The words outcome-oriented are written on an old whiteboard in Guru’s Philadelphia office, inscribed so long ago that the ink can no longer be erased from the board. That’s exactly how co-founder and CEO Rick Nucci regards the company tenet: It’s inextricable from a startup that’s laser-focused on relentlessly delivering outcomes.
Of course, Guru isn’t the only startup that claims to be “results-driven” or “obsessed” when it comes to its customers. But Nucci takes this concept and kicks it into high gear. He and his team at Guru, which develops internal knowledge-sharing platforms for teams, are determined to build a product that proves its value to users.
As a seasoned veteran of the enterprise SaaS space (Nucci’s previous startup, Boomi, was acquired by Dell in 2010), he’s seen too many startups fold from an inability to prove their value-add to customers. “One thing I kept hearing from founders of legacy products that had shuttered was some variant of, ‘We couldn’t justify our existence, so people stopped buying,’” says Nucci. “The ability to demonstrate value to customers can determine whether a startup generates a wave of sustainable success — or fades into irrelevance with the next tide.”
Consequently, Guru’s approach to proving customer outcomes is meticulously quantified, rigorously unambiguous, and integrated into every facet of the company. From defining the market and designing the product, to communicating success metrics to customers and employees alike, Guru has been built on the goal of mastering the art of the outcome. “For us, ‘success’ means being able to tell a customer that Guru’s resulted in a 20% reduction in handle time and a 34% reduction in repeat questions for their sales team,” says Nucci.
In this exclusive interview, Nucci shares how a doggedly results-oriented ethos shaped Guru’s strategy from Day 1. He lends founders a page from his playbook for mastering the art of the outcome, sketching out the steps he takes to prove value to each client from the first conversation and sharing the strategies he uses to cultivate an outcome-oriented culture across all teams.
When founders build products they’re proud of, it’s only natural to want to share it with the largest audience possible. But leading with questions like “How do I spin up sales?” and “How do I scale fast?” can set founders on a perilous course.
“It’s tempting to want to expand your territory right off the bat, then tack on customer success as a secondary priority,” says Nucci. “But remember that how well you prove yourself to customers ultimately determines how long you stay in the game.”
In a recurring-revenue world, every year is an opportunity for a customer to question whether your service is actually adding value. The answer to that question better be yes — or your ship might sink faster than you can correct your course.
According to Nucci, the seeds of customer success should be planted early, before even finding product/market fit. For companies in the early stages of company-building, here’s how to make customer obsession a true, load-bearing pillar, rather than a decorative talking point.
Don’t aim for the entire market.
“A lot of startups get attached to this quixotic goal of growing fast and selling a product to every vertical, to every business in the world,” he says. “But what most founders don’t anticipate is that you run into more problems the wider you cast your net.”
That’s a lesson that Nucci learned the hard way with his first startup. “At Boomi, a big part of our product was building ‘connectors’ for cloud integration. In the first year, we wanted to build for everyone; we didn’t focus on a set of use cases for specific personas, like sales or marketing,” he says. “Because we didn’t focus on understanding each persona, it made it hard to know which KPIs to focus on and master. We eventually resolved that rookie mistake, but we would’ve been a lot more impactful with more focus from the get-go.”
When Nucci moved into the productivity space with Guru, he found the category full of pain points and pitfalls that, to a young company, might look like a lucrative market. “You have to remember that every company in the world has a knowledge problem; no matter what size you are, it’s just different variances of pain. But the wider you try to build, the more bland and generic your ROI story is going to be,” he says. “You could create a kick-ass product, but if you try to build wide too early, you’re never going to be focused enough to solve any one problem in a significant way. If you try to sell to everyone, you’re setting yourself up to disappoint someone. Instead, start with the most granular target market. Make sure you can solve their problems first.”
When you’re building a product, don’t try to solve all the problems in the world. Focus on solving the most important problems extremely well.
Narrowing the market isn’t only helpful for establishing product/market fit — it also helps companies stay focused on generating outcomes. “When Guru launched, we had designed a product for sales teams. We pinpointed the metrics that would help sales teams operate more efficiently and, ultimately, win more deals. For about 18 months, we didn’t do anything else,” he says.
