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Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Erica Kuhl, CEO & Strategic Community Consultant [VIDEO]

Erica Kuhl established and led Salesforce’s Trailblazer community programs for 17 years, growing the community from zero to 3 million. Along the way, she transformed her learnings into core strategies, which she now applies to communities across market spaces, sizes, and scopes as a community consultant at her own business, Erica Kuhl Consulting.

Her depth of knowledge and expertise is no joke, and she recently sat down to share some of it with the Uncommon community. She also co-hosts a podcast, In Before the Lock, with community-focused peer Brian Oblinger, where they dive deep into community-building best practices.

Much of our conversation is below, edited and condensed for clarity:

Uncommon: Let’s start with the big question first. What are some of your favorite metrics to look at when measuring that ROI and how do you get to them?

Erica: This is probably one of the main things people come to me to talk about and try to figure out for their community because it's just really hard to do...Before I unveil all of the metrics that are my favorite—I think that when I really hit my stride at Salesforce, when I was building the community there, when I made that connection between community and bottom-line business value, magic started happening because it brought community to the forefront. It wasn't just for fun and games, it was for real business value. I have this joke on the podcast—that it's a drinking game every time I or Brian, my co-host, say the word ‘strategy,’ because I can't talk about anything unless I talk about a strategy first.

Once I get an aligned strategy and figure out what it is on earth [someone is] trying to do, then the metrics fall out from there. I break them out into two main areas: One is more the big business, north star metrics. And then there's all the health and wellness metrics that you need to also achieve in order to get to those big business metrics. I tell people, "You don't get those big business metrics overnight. Those take time. You can have your eye on them. It's good to stay aligned toward them, but you need all of those other metrics to drive you." So I stay focused on driving expanded revenue—so bigger deals, upsell, cross-sell kinds of things.

I think about community driving product adoption. And I think about them driving down attrition or churn. Then there's also self-service scale and case deflection. People like to call it that. I'd say those are the ones that, generally speaking, everybody wants because it's a problem that everybody has. One of those, if not all of those.

Can you talk a little bit about getting internal buy-in with stakeholders? What things worked to help bring people along in saying, "Okay, maybe there's something to community"?

For me it was all about what's in it for them, while I'm staying focused. And you can ask anyone at Salesforce that's still there, that was there... what was my number one focus? It was always the customer. But I know that's not always everyone's focus. But I tried to [show] what was in it for each type of group that needed to participate in the community, because it couldn't just be me. I couldn't do it alone. Before anyone was really laying out a value proposition story to me, [it was] just about understanding what each of the organizations needed. And I talk a lot about this, about business acumen.

I think that community people right now, we don't have that as a part of our standard skillset. But for me, understanding the business of each of the different key parts of the organization, being able to speak their language and being able to position the community and their engagement in the community and what it was going to bring to them and to their business, that was key. So I was basically able to gain a few people, a few advocates, and sell them as hard as I could on the value they were going to get from participating with me. And from there, I poured all my energy into them. And just like I poured all my energy into my customers, I took internal stakeholders the same way. I made them wildly successful and I gained so much excitement that they ended up creating the ripple effect for me.

Now, I do it very strategically. I know exactly what each organization needs very specifically. What they're going to get for their participation in that community attached to their business goals. Not my business goals, but theirs.

Would you say that there are specific teams that are the best ones to win first or that you can actually convince most easily because they get to see that one-on-one direct relationship?

I basically say that you don't get to say you don't want to listen to your customer's feedback. You can decide small, medium, and large, what strategy you want to invest in from the start. But the minute you put up a community where customers can talk to each other, they're going to put customer feedback in a community, whether you give them a form or way to do it or not. And so for me, that is somebody I go for and it's somebody I really try to align with.

But I would say for me, it's customer success. I see the most connection with customer success because they're generally, as they're growing, trying to support at scale. They’re really attached to different kinds of metrics, but adoption is one of those metrics and community is a breeding ground for that. It's a breeding ground for content. It's a way you can still give a human touch to people, whether you are literally one-to-one or trying to manage a suite of different organizations or different companies. And I find that they're excited about that kind of content and that kind of way to touch their customers in a high touch way, even though they're trying to scale. So that's usually my go-to and our metrics are usually pretty darn aligned at the end of the day with customer success. So, it's not a stretch. There's still so many others, but I'd say that one and product are probably the two that have to be on board.

I know that our Uncommon community members are trying to work through where they should focus their time first in terms of program building. Can you walk us through the evolution of some of Salesforce’s Trailblazer programs? How did you evaluate where you should focus your own time in terms of the solution you were trying to build?

Why I decided to start where I did [at Salesforce] was I had really one goal that I wanted to accomplish, and that was to get people to answer each other's questions. We were growing so fast, hundreds of students [were] coming through, and it was just not possible for our Support organization to try to scale.

[Customers] wanted unfiltered [answers], they wanted use case examples of people doing it on the ground. I knew there wasn't going to be this giant backing of support, and I'm actually glad at the end of the day because it created this peer-to-peer engagement. And so, for me that was my sole focus— getting questions answered and getting customers connected to each other that were out alone in their different regions. So, that led to forums. And I'm still such a believer in forums. I know people think, "Oh, forums are dead.” They're not dead. They are so not dead. They're absolutely quintessential. Sometimes they’re the single most important part of a community. And those grew from Q&A to also being about best practices.

