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Users vs Customers | Customers, Etc

Users vs Customers | Customers, Etc
By Ben McCormack • Issue #22 • View online
Are you conflating users and customers? This week we look at how the customer experience professional can think through both the user and customer journeys to help frame conversations and provide focus. Like what you read? Let me know or share with someone who would find this interesting.

Imagine I’m trying to hire you to run the support team at my new start-up. Well, there’s not much of a team quite yet—you’re the first support hire—but our user base is growing and there will be more people in short order.
“Sounds interesting,” you say, “tell me about your shareholders.” I answer that we’re entirely bootstrapped for now—we’re funding this ourselves—but we’re open to taking venture capital and growing in the future.
“How about your employees, tell me about them.” I share how we set a really high bar for hiring and how our engineers and designers have turned down offers from Facebook and Google to come work here.
“Impressive. Tell me about your customers.” Ah, yes. We have no customers. Users, we have, and we’re getting more of them every day. A small fraction of them write to us, which is why we need someone to support them, but we currently don’t have anyone paying us money. You in?
Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash
Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash
A Business Without Customers
I talk a lot in this newsletter about a basic model of business, which I wrote about in the first issue, whereby there are shareholders, employees, and customers:
Let’s sum up the relationship in terms of money: Shareholders invest money in hopes of generating a return on their investment. Employees receive money in exchange for their time and work for the business. Customers give money in exchange for a valuable product or service.
But what if there are no customers? I’m not talking about a non-profit. I mean, what if you’re in a situation where you intend to be a for-profit business, but nobody is paying you money right now. That is a problem, but what kind of problem is it, and how concerned should you be?
To ground this discussion in a real-world scenario, let’s look at Trello , the collaborative project planner used by millions (disclosure: I used to work at Trello). Trello had a successful exit back in 2017, but I want to go back to 2012, when there were over a million Trello users, but no Trello customers.
In order for Trello to succeed, it had to have an eye toward eventually having customers, but that wasn’t the immediate focus. The immediate focus was on users. At one point, Trello’s strategy was, put simply: “Focus on getting to a hundred million users and then figure out how we can get 1% of those users to pay us a hundred dollars per year.” It was of course more nuanced than that, but the underlying strategy remained in tact as Trello grew: make the product amazing for users and figure out the money side of things later.
The Role of CX When There Are No Customers
Figuring the money side of things later means you’re planning to figure out the customer side of things later¹. Or you might have some customers, but your primary focus might still be users. So as a customer experience professional, what do you focus on?
For product companies, initial focus will be on user support, not customer support. Well-designed products do an effective job at supporting users without a lot of need for 1:1 support. The “contact rate” metric (number of contacts [emails, chats, etc.] from users / number of active users) provides a useful indicator for understanding the health of the product. All things being equal, a healthy product has a low contact rate, indicating it’s doing an effective job of supporting customers without the need for 1:1 support.
“Customer experience” still applies even for your free users. Free users are marketing. If your contact rate remains low, it shouldn’t be too difficult to provide high quality, timely responses to user emails, just like you would to paying customers. In most cases, you’ll want to treat your users as if they were customers, because as you’ll see, some of those users will become customers, or will be employed by companies who are your paying customers.
Identifying Emergent Customers
As you’re supporting users over email, you can start looking for trends where future customers may emerge from the interactions you have with them in support. Remember, your product should be doing a good job supporting customers, so a lot of your 1:1 interactions will probably be about ways that you may be able to provide value in the future.
The most popular support question at Trello in the early days was “how much does Trello cost?” This was a clear indicator that there were users who wanted to be paying customers, even without requesting any additional features. Many businesses want paid relationships with the products and services on which they’ve come to rely, even if there’s a free option available. In this case, “paying” is a feature.
You’re of course going to get feature requests, and some of those will be product feature requests that individual users will be happy to pay for. However, if you pay attention, you may start to notice in these requests opportunities to distinguish between your current users and your future customers.
For example, let’s say you get lots of requests for “PDF Export”. If you add this to a paid version of the product where PDF Export is the only feature, you’re very likely going to end up with a situation where your paying customers and your users are identical. Individual users want PDF Export, so they become the buyer and consequently the customer.
