In Episode 11 of The inSide Scoop on Customer Success, we tackle a very important topic: the Community Success Plan. Listen in as our VP of Customer Success and podcast hostess with the mostess, Anika Zubair, talks to Jeff Breunsbach, Director of Customer Experience at Higher Logic and founder of Gain Grow Retain.
Communities take a lot of work and they’re not an overnight success, but what does it take to build a successful community? On today’s episode of The inSide Scoop on Customer Success, Jeff will walk us through his Success plan and how they grew the Gain Grow Retain community to 5000 members – and continue to grow.
Forgot your headphones? No problem. Check out the transcript of the conversation below. Don’t forget to follow The inSide Scoop on Customer Success over on Spotify!
Show Notes + Links:
- Connect with Jeff Breunsbach on LinkedIn
- Gain Grow Retain community
- Pulse Everywhere event
- Connect with Kristi Faltorusso on LinkedIn
- Connect with Matt Myszkowski on LinkedIn
Anika Zubair (00:00): Then to the topic today, can you please tell our listeners a little bit more about Gain Grow Retain, how it started, and what you’re doing there?
Jeff Breunsbach (00:09): Yeah, absolutely. Excited to be here, Anika, and appreciate you letting me on. I think the big part for us was Gain Grow Retain was really started last year during the midst of the pandemic, as it started. So in March, Jay, my business partner, and I were kind of looking at each other and seeing what was happening and we wanted to kind of get a better look in terms of what was happening to some customer success leaders on the front lines and what they were doing, how they were overcoming some of the situations, how they were handling it with customers, with their employees. So we started with a phone call of 20 people and spent an hour around one topic, which was what are you doing with renewals during this kind of pandemic period? Pretty soon that 20 people turned into an email list of about 1500, and then pretty soon after that we actually added in kind of a podcast, and then the last part is we added in an online community where people could come engage.
Jeff Breunsbach (01:09): So now we’re a year later, we’ve got about 5,000 members and still continuing to grow. I think now our big focus is turned to try and drive the right engagement and make sure that we’re driving value for our members. But it’s been a really fun experience for us over the last year.
Anika Zubair (01:25): Awesome. It sounds like a little bit of an overnight success, but I think you and I both know that that’s not necessarily how communities start or how they end up. But I want to get into that, but before we do, I want to have a little bit of a warm-up round just to get you kind of ready for the questions I’m going to ask you. So my first warm-up round question is are you Apple or Google?
Jeff Breunsbach (01:47): I am Apple all the way.
Anika Zubair (01:49): 100%.
Jeff Breunsbach (01:49): Yeah. I have a MacBook, I’ve got the phone, my wife recently for a Christmas present bought me the AirPods, So yeah, I’m an Apple homer for sure.
Anika Zubair (02:01): I feel the same as well. I’m looking around my desk right now and it’s just all Apple products.
Anika Zubair (02:06): Awesome. Next question. Dog or cat?
Jeff Breunsbach (02:07): Dog, for sure. Actually, I have two dogs at home. They’re generally in my office all day while we hang out. We have a little dog door, so they might go outside and play for a little bit. But dogs for sure.
Anika Zubair (02:20): Ah, love it. Same here. Then if you were stuck on a desert island, which three things would you bring with you and why?
Jeff Breunsbach (02:29): Really hard question. I was thinking about this before we started recording and I had like no good answers. So I think I’ll exclude my dogs and my wife because they would certainly be first on the desert island with me. But I think if we’re kind of thinking about some of the things in life that I would probably bring along and enjoy, some sort of like way to watch sports. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a computer, it doesn’t have to be like a TV, but I love watching sports as a big part of just one of my hobbies, I guess. So would definitely do that.
Jeff Breunsbach (03:02): Maybe like a Kindle, a way to bring multiple books. I don’t want to choose just one, but I tend to like to read, especially, a lot of non-fiction and kind of boring business books, according to my wife.
Jeff Breunsbach (03:13): I think the third might be some sort of sport item, maybe. I’m hoping that the desert island I’m on maybe has a basketball court, so I’d bring that. Or maybe some golf clubs. Maybe there’s a golf course on the desert island. So again, kind of along the same theme of watching sports, I love playing sports, and golf and basketball are kind of my two growing up so I would probably say something along those.
Jeff Breunsbach (03:38): Kind of boring though. I don’t really have a good one. What would your answer be? What would you bring to the desert island?
