Pre-intro

This study was first published on ReinventGrowth's blog on December 27, 2019. This publication is a direct outcome of the The State of Product-Led Experience” - the most comprehensive research on Product-Led Growth to date. The study refers to Product-Led Growth & Product-Led Onboarding practices Close employed during the Summer period of 2018.

What is Product-Led Onboarding?

Product-Led onboarding (PLO)  is a set of data-driven product engagements that consider users’ behavioral notions and proficiency. As a strategy, it avoids random feature introduction to users. Instead, it exploits historic data and considers users’ proficiency levels when exploring a product for the first time.  Contextual guidance substitutes its main pillar and enables organizations to double down on product experience and users’ workflow early on.

The term was coined by ReinventGrowth in the research publication “The State of Product-Led Experience” in April 2019.

This study is one of the many exploiting how Product-Led onboarding aspects are already deployed by SaaS organizations. And while there is not a standardized recipe leading to PLG, we strongly believe that the industry is all the more capitalizing the strengths of product experience. In Close's case those levers incorporate taking a concerted focus on customer feedback, investing in a strong product management and customer success strategy along with delivering product experiences enabling the product to do the hard work.

Introduction

Close is one of the most popular platforms across the SaaS industry empowering sales teams to become more efficient and further pursue their goals. The solution was launched in January 2013 but its history started a bit earlier when the sales-as-a-service organization Elastic Sales was launched, having as a vision to empower organizations to scale their sales efforts.

In the search of its technology stack, the team realized that none of the existing solutions was fitting the needs of modern sales professionals. So, the development of an internal sales application, called “secret sales sauce” began. One and a half years later the Close software as we know it was launched.

In this case study, we will analyze how Close successfully onboards, activate and retains its user database by capitalizing customer feedback and remaining faithfull on its product vision.  To achieve that we will refer to the overall product-led onboarding strategy employed, what affects the product roadmap, along with the role product management has within its Product-Led Growth GTM strategy.

The Marketing Personas

The service targets sales executives belonging to start-ups and SMBs organizations. When smaller sales teams are at play some of those personas also have the role of a founder or CFO,  while in established sales teams the head of sales or sales manager.

In terms of user roles, the buyers are the solution's admins while end-users the members of their sales teams. The product was created and is still being developed by having the latter group in mind. Its mission is to create alignment across the tasks and mission following any sales team.

In general, the product is not geared or marketed towards enterprise customers. That being said, as in Hubspot's case, there are customers who belong to the startup ecosystem or are SMBs wishing to grow within the service. This is the main reason for considering the deployment of more enterprise features in the future.

User Roles Evolution

Close is using Hubspot to understand how users enter the solution and what role they have insider their own organization. Furthermore, Segment defines user categories and personas alongside their user behavior and Amplitude is used to understand users' notions along with assessing and building different types of product experiences.

On top of any current automation tool being used, the customer-facing teams get to the bottom of user roles evolution by thoroughly examining the stressors characterizing them. Issues under consideration are if the features built still match their needs and if the product delivery is equally focused on buyers and end-users. The internal teams cross-reference that by analyzing product and customer data along with the day to day conversations they have with customers.

<img src="Product-led-onboarding-users-evolution.png " alt="product-led onboarding users role"/>

The former onboarding strategy

Close's former customer onboarding strategy was high touch and at the time the customer success team consisted of only two persons. Due to the amount of workload, there was a lot of communication with prospects mostly during the sales process but not after a deal was sealed.

The team's size and limited resources deprived the ability to scale customer and user onboarding activations. The customer onboarding process entailed phone calls, zoom meetings, and customer handholding to showcase the best practices. It was basically a one-on-one type of communication, followed by support articles and set-up instructions.

Regardless of its limitations, the former onboarding strategy enabled internal teams to derive the necessary feedback in regards to users' experience and the user onboarding activations that needed to be deployed later on.

Product-Led Onboarding

Fast forward to now where the customer success team delivers an advanced product-led onboarding strategy incorporating support articles, product guides along with email cadences capitalizing on product's superpowers. A high touch onboarding approach still exists for high trajectory customers or accounts that grow to a certain size and need dedicated resources.

The solution's product-led growth strategy incorporates a two weeks trial. Typically during the activation, Sales handle all the questions, rapport and relationship with the prospect and the sales team tries at every instance to cross-reference if prospects fit the product-qualified lead criteria.

Later on, if the prospect proves to be a product-qualified lead and becomes a paid user a series of onboarding emails kick-off and deepen into features capabilities.  At this point, admins are triggered to invite team members in order to embrace breadth of use, and the product-led onboarding process scales by sending email flows tailored to each user's role.

<img src="product-led-onboarding-principles.png " alt="product-led onboarding principles"/>

User Education

Close's acquisition and activation rates are relying on its stellar positioning strategy and educational content along with word of mouth referrals. In regards to the educational resources, webinars and best practices on sales' growth, customer support or sales optimization are just some of the topics explored to deliver value to its audience.

