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Mastering CS – Candid Leader Insights| Ep 17 – Chethan Kumar

Updated on July 17, 2024 18 minutes read

Summary points:

We are back with a new episode from our podcast, Mastering CS. In this episode, Irina Cismas, Head of Marketing at Custify, sat down with Chethan Kumar, the Head of Customer Success at Augnito.

Chethan had an unbelievable journey, dropping off to school at 13 to support your family into leading major teams. In this podcast, he shares his experience, the challenges he overcame, and the strategies he implemented.

What You’ll Learn:

  • The most important roles for customer success
  • Recruitment strategy
  • Essential KPIs for team alignment
  • How to prove the value of CS internally

Key insights and takeaways for CSMs based on the interview:

Focus on Key Metrics (NRR and LTV): NRR (Net Revenue Retention) and LTV (Lifetime Value) are critical metrics in Customer Success. They indicate customer retention and the ability to generate more revenue from existing customers. These metrics are interconnected with other KPIs like adoption rate, CSAT, and NPS.

Adaptation to Stakeholders’ Needs: Tailoring communication and value demonstration to different stakeholders (product team, sales, CEOs) is essential. Understanding what each group values and presenting relevant data or feedback can ensure effective collaboration and highlight the importance of the Customer Success function.

Early Stage Strategy for CS Leaders: In the first 30 days, focus on understanding the team, product, and customer base. In the next 30 days, align quick deliverables and technology upgrades. By the third month, focus on implementing changes, reporting progress, and ensuring visibility across departments.

Customer Success as a Revenue Unit: Customer Success is often perceived as a cost center, but it also drives significant revenue through renewals and upsells. Demonstrating the financial impact and efficiency improvements (e.g., handling more customers per CSM) can help shift this perception and showcase the strategic value of CS.

Podcast transcript


Irina 0:01
Welcome to Mastering CS – Candid Leader Insights, the podcast where we deep dive into the world of customer success with industry leaders. I’m Irina Cismas, the host and today’s guest is Chethan Kumar, the Head of Customer Success at Augnito. CK, welcome, and thank you for accepting my invitation today, you’ve had quite a journey from dropping off to school at the age of 13 to support your family into leading major teams. So I want to start this discussion by asking you: How did those early challenges shape your customer success way up until today?

Chethan 0:43
Alright, first of all, thank you so much! Irina, thanks for the invitation. Pretty sure I’ve spoken a lot about this story in multiple stages, but it’s special because you’re hosting this. So, talking about my journey, I had to drop out of school to support my family. But as usual, people always have dreams. They want to achieve something and see themselves in different personas. I had a very small dream back then. I wanted my brothers to look up to me. I have two younger brothers, and I wanted to ensure they looked up to me when they grew up, despite our difficult family situation. That was one motivation that kept me going.

Since I started, every organization I worked with, during my school and college days, involved facing customers. Starting with a pharmacy, then an apparel store, and a retail store offering different services. It was all about ensuring customer satisfaction and encouraging them to return. I felt close to facing customers and ensuring they were happy interacting with me. From the beginning, I was keen on listening to problem statements and trying to solve them, despite the challenges. This motivated me to get into a customer-facing role, and that’s how my customer success journey began.

For example, these days you call it repeat rate or NRR. Back then, it was about ensuring customers returned to buy your product again. You had to ensure they were satisfied, treated well, and happy to share their positive experiences. To ensure this, I focused on basics. For example, treat them with a good smile, welcome them, be polite and humble, and ensure they are well taken care of. It’s not rocket science. Treat them well, and they’ll come back.

Back then, we didn’t have the competition of multiple products offering the same at a lesser price. But as we evolved, we learned all of that as part of the journey.

I remember one example from when I was working in the pharmacy. This was my second job when I was around 14 or 15. An elderly man, around 80 plus, walked into the pharmacy. He was struggling to stand, so I offered him a chair, found him some water, and we interacted. His prescription had about seven or eight different medicines, and we didn’t have three of them in stock. I wanted to ensure he didn’t have to go elsewhere. Given the lack of e-commerce or delivery services back then, I had to ensure he got what he needed.

