This week, we're delighted to bring you some highly actionable tips from one of our favourite email conversion strategists.
On this week’s show, we catch up with email marketing strategist, Val Geisler, as she walks us through some practical emailing tips, her process for onboarding, and why she likens career progression to a spiral staircase.
Val has experience in a number of different sectors, having started out as a stage manager for operas before moving onto life as a virtual assistant and eventually setting up her own consultancy firm, Fix My Churn.
Speaking to us about email strategy and onboarding, Val broke down her winning strategies into a series of practically applicable tips. It’s a must-listen for anyone looking to gain some insights in this area.
Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:
- A career journey can often be more like climbing a spiral staircase than a corporate ladder. You’ll head in the same direction but there are turns along the way.
- Think about onboarding like you’re hosting a dinner party. You don’t immediately shove the main course in your guests’ faces. Instead, you get them a drink, show them around, serve some appetizers, then the meal, followed by dessert – and you’re having a great conversation throughout.
- To avoid reader fatigue when it comes to your emails, you need to monitor their behavior. Know when to back off or offer something different. If they’re still on the appetizer, don’t send the dessert course.
- Every SaaS company should be sending a welcome email – not from the company or the team, but from a real person telling a bit of the company’s story and values. Your customers should know your employees by name.
- Don’t be The Cheesecake Factory, with a menu of services 24 pages long. Specialize. The more specific you can be about the services you offer, the higher your value to your clients (and therefore your prices).
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
An entrepreneurial spirit
Dee Reddy: Val, we’re delighted to have you as a guest here on Inside Intercom today. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? You have a very interesting personal background.
Val Geisler: I’m delighted to be here as well. I’m a huge fan of Intercom and the work you guys do, so thanks for having me, first of all. I stole this phrase from my friend Nathalie Lussier. She said once to me that her career was like a spiral staircase, less like a corporate ladder. It’s more like a spiral staircase, and I would say mine is the same: you’re always heading in the same direction, it’s just the view looks a little bit different every couple of steps.
I like that analogy, because I started my professional career in theater production. That’s what I went to school for. And I was the stage manager, which is the person who’s behind the scenes making sure that everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen. And if you think about being an email marketer, I’m still the person who makes sure that everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen, just in a different industry now.
Dee: There must be a lot of skills you’ve taken from that part of your life.
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial in some capacity, even when I was in-house”
Val: I learned a lot about the entrepreneurial side of what I do now when I worked in theater because I was always working on the current gig, looking for the next one, learning to interact with people really quickly. I didn’t work in one place for any long period of time, and I think that has set me up for good success as a freelance contractor, because I have that skillset from my theater days.
Dee: You’ve worn a lot of hats: you have worked as a freelancer, you’ve been an employee, and you’ve been an entrepreneur. Does that type of role impact on how you work, or is it something innate to you that you work in a particular way?
Val: I’ve always been entrepreneurial in some capacity, even when I was in-house – because even outside of my theater career in my tech career, I worked in-house as the first marketing hire at a software company. And I always considered myself to be an “intrepreneur”, where you have a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit and treat the company as if it were your own, but you are inside the company as an employee, right? Having that entrepreneurial mindset has always been there, I think. I grew up with a dad who was a salesman, and he traveled a lot for work, which also meant that people in his company all worked out of their home offices. I never thought it was strange to work from home, because I always saw that, even when my dad was working for somebody else. So I think that that entrepreneurial mindset was set in early and then reinforced by the career path I chose, moving in through theater and then into special events and then, eventually, into tech.
Climbing the career “spiral staircase”
Dee: You started as a virtual assistant?
Val: It’s that spiral staircase again, you know? And using that entrepreneurial mindset, as well. I was working for a special events company, and they were going through some changes in staffing, and I was actually fired from my role. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was at my therapist’s office. Then I walked out of my therapist’s office, got a phone call from my boss and said: “Oh, hello. I’m headed back to email you.” And she’s like, “Well, we need to talk.” And I almost just turned around and walked right back into my therapist’s office.
