Setting Expectations Early for Better Customer Experience with Craig Colby, OneStream Software

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The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about setting boundaries and expectations during the sales cycle to prevent poor performance or disappoint down the line. To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Craig Colby, President of OneStream Software.

[Greg Kihlstrom] So why don’t you start by giving a little background on both yourself, as well as your role at OneStream Software?

[Craig Colby] I’m the President, and one of the founders of OneStream. And it’s always important to say there’d be no OneStream if there wasn’t a company called UpStream. So I was a founder and I ran that company for a while. It was actually acquired by a legacy vendor back in 2005. But we learned a lot from that company. And, you know, OneStream is really dedicated to solving the problem for financial consolidation reporting, planning, for some of the largest, most sophisticated organizations in the world. And I run all things that are both go-to-market and customer-success-driven, so sales, marketing, alliances but also services areas of One Stream to ensure the success of the client.

We’re here to talk about managing customer expectations during the sales process so it optimizes outcomes for everyone Involved. Can you first, maybe, describe this challenge? And what are some of the potential outcomes when the customer is promised something unrealistic during the sales process?

Well, one of the reasons that I, sort of, own it all, Greg, at OneStream is to have that sort of single voice. And my experience tells me that setting expectations improperly is a recipe for disaster. And it can bring so many more problems than it solves. You’re asking for pain. You’re asking for a conversation with the executive sponsor, and that’s something you never want to have, right? You never want to have that conversation with the customer where things have gone off the rails. And typically the number one reason that I see where things go off the rails is when someone has an expectation that was unrealistic on the project. It was not set correctly on the up front. And what that means is you’re going to have bumps and you’re going to have an unhappy customer. Ultimately, customers talk, right? People talk, and they move from, you know, they might be one of your customers; they might be going to one of your prospects. 

So, to me, it’s a recipe for not having long-term success. And, you know, I like to break it up into short term and long term. And if you’re not playing the long game, you’re in trouble. You’re gonna have a lot of bumps, and ultimately it’s gonna come back and haunt you. That’s what we all want to avoid, right?

Yeah, absolutely, and I’ve certainly lived through this. You know, I think sometimes it’s not always something nefarious even. Sometimes it’s just not jumping in, and the salesperson saying “No, that’s not correct.” You know, so it’s sort of a mission sometimes or, you know, it’s not even necessarily an intentional thing. But, you know, this seems like a pretty obvious thing to avoid overall, but why do companies continue to do this and allow it and maybe even not train for it?

Yeah, so you said something really important right there, and that’s “trained for it.” It starts with the culture. So you have to train for it, right? And if you’re not starting there; if the very first thing that the people who represent your company, your sales team, your account managers, your customer success team, if the very first thing they hear isn’t that, “Hey, your goal is to set expectations properly, you have a problem right there, right? It has to be part of the culture. It can’t be an afterthought. It has to be from day one, “Hey, this is how we’re going to represent our organization.” 

When we bring in new people to that organization, we always say they have to take a shower from their previous vendors. We call it – insert legacy vendor name here – you need to take your legacy vendor shower before you come to training. And forget all the things that you heard before. Because many of these organizations, they have the marketing name. So the representatives, kind of, will do anything for the sale, because the business is going to survive, right? Because they’re already so large; they’re already at such a large scale that they don’t always play that long game. They’re in it for the short game, for the quick hit. And that account might be taken away from them next year, right? So it starts from a basis of trust and getting everyone to buy in that it’s in your best interest as a rep to set expectations properly so that you can be more successful with your next prospect and the other rep sitting right next to you can be more successful as well, and they can build off your success and you can build off their success with the customer. And it really starts from day one. It starts with the training; it starts with the culture. You know, it is a top-down type of mentality that has to be driven into the customer success and the account management teams.

Yeah, and I want to dive a little bit more into the culture aspect in a minute, but first I want to kind of flip it and talk about it from the customer standpoint. And customers don’t always know what they don’t know. But what are some red flags that a customer should look out for from a company whose sales team might be over-promising and may potentially under-deliver?

It’s a phenomenal question. And it’s something we challenge customers all the time on. And, really, it comes down to every company can give you three references. I don’t know if they took them golfing or they had a nice dinner or, you know, I don’t know what it is. Every company has three. It’s like the magic number. They’ve got their go-to three people that will talk fondly at that company. This is what we recommend. Ask for five. Throw those out, and ask for five more. Better yet, why can’t I talk to any of your customers? So we actually give a name and a number for every single customer we have. That’s what we do at OneStream. Why? Well, we know that’s to our advantage. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t to my advantage. We have had customers; I have had prospects that have called over 100 of our customers. And what they say, overwhelmingly, is “Well, you’re not perfect, but, man, do your customers love you.”

