How to walk a Fresh way towards CX and EX

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On November 11, 2021 Freshworks held its annual Freshworks Refresh event. This year, the event had a hybrid format with around 250 customers, partners and analysts participating on site while around 17k people have registered for online participation.

There was a social pre-event and an after-event for entertainment and networking purposes.

The event itself was themed around “delight made easy”. Naturally, it had different agendas for customers and partners on one side and analysts on the other side.

The morning was dedicated to a 4-hour sequence of keynote sessions for everyone. The event was kicked off with a keynote by Neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and author David Eagleman, who spoke about the “Science of Delight”. The closing keynote was delivered by Amy Purdy, who shared her inspiring story of how she used creativity, a positive outlook and a never-give-up attitude to turn her life from nearly dying, finding herself with a double lower leg amputation and failing organs into becoming a 3 times Paralympic medalist. Between these two speakers, who set the scene, Freshworks offered product and customer information.

Freshworks CEO Girish Mathrubootham gave a product update that linked into Eagleman’s message and a distributed customer panel spoke about their experiences with Freshworks, how they implemented Freshworks solutions and how these help the respective businesses. Rounding this off, Freshworks awarded several prizes to customers who offer exceptional EX or CX and showcased the winners of an internal hackathon. The latter is relevant because these winning solutions made it into or will make it into Freshworks products.

The afternoon was filled with customer related information in the customer and partner track and product and strategy sessions for the analysts. The analyst track started with an open Q & A session with CEO Girish Mathrubootham, a session about the changing role of the CIO and continued with product updates and a distributed fireside chat with a customer.

Every significant player – and every player that wants to be looked at as significant – is positioning itself as a platform player and its platform as the foundation for the ability to generate a great customer- and/or user experience. This can be observed in offerings for all sizes of customers, from small businesses to enterprise. The definition of what a platform is and contains varies. So does the maturity of the various platforms.

As I have repeatedly written before, having a great technology platform is not enough to enable experiences.

There is more to being able to create an individual experience than just a technology platform. Apart from an appropriate, customer-oriented strategy and a culture to match, that is.

The platform that is needed to enable experiences at scale for organizations consists of more than IaaS and PaaS. Software vendors that want to be successful platform players need to be able to deliver on four areas to succeed:

  • (Technology) Platform
  • Ecosystem
  • Insight
  • Productivity

By extension, this means that smaller vendors that cannot or do not want to deliver on these four dimensions need to choose the platform or platforms they want to become a part of.

The Building Blocks of enabling Customer Experience
Figure 1: The Building Blocks of enabling Customer Experience

This part I need to cut into two sections, one about the event itself and one about the content.

The event

First, kudos to the team who organized it. The event was well organized and structured. The Freshworks team around Alan Berkson and Shelbi Gomez was always available with a helping hand. I think the team can be sad that only 7 analysts came on site.

Plenty has been said in the past years about Las Vegas conference venues, so I do not need to add anything but that we certainly got our ten thousand steps. Seriously, the Mandalay Bay is a good choice.

The two external keynotes by David Eagleman and Amy Purdy have been highly engaging and in the case of David Eagleman also highly relevant to the event theme. The following keynote by Freshworks founder and CEO Girish Mathrubootham showed how ease of use and delight can be combined. Doing this, he established an emotional connection around delight and ease. Using this smart approach, these terms are now tied to the Freshworks brand.

Another kicker was the customer panel with representatives of DHL, GE Digital Aviation Software, Carrefour and TaylorMade who talked about which parts of the Freshworks software they use, how the implementations went (easy as) and how they use Freshworks to pursue the digital transformation of their respective businesses. In line with the nature of the overall event, it was made up in a hybrid way with one participant attending from a remote location.

Figure 2: Freshworks customer panel; photo by Thomas Wieberneit

From a brand perspective, these customers are at the upper end of Freshwork’s sweet spot in the market, but then this emphasizes on the company’s ability to scale up.

