’re likely meeting heaps of new people, putting your dog’s photo on your desk, and you’re at inbox zero (good luck making it last).
Sound familiar? It does to me because I recently joined Intercom. But this ain’t my first rodeo – I’ve had many jobs and even switched careers over the past 20+ years. That’s how I know being new is a frightening, vulnerable experience. Even in the best organizations, it’s challenging to determine what a company values, how its strategy works, what success looks like and how you fit in.
“Being new isn’t just an experience – it’s a hard-earned skill”
1. Set learning milestones
Our Senior VP of Product Paul Adams often says when you’re new, “it’s normal not to know.” So start strong by actively planning for what you need to know to be effective. Create a series of learning milestones: document a plan to meet people, join team rituals, read documents, learn how to use tools, participate in processes. Set goals for gathering the context you need to know and share those goals with your colleagues. This helps them see your journey to becoming a great partner.
But that journey doesn’t come without stumbles along the way. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. No one else can give you that permission – you have to give it to yourself. When you make mistakes, show your partners what they want to see more than anything else: that you ask for their feedback, understand where you went wrong and show your commitment to improvement.
“Dare yourself to openly align with your team on what you need to learn to be effective”
If you don’t do this, you’ll risk losing their confidence and trust. Your mistakes will make you overly cautious, especially if you’re already feeling like an impostor. You may start asking Is it okay if I… or Do you think I should… or even Can I…?.
All of that asking slows you and your team down. You’ll grow slower – and so will your team – if you ask for permission to do every single thing. That’s why your goal shouldn’t be to avoid mistakes at all costs or always wait to act until you’re absolutely sure that you’re 100% right.
Dare yourself to act sooner and learn faster. Better yet, dare yourself to openly align with your team on what you need to learn to be effective. Bring them along on your journey so you can all learn together.
2. Be known for one thing
Remember that your new colleagues don’t know you, what you do best or how you do it – or perhaps even why it matters. But in any “move fast” organization, they need to know these things to work effectively with you.
Ella Harris, a content strategy director at Facebook, taught me that it’s not my team’s responsibility to get to know me. Rather, it’s my responsibility to show them what I do, why it’s valuable, and how they can get the most of that value from working with me. The sooner I show them what’s most important to me, the sooner we can all move from awkward introductions to solving hard problems together.
“Being open about what you value helps people understand how they can best work with you”
That’s why I avoid introducing myself with titles, seniority or experience. Those things don’t say much about what I can do or care about. Instead, I’ve found much more success by showing people the one, most important thing I want them to remember. Being known for excellence in just one thing is far better than for mediocrity in a million.
I always tell people that I “make the unclear be clear,” an amazing quote from the brilliant Abby Covert. It shows what I strive for in my work – everyone understands that I care about being clear more than anything else. They know I’ll always hold the team accountable for clarity and simplicity above all other things.
Being open about what you value helps people understand how they can best work with you. But it’s often the thing that we keep most secret. Don’t make people guess – they shouldn’t have to read your mind! Share your values openly to show people how you can make an impact with them.
3. Ask people what they’re learning
Some workplaces believe in a sort of “magical thinking” that you can just learn anything you need to know through exposure to your new peers. If you walk the halls, get coffee with the right people, or just attend enough meetings, you’ll eventually “get it.” Strategy, values, jargon, process, impact … just hang around long enough and you’ll be one of us!
In a word: bullshit.
Learning by osmosis isn’t a thing. If that were possible, there’d be no need for all those meetings, 1-on-1s, documents, performance reviews, or anything else where people get specific about what they’re doing, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what they need from you to solve them. We need all those things because of the oldest truth in human history: all problems are communication problems.
“The best way to accelerate your learning is by asking these people: ‘What’s something you’re learning right now?’”
The best way to accelerate your learning is by asking these people: “What’s something you’re learning right now?”
We don’t usually ask each other this, but we should. When I’m new on a team or meeting someone for the first time, it’s my favorite question to ask because it gives me a preview of the future. That really hard thing my colleague is struggling with right now? I’ll be struggling with it soon enough!
Asking a personal question like this also shows that you care about your colleagues. It earns their trust, especially when you follow it up with “How can I help?”
4. Find your buddy
The Kool-Aid™ you drink during your first few days of your new job sure is tasty. Everyone’s so smart and friendly! Their strategy is so brilliant and their products are amazing. How could folks ever get upset about anything here?
But that sweetness can wear off fast. Maybe for you it’s wearing off right now. Things don’t seem so amazing anymore, you might feel confused or hurt, and you’re looking for a little help to get over the rough patch.
You need a buddy. This is someone who doesn’t manage you and may not be on your team or even someone you work with regularly. That’s okay, because they don’t need to understand the details of your day-to-day work … they just need to understand you.
“None of us are complete by ourselves – we never will be”
None of us are complete by ourselves – we never will be. It’s not a sign of weakness to turn to someone else to help you make sense of things, it’s a sign of strength and awareness that you need additional perspective. Or a sounding board for your ideas. Or just a good listener.
Keep an eye out for your new buddy. Maybe that’s them now at the coffee machine. Or maybe it’s the person who’s red-faced, flustered, and needs someone to lean on. Whether you meet for lunch, go for a run together, carpool to work, or just have a quiet chat outside, your buddy can be an incredibly stabilizing force.
They’ll ground you, strengthen your foundation, and help you see things in new ways – and you’ll do the same for them.
5. Just say the thing
You know that awkward moment when everyone in a room is thinking the same thing… but not saying it? Maybe it’s organizational politics that keeps them quiet. Maybe it’s self-imposed pressure brought on by the fear of being wrong. Or maybe it’s just that they’re waiting for someone else to be brave first.
Listen: that person should be you. You should be the one to say the thing. Being new gives you a license to break the silence – and it’s an opportunity to cast yourself in this crucial role for the rest of your tenure.
“Being new gives you a license to break the silence”
Deborah Liu, VP of Facebook Marketplace, helped me understand that the best way to help teams align is to be bold about saying the thing. This is the best way to turn abstract ideas and fears into things that are more concrete, which makes them something a team can discuss out loud. And when we talk about things openly, then we can align on what they mean and decide what to do about them.