There’s no such thing as perfect. And that’s, sort of, the expectation setting, right, especially when you’re selling a software or a service. Have you ever heard of a perfect software or a perfect project? Is there such a thing? There really isn’t. And so trying to set that expectation is not realistic. The expectation is there will be a couple bumps and we’re going to work through them as partners and get to the other side, and they’re all OK. 

So the biggest red flag, and we hear this all the time, “Well, yeah, we’re still waiting on your competitors’ references; we’ve been waiting for weeks.” Well, take the first batch of them; throw them away. You know, ask for five or 10 more. They say they have thousands of customers, right? They just told you there’s a thousand. Why can’t they get 10? Why is 20 hard? Well, we give you a thousand-plus. And that’s, sort of, our testament, and we’re not perfect. And all of those customers would like something to be improved in the software, of course. Something can always be a little bit easier to do. Of course it can. That’s reasonable. But we do what we say and we say what we do. We under-promise; we over-deliver, and we deliver success. And that’s what it comes down to. But that’s the first red flag. If you can, you know, really dive into the references and find out who’s doing what you’re looking to do, and doing it successfully, and glows about it, you’re gonna get a lot of confidence in your purchase.

One more thing along the lines of from the customer angle, sales people, in my experience, and I’ve done plenty of selling in my life and still do many times, but generally you hate to say no to a customer, right? And it’s tough because you’re afraid somebody may say yes to the same request. But in your experience, how can telling a customer no still lead to a positive outcome for everybody, customer and all?

Yeah, so it’s the most important word to say when you need to say it. Because that’s your credibility. How can you be a trusted advisor to the organization, and you are a sales rep and they know you’re a sales rep, by the way, right? They know your job is to sell the business. But I promise you, your job is so much easier if they can switch their mentality to the fact that you’re a trusted advisor and you’re there in their best interest.

And very often, and I say this all the time to my teams, very often, surprisingly enough, customers don’t really know what they want. They think they know, but they don’t, because they haven’t done it yet. They don’t really know what they’re asking for. And so you have to educate. You have to be a teacher as much as anything. You have to be an educator on “Hey, I hear ya. No, and why is it no. And, by the way, what business outcome are you really looking for? And is there another way, or a better way, to solve for that?”

Typically there is, and typically your solution will probably do it. But, to me, no is really the first level of credibility that you can gain. And we’ve had that feedback from customers over the years. “Hey, you were the only ones that said no. You were the only ones that pushed back and challenged us on this and made us think about it in a different way.” And it’s an opportunity for you to gain credibility with that customer. It’s a powerful word, but it needs to be backed up by, you know, why – no, and why – not just no. And what can we be thinking about differently? Do you agree with that? 

I’m definitely a fan of the consultative approach. And even if it turns out that it’s not the right fit, I mean, wouldn’t you rather have a happy customer that comes back another time when it is the right fit, versus someone that’s unhappy from the start? I mean, maybe this is a good segue to going back to the culture?

A hundred percent. They’re gonna go away anyway, right? If they’re unhappy, they’re not going to be your customer anyway. And they might tell four other people that they were unhappy and cost you four other customers. It’s not worth it.

Going back to that culture piece that you were touching on earlier, what can leaders do? I mean, I’d be hard pressed to find a sales organization that doesn’t have quotas of some sort and expectations and everything like that. So getting rid of those is not necessarily the answer, but what do leaders do to discourage this behavior overall?

Yeah, so it comes back to accountability. So if a leader starts to see a behavior in a rep that is not working well for the business, right? So if a rep – I’ll call it rogue – if they’re rogue, and they’re not really applying the culture of the company, which is the long game, they might get a couple sales, but they’re not doing the company any good service, right? Because those sales are going to go away. And that stuff really can be corrected very quickly. And I call it bad behavior, right? When you see bad behavior, It either needs to change immediately, or that individual is not capable of not having bad behavior and they need to move on to another organization where they’re a better fit. But you said something earlier. You know, if they’re not a good fit, I mean, it’s a problem from day one. It’s a stress on the organization. It’s going to be a stress on the support partner, right? It’s gonna be a stress on you personally. Who wants to sell something to someone and have them mad at them? You just don’t. 

