Customer Success

Are You Measuring Customer Success Like Trump University?

August 30, 2016

In case you hadn’t heard, Donald Trump’s now infamous Trump University had a very interesting way of “validating” the success of its products.

Like many for-profit businesses, Trump University put a lot of effort into generating customer reviews and using them as a form of social proof. The more glowing reviews it could get, the better. Unlike most businesses, however, it appears that Trump University wasn’t interested in whether that feedback was truly genuine, meaningful, or insightful.

In fact, according to a March report by The New York Times, Trump University appears to have pressured its students into leaving positive reviews. And, the Times claims, it did so before those students had any real opportunity to decide whether they liked or disliked the “product.”

How Some Software Companies Inadvertently Follow the Trump U Model

As a result, Trump University had remarkable — some might say fabricated — customer success metrics. This was a great strategy if the company’s goal was to constantly sell. But it’s a horrible way to accurately measure (and learn from) the value that students are actually getting from their experience. Not surprisingly, Trump University’s approach was eventually exposed. And the PR fallout hasn’t been pretty.

From afar, it’s easy to look at the organization’s approach to customer success and opine about how ridiculous it was. But if you’re an executive at a software company, I’d be careful not to hurl too many stones before closely examining how your own software business approaches customer success.

Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of great software companies handle customer success in an eerily similar way. In fact, I’ve seen far too many customer success strategies that look something like this:

  • A customer is sold a product based on a specific need or pain point
  • When the deal closes, the customer is passed off to customer success for implementation
  • Customer success onboards and trains the customer around the set of features they’ll need to address their need or pain point
  • Once the onboarding and implementation is done, marketing asks customer success to request a case study or testimonial

That’s a gross generalization, of course. And I’m not suggesting these companies were being purposefully nefarious or misleading. The reality, however, is that many customer success strategies are too simplistic. They revolve around successfully getting a client up-and-running, with the hope that doing so will lead to a positive review down the road, and the relationship ends there.

The problem with that approach is that it’s missing several very important steps.

Namely, it stops short of addressing a series of follow-ups that are critical to evaluating a customer’s actual experience with the product at various points in their journey. This is what makes this approach similar to Trump University. Yes, customer sentiment can be captured this way. But that sentiment in no way reflects the customer’s true experience with the product.

The Right Way to Approach and Measure Customer Success

From your company’s perspective, the overarching goal of customer success metrics should be pretty simple: Identify areas for improvement.

Yes, customer success is also responsible for ensuring customers are onboarded efficiently. And there are numerous other activities and functions that encompass customer success. But when you’re measuring this function and using it to improve the business, it’s absolutely critical to get genuine feedback at multiple stages of the customer’s product journey.

Acquiring that feedback means checking in at various points post-sale and asking questions like these:

  • Was the product implemented successfully? Why or why not? And what can be improved about that implementation experience? To measure this, you might track onboard rates and implementation timelines.
  • Is the customer (and its employees) actually using the product? Why or why not? Which features do they use most? What’s keeping them from using it more often? Are there opportunities to remove friction and improve adoption? This can be easily measured through user activity and engagement metrics.
  • Is the customer actually getting the value that was promised at the point of sale? Has the product met their needs? Has their pain been resolved? Are there any areas or friction points that still need to be addressed? Analytics will give you some insight into these questions, but the best way to gather this information is to schedule regular check-ins with customers and ask for brutally honest feedback.

That last point is particularly important.

While it’s valuable from a marketing perspective to be able to show a lot of happy customer data, it’s a mistake to stop there or to only seek the kind of feedback that you can feature in a case study or a website testimonial. Truthfully, that kind of feel-good feedback is only surface deep and it doesn’t really help your business get better.

So, as you think about customer success, try to think about the things you can be doing better to gather insights into how you can improve.

Remember: There was a reason that each and every customer bought your product. They expected it to create value for them in a very specific way, and they’ll be judging their experience based on that criteria.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.