Anyone that knows me knows that I’m obsessed with feedback. I’m that neurotic CEO that reads every Net Promoter Score (NPS) response (Promoter or not), responds to every Glassdoor post (good, bad, and ugly), and even engages on Twitter (speaking of ugly).
Partially, I do it because I believe Customer Experience (whether the “Customer” is a client, prospect, teammate, or the like) is the key to growth:
Partially, I do it because I learn so much from input and love stakeholders that want us to be great:
But mostly, I do it because of the insecurities that follow me from childhood about whether people like me or not.
Regardless of the reason, every year at Gainsight, we get a chance to drink from a firehose of feedback all at once in the form of our annual Pulse conference. Each spring, we invite thousands of members of the Customer Success movement to spend a few days together and then ask them how it was.
With more than 5,000 people having attended this year’s Pulse conference, I knew that the opportunity for learning would be greater than ever. So on Friday, April 13th, two days after the conference ended, we hit send on the feedback email and crossed our fingers:
As you can see, I encourage our Pulse attendees to either fill out a survey or just respond to me directly (more on that later).
If you’ve run a big conference before, you know that after it’s done, you’re super anxious about how it went. For Pulse 2018, we certainly did hear some good feedback proactively:
Here at #Pulse2018 and absolutely floored by content, speakers, and sessions. Every detail thought of! And this Ferris wheel??! Huge kudos @nrmehta @akennada 👏👏— Jessica Lin (@jerseejess) April 11, 2018
Our panel on What Your Board Wants You To Know About Customer Success in T-2 hours! pic.twitter.com/FQvFWL2NK6
But you always wonder—was that just the “outliers” who were being nice? What did people REALLY think?
Overall Learning: Pulse 2018 Improved Over Pulse 2017 (On Average)
At a macro level, as with any business process, we look at key statistics to determine how successful Pulse was. In our case, we use our Gainsight Survey capability to ask a customer three simple questions:
- On a scale of 0 (not at all likely) to 10 (extremely likely), how likely is it that you would recommend Pulse to a friend or colleague?
- What were the best parts of Pulse 2018?
- What should we do differently for Pulse 2019?
Then we measure ourselves in aggregate using the following question: “Can we continue to grow the attendance of Pulse while maintaining or improving our attendees’ experience?”
As you can see, Pulse attendance has exploded as the Customer Success Movement has grown:
And generally speaking, our NPS as a measure of attendee experience has consistently been in the “very good” range for B2B:
So we waited with bated breath for this year’s score. And it turns out that Pulse 2018 was a slight improvement on experience from Pulse 2017:
Equally important, the Pulse community is VERY engaged, with a response rate well above industry averages:
And overall, the feedback qualitatively included some very positive comments:
"I got so much out of it this year - by far the best! (This was my 3rd PULSE conference - they just keep getting better)"
"The vibe at Pulse is different from any technology conference. So much energy and excitement! I loved the human component of the messaging. Networking opportunities, fewer sessions with clear tracks, and better venue with more space were also great this year."
“The keynotes were all excellent, but truly the entire conference is amazing. I have never attended a conference that does a better job of having relevant and actionable content in every session. All the speakers are well prepared, knowledgeable, and experienced in their area.”
But much more interesting than the high level is the specific feedback—what people liked, what didn’t work, and what we can learn from the analysis.
Liked #1: Human-first Purpose
At Pulse this year, in my keynote, we launched our company purpose: “To be living proof that you can win in business while being human first.” Throughout the event, presenters talked about how they bring purpose and humanity into the Customer Success profession. There's real anxiety among many of us about the inevitable onslaught of AI and Automation, but I think this message encouraged people that humans won't be going out of business:
“NICK! The human element - helped me feel inspired and energized!”
“Nick's comments about being human and bringing a little humanity into the business world really resonated with me.”