Anika Zubair (03:44): I think I’d being some sort of communication, to be honest, like to connect with the outside world. Then something to generate power, whether it’d be like a solar panel or something.
Jeff Breunsbach (03:55): See, that’s a good one. Yeah.
Anika Zubair (03:58): I’m also like, I can’t really go without all my devices. I know that sounds so bad, but it’s how I stay connected to the world, and this last year proved that. And I’d bring my dog. I have no shame in that.
Jeff Breunsbach (04:08): I love it. Yeah, I like how you went, though, with like survival. I didn’t even think about anything like energy or like a hut maybe. I’m not an outdoorsy man, you can tell because I didn’t even think of food, shelter as the first couple of things you should probably need on a desert island.
Anika Zubair (04:24): Well, I didn’t think of food or anything, but I was just like I should be able to talk to other people if I’m going all by myself. Then I was like, maybe there’s food around, but I’ll figure that out. Then, yeah, I want my dog.
Jeff Breunsbach (04:35): I love it.
Anika Zubair (04:36): But listen, I want to talk a little bit about how you got into customer success and what inspired you to work in customer success because you have a bit of a non-traditional route into it. So yeah, what led to where you are today?
Jeff Breunsbach (04:49): Yeah. I mean, I started my career off in a kind of digital marketing and analytics. So I was doing a ton of data analysis behind the scenes, coming up with kind of platform strategies and enabling some of the technologies that we were using to help our customers get their marketing out there.
Jeff Breunsbach (05:08): Pretty quickly, I loved that. I tend to go down wormholes and love exploring new things, love learning new things, and so that kind of fit. But I think I also just realized that I really enjoyed the kind of connecting part of our jobs and thinking about how are we connecting our strategies that we’re implementing with the overall business strategies, how are we making sure to communicate that to the right people at the right times?
Jeff Breunsbach (05:34): Early in my career, I kind of moved into this account management role. So got really focused on relationship building, focused on making sure that we were delivering the right outcomes. Certainly had some aspects of kind of renewals and some of the contract management that we needed to go through, and so built that up and then was able to kind of move into a management role over people.
Jeff Breunsbach (05:56): I think at a point is when Jay and I went and started our customer success consulting firm. It was just eye-opening, I think, about how, for me at least, just engagement is becoming kind of the buzzword in the industry, but really, that’s the core of what we’re trying to do. So marrying together kind of the analytical skills I had, some of the marketing skills that I was bringing to the table, along with some of the account management, I felt like the best of both worlds is really getting into this customer success where you do kind of customer success ops.
Jeff Breunsbach (06:28): Now I’m in customer experience, essentially, where we’re doing a ton of data analysis, we’re thinking about how do we drive programs and engagement at scale. At the end of the day, I think to answer the question specifically about what inspired me, I think just watching your customers succeed is such a good, valuable exercise every day. If you get to see your customers succeed, it kind of brings you joy. It’s part of that wheel for me that you’re helping them achieve something. You’re individually helping them get to their next goals. Maybe they’re trying to get promoted, maybe they’re trying to connect internally with other people, and so you’re able to see that firsthand.
Jeff Breunsbach (07:05): So for me, that’s the direct correlation, but I think I’ve kind of weaved my way throughout my career and kind of found it over time. It wasn’t necessarily something that I think just hit me right out of day one.
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Anika Zubair (07:16): Yeah, I love that. I also love the non-traditional route, because I think everyone had a very unique route into customer success. I also came out of account management sales, and it’s just fascinating to see how everybody still has that core belief of like I really want to see people succeed and it’s very like, yeah, non-selfish, which is interesting to see that a lot of people just want to see your customer succeed. So loved hearing that.
Anika Zubair (07:41): Now, I want to talk a little bit more about Gain Grow Retain. You already mentioned about everything kind of blossomed throughout the pandemic and you really saw lots of success in the last year. A lot of people listening today might be interested in when a company should possibly start a customer community and maybe what the first steps should be. Do you have some initial tips and tricks based on your experience this last year?
Jeff Breunsbach (08:05): Yeah. I mean, I think for me, at least, the big thing when you’re starting to think about when to start a community or is it the right step for you is I think, I’m trying to think of the right word or the word that’s been used the most, but tech touch or automation is probably some of the words that I think have fallen into customer success and how do we scale. Right? I think everybody realizes that we need to engage with our customers and help make them successful, but at the end of the day, the other side of that coin is we can’t necessarily have one-to-one interactions. It’s just not going to work for us in terms of our business models.
