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About Alex Farmer
Alex is a CS executive with experience building post-sale teams to reduce churn at high-growth B2B SaaS scale-ups. He is the Founder and CEO of Customer Success Excellence – the world’s first awards event dedicated to the Customer Success profession and has been recognized as a 2021 Top 25 Customer Success Influencer and 2020 Top 100 Customer Success Strategist by SuccessHacker. He is currently serving as the VP Customer Success at Cognite, a global industrial AI SaaS company supporting the full-scale digital transformation of heavy-asset industries around the world.
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Josh Schachter 0:00
Hey everybody, and welcome to this episode of [Un]churned and I’m Josh Schachter, CEO and founder of UpdateAI. Really excited to be here today with Alex farmer VP of CS at Cognite. Alex, welcome. Thank you for being on the show.
Alex farmer 0:23
Super excited to be here, Josh. Thanks for having me.
Josh Schachter 0:28
Did I say the name of your company correctly?
Alex farmer 0:31
It’s cognize. You said cognize. But it’s fine. I’d like to have some time.
Josh Schachter 0:37
You know that the syllables were always the hardest thing in Spanish class in high school getting the accents correctly. Sorry. Do you mean syllables? Absolutely. Yes, indeed. Yeah. Let’s do it again. Yeah, you get all my artists.
Alex farmer 0:54
Ah, I’m still working on we got.
Josh Schachter 0:56
Yeah, right. So VP of Customer Success. And cognate, founder of the Customer Success excellence awards. And we want to talk about that. You were previously at Sage people running ces over there. And you’re a top 25 influencer of 2021. From the success hacker, folks, congratulations on that. If I had a little button for Round of applause, I would I would give that to you. You guys just wrapped up your June edition of the CES Excellence Awards in London. How’d it go?
Alex farmer 1:32
The first edition Josh indeed, it wasn’t London, this is where I live. I’m originally from California. And that’s where the accent comes from. But it went very well, you know, I, I’m not an event planner. I’m an amateur event planner at best. But, you know, all of the things that could go wrong did not go wrong, which was great. But most importantly, I think we achieved our goal, I set the bar pretty low. If my if our, if our generous sponsors are listening, please, please close your ears, the bar was set very low. Because ultimately, the goal was just to do it and make it good enough for us to accomplish our goal, which was to really find that next generation or the less, let’s say the quieter the maybe higher quality voices in customer success, right. And you know, the awards gala. And the nice meal and open bar was the cherry on top if you like, but we definitely accomplish our mission. And I’m really excited about trying to continue to highlight those people who are really maybe taking less time on LinkedIn, and more time invested in advancing our profession, which I think for I’ll speak for myself when I say present company excluded there. But that’s that’s the goal. And that’s exactly why we exist. So we’re really happy to also be bringing it to the Americas later in 2022, as well. So stay tuned for that one.
Josh Schachter 2:50
Yeah, I want to probe into that. It sounds like I’m not going to get much out of you there. But I would love to know what the Stay tuned is. It’s been checked out the website and the whole, you know, coming soon. Stay tuned. Can you give us any detail? Yeah.
Alex farmer 3:04
Want me to break some news, Josh? Is that what you’re looking for? All right. occations news, breaking podcasts. Jackie, this is yeah, I’m gonna call you Wolf Blitzer. Here we go. You need the big breaking news banner here on the video. But I can’t tell you the location yet. Because we haven’t decided but I can tell you that we’re thinking about. I mean, there’s a couple of things that I would have liked to have done differently. And you know, this is again, it’s a labor of love. It’s largely me and another, somebody who I met actually in that LinkedIn echo chamber who’s volunteering his time as well. But more time, for folks to apply. We had one exactly one month open for nominations to be submitted. And we’re asking people to submit a lot of information. You know, this is not a popularity contest. This is a, let’s say, quality over quantity, right? If you get one nomination or 10, it doesn’t matter, we take the best case that you make. So So giving people more time, we’re thinking about opening nominations in September or October. And then having our judges also have a couple of months to review those nominations. It was pretty, we asked a lot of other judges in a short period of time. And that means that I think the awards will be hosting somewhere. I can tell you we’re looking to do somewhere warm in some way or maybe not on the coast. I’m from San Francisco, and I’m actually headed over to San Francisco for a big ces conference in a couple of weeks. I’m coming home, but there’s plenty of CES programming on the coasts. So trying to find a place where it’s
Josh Schachter 4:30
a good bet that Alex, can we just say that you’re going to pulse?