Liked #2: Elements
It's something that, as a team, we were excited and confident about, but also perhaps a little unsure how it would be received. We went all in on Elements with a whole track on it at Pulse, along with mentions in keynotes, and it's safe to say it's been generally well-received:
"I really took a lot away from the Elements track. I think the Elements solution provides great groundwork for us to start with as we try and get up to speed in these areas."
"The Elements track was really cool and it gave me tangible ideas I could start implementing with my own team right away."
"The Elements sessions were SO GOOD! The format of Theory & System Execution, followed by customer examples worked so well. Every one of them was worth the time, and I ate it up. Looking forward to consuming the content you put out around the topics going forward."
Liked #3: Child-like Joy and Energy
One of the most common positive terms in responses was the word “energy.” Many respondents referred back to the Gainsight company value of Childlike Joy. We had DJ music, a massive art car, food truck fare, and our Pulse 2018 Ferris Wheel.
A lot of folks even enjoyed our attempt at a rap video. It was so cool to watch an audience reaction—I think there were even a few genuine laughs (or at least some schadenfreude)! Actually, I was surprised how often the respondents chose to use quotes around the word “rap:”
“The presentations by companies around CS Best Practices and of course the "RAP!”, Ferris wheel, food trucks.”
Though there was at least one person who wasn't thrilled about the Ferris Wheel; I'm super curious to get more feedback with regards to your cost/benefit analysis vis a vis Childlike Joy:
“I'd rather have a cheaper ticket and no ferris wheel. Pulse doesn't need to be Coachella. “
Liked #4: Content Quality
At Pulse 2017, we heard a lot of feedback about mixed content quality. Speakers occasionally spent too much time on their companies and too little on actionable insights. Sessions at times droned on.
So this year, we made a big investment in content:
- I personally selected speakers and tracks based upon hundreds of comments on LinkedIn.
- We hired the official speaking coach for TedX Boulder, Sue Heilbronner.
- I personally rehearsed with every breakout session (~60 total)
- We used a technology called sli.do to make sessions much more interactive.
While we have big work to do on “advanced content” (see the constructive section below), the content was well-received:
“Content-wise, I think you'll nail it. This was my fourth year, and, to my eyes, the content and delivery has improved every year.”
“I'm also really grateful that Nick spent the time to hear all the talks and got the speakers some coaching (I think it showed).”
“Openness and honesty from speakers and leaders.”
Liked #5: Logistics
If you’ve planned events before, you know that almost nothing matters more than logistics. While we had a few logistical misses (again, see below), the event ran more smoothly than any Pulse in the past. Registration was pretty orderly. The larger venue (moving from Oakland to San Mateo) made walking around more simple. And the Wi-Fi actually worked!
“The entire conference felt incredibly organized and planned out.”
“Event ran like clockwork”
Liked #6: Diversity of Speakers
The Customer Success community is wonderful in many ways—not least of which is the diversity of backgrounds in the profession. While we still have MUCH work to do as a community, Pulse attendees appreciated the diversity of speakers at Pulse.
Gender diversity is just one measure, but Pulse 2018 had 17 to 14 female to male keynote speakers and 79 to 107 female to male overall speakers. As I said: progress, but a long way to go.
In addition, we announced:
- A partnership with Athena Alliance to help mentor talented female CS leaders for board roles.
- A program to offer Pulse Academy Live (our CSM training) for free to people coming back to work (stay-at-home parents, veterans, etc.).
- A Women’s Networking Lunch that was very well received.
“DIVERSITY - as a tall white guy with hair, thank you for having people present that did NOT look like me. It was clear this was a big part of your story this year and it showed. “
“I wanted to commend you on the diversity of your speakers. It was very rare to ever only see white dudes on stage. I know that doesn't happen by accident, so thank you! It was refreshing and inspiring!”
“I gave feedback at Pulse London 2017 regarding how long it took to have a woman presenting on stage. At this event, I was delighted to see things kick off with the Athena Alliance announcement and many strong female presenters. Diversity is important and better reflects the demographics of the audience.”
