The importance of user groups
Every day the sales process is changing, the competition harder, the very definition of success changes. At some level everyone seems to be aware of that, but it shocks and surprises me how few people seem to have any appetite to change their own behaviours to match the new world of selling.
An well know Internet “fact” is that 60% of the sales cycle happens before your organisation even knows the client exists. If this is the case what can you do to influence the potential clients when you don’t even know who they are?
Platforms such as Jive, Gainsight, and salesforce community, all enable users to help each other out and feel like part of something bigger. Platforms such as this empower users, to become subject matter experts taking the load from support staff as well as building community. On line groups are incredibly valuable but often have a very technical perspective and are less often focused on use cases, client stories or product directions.
There is a lively debate as to whether on line systems have replaced the need for a User Group I would argue BOTH are required, and neither replaces the other.
One of the numerous answers to this is to build communities around your company, and around your solutions. Having a user community has a ton of great benefits.
Existing clients are believed a hundred times more than your own sales people. So use them to sell for you. They have the extra benefit of being free.
Extremely valuable feedback can be gleaned from users of the technology
User groups are often found by potential clients long before the client ever engages with the supplier.
Once involved in a user group clients are far more likely to stick with you as a supplier than they are simply walking away. They are emotionally invested in the group, in their peers and in you. It builds stickier relationships.
The opportunity to cross pollinate ideas, use case scenarios and to poll new feature requests is enormous.
One can start small. Something as simple as a local MeetUp group can be effective if there is a large enough user community
Of those companies that have built user groups the vast majority are manufacturers. However resellers, DMR’s and distribution businesses should also build user communities as many of the benefits apply to them as well.
Many companies believe that user groups are a painful distraction. They treat the clients knocking on their door, telling them their opinions as annoying, busy bodies even. These are often the same people who are constantly writing PR pieces about how much they care about their clients. If a company has a Happiness Officer but no user group then there’s a major disconnect about the role of the clients in the business.
In the days of a single sale solution, the clients could easily be ignored. It was the world of the Wombat sales. Eats, Roots and Leaves.
Once the client had said yes, then the post sales department took over, did what they could to let the client down gently about all the things they had been promised for the future, things they were never going to get, while the sales and marketing machine went to find the next client.
Today in the world of “As A Service” the client has the power. Companies now need to keep selling every month. If the client doesn’t like it, then they can easily stop paying, take their business elsewhere and plug another new shiny solution into their business relatively easily.
“As A Service” makes both hiring and firing suppliers much much easier. Everyone in the supply chain needs to understand that and act accordingly.
User groups help hold clients close to their suppliers, and although on occasion they can be troublesome they are also the most important clients you have.
Many senior management types dislike listening to the opinions of clients. Clients who want to tell them where they should go. After all the good and the great already appear to know the right answers. Why would clients know better?? Seems to be the mantra. Increasingly this is a losing strategy. Ultimately it has always been a losing strategy but in the modern world of constantly reselling your solution it will hurt you much more quickly.
There is no doubt that companies that ONLY follow their client wishes are also unlikely to get it right. Clients typically want a faster, cheaper, better version of an existing solution. They rarely have the imagination required to come up with new concepts. After all if they did, they should be in your business, not successfully running theirs.
A well built user community needs to display some of the following characteristics.
An ability to attract a good number of clients from diverse backgrounds.
A welcoming attitude to new members.
Access to the C suite of the supplier.
The ability to speak its mind in a positively critical way when necessary.
An understanding that we are all in this together, that it is a partnership. Both the supplier and the users are working toward something better.
The group must be authentic. If it is simply perceived as a PR stunt it will fall apart quickly.
Things to avoid in a user group.
A sense of us and them.
The users turning the group into a union to bash the supplier with
Any sense among the users that the group is merely a talking shop or PR stunt
In my experience of building user groups starting small is often a advantage. Simply introducing a number of like minded clients to each other can often work wonders.
Once a core of motivated and interested parties start helping each other out then it can expand into something larger. Typically it needs to grow in somewhat of an organic manner. Forcing the pace often lowers the interest level from the initial participants, and above all else the group needs to have motivated members.
The advantages of a user group include but are not limited to.
A community talking to the market about your company with an independent and positive manner. Potential new users are much more likely to find and trust such a group than they are your own company website.
Clients trust existing clients. A simple but powerful example is the Amazon 5 star system. Very few people read what the manufacturer has to say about their products, but the star ratings and reviews of complete strangers matter. Why? Because people believe the person selling to them is lying. Users reviewing the product have no advantage to lie, so are unlikely to do so.
The supplier has a ready source of reference clients to draw on.
Product management and marketing have clients available to talk to them about use cases, future developments and to gauge new ideas with
Senior management have the opportunity to “test the waters” on a range of topics, from pricing, product, business process, marketing and sales. It can save a lot of time to simply ask some trusted client partners.
Many companies that run user groups fail to understand the importance of the role and give it to the wrong person within the business.
The ideal leader of the user community needs to possess the following characteristics.
Respected by the users, the company and by the industry
Needs to be senior enough to be able to command a room
Charismatic and confident to say no when needed
Open to new ideas and able to sell those ideas to either the supplier or the user group
Excellent interpersonal skills
Ability to appear above the battle for new products or revenue. Needs to been seen as able to take the long view.
Ultimately user groups can be extremely powerful sales and marketing tools. They can also bind together a group into a family of like minded folks with a common goal. Like all families there can on occasion be some fighting. But the vast majority of us would agree families are worth the pain.
Top 9 tips from someone who’s done it.
Groups such as the xChange Group do an excellent job bringing clients and resellers together and the format works highly effectively. However it is not necessary to start with a conference of this size, or even a conference at all.
I have created usergroups with 6 clients meeting for breakfast and growing the group from there. One of the groups I started back in 1999 is now one of the most important user groups in the AV and VC world the AVusergroup. There is nothing wrong with starting with something as simple as a MeetUp group.
Small is often beautiful and getting the culture right before growing the group is often the secret to success. There are always individuals who want to hijack a group for their own purposes. That can be tolerated, even welcomed if it moves the group forward. After all the users should be able to get something out of it. They are helping the supplier and not getting paid.
Regional groups, concentrating on a single location can often be very effective. That way the users can physically meet each other on a relatively regular basis. In my experience quarterly or bi monthly seems to work best.
Once you have a number of smaller groups up and working then working to build some cross pollination of ideas can be highly effective.
Make it matter. If the user community feels that the supplier is treating the user group as simply a piece of PR, then they will lose interest very quickly, often with very nasty consequences. If the supplier wants to build a group it needs to commit for the long term.
Continuity of personnel from the supplier, and an attitude of help rather than profit needs to be established. Help the clients and the business will come. Attempting to force it doesn’t go down well.
Empower the clients to help you. Very few would feel comfortable taking a commission for recommending you, and I would never even considered such a practise. It breaks the rule of we are working together to help each other, not directly profit. But the opportunity to speak at your conference, or to be the poster child for the supplier often goes down well. The users have careers too, and enabling them to shine is good for the supplier and them.
A happy client is your best salesperson. So for the next conference such as Enterprise Connect16, Infocomm16 or other big trade show consider inviting a client or two long to work with you on the presentation. New clients prefer to hear your message from another client, the press love speaking to real users and it enables you to give something back to the clients.
I always value feedback and would love to hear your stories both positive and negative about user groups. Simply drop me a line at: Sdudley@ExcessionEvents.com