I contacted neighboring stores and distributors, but none had the medicines. I called a doctor with good connections, who told me about a pharmacy 15 kilometers away that had the medicines. I told the elderly man it would take time but assured him I would deliver them. I took his address, rode my bicycle to that store, got the medicines, and delivered them to him. He was so happy. He offered me coffee and snacks, and we started building a relationship. That’s how delivery as a concept started evolving in that store. I focused on ensuring the happiness of elderly people who couldn’t come out or walk around. That’s how I saw the joy from those small instances.

How to convince great CSMs to join your company

Irina 6:25
Listening to you, it feels like the CS job is an easy thing, but I know that it takes more than being available, going out of your comfort zone, and going the extra mile. I know those are the fundamentals, but it’s not enough. It’s clear that you started this journey at an early age because you were forced to by the circumstances. So I would say that any company at this moment would be lucky to have you. So I’m curious, how did you cross paths with Augnito, and how did they manage to convince you to come on board?

Chethan 7:10
I think it’s quite funny, right? I did have a few offers when I decided to switch, and my journey with Augnito started quite differently. They were customers of my ex-company. The HR reached out to me, escalating a problem. So, we had to talk to each other, and we solved the problem.

When I found out they were also looking for someone to head their CS function, we happened to talk more. I realized Augnito was what I had been waiting for. I did a lot of research to understand what the company does and the sort of people there. The major motivation for me to pick Augnito over other companies was their leadership and vision.

I could connect my past journey in healthcare to this company. After pharmacies, I evolved, spending time in FinTech, e-commerce, and HR tech. I felt a personal connection to my roots from when I began my journey at 13 or 14. Additionally, Augnito’s leaders are committed to adding value to society and making a difference. You can see that through their product and vision, especially the founder, CFO, and CEO.

When you start talking to such people, the discussions turn from being revenue-focused to customer-focused. That’s what made me decide to join a company like Augnito. And that’s how it happened.

Tips for Head of CS looking for a job

Irina 9:19
That’s awesome. Your description made me think that, actually, on the opposite, whenever we are leaving a company, we are not leaving the business; we are leaving the people. In your case, you went for the people with whom you shared the same values. This is what builds successful businesses and moves things forward: the people behind the business.

Speaking of new roles, I know that a lot of CS folks are sitting on the bench, trying to land a new role. You’ve been through this recruitment process. What would be your advice for those trying to get a job as head of CS, especially for the senior people who are looking for a job now? What would you advise them?

Chethan 10:20
So yeah, I feel sorry for people on the bench, not because they deserve it, but because businesses have to make tough decisions to sustain and move forward. Based on my experience, I would say networking and building connections with people you meet, in whichever company you work, is crucial for career progress. Not just connecting and saying hi, but understanding what they do, the problems they have, and building your own case studies from those problem statements.

For example, I have spoken to multiple organizations to understand the problems they face, not just in CS but in other functions as well. I’m trying to write a blog from all my learnings to reach more people. When you start talking to people, take away those problem statements and try solving them on your own. This will give you an understanding of real-world problems beyond what you see on paper or what a company portrays as a problem statement.

When you build connections and network, it shouldn’t just be fun; it should be business-focused on real problem statements. That’s one thing. Secondly, a lot of startups are looking for people who can consult them and help move the needle forward from where they are today. They may not be able to afford people who demand high salaries. It’s okay to consult and explore small opportunities, helping small organizations while learning something and making a few bucks.

I have hired for leadership positions in the past, and I’ve noticed that even leaders at the director and VP levels are not keen on submitting personalized applications, even though they expect candidates to do so. As leaders, we should start writing our own stories, ensuring there’s a good cover letter that helps the reader decide if we are the right fit. In the current fast-paced environment, nobody has time to go through a resume in detail. A well-crafted cover letter can make your application stand out.