But if no one speaks up, then everyone stays stuck in their heads and we avoid the real issues. I often struggle here, so I know that the issues you avoid are the ones that end up defining you, your products, and your company. The problems that you can’t discuss – the arguments you don’t have – will always lead to the worst decisions you’ll ever make.
So just say the thing. It’s an act of confidence, but also one of kindness: you’re giving your colleagues a gift that helps them get more aligned and make a better decision. As Deb says, “If no one says the thing, how will you solve the problem?”
Take advantage of the opportunities
Being new is hard. I know that because I’m new right now – maybe you are, too.
As much as you practice these behaviors, being new will always be hard. But you’ll never have a better chance to learn as you will during your first few months. The strengths you develop when you’re new will serve you even better as you transform into a wise veteran at your organization.
So when you find opportunities, take advantage of them. Jump in with both feet, ready to learn and help your team move faster, better, together.
Since we first published Intercom on Onboarding back in 2016, awareness about the critical importance of excellent user onboarding has grown considerably.
With the relentless rise of SaaS in particular, the need to help users find value and discover their “aha” moment is more important than ever. The one-off transaction has been superseded by an ongoing relationship, and excellent onboarding is central to the success of that relationship.
“Onboarding is the one truly universal problem every piece of software has”
And yet, all too often the quality of our onboarding experiences don’t match up to the quality of our core products. That’s despite the unavoidable reality that onboarding is the one truly universal problem every piece of software has.
Since we released the first edition of this book, we’ve launched an entire new product in the space, Product Tours, so as you’d guess, our perspective on the topic has matured quite a bit.
Capturing our latest thinking
This edition of Intercom on Onboarding captures our latest thinking, reflecting everything we’ve learned from onboarding tens of thousands of our own customers, as well as building a tool to help other companies onboard their own users.
Written by a collection of Intercom experts and with a foreword and contribution from onboarding guru Samuel Hulick, the refreshed book features seven new chapters alongside revised material from the first edition. Now you’ll learn:
How to identify the low-hanging fruit in onboarding.
How to make a great first impression.
A framework for creating your onboarding strategy.
How to design your onboarding flow and narrative.
The differences between onboarding individuals and teams.
How to show users continuous value, so they stick around for the long-term.
As with our previous books you can read it on almost any device – it’s available in ePub, Mobi, and PDF. Head this way to grab your free copy and find out all you need to make your onboarding experience as good as your product. Enjoy!
Picture this: You’re a product designer with a handful of years on your career path. You’ve cut your teeth on a few big launches and earned your stripes as a solid “mid level” product designer.
Like many designers, you’re curious and ambitious. You look to the future and ask yourself, where do I want to be this time next year? What about in five years? What’s next for me?
Developing your product design career as an individual contributor
There’s a classic fork in the road for product designers who are looking to grow in their career. One career path leads to management: to running teams and projects, to managing people, to creating impact through others. The other path, the one I’ll focus on in this post, continues along the journey of individual contributor: to mastery of the craft of design, to leadership without the need to manage, to above all else shipping great work.
As a designer on the management path, a large part of my focus has been to help individual contributor (IC) designers to develop in their role. I’ve been fortunate in that this has given me a valuable perspective on career growth for ICs.
“Getting promoted is usually more nuanced than just nailing a series of discrete tasks”
At product companies, career development for IC designers typically looks like becoming a senior and eventually a principal or staff designer. In my experience, many product designers who aim to achieve one of these positions tend to ask a seemingly simple question: “What do I need to do to get promoted?” However, this question rarely has a simple answer. Getting promoted is usually more nuanced than just nailing a series of discrete tasks (like shipping a particular project, for example). It also requires consistently demonstrating impact across a broad range of competencies that are often more amorphous (like learning how to think strategically, for example).
While it is of course important to know what you want your next role to be, once you do know, you should turn your attention to how to get there. Focus on the means as opposed to the end. Put thoughts of promotions and shiny new titles to the back of your mind and instead focus on your own journey and growth.
This all sounds simple, but how can it be done in practice? Well, there’s a recipe which I’ve found provides a healthy framing for IC designers in thinking about their growth, and it’s one that contains just two simple ingredients: results and behaviors.
Results: The main ingredient of career development
Product designers who want to stay on the IC path often focus on improving their technical skills in order to achieve career growth. They gain expertise in systems thinking, up-level in their prototyping abilities, become killer visual designers. They then use these skills to improve their execution, to ship better quality product faster, to get better results.
Results are the output of the work that you do. As a product designer, results are assessed based on the quality and impact of your design work, based on whether you are shipping “good design,” i.e. Your work is:
Achieving great results is extremely important, however it’s also just one part of what it takes to be a great designer. There is another ingredient that is less obvious, less tangible, but just as important to improve in, in order to grow. It’s about how you go about your work. It’s about your behaviors.
Behaviors: The secret sauce of product design career development
Behaviors are how you approach your work – how you act, think and communicate in your role. The behaviors of a product designer are assessed based on whether you can work successfully with the people around you, i.e:
You commit to doing things and then follow through.
You ring people from multiple disciplines together to drive projects forward.
You are organized, methodical and precise.
You onstantly search for opportunities to be impactful.
Your communication is articulate and compelling.
You are perceived to be all-in and a team player.
You act in line with the values and principles of your team and company.
Another dimension on which behaviors can be assessed is whether you are demonstrating leadership in your role. Leadership is the most important attribute for an IC to demonstrate as they become more tenured.
“Leadership can be practiced by those on both the management and the IC path”
Leadership is often conflated with management, but in actuality they are two different practices. Much hasbeenwritten about the differences between the two, but an intentionally over simplified definition is:
Management is practiced by those on the management path (Managers, Directors, VPs, etc). It involves hiring, retaining and empowering a team of people.
Leadership can be practiced by those on both the management and the IC path. It involves driving change for the better through inspiring, role-modelling, vision setting, articulating, consulting, teaching and executing.
For senior, principal or staff product designers, demonstrating strong leadership is absolutely central to the role. Here are some ways in which it can be done:
Project leadership, for example conceptualizing and realizing new and innovative product ideas.
Team leadership, for example upleveling the design org’s processes through DesignOps.
Thought leadership, for example speaking or writing about bots, automation, AI, or other topics that push the industry discourse further.
