This article was taken from a presentation for the Product Marketing Festival, 2021 by Christopher Hines, when he was the Director of Product Marketing at Zscaler. He is now the VP of Marketing & Strategy at Axel Security. Catch up on all presentations with our OnDemand feature.
I’m thrilled to have the chance to share with you my experience in a subject that I think is super important: the subtle art of winning through customer-centricity.
In this article, I’ll focus on:
- Customer centricity today.
- Why is customer-centricity the way forward?
- Zooming in on your customer journey.
- Writing the right story.
- Developing customer-centric feedback loops.
- Don’t skimp on segmentation.
- The brush strokes.
But first, a little bit about myself. I’ve been in product marketing for about 10 years. I’m currently at a cloud security company called Zscaler, where we help individuals connect to applications from anywhere in the world on any device using our cloud-delivered service. I have the great honor of being the Director and Solutions Marketing Lead for one of our key products.
But enough about me and onto the subject at hand – customer-centricity. To give you a feel for the culture that’s driving most companies today, I thought it'd be interesting to start with some findings from PMA’s State of Product Marketing Report.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that the highest proportion of companies is following a product-first model. However, it’s encouraging to see that about a third have a more customer-centric model, so let's talk a little bit about that.
Why is customer-centricity the way forward?
We're product marketers, so our natural propensity is to focus on the product itself. But that’s a very inward focus; it’s all about what we do, the cool tweaks that we're making, and our integrations with larger companies.
The challenge is that, from a customer’s perspective, it doesn't feel like this product-first messaging is for them. I'm sure many of you have been in meetings with customers where you see them start to roll their eyes because we sound just like every other vendor promising them some amazing product that may or may not even solve their needs.
The perspective needs to shift from what we do to the challenges that we're solving for our customers. That's where the notion of customer-centricity comes in.
The intent behind this article is not to go into a deep dive on what customer-centricity is; I want instead to give you some tactical advice that you can take away and implement in your company.
Just so we’re all on the same page though, customer-centricity means that everything your company does centers around the customer and helping them have the best experience possible. This is more than just a business philosophy; it guides the way you design your product and the way you operationalize your business as well.
So how do we move this model from just a cool-sounding theory to a practical reality? That's what I want to talk about here, giving you the brush strokes you need to master the art of customer-centricity.
Zooming in on your customer journey
The first step in building customer-centricity into your company culture is mapping your customer journey and all of its touchpoints. You need to understand the journey your customers go on before they even make a purchase or an upgrade. What does the customer need that your product or service can give? It’s essential to understand that because it’s what you’re going to base your product storytelling and content on.
There are many companies and product marketing organizations that don't have clarity on the customer journey or how it should be amended to fulfill customer needs. So research that first and find out, because it’s a great starting point for thinking about things at a more customer-centric level.
This isn’t something that marketing’s going to do alone – sales, product management, and even HR have to get involved, too. It should be a shared ethos, a multi-team effort to understand the steps in the customer journey and build the right story along the way.
There are two main models here – high touch and low touch. Think about Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts. Starbucks is all about the experience. You order a more expensive coffee, sit down, and maybe spend some time catching up on work emails – you're paying for the experience. In Dunkin’ Donuts on the other hand, maybe you're on your way to work and you just want to get in, grab a good cup of joe, and get out.
Think about that notion as it relates to your product. What are the engagement points? You want to make those as unique as possible so that the entire process, not just the purchasing process, feels customized to your users.
You're gonna have to be honest with yourself as you determine areas of friction on the customer journey too. For example, maybe you're good at getting people to engage with you, but the purchasing process isn’t so smooth and that hop to a closed deal is a challenge. If you have a considerable percentage of your pipeline stuck within the purchase cycle, you need to look at that and develop ways to grease the skids.
You might want to zoom in on the micro customer journey as well. Maybe the goal is to upgrade your existing customers or sell them another bundle. Think about the required touch points along that journey, too, and optimize them.
Writing the right story
Once you know your customer journey, you need to make sure that you're building your story in the right way. If all you're talking about is how great your product is and the new features or integrations that you've developed, your message is going to fall flat.
At Zscaler, we’ve leveraged StoryBrand’s S7 framework, which breaks down good product stories into seven core components, allowing us to position our products and services so people pay attention.
Think about your favorite movie. It probably starts with a hero. In this example, let’s go with Luke Skywalker. That hero seems to be a great person; you almost want to be friends with them, right? The focus of the story is the hero – for you, that’s your customer, not your product. I’ll tell you more about how to decide which customer to focus on later.
Part two: your hero has a challenge. Maybe something bad happens to them and they don’t have any control over it. They’re sad, they’re confused, they’re overwhelmed. It feels wrong. There's no way this terrible thing can happen to Luke Skywalker’s family, right? You need to understand your hero’s pain before you can solve it for them.
Now, the third part comes when your hero meets a guide. This is you – you're Yoda, you're Obi-Wan Kenobi. Why? Because you have the experience. You’ve already solved the same need for many people like your prospective customer. As a guide, you want to be able to call out why you have credibility in that space, so use some customer references.
In part four, as the guide, you share your plan with the hero of the story. Using your expertise, you give the hero what they need to solve their problem. In other words, it’s time to show Luke how to use the Force.
We vendors come into play again in the fifth part of the story as we call our heroes to action. There's a specific CTA that they have to go and do. In Luke’s case, it’s defeating Darth Vader; in your customer’s case, it’s avoiding whatever pain would have come if you weren't there to guide them. Your customer’s fulfillment of that call to action is the sixth and most joyous part of the story.
Then we come to the seventh and final part of our story. Hopefully, it’s a happy ending and the Rebel Alliance overthrows the Empire, i.e. your customer solves their pain point. But even if it’s not a happy ending, the hero in the story has learned something about themselves and they’re better off than they were before.