Very few people maintain their portfolios these days. A portfolio talks about personal brand building, which not everyone wants to do, but it’s an option worth exploring. There are platforms and methods to build your brand. You don’t have to do different things; just stay simple. Talk about the problems you solve daily, the small achievements over time, and share those learnings with others.

Resumes often list achievements but rarely explain how those achievements were accomplished. Especially for leadership positions, people want to know how you did it. Focus on the problem statements you identified and how you solved them, not just what you achieved. Identifying problems and finding different ways to solve them is critical. If you can clearly draft and present this to interviewers, it will give you a better chance of success.

30-60-90 day playbooks

Irina 14:53
Speaking of ways of doing things, what’s your playbook in terms of using the CS journal for the first 30, 60, 90 days? How do you tackle those early days? What’s the most important thing that a CS leader should do?

Chethan 15:16
I think the first 90 days are supposed to be a honeymoon period, right?

Irina 15:20
Yes, the honeymoon period, exactly.

Chethan 15:25
But, yeah, we can’t escape from working and showing some outcome. So jokes aside, this is how I apply my strategy. For the first 30 days, I don’t break my head too much. All I try to do is just talk to people, especially my peers and subordinates, to understand what sort of people they are and what they expect from someone like me. I try to understand any problems they had with someone like me earlier, if I am replacing someone. What different problems or pros and cons did they have with the previous person they worked with? I also talk to people across the board, especially in a startup, where it’s very easy to get access to everyone in the organization. Even if you spend 5-10 minutes, you get to understand different challenges or problem statements they have in their roles and on the upper layer.

Second, I will focus more on the product. What problems is the product trying to solve? What is the roadmap? What problems are customers raising, and what features are customers asking for? I spend most of my time understanding how the product works and what value I can add to the product using my expertise and whatever customers are saying. I also try to understand our customer base. What sort of customers do we have, what value are they bringing in, and what value are they expecting from the product? I also look at current processes to see if they need a change or enhancement, or if I should bring in some technology. Most of my research and connection with people will happen in the first 30 days of my journey.

The next 30 days is where I try to align on my quick deliverables. For example, if I want to bring in some changes in the process, I will quickly do it in the next 30 days, which is my 60-day journey, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m just observing, but also adding some value from day one. Because at the end of the day, everybody wants to see some outcome. You will have a lot of dependency on technology in any startup or SaaS business. You will identify technology upgrades; some are small, some are big. Big ones can be added to your roadmap for the future, and small ones can bring immediate change and show value. Even if it saves one minute for a CSM or a salesperson, bring that change and show them the value.

I will have better clarity on expectations from my senior leadership, understanding what they expect from this role and function, and ensuring they are aligned with my values and vision. I am not someone who just wants to show numbers, but someone who wants to change the experience. So, I will ensure that alignment is taken care of in the first 60 days.

My next 30 days, which is my third month, will be focused more on implementing changes, reporting changes to management, and ensuring visibility across all departments. Our CS function is often limited to just facing the customer, but when you talk about sales, product, or engineering, they may not know what CS is doing until you go and show them. It is important for me to bring that visibility across the leadership team, not just CS. I will spend more time on implementation and bringing that visibility. I will have multiple catch-ups and check-ins with other teams along with my team, so that everybody is on the same page.

Crucial roles for customer success

Irina 19:38
You mentioned that team. What roles do you think are crucial in a CS team to drive success? How’s the perfect CS setup in your view?

Chethan 19:54
Again, this question is not that easy to answer. People simply say, “Okay, you have this structure: XYZ roles, and you’re done.” But in reality, there are two major factors that will help you decide what sort of structure you need. First, the stage of the journey your organization is in, which is very important. Second, the sort of service or product you’re trying to offer. Based on these two major factors, you will then decide what sort of team you need.

