Welcome to episode 7 of our podcast – Mastering CS – Candid Leader Insights. In this episode, Irina Cismas, Head of Marketing at Custify discussed with Eleni Vorvis, Customer Success Leader & Consultant.
Eleni shared her journey in customer success, the challenges she overcame, and how she sees the future of this industry.
What you’ll learn:
- How to build your customer success strategy for 2024
- What are the top CS events you should attend
- CS influencers and experts to keep an eye on
- How to overcome the most common challenges when joining a new CS team
- How to improve the collaboration between CS and Sales
- How to choose the right tool for your team
- CS trends and predictions for 2024
Key insights and takeaways for CSMs based on the interview:
Customer success strategy: A comprehensive approach to strategic planning involves considering diverse perspectives, including insights from implementation teams, customer marketing sentiment, and advocacy programs. Evaluating and refining the sales-to-customer success process is crucial for an enhanced customer experience and robust data capture. Reflecting internally by tapping into team intelligence and engaging with customers for feedback is integral to identifying areas for improvement.
Overlooked aspects: A successful Customer Success strategy should prioritize delivering value over mere customer delight or high Net Promoter Score (NPS). Relying solely on NPS, excessive feedback gathering, or focusing on customer happiness without assessing their success could be warning signs. Quality, value-centered conversations, rather than obsessing over touchpoints, are crucial.
Challenges when joining a new CS team: Joining a CS team brings initial challenges of balancing external customer needs and internal stakeholder dynamics. Building relationships with both is vital, requiring an understanding of internal motivations and goals. Collaboration with product and sales teams demands clear communication and basic product knowledge for meaningful engagement. A thorough understanding of the product’s use cases is crucial for guiding customers effectively.
Onboarding playbook: Successful onboarding hinges on transparent communication and mutual expectations between the customer and the vendor-turned-partner. Setting clear roles, engagement guidelines, and meeting cadence from the outset is crucial. The kickoff call, involving all stakeholders, serves as a pivotal point for aligning expectations and reinforcing the partnership concept.
KPIs for CS teams: For revenue-centric Customer Success teams, evaluating renewal rates and upsells is crucial for meeting targets. Leveraging trusted relationships within the existing customer base is promising for additional revenue. Beyond financial metrics, tracking adoption and usage metrics provides insights into customer engagement.
Customer success approach
Eleni, thanks so much for joining us today! Let’s begin with a bit of a rewind. Imagine you’re starting 2023 all over again, with the knowledge you have now, what would be your first five steps in shaping your approach to customer success this year? I’m curious about where you would start and how you would map out those initial moves.
That’s a great question. I think one of the first things that comes to mind, that I definitely would pay close attention to, is the impact of AI on customer success and the amount of startups that are now available and tools to really help teams to be more productive. So, I think if I were to start the year all over again, I would definitely want to make sure that I was paying attention to all of the trends and really take a look at the tools that are available, because I think 2023 is definitely the year of efficiency and doing less with more. So, I think a lot of these options that are out there would be great to explore to be able to set the year up for the team in the most effective way possible.
I think also, secondly, knowing that there have been a lot of impacts to the industry. And the team’s really focusing on taking the time to understand where the team is at with regards to working with our customers and really doubling down on the value realization. I think that’s something in customer success. That is always top of mind. Because if our customers are not seeing value in the product, there is no return on investment, they’re going to be more likely to churn. So, really making sure we’re having those candid conversations with the customer base to really dig into where is that risk? And where are those customers that might be likely to churn? As we saw in 2023, there was a lot of upheaval in the CS industry for SaaS. And so, that’d be the second thing that I would focus on.
Customer success strategy for 2024
Super now let’s do fast forward back to the present. And let’s move towards 2024. And I’m really interested in your approach for the upcoming year. What are your key steps in putting together a solid CS strategy for next year? And how are you approaching the planning phase this time around?
Yeah, so for me, because I’m now having my own consultancy and working with a variety of customers, I think it’s really taking a look at reflecting on how the year went and what happened, and looking forward for the year. So, I think now is the perfect time of year to start planning for what are the investments that customer success teams are looking to make? And what are the processes that we have in place today that may no longer suit us? I think it’s a great opportunity to reflect on whether we rolled out this type of process or workflow, and if it’s working, and really getting that feedback from the customer success team, from the CSMs, but also from the departments that we work closely with.
So, what is the implementation’s perspective on the programs that were rolled out this year? How does customer marketing feel? And what does the advocacy program look like? What is our relationship like with sales? Are there things that we need to be adjusting in the sales to CS process so that we have a better experience for our customers, and that the data capture is as solid as it can be when we’re kicking off and working with a customer? So, I think reflecting inward is a big part of my process when it comes to looking at strategy for the next year. Because you have a lot of people around you that are very smart, that have strong opinions about what’s really worked and where there’s that option for us to do better.