Alex farmer 4:35
I’m going to call us Yeah, exactly. I’ll see you there everyone. I’m looking forward to that. I’m actually
Josh Schachter 4:40
talking by the way I’m hoping to really like open up here you know, I forgot to do that. The the Unturned segment upfront to really kind of build the relationship with you. Maybe we have to revert back to that and loosen. Yep. Yeah. Yeah. Good.
Alex farmer 4:52
Just be an open book and stop being so cryptic. Is that that those are the kinds of top two great, great, great. So I’m gonna pause I’m not Gonna be cryptic about that. But we haven’t launched. We haven’t decided on a city yet. But we’re thinking about somewhere in the south or the southeast, let’s say where it’s warm. We’re thinking about doing it in February as well, in 2023, that’s where the awards gala is going to be. And I will say we’re looking to do at least 300 to 400 attendees, the one in the awards gala in London, we had about 175. And it was a packed house, but I think I’ve just actually watched the video back from the highlight reel, which is not public yet, but maybe I can break the news that it’ll be public today. I’ll announce it here. If you need some news. It’s not even newsworthy, but let’s just go with that. The recap video, we’re gonna we’re gonna make live so people can understand what the hell I’m talking about. They can see it with their own eyes. But yeah, we’re thinking about somewhere in the south or somewhere warm. It’s not coastal. So you can find me on LinkedIn, you make your suggestions, everybody, there you go. But we’re looking forward to it. I think February 2023. That’s the news that we can bring. Awesome. February 2023. You heard it here, folks. First, folks. First. That’s right. Josh first. What a privilege that
Josh Schachter 6:03
is February 2023. We’ll see you in Nashville, Tennessee for the next customer success. Okay,
Alex farmer 6:08
Josh Schachter 6:10
That’s my good guess.
Alex farmer 6:11
It’s a good guess. I would say it’s on the shortlist. I’ve got three, you know, why don’t you just say the three I can tell you the three that I have in mind. Okay. You got Miami. Okay, Miami, great choice far for the coast to get to for the West Coast, especially Austin, Texas, really big CS community out there with no kind of home turf vendor, right. And then Nashville is one that hasn’t been on the top of the list. But I’ve seen a lot of companies now hosting events there. And it looks pretty exciting. So I think those three are probably the most likely. And I’ll let the LinkedIn the podcast and LinkedIn audience, fill in the blanks here. Maybe we’ll I don’t know, it’s not democracy, but we’ll see what we end up with.
Josh Schachter 6:51
Okay, fair enough. Should we go a little bit deeper here in the conversation, we’ll get to some more some more meat. But But before actually, we do that, because you’ve referenced it twice. Now. Something that I’ve talked a lot about with with other CS leaders, and it’s this kind of customer success echo chamber, that seems to be have evolved, which, by the way, is a great thing, in many ways. Like, I’ve seen this rise in the voice of customer success. So I applaud and support that. And that’s what we all need to work together to increase the influence stature, you know, impressions of CES. But what’s your opinion on that? Because I get the sense that you do have an opinion on it.