Excellent design delivered by a designer who is difficult to work with or who works in isolation, won’t lead to upward career development and growth. There’s a reason why Netflix has a “no brilliant jerks” policy.
The recipe to product designer career development
Your results and behaviors combine to determine your performance. If you operate at a consistently high level of performance for a sustained period of time, then you are improving in your ability and that promotion you seek will soon follow.
This all makes for a simple recipe: Mixing equal parts positive behavior and results makes for a high level of performance. And high performing product designers grow in their careers.
The seven behaviors of high performing product designers
There are plenty of resources that talk about how to improve technical skills as a product designer, but what do positive and healthy behaviors look like for designers?
At Intercom, we’ve invested a lot of time into creating clear career development paths and job specs for product designers. In doing that, we’ve reflected on the key behaviors that designers need to demonstrate in their day-to-day in order to develop in their career. Here are the seven key behaviors that we’ve identified for IC designers with examples of how to apply them:
1. Be goal oriented
Commit to and obsessively maintain quarterly, weekly, and daily goals. Hold yourself accountable to hitting them.
Always know what you are working on and why.
Get comfortable with the fact that there will always be more work than time, and make intentional and rational trade-offs.
Be an active voice in planning and estimating work, and keep your team honest in its decision-making.
2. Optimize for continuous progression
Always bias towards progress. Don’t wait to be told what to do. Take ownership beyond strict job boundaries to ensure that the most important thing is always being worked on.
Use as many words as required and no more. Get to the “so what?” as quickly as possible.
Read the room, ensure the audience understands before continuing.
Learn how to distill complexity into a succinct and compelling narrative.
6. Be a collaborator
Actively build strong partnerships with PMs, engineers, designers and your manager. Know that trust and well-functioning relationships don’t come for free.
Balance business (PM), technical (Engineering) and user experience (Design) inputs when making decisions. Don’t operate in a vacuum.
Know that healthy tension is an essential part of a team’s success but it’s never an excuse not to be kind and inclusive of everybody around you. Always be open minded and assume positive intent. Be able to disagree and commit.
Learn how to influence, contribute and find your voice within the company.
7. Live your values
Embody the company’s values. Internalize and apply them in a way that is authentic to you. Keep them fresh, relevant and alive by referring to them regularly in your discourse.
Follow the principles of your team, org or product. Use them to make decisions when faced with competing options that seem valuable along different dimensions.
Be intentional in your work and bring your full self. Know that how you do one thing is how you do everything. Reject mediocrity and have a high bar.
That’s it, those are the seven key behaviors we believe are required of high performing designers.
I hope this recipe can help you when thinking about your own career development in product design and always remember, it’s not just about how good the work is, it’s also about how the work gets done.
That’s why we recently launched Product Tours, a dead-simple onboarding tool featuring a code-free tour builder, error notifications and quick-start templates.
As our Design Lead Gustavs Cirulis shared recently, the development of the product did not come without its own challenges. So I hosted our Director of Product Management Brian Donohue and Senior Product Manager Patrick Andrews on the podcast today to get the behind-the-scenes look at how this product came to life. What were the critical decisions? Where were we confident, and where were things a little bit shaky?
Short on time? Here are a few quick takeaways:
Think big, start small. It’s easy to dream up a sophisticated solution to a problem, but first you need to validate your assumptions to ensure you’re on the right track before going nuts with features.
To differentiate yourself in a crowded market, ease of use is only part of the equation. Good design and even workflows are easy to imitate (and if you build something good, it will be copied).
Compound product interest is a competitive advantage that’s hard to copy. It allows you to maximize a new feature’s value with minimal effort because the feature is part of this system or platform.
Carefully consider adding bells and whistles. Sometimes the uncomplicated product is the best product, because it’s not boring to the customers who are feeling pain. Other times, you may want to maximize reach with attention-grabbing features (especially when you’re making a big marketing push).
There’s a debate about dates: some feel they’re too constraining and that the team should be able to launch the product whenever it’s ready. But working toward a launch date can be a powerful tool for making progress and decisions quickly.
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Phil: Being part of the Customer Engagement team here, I think a lot about product onboarding and expansion, so you can imagine how excited I was when we launched Product Tours last month. Patrick, can you describe exactly what Product Tours is?
Patrick: It’s a tool that helps you create interactive product onboarding guides for online businesses or online products. You can think about it like a sequence of tooltips or tours that you can stitch together to highlight parts of your products or to drive users to take simple actions.
Multi-step pointer messages in a Product Tour
There are two primary use cases you should think about. One is the first-time onboarding, so this means helping new customers coming to a product for the first time. Show them around, show them the ropes, and hope that it gets them to see value quickly. Second is feature announcements, which means helping your existing customers discover, understand and get going with new features. That’s basically what it is in a nutshell.
Phil: It’s like this lifecycle – everybody should be onboarded to everything all the time. Brian, why do we think this problem space matters so much?
Brian: I think you do have to zoom out a bit. It starts with so many businesses, which are subscription businesses. For them, conversion extends far past just handing over that credit card. You’ve got to convince your customers to stick around, and to do that, you have to actually ensure they see value, and you want them to see it fast. For that, you need really good onboarding. But this is not a surprise; everyone knows this. No one’s going to disagree with that point, but so many teams struggle to make their onboarding experience anywhere near as good as their core product, so the results of this is poor retention, and basically that’s poisonous for a subscription business.
Patrick: So it’s like exercise and dieting: everyone agrees it’s a great idea, and we all want to be healthier, but it’s really difficult to actually do it.
First-class onboarding is within reach
Phil: I find that really interesting. If you’re working on the onboarding, it means you’re not working on the product and that’s a really tough decision to make. Right?
Patrick: Exactly, it’s a huge tension.
Brian: It’s a huge challenge to get teams to do this and to do it well. Few teams put nearly enough effort into onboarding. Honestly, it tends to be an afterthought, or you do it once, and then you forget it. We know firsthand how hard it is. If I look back at my couple years here as a PM, I think it’s embarrassing. I gave the absolute minimum attention. Probably not nothing, but it feels like scratching the surface of that. So I totally fell into that trap myself.
To do this well, you need to figure out your aha moments. Our researcher, Lynsey Duncan, wrote a great post about that recently. Then, you need to create onboarding experiences that are actually relevant and targeted. Unless you have a super simple product, generic onboarding isn’t going to cut it. You have to tailor it to the jobs your customers are actually using your product for.