And then, I think talking to your customers also about what are things that they really appreciated about working with us? What were the high moments? And then, what were those moments of opportunity in which we could have done things differently? So, I really think there are many customers who have those great relationships with the products that they work with. That’s also a great opportunity to help to evolve the strategy for next year. I think another thing is, there’s so much content out there. So, I think it’s taking advantage and mapping out. What are things that we can add into our toolkit from a professional development standpoint, what conferences should we be going to, and looking at our CSMs to be going to as leaders? It’s attending those industry conferences as well, because there’s so much information that gets shared that can help to build the strategy for 2024.
Customer success events
Speaking about conferences and events, I do share this belief that indeed there are a lot. Do you have any recommendations for events that people should join? And especially for smaller teams, where CS teams can’t afford to go into physical events?
Yeah, that’s a great question. The Customer Success Collective does some virtual conferences, so that would be a great opportunity for people to be able to attend things virtually, and they offer it for free. There’s so much information also on LinkedIn Live. And there are companies that are offering webinars almost on a bi-weekly basis for tools and tips that are really important in their day-to-day. And then there are individual influencers that are also offering those webinars online.
I think if you do have the budget from a CS leader perspective, and there’s one conference that is on my list, and I really feel like I missed out on not attending it this year, was the CS 100 Summit that’s put on by ClientSuccess. And so I got the opportunity to meet Kristi Faltorusso. So in person, and another conference I will actually mention, because I think it’s one that CS folks may overlook. But it just sounded like the CS 100 went really well. It’s more intimate; you get really a chance to talk to other people, customer officers, and CS leaders. And so I think that’d be one that’s definitely going to go on my list for 2024.
And then there’s one that I attended this year in Boston. So, I live in the area called CustomerExCon, and that one is really geared towards customer marketing and customer advocacy. But Customer Success works closely with customer marketing, sometimes it’s within the same department. Other times it sits within the marketing function. And so I attended that and got to learn a lot about what these customer marketers and advocacy team members are really facing with regards to building out their strategy, and really the importance of CS leaders working closely with them, because they’re there to really help CSM and to help CS teams, build advocates out of our customers. And so they’ve got some great ideas. There were a lot of just very candid sessions. And they all expressed really wanting to have a closer relationship with CS and then also with sales as well. So, that’s another conference that wasn’t on my radar until a couple of months ago that I definitely want to attend next year.
And which are the persons that you admire the most when it comes to customer success? Which are your go-to influencers?
Yeah, well, I mentioned one of them, Kristi Faltorusso. She’s somebody I very highly respect. So, I was very excited to get to meet her in person. She’s been around, you know, for quite some time, has been doing CS, I think, for a decade plus. But her story is very interesting, because she did start off in marketing. And she started off, you know, as a customer of using the Client Success platform. So, she became an advocate. And she talked a lot about how that helped to build her career. And she leaned into advocacy opportunities in working with the software providers. So, I thought that was a very interesting story. So, I think she’s an individual that what you see on the screen is what you get in person. She’s somebody that I really highly value.
I think also, being a female in tech, I look to those female leaders as people that are ones that I can strive to be. And then there’s another person who was also at that conference, Diana De Jesus. I admire her a lot because she was somebody that had a lot of tenacity, that was not in customer success, that learned on her own what it takes to be a CSM, and went through that path, and is very candid about the trials and tribulations, and where she thinks she did really well, and where she has areas for opportunity. And now she has her own business. So, I really admire that because I’ve gone on that path as well. And she’s teaching people how to build their brand. And she’s doing it in a very unapologetic way, which I really like. She’s very candid, she’s very genuine, what you see is what you get. So, it was great to see her live in person. And I hope to see her again at another event.
Overlooked aspects in CS strategy
If we go back to the CS strategy, and because I know that the end of the year usually means strategizing, planning. We are mapping out our CS strategy, we are all aiming for the winning formula. But sometimes even the best-laid plans can go south. What are some sneaky warning signs that the CS strategy might be heading for a stumble? And I’m thinking there might be some things where we are over-emphasizing while missing out on others that are actually crucial. Can you share some examples of these overlooked or prioritized elements in CS strategy?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I have to think about that for a second. Because I think there are a lot of things that sort of let us by that could be warning signs. I think if your CS strategy is not focusing on value delivery, if you’re building it only upon, well, we want customers to be delighted and to work strategically with them and for them to give us a high NPS score, or to improve those types of measures and statistics, then you’re looking in the wrong direction. While NPS can be helpful from a product perspective, like how are your customers feeling about your product, where improvements can be made, it’s not the end-all-be-all, and a lot of people will tell you, they wish the NPS score would just go out the window. So, I think it’s something that is important to pay attention to, but not to get consumed by, going through this elaborate process of gathering feedback and over-surveying customers. I think that would be a red flag if you’re just focusing in that one area.
