When service is down – how open should you be?

Admitting Failure

Yesterday we’ve experienced probably the worse production down-time that we had since we’ve launched Totango. The intentions were good, we’ve upgrades a significant part of our infrastructure that we’ve worked on for months and unfortunately this upgrade didn’t go smooth…

We’ve been working around the clock to resolve the problem, and at the same time I felt that it’s important to openly communicate to our customers directly, with a message within the application, thru email to all of our admins, and on the company blog about the situation and to keep everybody up to date.

We’ve started getting feedback from our blog readers that we should have not have used public communication to report about the service problem. Some people of the team felt the same way, as this could very well become an ammunition to our competition, and may scare off potential customers who are in the process of evaluating our service.

This is a tough decision – how open and transparent should we really be?

I guess the world is divided into two camps:

  1. Information on a need to know basis
  2. Open and Transparent

Clearly, me and the team are part of camp #2. I believe that by being open and transparent, even at cases of failures, we will get credit for admitting to problems and resolving those.

However, option #1 should not be dismissed easily. There are many companies that keep very good image without exposing their failures publicly.

What do you think? What would you do?

5 Traits of User Onboarding Craftsman

If you haven’t looked at Jordan Koschei‘s  analysis of dropbox user onboarding flow, you should go ahead and read it here. I’ve also found this interesting thread on Quora with other examples of good user onboarding flows.

User onboarding is a critical part of the product usage and adoption lifecycle. When users have the option from thousands of products and services to choose from, the first ‘feel’ of a product becomes very important to the success of a new product or service implementation.

Every online product manager is aware that to achieve both, there is tension between:

  • getting people to complete necessary steps in order to start seeing value from their product; and at the same time
  • making sure not to overwhelm them with unnecessary information/tasks/steps.

In the case of Totango onboarding, we’ve had a heated internal debate with one camp feeling that we’re imposing too much effort upfront by requiring a Javascript implementation, and the other camp feeling that we could ask for way less information and provide just enough value before getting deeper. We’ve called the new approach the ‘drop-in’ project. I’m happy to admit, as the leader of the ‘aggressive camp’ that I was completely wrong. The drop-in yielded fantastic results of higher rates and much faster  onboarding.

Crafting a great user experience while building a successful user onboarding flows is like an art, or more precisely a craft of minimalism.

Too little effort upfront will leave users underwhelmed with your product and too much effort upfront will turn away new users.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem and have been working with Totango customers on their user onboarding flows. You can read about nCircle’s journey here. From working with many customers like this, I have been able to find 5 rules of thumb that lead to great user onboarding implementations:

1. It’s all about the core value
When designing the onboarding implementation you should carefully understand the core  of your application. In most applications, there are many things people can do, however, you’re designing the best way for people to understand your service value without interruptions and without extra unnecessary steps.

2. User-centric approach
Think about who your user is in a very concrete way. Where did they come from, what have they done prior to initiating your “getting started” experience, what language do they speak, which device are they using? By preemptively getting this data, you don’t need to ask redundant questions and they don’t need to fill data you already have.

3. Have an owner, have a team
Someone has to own the onboarding project, which will take time to get right. Have someone (you?) own it and drive it to success. It will require many follow up changes and decisions that will impact the results. Also, important, make sure you have an implementation team in place that can follow up with UI, graphics, flow, copy (language) changes.

4. Iterate, iterate, iterate…
You will probably need hundreds of changes, some of them very minor while other very significant to get it right. You’ll have to go through many cycles of analysis and learning to get it right.
The key metrics you should care about are:

  • Onboarding success rate – of the people who started (and you care about) how many successfully completed the onboarding flow, and how many dropped and why?
  • Time to onboard – optimize for the minimal time to successfully onboard new users. Track that time and find ways to improve it.
  • Engagement – the rate of onboarded users who ended up frequently using the service/app
  • Monetization –  the rate of successfully onboarded users who ended up paying

5. Remove steps

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away“. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This is an all-time favorite of mine, and it’s true in user onboarding as well. Always consider removing steps, you’ll be amazed by the results.

Which products do you find with the best onboarding experience? Let’s use the comments thread below to praise those products.

Techie CEO, Telling the story right!

Totango, my startup, is now part of the official contenders list of CRM Idol. For those who are not familiar with the competition: it’s the brainchild of Paul Greenberg who – in turn – is considered by many one of the founding fathers of the CRM industry.  The competition was first held last year. To give you a sense of how influential Paul is: three CRM Idol finalists were acquired, one during the competition, so clearly Paul has a nose for good companies.

Inspired by the blog of one of our fellow contestants, Mothernode, I wanted to add some color on our own experiences so far. Besides the great honor of being part of this distinguished list of exciting companies in the CRM space,  we have already learnt a ton and the competition has barely begun.

After passing the first round (which consisted of submitting three customer references), we’ve been assigned George and MJ from Infor as mentors – thanks guys! They have been very gracious with their time and have met with us (more than) once a week to listen to our pitch.  What they have been really able to help us with is telling our story. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt so far (which I believe are broadly applicable):

1. The story of the founders matters

I was born in Israel and rose through the ranks of CEO as an Engineer, Architect and Product Executive. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally, but with a little (a lot) of help from George and MJ we are getting there. My natural tendency is to talk about the product and leave out the bits about myself, why I started this company and why my rock-star team at Totango is uniformly passionate about our mission. I now realize my personal story matters.

