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18 min read

Re-imagining customer listening

Customer Marketing | Customer & Market Research | Customer Retention

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Before I get started, I have a few questions for you to think about. Have you talked to your customers before? Have you ever gone out and visited them? How confident do you feel that you know your customers and their day-to-day jobs?

At Dropbox, we went through a lot of these questions in our early days, and what we realized is we didn't feel confident about any of the answers. And so today, I'm going to take you through how we reimagined customer listening, specifically focusing on:

My background and journey in customer listening

So a little bit about me before we get started. I was born and raised in San Francisco in the Bay Area – the tech bubble as it’s known, for better or worse. I started my career at a company called Intuit QuickBooks, which is an accounting software platform.

One of the reasons I loved this experience was the opportunity to learn about customer obsession. Our founder, Scott Cook, lived and breathed customer insights. It was a part of everything in our organization – in every meeting, all the way up to the CEO, people would ask, “Well, what did the customer say?” And if you didn't have an answer, you had to go back out in the field and figure it out.

The other program we had at Intuit was called the Follow Me Home program, where twice every quarter, we had to go out and visit customers in the field, get insights, learn a little bit about their challenges, and return to the organization with feedback. So I learned a lot at Intuit.

And then, about five years ago, I moved over to Sydney with Intuit QuickBooks and brought that customer Follow Me Home program to the region. I was learning not just translation but localization, and really getting a feel for the local market.

Two and a half years ago, I started my career at Dropbox, doing product marketing for the APAC region, learning a lot more about customer insights and how they differ in regions like Asia, not to mention the nuances that exist in Australia. Even though we speak English, there are a lot of nuances that are different from how things operate in the US.

A little bit around marketing at Dropbox. We represent a lot of different functions. We have global sales and channels; we've got customer strategy and insights, who do a lot of our customer research; we've got an analytics team; we've got digital marketing; and last but not least, we have product marketing.

Mo’ tech mo’ problems

Dropbox now has over 500 million users around the world, and we see ourselves as a proxy for the way the future of work is heading. We have the opportunity every day to talk to all these people and understand what a day in their life looks like. And we found out from our research that it typically looked like this:

Image from the presentation of a jumble of logos looking chaotic and the title that says "Disconnected and unfocused work".

Does this look familiar? Do you spend your workday bouncing in and out of tools? There's a lot of chaos. You're not really sure whether to send something in an email, a Slack chat, or one of the dozens of other platforms you’re working with. You're spending more time sifting through that information and doing what we call the “work about work” than the work itself.

We had this revelation that we had created tech to solve problems, but it actually left us with so many more problems to go figure out. So at Dropbox, we set out on a mission about two years ago to design a more enlightened way of working. We want to get to a place where people are focusing more on meaningful work and less on the back and forth behind the scenes to get that work done.

A great thing about Dropbox is that we have a very strong and clear value system. Probably my favorite value is “make work human”. Essentially it's about putting customers and people at the center of what we do. It's easy to get caught up in metrics and data, but you have to go and talk to people to truly solve a customer pain point. This was invaluable in the journey we were about to embark on.

Customer listening at Dropbox

Customer listening takes a lot of different forms at our company. Starting online, we’ve got social channels, we’ve got chats, and conversations, and we’ve got in-product feedback and discovery.

We also have a program called Real-World Wednesdays, in which once a week we bring in customers from different segments, cohorts, and verticals. It's almost like speed dating; we get to do one-on-ones with customers from different products and say, “Here's a prototype we're thinking about,” and “How do we actually fix that?” It's a great way of getting quick feedback.

We also have customer visits; we go out into the field to see customers in their natural environment. This can take many forms across different companies. For example, for Audible research, Amazon goes out and follows people on subways to watch how they're listening to podcasts and audiobooks.

Last but not least, and what I'm going to be focusing on today, is community building and connection through customer advisory boards.

How to identify an audience

Before you start a customer advisory board, there are a lot of things you need to think about. Firstly, how do you create an audience of the kinds of people who you want to provide feedback to your company?

How to identify an audience - super users, top brands, highest revenue generated, education/trachers, and merit badges - top fan and valued commenter.

