Holding A Successful Customer Conference

By Jacques Murphy August 15, 2007

from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software

Few things have more power to build customer loyalty than holding a customer conference. Just as true, few things require as much preparation, on-site work, and expense. The customer conferences your company holds can be critical to the long term health of your product and your company.

The headaches, expense, and staff time required for a conference are guaranteed. But the payoff is not, and that's why it's so important to assess your product – and your organization's – situation and goals and determine what your aim is for a customer conference, then make strategic and tactical decisions accordingly.

Product Managers can provide good input on customer needs and preferences, as well as what your company needs from its customer base, to ensure that important decisions are made to create a successful customer experience.

Read on below for ideas about holding a successful customer conference that enhances the reputation and success of your product.

What Is the Goal?

Your first important decision, before you choose a location or a banquet menu, is to define what you want to accomplish with your customer conference. With a clearly defined focus from the start, other decisions are easier to make.

The goal you have for your customer conference depends upon where you are in the life cycle of the company and the product. A startup product or company may be much less concerned with profitability than with building visibility in the industry and developing advocates among your customer base. A more established product might focus on ensuring that users develop a solid knowledge of the product and help set the product direction.

I suggest that as Product Manager, you will have more impact by setting a goal that directly ties your customer conference to a measure of success that the executive team will value. Then, describe the results you are aiming for in order to accomplish that goal, and follow that with the strategies and tactics to attain those results.

For example: 'The goal of our customer conference is to improve the gross margin for our product.' (That's total revenues minus cost to produce the product.) A healthy gross margin is a sign of a fundamentally healthy and sound business, one that will make good money that can be put back into product development and company growth.

What are the results you are looking for? 'The customer conference will improve gross margin because it will do the following:

  • Increase revenues by generating add-on sales with existing customers. Add-on sales usually involve a lower cost of sale and are therefore more profitable, so that will also boost our margin.
  • Build customer loyalty, which besides resulting in add-on sales, also will increase maintenance revenue over the coming years by reducing defections and increasing renewals.
  • Enhance customer success with the product, which will lead to word-of-mouth advertising and press coverage, cutting down on marketing costs. It will also lead to positive references, which will cut the cost of sales by reducing the sales cycle and the effort needed to sell.
  • Provide guidance from the marketplace on requirements and needs, so that the product sells better, and competes better.'

Those are the desired results that will help you reach a goal of improved gross margin. With these results, you can begin to select strategies and tactics to reach those goals. For example, the goals above point to a strategy of presentations where customer stories and successes are featured. Presentations would be more heavily weighted to higher level discussions rather than how-to's and training classes in the product. Also, there would be an open session or sessions on product direction. There would also be a goal to have customers meet and interact heavily with one another.

Getting down to tactics, this leads to a customer conference with presentations that focus on strategy and successes, with meals, receptions, or other activities that help customers network and get to know each other. Training classes would be optional at such a conference, unless feedback from customers indicated a strong desire for them.

A Delicate Chemistry

Customer conferences have a delicate chemistry that is easily spoiled. Customers usually do not want to spend scarce time and money to attend an event that is salesy, superficial, or whose agenda is dominated by your company's priorities rather than their own.

Consequently there are some decisions you should consider taking in order to help create that essential chemistry to make the conference feel right to attendees.

One decision is to not allow sales reps. I have received the following feedback in writing: 'Thank you for not having sales reps at the conference.' This makes it clear that the focus is on the customer's benefit, not your own company's financial benefit (though you benefit indirectly). This could be a hard battle to fight. Inevitably, a sales rep asks whether he or she may attend. But I have heard negative feedback from customers when they felt they were a captive audience to the sales rep, who shadowed them during the presentations. Another option is to require sales discussions to occur in breakout rooms outside of the main sessions, so that attendees have the option of meeting with their reps if they so desire, without interfering with their ability to learn from and network with peers.

Another decision is: Will you accept prospects? Over the years, I have been very welcoming of the idea of accepting prospects, as long as they were qualified. But it also makes me nervous. Your sale will be in trouble if your prospect has asked to attend the conference because they believe that if they keep taking in more information, they will make a decision when they finally have all the facts. The truth is the list of facts will never be complete, and your prospect will hear contradictory or disturbing information. Not to mention that the sales rep better be there to manage their experience, which breaks the 'no sales reps' rule.