Alex farmer 7:34
And opinion on a lot of things. But this this thing is included? Josh, indeed. I mean, I think I’m a little bit worried, you know, about, you know, it’s a professional, it’s very open community, people give their time and their energy to advance our profession. And I worry a little bit about kind of that energy not then being applied to finding new energizers. Because, you know, people have a certain amount of experience and experience kind of shapes your perspective. But more different varied experiences and more perspectives help advance our conversation in our profession. You know, I think we’re, as you say, we’re very early in, in the the customer success movements. I hate to use that word, because it’s just a job function. It’s not some like big change campaign, but, you know, the customer success. Environment, let’s say. And there’s a lot of people that I think, and I’m not sure why, right, you know, again, that’s why we created the awards. It’s to, at least in a meritocratic way, identify some folks who we’d love to invite in, right, to that conversation. But I think there’s a couple of reasons why I feel that maybe we are where we are. And again, no disrespect to those who are actively participating in this thought leadership circle, right, you know, it’s their, their opinions are important. But But I think we need more because people need to be challenged, right? You know, you if you hear a certain certain folks kind of just repeating the same stuff, you’re on your own, maybe it’s their thing. But who’s coming in and saying, actually, you know what, I did it differently. And it worked better. Right, you know, I feel like we’re still kind of stuck in this customer success is not support, or we’re different to account management, theoretical surface level conversation, and we’re missing this. Here’s how I improved our NPS score by 10 points by investing in digital touch, customer success, discourse, right? That’s that level below the more tactical, non theoretical conversation. And there’s a couple of reasons why I think we are there. We’re a little bit stuck because customer success is growing so quickly, which means there’s still a huge need for a new to siesta audience to hear that theory. Right. I mean, you know, let’s call it the 101 course of customer success. People are taking their entry level course transferring into our profession, which is a great thing. Right, but but I think the challenge is you We have a lot of folks who have maybe been in leadership positions for two to five years that are either listening to this discourse and thinking, wow, I don’t think I could contribute in the same way, or they’re just not leaning in and participating. Right. And I think maybe because sales leaders, let’s say, just as an example have been, I was talking to a recruiter about this the other day, your number of years of experience for CRO is what 1520 does just go with that. And for CCO, you’re talking 10 or less, it’s probably even more extreme than that, right? VP sales VPCs? Do you have these folks who are, you know, who have grown really quickly in their career and maybe, you know, are struggling a little bit with imposter syndrome or, or not wanting to engage. And I think there’s just such a given that the community is so open, I really, you know, hope that people find their voice and we invite them into that conversation, and you don’t have the same top 25 faces, you know, coming and showing up to polls and everything else. So my hope is we can really push this conversation forward by inviting others in and accepting that we should all be challenged to drive our profession forward, I want
Josh Schachter 11:08
to poke and prod a couple of things that I vehemently disagree with you. You said
Alex farmer 11:16
I’ve invited you, right, we invited this is the discourse we must have, please Well, I haven’t
Josh Schachter 11:22
yet read the 10101 book on how to host a podcast so I can break all the rules without
you heard it here first. Also, folks, Alex farmer says CS is just a job function. There was something at the end of that. But anyways, I said it’s not. It’s not like it’s movement. Yeah. Okay. Bullshit. CES is is Hill on. CES is a job functions here. But I think what ces really is and needs to be calm to get out of that echo chamber, which relates to your last point is a movement, right, like customer success, will and I’ve had conversations I had a great conversation with Chris hicken of Nuff said yesterday about this, I had a great conversation with Edward Chu. And then when also yesterday about this. See us needs to be a cross functional, multidisciplinary mindset and culture and movement, right of how do we deliver value to the customer? Always based on on on the front lines, the customer, which is the customer success team. Right? And I wonder if there’s a way I don’t know, I wonder if there’s a way to protect the function, but also grow it as a movement as well. And in that invite these other disciplines, my background is in product management, like product, like marketing, like sales, maybe you do that through customer success, excellence, right? Maybe that’s maybe that’s a large signaling factor into the winner of your awards and what other groups have said, I don’t know. But that’s kind of my belief after speaking to other leaders.
Alex farmer 13:17
So I vehemently agree with you, if I may. And let me let me dive a little deeper. Because when I say I don’t like the term movement, I think we just kind of throw it around, like we’re part of this kind of like, force of change. It just I think it almost devalues the work that’s being done. Right? Product led growth comes to mind is like another thing that requires cross functional alignment to redesign an organization. And that’s a business model change. Right? So So I movements I wouldn’t use to describe business model change, because movement to me is fluffy. And we get in this world where, you know, yeah, this customer success movement. It’s so exciting. And it’s, it’s really, it’s really great. But actually, you know, when you look at content out there for product, lead growth, data, bar graphs, pie charts, we’re talking about business model transformation. And I agree with you, that’s what customer success needs to become. And I think, you know, and maybe I’m taking our conversation and completely different direction now. But I’m gonna break the second rule of podcasting, and just go ahead, which is that I think we, in some ways, because customer success is both a team and a company wide responsibility, we really find ourselves struggling to drive change and impact, because we have to do our day job. And then when we have 10% of our extra time, we have to go out and influence other teams to make it more customer centric, product lead growth, and because again, is a good example. There’s no product lead growth team. It is a business model change and if there was a plg team, they probably be in exactly the same situation where they’re struggling to achieve their goals, their you know, NRR that’s a company wide goal yet see the CES leader is the one that’s oftentimes has it targeted against them. So movement maybe is evoked as a wrong connotation from my point of view, but uh got to speak English British British English now. So let’s just go with that. We’re interpreting the word differently. But I completely agree this has to become a business model transformation moreso than a fun community where we have interesting conversations about what we’re not support account management and all those.