There are a lot of ways you can cut it. You can look at super users, the people who are most engaged with your product. They could be monthly or weekly active users.

You can also segment by top brands. If you have some big-name customers, you have an opportunity to start nurturing them through a customer advisory board and hopefully turn them into advocates for your company.

You might want to look at the highest revenue-generating customers. These are the people giving the most money to your organization, so you want to cater to them and make sure that the product is heading in the same direction as their organizations.

It can also be educators and teachers. For example, at Canva, they have a program to educate their product evangelists to go out and teach their tools externally.

Last but not least, Facebook recently launched merits and badges for company pages, so if you're commenting as a fan or engaging with a page quite frequently, you get a merit badge, like a digital trophy of sorts. That badge signifies the company’s gratitude to that person for being an advocate, and there may be some special privileges awarded for advocating for the brand.

What does a customer advisory board do?

So what does a customer advisory board do? It's very simple. It provides feedback on our company and our product.

In Dropbox’s case, as I mentioned earlier, we were out to solve the problem of cluttered tools and content in teams. So last year, we launched a product called the Smart Workspace, which integrates all your different workflows in a single location.

It was a complete transformation for Dropbox, which started off as a file sync and share company, so we needed customer feedback. Our customer advisory board allowed us to bring our customers and advocates on the journey as we transitioned to this new product suite in this new category.

The second major functions of a customer advisory board are best practice sharing and community building. A lot of these people are on the board to network with peers, and they want to learn from what other people are doing.

Maybe someone’s five years down the line in their journey with your product, and someone else is just starting out. The person just starting out might want to know how others got their organizations on board with the tool or product and how to get them engaged over time. The customer advisory board is a great place to find that out.

Bree is an instructor for our Customer Advisory Board Certified: Masters course. Enroll today and gain knowledge on the core principles of a successful CAB. 

Why is our CAB run by product marketing?

So why does the customer advisory board sit in product marketing, you may ask. Well, there are four reasons why I feel we’re best placed to take ownership of it.

  1. We're the glue that joins product, engineering, comms, sales, channel, you name it.
  2. We partner with product to build out marketing requirements documents. This is where once we’ve assessed the market and the competitive landscape, we look at what we can build that’s unique and differentiated and solves our customers’ challenges.
  3. We’re the ones that amplify our advocates’ and champions’ voices by building use cases and stories and sharing them externally to get more people using our product.
  4. We're building narrative and positioning docs, and even coming up with pricing and packaging skews to make sure that there's a place where this new product will sit.

A year of customer advisory boards

So as I mentioned before, this customer advisory board is something that took off about a year and a half ago, so it's pretty fresh at Dropbox. We now have them in San Francisco, New York, London, Tokyo, and Sydney – all of our key regions.

When it started out, we would get together once a year and pick our top 20 customers. However, we soon found that that’s too big an audience, so we scaled it down to a group of 10 to 12, which seems to be the sweet spot.

After doing all these customer advisory boards across so many areas around the world, you're probably wondering what we do with all the insights. There's so much feedback coming through, so what happens next? I had that same question after a year of doing it, which was why we started leveraging frameworks like design thinking to turn insight into action.

What is design thinking?

What is design thinking? Understand the user, Challenge assumptions, and redefine problems.

Design thinking is a framework to understand the user. It involves taking time to empathize with the customer and understand their challenges and unique pain points – I'll take you through how we did that in a minute.

Design thinking is also about challenging current assumptions. Maybe your product team is saying, “The customers definitely feel this way about this issue,” but in actuality, they feel totally different.

The last part is redefining the problem. Maybe you're going off to solve a specific challenge, but there's actually something deeper rooted that you haven't thought of yet. Design thinking is a framework where you can cut through the clutter and get to that clarity.

How can design thinking be applied?

To broaden it out, design thinking can also be applied in so many different areas. Perhaps you're doing a social campaign and you want to make sure it's customer-backed. It also can help you if you have a new client on board and you're designing a space with their values in mind. Design thinking is ultimately all about proving a new way of working.