Brian: A core part of the pitch for Product Tours is that you don’t need to use up your precious engineering and design time to make first-class onboarding. And that means not only can you do it once, you can revisit it, you can optimize it, change it and build more of it without stopping your product teams from building new stuff. That’s critical.
Tours are extremely easy to build
Patrick: So it’s making this super easy to do, and then more people are actually going to do it. It’s like net new people doing this job when they weren’t doing it before.
Phil: That really resonates to me because, as someone who’s involved with onboarding, before we had a product like this, getting something hard coded into the product to explain a particularly tricky feature could take a lot of time, and it underwent a lot of scrutiny. And as you guys know, our products are getting improved all the time. When the product changes, the onboarding changes, and you go right back to the start again. Having that timeframe reduced to practically zero is an absolute game changer for me.
This was a big investment for your team and for a bunch of other teams in our go-to-market all around the business. I think you guys started on this all the way back in July last year. How confident were you that it was worth that kind of investment?
Brian: One thing that’s interesting here is that Product Tours certainly turned into a big project and a big release, and we tried to make a lot of noise about it, but it didn’t start out that way. We weren’t actually sure if this was going to be a big, new product, and in that sense it was different from a lot of the big releases we had last year. Last year, we had a new Messenger release, we had Custom Bots, we had Answer Bots. We knew these were big, ambitious projects from the outset. But not Product Tours. It started from a long-standing feature request – as in a years-old request. There was always clear demand of it, but it was really up to the team to figure out how big this actually should be.
“So many teams struggle to make their onboarding experience anywhere near as good as their core product, so the results of this is poor retention”
Patrick: We really knew customers wanted something in this space, but the question was what our play was going to be. Is this just a new simple message type, or are we going to do something much more sophisticated? A whole new product? And we really went on quite the journey to figure this out.
Our starting position was actually very big and ambitious. We had this whole advanced learn-by-doing pitch that enabled you to build very sophisticated tutorials. It felt very powerful, innovative and exciting, and we were pretty pumped as a team. But then when we reviewed the proposal with leadership, we actually got pushback. And the feedback was classic product-market fit feedback: “This is a great product, but how big is the market? Are we building something that’s just going to appeal to a small corner, or does the majority want something far simpler?”
Think big, start small
Phil: You were obviously pretty invested and had this great, fully featured product in mind, so how does that pushback feel when you’re that invested emotionally into something?
Patrick: Well, the feedback was great. It was really balanced. But I have to be honest, it was tough for me and for the team. We were pretty psyched and motivated about the direction we had taken. To get that course correction, even though it was definitely the right thing, was tough to take.
Brian: I wasn’t involved with the project at that point, but I remember seeing you shortly afterward, and I knew the meeting was happening. I didn’t know any of the details of the project at that point but I could see it in your face – it was clear the bubble was burst after that.
Patrick: So we decided to stop with that, and in true Intercom fashion, we picked a small iteration on an existing message type that we had. We definitely knew at this point that it wasn’t going to capture the full opportunity, but we really knew that this would help us learn more. We felt like if we dipped our toe into the water, it would really help outline some of the feature gaps and really solidify whether there was a demand for the solution and what form that solution should take. That’s exactly what we did.
“We need to start small and get feedback from customers to then be confident that the think-big was really worth investing in”
And you know, after running the beta for 10 days, it was crystal clear the list of the feature gaps that customers wanted. Even more than that, we had a huge heap of excitement for this possible product that we were going to build. It was really at that stage – which was probably 10 to 12 weeks after we initially started on this project – that it elevated to being a big project and it got the attention of the company and the big go-to-market plans.
Brian: In retrospect, this was actually a really good example of our principle of “think big, start small.” We need to start small and get feedback from customers to then be confident that the think-big was really worth investing in. Just reflecting on this, it’s surprising how much the default mindset for product folks naturally leans toward “think big, start big.” You get excited by that ambitious, hairy project, and you really have to push back against your natural tendencies here. It actually takes real discipline particularly when you think you’re onto something to build it that way.
Patrick: You get really excited, and then you can over-invest. Phil: Exactly. It’s easy when you’re working on solving these great big problems to just get super excited and it’s such an important principle, and obviously it was great feedback from leadership.
Standing out in a crowded field
Phil: At this point, let’s take a time check. It’s the end of 2018, there’s clear confidence that the customers want this and value it. We know it’s going to be a great, meaty product release. On the flip side, there’s already competition, and they’re selling this type of software. How did that existing landscape affect how we built this?
Patrick: From early on, we felt there were two key areas that we could differentiate on with Product Tours. The first one was ease of use. With ubiquitous design patterns now established, it’s actually pretty rare that a really good user experience can be a standalone differentiator. When we looked at the competitive market, we felt there was huge scope for improvement. Trying to use these other tools to build Product Tours, it really felt I’d been dropped into Photoshop in the early 2000s. It was like being smashed in the face with configuration controls everywhere. There were Chrome extensions, complex workflows. You know, it was tough to use.
“It’s actually pretty rare that a really good user experience can be a standalone differentiator”
We really felt that some good product design could really, really improve things. We felt that we could really differentiate ourselves by making the experience way simpler and faster – and more importantly we could do it without requiring any technical skills by design and engineering. Don’t get me wrong, there’s loads of stuff we still need to improve on the experience. But the early customer feedback has proven that this was a good bet.
Brian: I think what’s interesting here is that good design as the differentiator is not actually defensible. It’s easy to copy good design and even more complex things like workflows. That’s what competitors are going to do. So copying is just a reality we all have to accept in building software. If you build something good, it will be copied. And if you aren’t taking inspiration from elsewhere, you’re probably either lying or being dumb.
But we think we have another more defensible differentiator centered around the power of our platform — centered around the whole Intercom system and what it can give you. Product Tours fits into our whole system, and that’s where we think we can change the conversation. For example, with Intercom, we tend to take things like targeting and personalization for granted. We have fantastic capabilities here and we can quickly bring them to Product Tours.