I think also, if you’re focusing on getting that feedback from your customers again, in a strategic way, or saying, your customers are happy, that’s definitely a red flag. It’s great if a customer is delighted and happy, but are they successful? And if they are not articulating the value that they’re receiving from your product, and if you’re not focusing your conversations on getting that information and sharing that with the various stakeholders, then that’s also a red flag. You know, we build strategies that also talk about touchpoints, when you want to do a QBR, or EBR. At this juncture, and really focusing on the number of times, I think that can also get very tedious for a customer. So, I think it’s less about the number of times, but more about what those conversations are like, and if you’re only focusing on a certain subset of your customers, that can be a red flag.
So, if your executive presence is not engaged, then you definitely know you’re not building the right CS strategy, because those are the individuals that at the end of the day, hold the budget and make the decision. So, if you’ve built a playbook and all these workflows, and you’re not keeping that audience in mind, and they’re not engaging, then your CS strategy also is not working. So, I think it’s the executive presence, the value realization is really important. And, you know, sometimes we get a lot of that qualitative feedback. But we need the quantitative feedback in order to know our strategy, our process, the products that we’re delivering, our service is really resonating with those customers. So, I think value is the word of 2023. And it’s definitely going to continue to be in 2024.
Challenges when joining a new CS team
What are the common challenges you faced when joining different CS teams? And how did you overcome those?
That’s a great question. So, I think one of the first challenges when you’re joining a customer success team is that you’ve got your external customers that you’re working with, and you need to get up to speed and build rapport with them. But just as important are the internal stakeholders. So, I think that one of the challenges is that there are a lot of people that you interact with that you need to meet, that eventually you’ll be asking for their assistance on something, or they’ll be working with you. So, I think it’s really important to be able to build those relationships early as well, just to be able to get to know people on that level, beyond just “I need you to do the thing for me,” or “We need to work together,” or “This customer has this escalation.” Try to understand what are their motivators? What do they love about working with the customer success team? What are they enjoying in their role? What are their goals? And how do they anticipate the relationship to work because I think understanding goals and being aligned is really important. It’s when you don’t do that, then the conflict arises because your goals may not be in alignment, there may be conflicts of interest. And then it’s really just feeling like you’re going on an uphill battle, because you’re not understanding what is motivating that person. So, I think that’s really important with the product team, especially important with the sales team as well. And then CS, it depends on the structure, like is implementation part of the team, and just getting to know all of those individuals as well.
I think another challenge is getting to know the product, right? It’s really important as a CS individual, that you are able to be savvy enough with the product to articulate the value to the customers, to be able to help guide them. Our customers don’t expect us to know every single thing about the product, especially on a leadership level. But you cannot go into conversations with just ignorance and not try to know anything about it. Because they’ll see through to that. And they’ll really wonder, you know, what you’re doing there and what your role really is. I think spending time understanding the use cases and getting that information from the product team, from other CSMs, and then also hearing firsthand from your customers is really important, but I think it’s the “let me meet all the people and build the relationships” and “let me understand the product.”
And then the other challenge could be you may go into an environment where the reputation of the CS team isn’t a positive one or it isn’t a strong one. And so, how do you turn that around? Again, it goes back to relationships. I’m really big on establishing rapport and working closely with people, and that really only begins once you take the time to just listen and ask questions and understand where people are coming from. But that can definitely be a challenge, depending on the previous leader, the performance of the team, the perspective from customers, there are so many factors. And because we are customer facing, we face a lot of pressure to excel, to help our customers. And sometimes we’re caught in the middle between the customer and other departments. So, trying to change that around by just having some candid conversations, and then taking that information and building strategy and building an action plan shows that not only are you listening, but you’re wanting to put recommendations into place that will improve the processes, the reputation, the relationships.
Collaboration between CS and Sales
Speaking about partners in crime and aligning departments, how do you align the sales and customer success teams in your playbook? What are some key tactics you found effective in fostering this collaboration?
Yeah, I think understanding, again, what motivates each department and how individuals are goal-oriented will help you to understand why the sales team may be looking to put together a specific deal or may have a vested interest in a customer beyond just the first deal that they’re signing. So, I think it comes with understanding the why, but then leaders aligning. If the leaders are not aligned and come together to support each other’s mission and the aligned goals, then there’s never going to be that efficiency. So, making sure that we’re expressing to both teams that it’s really important for us to have a smooth handoff, and here’s the information we would find very beneficial to be able to capture during the sales process. And here is how we use that information moving forward.