When I joined Dropbox two and a half years ago, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and full of fresh ideas, I kept coming up against people who'd been at the company for a while. They were like, “Yeah, we've done that before,” or “Good idea, but we've already solved that in a different way.”

Eventually, I realized that I needed data to prove that my idea was going to work. This is where design thinking came in. It's a great way to get a lot of data points and customer input, and the customer is never wrong. When you have enough statistically significant data on the customer, you become the expert on that customer, and it’s really hard to argue with that.

The design thinking framework

The design thinking framework incorporates five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. I'm going to take you through these steps one at a time, but first, I think it's important to ground you in the challenges we were facing at Dropbox before we implemented this framework.

Design thinking framework - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

First and foremost, our product teams were keeping the roadmap very close to the chest. They didn’t feel comfortable sharing their roadmap, so we had to get them to a point where they’d realize that it's okay to share a scrappy prototype with customers and get them engaged early on to fill that feedback loop.

Secondly, we weren't building advocates. We were doing a lot of taking and not much giving, to be honest. We’d ask customers for feedback and then go off and use it, but we weren’t paying much attention to what they wanted out of the interaction. What was their experience? Why were they investing their time? We didn’t know their “why.”

Last but not least, we weren't listening. Let me tell you a funny story. At our first customer advisory board in New York, about 80% of our programming was us talking; only 20% of it was about our customer's sharing. We started the day like “We're here to listen,” and then did all the talking.

What made it even worse is that our then-product leader spoke an hour over his talk track, so it got to a point where that 20% of customer sharing time became only 5%. It was pretty poor form, and we knew we could do better.

Hypthesis - customers are not engaged with the conventional ways Dropbox was listening to them.

Customers were, understandably, not engaged with the conventional ways that we were trying to listen to them, so we had to start asking ourselves some questions. How do we build a program that both matters to our customers and serves our company's needs? How do we create a best-in-class experience, where we're able to listen to our top customers and have that funnel into the direction of our strategy and our product?

How might we: create a best in class, human centered experience for listening to our top customers?

It was time to deploy design thinking.

Step one: Empathize

The first step of design thinking focuses on getting to know your customers in full detail.

In the case of the customer advisory board, I wanted to go after two specific cohorts. The first group of people I interviewed was those who had attended customer advisory boards at other organizations similar to Dropbox.

You'd be surprised how easy they were to find. I’d stalk people on LinkedIn and say, “Do you have 30 minutes of your time?” and almost everyone responded, “Yes, I'd love to help you out.” You don't have to compensate them; people are really happy to be heard.

This was also a great way to start to understand why people attend these different advisory boards. The other thing to note is that if you talk to one person who's on a customer advisory board, chances are they know 10 other people on customer advisory boards – you only need to find a few people to then have that word of mouth spread.

The second group I wanted to speak to was customer advisory board organizers. Again, I went on LinkedIn and looked up the roles of customer advisory board leaders and what specifically they were doing in their organizations. I wanted to find out what the challenges were and what the best in class looked like so I could get a good grounding of what we needed to do.

From all these interviews, I had pages and pages of insights, and I put each insight on a Post-it Note, which sounds tedious at first but bear with me. We do this thing in design thinking called affinity mapping, where you take all the different insights, consolidate them into specific themes that arise, and start identifying patterns.

Your customers are talking, but are you listening?
The most effective PMMs know their customers inside out. Becoming the ‘voice of the customer’ means uncovering customer pain, digging deep into buyer personas and creating messaging and positioning that resonates.

What do customer advisory board members want?

We found a few things. Firstly, the customer’s “why” is not us. We’d been sitting there thinking that our customer advisory board members would be super excited to hear about Dropbox and our product roadmap and all these cool things. No. They're there to network and learn from each other.

They also want to be alongside people in similar role types. If they’re at a senior level, it doesn’t really make sense for them to be on an advisory board with people who are just starting out in their careers.

Another thing we found is that it’s important for our customers that our feature roadmap aligns with their organization’s roadmap.

Last but not least, don't underestimate people’s love of group bonding activities. I had a few executives say, “Oh, it's really fluffy to do bonding activities. We don’t want people sitting around the table and having a kumbaya.” But what I realized is the highest energy point for most people's days on a customer advisory board is the networking drinks or going off and doing something cool like go-karting. That was what bonded people the most.