We’ve got Answer Bot, which lets a bot automatically answer simple questions, right? And now you can add a tour to an answer in this really nice design. Think of it: a customer asks you a question in your messenger like, “How do I change my payment detail?” Instead of just telling them to click a link, you can actually show them, bring them there, walk them through the process. It’s like a little bit of magic when something like that can happen.
Answer Bot can walk your users through tours
Phil: Those walkthroughs are the most expensive kind of customer support interactions, right?
Patrick: Yeah, they’re the ones that support teams get frustrated about because they’re wasting time explaining simple how-to’s. We all wish we could build products that require no how-to’s, but I don’t think any of us have quite reached that yet. So this is a little bit of magic that we can bring with Product Tours.
Another place we can bring Product Tours is with Custom Bots. If you don’t know what use case your customer is coming to your product for, you can send a Custom Bot and ask them, “Hey, what are you coming here to do?” and you then set up a tree flow to send them the right product tour that’s actually relevant. So with what was relatively a small amount of effort, we’re able to really open the door to conversational onboarding.
Custom Bots trigger specific tours depending on the context
Another thing: you can send Product Tours directly from the Intercom Inbox. You can add them to the Messenger home screen.
Showcase relevant tours right in the Messenger
And then all the new stuff we’re going to build in the future, a lot of that’s going to benefit Product Tours as well, sometimes literally for free or sometimes with minimal additional investment. So all this stuff you can build on top of the core use case – we think of this as compound interest, and it’s a critical differentiator. You can’t actually build this idea of compound interest at the outset – this idea that with each new product feature you build, you add incremental value across the entire platform beyond the feature’s core use case. This compound interest comes from years of building the product incrementally and thinking and building in systems, and then you start to reach a point where you can start to stitch things together in your product really fast. It’s incredibly exciting from a product development prospective, and we think it’s really exciting for our customers as well. This is an example of a product differentiator that’s way harder to copy.
“This compound interest comes from years of building the product incrementally and thinking and building in systems”
Phil: Yeah. Totally. It’s something that I’ve got experience with since the launch of Product Tours, and it’s something I don’t think really hit home to me until I started using it.
We made some Product Tours to onboard people to our individual core products and features. Then we found our support team could leverage that as well, and then you’re saving hours of their time. Our sales team are using them to walk people through the product and demo them. It requires very little outlay from us to create Product Tours, and all of a sudden there are three or four different teams that can use it as well.
That’s the compound interest you’re talking about, where you’re maximizing a new feature’s value with minimal effort because the feature is part of this system or platform. It’s a personally resonant example of that compound interest and that maximization of the platform you’ve got at your disposal.
The time and place for video
Phil: So, we’ve talked about differentiators. We’ve talked about the ease of use. We’ve talked about the way it’s stitched into this all-encompassing platform. But something else which really hit home for a lot of people was the inclusion of video. How did that fit into the the overall story? Was it part of the plan to differentiate Product Tours with something like video? Because obviously I’m involved with video; we use it in Intercom’s onboarding experience, we use it in our webinars, we use it in demos. Tell me all about that. Patrick: The truth is, it wasn’t in the pitch at all until very, very late in the game. I think it was mid to late February when we were doing one of our end-to-end product reviews ahead of launching Product Tours into beta. The general sense in the room was: “This is a solid product. But is it boring? Have we built a boring product?” Honestly, I think even Brian stood up energetically in classic Brian style and did a huge spiel about how we’re missing a spark or a flare.
“First-to-market rarely guarantees best-in-market, but as humans, our first question is usually, ‘What’s actually new here?'”
Brian: What’s important is that sometimes a boring product is exactly what you need. Sometimes a boring product is actually the best product, because it’s not going to be boring to your customers who actually are feeling that pain. But when you’re doing a big release – when you’re putting a big push from your go-to-market team — you really want to ensure you’re giving it its best chance to make a splash, because when you release it, you’ve got that brief period of attention, and you want to maximize that. We all know that first-to-market rarely guarantees best-in-market, but as humans, our first question is usually, “What’s actually new here?”
Phil: This is also interesting because our customers who are going to use this need something that’s attention-grabbing because it’s their product onboarding. They need to spark that kind of interest with their customers to get them to see value quickly in the product and give them momentum to get to that “aha” moment. So it works on a lot of levels. Patrick, Brian has now just crushed you by telling you you’ve made a boring product. What happened?
Patrick: A couple of us in the team huddled together after that meeting and literally started whiteboarding a lot of ideas that could have this “Brian spark” or give it that extra dimension. And one of the ideas that was thrown on the board was video. At the end of last year, we launched a bot where you could send video messages. So the question we were asking ourselves was: “Could we do that for Product Tours? Would that be cool? Would that work?” Really, that was the level of resolution we had at this stage.
It was interesting enough to help us poach an engineer from the original team that built video messages. We basically said: “You’ve got a week. Scope this out. Let’s get a sense of what this feels like.” We pulled together this video tour, and we all sat down, and it was one of those moments I’ll always remember at Intercom. We were like, “This could be a game changer.” We had been on a campaign for the last few years to find a way to use video at Intercom, and we’d had success with that but we hadn’t found that real killer use case. Time will still tell, but we really feel like this could be really special. The really amazing thing was because this had been built already, it was actually pretty cheap to pull this over and use it in tours. It was super quick to build, and that’s how it got in.
So it actually ends up being another example of compound product interest, right? It was not a big bet, and it was really compelling. So all of us were really confident in making this bet, because it was actually pretty cheap and because we could build on top of what another team had already built. That was really exciting.
And the feedback has been awesome from customers as well regarding the video...
Part of the ritual of eating a meal in a good restaurant is the waiter asking if you’re enjoying your food and if there is anything else they can get for you.
Now, you might not think much about that particular restaurant practice – after all, it’s just a simple customer follow-up question shortly after your food has arrived.
However, there are a few lessons in this simple example of customer service that are valuable for anyone who works in customer support. How do customers feel about the service they’re paying for? Does our service contribute to a sense of customer delight?
Importance of following up in customer service – asking is what matters
Usually, we can reply that everything is delicious and quickly forget the waiter even checked in with us. Sometimes there will be an inevitable issue – you’re missing some cutlery or condiments, or the food isn’t quite what you ordered – but above all, it is the very asking of the question that shows they care about your experience.
