The customer lifecycle has an infinite number of touchpoints and understanding how they all connect together helps every teammate provide the best experience in the areas they can influence. For example, marketing knows what content and channels a customer prefers, sales has insights gained from direct discussions, and success knows what challenges a customer is experiencing. All of this information, when centralized and leveraged correctly, is what allows you to really deliver a personalized experience. Too many businesses don’t know how to bridge the gap between these areas, and that’s what creates a more siloed and fragmented experience.
As part of my customer service interview series, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jason VandeBoom. He is the Founder and CEO of ActiveCampaign. Founded in 2003, ActiveCampaign accelerates every company’s growth with the only automation platform designed for ideal customer experiences. Today, ActiveCampaign is the market leader in intelligence-driven customer experience automation with over 90,000 customers in more than 150 countries leveraging the platform to grow their businesses. A lifelong entrepreneur, Jason has been named to Crain’s Chicago Business 40 Under 40 list and was a 2019 Midwest finalist for EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and The Economic Club of Chicago. Jason also serves on the board of the Future Founders Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that empowers the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs. Having founded ActiveCampaign as a means to fund his education, Jason pursued a degree in fine arts until shifting his focus entirely to growing the company. He is a self-taught software engineer and technologist.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Wisconsin and was always interested in building things. I got into computers and started consulting when I was 12 years old, and by high school, I was programming custom solutions for small businesses.
In college, I moved to Chicago to pursue art school and started ActiveCampaign to help fund my education. Originally we offered on-premise solutions for small businesses to handle tasks like email marketing or customer management. Today we have 90,000 customers in 161 countries, with incredibly engaged communities of small and medium businesses working together to try and create better customer experiences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
When we first got started, I didn’t think to buy a business license, and eventually, the City of Chicago found out and I had to go to court. Everyone that went up to the judge before me was there for public urination tickets, and I was there trying to start my business. I learned from this experience how important it is to find a good mentor early on. That’s one reason why I really value the support I’ve had from others in the business community, and try to pay it forward as much as possible.
Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As a business owner, you have hard days, especially when you’re growing fast. There are failed tests, bad pieces of advice, and complex tasks. When you hit those bumps in the road, it can be frustrating, but you have to keep a sense of humor. That in itself is a good lesson or takeaway.
We follow a principle of radical candor at ActiveCampaign, constantly sharing where we think we can improve. This isn’t just about saying something or someone is bad, but highlighting where we can help each other and fill in the gaps since no-one is perfect. I spend time every day reading customer feedback, positive and negative, from customer surveys, support tickets, and employee exit interviews, and this helps us set the roadmap for the future. This is one place our ability to have a sense of humor has set us up for success. You have to be able to be honest about the ways you can improve and accept mistakes without letting it get you down.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
If I made a list of people I was grateful for it would be a very long one. It would include every employee as well as every customer and partner — past and present. I am so grateful for everyone that is here today, as well as the people who were part of the journey early on who may be watching now from the sidelines.
I’m also lucky that I have such a great family. My wife and sons are such a big source of energy for me, so when I have a bad day I can let it go by focusing on something funny that my kids are doing.
Finally, I think my community has been a big contributor to my success, especially other business owners that helped me along the way, going above and beyond what I would ever have expected. One person in particular that comes to mind is an attorney who not only helped me with the overall company strategy and pricing but also ‘forgot’ to bill me for a few years. That’s not to say we should all offer our services for free, but that unexpected support means a lot to someone just starting out. Now I really try to pay it forward and am hopefully helping create a positive cycle.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Consumers have a lot of choices. In a world where almost everything can be delivered straight to your door, you really have to offer something special to stand out. There are statistics out there that speak to this, but, increasingly “experience” is more important than product or price when it comes to retaining customers. People will buy from the company that offers the best experience, even if they have to pay more to get it.
Craft, bespoke, and small-batch everything has been so successful because consumers are starving for personal connections with the companies they buy from. Small businesses and creators deliver a personal touch naturally, but when you’re adding hundreds or thousands of customers, it’s very difficult to continue delivering a personal experience. But that personal experience is what keeps buyers coming back and is what gets buyers talking about you.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I think the problem often starts with a fundamental misunderstanding about who is responsible for the “customer experience.” A lot of companies hire an account management team and expect them to “own” delivering high CSAT(Customer Satisfaction Score) or NPS (Net Promoter Score). But in reality, delivering a good experience is everyone’s responsibility and should be the driving force for how you build your product and processes. Customer satisfaction should be baked into all of the goals of every team.
There’s a mindset shift that has to happen too. Customer experience isn’t just about having a great product. We’ve realized that a product-first focus is well-intentioned but quite narrow. If you’re really trying to help businesses, you need to be helpful not just through your product, but through the entire experience. When you change your perspective from thinking about delivering a message to managing your customer lifecycle and customer journey, you realize that the entire experience is what needs to be optimized, and that takes every single person in the company working together for that common goal.