I think helping people understand again, why we need the information and why it matters, and helping to build a process with that team to make it easier for them. Because the last thing that CS wants is to create more work for sales. And I think vice versa. So, in the companies where I’ve worked, where there’s been that strong alignment, it’s been the leaders working together to make a process that helps the teams, and also get feedback from them on building that out, and to have it happen in the system of record. So, leveraging Salesforce, for example, to create these documents, which then get passed over from sales to CS. I think it’s important to be able to capture that in a place where it’s not extra steps, we’re not having people manually writing things down.
And then an incentive, right, for them to have that meeting and that handover. So, I think there are creative ways and things that you can do to make sure that that information and that conversation happens, and then reporting back to the sales team, how we use that data. And then knowing that the customer appreciates not being asked the same question 10 times, we can gather additional information, and we always will validate the data. But there’s so much information that they give early on, and asking them for that again, just shows that we’re not communicating.
Choosing the right tools for CS
Speaking about technology and tools, how crucial is choosing the right tools and technology for CS?
While I think the tools are important, I think what matters more is figuring out if you are even ready for tools and technology. Because there are so many options that are out there today, it can be very overwhelming, particularly for new CS leaders or newly formed CS departments. So, I think it’s really taking a look at what is the value that that tool can bring to the business. Really, like, is it going to help us be more efficient with our customers, to deliver value, and to get that ROI? Or is this a nice shiny object that people are going to be excited about using and then abandon? And so, really taking a look at the adoption metrics of these tools, talking to the different platforms that are out there to see what is the right stage. Because I have seen moments where you’re at a company, and a tool is being adopted, and you’re just not at that stage yet. You’re not ready to scale, you’re really focusing on very high-touch conversations and interactions. And so, you may not be ready for a CSP at that time. But perhaps you need a more efficient way to record your calls, to note-take, and to leverage AI.
So, I think it’s really thinking about what is the problem we’re trying to solve? And what is going to be the least painful way to get there through tools and technology, and really talking to, you know, peers at other companies. I think the customer success community is very tight-knit, and people are very willing to give their opinions on tools that they’ve tried, that really worked, and at what stage, and making recommendations. I think, you know, it is important to do your research beyond just talking to the companies, talk to your peers, see what the team really needs, and then make those decisions.
Time to find a tool for CS
I’m curious, which are the signs that the CS leader or a CS team should follow to anticipate the need for technology? As you mentioned, there are situations in which we jump for a tool where we start searching for a tool when we are not ready yet, but there are also situations in which we, are ready, but we don’t have the whole thing. We don’t have our house in order for technology. What are the signs that tell us that? Okay, now it’s time to move away from Excel.
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the answer is going to be, it depends. You know, there’s no magic number on if you get to this number of customers per person, or if your company is a specific size. I think it’s if you have a framework in place, and like you mentioned, you don’t have to have every single thing figured out end to end, but you may have a playbook and you have some steps in mind. And you’re managing things, say, like out of an Excel spreadsheet. If you find that it’s taking too much time to share that information and provide it, I think that’s when you come to the realization that okay, there could be a more efficient way for us doing this. So if the team, if you’re looking at your team’s time spent, and most of that is done in these administrative ways versus conversations with customers, building out the value plans, then you know, that time is not being spent efficiently, not because there’s a time management problem, but because there’s all these ancillary places where people have to go to fill the information out. So if you’ve complicated your processes, and you’re working out of several Word documents, and Excels, there definitely can be technology that you can implement that will help to make that data collection process easier and to be able to have the steps in one place. And so your team isn’t going to 10 different places, or they’re not asking “What do I do here? I forget what sheet am I filling out?”
Or if you find that you’re hiring a bunch of people at once, I think that’s also a great time to say, well, what are we going to do now that we’ve added on several team members, or we’ve doubled our team, or we anticipate we’re going to have that growth over the next two quarters, then I think is an opportunity to take a look at how can we do things in a more efficient manner faster, especially when it comes to all the different things that a CSM has to do for prepping for a meeting, post-meeting, and then sharing data with all the various stakeholders that exist. So as the CS team grows, as the implementation team grows, product as well, I think the more people that there are, you should be taking a look at what are some processes that we could probably streamline? And is there tooling out there that can help us with this information? And it can be simple things like, oh, we now should be recording our calls, that we should look at Gong or a similar thing, or do we need a CRM to capture information? And so I think there are baby steps that you can take and then go to a full-fledged solution. But you don’t have to feel like you have to go from zero to this grandiose thing. Nowadays, especially there are these other products that can help to support you on your journey to grow and as you mature, and so it’s not only enterprise-level offerings, as there were maybe five or ten years ago, there are these startups that are popping up that are meeting specific needs of CS teams. And I think every week, I’m hearing of a different one that’s reaching out to get feedback, which is exciting, but also can be very overwhelming.