So of course, I was sad. For that afternoon, I laid on the couch and cried and wondered what I was going to do. Then the next morning, I woke up and said, “Well, you have to do something.” I had a bunch of friends who ran companies of different types. One did consulting, one had a T-shirt company, one had an imported goods company. And they all had told me over various conversations about different things they had to do for their business but didn’t like doing: uploading blog posts to WordPress, adding products to their Shopify store, contacting writers to gather blog posts for the next edition of their newsletter.
“Virtual assistants naturally move into more project management roles. If you have any leadership skills, it seems pretty natural for them to grow that way”
They had all expressed all these different problems, and I knew that they really wanted some help, and I could take it off of their plate. I also had no clue how to do those things, but I knew that I could Google really well. So I went to them and said: “Hey, you’ve mentioned this before. What do you think about paying me to do that for you?” I added up four or five clients to replace my salary. By the end of that week, I had replaced my salary and position that was my full-time job. I was working from home as a virtual assistant when I didn’t even really know that was a job. I just created these opportunities, right? And then I went on Facebook groups and realized: “Oh, people do this. This is a virtual assistant.” My time as a virtual assistant looked like a lot of different things.
Virtual assistants naturally move into more project management roles. If you have any leadership skills, it seems pretty natural for them to grow that way, and I did that.
Dee: At that point, you already had such a strong background in project management from your stage managing.
Val: Exactly. It almost seemed like that was where I really was meant to be. And in that project management, I started to fall in love with the customer experience portion of it all and really dove into customer experience and what it means on both the customer side and the company side. I did some customer experience consulting towards the end of that particular iteration of the business. And then through that, I was asked to come work in-house in the marketing team at a software company. I say marketing team but, really, I was the first marketing hire. It was a small team where, if you’ve ever been part of a very small startup, everybody does everything.
“Customer experience all starts with onboarding, and actually, reducing churn starts with onboarding”
I was working on the customer experience but also on growing our blog readership and producing a podcast and all kinds of other projects as the company grew. I was working in an ESP, and that’s where I learned email inside and out. When I went back into freelancing, I merged all of those experiences of project management, customer experience and email marketing and have turned it into what is now my micro agency called Fix My Churn, where we’re really focused on helping monthly recurring revenue-based businesses in SaaS and subscription ecommerce. We help them fix their churn-related problems through email marketing lifecycle campaigns.
The dinner party approach to onboarding
Dee: That’s an incredible about-turn in what could’ve been a pretty devastating personal and professional situation. That’s got to be at least three swirls on your spiral staircase. You’ve built up such an incredible range of clients, and you’re probably one of the most credible voices in the area that you work. So I know a lot of people listening to the podcast today will be very, very keen to hear some practical advice from you on a couple of topics. Can you talk us through your onboarding process a little bit?
Val: Absolutely. Customer experience all starts with onboarding, and actually, reducing churn starts with onboarding, because the more powerful your customer onboarding is, the less likely they are to churn not just in that first month, but longterm in months to come. Even if you don’t have a longterm retention program, having strong onboarding can do a huge bulk of the work for you.
I define onboarding as the period from the moment they decide to start a trial until they’ve converted into a paid account. Or if you don’t have a free trial, maybe you have the 30-day money-back guarantee that first month where they could ask for their money back before converting to an officially paid account ongoing. Everything after that is customer retention. Once they’re paying – once they’re locked in to being a customer – that’s retention. Onboarding is really that early phase.
Dee: Do you find a need to tailor this or make a differentiation between different sectors or businesses, or is it something that there’s almost a formula that you apply?
“I think the dinner party strategy gives you a really strong foundation to be able to build on”
Val: It’s a little bit of both, right? If you have nothing in place, then it’s good to start with a bit of a formulaic approach and then iterate from there. And that’s typically what I do. I use a technique, a framework, called “the dinner party strategy”. It’s something that I’ve developed over the years – and again, I love analogies, because they work so well for us to connect to something.
