What my Bookstore Clerk Taught Me About SaaS Marketing

A good experience is everything, really

Apologies for the lengthy introduction. If you just want to read a feel-good customer experience and my analysis of it, skip to the next headline.

As a marketer, working on a Software as a Service (SaaS) product can be both liberating and scary. SaaS in its nature is intangible, and oftentimes how you (not your customers) talk about your product will be at the forefront of your imaginings when it comes to giving your product an identity and a face. The scariness of not having a focal point is augmented by the fact that you almost always have several segments within your target audience, each of them receptive to different messages.

But what does this have to do with my favourite customer experiences? These days, marketing isn’t just messaging. It’s about talking to and with your target audience (which can be divided into several segments and individuals) in the context of the moment they find themselves in within their customer journey.

So really it’s about creating the best experience through communication and adding the right value at the right time. It’s basically experience design. And product design. And sales. And classical marketing/getting the word out there.

At Dixa we have a lot of people working on that all the time. In fact, I’d argue that every single one of us, from sales to development, do daily tweaks to parts of the customer experience. For sales it could be getting that extra line of text on our website that they find customers really want to know, and for the devs it’s often about whether or or not something is designed to intuitively make sense or if it’s self-explanatory, and then making changes based on that.

There you have it. Marketing, sales, customer service, design, development all sums up to an experience. So naturally, I’ve recently done a lot of hard thinking, reading and writing on customer experiences.

Yesterday I took a step back and asked “what actually makes a great experience?”. This article is part of my process of answering that question from the bottom up. I hope you’ll enjoy being taken along for the ride. And that ride is really something, especially for a SaaS product, because we can do almost anything. It doesn’t have a predefined shape or form, there’s no set way to do things. There’s just us, our product, our customers and their customers and the journey we’re all on. So we might as well try to learn from the best.

Experience #1: My local, Danish bookstore

Sale of print books is rising worldwide, but bookstores in Denmark have been hit hard the past 20 years. The emergence of supermarkets and their foray into book sale ate into the adult fiction market, and then they saw massive competition from Amazon and other e-tailers. But one brick and mortar bookstore is doing quite well for itself, and that’s Arnold Busck.

I read a lot. Everything from philosophy, over fantasy to sci-fi. Fiction, historical, what have you. If it’s good, I’ll consume it. A couple of years ago my go-to bookstore in Copenhagen for fantasy stopped getting all the new publications and I found myself looking for an alternative.

Enter Kirsten, the clerk at my new go-to bookstore

I was in the English section of what 20 minutes later became my new go-to bookstore, browsing randomly, seeing if something would catch my eye. Now, there are two types of people: Those who don’t mind the “can I help you with something?”-question; and those who absolutely despise it (“it’s my shopping experience, go away evil salesperson!”). My feet are planted solidly in the latter group, so solidly that even the prospect of having to answer that question brings about a certain anxiety. But what Kirsten did was so smooth, so relevant, and such a big value-add it blew me away.

Kirsten holding the first book she recommended for me several years ago.

She walked up to me, looked at the book I was holding, and asked if I’d read a completely different book. I had. Our conversation took off from there, and later she told me to put down the book I was holding and instead get another one (Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind, for those wondering). I bought it and read it. Absolutely devoured it. It was the perfect choice for me.

I came back a week later with the intention of buying the second book in that series. I met Kirsten and once again she struck up a conversation. An hour later I walked away with half a dozen books, all of them books I really wanted to read. In the end I liked all but one of them.

Waiting in line twice, happily so

Coming back a month later, the same thing happened. But this time I had to wait for her to finish talking to someone else. Someone who was obviously having the same experience I had during my first two visits. I think I waited for 20 minutes, happily so, while listening to them talking about genres unknown to me. Kirsten seemed just as well versed in those as she had when talking to me about my preferences.

Here I am now, years later, and I no longer buy books online. Instead, I go to her bookstore (I’ve come to think of it that way) and order them there. I learned her name, some of her own preferences, and this month I attended a book club for the first time in my life – one she invited me to.