For example, no matter how complex the product is, there are companies where CSMs do everything: starting from onboarding a customer, training them, ensuring they are taken care of during adoption, handling renewals, and managing the community. At the same time, there are organizations, even as startups with easy products, that have someone for onboarding, someone for adoption, someone for renewals, and someone for community management. They are spending additional resources even in the initial phase. Whether it helps or not depends.

Based on where your organization is in terms of making more revenue or handling more customers, you will decide what sort of team you need. Once you cross that zero to one mark as a business, it’s time for the organization to look at customer success as a very different function.

For example, if you ask me, given where we are today, referring to Augnito or any similar startup, I would have three layers:

  • One layer focused purely on onboarding customers, taking care of the initial few days of the customer journey.
  • Another layer of CSMs who drive success, adoption, and engagement.
  • A third layer focused on exploring additional opportunities from the same customer, including expansion and community building.

So, I would categorize the structure into three pieces:

  • Implementation and support.
  • Adoption and engagement.
  • Expansion and community building.

Recruitment strategy for customer success

Irina 22:32
Okay, how do you bring on board the right people? What’s your recruitment strategy? What’s the most important skill that you don’t want to compromise on?

Chethan 22:47
Alright, so strategy. When you talk about strategy, it’s a very big piece to talk about, but to keep it short, I always look for a personalized application. If somebody is taking the time to tell you why they suit your needs, I would prioritize their applications first. Second, I focus on the sort of achievements they have accomplished in their previous roles, especially in a customer-facing role. I also have a mixture of multiple personas in my interview panel. It is not just managers, senior leadership, or me. My interview panel will also include someone from my team who is a subordinate or an entry-level person involved in the interview. This way, they get to exchange thoughts and evaluate on different parameters. What I look for versus what a team member looks for might differ, and I want their opinion too.

Typically, my interview process will have three personas:

  • A team member who focuses on culture and working with people, assessing how they get along and similar aspects.
  • A manager who focuses on technical skills.
  • Me or another senior leadership person who focuses on culture fit, creativity, analytical skills, and management abilities.

Based on this, we take a call on what I look for. I look for a couple of things:

  • Did they get into a customer-facing role or customer success by choice, or was it an accident? In many cases, it is an accident. How they survive after that accident is very important. If you are trying to survive after the accident of getting into customer success, you have to do wonders. So I look for whether they are someone who will go above and beyond to survive this accident or would explore other options.
  • How passionate are they about solving problems for customers? If you are making someone happy, it doesn’t have to be a customer; it could be anyone you are talking to. If I have to make you happy, I have to put in that additional effort. If you are happy and I feel good about it, it means I am achieving something out of the small conversations. I’ll try to see if I can find that sort of behavior in them.
  • Can they go that extra mile? Are they someone who can go that extra mile to make someone happy?

Then, the rest of the skills, such as using technology and working with different people, are mandatory. But the major things are: are they passionate about customers? Are they willing to survive the accident? Are they strong?

Essential KPIs for alignment

Irina 26:05
What KPIs do you focus on to ensure your team stays aligned and effective?

Chethan 26:11
See, in customer success, though there are multiple KPIs you track, I majorly focus on NRR and LTV. These two metrics talk about how long your customers are staying with you and whether you are able to make more revenue out of your existing customers. At the end of the day, when you try increasing your NRR, you have to go back and try fixing different problems. It could be adoption rate, CSAT, or NPS. All of these smaller metrics are connected to these two major metrics.

If I’m able to help my team understand why these two metrics are important, they will do everything that it takes to ensure the other KPIs are taken care of. Because without achieving them, they cannot have good numbers against these two metrics.

Proving the value of CS internally

Irina 27:09
You mentioned earlier in our discussion that it’s important for you as a leader to tell the CS story internally. So I’m curious, how do you prove internally the value of the CS? Is it solely by reporting on NRR and LTV, or is it more than just those two metrics? And what’s the story behind behind it?