“You’re paying for a service, despite not feeling like you’re getting much of a service at all”
Contrast that sense of care with those occasions when you can’t catch the eye of a waiter no matter how hard you try. Or worse still, you have had to ask the waiter where your food is and why it’s taking so long. Those situations are infuriating – you’re paying for a service, despite not feeling like you’re getting much of a service at all.
There are a few elements of this scenario that translates to customer support. A proactive support model, where you follow up on issues with your customers consistently, signals that you care about your customers and are dedicated to making sure their issues are resolved. It is this sort of consistent follow-up that will help ensure customers return to use you again and happily recommend your service to others.
The art of the consistent customer follow-up
Ensuring your follow-ups are consistent and effective, however, is as much an art as a science, and it involves overcoming the inherent challenges of customer support, which can be relentless (consistent inbound volume, meeting SLAs, having a constant pulse on latest product releases). Agents can sometimes feel the need to just get through it and move on.
“You need to make sure the customer is happy with the resolution, so consistent, thoughtful follow-ups are key”
Support isn’t just about resolving a customer’s first question and moving on, however. You need to make sure the customer is happy with the resolution, so consistent, thoughtful follow-ups are key. They are seemingly simple, but they have a profound impact on people’s sense of being respected and cared for.
One of the key elements of the follow-up is the timing – after all, waiters know to ask how you’re doing shortly after the food has arrived, long enough for you to gauge if there are any problems but not so long that any issues can’t be corrected without ruining your meal.
How we use Intercom’s Snooze feature to follow up with the customer
At Intercom, we use a feature called Snooze to ensure we get the timing right. It shelves your conversation into a designated snoozed folder and reopens after a day, week, month or a custom date and time that suits best for a follow-up to ensure they are happy with the resolution. Of course, the conversation automatically reopens if the customer replies before then.
(We’re pleased to notice that the Snooze feature is catching on elsewhere – last year, Gmail implemented a very similar feature, evidence of just how useful it can be for people juggling a busy inbox.)
Customers appreciate when you’ve put in the extra effort to ensure their issue is resolved. But it’s crucial that your follow-up with the customer should always be meaningful for them – don’t just “check in” on your customer. A generic one liner with no real goal can cause noise and interrupt your customer’s day. Give it a purpose, whether that’s updating them on a product update or a resolved bug, and keep it personal.
While it’s good to use TextExpander or a saved reply to create a “follow-up snippet,” try to personalize the query where applicable.
Also, I find that setting a specific time for snoozed conversations to reopen works better than just saying “tomorrow.”
I find mornings can be overwhelming – catching up on emails, Slack, updates, retros, scrum meetings … never mind grabbing some coffee and breakfast. The last thing I need is an overflowing Intercom Inbox all requiring follow-ups, so I schedule them to reopen at a time I know I’ll be able to pay them attention.
Contextual customer messaging is key to customer engagement
Every conversation is different. In some cases, it makes more sense to close the conversation and trigger the valuable customer satisfaction conversation survey rather than schedule a further follow-up.
This is how we currently think about the art of following up with the customer, and looking ahead, we’re excited to see how Intercom’s evolving product suite and technologies might allow us to introduce more automation to the process.
The sense of being cared for, similar to how you feel after a fine meal in a friendly restaurant, is what we aim to provide. We look forward to finding new ways to keep our interactions and support personal and authentic.
Mid-market and enterprise sales deals are undeniably complex. There are many decision makers, feature requests and critical dependencies that you have to navigate.
Successfully managing complex sales requires a different level of visibility into your deals. You need a structured way to see and track exactly what’s required to progress the deal forward, while also staying flexible enough to adapt to changing deal dynamics. This is true regardless of whether you’re closing new customers or growing existing business.
“Successfully managing complex sales requires a different level of visibility into your deals”
To get visibility into large deals, I developed a visual framework – which I call the Agile Arrow – that applies popular project management principles to the work that we do as salespeople. When implemented correctly, the result of leveraging the Agile Arrow is powerful: you are able to prioritize the people, work and outcomes that will make, or break, the deal.
Complex deals, complex problems
Complex deals require salespeople to exercise different muscles. With large deals it’s not just about one person signing on the dotted line. You have to unpack the various initiatives in play, partner closely with internal stakeholders, strategically prioritize your efforts and come up with an action plan, all while building trust with the customer. You have to be part salesperson, part project manager.
“You have to be part salesperson, part project manager”
A few years ago, I was the relationship manager for Intercom’s largest customer, overseeing the renewal of their contract. When I first took over this account, the business relationship was trending poorly and the customer was at risk of churning. The scope and complexity of the deal was new territory for both Intercom and me. At the outset of the engagement there was a long list of issues that needed to be resolved for them to renew, including:
A large-scale data restructuring project involving another vendor.
I wish I could tell you that I expertly navigated this deal from the start, but I didn’t. The first approach I took to managing the deal – writing longform executive summaries – left me and my team more confused than empowered. I found myself losing track of work streams and struggling to track overall deal progress, despite the wealth of information I had.
Examples of early attempts to capture and track the progress of the deal.
Information was siloed, my internal partners on the sales and product teams didn’t know where to focus their efforts, and the lack of progress was further jeopardizing our relationship with the customer. In short, I was spinning my wheels but not making forward progress.
Act I: Embracing agile principles
Three key realizations, presented as acts here, helped me turn the deal around. The first turning point for me was learning about agile project management. While it was designed for software development, its principles are just as relevant to sales. Especially for complex deals, your ability to respond to change, partner closely with the customer and iterate quickly is paramount. Three agile values really resonated with me:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
Responding to change over following a plan.
Embracing these agile values, I decided to pare down my executive summary. I realized that the extreme level of detail had resulted in a document that was far too cumbersome and not easily acted on. To remedy this, I applied three specific agile principles and simplified my document into three sections, each of which embodied one of the principles:
Principle #1: Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential. I shortened the executive summary to a single paragraph that summarizes the most crucial details of the deal. This way, we wouldn’t get lost in the weeds.
Principle #2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. I added a “latest updates” section to highlight what had happened in the past week. Rather than burying changes in a long document, I wanted to surface deal progress.
Principle #3: Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted. In the “path to close” section, I called out the individual stakeholders, both internal and external, whose work would be essential to the renewal. This helped clarify our priorities for the deal team and whom we needed to engage to win the renewal.