Jeff Breunsbach (08:41): So scaling, tech touch, automation have been the words that have been used and I think that might be the misnomer in the industry. Right? I think we’ve kind of fallen into a fallacy where sometimes those words mean maybe our customers get less than in terms of an experience if they’re lower on our segmentation or if they’re in some sort of segment. So I really start to think about how community becomes a way to scale customer success.
Jeff Breunsbach (09:08): It’s really starting to think about the experience you’re giving your customers, and so community can be kind of the root of what you’re trying to accomplish. It can help customers connect with one another about questions that they have. You can start to find your evangelists. You can have your teams involved there in helping to answer questions. Obviously, the support angle is probably the biggest one that people will bring up. But think about how you can get your customer success managers involved talking about best practices, sharing stories inside of the community, and how explosive that could be for your customer base.
Jeff Breunsbach (09:41): So I really think of it as becoming a core part of the scaling strategy when you start thinking about customer success. So now what I start to think about a lot is how do you reduce a lot of friction for your customers? Because now, again, kind of overtime, this whole idea of tech touch or automation and making sure that we’re scaling is coming in place, but now you’re starting to look at how there’s multiple technologies involved. So you might have a knowledge base, you might have a learning management system, you might have a community, you might have a support desk, and so now you’ve got all these experiences you’re giving customers, and so part of my day job now in leading our customer experience team is how do we reduce friction? How do we create a more seamless experience across those platforms so that customers feel like they can go get an answer when they need it in the right way?
Jeff Breunsbach (10:32): So for me, though, I think if you get back to the heart of your question, I think if you’re looking at scaling customer success, looking at how do we engage with our customers in a big way, then I think community starts to become a really good answer for that because it can really help set up a lot of your engagement strategy.
Anika Zubair (10:52): Definitely. I love what you just said there about building a community doesn’t really mean that you are going to lose that customer experience or anything’s going to change. You’re just changing the tactics or the way that you are reaching out to your customer. You’re changing maybe, yeah, the approach and maybe the content, but you’re still giving them that same experience, you’re still trying to get them to that end route.
Anika Zubair (11:15): Like a lot of people say with communities, it’s like a many-to-many approach. You’re just creating this environment where everyone’s able to help each other, everyone’s able to flush ideas out, have a conversation. I totally agree with you on that and that every, every company, whether you’re thinking you’re super high touch or digital-led, you want to have customers talking to each other. It’s a nice way to interact. Community-led growth can be a massive, massive part of scaling a customer success team.
Jeff Breunsbach (11:46): Yeah. I mean, I think that the big part that just resonates with me as well as the fact that it just hits different, right? When customers are talking with one another, there’s going to be an inherent difference than if they’re talking to you. I mean, as much as I would love to say that I think there is a way to build a great relationship with your customers, at the end of the day they’re always going to see you as a vendor. I hate to say that because I think there are great personal relationships you can develop. There’s a way that you can bridge that gap so it’s not as big, right? But I think inherently if I came to the table and said, hey, here’s a way that a customer is using this, it’s always just going to be looked at as like, oh, the vendor is kind of telling me one success story. Right?
Jeff Breunsbach (12:26): But I think if the customer actually comes to the table and says, hey, here’s how I implement, here’s what I implemented, here’s how I did it, here’s what the results are, ask me any questions, it’s so different because they’re in that role. There is the pervasive thought of like, oh my gosh, that person is going through something similar to me, right? They’re in the same role, they’re in the same industry, whatever it might be.
Anika Zubair (12:48): Definitely it’s a relatability.
Jeff Breunsbach (12:49): Yeah, that relation, that relatability, is so key, I think, to driving that many to many, like you mentioned.
Anika Zubair (12:55): Yeah, definitely. That brings me back to also Gain Grow Retain. I know you and Jay spent a lot of time getting things up and running, but I’ve also recently noticed that you guys have had a few thought leaders in the space help you. Every community can do that and a lot of people can get started with the community, but maybe how did you guys actually do that, what did you ask of the community, what did you give them in return? How did that all work out when you were asking more people to get involved rather than just being the vendor-to-customer relationship?
Jeff Breunsbach (13:24): Yeah. So definitely, in the beginning, I think, it was another interesting experience just because we had started with a phone call first and then a podcast, so really our members were kind of clamoring for an online community. It wasn’t kind of like we started with that first. It was actually a nice way because they started saying, hey, in between our weekly calls, where are we supposed to connect? Right? Where’s our group. So we kind of sat there and said, okay, now it seems like the right opportunity for us to open up maybe an online community.