One disadvantage of having prospects is that your staff are a little more on the defensive, which comes across whether you want it to or not, and your customers may also feel they have to be more guarded in their criticism of you, which puts a damper on the free exchange of information.

Other Customer Meetings

A customer conference is just one of the events you want to hold for customers. Due to the expense and time required for a conference, this is likely to only happen once a year at most. But you can provide additional events such as webcasts, short regional meetings, and meetings that piggyback on industry conferences. While there's nothing like an in- person experience to build a bond with customers, providing other opportunities to meet, network, and learn can develop a real impression of abundant contact.

Location, Location, Location

The location you choose for your customer conference will affect how easy it is to achieve your desired results. Naturally, selecting a warm, sunny location in wintertime, for example, is likely to boost attendance. You'll want to select a location that has a good choice of direct flights from many cities, again to increase attendance.

Choosing too fun a location can backfire, however. You may not want your attendees heading out with their families every chance they get to go to a water park or theme park. There's something to be said for finding a facility that is quiet and somewhat isolated, to encourage attendees to stay and participate fully.

If product training is an important component of the conference, you need a facility that can provide rooms with the necessary power and network or Internet connections. These rooms need to be the right size and shape to accommodate good interaction between trainer and studies.

Is it important to have active participation from attendees with discussion and debate? Consider a facility with amphitheatre style seating, where attendees sit in a semicircle on multiple levels, so they can easily see one another. Smaller rooms with boardroom style tables will let you have roundtable discussions that feel more personal and intimate.

Banquet Chicken Again?

At our last conference, the sit-down dinner allowed us to choose from a dizzying array of menu choices. But it turned out we had to choose between only two selections, and commit to quantities for each at least 72 hours before the meal. Because we had not polled customers on their preference ahead of time, we were forced to go with the choice that wasn't going to cause problems for people who don't eat red meat, don't like seafood, avoid dairy, or don't like spicy or trendy food. So we went with 'Banquet Chicken,' that ubiquitous chicken breast option. This was balanced by the fact the other meals were buffet style, so people had plenty of choice.

In the end, while it would have been better to provide a choice, the fact is that you can't please everyone, and the real value of the meal was the unhurried discussions around the table.

Who Pays?

If your conference involves elaborate facilities, meals, and training classes which you would otherwise charge for, you may want to charge for the conference itself, in addition to having attendees pay for travel and their rooms. Charging a $500 fee or higher can make the conference seem serious and professional, but will obligate you to put on a top-notch event. One tactic to increase attendance for paid conferences is to build the fee right into the contract as a separate line item for a specific number of conference attendees.

If the costs for meals and meeting rooms is not going to go over $100 a night for a two-day conference, you may want to pay for the conference yourself and in so doing build goodwill. Combine that with a good group rate for the room and customers will appreciate it.

Regardless of whether you charge customers for the conference portion, you want to provide enough advance notice that customers can put the conference in their budget and carve out time on their calendars.

What Customers Want

If you want to pull off a customer conference that leaves customers pleased and full of praise, you'll need to have a good feel for what they want out of the conference, and plan accordingly. When you have a customer base which you haven't surveyed before, that can be difficult.

One tactic is to provide variety (business- focused and technical sessions, sessions for beginners and advanced users, one-way presentations versus roundtable discussions, etc.) and let the customers choose. By keeping careful track of attendance, you can get a solid understanding of what kind of content mix your customers are looking for and plan better for next time.

If you have an online survey tool, you can create simple, short surveys to better match your conference to expectations. But fight the tendency to ask too many questions. Nobody wants to waste their time on long surveys.

Another important tactic to ensure that you meet customer expectations is to allow for a fluid and flexible format for the general sessions, so that you can use customer input to change the emphasis (customer stories versus guidance from your consultants, presentations versus discussions, etc.). Then poll customers at the beginning and during the sessions to get a feel for what they most want, changing course accordingly.

And remember that if you haven't had written input before the conference, you can get feedback by using forms and surveys during the conference. Post-conference, you can share your analysis with the team and strategize about how to better match expectations for the next conference.

Serious Schmoozing

Networking and hearing stories from peers can often be the most valuable take-aways for customer conference attendees. It's important to provide structured and unstructured opportunities for attendees to meet and swap information. Encourage your teammates to introduce customers to each other, especially when they know they are struggling with similar or complementary issues.