Liked #7: Networking and Connection
Overall though, Pulse 2018 had the same positive input as EVERY year—namely that Pulse is all about connecting people and helping them feel not so alone in their Customer Success journey. This year, we tried to take networking to the next level with an app we released in advance that helped match people based upon common CS needs. In addition, our Workshop and Circles of Success formats with peer-to-peer roundtables were well-received.
In total, the word “networking” came up dozens and dozens of times positively. At the same time, one of the biggest constructive pieces of input is attendees wanted MORE time for networking.
The end result was a feeling of connection:
“The networking matching was also a huge benefit that I really enjoyed.”
“Feeling connected to a community of people working in the same role and understanding the challenges we face day to day.”
“The networking and knowledge share is unparalleled. The way that there were focus circles and a mix of panels and workshops were great.”
Didn’t Like #1: Food Truck Lines and Snack Availability
As they say, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
While we received dozens of positive statements about the QUALITY of the food trucks, the availability was a mess. We had dozens of food trucks, but with 5000+ attendees, lunchtime and evening lines were way too long. Attendees had to miss networking times or sessions to wait to eat. While many were patient, this wasn’t acceptable overall and next year, we’ll have a more scalable solution:
"More food trucks! Lines were long and most ran out of food on 2 nd day. The problems of being such a successful conference. :-)"
"Food situation while unique but the lines were just too long."
"Food. Unless you hopped in line at 11:30 or 1:00, the lines for the food trucks were 45 min waits. Lunch is a great time to network, meet new people, and learn from others. Hard to do if you're standing in line the whole time."
In addition, we didn’t have enough snacks and drinks available at all hours—again, something we’ll fix.
Didn’t Like #2: Venue / Chairs
This year, we experimented with a non-city venue: the San Mateo County Events Center. Attendees LOVED the open space and walking areas but we ran into several issues:
- Chairs were very uncomfortable.
- The layout was so open that it was hard for folks to connect.
- Not being in a city meant social options were limited.
- As luck would have it with Bay Area weather, one day (Monday) was beautiful and the next was cold!
“This sounds odd, but the chairs in the joint sessions were really small and close together.”
“Change the venue. It was cold, the acoustics weren’t ideal, the women’s bathroom lines were long.”
“Have it in a better city. San Mateo has poor restaurant options and isn’t walkable.”
This one is an easy fix. Pulse 2019: Moscone Center, San Francisco!
Didn’t Like #3: Party
One of the most unsolvable problems in life only arises when you set the bar too high. Last year, we had the most epic party in CSM history on an aircraft carrier in Oakland with a phenomenal 90s band:
This year, our party featured a Ferris wheel, a radical 80s cover band, and a three-story art car the size of a semi-truck:
- We only provided one drink ticket per attendee and extra drinks were too expensive.
- With the cold weather and outdoor venue, the party fizzled out early.
- It turns out (not surprisingly) that more folks are into 90s music than 80s music!
“Consider indoor venue for the party (you can't control the weather).”
“It didn't seem like conference totally engaged in the party. People seemed to disappear. Not sure if it was the $9 beers or people felt "I'm still at the conference." I "think" the party at a separate space makes it feel like you're going somewhere new....”
“The band was good but it seemed to be overshadowed and blend into the surrounding. Didn't create much of a 'good time/party' atmosphere.”
Didn’t Like #4: Content for Non-CSMs and Other Personas
Customer Success is much more than just the Customer Success Management role—I said that on the main stage at Pulse this year.
But in the spirit of reducing the quantity of content and tracks this year at Pulse, we reduced the variety of content as well, with a big focus on Customer Success Management (our core audience).
What we heard was that the core content was great, but…
- What about content for advanced organizations that are through the maturity curve?
- What about content for execs?
- What about content for non-CSM orgs like Customer Marketing and Operations?
- What about content for startups?