Jeff Breunsbach (13:56): We had never really thought about it before, but I think the key there for us was we had asked some early adopters, about 30 people, and said, hey, we’re going to start this online community, do you want to come into this space and help us just start to cultivate it, see if it’s working? Do we have the right topics? Do we have the right layout? What types of questions should we ask on our registration forms? How do we make it seamless? So those 30 people that kind of helped us were really instrumental in getting us kind of off the ground. Then they became our early evangelists so when we went to go out to the rest of the group, it was like there was already content in there, there were already people who were talking about how they had already gotten value out of it. So those 30 were definitely helpful.
Anika Zubair (14:37): Amazing. Yeah. I’ve seen that, as well, over LinkedIn about how so many people are contributing and they feel like they’re the co-founders or they’re actually the key people that started this, which is a great way to obviously get buy-in and get people interested. But we know community engagement is key and it takes a lot of upkeep and you’ve already mentioned that you have all these thought leaders giving you that energy, but like what other tactics are you guys kind of going through or doing in order to make sure your community stays engaged?
Jeff Breunsbach (15:07): Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I mean, I think we’re finding our way through that. I think we had a series, our Office Hours call, which we do weekly, which was great and works. We still get good attendance. There’s a great conversation that happens. But I think even in that, that format has changed. It used to be just an open call where we would have kind of one question. Actually, we started with a panel and what we did is we actually surveyed after every single session and said what do you want to happen?
Jeff Breunsbach (15:39): I think, this goes back to your point, one of the reasons I think we had some success early was we essentially would survey people, and then the next call, we would actually present the results back for the first three or four minutes and then say, okay, based off these results, here are the changes we made for today’s call. So it was really like we were iterating in real-time. They were actually feeling a part of that change process because they were giving us feedback, we were listening, and we were actually acting on it. So that was a really big piece for us.
Jeff Breunsbach (16:06): We switched from a panel into just one big call, then we switched into two rooms broken down by kind of which customers you serve, and then eventually, now, the format that we’re in is going into small breakout rooms for about 20 to 25 minutes, quick networking, but really just more intimate discussions with only four or five people about a specific topic and then we’re kind of coming back for the last remaining 30 minutes or so and kind of having a little bit of a group discussion around it.
Jeff Breunsbach (16:32): So that obviously is one format for us in terms of Office Hours, but outside of that, I think we’re kind of finding our way as well. We’re about to start releasing some small group-type stuff. I think in the digital age, now, I think everybody kind of went the route of putting on webinars, doing video calls, all these things that are great, but then you have a massive flood of people and I think you kind of lose some of that intimacy. So we’re trying to find how do we bring some of that back? So small group discussions are coming back.
Jeff Breunsbach (17:01): Then I think a big part is just for us trying to figure out what are the key topics in the right areas that we want to start to explore more. So for instance, there’s a ton of discussion that’s happening now, we’re noticing across our membership, about customer success technologies. How did you implement it? Which is the right one for them? So we’re trying to find what are types of sessions we can hold? What are discussions that are happening on the forum itself? How do we bring in maybe some of the vendors to talk about it? So just trying to find different formats that we can keep members engaged.
Jeff Breunsbach (17:33): Then one other thing that we’re just doing right now that I envision us doing kind of regularly or every year, and this is probably in typical customer success fashion, is we’re sending out a survey to our members to try and figure out what is valuable. We’ve certainly got assumptions, we’ve got some data, but we also want to back it up with of the straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. So that’s another big piece where we’re going to roll out here soon.
Anika Zubair (17:55): Yeah, I really love that you guys did that real-time feedback as you mentioned. You also said, obviously, all of this started from Office Hours and then evolved to a podcast and then to the community, but how do you see traffic evolving? Was there a big source difference of traffic, especially in this digital era? How does that look like from people who are actually registered, let’s say, to these webinars versus who actually shows up? How did you keep that engaged and was there one way or another that people enjoyed communicating in the community?
Jeff Breunsbach (18:26): Yeah. Early on, I think one of the reasons that we had some good success with Office Hours is just because of that consistency like you mentioned. We held it once a week, we were sending follow-ups on Fridays, we were kind of sending reminders to people about the event itself, and then, just like you mentioned, I think kind of the surveying and playing back those results early on, those all kind of fed into this idea that we were listening to the community, adapting, and changing.
