It takes a great deal of time, effort, passion and commitment to create successful businesses today. Recently I had the pleasure of hosting Social Biz Atlanta 2013 where four company founders of inbound marketing and CRM startups discussed how customer engagement has changed in the past 5 years with the rise of social media. They shared a number of their experiences and insights leading them to create successful businesses, which eventually were sold for a combined total of $250 million – and led them to begin the process all over again with new startups.
Kyle Porter, Founder of SalesLoft  leads this Q&A with T.A. McCann, Founder of Gist (acquired by RIM), Jon Ferrarra, Founder of Nimble , and David Cummings, Co-founder of Pardot . Below is an edited transcript of their on-stage conversation. You can see a video of the whole session at the bottom of this post.
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Kyle Porter: T.A., from your first businesses and your early entrepreneurship to now, how have customer expectations changed? How has your understanding of customer expectations changed in the market place?
T.A. McCann: One is on the customer experience side. People’s tolerance for a product that doesn’t work ordoesn’t look like it works very well is small and getting smaller. So you have to hook them very quickly into some sort of value before they’ll make a choice to move on to something.
Second, the engagement models. When we started Gist in 2008, Twitter was just starting to happen. The engagement model, certainly from customer engagement and supportive engagement, we wouldn’t have thought about that at all. How a big portion of our engagement, both in terms of marketing and support, happens on primarily Twitter, followed closely by Facebook and Linkedin.
Twitter, I think, is the most interesting part of that change over the last few years.
Kyle Porter: Jon, when you all built Nimble, how did you account for the way that the customer wants to react? How big a role did that play in the products creation?
Jon Ferrara: One of the things that I learned early on when I first got into sales, is that sales people don’t work in a vacuum. They work as part of a larger team and everybody on that team is part of that conversation. I think that in today’s market place, it is more critical than ever.
What is going on is that the whole customer journey and experience is radically shifting where customers are doing their own homework. They are making their own buying decisions. Then they are starting to yell back at companies on every channel they want to, whatever department they want, and they expect an authentic and relevant response in a timely fashion from that department.
Most companies aren’t prepared for that.
Kyle Porter: David, your business is known for its culture. Can you share some anecdotes about Pardot? How does this air of transparency, openness and personality come out in your messaging and your branding, and in customer relations?
David Cummings: We were really struggling with how to differentiate ourselves from the main competitors in the market. After going through that for about 6 or 12 months, we realized that the market at the time, this was back in 2007/2008, was very much traditional enterprise software.
Pricing wasn’t published, two year contracts were common place and salespeople were pushy. It was just a very traditional enterprise software model. We said, “What happens if we flip this on its head? What if we made our pricing totally transparent? What if we had all month to month, no contracts at all? What if we take all of our knowledge base, all of our on-board materials, even our forum, and make it totally public online? What if we really put everything out there?”
One of the things that we would frequently say internally is, “The best form of sales for us is to educate our customers.”
The best form of sales is really education, knowing that if we educate them as well as we could, providing everything that they needed in a self service manner, at the end of the day they would have a better customer experience.
Kyle Porter: T.A., I have heard you talk a bit about the early days of Gist. How you would set up weekly events where you would have customers come to your office, and you just engage deeply with them.
T.A. McCann: I am really a product kind of guy. I am an engineer. But I really enjoy the direct interaction with the customer.
When I first built Gist I just thought it was for sales people, so I would invite them on Wednesday nights to come to the office, one or two of them. I would spend the first 10 minutes trying to understand what they do. I would learn about new things, whose blogs they read, what technology they use. The next 10 minutes I would show them my very below average version of my product, and get their feedback. The last 10 minutes of their interaction, I would try to share with them a bunch of other solutions I knew that might solve their problem, contact management, CRM, etc.
I did that every Wednesday night for 18 months. So as the team went from me to three, to six, to 12, to 15, the whole team would participate in that. We would stay late after that and drink beer and eat pizza and work late into the night.
Kyle Porter: Jon, your tool actually helps people engage with their customers. What have you learned and what spurred you towards the creation of Nimble?
Jon Ferrara: I am going to tell you a little story about a small company called IBM that does that on a daily basis.
I want you all to go out and search on your Twitter stream, #SocialBizIBM. What you will see is worldwide. There are customer-facing business people at IBM who are, on a daily basis, educating and engaging the constituency out there in the social river.
What that does is build their personal brand. By building their personal brand, they are building a company brand. Today IBM, within two years, has become a thought leader in social business by empowering their customer phase in line-level business people to build their personal brand and thereby build the company brand.
This is the kind of engagement that can truly scale a company and a brand. The problem is when you are doing that, there is no context to the conversation. Basically, you all live in Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare and Google+. Then you try to manage it with HootSuite  or TweetDeck . But none of those conversations are tied back to who you are talking about, the customer/prospect/contacts that your company does business with.
That is what we are trying to solve with Nimble.
Kyle Porter: David, what are some ideas for ways to tactically get that message out and connect with people that are your audience and that you’re looking to build a community with?
David Cummings: I am a big fan of inbound marketing, or content marketing. If you look at JobChangeAlerts , it’s an app that ties into your Linkedin account. It will alert you whenever anybody in your Linkedin network changes jobs, which as a salesperson, is a compelling event with which to reach out and say, “Congrats on your new job.” As well as to stay on top of mine.
Tools in the market combined with content marketing, combined with many applications — many being really tiny special purpose apps that help people solve problems — I think that’s the future of marketing.
Kyle Porter: T.A., where is all of this heading? What are we going to see in the next couple of years?
T.A. McCann: I would argue that most companies, even the most sophisticated ones, don’t yet have a holistic understanding of the user. It is quite difficult. Every now and again you can stitch together a couple of pieces. Somebody read this blog post, retweeted and then bought my product. Even that is sometimes pretty difficult. Let alone they bought my product and they told three other people about it and they told seven other people.
We will get there sometime soon. But that is quite challenging. So I think that is one component of it.
I think it’s this deeper understanding and profiling of people. If you look at it, all of you probably have an email list, right? But can you stack rank that email list based on Klout score, like who is actually influential? Can you stack rank that list on who has some influence to your brand or products? Could you combine those two things together and say who has the real relevance and influence? Who likes my “things,” and how do I make sure to send them a tee shirt?
Jon Ferrara: I think it is all still too complex and hard. I think that all of us, as business professionals, know what we should do. I think as human beings we know what we should do. Do we all eat right? Do we all exercise right? No.
I think that to be a business professional today is hard. I think that every day you wake up and you look at your inbox and you start digging out of that hole in the sand. It never, ever, ever is empty. It continually fills up.
I think that the future is not one monolithic company and product that is going to do all of that for us, like Microsoft Office. I think we all use the best of the breed little pieces and we put them altogether.
So I think that all of these software companies that are emerging today with these open API’s are going to be able to allow you, as a customer, to tie the products together those that best suit you.
Editor’s Note: This interview is a partial transcript of a panel discussion at the Social Biz Atlanta Conference in February 2013. The full video session is below.
This session on customer engagement is brought to you as part of the One on One interview series  with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This interview has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the player above.