That said, even if the outcome-oriented company starts with a narrow target, that doesn’t mean the market has to stay small. While Guru started out concentrating on selling to enterprise sales teams, they spotted an opportunity to expand: Sales teams were introducing Guru to their colleagues in customer service. “We were scratching our heads at first. It wasn’t an application of the product that we'd initially anticipated,” says Nucci. “But after we dug in, we realized that customer success teams were experiencing analogous pain points.”
The team knew, though, that if they wanted to keep Guru’s gaze trained on the outcome, it wouldn’t be enough to coast on organic market expansion. “We could have applied the very same playbook and gone out to get a foot in the door with all of the support teams of our existing customers, or aggressively marketed to this newly discovered segment to win net new customers. But that would have lowered the bar,” Nucci says.
So Nucci’s team went straight to the source and, again, aimed small: They set up a conversation with the team’s manager to ask them to describe their pain points, in their own words. “If you’re trying to sell the same product to the dev team, the HR team and the sales team, the language you’re going to use is going to be very vanilla,” he says. “You can’t simply map problems from one vertical to another and expect your product to satisfy both of verticals equally. Even within the same company, each team defines impact differently.”
In other words, Guru proved outcomes in smaller subsets before expanding and layering on new use cases over time, thoughtfully and intentionally.
One-size-fits-all products seldom prove their worth. If you want to demonstrate value, drill down into customer outcomes. Make each individual persona feel like their problems are heard and understood.
Invest in customer success before sales.
Building an excellent customer success team seems like a counterintuitive first play, especially if a startup hasn’t garnered a robust customer base yet. “Typically, founders figure out the sales motion and then start hiring SDRs and AEs to execute. There’s a lot of pressure to grow quickly and scale sales out as soon as you can," says Nucci.
"Most young companies will hold off on investing in a customer success manager before they reach a certain annual recurring revenue. You’ll see founders working off of ratios, such as having one CSM for every one to two million in ARR, all while they’re furiously expanding the sales team,” he says. “If you want to stay outcome-oriented, that’s a huge mistake.”
In Nucci’s view, this approach overlooks a simple truth: When the contract is signed, your work is just beginning. “Dedicating a team to customer success lets you optimize for customer outcomes proactively,” he says. “If you neglect customer success, you’re setting yourself up to battle fires as they start, and potentially losing customers along the way. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not a great outcome.”
Customer success isn’t an afterthought or a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have.
That’s why Guru built out its customer success team before it hired any sales representatives. “We brought on Diane Ruth as employee number five, and she was solely dedicated to developing the customer success team and thinking about customer outcomes,” he says. For that period of time, Nucci and his co-founder still shouldered the brunt of the sales work and didn’t hire their first sales rep until a year after they invested in customer success.
At first blush, investing in customer success over sales seems unwise, because it’s not a scalable approach. “Sometimes, you need to give yourself permission to try things that don’t seem remotely scalable,” says Nucci. “If we hadn’t dared to sacrifice scale, we wouldn’t have gained that invaluable understanding of what makes our customers successful and how we can iterate toward that. As we’ve grown, that ratio has evened out to a more typical proportion of one CSM to every two to three sales reps.”
Bake success metrics into the product.
Staying outcome-oriented isn’t just about starting small and setting early customers up for success — it’s also about making sure that you can tap into the product experience to back up that success.
In Guru’s case, that meant paying close attention to how the customer was using the product, and using those insights to inform the back-end architecture. “We might have easily gone the way of becoming a separate ‘destination’ for companies, which is a model that we often see in enterprise SaaS,” he says. “Instead, we intentionally designed Guru to be as embedded into users’ workflows as possible. That way, we could more precisely track how customers were using our product, and we could use those insights from product integration to prove our outcomes.”