Josh Schachter 15:15
I liked already for enough.
Alex farmer 15:19
Well, I like the way you frame it, Josh. So So virtual high fives to us. So
Josh Schachter 15:22
what are you doing in the awards to help break down those walls? Yeah.
Alex farmer 15:30
Yeah, so we started small. Well, we started not massively five awards, customer success, Leader of the Year CSM of the year, Customer Success rising star, so somebody who’s been in the industry for less than two years or less. And then those are the three awards for individuals. And then we also have two awards for innovation. One is the best use of technology and customer success. And the other is the most innovative Customer Success Initiative. It’s really trying to kind of balance some team wide business wide match deliverables with some really standout individuals. And we are dividing that regionally. So we had the EMEA Awards, the Americas awards, I mentioned are coming. And we’re also thinking about how we can accomplish something in Asia Pacific, there’s a lot of great innovation taking place, as well. And the application process, you know, 250 words or more per question, right? We’re looking for real hard data about the situation, when you joined in the situation today, both from a impact on customers perspective, but also colleagues in the company. And finally, your impact on the customer success community. So those are a lot of the criteria. And you know, it’s not some a lot of these awards devolve into either popularity contests, or did you pay us Did you pay the shortlist fee, which I think is relatively antithetical to meritocratic awards. So there’s no fee to apply. There’s no fee to be awarded. This is really about a pretty meritocratic. And for those who are wondering what the heck these people did, we are publishing an ebook after each award. So people can actually take things away and learn about what that next generation of voices and thinkers has actually done. So that we can all take something away for our business model transformation to go back to the Greek
Josh Schachter 17:13
I love that I love that. I love all of the kind of usual suspects and faces on LinkedIn, they’ve all become very close friends of mine, they’ve all welcomed us, myself and my company with open arms, but same thing at the same time. I really hope I don’t see those faces. Let’s let’s
Alex farmer 17:32
Well, the good thing is, a lot of those people are judges, for for so so in some ways. I’ll speak only for myself, but I feel like I’m part of the problem, not the solution. So I think my my penance is trying to at least create a program where we can replace ourselves if you like. Because I think that’s super important. But a lot of them are donating their time to do exactly that. Right? By reading every application, we have over 200. And I think over 300 nominations in for the Emmy Awards, and they read every single one and adjudicated based on a rubric. So I think we’re trying to do our bit again, I won’t speak for anybody but me, but that’s my thing.
Josh Schachter 18:11
Oh, that makes sense. I’m going to drop this and then we can move on. What if you had an award for like the best friend of CES so that
Alex farmer 18:22
the best that yeah, go keep going?
Josh Schachter 18:24
Owner or that salesperson who did the best? Who does the best hand offs and values? CRO right, who honors you know, the function of customer success? With the most appreciation and respect? Just Just a thought?
Alex farmer 18:42
I like that. No, I like it a lot. And you know, I’ve really pushed to be fair, I pushed back on a lot of suggestions because I’m stubborn, and egocentric. But I’m not going to do the same thing for this one. Because, you know, there’s some vendors that you know, want what’s best technology category and all these other things. And again, this is not a pay to play. This is vendor agnostic. This is about people this is about impact. But as we said right impact is matched to CES impact. It’s company wide. So I will you know what, if you’ll have me, I’ll break this news when we officially decided to bring it into the awards on this podcast. So that’s a very weird and convoluted way of inviting myself back. So there you go.
Josh Schachter 19:22
So you run the customer success Excellence Awards, and you also have an excellent day job as vice president of customer success at Carbonite. You guys have grown to 700 people ish. Your team is around 15 Folks, which is wonderful. Tell us a little bit. You know, a lot of people listening may know, Alex farmer may not know about cognate. So let’s actually give you an opportunity to share a little bit about what your company and and then importantly what your team is up to these days.