These customers, as well as the customer representatives, who accepted the prizes often spoke with strong positive emotion about Freshworks, rather than only pointing out rationally where and how the products help their business. This increased the tie between delight and ease on one side and Freshworks on the other side.

Why is this important? Because every significant player is playing a platform game, which also reduces the differentiating factors. Consequently, it is important to be front of mind when it comes to positively loaded keywords. This worked well in quite some industries, think automobiles or smartphones, to name only two. Freshworks establishes itself as a likeable brand.

In an interesting twist, Freshworks not only presented several customer awards but also gave a glance at what I would call “employee-driven innovation”. Chief Product Officer Prakash Ramamurthy presented the winners of an internal hackathon. Their implementations did make it or will do make it into the products.

The afternoon started with an open Q&A with Girish Mathrubootham who openly answered all questions that were fired at him, which is testament to authenticity. I didn’t fully understand the relevance of the subsequent CIO session, although it seemed to partly set the stage for the AIOps topic that came up a little later. It was followed by a fireside chat with a customer and various product roadmaps along with their respective Q&A rounds. Some of the sessions were based on more detailed video information that was made available to us before the event. It was often important to have this material reviewed before the event.

The event overall felt good. It was well structured, quite rich on information and offered many strong customer testimonials. I think that especially the customer success stories have been a strength of this event. More of them might have even strengthened it even further. In any case it was good to be able to freely speak with customers.

There was ample opportunity to network with Freshworks people, partners, and customers. As written above, from a session point of view I wonder how Amy Purdy fit into the message and what the sense of the CIO session was.

Being asked, Marshall Lager confirms that “very little of my time felt wasted, and I’m the first to admit it if I tune out of a presentation. I think they missed the mark by making Delight the theme, though, because the content didn’t really bear that concept out.

Having been one of a few on-site analysts, what I missed was more possibility to interact with the remote colleagues. This may have been due to the tight schedule. As a caveat, I am aware that this is difficult to achieve.

All in all, I like the concept.

The messaging

Messaging is a difficult topic. Marshall Lager opines that the event tended to lean “into the message at the expense of substance.” I would agree to this as I sometimes had a feeling of questions being dodged by executives.

The topic of messaging is however, not only from a CRM (or CX) point of view, very important. During last year’s Refresh, this has been a major discussion point with the analysts, which was partly addressed.

According to Chief Product Officer Prakash Ramamurthy “CRM now does include support. Lots of investment is going into creating a unified solution. We have strong offerings in all three areas marketing, sales and service/support.

Still, the Freshworks CRM suite message is slightly confusing.

Freshworks announced a bundle named Freshstack, which consists of Freshsales, Freshmarketer and Freshdesk and that is dedicated to startups. Given this, it covers all functions of a CRM. Why not name it (Fresh)CRM? Especially, since some of the product slides refer to this combination of products as CRM.

Figure 3: The Freshworks product portfolio; source: Freshworks

Freshsales and Freshmarketer, on the other hand, are grouped as the Freshsales Suite and marketed as an “All-in-one CRM”. This weakens the idea of the “One Platform for One Unified Business” and confuses the CRM (or CX) message. Again, CRM consists of marketing, sales, and service.

Figure 4: Freshsales Suite; source: FreshworksFigure 4: Freshsales Suite; source: Freshworks

Still, this package acknowledges the trend towards fostering a closer collaboration of marketing and sales departments to achieve one common goal and not two separate ones although there is no talk about revenue operations, which is the next evolution of this trend.

The functional roadmap of the overall customer solutions suite appears sound; yet it shows that Freshsales and Freshmarketer are fairly young products.

Which is a fact that can be used as an advantage, as there is little legacy. Freshworks Head of Product for the Freshsales Suite, Peter Stadlinger is well aware of this fact. In the prerecorded part of the session he speaks of an “unfair advantage” that Freshworks has. It remains to be seen how the company uses this advantage.