So culture is everything. And having a sales culture where people are really teammates and you try to develop a team atmosphere, which means what you do affects someone else. The way you have conducted yourself has an effect on your counterpart out there. If you sell a really good piece of business, you’ve set expectations perfectly, and you deliver a success at one of the largest companies in the world, and they scream to the rooftops about it, guess what? That has a positive effect on the guy next to you. And if they do the same thing, again, for you, that has a positive effect on you. So It’s about playing for the team. It’s about acting as a team, as a sales team, which means that you’re all working towards a common goal, which is that customer’s success, setting expectations properly, under-promise, over-deliver, and set the customer up for a positive experience with your organization. That’s what you can do. 

But it does start with the top. It starts with the leadership. Is the leadership sales at all cost? Hey, do you have to make the quarter? What happens if you don’t? You know, it’s such a tough message, but we’ll all live. We’ll all live. But we won’t live if we make our quarter and we just sold three bad customers that we shouldn’t have sold. Then we won’t live. We won’t see another day. It will come back and haunt us a year, two, three years down the road. It will come back and get ya.

Along those lines, then, are there alternative metrics then? There’s quotas and there’s sales figures, by whatever time increment you measure them by. But are there other metrics that can be used, like customer lifetime, or satisfaction, or things like that, that can be part of the sales team’s measurements of success? In other words, instead of just making sales, since, again, there tends to be some conflict of interest there, right?

There absolutely are. So one of the measures we use is how quick to referenceability was your customer? How quick to referenceability are they? And what did it take to get them there? There are some customers who say, “Hey, we can’t be on your list until we’re live.” And that’s fair, right? That’s a fair ask. Well, if you’re a rep and the customer went live; they’re a live customer; they’re check-box; they automatically go on the list, if they for some reason asked not to be on that list, that’s a red flag, right? So that’s one of the ones that we use, is that time to referenceability, that time to, based on what they said in the contract, they’ll go on your list at live. If they don’t, that’s a problem. Then there’s work to be done there. We’ve either made a bad sale or we had some bumps, and that’s OK, and we just needed to get through ‘em. Most of the stuff are things you can get through. You know, you have to be accountable towards that customer’s success. 

So we actually go through that in what we call our QBRs, where we’re doing our quarterly business rules. They come up with their customers and they say, “Yeah, you know, these are all my customers and here’s their status.” So that is a standard part of the QBR, is the customer status. And they better be referenceable, and if they’re not, if I’m in the QBR, there’s a conversation that’s going to be had, of why; what happened. And, you know, they need to be held accountable to that.

I want to circle back to that whole concept of saying no. And how would you coach a sales leader to make it OK, or give some alternatives to using the word no, or make it more palatable? And what advice would you give to someone that needs to coach a team on obviously wanting to make a sale, but, to your point earlier, sometimes a sale isn’t even a good idea for anyone involved? So, you know, what advice would you have to somebody that’s coaching, in that regard?

Yeah, so I have some very specific examples. We’ve actually sold 30 customers that originally bought another solution, where we lost the deal up front and they came back to us. So that’s how I actually coach them. I say, “Listen, they’re your customer. If you presented it properly; if we really have the right solution for them, they’re your customer. They might not be your customer this year, but maybe next year. Because they’re not going to be successful with their current project. They’re not. We know it. We know what they’re asking for. What they’ve deemed to be a requirement is not going to be achievable in the way they think it will be. And so they’re going to be dissatisfied. And building that credibility of saying no, explaining why, and very softly saying, “Listen, we’re going to keep in touch” – like, “We aren’t going to do that, but we’re going to keep in touch because we think you’re going to learn that you actually might suffer more than you benefit. And we wish you the best, but we’re here. And we’re here to guide you when you come back.”

And so, again, “no” is credibility. “No” is your trusted advisor status. And very often, “no” is the reason they will come back to you and say, “You know, you guys were the only ones that said no; you explained why, and you were right. We should have been thinking differently about this.” And that’s all you can do. And it comes down to the long game or the short game. It really does. Are you playing the long game, or are you playing the short game?

About the Guest

Craig Colby is President of OneStream Software.

As one of the original founders of OneStream Software, we have created a culture that focuses on customer and employee success. Every OneStream customer is a reference and employees are empowered and motivated to ensure customer success at every turn. Prior to OneStream, as one of the original founders of UpStream Software, this culture of customer and employee success was well established. When Hyperion acquired UpStream in 2006 they acquired a product and support team that achieved unrivaled customer success and satisfaction. We have created a similar culture at OneStream Software and it starts with our ability to guarantee success to every customer and back that up each and every day.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 


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