Jan 24, 2022

Paul Staelin on Reducing the Customer's Emotional Impact

An interview with Paul Staelin, CCO at Trifacta,

By An interview with Paul Staelin, CCO at Trifacta


There’s a pattern among many of the best CCOs: they weren’t “raised” in Customer Success, or at least they’ve had roles in other parts of the organization.

Paul Staelin matches that pattern: before moving into Customer Success, he led
Operations, he’d been a co-founder, and he also scaled entire Go-to-Market orgs. And
before all of that, he started his career in Product — which he points to as having been especially influential in how he approaches his work today. “Looking back, I can see how my perspective has been shaped by those years as a Product Manager. That job requires you to look across how people get engaged with products and how they use them to drive value. You also have to think about how to build things in a scalable way.”

Now as Chief Customer Officer at Trifacta, Paul says he views the customer experience
as its own product. He says, “Customer Success is its own product within the company’s
offering. And as such, we need to operate like a Product team by stamping out a process, mapping out journeys, and making sure we’re delivering predictably.”

This philosophy shows: he’s developed a framework for scaling the customer experience
called the APACE framework. It’s essentially a tool that teaches CSMs how to reduce
the perceived effort for the customer. And since rolling it out, customers have been
measurably more satisfied with their experience.

In this interview, Paul breaks down what the APACE framework is and how he’s
implemented it at Trifacta.




CHRIS: What is the Effortless Experience methodology? And how did you hear about it?

PAUL: The Effortless Experience is the name of a book by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi — the team that wrote The Challenger Sale. That’s where I first heard of the methodology and I’ve adapted my own thinking around it since.

Fundamentally I believe that we have two tasks we need to deliver on in the customer journey: first, the customer needs to receive value, of course, or they won’t write a check. Then there’s the investment — customers make decisions in part based on the ROI of their effort, so you want the customer’s effort to go down.

One of the findings in the book was that “delight” didn’t have a strong correlation with retention, whereas “effort” did. Delight isn’t a bad thing, it just isn’t predictive of whether a customer will renew. Customers do remember terrible experiences they have with your product or service. So making it easy for customers to get the value they expected is a much better investment than trying to delight customers in different interactions.

So driving an effortless experience is the goal. And there are two ways to attack that:

  1. By reducing the actual effort,
  2. And by making the actual effort feel easier.


One of the things we’ve done to reduce the actual effort is set up a system for getting feedback from Support into our Product teams, highlighting all the areas where people are having problems that take a long time to resolve. At the end of every support case, the Support Engineer tags which area the problem was in and any other helpful details. Then we track how many back-and-forth messages there were as a proxy for customer effort because we can’t tell how much time a customer actually spent doing a task, but we do know that in the back-and-forth customers have to read, think, respond, and sometimes go research before coming back. It helps us gauge the level of actual effort.

Then we look at the areas of the product where we’re seeing not only a high volume of cases but really high effort. And then we engage with Product to ask, “What can we do here? These are the areas we’re seeing the effort. How do we make it easier?” Maybe there’s something we can do to obviate the problem altogether, maybe there’s an issue in the software, maybe it’s a UI issue, or it’s a training problem. We open up all possible solutions for making this problem easier to deal with.

There’s a wide array of things you can do to systematically reduce the effort that the customers have when engaging with your products.

“Making it easy for customers to get the value they expected is a much better investment than trying to ‘delight’ customers in different interactions. So driving an effortless experience is the goal.”

Then there’s making the actual effort feel easier. This is the really interesting part of the book for me, and I’ve read other psychological studies outside of the book that support this claim. In the book, the “perception” of effort is described as 65% of the impact. So, much more than the actual effort itself, how you felt about the effort — the emotional piece — accounts for between half and two-thirds of the impact.

There are actions you can take to make an effort feel like less of an effort. One area is how you communicate with the customer — we’ve actually created a communication framework called APACE that captures our best practices for this.

We’ve done some work to operationalize the APACE framework across the organization as a broad enablement program. That includes requiring our teams to read the Effortless Experience book, which covers some of the framework. We also do annual training sessions on what APACE is, and monthly breakout sessions where groups workshop the communication skills in the framework.

CHRIS: Can you go into a little more detail about what APACE stands for?

PAUL: The analogy I use when teaching people how to do this is when you engage with a customer and there’s something preventing them from achieving their desired outcome, you need to be the stoplight.

It’s ok to have a red light or a yellow light in that interaction, but you need a green arrow pointing somewhere. And there are a number of things that you can do as part of those interactions to help the customer feel like it was easy — these are best practices that make up the APACE framework.