The first attempt at applying agile principles to managing the deal.
The new agile version of the document made sharing progress with stakeholders easier. It forced me to decide what information was crucial for the deal team to know and what wasn’t. I had a step-by-step path to renewal that enabled me to identify gaps and prioritize accordingly. My grasp on the deal dynamics improved, and we started to see signs of progress in the following weeks.
Act II: Building a visual framework
The next step was iterating on the document to visualize the path to renewal. There was more to be done to break down the deal into bite-sized, actionable pieces. Just as sprints are core to agile methodology, milestones, or set amounts of work, make up complex sales. Crossing each milestone – executive sponsorship, security review, compliance – moves the deal forward.
Inspired by a colleague, I drew out my path to renewal and organized it by key milestones and their associated dependencies. This became the first version of the Agile Arrow:
The reality is that for complex deals, the Agile Arrow looks far more like this:
For this particular renewal, my key milestones and dependencies were:
Visualizing the Agile Arrow enabled me to call out the most important milestones for the deal and get ahead of the dependencies required to cross each one. I could easily track overall deal progress without losing focus at each stage – admittedly, I also love checklists. I was able to identify non-impactful work streams and then quickly deprioritize them.
Act III: Putting faces to the Agile Arrow
One of the values that had resonated with me when I discovered agile is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” As I continued to apply the Agile Arrow, I realized that I needed a better way to capture the “who,” the individuals whose actions would impact the deal.
I decided to leverage the DACI decision-making framework, which we use across broadly at Intercom, to clarify stakeholder roles in the deal. The acronym DACI stands for: Driver, Approver, Contributor and Informed. It establishes who’s responsible for driving the deal forward, who’s making key decisions, who’s influencing decisions and who’s simply in the loop.
In my case, the main stakeholders for the renewal were:
Driver: VP of Growth
Approver: Growth product manager
Contributor: Sales lead
Informed: Marketing manager
By incorporating DACI into my framework, I added a personal layer to managing the deal. More than that, it enabled me track who on the customer’s side was involved with the deal, their roles and their responsibilities. That way, I could tailor my approach to communicate only what was relevant to each individual stakeholder.
Closing a $250k renewal with the Agile Arrow
The Agile Arrow was crucial to bringing a $250k renewal back from the brink and closing it. Its jobs were manifold: be flexible enough to account for changing priorities, enable me to visually track deal progress, and meaningfully surface individual stakeholders and their priorities. The result was that I was able to identify the initiatives that I needed to push hardest for and effectively collaborate with my internal partners to drive key outcomes.
“With complex sales, priorities will change, and you must be able to adapt”
This framework has become part of my playbook for closing big deals and as a manager, is a tool that I use with my sales reps. The biggest lessons I learned and share with my team are:
Priorities will change, and you must be able to adapt.
The simplest way to present information will always win.
People come first, and understanding their needs is a must.
To be great at closing complex deals, you need to do more than just sell. You have to wear another hat as a project manager – constantly in control of the deal and its progress.
Do you sell to large customers or are involved in complex sales? I’d love to hear what you think about the Agile Arrow! Comment below, or drop me a note at email@example.com.
Knowing your user’s story is central to a great onboarding experience – but how do you actually tell that story?
At some point you need to write the content of your onboarding: words, sentences, value props, the works. Ultimately, it’s the content that helps your users achieve their goals.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting for just a few bits of text. As it turns out, writing your onboarding is a real job, and it’s often harder than you might think. The hardest part of all is figuring out where to start.
Without content, your onboarding would be a bunch of empty boxes and arrows on top of your product. It’s the content – the actual words – that helps people understand what your product does, find out why it might be valuable to them, and learn how to use it.
Unfortunately, many product teams tend to approach content as their lowest priority – and it shows. Even if it’s well-written, it sounds wrong and works wrong: it’s focused on highlighting product features rather than showing people what they can achieve by using them.
“This is what it looks like when you try to solve a product problem with content after the product’s already been built”
These problems are expensive to fix because your team has sunk a lot of time into designing your onboarding flow. But when content is the lowest priority, you might assume that the poor performance of your onboarding is due to bad content that can be solved quickly and cheaply by “making the words better.”
Instead, you should reconsider this as being a product problem. For example, consider these signs I spotted beside some light switches a few years ago:
This is what it looks like when you try to solve a product problem with content after the product’s already been built. No one could understand how the light switches worked, so someone designed a guide (onboarding!) with instructions so that their colleagues could use the lights.
These switches required dozens of words of explanation! And it’s not the content’s fault that these switches are so hard to use – it’s the product’s fault. Especially when the problem of designing a usable dimmer light switch has been solved for decades:
Content makes a terrible bandage for a broken product. What if you approached your onboarding experience by thinking about the content first? That way, you’d know your user’s story and their goals before building anything. This lets you design the experience around that story rather than bolting it on afterwards.
Create a narrative for your users’ journey
Narrative is the structure you put into place that dictates how the story of your product is told. It’s also the frame by which you want people to see your product. That’s why it’s helpful to build your narrative before you write a word of your onboarding flow so that you can keep it focused on the things that really matter for your users.
Bad narratives focus on the product
Even if you’ve never thought about narrative before, you know a bad one when you see it. A product narrative that focuses on the company (“Look at this hard work we did!”) instead of the users is a classic example. Others include:
Lacks clarity: A story where the subjects, the context they’re in, or the outcomes of their actions are unclear. Product narratives need to be crisp and focused for people to understand what the product does, how they should use it, and why.
Too abstract or detailed: A story focused on ideas without the details that make those ideas concrete. Vice-versa, a story that’s overly focused on the details without any big ideas to link them together. You need a balance of abstract ideas and concrete details for people to understand your product.
No structure: A story told out of order, where the effects come before the causes. This might be a fantastic way to tell a story in a movie or time-travel novel, but not so much for a product.
Doesn’t deliver: A story that seems to promise something really exciting or interesting to you, but never delivers on it. How many products have you used that don’t live up to their expectations? Likely far too many.
Too long: A story that doesn’t end, but rather drones on and on for so long that you forget why you’re paying attention to it in the first place. Product onboarding that lasts for more than a handful of steps often leads to steep abandonment.