For example, Nucci’s team can track how a customer uses Guru when it’s integrated with applications like Salesforce, Zendesk, Slack and web browsers. “Let’s say a customer support agent has a ticket open in Zendesk. She’s working on it, and she gets asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to. She uses Guru’s browser extension, references the relevant knowledge in Guru and successfully closes the ticket,” says Nucci. “On Guru’s back-end, we can connect the dots so that we know, specifically, what knowledge was used to address that ticket and where Guru fit into that equation.”
Because the workflow integration is built directly into the back-end of the product, Nucci and his team get front-row seats to their customers’ pain points and successes. “This way, the line between their improved metric and Guru is really clearly drawn. They don’t make any changes to their support operations other than introducing Guru. Then, they measure a metric — say, the time it takes to close a ticket — again. Did Guru help move the needle?” says Nucci. “Because of the integration, the customer has a more seamless workflow, and we get an immediate feedback loop. It’s a win-win.”
Success shouldn’t be generic. Success is the ability to prove to the customer that x metric gets improved by y percentage, because of your product.
With a target market, a customer-focused team and a tailored product in place early on, Nucci’s next task was to translate that diligent attention to customer success into a scalable, outcome-oriented sales motion. He quarterbacked what he calls the outcome playbook: the conversation framework that helps Guru lead with outcomes, throughout every step of the sales process.
“You can be the best in the world at winning deals because you can convince leads that you’ll solve their problem. But it’s your follow-through that will determine whether that customer decides to renew,” says Nucci. “That decision hinges on whether you’ve delivered on the promise of the sale — on whether you can prove you’ve solved their problem. And you can’t do that unless you’ve been talking about outcomes from the very first sales conversation.”
Are you paying attention to the metrics that matter to your clients’ success? If you spend more time talking about lagging indicators like ARR — rather than metrics like DAU or feature-specific engagement — stop saying you're customer-oriented. You're sales-oriented.
Here, Nucci shares his step-by-step guide for making a product’s value-add the focal point of the conversation.
1. Define a focused, tangible language for success.
Too many sales conversations about what success looks like happen too late or linger in the realm of the superficial, setting the deal up for a rocky road to renewal. To stay focused on the outcome, initiate the conversation about success earlier on, pushing the dialogue further and moving it further up the funnel.
“Before the customer becomes a customer, we ask them: What does success mean to you? What’s important to your business?” says Nucci. During that conversation, the sales reps try to push prospects to nail down specifics. “Usually, they’ll start with something general, like, ‘We want Guru so that our support team can reference it.’ That’s wonderful, but you have to keep pressing. You can’t anchor success in that, you can’t set up a proof point there that will make renewal a slam dunk.” he says. Nucci recommends following up with another question: Could you articulate how the business will run better with this particular product?
“What we’re going after is an answer that’s more like, ‘We want Guru because it would let our support team reference information more easily and faster. Because the support team is finding answers faster, their average handle time will go down, and they can take more calls,’” says Nucci. “If they say can articulate that specific problem and solution, and tie it to what Guru can do, we’d say, ‘That’s great! Let’s get to work.’”
As a potential client opens up about their definition of success, listen to the language they use. “We’re so comfortable with our own jargon, our own sales and marketing language. When you’re trying to maximize your customers’ outcomes, step into their perspective,” says Nucci. “Listen for the words they use to describe their business goals and outcomes. What a sales persona would refer to as ‘knowledge,’ a marketer would call ‘content.’ Draw the link between your persona’s language and your product.”
Listen carefully to the words your customers use to describe success. Every customer has their own lexicon. Language is a powerful window into what they value — and how you can deliver.
Tuning into a company’s language can also give you a clue as to whether the company is a good fit for your product in the first place. “When the customer describes their problem, they should be able to explain why they think that your technology could play a role in the solution,” Nucci says. “Sometimes there just isn’t a good fit for a technological solution, whether that’s because their existing infrastructure is too complex, or because the particular problem is better solved by human interaction.”
In these cases, don’t be afraid to turn down a deal. “When someone tells you they want to use your product, it can be tempting to get them to sign on the dotted line ASAP,” he says. “But you’ve got to pause. Do they really understand how your product will add value? Do you have a clear agreement on what success looks like? If you don’t, you’re not ready to do a deal. In fact, that’s not a deal you want.”
