‘Secret Sauce’ 2: Customer success at the centre of Aconex
In the last post, I discussed how Aconex developed a unique business model, which was one of the three ingredients in our ‘secret sauce’ for growth. The second element was a relentless commitment to (and an investment in) making sure customers were central to everything we did at Aconex.
As we moved beyond start-up and began to scale, we had to spend time building operating capabilities to support accelerating growth. It was time to get proactive and establish the processes and systems to ensure a strong customer focus as we scaled the company.
I will look at several business functions where we built these systemic capabilities, but I am going to focus first on how we developed an approach to customer service that helped define the brand.
Whatever it takes – unlimited customer support
I think it’s the case with every good tech start-up that early customers get no shortage of attention. To support early Aconex customers, we literally sat beside their core users out on construction sites helping them use the product. Rob and I also provided our 24/7 helpdesk after hours – I remember some extremely late calls with customers needing support to load drawings to meet project deadlines.
We quickly realised that the sale was not done until the customer and their project team were using Aconex well. This high touch service model was expensive, time consuming and definitely not scalable, but it was invaluable to winning and retaining these early adopters. It was also the best way to understand how the product needed to develop.
Our unlimited support model was born as our way of saying to the customer that we were with them, whatever it took.
Even as the platform matured and stabilised, we continued to provide high-touch customer service so that every implementation was a success. This was partly due to the nature of construction projects. It was not good enough for just our paying client to be satisfied. For a project to be successful, we had to make sure that the dozens and sometimes hundreds of companies involved on the project were well supported and happy.
After three or four years we had built a strong, but not very scalable, support team that spent considerable time on the road or in site offices delivering training and other support. It was a big investment, but one that we were willing to make because of the value of a satisfied customer in building our network. An influential Project Director could move to a new project every few years, seeding Aconex into a new project team or even a new construction company.
In this way, the unlimited customer service model quickly became a key differentiator. And because so much of it was delivered face-to-face in the early years, it was natural to think about the whole customer experience – from first contact, through onboarding and user support, to ongoing communication – as a journey.
Making end-to-end support scalable
As we grew, the challenge was to provide the high quality and effective support that we knew paid dividends, but in a more efficient and scalable way. In time, we developed a service delivery capability made up of several parts:
A 24/7 follow-the-sun service desk with directly employed staff that could solve most user problems and escalate as needed. There was always a real person on the end of the phone.
Online access to support materials in multiple languages. While part of the rationale was to move users away from telephone support, we learned that many preferred to self-serve.
We maintained local helpdesk support in every region so, although your call might be answered in Melbourne, Mumbai or Munich, you had access when needed to someone with a local understanding of the industry and its regional nuances.
At a certain point we moved to a remote, centralised project enablement team. An expert implementation team delivered customers more rapid set-up with consistency and best practice in configuration, in place of a series of face-to-face implementation workshops. We expected pushback from customers that were used to the personal approach, but there was surprisingly little, due to higher quality implementations and a new process designed from the customers’ perspective.
Finally, as we penetrated the top tier of the global construction and engineering market, the need became clear to complement this support capability with a highly knowledgeable team of industry consultants. We built a small, global group that had worked in the industry at the highest level and could engage with key customers from a position of experience and credibility.
Extending customer success throughout our operating capabilities
Because our support model was very hands-on (especially for a SaaS business), customer service was the first function to be ‘operationalised’. But over time we took a similar approach to other business functions ensuring the customer was central in the design on these processes.
Product management and development
As the product and engineering teams grew and roles become more specialised, we organised Agile scrum teams into Product/UX/Engineering triads. The three leads in each triad had an equivalent voice in defining, building and delivering product. The result was a well-balanced outcome that was technically solid and centered on the customer.
Led by Rob, with his industry background, our product managers had always been externally focused on the customer. While they worked closely with the engineering team, every deliverable began with a customer request or an idea. We always tried to prioritise our product development based on our assessment of overall market need. For Aconex, customer success meant building product for the widest possible range of current and potential customers, not just for the loudest individual or our largest customers. As a SaaS model from day 1, we avoided bespoke development and built one code base with features that all of our customers could use. We didn’t always get this perfectly right, but a key driver of success for Aconex was due to this approach of developing product for the market, not individual customers.
Later, with a dedicated User Experience (UX) team, we developed another channel to bring in the customer voice. Product and UX worked closely in the triads and complemented each other. The product team brought a high level, functional view of what customers wanted and how it aligned with our product vision for the market; the UX team focused on how the product was used by every user every day, and on how we could help our customers to do their construction work better.
We developed a structured strategic planning process that extended from the board through to the regional level. This planning process always started with our customer, particularly the segmentation of our customer base around common needs. What were the distinct or overlapping needs of our different segments – for example, mid-market vs enterprise, infrastructure vs commercial, Asia vs the Americas? We tried to understand where we had strong product market fit and the greatest opportunity to grow revenue. Then we considered investment decisions (on sales and marketing, product, and customer service) in a series of forums across different groups, including the board, regional leadership and product management.
In this way, everything started with the customer and the market. The strategy then fed into annual planning, informing company-wide themes, budgeting and goal setting.
Marketing was another function that became operationalised as it matured. The team moved from having a generalist support role to being metrics-driven, with goals around client acquisition and retention. To support this change, we invested in marketing tech and skills, and in a marketing operations function to help us scale. This new focus saw marketing work more closely with regional sales and client service teams. It evolved beyond head office support to developing a clear understanding of market and customer needs and how to meet them.
In all these examples we had become aware that the way we had worked was not going to continue scaling. We may not have seen it so clearly then, but we were becoming attuned to when it was time to have ‘the operating capabilities’ conversation about each part of the business. Because it had been part of our DNA from early on, customer focus helped us to define the way forward in each area. The product, our strategy and our processes all put the customer first, at the centre of the company.
In the next post, I will look at the third component of the Aconex secret sauce: people and culture.