Onboarding can be a critical yet challenging aspect of customer success. What’s your playbook for making sure customers start off on the right foot?
Well, that’s another great question. I think transparency and helping them understand the journey and the expectations you have of the customer is crucial. Expectations go both sides. And when I’ve seen onboarding go sideways, it’s when we spend a lot of time as the vendor—I don’t love that word, more like a partner—to the customer, setting out the journey for them on here, all the things that we’re going to be doing, because we want to show a high level of touch, we’ve got all this detail. But then we forget to impress upon them the role that they play, the various stakeholders, the way in which we want them to engage. So, it’s really important to build the customer journey that starts with an onboarding and a kickoff call, in which those expectations are set. Who do we need from your end? Who are we bringing on our end? What is the cadence of the meetings? What are the expectations? And that way, both sides understand that it’s going to require a partnership and it’s not just one side leaning in.
So, are things like, where do we go for escalations, when are we reporting back our progress on an implementation? And so, having those meetings and those touchpoints set forth, and having everybody hear what’s going to be happening is really important, and not having those conversations in a silo. That’s why the kickoff call should be including all stakeholders, including that salesperson who sold the deal. They can help to reinforce that message and really make sure that there is that streamlined communication internally, and we’re showing that we are a united front to the customer. And they’re bringing all of their resources as well. And so, I think that’s a really important aspect.
And just really emphasizing that we don’t want them to be shy. And if there are things that they’re wanting to bring forth, not to wait. Let’s not wait until we get to launch. Really, there are going to be touchpoints along the way in which we want to get your feedback, in which we’re going to provide feedback. And I think opening that door for both sides to be able to have those candid conversations is really important.
Customer success teams
We spoke about strategy, we talked about tools and automation. Now I want to deep dive into the team aspect because, without the proper team in place, all things cannot be properly implemented and executed. So when it comes to the customer success team, what roles do you think are must haves? And when do these roles usually pop up as a company grows? What does a CS team look like? And what does it involve?
Typically at a startup, the CS team starts with one CSM, if you’re lucky, a couple of CSMs really doing anything as it relates to the customer journey and the customer touchpoints. And so, it’s not uncommon to find that a CSM is wearing a lot of different hats, as a company is looking to grow. Depending on how complex the software is to implement, there, you’re going to need an implementation person on the team as well. I know that for some software, it’s very easy, and the CSM can do it. And they are focused on adoption and then work with the customer, you know, past setup through renewal and all those things. But if it’s more complex, and it requires technical acumen, then you’re going to want an implementation person to also be a part of the team. And that probably again is going to start with one person and seeing how many projects they can manage before you are hiring additional folks.
So, I think implementation, having a CSM, and technical support is also really important because again, we talked about how CSMs know enough about the technology, I’d say that we know enough to be dangerous. You’re going to need someone that’s going to be the support person, right, for some of those more reactive inquiries that are coming in, and being able to track and monitor that and get back to the customer within a specified amount of time. You know, a lot of these larger enterprises do have SLA expectations. So, having someone to provide technical support is also really important. So, implementation, then the CSM is going to walk you through the rest of your journey. If you’ve got technical things going on, technical support, I find that typically those are the roles that would exist, to some degree, when you’re working at a startup. And then, as you are growing and scaling and looking at your pipeline in terms of how many customers are going to close, then you’ll add in more CSM support, implementation.
So, I think those are the roles that typically get filled first. And then the opportunity for an ops person, I think, comes later on when you’re trying to manage various processes. You’ve got KPIs, or there are like OKRs, that all the departments are trying to manage. There’s some sort of tooling, you want standard reporting, having an ops person is great. And I think that’s a role that wasn’t common five years ago, 10 years ago. Now, I’m seeing a lot of people are investing in having a CS ops person, not a shared ops person that does a bunch of different things, but a dedicated person, and also can interface with product, with marketing, etc. But again, if you’re lucky, not all departments and companies will be able to invest in a CS ops person. But I think that’s a really important role, especially after the year that we’ve had when we’re trying to be the most efficient and ops folks are really great at figuring out where can we improve upon a process and be able to do things more efficiently without adding bodies to the problem? I think that’s something we saw was becoming an issue over the last couple of years. So, if you’re extremely, extremely lucky, and you can make the case, having a marketing person sit under the CS umbrella would be great. They’re part of marketing, I think it still works out well. I’ve been in organizations where the CS marketing person, customer marketing, I should say, sits under the marketing department. And again, it’s about building that strong relationship but being able to have that role to interact with, then does help make sure you’re capturing your case studies. Do you want to do videos? What does an advocacy program look like? How do we roll out referrals? So, that’s a role that I’m seeing has a lot of importance and emphasis on, especially in 2023.
