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Building lasting customer relationships has many benefits, including increased revenue, positive word-of-mouth recommendations, and saving on acquisition costs. But how does one build customer relationships that truly last? In this interview series, we’re speaking with CROs and other RevOps professionals who can share their “Top Five Tips For Building Lasting Customer Relationships”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Doug Straton.

Doug Straton

Doug Straton

Doug is the Chief Customer Evangelist at Bazaarvoice and has deep general management, marketing, sales, and strategy experience across all major global markets, in multiple categories such as personal care, food, refreshment and luxury. He has experience with powerhouse companies including Unilever, L’Oreal, LVMH, Bristol-Myers Squibb and The Hershey Company. Wanting to explore the technology side of Digital, Doug pivoted to MarTech in 2022 as the Chief Customer Evangelist for Bazaarvoice, where he engages with and consults for a “who’s who” of brand and retailer leadership on maximizing business value through Digital.

Thank you for doing this with us! To begin, can you share a bit of your backstory and what brought you to this career path?

I have always been interested in the road less traveled. I get excited by opportunities others haven’t figured out or are afraid to address. This is a key element of my career.

While I did do the typical Marketing-Sales-General Management track in big multinational companies, my career has been marked by forays into startups, and most recently digital. Digital was a way to build business using my startup skills, and to a large extent define the space, within a CPG perspective. It was a way to differentiate myself. Going into the services side—SaaS, agency, benchmarking—was a way to further that but from a new angle.

Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway?

Well, there are two. One amusing, one important, and both interesting. I think the biggest things that have driven success—particularly in the last 10 years—are having a clear point of view (POV) and a (relative) lack of fear.

Having a clear POV is the first thing I talk to my teams, mentees or organizations about. People want to hear and will follow those with a clear POV, that is well articulated, and repeated often. An example is the digital strategy and related examples I built for Unilever. At the beginning of that journey, I got a lot of comments like, “I don’t understand what you are talking about, but I believe you do, so I am willing to follow your lead.” Three years later, comments from the same people were like, “Boy, this makes so much sense now. Your storytelling has gotten so much better around this.” What had changed in our storytelling in those three years? Nothing! We had just been 100% consistent in our messaging and kept educating people. They caught up to us.

The second is simpler, it’s accepting that your brain’s ability to feed the fear of failure or loss of control far exceeds the actuality of something that goes wrong. People often comment that I stick my neck out for risky assignments. I don’t think that is true, I just am better at battling my fears. This was a lesson that I learned after September 11, 2001, which I witnessed up close. I decided at that point that I wasn’t going to let things that I couldn’t control define the choices I made. My career since hasn’t been filled with as many “choices” that were put upon me. Maybe that’s limited the upper range of my aspirations, but I am probably happier for it.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!

A ton! I went into this new area—again, I mentioned SaaS and a few other areas—to fill in knowledge gaps I had, but to also work in areas of digital that I thought needed the expertise of someone who had bought a lot of these services. I joined Bazaarvoice because content is the lifeblood of digital, and no one creates more content than people. And people trust other people more than they trust institutions, companies and brands. The projects I am working on now are related to the connections of people, the content they create, which is connected to the products they use. Building, buying, partnering with companies that help do this—building a content supply chain—is at the crux of what I work on. The benefit of that work is that it allows those content creators—who are mostly everyday people—to help other people.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience with building lasting customer relationships?

Well, fundamentally, it is all about trust. Can I trust this company, brand or person? It still is a huge determinant of decision making, even in these cost conscious times. This comes from knowledge, expertise and reputation of you and your company, so not just from the ability of your product or service to deliver an output, but from a person delivering on what they commit to. Anecdotally, the sayings that always stick with me are, “people remember quality long after cost is forgotten” and “you get what you pay for.” This relates to people as much as it does actual products.

In today's fast-paced and constantly evolving landscape, what strategies do you employ to maintain a strong connection with your customers and anticipate their changing needs?

Not to be clever, but it is to maintain a connection with your customer in the first place. Think of them and communicate with them if you believe you have something of value to convey, or to remind them to lean on you if they need something. Don’t wait until you need something from them. That comes off as one-sided. Always ensure what you are communicating is relevant. Otherwise, your communications become spam.

How do you strike a balance between driving revenue and profitability, and focusing on building customer relationships and loyalty?

Well, this can be very different depending on the type of a business you are, what products and/or services you provide, what your profit and loss profile looks like, your company’s maturity, and the macroeconomic environment. If you are a well-funded startup in a fast growth sector with good margins, you are likely going to focus on growth, and you’ll have a model that probably weighs more on customer acquisition. If you are the opposite of this, you are probably more likely to factor in efficiency to drive profits, and focus more on customer retention, particularly if you have a category that has headwinds. If you are a multi-category, multi-brand and/or multi-channel business it could be different versions depending on what’s needed for each circumstance. Essentially, portfolio management.

How do you measure the success of your customer relationship-building efforts, and how you identify areas for improvement?

