November 18, 2020

In the world of SaaS products, the user’s voice matters. A lot.

For the growing industry — the global SaaS market size is projected to reach $307.3 billion by 2026, according to Valuates Reports — the widespread adoption of user-centric roadmaps and a dedicated interest in user feedback and input have put users in the driver’s seat. 

Without understanding the pain points and specific needs of users, product launches would fall flat — why create a product that users don’t want or need?

“I see more companies doing net promoter score surveys, using tools like SurveyMonkey and Qualtrics to gauge customer satisfaction and involving customers very early in the process of feature validations,” said BlackLine Senior Vice President of Product Manoj Narayan. “In the era of on-prem, it used to be that companies would ship things out and figure out feedback in future releases.”

Even in the midst of an industry-wide focus on the customer, BlackLine, a financial accounting SaaS platform, aims to stand out: its goal is to be the “model customer-centric SaaS company.”
 

In the era of on-prem, it used to be that companies would ship things out and figure out feedback in future releases.”


According to a former BlackLine customer, and the company’s current Chief Transformation Officer Tammy Coley, that means BlackLine radically incorporates customers into the production cycle, allowing them to have an active voice in the products being created. On another level, it also means guiding customers into the new era of SaaS products — which means leaving behind long-used and much-beloved Excel. 

“This digital transformation journey can seem big and overwhelming,” Coley said. “One of the things that we do is break the journey down into smaller manageable pieces and help customers define the journey that’s going to be most effective for them and their organization.”

To Narayan, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in accounting that’s been thousands of years in the making. 

“Accounting goes back to ancient Mesopotamia when writing and counting were invented,” Narayan said. “We’re in an industry that has existed for centuries and a lot of these processes are still done manually. We bring in more automation, leverage new technologies and make the life of an accountant much easier.” 

Built In LA spoke to Coley and Narayan to learn more about how BlackLine is chasing its goal of becoming the picture of customer-centric SaaS companies — and bringing a much-needed update to accounting. 

After all, Narayan quips, “It’s only been 7,000 years.”

 

blackline employees in a meeting
The blackline team 

 

Before we dive in, can you shed some light on how BlackLine helps customers?

Chief Transformation Officer Tammy Coley: When we’re out there working with our customers, there are some of them who love using Excel. They’ve been using it forever and are comfortable with it. They’ve got their fancy macros, some of them even using Visual Basic with Excel, and they have really cool stuff set up.

When we introduce them to BlackLine, we have to help them understand that the things that they built are awesome, but the potential for your macro to break, to accidentally bring in the wrong formula or accidentally miskey something, means there’s also a risk associated with Excel. What BlackLine can do is bring an element of automation and control that they are not otherwise able to have with simple spreadsheets.

 

We can see why users would like to use products where their voices are centered. But how is that a beneficial business strategy for BlackLine? 

Senior VP of Product Manoj Narayan: Customer adoption is easier because you’re building solutions that the customer wants — otherwise, you’d be building something in a vacuum. Secondly, you’re really helping the customer in their day-to-day work. You’re a part of their daily life and their business process. That’s how technology should be, rather than saying, “Now this is new technology and everyone needs to work this way.” That doesn’t work. You have to be part of your customer’s life. That’s why it is important to involve customers very early. 

 

The Six Goals of BlackLine

  • More customer confidence in financials.
  • Accuracy.
  • Speed up the time it takes to close books.
  • Retain talent in finance departments.
  • Optimize overall accounting function.
  • Being a trusted business partner.

 

What weight does customer feedback have on the improvements BlackLine makes?

Coley: When I was a customer, I felt like I was a part of BlackLine. I would request enhancements and when I saw those enhancements come to fruition for all customers, it was the coolest thing. There are still things I see today, where I say, “Hey, I asked for that!” I don’t know any other vendor where I felt like I could impact their roadmap as a customer.

Now, when I’m working with customers and they suggest things that I hadn’t even thought about, it’s amazing to see our product team respond and develop that technology.
 

I don’t know any other vendor where I felt like I could impact their roadmap as a customer.”


Speaking of which, how do you decide what new features to introduce?

Narayan: The way we build our roadmap is based on two things. One is innovation, which looks at the new ideas and business processes out there to see if there’s anything we can automate. The second bucket we have is customer-led enhancements, for which we have a certain percentage of our development capacity. That’s where Tammy’s team and the other customer-facing teams serve as our eyes and ears. They talk day in, day out with customers to ensure their voices are heard and bring that to the product team. They help me stream what they’re seeing and what we should prioritize. 

It’s a two-pronged approach. One is using the collective brainpower of BlackLine itself to come up with new innovations. The other prong is crowdsourcing and leveraging the customer’s collective feedback and bringing it into the product. 

 

 

What are some other ways you keep customers front and center?

Coley: We have a customer advisory board to make sure that we are bringing in that voice of the customer and keeping it at the forefront of everything we do. It’s not just about the product — it’s about how we service our customers, even down to how we market. So we have this board of trusted customers to help us make decisions on how to best serve them. They’re not all our biggest clients or all of our smallest, it’s a variety of customers from different industries with different relative price strengths that help us stay in touch with the voice of the customer.

One thing that we are doing differently now, and we learned this from our customer advisory board, is that customers don’t necessarily want us to build exactly what they think they need. Sometimes, they want us to share with them the leading practices that we have learned from our 3,000 other customers. 

 

Fond memories from a former customer

In Coley’s former role, she worked as an executive director of accounting and internal control that made the switch to BlackLine. “We automated over 80 percent of our reconciliation processes and 90 percent of our journal entries, and we reduced our monthly close from 10 days to a consistent three-day close,” Coley said. “We were able to remove about 75 percent of manual effort and empower our accountants to take their role to a whole new level.”

 

How does the customer-centric philosophy impact company growth? 

Narayan: As BlackLine grows and our user base grows, we want to be the go-to solution for CFOs. So how do we grow that way? 

One way we grow is in terms of feature functionality. As we introduce new solutions and features within an application, we have more users coming in leveraging the newer technologies that are out there. Our technology has to be scalable. Another way we’re growing is by buying. We just acquired a company called Rimilia and are partnering with other vendors, like SAP. 

 

BlackLine team meeting at the LA office
A BlackLine meeting at their LA office.

 

How does it affect your team’s development?

Coley: I’ve grown so much since I’ve been at BlackLine. People have the opportunity to move between teams — most of my team came from another internal team. It’s awesome to have someone who’s had experience as a business development representative (BDR) and with implementations who then join my team for a while. The perspective that those people bring, with all the different experiences across the different teams, is great for them, their careers and for the customer. Everybody wins.

Narayan: If you have kids or nieces or nephews, you know that they bring a toy to school to show and tell — that’s how they open up, speak and start expressing themselves. Here, we do that not with kindergarteners but instead with our product managers who come in every week for a show and tell.  

It’s not something where they have to prepare a deck — they just share what they are working on, take pride in and explain how it’s going to benefit our customers. It’s one way people can take ownership of what they’re working on. 

BlackLine also has a lot of interns who come back to work for us. While the next generation may not be accountants or have the most experience, they bring with them different ideas and perspectives. That’s going to be our user base going forward, so we want those people to be a part of BlackLine and bring that knowledge to us. 

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