2. Zoom in on the metrics that matter.
Meanwhile, Guru’s sales team is already communicating new clients’ goals and language for success to the customer success team. “If sales and customer success are having this conversation early on, the handoff is seamless. Both teams are aware of each client’s needs and the outcomes they want to achieve, with nothing lost in translation,” he says.
Once the company’s language for success is pinned down, the next step is staking out measuring posts. “Pick specific metrics where you know your product can help,” says Nucci. “It’s not blue ocean. It’s a matter of prioritization.”
One tactic Guru uses to help customers gain clarity on metrics is the pre-sales survey: “We supplement trials with a survey that essentially lets the customer ‘diagnose’ and get a sense of the scale of their own knowledge problem,” says Nucci. On one occasion, a customer was generally aware that they had a knowledge problem; when the customer completed the survey, they found that their GTM teams needed to go to 48 different places to access knowledge. “Everyone was shocked. If a customer sees their own problems and values quantified, rather than a generalized data set, it makes the sell a lot more compelling.”
3. Establish the one or two metrics that matter most.
“At that point, the client and the sales rep would document those metrics, and then propose something like, ‘Guru can decrease handle time by 15 percent,’” says Nucci. “Your conversation about customer outcomes should end with a goal that’s meaningful to the customer.”
To prove customer success, drill down into the metrics. “We differentiate our metrics by persona. So for our customers who are sales teams, we’ll prioritize average deal size or length to close; for support teams, we’ll measure handle time and CSAT,” says Nucci. “Broad success metrics don’t demonstrate value. Hone in on your personas, and get specific about the indicators that are most compelling to them.”
4. Generate progress reports.
Once key metrics have been benchmarked and monitored over three months, they share that performance data with the customer success manager. The CSM is then armed with carefully culled insights into how Guru is being used and, more importantly, how well the product is stacking up to those three-month goals.
“If at the end of the three months, the goal hasn’t been achieved, we go through a list of diagnostics with the customer. We ask them questions like: Is knowledge architected in Guru the way that it should be? Which teams have adopted Guru and are using it well? Which teams haven’t?” he says. “Regular check-ins hold both us and the customer accountable to maximizing outcomes and impact. We don’t readily give up, either. We go through that entire diagnosis, then schedule another time to follow up.”
While a company’s sales and customer success teams are on the front lines of customer outcomes, Nucci’s quick to point out that to be truly outcome-oriented, the mission needs to be adopted by every player in a company. “Don’t talk about ‘customer-facing’ or ‘non-customer-facing’ roles. Every team should know that their work contributes to the customer’s success. Every team should strive to master the art of the outcome.”
Here, Nucci shares his strategies for rallying a culture of outcome obsession across functions at Guru.
Shine the limelight on outcome-boosting performers.
“We want to make sure that their stories are recognized in front of everyone in the company. At a recent meeting, we highlighted Alan Lowe, a customer success manager. His account asked him a simple question. Instead of answering the question and leaving it at that, he ended up probing deeper and spending an extra two hours with the client,” says Nucci. “As a result of that conversation, Alan and his account were able to formulate a stronger, more directed action plan.”
Chronicle your company #wins.
“We have two Slack channels that we ask everyone in the company to commit to reading: #Wins and #CS-Wins,” says Nucci.
The channels serve as before-and-after pictures of customers: In #Wins, the sales team shares extended write-ups for the whole company to read on how the deal was won, including a comprehensive description of the client’s business problem and pain points. #CS-Wins is the glowing “after” photo. Posts here thoroughly outline successful outcomes and which tactics the sales team used to achieve them. “If #Wins tells the story of why they came to us, then #CS-Wins is about seeing those hopes and dreams realized,” says Nucci. “It’s about closing the loop.”
The practice of celebrating wins isn’t unique. Each company and team has a different way of ringing in a satisfied customer or a milestone reached. Guru’s particular approach to these channels, however, goes deeper — and is outcome-oriented by design.
