The first thing to know about Tara Robertson, Sprout Social’s doyenne of digital marketing, is that she gets results. The second is that voice of the customer is the thing she will absolutely swear by.
A fleeting pass at her professional history shows a clear trajectory of impact and influence, and on speaking with her, you start to get an idea of why that might be. Acting with a clear mentor-mindset, Tara sees the sharing of knowledge and discoveries as a duty of those who are growing businesses. Her enthusiasm is catching – Tara speaks with an authority that’s tempered with genuine giddy excitement for the sheer potential of the field that she’s working within.
Heading up Sprout Social’s lifecycle marketing efforts, Tara’s team manage Voice Of The Customer research across the entire marketing funnel. The market research technique, which sees companies adopt an in-depth and receptive approach to customer wants and needs through a variety of processes (interviews, contextual inquiry, focus groups and more) has brought remarkable results to Sprout. In this exclusive interview, Tara outlines how that has come about and why every company should be doing customer research of this kind.
Why Voice of the Customer
The days of marketing being a one-way dialog are well and truly over, and voice of the customer, which represents a fantastic opportunity to focus on future customer requirements, expectations, comprehension, and product suggestions. Once clarity is gained regarding these areas, prioritized product and marketing strategies can be deployed, resulting in reduced churn and a happier, better served and increasingly loyal customer base.
I ask if having a sense of voice of the customer is especially important given Sprout’s broad target audience.
“As a social media management platform, we service SMB, agency, enterprise, and mid-market. A lot of companies – especially within SaaS – believe that you have to choose one segment, go after one business and that’s how you scale. But our CEO, and I love this quote, believes that’s just lazy. You can go after more than one segment if you’re building with the right purpose in mind.”
The team is aligned to a sales strategy that supports all segments.
With nets cast wide, and a powerful product able to service a variety of business types, it’s easy to see why having this deep insight and clarity on your customer is so vital.
It’s also important that this insight is supplanted to all customer-facing functions. At Sprout, those are a sales team, a team overseeing partnerships, and a customer team broken up into onboarding and activation (from early stages, through to raving fans, monetization, and growth). There’s a consistent commitment to understanding all of the unique value props that happen within the lifecycle of each customer.
Most notably, there’s a sense of empathy from the day that a customer enters the funnel, to the day that they become passionate ambassadors. That is enabled by Tara’s team and their impressive commitment to spreading the love for voice of the customer.
Success And The Siren Call Of SaaS
Having landed upon such an effective strategy with Sprout, it’s worth backtracking a little, to see where the roots of this success were put down. Tara’s evident knowledge and enthusiasm is backed up with a tangible track record.
Prior to being with Sprout Social, she spent over a decade with digital marketing agency TSL Marketing. They were one of the first marketing agencies in HubSpot’s partner program and rode that bandwagon of inbound marketing from day one. It was a way to understand the varying ways that different mediums can be used to attract customers.
TSL expanded to become a fully global agency, with offices in Dublin and India, as well as North America, starting with ten members of staff and growing to about 300 during her time with them. Working with a lot of technology companies in the high tech space, Tara knew that when she moved on, she wanted to get into the SaaS space, and eventually moved to Hotjar.
“We were 100% remote and I was the VP of Marketing, helping set them up in those early stages, growing from $1M to $10M ARR and understanding how to handle the really huge funnel of people coming in – we had over 500 sign-ups a day when I was there. It was a freemium model and we were a small, nimble, agile company.”
I ask Tara what it was that attracted her to the world of SaaS in the first instance. “I just love the fast pace of the software world and the connection to technology, evolution, growth. In a lot of ways our industry and our world is changing to become this very high-touch, digital, technology-based world and I’m a big believer in staying on top of the technology and moving fast. I love to see impact and results, and to be part of the momentum that you see. I love the pioneering, problem-solving attitude of the SaaS community.”
However, it wasn’t just hard numbers and data that drew Tara in. Sprout shone as an example of a SaaS company bucking the trend when it came to diversity and inclusivity, so when it came to an entry route to the industry, making the jump to join them was an easy decision.
“I’m interested in what we can do to give back to the world, and I think a lot of what you can do on a philanthropic level is to find ways that tech and software companies can keep on the cutting edge of diversity, equity, and inclusion – thinking about ways that we can give back to the planet, and ways that we can scale and evolve in a lot of different avenues.”