Chethan 27:35
Alright, so it depends on who your stakeholder is. For example, if I’m projecting something to the product team, I should know what makes the product team listen to me and what I have to do for them to stay engaged in the conversation. If I’m able to identify features or feedback that the product team can take up to improve the product, I will focus on those inputs first. This information could come from sales, CSM, or customers. If I can collate such information and present it as something that will help us improve the product from, say, a level of 1 to 10 or 10 to 20, I ensure they are listening to me. It’s not about showcasing the value; it’s about showcasing what they need through this team.

Similarly, when talking to sales, which is numbers-driven, I provide case studies or testimonials from customers that they can use as reference points to acquire new customers. If I have an XYZ customer, I start giving references to sales, building confidence, and demonstrating why CS is important in the business.

When talking to founders or CEOs, it’s crucial to quantify financial metrics because they are number-focused. I’ve seen many CS leaders not focusing enough on quantifying financial metrics. However, there are many metrics we can use internally to showcase our impact, especially with CXOs, where decisions are driven by numbers. For example, if you tell the CEO that today you are handling 50 customers per CSM and aim to handle 75 or 100 in the next three to six months by doing XYZ, you need to explain the outcome for the organization. The outcome could be saving the cost of one CSM in the next six months. This is a quantifiable metric that showcases value.

This approach helps them see CS as a function that adds value. Many organizations see CS as a cost center, but in reality, CS is also a revenue unit. We drive revenue and handle most renewals and business from existing customers, which is equally important as acquiring new customers.

Of course, in some cases, it might actually be cheaper, I would say in terms of cost of acquisition, believe me, so, it’s general knowledge, right? People know that retaining existing customers is cost efficient compared to acquiring and it’s also easy.

Irina 31:02
We discussed about the value that we prove internally, but what about externally? How do you identify and align value drivers from a customer’s point of point of view?

Chethan 31:15
So I’ve been a little traditional on this front. When I join new organizations, I spend time with customers one-on-one, not on calls or in meetings. I meet them in person to understand whom I’m dealing with and what they are expecting from the product and the company they are partnering with. I might do surveys, not paper surveys, but in-person servicing.

Today, say you are at X. If you have to get to Y, how can I help you? For example, if your users are spending XYZ amount of time on performing XYZ activity, are you happy with it? If not, what is the number you have in mind? You should go prepared and be able to suggest solutions that align with their goals. To do this, I have to do a lot of research and talk to many people, including sales, CS, and some of our customers. Once I have all the learnings, I walk in and tell them, “Okay, this is my proposal. Are you aligned?”

Definitely, there are going to be changes, but they should see what you’re trying to bring to the table, not just the product, service, or adoption rate, but beyond that. How can you help somebody through your technology? At the end of the day, why does somebody adopt technology? It is to save money and ease the operations they perform. You try to align those goals and ensure that you are aligned. Once that is taken care of, you start showing them progress. If you have to do a monthly check-in, do a monthly check-in. If you do a quarterly check-in, do a quarterly check-in, but ensure they are aligned and able to see the progress on a frequent basis.

Priorities and multitasking

Irina 33:07
I know that CS is used to juggling multiple priorities and do multitasking, but I want to ask you, what’s your main priority until the end of the year? What’s that one thing that you want to focus on that you think will move the needle for your business?

Chethan 33:29
Alright, so I’ll be a little more specific to my current role here. I believe, at least in healthcare, there is a lot of potential from our existing customers. This means I can set my goal to increase NRR by 50% in the next few months. Achieving that would be a big accomplishment for me.

Secondly, since we are in health tech, our end users are doctors. It’s not easy to reach doctors because they are busy day in and day out. Even getting a few minutes of their time is very difficult. Somehow trying to get access to end users, even if it’s for a few seconds, is another achievement that I would feel good about.
Mistakes leaders make

Irina 34:26
I have two more I have two more questions for you. What’s the biggest mistakes leaders make when trying to practice your strategy, and why do you think this happen?

Chethan 34:43
So I don’t know if you heard this. I’m sure you would have heard this from us a few more times.