Alex farmer 19:55
Yeah, yeah, for sure. So my background is in kind of the startup space maybe mid market enterprise CES. So it’s mostly been kind of coming into places that don’t really have a CES function and then building it out. And that’s that’s what Carbonite is all about, as well. I joined when we had two years ago, when we had 40 customers or so we now have 85 or and that’s growing, maybe more than that today. And we had a team I inherited a team I think of for CSM, who had newly been given the job title after doing project management for a lot of years. So it was pretty much brand new cognate we are an industrial data ops company based in Oslo, Norway. So I have the privilege of heading out to Norway pretty often, which is, which is really is absolutely a privilege, especially when that may be so bold, your expenses are not so personal. It’s very expensive, but beautiful place and actually Norway’s first unicorn, as well, so so we can put Norway in the unicorn map about a year ago now series A with Excel, and Series B with TCB. Industrial data Ops is essentially solving not just you know, the snowflakes and data plot other data platforms of the world, solve the IT software data, issue data in a bunch of different silos, right. And they do that well enough at industrial data, the actual IoT status of individual pumps in an oil rig, manufacturing plant a power offshore wind turbine, and then add historical IoT data as well. And you have a huge freezing data lake as we like to say, right, you can have a data lake, but you never you don’t want to go swimming, you don’t want to go for a dip, cut CDF coordinate data fusion is the product, it sits on top of your Azure or your Google Cloud Data Warehouse, and it will contextualize your industrial data. So for our customers, essentially, we make sense of all of the data that they have will software and operations O T data. And that allows them to you know, reduce their environmental impact, increase their production, predictive maintenance, use cases, a lot of real value as industry. So So that’s who we are. But again, I joined two years ago, we started to build a team 85 Customers average contract value over a million dollars a year. So it’s a very high high touch model. And one of the things that I’m really excited about our team launched a customer community when we had about 60 customers. And I’ll get to that in just a second. But at a high level, we’ve also rolled out customer health scoring some of those basic things and really focused a lot on customer journey as well. 700 employees and 85 customers, there’s a lot of people doing a lot of stuff at Carbonite. And a lot of people wanting to engage with the customer, whether it’s Advanced Data Science use case deliveries, right? So professional services, cognitive fusion, training and enablement. A lot of different teams doing a lot of different things. So one of the first things we did is really kind of focusing on how should the customer experience all of those teams, not from not just from a people in process perspective, where we spend a lot of time, but also from a technology perspective, which is the reason why we built and launched that community with only I think, at the time 60 customers, I’m sure we’ll get into that today.
Josh Schachter 23:03
Yeah, there’s a few things we can get into there. So we can talk about the touch points you have with the other disciplines on the last topic that we were chatting through, I think it’s really interesting from a company that is so high touch with only 85 customers but large ticket, I touch customers, we can talk about the overall customer journey, it sounds like you have a really well thought out plan playbook approach towards that. I’d love to learn about your tech stack. I’m sure others would as well. And then we can talk about community because I think that is really important that you are seeing a trend in building communities to the end users as a means to delivering value to that community. Where do we start Alex? Which one goes first?