The team is striving to create content, that will increase users' proficiency and make the customer's organization more successful. Thus the educational onboarding resources double down both on best practices and heavy product documentation.

At the time of the survey, the service offered various educational resources like:

  • A comprehensive product onboarding guide including step by step instructions to set an account, how to build a workflow and resolve troubleshooting issues.
  • A support center, including links to live training webinars and product articles and videos

The role of Product Management

The product team is fairly involved, in the product-led onboarding strategy. Despite the fact that the department came in as a later addition, its formation was always a need under consideration, since its role is to both streamline product delivery and help customer-facing teams become more proactive.

The team is dealing both with existing customers and trialists while some of its responsibilities incorporate:

  1. Interviewing customers to collect information for product developments and upcoming feature launches. The interviewees are later on invited to join a beta testing environment and pass the necessary feedback to the product team before any release is shipped.
  2. Deriving the necessary insights from product analytics in regards to adoption and conducting in-depth research to understand customers' needs.

Product-Led User Experience

The product team is focused on the first experience that aims to embrace activation levels without making users feel overwhelmed in the process. The team launches various product walkthroughs upon sign-up and acknowledges that once users sync their email account, the aha moment is realized and they move forward to explore key features.

UX practices are devoted to simple things that embrace product usability. Users are advised on the next steps and key features capabilities, based on whether or not they have reached specific in-product milestones.

The team is not in favor of relying a lot on in-app guidance and is a strong champion of delivering a strong UI and UX  that will both onboard users and allow the product to do the heavy lifting.

Evangelizing the product-led growth principles to the very end, the product team tries to drive adoption rates by realizing UX iterations driven by customer feedback and user surveys. So, before a major redesign is implemented, the team realizes minor changes while the major ones are looped into feature releases in order for the UX to remain as seamless as possible.

<img src="product-led-user-experience.png " alt="product-led user experience"/>

Making Product Vision the No1 Product-Led Growth Factor

When it comes to sales practices any initial conversation aims to derive insights about the prospect’s organization processes and what their needs entail. If for example, trialists have a need to sell to enterprise customers and are looking for a subset of features the solution doesn't have, sales will be the first to say that the process will not be moving forward.

The team's DNA is ingrained into being open, direct and transparent in regards to the product's core offering and no sale deal is sealed just for the sake of revenue per se. This set of values follows the Close team from the very beginning since it knows firsthand that when there is no customer fit, retention rates are low and that multiple feature requests along with support tickets will follow.

For Close, the retention strategy initiates from the very first conversation with the customer, at the point where the product’s capabilities are defined. That approach has been incredibly successful, especially when it comes to accounts where multiple implementations are at stake.

Roadmap intakes

As with any other product-led organization both the product’s mission and users' requests, are intakes the product roadmap needs to consider. During our survey, the customer success team logged in every feature request and grouped them per category.

Another task the team has been focused on at the time, was getting customer feedback for a specific use case and understand if those requests were indeed reflecting users' needs. If for example, a request involved an email sequence feature, the CS team would look at the buzzwords and overall description from the customers' side, to see if there are any communication gaps.

This process has been a big shift for the CS team since now it able not just to log in request but also pass the required feedback to the product team. Something that was not always the case due to the lack of language/market fit. After a year of extensive documentation, the CS team found the communication intersection between users' needs and whether those needs align with the product's mission or not.

In general, the team is very direct with customers when there is a misalignment with where the product is heading and their requests. Simply because at the end of the day the goal is to create a product that sticks to its mission and philosophy.

This is not to say that customers' requests are not being heard or affecting the product roadmap when they match Close's mission. The organization has been moving slowly with each product release, in order to dedicate time and evaluate if new features reflect on customers ' needs.

<img src="product-led-onboarding-roadmap-intakes.png" alt="product-led roadmap intakes"/>

Feature Releases

When it comes to new releases, the product and CS team daily strive to optimize their activations. For example, the email sequences running today vs those for any upcoming features differ significantly. This happens because the team is still growing and also capitalizes on the learnings derived from each launch. Feature launches can be segmented for example, in up to six different campaigns directed towards users with different proficiency levels (from product-agnostic to expert).

Furthermore, there is a bigger strategy for accounts that may use the product but don't have a plan allowing them to access specific features. So, the team is sending targeted campaigns to those users who from their in-product behavior are classified as qualified for upsells.

Following this logic, campaigns are launched to either trigger users to upgrade or try a new feature for free. At the same time, the teams capitalize on educational webinars following different content strategies, to effectively draw the attention of different PQL segments.

Key Takeaways

Being a direct outcome of PLG, a Product-Led Onboarding strategy needs to capitalize on many elements to be considered successful. Above everything, its aim is to deliver customer-centric product-led experiences that align products' mission with users' ever-evolving needs.

The Close team acknowledges that and does not settle for anything less than delivering a seamless product-led experience that will reflect on customers' needs without overwhelming users. Even beyond that, Close considers internal alignment imperative when a product-led onboarding strategy is at play and knows that it requires an ongoing effort to derive the necessary product-led growth outcomes.