We all talk about customer experience. We talk about customer being the king. But in reality, do we really treat every customer like a king? Do we really care about customer experience? I will not answer this.

Think about this question for yourselves, but in reality, we know. We want to do a lot of things for customers, but at the end of the day, we are held back by different operations, functions, or initiatives for various reasons. We may not be able to deliver 100%, but while everyone is thinking about customer experience and treating customers like a king, I’m not sure everyone is able to do that for whatever reasons.

So where do we go wrong? We try and operate in silos. If you’re not able to showcase what each department wants to see from CS, we fail. It’s important to understand what each function wants to see from CS, align your outcomes with their needs, and just showcase that because additional information is unnecessary. It’s not fair to spend 30 to 40 minutes of the engineering team’s time explaining how CS is doing. Focus on what is relevant to the engineering team and the product team, and present that to them in 10 to 15 minutes, or even five minutes.

Second, we lack understanding of what customers exactly need. Back then, when I was relying on documentation, tickets, and customer feedback coming to us, I thought that was sufficient to run the function successfully. But I realized the entire story is different when you go and talk to them personally. The moment you talk to them personally, you will discover 100 different things that are not indicated or coming to you. We may be trying to solve a problem that is not a problem, while there are bigger problems that you will discover only when you meet customers. So my 30-day journey will actually be focused on talking to people and meeting customers.

Irina 37:31
I think asking the right questions and digging deeper is harder than we imagine. It’s so hard for marketers and CS people to listen because there’s a tendency to jump in, help, and assume a lot of things. It’s harder to just sit down, listen, and ask questions.

Chethan 37:59
And yeah, there are cases where, for example, if I ask you, Irina, how are you doing, you will say you’re good. Exactly. But let’s say we build a relationship, and I ask you the same question again. Your response could be different. You might not just say good, but you will also add something about why you’re doing good, or you might say you’re good but there is something else going on.

Customers, like everyone else, are dealing with something, so all you have to do is just try and discover different ways to get an answer out.

Irina 38:34
Before we wrap up, I want to ask you: what’s your favorite book, podcast or webinar that you would recommend to our listeners?

Chethan 39:14
First, I wanted to add on top of whatever I mentioned for your previous question. I think we overemphasize tools and technology, thinking they will solve 100% of our problems. But in reality, it is important for us to focus on investing in humans as well. Having a CSM makes a lot of difference, and having technology and tools in place is essential, but we should think about how to make the CSM’s job easier. Instead of talking to one customer, they should be able to talk to ten customers using the same amount of time.

I’ve seen people driving QBRs. I’m also a customer for a lot of other vendors. They drive QBRs and surprise me with information that I don’t need. I have to spend 30-40 minutes just looking at these slides, which is not adding any value. They think that whatever Customer Success tool they are using is giving them this output, and they present it as true, but in reality, it could be very different. I don’t think we are utilizing technology to its best. If we get rid of these small problems, I think we can do better and build a great team together.

Irina 40:34
That’s an awesome addition. Thank you for coming back to it. I somehow missed it when we wrapped up. Lastly, what’s your favorite book, podcast, world, or webinar that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Chethan 40:49
I think I would recommend a book called “The 100-Year Life” by Andrew Scott and Linda Gratton. This book is not just about one particular concept; it talks about the entire life, covering different phases starting from birth, career, elderly ages, challenges, and more. You get to learn everything about life through that book. I don’t think I should say it’s a book that will change your life, but it will give you a different perspective on life, for sure.

Irina 41:32
Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience with us today, and a big thank you to all of you who listened to this episode. I hope you found this conversation as valuable and inspiring as I did. Until next time, stay safe and keep mastering customer success.

Nicoleta Niculescu

Written by Nicoleta Niculescu

Nicoleta Niculescu is the Content Marketing Specialist at Custify. With over 6 years of experience, she likes to write about innovative tech products and B2B marketing. Besides writing, Nicoleta enjoys painting and reading thrillers.

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