APACE stands for:

  • Advocate for the customer’s position
  • Positive language
  • Present Alternatives
  • Hold the customer’s Confidence
  • Have Empathy

Number one, people want you to advocate for the position they’re in. Simple word changes like, “The first thing we’ll do is this” or “If I’m in your position I would do that” help make it clear that you are on the same team as them. You taking their perspective makes them feel like they’re not fighting you to get the answer. You’re on the same team.

Then there’s positive phrasing, and this is where the green arrow comes in. You want to make it sound like “in a few short steps I’ll get you there.” You don’t throw up a red light by saying the word “can’t”, “you can’t do that”. You need to give the customer a green light and make it sound like it’s easy. A few clicks and five minutes later the task is done. Whereas if you just said “No, you have to do this another way, see you later, case closed” the person may spend 15 minutes trying to figure it out, but they’re going to feel very differently about that interaction.

The third piece is to give alternatives. There’s a whole host of psychological research that says if you give someone a choice between options, even if one is wildly unattractive, they’re going to feel much better about choosing the one they did versus if they only had one option to react to. So when customers run into problems, present alternatives. “We can either wait three months for this issue to be addressed in our code, or in a few clicks we can accomplish your objective another way. Which would you prefer?”

In addition, it is important to build the customer’s confidence in you and the company through your statements and actions. First, you need to take ownership of the issue and say “hey, I am going to handle this for you.” Then there are a few things to avoid—things people sometimes do that can undermine a customer’s confidence.

1. Undermining the product can look like this:

  • The customer has a problem and you say, “Oh, you know what? I’ve seen this before. It’s often caused over here, we have a bunch of problems over here. Let’s go look.” And then, “Oh, looks like it’s not here. Let’s go look over here, sometimes we see problems over here.” And so on. All of a sudden we’ve destroyed the customer’s confidence in the product. Even after the issue is resolved, the customer isn’t going to feel good about the product or company.
  • If there are areas that often have issues, say “Let’s start from the top and see if we can troubleshoot. Start over here — no, everything’s looking good over here. Let’s try over here in the settings.” Now, even though we’ve gone through the same process, I haven’t undermined the customer’s confidence in us.

2. We also don’t use words like bug or immature. You can say code change, or code request, or I’m working with Product on this. We train our teams on this for their live interactions with customers, and we enforce these word changes in email with Grammarly.

3. Another thing that can undermine the customer’s confidence is saying “I don’t know how to do this, my colleagues in Engineering are the ones that know everything. Let me go get one of them on the call.” Because the next time the customer deals with you, the first thing they’ll do is ask to get an Engineer on the call. Instead, you can say something like “let me go research this” or “let’s get the expert in this part of the product involved to see if we can come up with an alternative solution.”

Confidence has three parts: taking ownership of the problem and saying “hey, I’m going to handle this for you”. Communicating in a way that maintains the customer’s confidence. And then following up. If I say I’m going to get back to you in two days, I’d better.

The last E in APACE is empathy. Recognize situations that are stressful for customers, they’re under the gun, they’re tight on time. So recognize and acknowledge the emotion up-front, then follow with a confidence statement. “I’m on your side, let’s figure this out.” For the customer, it makes the rest of the interaction feel easier.

CHRIS: Part of helping customers achieve outcomes is making sure you’re reducing effort. You’re increasing the return by reducing the investment. But how does one measure whether or the customer has received the value they intended to receive?

PAUL: We have an analogy for this too that we use internally and with customers.

The primary person who is going to be helping you (customer), is the CSM. We use an actual picture of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. We are Norgay. We’re going to help you organize and get to the top of Everest because we climbed lots of mountains before.

We’ll help you get to the top of your mountain. We’ll share best practices and go through our tried-and-true onboarding process. Our PS team generally handles the initial deployment for you or supports your deployment by one of our world-class implementation partners.

And we want to make sure that your people are trained as part of that initial deployment. So as part of the sales cycle, we try to put an implementation plan in place as well as an organizational plan, which covers who will do which jobs, and the enablement plan for those individuals. So, as part of the initial deployment, we make sure that those individuals are trained to do those jobs. That way, when the PS team goes away, you have a valuable use case in production, your team is enabled to support and extend that solution and the CSM is still there to offer guidance and provide access to resources.

The fundamental way we’re measuring the overall success of the Customers For Life organization is Net Dollar Retention, which we call Same Store Sales.