Finally, from our perspective, we realized that we want to use our advisory boards to build advocates and nurture champions. When customers are done giving feedback, they're gonna go back to their organizations and say, “Do you want to use this tool or not?” If we equip them well enough and make them feel part of the journey, they're more likely to be our advocates.

Step two: Define

The next step is defining the problem. In our case, we use something called energy mapping. Anytime we interview a customer, we do an energy map, which shows all the points where they're most excited and engaged.

We look for the moments they're raising their voice, where they contribute a lot of good ideas, and where their eyes are wide open. We look at the other side of the coin too: those moments where they're really disappointed, where they’re saying, “It’s super frustrating when I have to deal with this.” Doing an energy map is a really helpful way to quickly get to the things that we need to focus on around high-energy and low-energy experiences.

To give you an example, one of the guys we worked with, Fei, said he loved having access to leadership, feeling like he was part of the solution, and also feeling very special. Some of the low points were that he’d been going to customer advisory boards for 11 years, and I still felt like only 20% of the content was relevant. And it started bringing up questions like why is he still doing this if it's not all relevant?

Journey Map: Fei Goh - "I was an early asopter of B2B product and was asked the join the CAB" to "Loved direct access to prduct leadership, I felt I was part of the solution", to "80% of the product everyone uses, only 20% are unique use cases." to "Customers sharing use cases was pertinent to a group of super users." to "Sales driven conversation didn't help, felt forced." to "Most memorable part was the team knew every member and always make you feel special."

From there, we built out a point of view framework showing what we can infer from what Fei told us, which is that customer advisory boards weren’t creating meaningful value for attendees. Then, we came up with a potentially game-changing solution to this problem: what if we flip the entire format on its head and have customers dictate the entire format of a CAB? It could be completely led by them and not selfishly led by what Dropbox wants.

Point of view framework. We met (person you were inspired by) Fei Goh. We were surprised to notice (tension, contradiction or surprise) that Fei found only 20% of the CAB experience relevant and unique. We wonder if this means (what did you infer) CABs aren't creating meaningful value to the customers attending. It would be game changing to (frame up an inspired challenge for yourself, don't dictate the solution) transform CAB program to be majority content dictated by the customer.

Step three: Ideation

Then we move into the ideation phase. I think this is one of the program's most energizing and exciting phases. Basically, you get a bunch of people in a room for what we call radical collaboration. The more differing viewpoints and personality types in a room, the better ideas you create because you're solving for all different use cases.

We ask the question, “If you had all the money in the world, how would you solve the challenges that we’re facing today?” It turns into this Post-it Note frenzy.

We actually enlisted the entire Dropbox Sydney team to be a part of this. We have about 50 people in our Sydney office, and we brainstormed in the hallway. Every time anyone walked by, we asked them how they’d solve this guy's problem. Interestingly, the people that had no context on what the customer advisory board came up with some of the coolest ideas.

A group of people brainstorming with the "Yes, And!" improv game.

In design thinking as well as improv, you might have heard of something called “Yes, and…” Whatever idea someone comes up with, you add on to it and say “Yes, and…” I know that sounds challenging you might have no idea where to even build off an idea, but I promise it works.

Let me give you an example. We say that no idea is a bad idea, and I'm sure you're like, “I've heard a ton of bad ideas in my career,” but again, bear with me. One of the first Post-it Notes in this brainstorming session said, “Let's rent out a mansion, and just bring a bunch of customers in to hang out with us all day” and I'm like, “Oh, boy. Here we go.”

This has already gone off the rails in my mind, but we said “Yes, and..” and kept building off this idea. Then it evolved into, “What if we did a beach off-site where we get customers engaged and get to know them more as people?”

It evolved more until it became “Why don't we just make them feel like Dropboxers?” We're so excited about what we do every day; we’re passionate about working for this company. How do we make them feel like extensions of our brand so that they become champions in their own organizations?

No bad idea is a bad idea - "Mansion for customer listening!" "Beach offsite - get to know them as people." "Make them feel like Dropboxers to become advocates."