Jeff Breunsbach (18:54): I think another piece was just the fact that pretty regularly we asked those early adopters to just keep sending it to people, right? If you’re getting value from this, we want more opinions, we want diversity in the room. We want companies that are public, companies that are private. I mean, I think just the inclusivity of any and all voices was also just a big pervasive thought for us to make sure that we could hear how people were implementing it differently.
Jeff Breunsbach (19:22): I think that’s something that is unique about customer success is that there’s just so many different ways to do it. It’s probably the same, you could probably say that about any sort of function in a company, right? Marketing, probably the same. Sales. But I think customer success being such a relatively new type of function in the business, I think there was a lot of learning that you could do, strategies that you could implement.
Jeff Breunsbach (19:50): Then I think it all came back down to this engagement element for our members. They were trying to engage with their customers and so a lot of the topics that we had early on, we were really trying to figure out how do we drive action for our members? So another school of thought that we had was how do we get out of the kind of pie in the sky philosophical type ideas and how do we get into action?
Jeff Breunsbach (20:12): So that’s really also what has driven the community as well as we kind of ask ourselves two questions for our Office Hours series. It’s did you meet one person, did you kind of meet one new person today, and then did you take one actionable takeaway? If we can answer yes to those two things, then we felt like that was a really good session. We felt like that was what you were getting from the value in the community. That’s still what drives us today.
Anika Zubair (20:34):Yeah, I love that. It’s so important to remember that like, yeah, continuity or regular consistency are the reasons why things tend to pick up in general. Like you said, it started off with just 20 people and then it kind of snowballed from there. Then also you mentioned making sure that it’s tactical, there’s a takeaway, there’s something someone can learn or share or inspire others to share as well. Which is, I think, what you guys really do really, really well actually, and I think that it takes a village really for sometimes communities to be successful.
Anika Zubair (21:04): For our listeners that are maybe thinking of starting their own community or kind of toying with the idea, what kind of energy would it take from the start? Meaning how many hours you would spend creating content yourself versus at what point do you think the community kind of takes over and then there’s other people contributing like your key users that you mentioned earlier?
Jeff Breunsbach (21:26): Yeah, it’s definitely a labor of love, I’ll tell you that. I feel like there’s not really a silver bullet or a shortcut. I think that’s the other thing when you start thinking about this type of initiative is just staffing it well, because I think this is a challenge in and of itself. It’s kind of similar to when you start thinking about maybe some brand marketing initiatives. Is it really moving the needle? What are we really doing? You know, there are some metrics inside of a community that will tell you there is some success that’s happening. You can find a correlation to things like a drop in support tickets or maybe retention over the long-term. But a lot of it, I think, is going to have to be some, one or two, kind of leading metrics, more about engagement, more about membership.
Jeff Breunsbach (22:10): A lot of it’s going to be gut feeling. Are these things working? Can we tell? Are we having the right engagement? Are we making a positive influence on our customers? But I think, by and large, to some of your points earlier, like thinking about the community in and of itself, of the membership, and what are they craving? What are they needing to be successful? What are they wanting? I think that really becomes kind of the guiding light.
Jeff Breunsbach (22:34): But it takes a labor of love. It’s definitely something that I think over time, maybe after the first three or four months, it was definitely less of us having to be involved in the community itself in terms of posting and some other things. I mean, we’re still involved in Office Hours events just because we love it. We enjoy connecting with our members.
Jeff Breunsbach (22:57): I think the big thing that we’re trying to figure out now is how do we empower more of our volunteers to go pick up initiatives that we feel like could kind of fold underneath the community? I think that’s been certainly a learning curve for us. We’re in the midst of that. We just kind of brought on 20 or so of our key volunteers to make up kind of our 2021 board. So now we’ve done is just divvied up some of these things. We’ve kind of got new member acquisition, we’ve got engagement and some community management. Then we’ve got retention. How do we keep some of these small groups and some of the people connected?
Jeff Breunsbach (23:29): So each of those kinds of three areas are getting some attention now from a larger group of people and we’re trying to figure out how do we let folks come into that and not really feel like it’s a second job to them. You know, really, they’re a great set of volunteers for us. They’re passionate, they want to help us grow the community in great ways, and so we’re trying to figure out how do you allow them to come up with ideas and then just give them space and freedom to go execute as long as it kind of fits into the greater mission.
Anika Zubair (23:56): Yeah, that’s great. Also, I think that relates so closely with the idea of customer advocates and customer communities. You give the customer space to really say everything and anything you want and just really share how much they enjoy your product. Which again, ties back to what you were jus