These seven elements comprise the core framework of any story you tell. We've used this at Zscaler quite a bit, and it works extremely well. It sets you up with a clear outline, and by default, it makes you put your customer front and center, which of course is the most important thing.
Develop customer-centric feedback loops
Once you've mapped out that story you need to develop some feedback loops, or feelers as I like to call them. These will keep you updated on what your customers care about.
For many of you, particularly if you’re in B2B, your potential audience probably isn't massive, so you need to extract as much value as possible from the customers you have through upsells and renewals. These feelers and the feedback they provide are crucial for conveying the value proposition of your service and driving that kind of revenue.
There are three main types of feelers. Let me walk you through them and give you a few examples.
The web feeler
The web feeler aims to understand the digital being of your customer. You want to find out what type of content your customers are typically engaging with and when. Perhaps there are some trends in terms of content types or topics – if so, you want to double down on those. You can use Google Analytics or one of a bunch of other tools to better understand your customer’s digital self.
The ECB feeler
The second type of feeler focuses on executive briefing center conversations and customer meetings. These are a goldmine of information on what your prospects are asking for.
If you’re not typically involved in executive briefing centers or customer meetings, it’s time to insert yourself. If you're building the messaging and presentations used in those briefings, you should be the one delivering them. It’ll help you stand out, and it’ll allow you to gather intel on what your customers are looking for, what they’re struggling with, and where you can drive greater value. You can work all this knowledge into your customer-centric plan.
The existing customer feeler
The third feedback loop is tuned into your existing customer. At Zscaler, we’ve implemented customer clinics, where we meet regularly with a set of existing customers to discuss our service and how they’re using it.
Each session is different because we build them around things we know that our customers tend to struggle with. They’re a great opportunity to fix customer problems and make sure they're getting the maximum value out of our product.
Reaching out to your existing customers is also a great way to break down any barriers standing between you and them. Maybe they don’t repurchase or upgrade because they don’t fully understand the value of everything you have to offer. When you listen to customers and fix these issues, they’ll be happier and you’ll ultimately reduce churn and boost upsells.
These three feelers - your web feeler, your customer meeting feeler, and your existing customer feeler - are going to help guide your organization with the customer at the very center.
Don’t skimp on segmentation
The last core area of a customer-centric product marketing strategy is segmentation. This is so often overlooked by product marketers because it tends to be viewed as part of demand gen. On the occasions that we do look at segmentation, we often just focus on the low-hanging fruit: geography and demographic. These can be super helpful, but I want to encourage you to delve deeper into behaviors and psychographics too.
The behavior aspect is interesting. You can use it to get more detail on the demographics that you’re targeting. Let’s say your product skews toward Gen Z as opposed to baby boomers; you need to consider that certain behaviors in that age group are different. They might be more into TikTok or sharing their day on Instagram for example.
Another behavior you can track is purchase patterns. For instance, maybe you order groceries online, so you probably have a higher chance of ordering takeout online too, or using some kind of home chef service.
Past purchases can provide great indicators like this of behaviors that individuals might take. You want to leverage that information to better position your service to your key persona.
Psychographic segmentation is well worth getting into, too. The idea here is to look at personalities, hobbies, lifestyles, and attitudes as indicators of potential buying behavior.
Identifying your key segments
Once you select your segmentation strategy, you need to pick out your potential segments and decide who to go after.
At Zscaler, we broke down our potential market into three core segments. First, we have the pioneers; these are most likely to introduce new technology into their organization. Next up, we have the distrusting segment; these folks are wary of modern technology and won’t adopt it until they’ve seen enough of their peers using it successfully. Lastly, we have the group for whom security, more than cost or any other factor, is the number one priority.
Unless you’re in cloud security, the segments that work for your product will probably be a little different. However, the way that you identify them is the same: you need to think about the customers and prospects that you've spoken with and build a profile on them.
Determine needs across segments
When you’ve figured out your key segments, the next piece is to look at the needs that are consistent for all of them. In our case, they all needed to be able to deploy quickly, they all wanted a strong user experience, they were all looking for world-class security, and they were all keen on reliability and scalability.
Next, you need to rank each of these needs in order of importance for each key persona. Here’s how that looked at Zscaler:
Rate your segments
After you've determined and ranked the needs of your segments, you need to figure out which segment you’re going to give the most weight. Some good selection criteria are segment size, growth rate, lifetime value to you, your value to the customer, and competition, i.e. how many similar companies are targeting those segments.
Rate each of your segments on a scale from one to three based on these criteria, then add up the total for each group. This is going to help you select the target persona that makes the most sense for your business. In our case, it was the pioneers – the people who are willing to bring in new technologies and who value customer experience and scale.
Make sure you share this with your demand gen team and the rest of your org. They need to know to whom you’re positioning your product and why.
The brush strokes
So there you have it, the brushstrokes in the art of customer-centricity: knowing the customer journey from the start to finish, telling a story that puts your customer at the center, leveraging feedback loops, segmentation, and knowing where to focus.
When you do this correctly, great things will follow. It's not just that you get to feel better about yourself – your customers will be much happier too. When they see that you recognize and care about their challenges, they're more likely to trust you. You also get to stand out from every other company out there that’s still pushing the product-first narrative.
When you put the customer first, you're able to do so much more. You're able to learn how to deliver services better than others; you’re able to open up dialogues with customers where they share elements of their challenges that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. At the end of the day, this means that you can drive more revenue for your business.
I implore you to go out and understand the customer journey. Tell your story the right way. Push your whole company, not just your product marketing team, to put the customer first. It's on you to drive customer-centricity. When you do, you're gonna see some great results.