The Importance of Customer Obsession in Product Development
At Act-On, we pride ourselves on continuing to innovate a platform that is easy to use and can grow with the needs of our customers. But we wouldn’t be able to deliver on that promise if we didn’t believe in the importance of customer experience optimization in everything we do — especially product engineering. So we reached out to Act-On’s new CPO, Aaron Johnson, to get the scoop on how he and his team are making the Act-On platform even more powerful and effective.
Aaron comes to us from New Relic, where he most recently served as the Senior Vice President of Product Management and led the product management and product marketing teams. Before that, he spent nearly 10 years at Jive Software — where he looked after the engineering, QA, and design teams — and made significant contributions to the organization during a period of massive growth.
Needless to say, Aaron brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table, and we’re excited to see how he’ll help us continue to achieve our mission to deliver our customers with the most innovative marketing automation solutions.
During our chat with AJ (as he’s affectionately known around the office), we learned that his marketing background and commitment to a great customer experience both inform his approach to product development. We also learned about the changes he’s implementing and the projects his team is prioritizing to make Act-On even more accessible, efficient, and effective for customers.
Read the interview below to learn more about AJ, his approach to product development and innovation, and his hopes for improving the Act-On platform moving forward.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and describe your role at Act-On?
I graduated in the ‘90s from a small liberal arts college in Southern California called Biola University with a degree in marketing — which, at the time, focused on a very analytical view of marketing. Soon after graduating, I realized it was going to be very difficult finding a job within that field, so I taught myself how to write code and create web pages and ended up working for a number of web consulting shops. I eventually found myself working for Acushnet Golf, the largest golf company at the time, in their marketing and advertising department. My job there was to oversee and manage the technical backend of over 30 websites in multiple languages.
In 2006, my wife and I had our first child and decided it was time to move back to Portland, and I joined Jive Software as a software engineer. While I was there, I ended up helping the company grow from 22 employees to over 700. During my time at Jive, I led all of the engineering, design, and QA for a number of years. Then I took a job where I ran a very small team that was in charge of fixing performance and scalability issues for all on-premise and cloud customers.
Through that experience, I got to use and became very familiar with a tool called New Relic. Since I knew the tool well and knew a few people working at the company, I eventually found my way to New Relic and led a small team there. After my boss left, I took over product management and product marketing and did that for a couple of years.
Now that I’m at Act-On, I’m excited about the opportunity to combine both my background in product management and engineering to lead this team.
What attracted you to this position at Act-On?
It was primarily the fact that I would be able to focus on both engineering and product management. Also, my previous experience made me feel like I could help take Act-On to the next level. For example, when I started at Jive, the company was in a very similar position to where we are now, and I was able to contribute to and experience many of the transitions that happened at that company. I also liked that I’d be able to use the product management experience that I attained at New Relic. Lastly, I had previously worked with many of the same folks in our leadership at other companies, so Act-On just seemed like a great place for me to land.
How have you enjoyed your time so far and what are you looking forward to the most?
Some of the best days in my career have been when you see a graph moving up and to the right or down to the right, such as making changes that help performance response time go down or contribute to pipeline growth. In the three months I’ve been here, it has been gratifying to take a lot of metrics and put them front and center and make changes to our platform that are really helping our customers see results. For example, we’ve made significant improvements to CRM sync time and response time and other features that make the daily jobs of our customers so much easier.
Can you tell us a bit more about your approach to product development?
Sure! There are three things that I’ve seen in the past that have worked really well that I want to bring to our team here.
To start, I believe that technology takes a backseat to customer experience. As an engineer, it’s very cool to use new tools and learn new things, but none of that matters unless you’re optimizing the customer experience. If our customers aren’t enjoying using the platform, then we’re not doing our job.
The second thing is that there is a tendency at every organization to work on things that are easy and fun. Sometimes for engineers, it’s easy to ignore complicated things (such as old code) that were done in the past and focus on creating new features. I prefer that we look at things that are hard and will be valuable to our customers instead of focusing on small deliverables that will have minimal impact.
Third, I believe we will establish better credibility with our customers if we work on things incrementally and deliver them on a more regular basis instead of focusing on projects that will take a long time to complete. This gives us an opportunity to see what’s working with customers and what’s not.
How has your background in marketing influenced your approach to product development?