KPIs for CS teams
Let’s dive into the nitty gritty of KPIs because you mentioned that a bit earlier. As a manager, what KPIs do you prioritize for your team, at the team level, and then individual level?
Well, I think for CS, right, for teams that are tied to revenue, you’re always taking a look at what your renewal rate is. If you’re also looking at upsell, right, so net revenue retention (NRR) and gross revenue retention (GRR) are things that if you’re a commercially facing team and tied to revenue, you need to make sure that you are improving upon the number of customers that are renewing and you’re looking at your upsell and your growth. There’s a lot of pressure these days for hitting revenue targets and looking at your existing customer base as that source of additional revenue is the way to go. Because you have those trusted relationships, those sales cycles in most cases are going to be shorter than they are when you’re selling a large enterprise deal for the first time into a department. So, those are numbers that, whether it’s a team goal or an individual goal, the CSMs are very well accustomed to hearing, to speaking about, to being on forecast calls.
But then there are other things you take a look at, from team members, just to see what’s the adoption and usage, right? We also want to know are our customers using the platform and what does that look like? It isn’t the only metric we should be looking at because again, people could be using it. But if the executive stakeholder is not seeing value in that, then you could still be using the product, you could be a happy customer, and you’re going to churn. But it is a way to look at it as an indicator of okay, are people even going in? And are they using the platform?
I don’t think goals around NPS are really ways to be motivating the team. So we’re going to set that aside, it’s not something I really like to look at, or we set any goals or any financial ties to NPS. But I think having the right touch points with customers and executive engagement. So taking a look at how each team member is doing towards having that executive stakeholder, are they connecting with executives on our end? And what is that cadence look like? So I think seeing the strength of that as a metric for the team is something that’s really, really important.
And then if you’re wanting to focus on the advocacy and the referral, being able to take a look at how that portfolio is from CSM to CSM, like how referenceable is their book of business? What does that look like? Because I think then there’s an opportunity to be able to take the successful situations and replicate that with the rest of the team. So there are some of these other metrics, which I think are important to look at. Because they do at the end of the day tie into a customer’s value that a customer sees, right? It’s different for somebody to send you an NPS survey, right? It goes to the company, no one externally sees it. So people, yes, there’ll be honest, but sometimes they’ll just hit that button and say, Yeah, I’m happy with them, I’ll give them a high score, or if people are really upset, then they’ll definitely fill out the NPS. But for a customer to be an advocate, it’s a different story. They’re going to a conference and speaking on your behalf. They’re saying in public out loud to others, that they are seeing value in your product, and they enjoy working with you. That’s a different story. And it is really important. And so focusing on that is something that will help to grow the right type of customer base, right, you’re focusing on who’s the ideal customer who’s going to get that value. And that’s going to help you evolve and grow with your business.
But having attended some webinars and some conferences, like I mentioned, that CustomerExCon, I mean, it really does make sense. The in public, out loud piece is really important. And so those individuals also are willing to talk to prospects and say, I’ve had a great experience, or they’re candid about here’s how our journey started out. We may have had a tough implementation, but the team is willing to work with you. And now we’re in a solid place and the ROI is there. And so, being an advocate doesn’t mean that they’re always going to be singing your praises. They’re going to be honest about things. But at the end of the day, they’re putting their reputation out there on your behalf. And I think that is something to emphasize with the CSM team because while it is not only our job, it’s an important thing for us to look at because it helps to drive the right behaviors from our customer. So it takes a village to help us with that. But it is important for people to see and share that. And to celebrate that information amongst the team as well, especially during hard economic times, you can only do so much I think when it comes to the renewal and the upsell piece. So then there are other things that you can take a look at to also measure your success and improvement and moving the needle. So those are ways to get the team excited and to create some incentives and maybe spiffs around those pieces as well.
Good CSM vs Great CSM
What makes the difference between a great CSM and a great CSM?