Growing with Sprout
When Sprout reached out to Tara, it was to take the duel experience that she had within the agency world and the realm of SaaS to build out their agency partner program.
“I started with the Agency segment. We built that out and saw a ton of success in what the model would start to look like when focused more on segment-based and Voice of Customer approach, versus a “one to many / solve for all” mindset.”
Success came rapidly, and Sprout more than doubled the revenue goals they set themselves in the first year alone. “Not only did we see significant revenue growth, but we also started to see this incredible stickiness within our customers – our churn halved. We went from being one of the highest churning segments at Sprout to being one of the lowest churning segments for the customers that were in our agency partner program.”
Deciding that this was the right model, and the path they should continue following, Tara led the charge to scale the approach into all the other segments that they service. Which brings us to where she is today; Director of Marketing Strategy and Operations.
What makes Tara’s team successful is the strong focus on understanding the real subtleties of their individual customer types, looking at each segment on a case by case basis; why do SMBs buy for example, why do they grow, how do they scale? How do their needs differ from those of an enterprise business?
“They’re all very, very different,” explains Tara, “And when you’re a product growing as long and as fast as Sprout has, in a lot of ways, you need to understand not just what makes each unique but also what each needs in terms of growth – and in terms of being successful.” That leads into a lot of the Jobs To Be Done methodology, something Tara will be covering extensively in the SaaStock East Coast workshop.
The Untapped Potential of Voice of the Customer
With voice of the customer (VOC) starting to gain so much traction in the world of digital marketing, I ask Tara if there are any business models that the strategy works especially well for.
“Honestly, VOC will work exceptionally well for every brand.”
This isn’t a cop out. “When you think about the impact of VOC – when you start to bring it into your day to day marketing – you begin to consider things through a very human lens.” Natural questions that come out of this are how would you like your marketing, conversations, and connection with other people to sound.
These are all invaluable questions. To answer them for your customers, you need to tap into your own humanity. You wouldn’t want to be listening to someone telling you everything about themselves, you don’t want to get a sales pitch, and you most definitely don’t want to get another email coming from another SaaS business telling you that their software is better than everyone else’s.
“[Instead,] you would want them to understand the struggles that you have, and the pain that you’re experiencing, because we all have struggles and pain in our day to day. You want them to show you that these are things that they can help you solve. And so the whole idea behind understanding voice of customer, or using an approach like Jobs To Be Done in your marketing, is really about having empathy – about thinking about who is on the other side. It’s about knowing that we live in a world that isn’t B2B or B2C – ultimately, it’s human to human. It’s about who’s on each side of the conversation.”
As a concept, VOC is appealing. We’ve all seen seismic shifts in the world of marketing over recent years, as brands move away from aggressive interruption models and start to bring personality back into the game. I question Tara about the measurable impact that this kind of approach can have.
“What is truly interesting and exciting about VOC is that it sounds obvious – like we should all be doing it – but it’s actually an awful lot of work. People don’t devote enough time to it, because we’re all struggling with having enough time in our day to day.”
But here’s where Tara makes one of the most important arguments of all. “The companies that are putting that extra time and energy into thinking about how they’re serving their customers, how they’re conducting interviews, how they are understanding the person on the other side of these conversations and using that understanding to inform everything they do, like copy for example, are seeing 10x results across the board.”
She gets very specific into data that backs up that statement: 466% boosted success from companies using VOC research.
Yet 65% of marketers are not conducting VOC research. You can understand Tara’s bafflement.
The statistics speak of huge, untapped potential. More than half of the marketers out there today are not dedicating resources to VOC, but those that take the plunge are going to see some wild results coming in. “It’s what we do, day in and day out,” says Tara, “And it’s so exciting to be a part of it.”
The Future For Voice of the Customer
With a rich seam of benefits ready to be tapped, what does the future hold for VOC in SaaS digital marketing? Tara ponders this.
“91% of people believe in social’s power to connect people. And brands are the champion of this. The challenge of the future is that if you’re not conducting VOC research and you’re not putting that into what you’re doing on the marketing side, well, there’s going to be someone else who is.”
That someone is going to win. What digital marketers may not be acutely aware of is that it won’t be long before a marketing strategy strongly informed by VOC is going to be expected of them. With the way that the world’s changing today, it’s not just about getting the message out there, it’s about the way companies are connecting with the people that they are selling to and working with.
“Ultimately, even if we’re not doing it, the human being on the other side of the conversation is still expecting us to.”