I’m sure you’ve experienced product onboarding that makes mistakes like these (and likely several others). All of these examples show you how the structure of the story influences how that story is understood, perceived, and results in the desired outcomes. So if you want to get the actual words in your onboarding flow right, you need to first put a strong structure, a strong narrative, into place.
Great narratives focus on people
To build a compelling narrative, you need to first understand your customer’s journey and the Job-to-be-Done. What’s the context of their needs that brought them to your product? What problems do they experience? What are the tasks that your customers need to be successful at in order to see value? And what will your customers achieve if they complete those tasks?
“You need to be able to show people how using your product helps them become better versions of themselves”
You can answer these questions by talking with your users and observing them experiencing these problems in context. Doing this helps you discover something fascinating: “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves,” as Samuel Hulick puts it. So motivation is a key factor in creating a strong product narrative – you need to be able to show people how using your product helps them become better versions of themselves.
Putting this all together: when a person uses a product, we have the situation they’re in (the context), their motivation to use the product (the need or problem they have), and the outcome they want (the better version of themselves). Combined, this is the basis for your narrative.
Here are examples to illustrate how to link together all of your narrative elements into a complete user journey.
Situation and context: I use my personal credit card for work purchases a lot. I get reimbursed for them, but I never know how much they’re going to cost because it’s hard to track my purchases.
Motivation to use the product: I don’t want to pay my bills late or rack up a lot of interest charges, penalties, or debt. I do want a quick way to see my personal purchases and separate them from my corporate purchases.
Actions taken: I downloaded an app from my bank to help me track and categorize my spending. I set up alerts to make sure I pay bills on time and seek reimbursement from my employer immediately. This helped me create my first real budget.
Desired outcomes: I manage my finances so well that I don’t feel anxious. I’m not constantly worried about running out of money, so I’m more generous with my friends and family.
Proof points: I know what I’ve bought, when, and for whom; I’m quickly reimbursed by my employer; I don’t have any penalties from late credit card payments; I’m carrying less debt than usual; I never overspend, even though I’m spending more on others
Now that your story has a narrative structure in place, you’re ready to focus on the elements that help people succeed as they learn how to use your product.
The 6 key elements of an effective onboarding flow
As part of our product research at Intercom, we’ve reviewed the onboarding flows of hundreds of software products. These products are in a number of diverse industries, solve a range of problems from simple to complex, have onboarding as short as one screen and as long as over 70 steps (yes, really!).
No matter the approach, all of these onboarding flows had six elements in common:
A welcome message. This should warmly greet your users, helping them feel valued and recognized.
An identity for the product or company. This helps build an understanding of how your users should consider the experience of interacting with your product.
A problem(s) to be solved. This helps create a strong connection with your users because they see themselves reflected in it.
At least one explicit value proposal. This is the promise your company makes, setting a clear expectation for what users will get out of the product.
The mechanics of using the product. Whether it’s a conversation with a bot, a video, a series of pointers, or static text, this walks your users through how to use the product.
At least one call to action. Maybe it’s creating something, entering data, or taking some other action, but the best onboarding flows don’t stop at explaining the product interface – they go the extra mile to make sure people are prompted to start using it effectively.
These are the standard elements of effective onboarding that you should include in your product. In order to set up your users for success, each of these elements will play a role, and if for any reason your onboarding flow is missing one or more of these elements, determine where and how you can incorporate it. A flow that is missing any of these elements is incomplete and both your business and your users will suffer from the absence.
With your narrative and content elements in place, you can focus on how you deliver content to your users in your onboarding flow – and how that content is understood and felt.
Use voice and tone to speak in a way people can hear
Once you have a narrative that acts as a foundation for your onboarding, then you can start writing content that fills in the structure of your narrative. But this is easier said than done. How should your writing sound?
A product’s voice is the personality and character that comes through in its communication – including the writing in its onboarding flows. The voice of a product should be distinctive and consistent because it’s a big part of the overall brand and experience.
We often document a company or product’s voice by determining what it should always and should never sound like. You can create these guidelines by interviewing your leaders and other decision-makers as well as the people who have been in the company the longest. Here’s a framework that you can use to define rules for the voice of your product:
We always sound: Confident We never sound: Arrogant So that our customers: Know they’re making the best decisions
We always sound: Playful We never sound: Distracting So that our customers: Have fun while still being efficient and effective
We always sound: Like a caring coach We never sound: Like an aloof robot So that our customers: Feel supported in taking their next steps
Now if your voice is about what you say, then your tone is about how you say it. The right tone helps you understand how to apply your voice based on the context of the situation.
Tone helps us try to understand people’s emotions and level of openness to our messages so that we can come across more clearly and effectively. Ideally, this results in our users being better able to hear what we’re trying to say and do for them.
“Tone goes well beyond just words in terms of connecting with people’s emotions”
Because tone is so focused on the details of your customer’s context or situation, it should be reflected in your punctuation, grammar, emoji, photos or GIFs, aspects of your design, and more. Tone goes well beyond just words in terms of connecting with people’s emotions.
To start building a system of tones, talk directly with your users about the key scenarios of your product, asking questions about their experience. Here’s an example of how this helps you understand a key scenario for a fictitious recipe app:
What’s happening in the product right now? The person just opened the app for the very first time
What’s the person trying to achieve in the product? They want to cook dinner for their family over the next half hour and they hope their family enjoys the meal
What’s the person feeling at this moment? Eagerness, anticipation, stress, fear of ruining dinner
How open is the person to the message we want to give them? Somewhat closed: they’ll value the message only if it’s clearly linked to their immediate goal
What feelings should be conveyed in our message? Encouragement, respect, care
What’s an example of a message that fits all of these factors? “In a rush? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Save time with these family favorites.”
Learning about your users and describing product scenarios helps you create tone guidance for your product as a whole. These tones help make sure that your product writing addresses people’s needs in a way that they can hear.
Great content helps users reach their goals
A strong structure, focus on the standard elements of success, and using voice and tones effectively all help make your onboarding easier to write and far more useful for your users. Not only that, but you can apply your narrative, content elements, and voice and tones all throughout your product experience – not just to onboarding.
By investing in these structures and principles upfront, you can create better content that’s more consistent and effective at helping your users reach their goals. Just a little prep and research goes a long way toward scaling your content to meet the needs of your product, users and company.