So, I think a great CS team is one where you have individuals that are working, for if we think of like a great post-CSS, because we’ll be talking a lot about CSS, I think there are individuals that have the ability to be able to grow that book of business, right, they’ve got those hard negotiation skills, and they’re able to work with customers and kind of see the path to be able to grow revenue. But at the same time, they also have skills that I think sometimes we overlook, and I think that’s where you go from good to great. These are things like empathy, emotional intelligence, really being able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes to really understand the challenge that they’re trying to solve, the problem that they’re trying to solve. They’re not just buying software because they’ve got loads of money, and they’re just wanting to, they’re bored, or they’re trying to figure out ways to spend it. They have a problem that they’re trying to solve. And I think the great CSMs are the ones that take the time to proactively understand what the problem is. And to work with the customer, as if they are an extension of their team. This doesn’t mean that they’re falling over or bending over backward for the customer and saying yes to everything. What it means is, if they are an extension of their team, similar to what we do internally, they’re having those hard conversations, they’re not shying away from telling the customer, you know, in a very nice and professional way, when they may be wrong or going awry. That’s what it takes to build a relationship that has trust and that has respect.
I think a lot of people think that it just means being good at your job means just appeasing customers. And we’re always saying yes, and that’s why we take on all this responsibility, and then we get stressed. But there are ways to push back when necessary. And it’s for the benefit of the customer. And so I think those CSMs that have the ability to do that, I think it takes emotional intelligence, then they’re able to excel because their customers know they will advocate for them. But they’re not going to just tell them what they want to hear if it’s going to lead them down a path where they’re not going to be successful. And so I think the art of having that conversation is important.
And I think last but certainly not least, active listening. We have so many meetings, and no one just wants to come to a meeting and hear the other person talk. So I think great CSMs build a communication cadence and a structure in which they’re going into the meeting. But they are not talking for the majority of the meeting, that is a really hard thing to do in our role, because we have so many things we want to share, we go into a cadence call, we say, well, we’ve got all these product releases and all these things. And that’s great, you could share that information with the customer. It’s in the slides, you don’t need to regurgitate everything that’s on there. It’s really about pausing. And just asking open-ended questions and listening to what the customer has to say. That’s where you’re going to gain a lot of detail and a lot of information that then helps you to ascertain, okay, this customer is in a good spot, or they’re not, or they’re giving me signs that perhaps there’s going to be a problem. And the likelihood of them renewing is not high, I went into thinking that things are good, but they’re not. So it’s not until we ask those questions. And really just pause and listen and pause some more. I think people get really uncomfortable with silence, but it is when you pause that, then someone starts talking. And then if you’re not talking, they’re going to talk some more. So before you know it, you’ve really uncovered a lot of information because you’ve created an environment in which the person feels comfortable sharing that information. So I think that’s such a key thing. And in many cases, we are just waiting for our turn to talk and we want to make sure we’re going to say the right thing. We want to sound smart, we want to sound articulate, and then we miss what the other person is saying. And that’s where miscommunication happens. Or that’s when you have to ask a question you already got the answer to because you were not paying attention and you were thinking about what’s the next thing I have to say. So really, really hard skill, but the great CSMs and the great implementation managers, salespeople, anybody working in a SaaS company, or I think any company, if you’re able to do that, you gain a lot.
I think you covered the answer to my next question, but I feel the need to summarize it, wrap it up or maybe add something more. When evolving in our roles, there’s always the risk of overlooking something. What’s that one thing that even experienced CSMs sometimes miss or do not give enough attention to?
I think we can get caught up in those moments of joy, and those moments of, “Oh, this customer is expressing X, and they seem very happy.” We use the words “happy,” they’re very happy, they’re delighted, they gave us this great score. That can be wonderful. But then, what else is going on in their business, in the industry, in the world that could be affecting their vantage point? So, I think we can sometimes overlook the highs. We feel these highs with these customer interactions, right? Because there are many days where we feel like we’re fighting fires, and there’s just a lot of things coming at us. And sometimes we can confuse this relationship or camaraderie, especially if you build a good relationship with your customer. It’s individuals you go and visit, you go to dinner, you know a lot about their personal lives. Sometimes that can cloud your judgment as to these other factors and things that are going on.
And so yes, it’s great to build those relationships and to have those moments of joy. But also, to just keep track of, well, what else is going on? What are the other stakeholders thinking within this company, what’s going on with their business? I think it’s so important to balance that, to have those conversations and to build the rapport, but also to pay close attention to what is going on within their business. Like, visit their website, if they’re public, you can take a look at what’s going on in their earnings, listening to those calls, or their changes in leadership. And so, it’s really important not to lose sight of that, even when you feel like a customer is in the green, that’s another thing, this customer is green, they’re healthy, great, but one thing could change, and then the rest fall down.