Over my many visits we’ve spent hours talking about books and storytelling, and once I even sat through waiting for her half-hour dinner break to be over. She’s introduced me to new genres (‘new weird’ is such as fantastically twisted thing I can’t help but love it), and got me hooked on numerous series. I refer to her as my book-muse, and several times when asked for reading recommendations, I’ve sent people her way.

And if there’s something I’m interested in that’s not on the shelf, she’ll grudgingly (but she does it) recommend an online competitor, even going so far as to find the book online for me to confirm I can get it elsewhere.

But most importantly, her recommendations have only very rarely been wrong for me.

Now, from a business perspective, as the owner of that store, I’d be a bit worried about all the time she puts into just talking to people. But years down the line, I can see the business value clearly. I’ve literally bought hundreds of books at that store, all on account of her. And she’s helped me broaden my perspective on literature. For instance, I’m now an avid user of goodreads.com, because she said she uses it herself. That made me get into even more different genres and authors and made me read more.

It’s absolutely baffling to me that someone can be that knowledgeable about such a diverse amount of books and a stream of publications that never ends. I can’t even imagine the hours she must put in in her own time to accumulate that knowledge. To me, she has become Arnold Busck. And when being at the store, I can tell it’s not just me having this experience.

There’s something wonderful and very genuine about witnessing the sincere joy people feel when they talk to her about this interest of theirs that they spend countless hours on in their spare time. I could see myself going there on a bad day just to cheer up. Hell, if someone told me of such a person (I dare you) in another country, I could see myself visiting just to see if it was true, or if Kirsten really is the best at what she does.

I get it, you like this Kirsten, but what’s really going on here?

If I’m to break it down into the language of customer experience and marketing, this is what I see happening:

And what’s been the effect?

Why’s that the big one? Previously, I would only go to a bookstore if I knew I wanted a specific book or I was out of books to read. That put me way down the funnel: I was in buying mode whenever I entered the store. Sounds good, yeah? It really isn’t, because often I wanted just that one thing. Now I go whenever I feel like it (which is far more frequent). I go whenever I want to become aware of more books to read. And if I don’t feel like going out, I’ll visit Goodreads and get stimulated that way. Those are top-of-the-funnel activities that companies worldwide collectively pay hundreds of billions of marketing dollars a year for.

What was the cost of all this? Maybe a full working day’s worth of time spent on her end with me. Versus hundreds of books sold and many more to come. As a marketer, I’d take that any day.

All of this represents a very personal approach to selling. One that brick’n’mortar businesses targeting consumers in a non-self-serve model would do well to heed.

I do, however, see one problem with this from a business perspective: Can this be replicated? Can you hire or somehow train multiple Kirstens? Unfortunately, you probably can’t. But you can aspire to, and look for it when hiring:

On top of that, I’m pretty sure some of it can be taught – and the bookstores are probably already doing that to an extent I’m simply not aware of. The obvious ones are education in classics, trends, introductions to latest publications and making expert opinions/reviews available to employees.

How does this reflect on Dixa and our work?

Some background first: as for our own business, we’re currently somewhere between offering self-service SaaS buying and more personal dealmaking for larger customers. So naturally, we won’t be talking to all our new customers as a good portion are online DIY sign-ups. For now, whether we talk to new customers usually depends on their size and needs (needs actually being the operative word here because we do take time to talk to and often visit small, potential customers). Some people like to try for themselves, others want knowledgeable people to talk to – to make sure that our offering matches their needs, help them set up correctly, etc. It’s just that larger companies usually have more specific needs and aren’t as used to SaaS buying yet.

With that in mind, let’s do a checklist: how do I see us doing for each of the points above?

I’m sure there’s much more to learn from this than what I’ve pinpointed here, and I’ll be collecting my thoughts when I’m done with the series. Hopefully in two weeks’ time or so. If you can come up with something you learned, something valuable (like I did), or just want to connect, find me on Twitter.

This was a lesson for me in the benefits of personal support. Next up, I have an entirely different experience in almost every way: buying, installing and using Google Chromecast.

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