Freshworks clearly positions itself as a platform vendor – like everyone else. Asked what beyond high usability the differentiators of the platform are, VP of Product Marketing, Neo, Tejas Bhandarkar maintains that “our platform strategy is based on 3 things:

a) giving a unified experience to customers through unified customer experience, collaboration, multi-channel, federated search, etc.,

b) delivering insights built on data, enabling customers to compose their own analytics the way they want, and

c) empowering developers to build simple as well as sophisticated apps easily.”

Prakash Ramamurthy extends that “easily customizable and extensible is what customers call out as a differentiator. The extended roadmap includes analytics.” This extension is important as several customers pointed at analytics when queried about where Freshworks could improve.

In addition to this, Freshworks recently partnered with UIflow, to enrich the Neo platform with low code abilities, while looking at Slack and Microsoft when it comes to productivity and collaboration apps.

So, looking at the components of a platform, Freshworks plays the ecosystem card in these areas.

Interestingly, Freshworks also does not talk much about AI and machine learning as part of the platform. These topics, e.g., in the form of the virtual assistant Freddy, mainly come up in the application layer. Freshworks wants to provide purpose-built features and not deliver AI as a technology. “Users do not care whether it is an AI or not”. Still, the foundation for these purpose-built features needs to lie in the platform, i.e., Neo, to allow for efficient development and deployment. I think that this topic deserves some more clarity.

However, Freshworks chose an interesting approach out of the dilemma that being a “platform vendor” is not a differentiator anymore. This approach is the use of emotion.

The message that permeated all communication is “we want your success; we are easy to deal with and we create our solutions for ease of use”. This was confirmed by customer testimonials in an impressive manner, even considering that customers who attend this type of event are rather positive and customers who get on stage are even more positive. With this, and with the themes of “delight” and “ease”, Freshworks managed to tie strong positive emotions to the brand. This is a path to differentiation that other vendors have not yet chosen to this extent, and this might give Freshworks an edge.

All this leads to the question how Freshworks gets into and grows in and with accounts. There are two main ways, organically and via the ecosystem, i.e., partners. Freshworks has partners with presences in more than fifty countries.

Although partners have not been that big a topic during Refresh2021, Freshworks has a network of more than 500 partners and a marketplace that lists 1,100+ applications. That certainly gives some scale and reach into various markets.

The company clearly positions itself for the mid-market. At the same time, it opens itself to enterprises that do not want or need too much customization but prefer functionality out of the box. Still, Freshworks wants to establish that its solutions do scale and are attractive for (divisions of) enterprises. This is in alignment with “delight made easy”.

A division that implements Freshworks then grows its implementation footprint in two ways, increasing usage across countries and rolling out additional solutions. Eventually, other divisions might implement Freshworks, too – a classical land-and-expand strategy. Asked whether the employee solutions and the customer solutions mutually enable this strategy, replies seem to suggest that land-and-expand works well between the customer solutions, e.g., a division starting with Freshdesk and then rolling out Freshsales or vice versa, starting with Freshsales and then moving on with Freshdesk; the employee solutions so far seem to play a smaller role here.

The last topic of interest is the one of industries. Freshworks does not offer industry solutions. Being asked when this will change and a vertical strategy be employed, Girish Mathrubootham answered that the company will remain horizontal to ensure that the market stays broad enough. While this is a sound answer, one might argue that addressing verticals does not reduce the size of the addressable market but adds ease to verticals that are specifically targeted. This, especially in times of industry clouds. It might become necessary to explain why Freshworks does not require industry solutions. This should be possible, also following the theme of ease. In any case it will be interesting to see how a pureplay horizontal strategy pans out.

Overall, I think that we see another interesting player emerge that can be a good and viable alternative to the bigger players in the CX market, given that customizing requirements are not too big and that there is an own local presence or a local partner.

Freshworks is a young company. The most mature products are on the customer service and ITSM sides. The sales, marketing and employee solutions are younger and, given that, still somewhat simpler than other solutions. On the other hand, there is an ambitious, young company behind them. Building and delivering on the existing messaging will be key.

The Clash of Titans seems to get an additional participant.

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