I think that because I come from a marketing background instead of CS, one of the things that has always mattered to me is the customer experience, and that is something I’m trying to bring to our team. It’s important to me that we empathize with customers, learn what needs and pain points they have, and brainstorm how we can solve them. I want to emphasize to our engineers that it’s not just our work on the backend that matters but also how customers experience our platform on an everyday basis.
How do you think Act-On stands out or can do to stand out from other marketing automation solutions?
One of the ways we stand out is that our support team has done a lot of work to understand the needs of our customers. As some of our competitors are getting bought by bigger companies, charging for things such as SSL, and seeing a sharp decline in their level of customer service, I think we can stand out by having a commitment to listening to our customers, providing excellent service, and delivering innovative updates as fast as possible.
What are your priorities in terms of product innovation to make Act-On an even more competitive platform?
One of the things that I’ve seen in my career is that there is a tendency for companies to focus on too many objectives, and that’s something that I saw with my team when I first came on. I’ve made a change to have us focus on a smaller set of priorities that will have a much bigger impact. For example, as I previously mentioned, this quarter we’re really focusing on CRM integration. We’ve also added the contact search feature so that our customers can easily find individual contacts. We’ve rolled that out as a beta feature to a few customers and plan to continue to roll it out to more over the next several weeks.
There is also a lot of work that we can do to make our platform work more seamlessly. For example, many of our competitors (such as MailChimp and Marketo) charge you for implementing SSL certificates. Not only do marketing teams have to pay for these certificates, but whoever is in charge has to talk to their IT team and figure out a very technical thing — which isn’t something most marketers feel very comfortable doing. As a team, we realized this was a huge pain point for our customers, so we’ve made the SSL certification process much easier to remove this blocker.
Without giving too much away, what things are you gearing your team to accomplish in the next 3 months? 6 months? Year?
In the next quarter, we’d like to move to a more modern contact management system and continue our work on CRM. I’d also love to have a product that has even better funnel reports, revenue attribution reports, and data that customers can use. I think there is also a way for us to use those reports to improve the way that we show the value to our customers — either within the platform or by email.
In addition, I believe marketing automation is the core of what we do, and I want to find ways to make our product stickier with our customers so they can fully leverage all of its capabilities. We’re brainstorming ways in which we can make tasks, such as setting up automated programs, even more intuitive.
On top of adding new features, there are always security and regulated industry concerns that we need to address as we develop the platform.
Can you talk about how we’re rolling out new updates by time zone or our recent work with automating SSL certifications for our customers?
I have a product delivery philosophy of releasing things incrementally instead of waiting six months to get something out the door. When I came on, the team was rolling out to our entire customer base every other Tuesday at 6 PM. In the course of the next few months, I want to get to the point where we roll out on a daily basis. Right now, we are also rolling out changes in smaller batches instead of to our entire customer base, so that we don’t have to do a complete rollback if things don’t work out.
The goal for the SSL certificate process is that it’s out of the box and it just works for our customers. That update is currently in place for new customers. We also have a program that we’re working on with Sarah Moore, our Senior Customer Marketing Manager, to notify current customers that have upcoming renewals of this more streamlined process.
What is your approach to collecting customer feedback? What role do customers play in helping you decide the most important projects to work on?
One of the best days I had in my career at New Relic was when we had a project manager from Amazon come talk to us for a half day about all the different ways they gather user feedback to understand what customers are doing (and why) and focus on meeting those needs. Something that stuck with me was that for every new feature they did a minimum of 50 1:1 customer interviews.
One of the things I’m asking my team to do is increase the number of customer conversations they have, and we’re even working on building a customer advisory board to help us collect customer feedback. This will help us better understand what our customers are trying to do and build software that allows them to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
We are also sending emails to customers asking them about their experience during the beta process. An advantage of releasing a big feature to a small group is that we can incrementally collect feedback from users, which helps us test for reliability as we scale these changes.
Lastly, what do you like to do when you’re not working on making Act-On an even more accessible and powerful marketing automation platform?
My wife and I have three boys, so I keep very busy with them. We also recently adopted a 130lb dog, an Anatolian Shepherd and Pyrenees mix, which I guess makes four boys, and we all spend a lot of time together outdoors.
When I’m not doing that, I’m looking at charts!