"Have a non Software track. Old school big companies are looking at this shiny model and baffled. I really want to jump start it in my org, but many of the events were geared more towards tech start-ups. I get it, your target market. But there are some dinosaurs that crave being first adopters too!"
The challenge for the future is how do we balance the (1) diversity of audience in terms of content needs with (2) not overwhelming the number of tracks.
A simple permutation like the following:
- Persona (x4)
- Customer Marketing
- Maturity (x3)
- Business (x3+)
- Touch model (x2)
- High touch
...would yield 72+ tracks! Lots to figure out!
One dialog internally has been that “advanced” content naturally ends up being very specific and thus tough to do in presentations. For Pulse 2019, we are looking at investing heavily in group networking—e.g., “come to this room if you are a large company in on-prem software with a high touch model and are advanced.” Some suggested even having customers submit their goals for the event beforehand and using these to drive networking. In addition, there was a lot of demand for deeper discussion on metrics.
We can also infuse this networking throughout the event (e.g., even in the party).
I also believe this deeper content will require less keynote time (so only the top “hits”) and more breakout time.
Didn’t Like #5: Not Enough Content for Gainsight Customers and Admins
Pulse is a bit different than most conferences in that we started it not about the Gainsight product but instead about the Customer Success Movement.
As such, we have never focused on being a “vendor” conference.
This year, we did have a Customer Appreciation Day (Monday) but it was announced late and could have used more time. In addition, our clients’ admins didn’t have a strong track for technical content.
“Have you considered a track that's more specific to GS admins?”
“I'd like to see session breakouts more organized specifically by Gainsight customer maturity - how can we make that segmentation more prominent (SMB vs. Enterprise; new Gainsight user or prospect vs. mature Gainsight customers, SaaS vs. Premise vs. Mixed”
Didn’t Like #6: Plastic!
Big mistake on our part is that we had plastic water bottles instead of some more reusable solution. The good news is the Pulse community is committed to the environment:
“Find a way to be a leader in the industry but also being ecofriendly. Forgo the straws, plastic cups, etc. Find a way to reduce the footprint with no more handouts. they just get thrown out anyways.”
“Also, I found it kind of ironic that while hosting in the Bay Area you guys had SO MANY plastic water bottles out. Especially considering SF was one of the cities trying to lead the charge to do away with plastic water bottles to begin with. Maybe instead of t-shirts you give out reusable water bottles and have fill stations.”
Didn’t Like #7: Too Much Time on Movement / Connection (for Some)
While many many participants at Pulse love the connection and motivation, some want to skip straight to the “how.” I personally am conflicted on this because I believe this reflects a bias on some participants: “Everyone knows this stuff already”—not realizing how many people are new to the profession and also not realizing how many long-timers still want motivation.
“I think everyone knows by know that CS is a real thing”
Whenever I process feedback, I go through the same cycle overall overall:
- They love us!
- They hate us!
- I am awesome!
- I suck!
How do you reconcile it all? Many people loved the Ferris wheel; some thought it was a waste of time. Many people loved the focus on community; some didn’t. Many people loved the rap… well, at least my mom did!
For me, my only conclusions are:
- I need to hear ALL the feedback even if it hurts sometimes.
- I need to do something like this blog so I can process it all and make sure I’ve heard it.
- I have to keep moving forward and getting better day by day.
"I attended Pulse 2017 as well, and it was very clear that Nick and the team reviewed feedback and suggestions from 2017 very critically and implemented changes."
My goal is to have 100 NPS at Pulse some day. We'll probably never get there, but I’m glad to die trying!
"+5000 participants and surveys - if anyone does actually read all of them, I have no doubt that Nick it is you."
Fun side note: last year before Pulse 2017, I fell deeply ill with pneumonia and ended up having to plan much of the conference from Urgent Care near our house. In the universe’s way of sharing its sense of humor, this year I had surgery (aging knees!) right after Pulse and did most of this blog post from the hospital.
What health calamity awaits me next year? Leave your best guess in the comments!