“Each win announcement is written by the AE who landed the deal or the CSM who led the rollout, and they’re about five or six paragraphs long. They explicitly sketch out the line between the customer’s problem, what we did to solve them, and how it benefited the customer,” says Nucci.
Here are a few examples of how Guru celebrates its #Wins and #CS-Wins:
The thoroughness is purposeful. “It’d be very easy for us to dash out a post that reads ‘New customer. Had a knowledge management problem. Needed a modern wiki.’ Not only would that lead to crickets in the Slack channel, but that approach doesn’t help our designers, engineers, marketers and PMs deeply understand the problems our customers are facing,” says Nucci.
“Detailed win announcements prompted our design team to dig in and get much closer to the daily workflow of the sales persona. From reading a specific win statement, their interest would be piqued by some unexpected problem, and they’d dig more deeply into it,” says Nucci. “We call that level of detail obsessing over the persona — studying each persona like as though you were building a specialized product for every customer.”
Successful customer outcomes don’t materialize out of thin air. They’re direct consequences of concrete actions from our side of the table. That means that everyone, from marketers to back-end engineers, should know that they play a part in making real people’s lives better.
Structure your teams around outcomes.
While celebrating advocates and success stories help to inspire an outcome-oriented culture, companies can also take their commitment a step forward by concretizing customer outcomes into team structure.
Nucci describes how his team tailored Guru’s design team around personas. “About 80 percent of the product works for all use cases. But we’ve learned that the additional 20 percent needs to be tailored for individual personas, with different integrations and analytics,” he says. “To that end, we don’t have a generic ‘designer’ role. We have designers dedicated to designing our product for sales reps, designers who are entirely focused on customer service agents.”
Guru’s design team is structured for adaptability. “If we develop a new persona around engineers, for example, we’d create a separate team of designers who would investigate and solve for the way their particular problem manifests. Because it will be nothing like how the sales rep or the customer service rep experience a knowledge problem,” he says.
When an entire company is committed to customer success, ideas for improving on customer outcomes come from a diversity of departments. “Our engineering team brought up the idea of implementing an interface in the product that can help customers visualize their own wins, to showcase the impact that Guru’s having on them, in real-time,” says Nucci. “They took the initiative to productize the conversations that we’re having in the office all the time, and open it up to our customers.”
As a result of the outcome-oriented culture, every team takes ownership over a customer’s success. “Our marketing department took the initiative to deliver six video and 12 written customer case studies that clearly communicate customers’ key value metrics,” he says.
“Even the people team can draw a connection to customer success. There’s a reason why Southwest Airlines was known for being the best customer service in the industry. It’s because their employees were the happiest of all the airlines in the industry. It’s a little more attenuated than the objective a CSM could point to, but that makes a difference in mastering the art of the outcome too, right?”
The phrase outcome-oriented isn’t just static ink on a whiteboard. On the contrary, if a startup is truly outcome-oriented, the principle permeates every aspect of the business, and every practice. What the customer sees, when their gains are presented to them in data and figures, is only the tip of the iceberg.
To help your startup master the art of the outcome, keep your eye on the problems you can solve, and solve them well. Narrow your target market to a size where you can meaningfully address customers’ pain points, and methodically expand your reach from there. With every customer, define a specialized language and metrics for success, then follow up religiously. Finally, structure your company culture in such a way that every team knows that they, too, have a stake in the customer’s success.
“Whether it’s how we organize our teams, or shape conversations with our customers, or share company updates, the outcome-oriented mindset touches every corner of the company,” says Nucci. “As a result of this, the product itself starts to look very different.”
That’s the promise of the future of outcome-oriented startups: changing the future of product development itself. “Historically, the productivity category of software has relied on tools of generic success. And I’m sure it’s the same for plenty of other categories, where the product takes precedence and customer success is more of an afterthought. For startups, being rigorously outcome-oriented is a tremendous opportunity to differentiate yourself in a competitive market,” he says.
“Collectively, the next generation of startups will produce a sea-change of these excellent, exceedingly thoughtful tools, products and services,” he says. “And as both a founder and a user in many capacities, that’s the most exciting possibility.”
Photography by Getty Images and Guru Brand Studio.