Customer-Driven Development at HubSpot — An Interview with Michael Redbord, VP and GM at HubSpot’s Customer Hub.

Sofia: Michael, tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re working on at HubSpot.

Michael: Sure! I’ve been at HubSpot for eight years. I’m currently Vice President and General Manager of our Customer Hub here. We’re pretty excited to complete the front office solution for our customers. Customer Hub will enable them to define and manage their customer experience all the way from early prospects to loyal customers. We announced it at our conference INBOUND earlier this year and I’m really excited to build it.

Sofia: You’ve been at different sides of the table when it comes to customer feedback. What is your perspective on customer-driven development?

Michael: A lot of my perspective actually comes from outside the product organization. My career at HubSpot, prior to the past couple of months, has been on the support and service side of things. This enabled me to get to know the customer really well because I spent literally all day talking to them. You’re on phone or video chat for eight to ten hours a day and you get a very instinctive level of knowledge about your customers as a result. That’s a different point-of-view in comparison with what the product manager or VP of Product gets. Your time is just spent differently.

I think what people on the product side find hard to do is take that instinctive knowledge and turn it into useful information for the product team. That’s what we’ve grappled with for the last five to six years.

We did a lot of different things to make it easier. We created all sorts of ways to file, categorize and quantify every single interaction that a service person has had and then we hired a really smart analyst team to chop all that data up and feed it to our product people. We even had our product people shadow service and support for a long time. None of it worked perfectly. We made lots of mistakes and iterated a ton.

In the end, we learned that we needed a combination of quantitative and qualitative feedback so we established teams to identify and digest both.

Sofia: Why do you think it has taken so long for companies to take customer-centricity seriously?

Michael: That’s a really good question. For as long as there’s been capitalism there’s been customers, so you wouldn’t think it would be a new thing. Remember the impact inbound marketing had? That’s a 10 to 15-year-old practice. HubSpot happened to be the company that wrote the book on that but if they hadn’t, somebody else would have because there was a change happening in the world. Businesses used to be able to market one way and over the course of a few years the rug was pulled out from under them. There was a sharp reaction and that’s where inbound marketing came from.

Rewind the clock a little bit more, to the 90s, and think about the way sales changed from field sales to inside sales to doing more digitally driven stuff. Think about how email became a factor in that. Sales has been in a state of flux for maybe 20 years and there was a somewhat sharp event in the late 90s when new software changed the way things were sold on the internet.

I would argue that, over the past five years, there hasn’t been a sharp event in customer experience. It’s been more of a gentle change. The culmination of developments in marketing and sales has created a different type of customer. If you acquire a customer on Facebook, it doesn’t matter to them if Facebook was a good source of leads to you or not. They’ll go back there to interact with your brand. They’ll go back to the hand that feeds.

Digital marketing and digital sales have really entrenched themselves and caused huge changes but I don’t see the same kind of energy around customer experience.

Customer success is a pretty new industry still. No one has written the book on it yet but there are some really smart folks out there — I think companies like Intercom, Gainsight, and Totango are doing a really good job. And if you think about it, customer success is a natural outcome of the SaaS revolution that happened about 10 years ago. It’s what happens when SaaS becomes big — as SaaS companies grow, they need to focus on customer success because you can’t acquire your way out of retention issues. So nowadays, it makes sense that there’s a lot of energy around customer success, but there isn’t that sharp trigger event yet and no one’s written a definitive instruction manual on it yet, either.

Sofia: It’s such an exciting time for businesses. What makes you excited?

Michael: There’s a lot to get excited about. First, is the balance of power moving even further to customers. If you’re a customer nowadays, you have a much bigger megaphone than you did 5–10 years ago and that’s only going to grow. A single customer can have a massive impact on a business. You see the stories in the news, like airlines doing things right or wrong. That’s something that didn’t exist a few years ago and it’s just going to get amplified until every single customer has a megaphone, a soapbox to talk about brand. I get excited by that continued shift.

Second, I get excited about customer-driven growth and advocacy. I get excited by growth in general, but I think customers can really be the best engine for growth at scale — better than sales and marketing — but unlocking that potential is a delicate process. I get excited about businesses realizing the power of the customer, be it positive or negative. Maybe there’s even a little bit of a subversive element to it in that they should be fearful of bad outcomes.

Then third, I get excited about helping small businesses turn their customers into a powerful engines for growth, to help them unlock that customer advocacy. And I don’t mean just tweets about successfully resolved tickets. I mean customers saying, ‘I really, really love what you produced and how that experience unfolded. I want to push your product into my network’. That kind of network effect can be huge. I get pumped up about living in that version of the future, where small businesses can grow like that.

Sofia: When it comes to product insights, what would be your advice for product teams trying to bring customer service teams on board?

Michael: Understanding how service teams work is the first step. Service teams are very process driven because the work they do is by its nature repetitive. And so, you develop processes and improve them. As a product person, I think you can use that to your advantage. You can define a process together with the service team and try to optimize the way you get insights from them.

Being able to drive that process using both qualitative and quantitative data is what make it stronger. In our case, we try to keep it super simple. We say, ‘This is what we’re working on. This is what we’re not’. And for the things we’re working on, we make sure we can track over time and see some improvement on.

Sofia: What would be your advice to people who want to lead change in their companies but happen to be in a product position?

Michael: Good companies are product led. But to be truly product led, you need to think about your customer experience as more than what your product is on paper or the set of screens your customers move through. It’s not just about improving user flows, it’s the totality of the experience. What’s the brand impression pu front? What’s the customer experience like at purchase? What are you doing proactively to help your customers when they need it through the lifecycle? How does all that that integrate with your product experience?

To do that, VPs of Product need to avoid a false division of the customer perspective. Internally, there’s the product person, the support person, the sales person and so on…but customers don’t care about any of that. They’re looking at you as one unified company, one brand. Product people need to think like that too and really try to encapsulate the entire experience. When you think about your customer journey, the map should include support, sales, marketing and product at the center, because you’re product led. In order to be more product driven, I encourage people to think broadly about their job function, who they work with, where they spend their time and what they aim to improve when they go to work every day.

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