It also means you have to really listen to the customer, which a lot of businesses don’t have the time for. This is one of the reasons why it’s critical to find efficiencies with automation, so you can make time for more high-value customer engagement and spend time just getting to know your customers. This is a problem we try to help businesses address with ActiveCampaign.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
Absolutely. Think of the worst customer experiences classically — these are usually from companies in non-competitive spaces. Customer experience is what every business is competing over, so businesses in competitive industries are forced to build customer experience into their DNA.
I think most businesses are driven by competitive pressures, that’s just reality, but it’s also true that there are more people than ever before looking to disrupt complacent spaces. So if you’re out there, and your industry isn’t facing competitive pressures today, it will be soon. The moment you say you don’t need to invest in customer experience, you’re at risk for disruption.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided? Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects?
We have consistently delivered “wow” experiences by making the customer experience our focus, even if it means doing things that don’t make sense on paper. For example, we saw that the starting costs of technology were often a barrier for small businesses, so we offered all of our migration, implementation, and training services for free, and created a host of tools and templates so people could use our solution immediately. Most businesses charge for these things, but we took a longer view of the situation. Rather than focusing on the short-term revenue, we removed the buying barriers, which delivered so much value for customers, and ensured they actually were able to actually use the product.
Another thing we did was hold 200 small business events in small towns that are usually underserved. People thought we were investing a lot of money in areas that didn’t have the largest markets. But in reality, because these towns were so underserved, we actually saw super rapid payback from those events.
These decisions, while seemingly unscalable, ultimately helped us grow business through increased conversion rates, adoption, retention, a better product, and a more engaged customer community. We have incredibly high customer reviews across the board, and it’s a point of pride how high we score on all the review sites.
When you make customers the center of your business, it pays off in so many ways. We’ve even had customers become employees. One entrepreneur in particular comes to mind, who had a thriving boutique business and now works on the marketing team at ActiveCampaign, making sure we continue to highlight and celebrate small businesses in our content.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Authentic — there is no ‘faking’ this, you have to really be authentic in your desire to help, and your commitment to focusing on solving real problems and providing value for customers. I’ve mentioned a few ways we do this at ActiveCampaign, and I believe our authentic desire to serve is what has helped us build an engaged customer base.
- Personalized — too many people think sending an email that has someone’s name in the subject line is personalization. Personalization is about the right content, at the right time, routed in the right sequence. You need to understand what customers are interested in, what experiences they’ve already had with you, and what they most care about in the moment. If you’re sending a sales email to a customer that has an open support ticket, that’s not a personalized experience.
- Localized — we invested early on in making sure there were people and resources in the places our customers did business. That meant holding over 200 small business events in seemingly small locations and leaning into our global growth. Focusing in these areas, rather than limiting ourselves to the typical tech hubs, has helped us grow more sustainably, stay more connected to the entire customer base, and develop truly diverse perspectives. Today, we have people internally that speak 26 languages and we do business in 161 countries.
- Adaptive — as I mentioned, you can’t just “wow” the customer once. What you’re offering must be in continual motion — there is no such thing as a “single experience.” This is one reason I continue to read every single customer NPS input, and why we continue to invest more in our R&D and product than any other technology company of our size. We know how important it is to continue to evolve with the customer, and we’re committed to that at every level.
- Integrated — The customer lifecycle has an infinite number of touchpoints and understanding how they all connect together helps every teammate provide the best experience in the areas they can influence. For example, marketing knows what content and channels a customer prefers, sales has insights gained from direct discussions, and success knows what challenges a customer is experiencing. All of this information, when centralized and leveraged correctly, is what allows you to really deliver a personalized experience. Too many businesses don’t know how to bridge the gap between these areas, and that’s what creates a more siloed and fragmented experience.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
It’s getting harder and harder to create a “wow” experience that is something worth talking about. But I believe it’s less about doing one big thing, and more about doing a lot of little things, repeatedly and reliably over time. That’s the real wow.
Businesses need to focus on continually strengthening and improving their customer experience in ways customers don’t expect, and that’s one way we believe automation can help businesses. If you can make sure the important little things are happening continually without the manual effort, you get free time to focus on delivering that extra something. That reliability plus the bonus of special unexpected experiences is what creates an overall personalized experience that people naturally talk about.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If everyone would use their talents to help a few others, the world would be a much better place. That’s been my belief since I was young and is really one of the core beliefs that influenced this product and how I built my company. For example, one of my 2020 goals was to ensure that we were making a difference as a company by giving 1% of our time back.
I was recently added to the board of Future Founders, as I believe that mentors can be great resources to founders — especially as they are just starting out. I started my business at a young age and it would have been invaluable to have access to a broader community of peers and seasoned founders with whom I could learn and exchange ideas.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!