Claire Suellentrop on Unlocking Customer-Led Growth in SaaS

Identify who your best customers are and how to reach and resonate with more of them with Claire Suellentrop's Forget the Funnel framework.

Claire Suellentrop on Unlocking Customer-Led Growth in SaaS

We all want to experience faster, more customer-led growth in our companies. And that’s why we sat down with Claire Suellentrop, co-founder of Forget the Funnel, which is a company, a book, and a powerful new way to unlock subscription growth. Forget the Funnel can help you identify who your best customers are and how to reach and resonate with more of them.

Claire co-created Forget the Funnel with Georgiana Laudi after her experience leading marketing at Calendly, and her approach has now been used by Wistia, SparkToro, Appcues, and many more.

During our chat with Claire, we discussed unlocking needle-moving insights through customer research, asking the right questions of your customers, re-framing marketing to adapt to the unique needs of SaaS businesses, and more. Let’s dig into some of the key takeaways and biggest revelations from our conversation with Claire.

Let’s start by having you frame Forget the Funnel as a concept and who’s meant to benefit from it. 

“Forget the funnel” as a phrase goes way back to when I met my business partner, Georgiana Laudi. We both come from these marketing leadership SaaS backgrounds. And our in-house experiences, as you can imagine, really influenced both of our marketing philosophies. Working in SaaS, we were both keenly aware of the fact that even though the marketing department typically has top-of-funnel targets, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where marketing can have an impact. So “forget the funnel” was just this tongue-in-cheek way of saying that if you're setting all of your marketing targets and focusing all of your efforts on that top-of-funnel, you're totally missing the point of the business model.

So that was the beginning of it. It was designed to kind of resonate with those practitioners, the boots-on-the-ground people doing marketing work. And in a less tongue-in-cheek way, it’s meant to reframe or help the SaaS space or recurring revenue business space at large rethink their definition of what marketing is responsible for.

In your book, you kind of cast this as the antidote to panic mode marketing. Is that a good way of framing this?

I can actually tell a very personal origin story with regard to that. My final in-house role was at Calendly, which at the time was a tiny baby startup. Obviously they have become very successful, and I went into that role assuming that I would be responsible for the typical marketing metrics — growing our awareness in the space, driving traffic, driving sign-ups. But the product didn't have those problems.

Through a mix of the right timing and a really good product team, the product was gaining its own speed. So as the director of marketing, I’m thinking, “Okay, how do I not lose my job? What do I do now?” And so my work became much more focused on product marketing. It became focused on figuring out how customers out in the wild were finding this product, what was making it such an obvious fit for them, etc. I basically had to shift gears and learn how to gather that customer insight and then apply it across that post-sign-up experience so that we could retain and convert to paid more of those many, many sign-ups that were coming through the front door. So what we’re going for is the reshaping of marketing as something that doesn't really stop when a customer signs up.

What stage does Forget the Funnel target? Are you focused more on smaller startups or pretty much any subscription company that wants to operationalize customer feedback, understand their customers better, and retain more? Is this something that anyone can use? 

That’s such a good question. Generally speaking, this concept of the customer-led growth framework that we unpack in the book, where you're learning from customers and applying that to improve your business, can be applied at most business stages and within different business models. The one exception to that is that it is harder in the early stages when you haven’t figured out who your best fit customer is or you're struggling to get your first initial customers.

That's the one scenario in which you might need to take a different approach and really rely more on customer discovery — learning from your audience, the people you think you want to serve. We do make some adjustments and provide some resources for folks in that space in the book. But once you do have an understanding of who your customers are and who you really do serve, then this can apply across all stages and models.

Our sweet spot, as a company, is with companies that have a smallish set of team members. Maybe it’s a founder or someone acting as CEO and then their first handful of people on the product team and on marketing and customer success teams. Those are usually the folks who are trying to figure out what their customer’s actual journey is. They're doing it all for the first time or for the first time within this company, so we can provide a lot of value there. But this framework has been implemented at companies of huge sizes. Your specific model and stage will just change some of the steps you take. 

You have a great part in your book near the end of the second chapter where you talk about pushing operators and founders to understand the customer journey, moving from a problem to finding your product. What have you seen happen when your clients embark on that journey? 

 It can be applied in so many ways, both from a marketing and a product experience perspective. So going back to those early in house days when I'm trying to kind of figure out what's essentially product marketing and product activation, I came across the concept of “jobs to be done”. It wasn't new, but Intercom was doing a lot of writing about it at the time and had a lot of success with the “jobs to be done” approach. In my life before SaaS, I had a journalism and radio background, so from that I had a lot of experience conducting interviews. And the “jobs to be done” approach involves conducting customer interviews. So when I first did this process in a SaaS environment, I was able to take immediate action based on those insights. 

For instance, when people came into the product and they were using it in their sales relationships, I could see which particular features were driving value for them. And when someone was coming in as a professor and using it for student office hours, I could see that there were different features that mattered a lot more for them.

That’s my favorite part of the process when we work with a team is talking to customers and hearing them describe the value that the product has created in their life. And then you talk to more customers and some themes start to bubble up. We can then look at how people describe the value and how it’s different for each of the customer types and decide what we want to prioritize. We can build a short list of the features that matter most to them, and then we can create these experiences that drive them to those features more quickly and help them get to success more quickly. You can imagine the applications there… copywriting, sending out emails that are tailored specifically to why someone is trying to hire your product and which features they should be driven to in order to get that job done. In some cases, the positioning of the product as a whole might change based on the information you learn. 