In contrast, say you get a lot of requests for “Single Sign-On (SSO) and better user management.” Businesses are happy with the product as is—the free product has all the features they want—but they would get a lot more value if users were a bit easier to manage, so they’re willing to pay for it. If you were to add “better user management” to a paid version of the product where this was the only feature, you’ll likely end up with a scenario where your paying customers are companies, not individual users. In this case, your user journey and your customer journey will necessarily be different, though there will of course be lots of overlap.
User Journey, Customer Journey
Knowing that both the user journey and customer journey can co-exist can help frame conversations. “Are we talking about the user journey or the customer journey?” This will help you focus. It will also help you identify where you may wish to spend time focusing in the future if a particular journey doesn’t have your focus today.
The steps of the journey are going to be roughly the same for both customers and users, but you’ll describe them differently depending on the differences between your users and your customers. Consider the following basic journey stages: Awareness, Conversion, Onboarding, Success, and Advocacy.
Look at Trello’s user journey. New users become aware of Trello primarily by being invited to a board by a collaborator on a project, but sometimes also via content marketing. Conversion could be as simple as signing up and logging in. For Trello, onboarding can happen via drip marketing, but it can also happen rather organically as users train other users via collaboration within the product. The success phase will look at whether users continue to use and get value out of the product over time. Advocacy looks at how users share their experience with others. Trello’s most natural form of advocacy is inviting new users to collaborate. One user’s advocacy is another user’s awareness, thus creating Trello’s natural growth engine.
Now let’s look at Trello’s customer journey². The first thing you might observe is that Trello has three different tiers of paid products: Gold (individuals), Business Class (teams), and Enterprise (large businesses). Because the products are tiered by customer type, they’ll each have their own customer journey. Let’s look at Enterprise, since that will provide the greatest contrast to the user journey.
Awareness at the enterprise level looks something like this: an IT manager at a large organization will discover a bunch of rogue employees with Trello boards and so they’ll reach out to the Trello sales team and say, “We have a lot of employees using your platform, but we have a policy that requires us to be on paid terms and on our paper [meaning, our standard master services agreement] for any software we use.” And then Trello says, “Oh my, a policy, why yes, I do believe we can help with that.” At this point, Trello will likely make available certain pre-sales “features” to help drive the prospect toward the conversion phase of the journey, things like “legal review”, “security review”, and “negotiation with procurement.” These features are very unlikely to make their way into the main Trello product, but they’re nonetheless valuable to large businesses as part of their journey.
Onboarding, for a large enough company, might include personalized training and implementation from a Trello customer success manager. The Success phase of the customer journey will likely include overviews of the individual user journeys for the people within that organization (here you’ll find another “feature”, a report an IT manager can use to prove that people are utilizing the software). Advocacy, for Trello, is still primarily going to happen via user advocacy, but there’s still opportunity to create advocates among decision makers and key stakeholders in a way that’s unique to them as customers vs their experience as users. Some of these steps in the enterprise customer journey may become “productized” and visible when a user logs into the app, but many will still remain out of the product.
Hopefully by now you see that the distinction between a user journey and a customer journey is helpful not just for free products that don’t have customers yet, but for pretty much any business where the customer isn’t necessarily the same as the user. For product companies with a strong foundation in engineering and design, there will be usually be a natural emphasis on the user journey. Knowing that there is a customer journey that is distinct from the user journey—and that not all steps of the customer journey will necessarily take place within the product—can provide a framework for ensuring you’re considering the needs of both your users and your customers at critical touch points in their respective journeys.
From Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, quoting Douglass: “The best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy who, under the specious…garb of patriotism seeks to excuse, palliate or defend them.”
Things I’ve read:
  1. If you’re working in support for a company like this, you might rightly wonder exactly where you fit in, especially if you come from a customer experience background. I’ve written before that support can fit in anywhere, and that’s likely to be apropos in this environment where a “post-sales” department doesn’t yet exist (I reported to product and marketing at different points when I was leading support at Trello).
  2. I’m taking liberties in constructing this journey. Although I worked at Trello when they began doing enterprise sales, I wasn’t close to the sales process or familiar with the details of the customer journey.
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Ben McCormack

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