Step four: Prototype

The next stage is prototyping. Once you think you have a final idea of what you want to create, which in our case was customer advisory board 2.0, you build a prototype.

From all the insights we’d gathered, some key themes came out: we want customers talking way more of the time, we want the audience clearly defined, we want to make work human, to feel like extensions of Dropbox, to feel open to sharing their future challenges and strategies, and we want to be vulnerable enough to share our roadmap, even if it's not fully baked.

Customer listening 2.0 - customers talk over 65% of the time, audience role is clearly defined, make work human, make customers feel like Dropboxers, and focus on future roadmap vs pitching.

Now, our MVP prototype was scrappy in the most literal sense of the word. I took scraps of paper and put together a diagram showing the sessions that a customer would most and least want to engage in. Then, I created a bunch of scraps showing all of last year's customer advisory board sessions and all this year’s potential sessions.

Low fidelity prototype - roadmap > sales pitch, peer sharing > us sharing, dropbox culture experiences favored.

I took this to our customer success team, because they own the relationships with these customers and talk to them day in and day out, and asked them to rank what matters most to our users. So I had all these people around my desk shuffling these pieces of paper.

This quick early test showed that the new sessions we had designed were what these customers would get the most value out of, and the sessions we had last year would give the least value. That was a great validation point.

What I love about an MVP is that you're not spending thousands of dollars to make a mistake. You can do it pretty quickly and get a good sense of the direction you should be going in.

Step five: Test

The final stage is testing, actually going to market. We had a chance to test the customer advisory board 2.0 in New York to get a sense of how it’d perform.

Early results - 100% felt heard, connected to peers and would participate again. 80% satisfaction in our roadmap progress, more feedback to get us there.

I'm proud to say it was a great success. 100% of attendees felt heard, felt connected to peers, and felt like they’d participate again. People also felt very satisfied with the direction of the roadmap and were excited that we shared future plans and made them part of the journey. Here's some more of the feedback we received:

Customer feel special "Reall well orchestrated event. Finally seeing some things that I've been asking for, for years." IT leader from Take-Two. Customers built a peer community - "It was a pleasure hear from product owners and other companies." - IT Leader from Dow Jones. Customers shaped our product roadmap - "It was great to meet all of the executives and I really felt like we were contributing to the future direction of Dropbox." - IT leader from Nat Geo. "It's all about tangible feedback loops." IT leader from Meredith.

Closing the feedback loop

There’s one final step on our journey, which is building out a feedback loop. Getting all these insights from customer advisory boards is only the first part of the swing; finishing the swing means applying these insights to the roadmap.

One of the best practices we’ve brought in this past year is having someone very senior, the Head of Product, as the sponsor for this project. He's now responsible for rallying his entire engineering organization to start using these insights to build future products and shape the direction of the company.

Building in these feedback loops is an ongoing journey. You may think after seeing those results that there's nothing left to do and we can keep on operating the way we are, but we always have to be ready to respond to changes in the landscape. We've also got other segments we want to go after as part of our new customer advisory boards.

It's an iterative process, but it's a great way to continue reinventing yourself and the way that you show up for your customers.

Unlock a vast range of CABs knowledge

Here at Product Marketing Alliance, we've created a certification that gives deeper knowledge and skills on how to create your own, successful CABs.

Course instructor Bree Bunzel, Head of Global Customer Marketing at Dropbox, is an expert with Customer Advisory Boards and shares her experience to help you solidify your understanding of core principles.

Our CABs certification will help you:

  • Understand the strategic benefits of Customer Advisory Boards
  • Get business buy-in from key stakeholders
  • Build successful Customer Advisory Boards
  • Outline objectives and key themes
  • Turn negative feedback into positive outcomes
  • Consolidate feedback and introduce action points
  • Source ideal CAB members
  • Prepare an awesome agenda
  • Understand key CABs metrics

Sign up now and master your Customer Advisory Boards. 👇

Written by:

Bree Bunzel

Bree Bunzel

Bree is the Head of Global Customer Marketing at Dropbox.

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Re-imagining customer listening