Voice of the Customer in practice
Sprout provides a great example of the power of VOC done right. As they started scaling the VOC model to more segments, Tara saw a much stronger connection with the audience in some of those. This was important because, although Sprout cares about revenue, what they care more about is the customers’ experience. As they use VOC internally, they start to connect with customers on a more human level. The impact Tara has seen has at times been phenomenal.
“We use retention curves internally to track our customers’ drop-off points from short, mid- and long-term retention, and with our use of VOC, outside of just seeing that impact on revenue and churn, we also saw a much longer and faster stickiness with our customers. We’re talking about shortening that retention curve by 24 months which was very substantial for our business.”
“When you’re conducting VOC research, you’re connecting more and that’s going to show an increase in your customers feeling more loyal. There’s a 10x greater year-on-year increase in annual company revenue – and these are just industry stats for software in general.”
With results like that, it’s not hard to see why Sprout have become such strong advocates for VOC. “I just feel like there’s always more you could be doing to understand and connect with your customers,” says Tara. “I think everyone wants to be a data-driven business, but when we think about being data-driven, we think about being quantitative; so Google Analytics or looking at how people are running through different cohorts, etc – but we’re often not actually spending the time to look at the qualitative alongside all of this.”
With Sprout being a social media management platform, a big area that they’ve focused on is not just the evolution of social and the connection that it has brought, but how the marketing world is evolving from interruption, to engagement to, now, human to human connection. Across the industry, we’re seeing a huge paradigm shift towards looking at things like social listening – really understanding not just how we connect with our customers, but what the industry and the wider world is actually talking about. The companies that we see using research intelligence and insights to actually hear those conversations (and then use them to drive their campaign strategy) are seeing tremendous results across the board.
Getting Onboard with Voice of the Customer
At this point, the benefits of VOC seem clear cut. I ask Tara what resources she would recommend for readers who want to learn more and get their companies onboard with VOC.
Georgiana Laudi (who she presented with at SaaStock East Coast) and her partner Claire Suellentrop. “They are absolutely amazing in helping support building VOC, in thinking about Jobs To Be Done especially for a lot of businesses in the SaaS world or startups, anyone in those early stages.” You can read their content on Forget the Funnel. Joanna Wiebe, who runs CopyHackers and is known as the original conversion copywriter, also comes highly recommended. “She’s absolutely amazing at thinking about how you use VOC in your copy to get real results. Her blog is fantastic and has been a game changer for myself and my team, both at Sprout and back when I was at Hotjar.” Other favorites include Talia Wolf Peep Laja of ConversionXL and Els Aerts | AGConsult.
The Future Is Human
Sprout are known as a strongly values-led company, and I ask Tara how important this is to her. It transpires that an internal sense of empathy is just as important to Tara as the outward-facing customer compassion that VOC invokes. “It’s really everything. When I think about who I am as a person and who I am at work, they really merge together. We talk a lot internally not necessarily about the concept of work/life balance but work/life harmony. It’s about bringing your whole self to work. And my whole self isn’t just this person who’s trying to build out a marketing team and build a software product. It’s how we connect with each other and connect with the wider world.”
Sprout have seen a huge growth in their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team, and Tara serves on the leadership board there. “This means that I spend a lot of my day not just doing what I do as a marketer, but also doing what I love to do as a human. I’ve never worked for a company that’s been so focused on their values – and not just an arbitrary focus on the values, but a commitment to really living those values. It’s something that is really unique.”
Sprout has a framework internally that they use around that idea of connection with customers; being real, being open, and being empathetic. Once again it sounds like something that’s simple to do but which, in practice, is really not.
I ask how important going that extra mile to ensure exceptional customer experiences will become in the future digital landscape. “I think it’s more than important, it’s vital,” Tara tells me.
“As I think about the way that marketing is evolving, in a lot of ways it’s becoming more human.”
She absolutely loves that, because our world is merging with our technology – and the more that marketers can bring that human element into what they do, the more, Tara believes, they’ll stand out as they continue to scale.
After time spent with Tara, you would be left in no doubt whatsoever; now is most certainly the time to start applying VOC methodologies to your marketing strategy. The statistics speak for themselves and the trends that we see within digital marketing and customer expectations all strongly back up this methodology and the opportunities that it brings. For years now the human experience has been becoming more digital, and now finally – refreshingly – the digital experience is becoming more human.
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