Most people have either been to a dinner party or hosted one, and you know what that experience is like. You go to someone’s house, and they aren’t shoving the dinner in your face the second you walk in the front door. You walk in, and they get you settled; maybe you’ve never been there before, and they show you around a bit, get you a drink, some appetizers. Everybody sits around the table, and you have some conversation. And then we have the meal. And then it’s not just like, “Okay, there’s the meal, you’re done, bye.” You have the meal, some side dishes, some more conversation. We have a dessert afterwards, hopefully, because that’s everyone’s favorite part. And then there’s more conversation, and maybe you are invited to come back for the next month’s gathering.
Using that framework, you can really see how an onboarding sequence can be laid out to follow those steps. The dinner party strategy is six steps. And everybody always asks me about how often they should go out. The number one answer in email marketing is, “It depends.” It depends on how long your trial is, a lot of different factors. But it’s a really solid way to start. Then you layer in pieces like behavior-based emails and account-type emails, emails specific to your industry. There are different parts and pieces based on the business. But I think the dinner party strategy gives you a really strong foundation to be able to build on.
How to avoid saturation
Dee: That’s a really, really lovely analogy. And it’s funny, because my next question for you was actually going to be around saturation: is there a saturation point for customers in the onboarding process when they just say: “ I’ve got enough, you know? I’ve had three starters now and I’m perfectly full and I don’t need a main course. So would you please leave me alone?” How do you spot that moment, and can you plan for it?
Val: That’s a great question. That’s where the behavior-based piece that comes into things, right? You have your standard drip campaign that’s based on time, in relationship to when they signed up and when their trial will end. Then you have the behavior-based pieces, which include: are they moving right along with everything you’re asking them to do? Are they even moving ahead of what you’re asking them to do? Or are they doing nothing? Are you continuing to ask them to do things when they haven’t done the first thing? If you’re still offering them course after course after course, and they haven’t touched their soup yet.
Val: Yes, and that’s where a behavior-based approach matters so much, because you can really know a lot of that from segmenting your list and watching how they behave so that you’re really speaking to their exact needs while continuing to talk about the other features. But you’re not overwhelming them with so much information upfront when they came to you for one thing. You can guarantee them upfront that you can accomplish that and then start to sprinkle in the other things you offer.
“As human beings, we build relationships by storytelling. Storytelling is in our blood. It’s what cavemen did on the walls of their caves”
Dee: Is there one email that you think that every SaaS company should be sending?
Val: Well, a welcome email. And by welcome email, I don’t mean, “Here’s your account information, your login and the link to your dashboard.” I mean an actual welcome email that comes from a person, preferably the founder or CEO. It’s not sent from the company, right? And it’s not signed “The Intercom team”, it’s signed by a person from Intercom. The welcome can be telling a little bit of a story about how the company got started and what matters the most to you as a company, as a team, as an individual person. As human beings, we build relationships by storytelling. Storytelling is in our blood. It’s what cavemen did on the walls of their caves. And we have to remember that as marketers, telling stories is the most important part of building a connection with other human beings. And the person on the other side of your emails is a human.
When you send that welcome email and do some storytelling in it, they start to feel a connection to you that goes beyond, “This is a piece of software that is or is not solving a problem for me.” Now, all of a sudden, you start to stand out against your “competition” when you look around and say, “Okay, well we’re a scheduling software and we’re building a personal connection with a brand personality, and our customers know our team members by name, because that’s how we sign our emails.” Versus another scheduling software that sends everything from “the team”. All they talk about is the product and how the product is the best product in the whole world. The customer doesn’t feel as much of a connection to that product as they do to amore personalized experience, which is what we’re all looking for as customers. So, send the welcome email, and send it in a very personal way.
“Email more often than you think you should. Not enough companies are emailing often enough. But you have to make it personal. You have to make it about them”
Val: Email more often than you think you should. Not enough companies are emailing often enough. But you have to make it personal. You have to make it about them. The number one tip I give when I do email audits is to flip the script: change it from features to benefits. What is it that that feature does for that customer? And talk about it like that. Don’t just say, “We built this new dashboard.” Great, nobody cares about the new dashboard. Instead, approach it as: “You said you want to see a particular metric front-and-center every day. So we updated the dashboard to show you a picture of it at the top.” That’s much more compelling to a customer than, “Look at this dashboard we made.” Make it about them, from subject line to the body of the email.
