Product value doesn’t guarantee product adoption. Not in B2B.
We built a valuable product, sold it to excited customers, and watched the first users being successful. A few weeks later they were no longer using us.
What went wrong? Turns out that leaving product adoption to chance is not a good strategy.
This is the story of how we shifted from terrible to incredible product adoption. This effort, led by our outstanding head of product, transformed the company.
Two sentences of required context: cities must buy things through a process called procurement. UrbanLeap is a procurement solution for cities and our mission is to achieve the best outcome for every government purchase.
Let’s start at the end.
Start with the End in Mind
What does successful adoption of your product precisely look like?
You must start with this question because different adoption outcomes command different strategies. Think of this when answering the question:
Focus on your ideal long term adoption outcome, not just getting the first couple users
Don’t confuse individual users with the entire organization. Onboarding individual users is not the same as having the organization fully embrace your product
Make sure that your adoption outcome is an undeniable success for the customer
For us the answer was this: 100% of the city departments run their procurement projects on UrbanLeap by default.
Articulating our adoption outcome was a big shift in our thinking, but how do we get there?
Our initial “strategy” was to run a first successful project as quickly as humanly possible and allow things to go viral from there. It didn’t work.
The new outcome forced us to think strategically and surfaced fundamental flaws in our thinking:
There is nothing inherently viral about our product, so virality can’t be the expansion engine
Our product facilitates a mission critical process. A process like this will never be replaced via our bottom-up approach. Not in government
If the ultimate outcome is 100% of projects running on UrbanLeap by default, then rushing to the first project is not the right first step
Figuring out your strategy is done by reverse engineering the final outcome. Who told all these users to use your product? What makes them stick to it? What is their incentive? Keep imagining the journey and poke holes in its logic.
This thought process made it clear that a top down mandate for using our product is the only viable strategy to achieving our 100% goal.
The Success Plan is the tool that brought this strategy to life.
The Success Plan
The success plan is how you implement your adoption strategy. It is a list of milestones ending with your adoption outcome, aka the success of the customer.
It is invaluable for 3 reasons:
By presenting it to the customer you create a shared vision, alignment, and accountability
It centers your sales, customer success, and product efforts around your strategy and the success of the customer (more on this in a bit)
It is a living thesis about how a customer becomes successful
For UrbanLeap it looks something like this:
Send procurement templates to UrbanLeap by xx/yy/zz
90-minute onboarding with city leadership at xx/yy/zz
Account setup completed by xx/yy/zz
100% of the city departments run their procurement projects on UrbanLeap by default (remember this from earlier?)
It may seem like a boring checklist, but the success plan impacts everything…
This is my favorite part of our adoption methodology. The success plan is what sales is selling to customers. Not a product, not a service, and definitely not a contract. You are selling success.
When your salespeople leverage the success plan, they become more value-driven and aligned with the ultimate success of the customer. Signing a contract becomes just another step on the path to success, so you’re closing more and faster. It’s that powerful.
It also impacts how you’re selling and who you’re selling to. In our case the changes were profound:
Selling a one-time procurement project -> Selling a procurement solution for the entire city
Selling to a single project manager -> Selling to city leadership
Requiring approval by email -> Signing a formal contract committing both parties to, you guessed it, the success plan
When sales sets everything up for success, onboarding becomes powerful.
Our original onboarding focused on starting the first project as quickly as possible.
Informed by the success plan, our new onboarding couldn’t be more different. It had nothing to do with running projects and instead focused on three elements:
Creating excitement amongst city leadership
Reinforcing the commitment to the success plan
Enabling every user in every department to use our product autonomously and successfully
One big learning point was the importance of minimizing the amount of “new” for the customer. You can frame your product as a completely new process or as a mere way to facilitate and enhance their existing process. The latter is less exciting for you but much easier for users to grasp and commit to.
And then there’s product.
Initially, we didn’t anticipate that the success plan nor strategy would lead to product changes – our product was already perfect.
Then slowly but surely, we discovered that thinking about the final adoption outcome brought fresh opportunities to mind.
It raised questions we didn’t think of before. What would make users run their projects on our platform by default? What would make it impossible to run projects elsewhere? And how do other products achieve similar outcomes?
My favorite result is a killer feature we now call the Procurement Portal – an official page on the city website where all the procurements are published to the public. It didn’t seem very useful when our goal was to just run the first project, but it became invaluable once our outcome was to become the home for 100% of the city procurements.
The Procurement Portal became that home.
Speaking of outcomes…
The success was so freaking real:
“Dead” customers with zero activity started running multiple projects across multiple departments
“Okay” customers moved from adoption in a single department to all the departments
In one quarter we facilitated 3 times more projects than the entirety of the year prior
Projects started popping up all over the place with zero intervention from our customer success team
This transformation happened in a matter of weeks, despite the slowness of our government customers. Within a single quarter we solved the biggest challenge of the company.
Organizations are weird. They may see a lot of value in your product, then buy your product, then use your product successfully, and then never use it again.
Value simply does not guarantee adoption. You can only guarantee adoption by working towards it.
Start with the end in mind. articulate precisely what your ultimate adoption outcomes looks like
Adoption strategy. Be explicit. Is it bottoms up to top down? Who is the champion? How do users learn about your product? What makes them come back?
The success plan. The success plan is a list of milestones ending with your adoption outcome. It aligns you, all your teams, and your customer around the implementation of your strategy
Sales. You are no longer selling a product or a contract, you are selling the success plan. This makes your sales people more value-driven and effective
Onboarding. Similar to sales, onboarding has only one goal: to get the success plan implemented. Design it to create excitement, commitment, and get things into motion
Product. Keep your mind open. There are so many opportunities to contribute to the success of the success plan
Success. Congrats, you’ve made it. Keep iterating
The methodology described in this article was as big of a game-changer for us. As big as hitting product-market fit. In a sense, it was the last piece in the product-market fit puzzle.
Don’t build a valuable product that nobody uses.