That was my number one focus. I was like, anyone that's contributing to each other creating customer-to-customer content, that's my jam. Right now I'm not taking on anything else. So, that was how I drove my strategy at the beginning. That may or may not be someone else's strategy, but the net that I hope somebody would take away from that is to start focused and start strong. Don't necessarily think you need to take everything on.

Another thing that I kept my eye on was the persona. I took on the change-maker persona—that meant [the person who] was going to be the one that was setting up configuring and then helping roll that out in their organization. I really honed all of my content and all of the engagement on that particular persona. That’s where I started. And then I guess everything from there, I'll say the common thread and then I'll pause to see if we want to take this a different direction, was I listened to them. I really knew them. They’re people. And I think, I hope everybody knows that at the end of the day, whether you're building an online community, offline community, whatever you're building, they're people.

Getting to know them, getting to know their motivations and listening to them and letting them be a part of the conversation and a part of the strategy, that was huge for me. So, once I got something dialed in, I was the enabler. I was like, “I just need to enable them to get what they want.”

Where did your community team sit at Salesforce? And would you structure your own community team inside the org that [same] way knowing what you know now?

The question I get asked all the time is very same thing, ”Where does it belong?" I say, very generically, go where the money is. Go as close to the money as you can. Who's going to invest in you?

As long as [you have] an innovative leader that understands that it's a service function and who has money to give you what you need to do to serve. That's like a super long evolution story. In a lot of cases, that is Marketing. Marketing has a lot of money. They do great things. They get a lot of money. And so, if that's where it needs to live and you can then serve [there], by all means.

I've seen really successful communities living in Customer Success when the alignment is more about best practices and adoption and knowledge. My preference is not to put in Support, only because it gets very, very siloed. If I can't have my dream, which is the C-suite and [Community] sits among the highest level, the reality is I'd say Marketing and Customer Success are great options.

I'd love to get your view on the landscape of who is and who should be building community today.

I'm convinced everybody needs it. It's just a matter of how do they need it? What does it look like? How does it manifest itself? What are the goals? What are they looking for? It is not just B2B SaaS. In fact, I thought when I ventured out, that was going to be my jam, and I wanted to add another word on it, what I thought it would be was ‘enterprise’.

What I'm finding is the most exciting thing that I've been able to see is more startups—late-stage startups—taking advantage of this community strategy as part of their growth strategy, as they're [moving] toward going public or as they're charging toward another round of funding, or as they're charging towards being acquired. And they're spending a good amount of money and spending a lot of time building a strategy to build a community early. I think that [they’re] using it as a differentiator, it's setting a tone for companies, and these are companies in crazy different industries, from travel to consumer electronics to healthcare to...I mean, you name it.

Interestingly enough, I'm not in the business of convincing people they need community. So if they're coming to me, they're already there, which is great, because that's not the way I want to run my business. I'm the person you come to when you want community. When you want it and you want to do it right and you want it to be successful in the shortest amount of time possible, I'm that person.

I find that the first parts of my conversation are just trying to get at the why, like, "Okay, you want it. Now, do you know why you want it?" Because I think they need to start understanding that they either don't know the answer to that question, or that maybe what they think they want is actually not what they want. And so for me, as soon as I then start working with them, that's where the game starts. Let’s start really honing in on what you want. Now, does this match what your customers want? Does this match to what the rest of your business wants? And then let's start building the strategy around that. But I find that everybody skips that step and they go right to, "We bought this tool and we hired this person." I try to reel people back and start with why they want to do this.

When you're advising clients on hiring their own community teams, what would you say are some key attributes that people should look for?

When you go into more of the community manager and junior community manager roles, I'm looking for people to think a little bit broader than just experience in community because we're just not there yet as an industry. You're going to miss out on a lot of great people.

So I started trying to expand the horizons of recruiters to look at people in incredibly intense, empathetic customer facing roles, like customer support. People that have spent a good amount of time in that kind of role make incredible community managers, ultimately because of their connection to the customer, their empathetic nature, and their ability to listen and then take action. Genius. And ultimately, that word empathy, that trumps all. You can teach someone how to be a community manager. You can teach the concepts of that. But you cannot teach someone to be empathetic and care about the customer. It has to be in them. I know that sounds a little squishy, but I look for that more than anything. And then I also just look for people that have done some due diligence on why they care about being your community manager.

At Uncommon and Common Room, we think that a community is strongest when it uplifts one another. To that end, we ask each of our experts, like you, to choose a nonprofit whose cause and mission you want to highlight, and then we donate in your honor. Will you tell us about the organization that you choose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to?

I love this. And it's easy for me because I put all my passionate energy around the National MS Society. So I've been supporting multiple sclerosis for over a decade now. One of my closest friends has been affected by it. And we've been biking for MS with a team at Salesforce. Now, I bike with an extended team. We raise money every single year for MS, and then we go on a two-day bike ride over 199 miles.

We ride to try to get closer to a cure. So MS is very close to my heart. There is no cure. So it's very, very important and it affects my demographic of people too. And it's unbelievable when you think about it. If you start talking about it now, everybody knows someone that's affected by MS.

Check out our full playlist to learn more from community experts like Asana’s Joshua Zerkel, Confluent’s Ale Murray, AWS’ Jeff Barr, Loom’s Shahed Khan, and more.