Don’t be The Cheesecake Factory
Val: I was talking to a group of copywriters at the time, and a common problem in freelancers (and especially copywriters) is that we all want to do everything. If you think back to when I started my VA business, I was just doing whatever anyone would hire me to do: loading Shopify products, updating blog posts, project managing shirt projects, whatever someone would pay me for. It made it really hard for me to tell people what I did, and it also made it hard for people to refer me to other business owners. How many other T-shirt companies did my T-shirt company friend know where I could do that same project management? But how many other business owners did he know that – if I’d have been more specific about what kind of work I did – he could have referred me to?
“As far as freelancers go, the more specific you can get about the services you offer, the higher you can price your services, because your value goes up”
So The Cheesecake Factory idea is this: they have like a 24-page menu. I’m not exaggerating either. It’s a very long menu with basically everything under the sun, and then in the world of the cheesecake alone, there are like 50 flavors. And they have to price themselves accordingly, right? So a sandwich is $12 at cheesecake factory. Whereas if you go to a nice Italian restaurant, and they have a one-page menu, the front is the food, the back is the wine, and they offer a dozen things, and that’s it. It’s only Italian food, and then they can say things like, “We hand-make all of our pasta, because we’re not sourcing all these different food types.” And a bowl of spaghetti is $24 instead of a $10 or $12 sandwich, right
As far as freelancers go, the more specific you can get about the services you offer, the higher you can price your services, because your value goes up. You also get to only learn about one thing, which saves you a ton of time, and it makes you an instant expert in an industry. As a copywriter, if you only do sales pages, and you know everything inside and out about the psychology of sales pages and what goes into them and what makes a great sales page, you know exactly how to market yourself. People know exactly how to refer people to you, and then your work becomes a premium because you are an absolute expert on everything sales pages.
“In email and especially in onboarding, what we’re doing is asking people to develop a new habit”
Dee: Before we let you go, I just wanted to ask you something we ask a lot of people. Who’s the business leader that you most admire and why?
Val: The people I admire are people who are more silent business leaders. For example, the two most influential books I read about my work and my business in the last year are Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which is an amazing book. It’s designed as a relationship self-helpy book. That’s the section you’d find it in. But it’s really about communicating with people. Learning the level of communication Marshall has – and what he tries to teach in his books and workshops – is aspirational to me, because he manages to do it in such a way that is inviting and calming and warm and straightforward and assertive. He really sets the bar for me as far as communication goes.
And then the other book I read recently is Atomic Habits by James Clear. It has been so influential on my work, because in email and especially in onboarding, what we’re doing is asking people to develop a new habit. Learning the way habits work in human beings and understanding the depth of research that James has done on habits and habit formation is incredible. The way he has pulled together years and decades of research into one book and one methodology has just been really aspirational to look at from a leadership perspective.
Those two people and books have changed the way I run my business and think about communication and habit building and the way we do email marketing. So they’re definitely my aspirational people.
Dee: Where can people keep up with your work?
Val: Well, first I want to say that I actually have the Dinner Party Strategy as a PDF download. So if you want that, you can go to fixmychurn.com/tdps and download it there. You get the option of joining my email list as well, so following all those laws. You’ll get the breakdown of the Dinner Party Strategy, and I also go into more depth about open rates and subject lines and spam and staying out of the spam folder and all those things.
I write email onboarding teardowns on my blog at fixmychurn.com/blog. You can sign up for our main email list there if you don’t want to get the Dinner Party Strategy, and you’ll get all new onboarding teardowns as they come out. If you want dissections of existing onboarding campaigns and even some swipe copy to take and put on your own, you can find those there.
Dee: Thanks a million for joining us today, Val. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you.
Val: Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
Original artwork by: Josh Miranda