The most important thing is to live up to your brand promise. One sure way to create bad customer experiences is by promising things that you cannot deliver.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Volpe. Mike is the CEO at Lola.com, the corporate travel SaaS platform that helps companies stop wasting time and start saving money on business travel. Previously, Mike was CMO at Cybereason, a 1B dollars private cybersecurity SaaS company, and was part of the founding team at HubSpot where he helped grow the company from five to 1,000 employees and a successful IPO. Mike is active in the startup community as a member of the board of directors of Validity and Privy and as an angel investor in more than 40 startups.
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 started my career in investment banking where I learned a ton of important skills I still use today.
The firm I was at worked exclusively with technology companies, and I fell in love with the companies I worked with more than the investment banking work. So I left and went to a 10-person startup. From there, I worked in finance and business development at a number of startups and then went to MIT to get my MBA. After that, I focused my career more on marketing which later led me to join HubSpot as CMO and part of the early founding team. That was an amazing eight years of my career and a great opportunity to be part of building a 1,000-person company and an IPO. My career was mostly focused on software or SaaS companies that sold to customers who were small or mid-sized companies. Now, I’m the CEO of Lola.com where we sell corporate travel management software to mid-sized companies.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was a couple of years into my career, but before I went to business school, I was promoted to a director role and had a team reporting to me. I ran a brainstorming session and made a typical new manager mistake of trying to drive and command the team rather than collaborate and mentor and work with them, especially when some of them were older and more experienced than me, and I had not yet earned their respect. I was lucky that my manager at the time was the COO, an amazing woman who did a great job of giving me real-time and direct feedback. She beat me up pretty good the day after the meeting, but it was really eye-opening to hear the feedback, and it helped me a lot.
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?
I’ve had a lot of important mentors, including my parents, grandfather, and uncle. Two non-relatives who stand out are Jon Hirschtick and John McEleney who were co-founder and CEO at SolidWorks. I had only worked at startups that had failed before SolidWorks, and they taught me a lot about how a well-run software company works, management structure, executive communication, metrics, and goal setting. Many of the things I learned from them became part of the DNA at HubSpot.
Funny enough, later on when they started a new company, Onshape, they asked me to be an advisor because they wanted to learn from my experience at HubSpot. But, I still learn a lot from them. I’m a big believer in co-mentoring, where each of us learns from others. Even someone with 40 years of experience has something to learn from someone who just started their career.
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?
It is cheaper and easier to start a company than ever before, and that new competition and threat of competition make it paramount to focus on your customer experience. Today’s businesses expect not only tools to help accomplish goals or perform discrete tasks, but also personalized support and a real human touch that starts on Day One. The days of “good enough” customer support are no longer nearly good enough, and customers are more empowered to switch vendors early in the process.
But it’s not just customer support — products themselves must be constantly tailored to customer feedback and needs. Today’s customers are vocal about their needs for the products they use, and companies that aren’t constantly tweaking and improving their offerings to meet these demands will have a rocky road ahead of them.
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?
If it was easy, everyone would do it! The truth is that it is very hard to provide a uniformly excellent customer experience. We work very hard at this at Lola.com, and we have hundreds of 5-star ratings from customers — our average rating is 4.8 stars which is incredible. But we occasionally get a 1 or 2-star review because we are not perfect. Some new situation comes up that we had not anticipated, or some customer has an expectation we had not considered. The key is to learn from every piece of feedback and use it to improve. You cannot achieve perfection; you can only constantly hustle toward it.
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?
Yes, with today’s steep competition and the threat of competition, it is paramount to focus on your customer experience. We spend an amazing amount of time gathering customer feedback, thinking about it, and acting based on it. The other external pressure is all of the public review and social media sites — unhappy customers have a larger voice today, and you can’t hide a bad customer experience.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
We’re lucky that our product and team create “wow!” experiences pretty frequently, and it is one of the things that contributes to the positive word of mouth and all of our great reviews. One recent example was the way that one of our customers was able to get through having a trip with multiple flights and hotels canceled due to weather — a combination of our app, proactive notifications, and great service team delighted the customer so much that they posted about their experience on their own.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
You can’t always track the exact downstream effect of a “wow!” experience, but I know from experience that if you create enough of them, people talk and people listen. We’ve seen the amount of branded searches for Lola.com increase over time and our sales cycle time decrease, so we know people are talking about our brand and saying good things.
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.
The most important thing is to live up to your brand promise. One sure way to create bad customer experiences is by promising things that you cannot deliver. So, I would say first, create a clear brand promise that you can deliver on. It needs to be valuable to the customer, but something that 95%+ of the time you do well. It is really tempting to make the brand promise very broad and appealing (I used to work in marketing!) but an overly aspirational brand promise sets you up to disappoint customers.
Second, I would make sure to have an extreme focus on customer feedback. You should not do everything exactly as customers ask for it, but you should encourage customer input and digest every single piece of customer input with your team. Our customer service team has thousands of customer interactions every week, and any customer feedback that comes up is entered into a tracking system and reviewed by product managers and the executive team. Yes, I read every single piece of customer feedback we get, and we share it broadly with the whole team, too. Our monthly Voice of the Customer meeting is one way we gather, process, and act on customer feedback. The sales and service teams present the major themes they have heard from customers that month, and the product team asks questions and talks about the upcoming new features and improvements.
Finally, move quickly to act on the feedback. The “wow!” experience you can create by telling a customer that you heard their feedback a couple of weeks ago and then recently improved your product based on their input and then showing them how the experience is better now is amazing. You can win a customer for life if you keep doing this.
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?
We worry a lot that asking customers to refer someone after they have had a great experience cheapens that “wow!” experience. So, we encourage customers to leave reviews on a regular basis, but we try not to turn every single wow!” experience into a sales opportunity. We know that in the long run, that positive experience will come back to benefit us.
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. 🙂
Be kind to people. We understand so little about what anyone else in the world has been through that it is easy to be mean to others. If we can all be a bit kinder to each other, it can be contagious. I’m also into sustainability — someday I will live in a 100% carbon-neutral home.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow @mvolpe on Twitter, on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikevolpe/ and Instagram @mikevolpeofficial.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!