You cover this in the book and I think it’s one of the most powerful parts — you show how to ask good questions, what to ask. Is there some sort of mental framing that you’ve found to be helpful in these moments where you want to lead the customer a bit?

The best rule of thumb is to stay open-ended as much as you possibly can. Ask yourself, would you use this in a conversation in a bar or coffee shop? It's so hard to get out of your own head when you’re working in the business and the product is your baby — you know everything about it, you’re an expert on this product. And because you have this expertise, it can be very hard to shut up and not talk about everything you know. So there's a very intentional focus in the questions that we share in the book of keeping things open-ended and asking, “So what did you do next?” Versus asking, “What do you think about feature A or feature B?”

There’s this concept of the customer journey that you map out, but it’s different than any I’ve seen. It’s not about the business goals, but about getting value to the customers as quickly as possible. Can you talk about how you start that process, how you start mapping?

Gia is actually the one who brought this concept of CX mapping to our partnership. So when we met, she had done that within her team. Leveraging this concept of the customer-led growth framework starts with identifying who your best customers are. Who do you wish you could go out and clone more of? Typically, you want to be learning from customers who are both actively paying you and recently began paying you so that they still remember what life was like before and are truly getting value. 

So you identify customers who fit that criteria and run enough research to unpack some major themes in what struggle pushed them to start looking for something like your solution — how did they find you, what was the magic moment when they knew your product was what they were searching for, and what can they do now that they have you in their life? You unpack all of that, gather the raw data of your customers journeys, and from that research phase themes will arise. And the process of building out a customer experience map is essentially taking that and making it tangible and unambiguous so that your team really understands.

There are three phases that we typically include in a customer experience map. The first is the struggle phase, which represents however many steps your customers are taking out in the world when they're looking for a solution. The second is the evaluation phase, which represents the part of their experience where they've found you and now they're trying to figure out whether you're the right fit. And then the growth phase represents the point at which they have embedded your product within their recurring habits and they’re fully committed. At this stage, there's an opportunity to either expand their usage or deliver more value through new features and so on.

Any customer searching for a product is generally going to experience those three phases. What changes is the number of individual steps inside those phases. And this is where Pirate Metrics, in our view, was ready to evolve. Pirate Metrics is an excellent place to start from, but the number of steps someone takes to buy a CRM, for example, is very different than the number of steps someone takes to buy a scheduling tool or sunglasses or whatever it might be. 

So let’s say you two or three or four customer segments and they each get tons of value. They’re all great customers. Do you prioritize one over the other? 

I love that question because it happens all the time, especially with products that have a very broad range of customer types, anything that’s got a lot of horizontal market approach to it. Calendly is a great example. There's a million different types of customer segments that need a scheduling tool, and I'm sure the same is true for Churnkey. So here’s how we approach it. Let's say you've got three different customer segments in the short term, like the next six to nine months. If you prioritized one and you attracted way more of those customers, which one would move the needle on revenue the most quickly? 

We've actually got a whole rubric to support this discussion because there's other details that matter as well. For example, which one most aligns with the type of business you want to operationalize? Is there one that you have an unfair advantage with? Do you have personal experience in that industry? So there are different factors, but the exercise is not in turning away folks with those other particular jobs to be done. The focus is building out that CX map and then the customer facing experiences needed to help that segment reach value faster. And once that's locked and loaded, then you go to the next segment. And then you go to the next segment and the next and the next. And again, you don’t turn the other segments away. Instead, you just let them have that more generic experience in the short term, knowing they’re coming in. We’re not retaining all of them, but we will. 

Let’s shift gears and talk about writing your book. What was your experience like, writing the book and working together as two separate authors?

It was such a pain. At the beginning of it, my mindset was that I’d probably write another book someday. And now I think I’ll probably never write another book again. We actually had a writer who worked with us every week for about a year and a half to get the content out of our heads and into an organized format on paper. And without that outside support, I don't think we ever could have finished this thing. It was a ton of work. We did a ton of the editing and a ton of the rewriting, and we did many rounds of feedback with beta readers. But there definitely was a professional author who was part of our publishing team, who was responsible for getting the core concepts out on paper so that we could then manipulate them and turn them into this book.

Before we finish up, there are two questions that I like to ask everyone. The first is, have you read a book or article recently that left an impression on you?

So you know the concept of $10 work versus $100 work or $1,000 work? I just came across an article the other day that was an iteration of that concept that included $10,000 work. And $10,000 work is the type of work that doesn't have an immediate payoff. You don't get the dopamine hit after you've done it for the day, but it's the stuff that creates major, lasting change.  So you and the writing of your books, or me and the writing of this book with Gia, other major things that aren’t immediately gratifying, but they create a long lasting impact. That's $10,000 an hour work. And that really struck me because I realized that I spend a lot of my time doing $1,000 work, which is the work that keeps the lights on — client delivery and things like that. Now that the book's out, I’m thinking, what's the other $10,000 work out there? So I've been sitting with that this week. It's a really cool article.

The second question I ask everyone is this: what is the most ridiculous thing you want to do but you don't think you'll be able to?

My answer to this is super boring, but here it is. My husband and I are both very passionate about city infrastructure. And there’s an empty plot of land in our neighborhood that I want to somehow build a development on. I have no real estate experience, I don’t know any developers. I am literally just someone who thinks that this is an important thing. And I have a really specific vision for it. There would be a commercial component with a very small scale grocery store. There would be a senior living component. There would be a childcare facility.

I know it sounds so boring. But for the neighborhood we’re in, which has direct access to a bus line and a lot of community resources, it would just make so much sense in this particular location and would have this major lasting impact long after I'm dead.