Alex farmer 23:51
I may start in order, if I remember the order, because I think some of them are quite simple. And some of them also were not doing very well. Right. You know, I think part of the challenge for us has been around collaboration between different teams. And it’s not because we don’t like each other. And it’s not because you know, we’re kind of selfishly focused on our own goals. It’s because there’s so much happening all the time that you need to cognize. And the phase that we find ourselves in, there’s a lot of kind of going from, especially, you know, from 40 to 85 really complex customers, when you think about it, there’s different departments within one logo. So really, we could think of ourselves as a much larger customer company. Anyway, a lot of different cooks in the kitchen, right? You have sales marketing, whose sales team that sold the original deal, but they’ve only sold a proof of concept, right? So there’s always a lot of POC motion there. And we did that need to work together to convert that proof of concept to a long term subscription. So customers can build a bunch of different use cases on top of CDF. So collaboration has been important and I think where we invested the majority of our time was getting the collaboration between different departments within the post. sale organization working. So I lead the CSM team at cog knights. And again 15 CSM is 85 customers, I think our ratio is about four to one, somebody can check that math, that’s not great math, four and a half five to one, but let’s go with it. And, and we originally had our challenge of seven people with sometimes the same job title, doing stuff with a customer post sale. And it was kind of this, you know, almost this like McKinsey model where you had a senior per senior, almost like partner person and a bunch of different people who are good at stuff show up to the customer and say, Yep, we got it, no problem. And that was a real challenge for us, because customers didn’t really know what to expect, who to go to for what the navigability I think we thought it was customer centric, to just to kind of throw people at the customer and sit them in their office and just be there. But then a COVID happen. So we had to change and be the navigability for the customer. Who the hell do I go to for what essentially setting their expectations up in the right way, was seriously lacking? So we went through firstly, the customer journey work that we did almost two years ago now is okay, when does professional services get involved? When do they need to be involved in the pre sales phase to make sure we’re scope? Because He’s highly compact, complex scopes? When the CES need to get introduced? Should we introduce them at the same time as professional services? Or do they get their own moments? Right, and, and when I joined, CES was not just doing CES, we were senior project people and pre sales people, which in some ways meant less cooks in the kitchen. But in many ways men wait too many things to do reactively. And guess what? The proactivity is the last thing on our list, right? And that’s a whole separate conversation. So the customer journey work firstly was hey, everybody in the post sale organization? What do you do when who has the best template? So we’re not building slides all the time from scratch? And how do I store that template in a place that allows us to control our messaging in a much smarter way? Right, seven really intelligent people that want to do something differently every time I’d be fun for them. But it’s not fun for the customer. And frankly, it’s not fun for efficient disbursement of cash and resources by the business as well. So that was kind of step one. And then from there, it was a lot easier to go out to other departments and say, Don’t engage with all of these post sale teams, here’s how you’re going to engage with our entire department and organization.
Josh Schachter 27:19
Yeah, that’s great. And so what does that mean to your tech stack?
Alex farmer 27:27
Yeah, I mean, it’s always especially like it’s such an interesting actually save this new joiners that cognate who a lot of people are not from the software space, they’re from industry. So x industrial consultants, right, because there’s a huge domain expertise need, actually might seem one of the 15 had Customer Success management in there on their CV before we hired them. So actually, there’s a real domain expertise element, transferable skills that we’re looking for. And that’s, I’ve learned so much around kind of what good looks like from a cognate CS perspective, just by interviewing, I think I have 117 pages of interview notes. And a Google Doc, I’m sure there’s a better way, but that’s my way. But the reason I mentioned that is because in the new starter monthly orientation session, I always say to cut to people to new joiners. Think of us not as a 700 employee company, think of us as an 85 Customer company. Because if you’re a 700 employee company, in a standard SAS environment, you expect, you know, you’re an enterprise, you’re past the scale up phase. But if you’re an 85 Customer company, you’re still experimenting with different use cases playing around with some product market fit. And trying to kind of really kind of build the machinery that’s gonna get you two to three foreign customers, right. And then this and it’s between those two things, as always, I find quite unique. And that translates itself to our technology as well. cognate was a company when we were doing this customer journey work that had 12 I actually have the slide that our community manager created. To make the case for community 12 different websites, a customer could go to do something related to our product, cdf, YouTube channel, Academy site support portal, knowledge base, GitHub, Stack Overflow. Some others I can’t remember but believe existed, Google Drive shared with a customer 12 different sites. So we spent a lot of time I actually have the picture of the whiteboard we drew again, I’m sure there’s a better way but writing things on a whiteboard and taking a picture and emailing it never fails. never failed me once. Never fails. Not Yeah, I know there’s companies trying to disrupt that but I’ll be from my cold dead hands as they say. And and we went on this down this path of saying, Okay, what’s the right way to build one central place for customers to go for whatever content that they need? We as a business is a function or as a business model transformation, depending on what we’re calling ourselves today spend a lot of time thinking about how customers adopt our product. But I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how customers adopt all the material that is exists to support that adoption. Right? Training Support guides knowledge base, right our customers, basically, what I’ve tried to say before is with 700 people in 85 customers, we had a huge amount of content, and a very low amount of adoption. So what we did is we embarked on this journey to build a customer community that was not community as the primary goal, but it community led digital customer hub. Right. So one place, the customer goes to discover whatever is available to them, and they can talk to other people.