It's usually pretty easy for a customer to find a training class to attend, or hear a presentation providing guidance on the product. But it may only be at the customer conference that someone can meet a fellow professional who has faced similar challenges and can offer very specific advice. So the customer conference may be the ONLY avenue for your customers to network, and hence is a priceless opportunity.

Here are some tactics to facilitate networking:

  • Have one or more receptions or cocktail hours during the conference. You can advertise an Early Bird reception the evening before the start of the conference for those who want to make arrangements to be there.
  • Provide Birds of a Feather seating at designated tables during meals so that customers from the same industry, working on the same products, or in the same stages of maturity with the product can learn from each other. You can also provide a Birds of a Feather reception broken out into different rooms for different groups.
  • Before the conference, do a careful study of the registered attendees and create groups by industry, component, etc. Then review this information with your teammates who will be staffing the event. Task the team with taking every opportunity to introduce like customers during the conference.
  • Encourage open discussion during presentations, so that customers can share their situation and experience, and those in a similar situation can ask them questions.
  • And to complete the whole bird theme, arrange for those tireless Night Owls to meet at the bar after the sessions, meals, and entertainment are over.
Lesson Learned and Best Practices

Your own customers can provide your customer base with some of the best information of all. Have customers provide presentations, participate in panel discussions, and discuss their successes and failures openly. Picking up Best Practices and benefiting from Lessons Learned can make the difference between a successful implementation and a failed project.

Product Training

Formal training classes make a great addition to a conference. You may be able to have a track of training sessions that run concurrently with business presentations. Or you may need to offer an optional training day at the beginning of the conference (when people are still fresh, rather than at the end). The ability to take training at the same time as the conference, either free or for a fee, is an added bonus for customers.

You can also provide less formal training in a lab where customers can make appointments to talk one-on-one with a product expert. This provides a Q&A format for customers to ask specific questions and get focused, custom training.

Product Direction

A customer conference is an excellent opportunity to quench your customers' thirst for knowledge about the future direction of the product. It's also a great time to gather a statistically significant sampling of customers into one room to conduct focus groups and solicit suggestions.

Holding focus groups is an expensive proposition. Either you pay for travel and expenses in order to get attendance, or don't pay and spend a lot of time selling the focus group to a whole lot of people in order to convince a small percentage to participate. Even when you pay all expenses, customers still pay in terms of time taken away from their work assignments.

So a customer conference can be a great opportunity to gather customers together for interactive input into the product direction. Customers have already carved time out of their schedules, and have budgeted for their expenses. It is relatively easy to fit in a ninety minute discussion during the larger event.

The Right Balance

The key to offering the right content at your conference is to understand that different customers have different goals, goals that often conflict with those of their colleagues or other customers. Where your customer base is big enough, you need to offer multiple tracks to suit differing customer agendas. I would argue that even a small group of under 30 attendees would be happy with two or more tracks to choose from.

Managers are looking for input at a higher, strategic level. End users are looking for product training and practical how-to's. Beginners need basic information. Those further along in their implementation may want more open discussion about best practices and advanced capabilities.

Another element of balance is the ratio of your staff to customers. This balance is a delicate thing. Not having enough of your own staff in attendance can leave customers feeling like they can't get your attention and assistance during the event. Too many teammates and it may intimidate customers, who then feel like it isn't really their event, just for them. And of course there's a big difference between bringing technical and customer support staff versus sales reps.

Measuring the Payoff

Finally, I believe that after the customer conference is over you must measure the payoff in order to justify the payout. Tally up the total costs – don't forget employee travel and expenses as well as total person-days for prep work and attendance – and figure out an average cost per customer attendee.

Hand out written surveys at the end of the conference, and after individual sessions, to collect feedback. Gather all the feedback, analyze it, and present your findings to the management team. From these findings you can draw conclusions about how to organize your next customer conference, including how soon, where, and for how many days. Look at overall satisfaction to help determine whether the investment has paid off in terms of feelings of customer loyalty.

Also, after the conference, it's time to develop your own Lessons Learned to apply to the next conference. Use the experience, failures, and successes to provide a better event next time.

The feedback coming in after you have finished all the hard work of hosting your customer conference will let you know how successful you have been at achieving your goal, and how to hit even closer to your target next time.

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy is a consultant who helps software companies develop their products faster. He does this using a focused process which quickly develops product requirements. Contact him at www.ProductManagementChallenges.com.

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