In the SaaS business, there are a number of ways to measure, monitor and improve. Net Promoter Score is one of them of course, most simply, that someone would be likely to recommend you. That is generally a leading indicator of growth, with KPIs like Net Retention of course being important to track. Qualitatively, we identify improvement through surveys, but also Customer Advisory Boards and pulse checks.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Rapid Fire Question Round

What quality is most important in a leader? Clarity of vision.
What bad work habit should cease to exist? Short-term decision-making.
What other company are you admiring right now? Hyundai.
What are you reading right now? “The River Kings.” It’s about Viking trade in the East.
What is the most valuable software in your tech stack? Microsoft Teams. It’s the hub for interactions.

Regarding customer-facing teams, what steps do you take to ensure they can deliver personalized, proactive, and efficient support, tailored to the needs of each individual customer?

I think the thing that is the largest impediment to the work our company does is data related to the specific clients and their sectors or categories. In an area of business that for 15 years had continuous outsized growth—digital—many software and services businesses rode the easy growth, not paying attention to some details that were important to their customers. This isn’t to say these are bad companies, just companies that could rely on a generally favorable environment.

That has all changed in the past two years, so the focus has been less on growth and more on margin protection and profit. This means how we understand and communicate with our customers has radically changed. There is more time spent on ROI-related analysis, and matching ROI across multiple buyers or influencers within an organization. When you have this type of data accessible, you can use it across multiple channels and get more favorable results. It’s all about relevance. If it’s not relevant, it won’t work… whether through a CRM email, or in person doing a presentation.

What tips do you have for responding to negative feedback, and what steps can be taken to turn those experiences into positive outcomes?

The most obvious is to listen carefully to the feedback, acknowledge it, own it and then address it head on. Don’t be afraid to call out your own mistakes, particularly if you can do it early. You can’t be criticized as deeply when you’ve proactively listed your issues and have a plan to address them. Self-awareness is a sign of maturity. Use the process then to clarify issues and then solve for them, instead of allowing the sentiment to fester.

How do you use technology or AI to enhance your customer relationships, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

I personally use a number of tools. These are mostly used to help highlight actions that need to be taken. I have experimented with AI personal assistants to help schedule meetings and automate repetitive tasks. These are hits and misses, but I will be trialing new ones as it just seems the technology is better at understanding you. I have used ChatGPT to help write and automate basic messages, job descriptions, and proposals. However, to get that work well, you need to spend some time training the machine. Beyond that, over my career, I’ve used a number of CRM tools, some that I’ve actually built (it was a long time ago), and many in-between leading up to the current crop of usual suspects, including Salesforce.

In your experience, what are five key components of building lasting customer relationships?

There are a number of ways to come at this. Individually or collectively, internally and externally; you could go on and on, but generally:

First, establish a foundational level of knowledge of the customer’s business and headwinds and tailwinds behind it, be they macroeconomic factors, societal, political, environmental, categorical, whatever. Stay on top of these—if you know your customer’s reality, you’ll more likely propose solutions that will help them.

Second, listen to your customer. Nothing shows a customer you care only about only yourself than non-stop talking. Leave half of all the time you spend with your customer, if not more, to listening. The best presentations I’ve received and delivered have one thing in common: Room for dialog and listening. I have had at least three recent discussions with top CPG companies where my co-workers remarked, “they’ve never shared that much before, how did you do that?” In all cases, I started with a short presentation about their business vis-a-vis point one, then I stopped talking and asked them if they recognized what I was referring to and then asked them to tell me about their business, and then just stopped talking, pausing only to clarify items.

Third, think through your proposed actions (or reactions) and the potential consequences. Making sure you contextualize any proposals through the lens of a customer’s business reality and give honest appraisals of what the ramifications of your proposal or solutions are, and whether they are good for your customer’s business, is absolutely critical. Pointing out a bad business investment, even if it is bad for your own business short-term, builds a huge degree of trust. For example, we recently developed a business case and related ROI based on a very specific request from the customer themself. After analyzing it, we found that while it would do wonders for a certain set of KPIs, it in fact was a lower ROI than the currently running solution, and therefore dragged down the overall ROI of our product solution. We developed a counter proposal that made for a better, more efficient solution that had similar top-line impacts for a much lower cost. We didn’t just take the money and run away. However, we did likely ensure that the client will want to continue to work with us because we were a true partner.

Fourth, follow through on what you say you are going to do, and if you can’t, quickly inform the client. Most people are very forgiving if you are just transparent with them, but don’t surprise them.

Fifth, share. Share what you are seeing in their industry, share what you are seeing in other industries. Help them stay educated and informed. It makes them feel smart, and you look smart.

I am not sure these are golden rules, but are pretty close to it in my book.

How do you ensure that these ideas are implemented throughout the customer journey?

I believe that these are cultural markers, and are the result of good hiring, good onboarding, good training and good examples. One thing is ensuring that you also have good coaching, mentoring and performance management. On this last point, ensuring that you record what your customer relationship are, and ensuring that they get reflected in annual performance processes can be quite easy in terms of the “how” a person is getting their job done

Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

Figuring out a way to demonstrate to all people that the majority of people act with good intent, and that understanding their point of view and reaching compromises can solve the biggest of problems.  

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn, of course, but I don’t post as much as I’d like to. However, I am featured on my company’s website quite often.

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Phil Gray
By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.