For too long, CRM was about closing transactions and, more recently, building relationships, from the golf course to social media.  I believe however that the future of CRM is about delivering true value to customers and end-users – every day, all day long. Value for customers is not created on the golf course, but rather through a superb product or service experience, insightful customer support and value-added interactions with your users, whether through the product, social media or in-person. Over my career I have seen too much software end up as shelfware. Especially BECAUSE I have a strong product background I believe in having the product always, always deliver on its promises and make customers successful, not just before the sale, but throughout the customer lifecycle. This is why I started Totango.

2. Focus on the story of your customers

You can speak about all the wonderful features of your product all day long, but in the end of the day, as I said above, a product is only as good as the value it delivers for its customers. We have learnt to tell the story of our product through our eyes of our customers. Now, when we demo our product, we tell the story of how Zendesk was able to increase free to paid conversion over 30% by focusing their sales team, how nCircle increased successful product activations over 3x by learning about product usage and usage bottlenecks and how Clarizen was able to proactively identify and turn customers at risk of churn. We even were inspired by the competition to write more of our customer stories and we launched just last week a new section on our website with these stories. Coincidentally adding this section significantly increased visitor to sign-up conversion on our site (but that’s the topic for another blog).

3. Celebrate success

Our mentors have also helped us realize how much we have already accomplished. We are helping about 100 businesses with over 2 million customers to better understand and engage their customers. Those are big numbers for a little company, which only started to sell earlier in 2012.  Too often you look at the mountains to climb still ahead, but being part of CRM Idol has also forced us to look back at the valley below and see the ground we have already covered.

What’s more important to me personally is realizing the impact that we are having on some really awesome companies. I already quoted some of the numbers above, but perhaps the best evidence of our success is that organizations like Zendesk and BigCommerce are now using us throughout their company.  Both started with us in one department (sales) but over the months other departments started to use customer insights: product teams are building better features, customer success teams are identifying struggling users and reach out and marketing is sending helpful tips by email based on product usage.  When you share user engagement insights throughout the organization magic happens: happy and successful customers lead to better monetization and lower churn.

We are looking forward to our briefing this Thursday and more learning to come.

Moved the hosting of this blog to WPEngine

I have moved this blog to be hosted at WPEngine. I know that as a reader you don’t really care where this blog is hosted, and you’re right. But I care that you as a reader will get a great experience, and in this case, experience means speed! Yep, the time it take the blog to load and serve is very important.

You should expect me to also write more often, as it’s also easier and more fun to me with this new speedy site.

Well done WPEgine guys, keep up the good work!

GWT is dead!

GWT is dead at least for us at Totango. We are in the final stages of migrating all of Totango ui into native HTML5. I know this is probably not news for people who follow the landscape of front-end JavaScript frameworks, however, I’ve been asked several times within the past couple of months to recommend the usage of GWT, so just to be absolutely clear – I don’t recommend anyone to start using GWT as this project is not going anywhere.

Although Google is investing a lot in it’s developer support, GWT was never a true open source project. Even now, the direction of the project is not communicated to it’s community. Google can decide not to support the project anymore and do something else, but not communicating with people who have adopted their technology is a wrong thing to do. Personally, I don’t trust Google open source technologies anymore and prefer now to work with pure open source projects.

GWT was an attempt to shorten the path for Java developers and get them to become productive on modern web applications without learning much of JavaScript and CSS and HTML. This was my assumption when first started to code Totango.

We have collectively learned since, that it is much easier to get a grip of the modern web techniques, best practices and tools, rather than overcoming those with the GWT abstraction layer. The best practices of the GWT framework are good, however, those could be easily replicated in other technologies as well.

Since GWT was not taking advantage of existing packages and libraries which were already developed in JavaScript, it was difficult for the project to move fast enough, leaving the GWT community to look for alternative for some very basic functionality required in these days web. The most obvious one was the lack of a proper animation support, which comes for free for in jQuery.

GWT promise was – “Productivity for developers, performance for users”. I have found that pure HTML5 and jQuery when needed are way more productive and better performing.

Lessons learned of reading Steve Jobs bio

I couldn’t get my hands off the Steve Jobs biography for the past couple of days. Great book, I highly recommend reading it to everyone!

One of the key lessons I’ve learned by going through Jobs’ amazing life story, was his passion for products. For the past decade I’ve been thinking and researching about the relationship between science, technology, engineering, art and craftsmanship. The disciplines which are blended in when creating new amazing products.

In order to build great products the focus should be on the *creation process*. People from various disciplines are blended in the creative process. Isn’t this great?

It may sound weird (to some) that as Founder and CEO the best parts of my day are the combination of Customer Feedback, User Interface and User Experience design and creation. Now I know for certain; we are building TOTANGO to enable such a mixture of creative processes. It will ensure great products customers will love and also our own enjoyment, so we can keep on doing that for long.