So also, I think, overlooking just building a relationship with one person, there’s been a lot of turnover. Good, I think the other word of like 2023 is people are switching jobs, they’re getting tired, there’s burnout. And if you lose that one person, it can really be detrimental to your relationship moving forward. So making sure that you’re establishing multifaceted relationships with more than just that person who is your champion because they could find another job tomorrow and just move on. And it’s business, right? It’s not personal, or they could be impacted by a layoff and not see it coming. And then your entire foundation and structure is shattered with that one change in the company.
Turning mistakes into learning opportunities
Can you think of a specific mistake you’ve made in your CS role that’s turned into a valuable learning experience?
That’s another good question. Wow, really put me on the spot here. I’m sorry, mistake made? Well, I think for me, it has to do with an internal and internal learning. So, I talked about the sales to CS relationship. And the reason why it’s so important to me is I have had missteps with that, and not truly understanding where the other person was coming from, and really thinking that I know I’m right in this thing. And this is why I’m pursuing what I’m doing and the strategy that I have with this customer, and not taking the time to really think about what that other individual was motivated by, if there was an individual contributor. I was working on an opportunity for an upsell with a customer with a salesperson. And I wasn’t taking the time to do the steps that I mentioned on the “What’s your why, how are you compensated versus how I’m compensated,” because that does drive behavior. What are each of our leaders thinking about the situation? And so, I was so caught up in the “I know this customer, I know what I’m doing, I’m trusting my gut,” that I didn’t take the time to see it from the other person’s perspective.
So, at the end of the day, just taking that time to have a five-minute chat to say, “Hey, here’s where I’m coming from. And I’m noticing that X, Y, and Z is happening, like why is that going on?” And so, just go do it, likely to the person rather than thinking you are right, or you’re just trusting your gut, or you’re surrounding yourself with people that are like, “Yes, you’re doing the right thing.” And so, I think that’s definitely a learning; it’s understanding the person’s why and don’t assume. And so, I learned that very early on and then was able to pivot, and then help team members to say, “Yes, this person may be frustrating you, you may think you know how to do their job better, or you think that you’re right in this and you could be right, there is a degree of truth to that, and you could still be right. And that person could also be right.” So, there isn’t, it’s not black and white, and just take the time to ask the why and speak directly with that person, you’re going to get a lot of information, they may not have done that either, right? That person didn’t take that time. But that’s okay. You need to just be the bigger person and have that conversation. And I think at the end of the day, a lot of misunderstandings happen, because people assume, and then there’s just internal upheaval, that is so unnecessary. So that’s definitely a lesson I learned quickly. And then was really adamant about not wanting to repeat again, helping my teams to understand that that’s why building relationships is important. Even before, you might have a need to work with a specific department or person, it’s important for them to know who you are, what you’re about, what you bring to the table. And then it makes it easier working together moving forward.
We often hear certain statements or beliefs that sound like they should be universally true, but somehow don’t always pan out in practice. Can you think of one such statement that really shouldn’t exist? For the CS audience?
Oh, wow, this one’s really tough. A statement that shouldn’t exist.
I think I can help you one. And then we can start from here.”Customer Success is the job of the customer success department” Yes, this is one of the things that I don’t think it’s necessarily true, and I don’t think customer success is only about the customer success department. I think it’s definitely a joint venture. And everyone from marketing, to sales to product, customer success, support growth, you name it, should basically be aligned and should have shared KPIs when it comes to customer customer success.
For instance, I don’t think necessarily the churn should be objective, only for the CS department, I think each and everyone can contribute. And I think this is something that it should be shared with KPIs for marketing, for sales, for product, and for customer success.
Okay, I’ve got one. So, I think in a lot of cases, there’s the belief that the customer success person, not that they should be the gatekeeper, but they are the holder of the relationship and all the information needs to go through the customer success person. And I think that that is definitely not universally true because there’s so much that a CSM has to do in terms of work. And so, if you’re expecting that they need to broker every single conversation, or that they’re the only person a customer should be speaking with at the company, that is definitely a false statement. There needs to be multi-threaded relationships. That’s how you build rapport with executive stakeholders, with champions, and then with the user. So there needs to be an environment in which, as long as the customer is in a place where they’ll be open to that, right, they need to be in a healthy state, they need to be in a place where they’re not having all these problems, right. If they’re unhappy, and they’re angry, they’re not going to want all these people reaching out to talk to them about something that they probably have already expressed concern over multiple times.
But if they’re in a place where we’ve got all these indicators that they are doing the right things, or leveraging best practices, they seem open to wanting to have those conversations, then we create an environment in which marketing can reach out, if the salesperson has a relationship, they can reach out. It’s just keeping the CSM informed that these conversations are happening. And that’s where things like tooling and technology can help to capture those interactions and how often they’re happening, but it’s not our job, nor should we be the gatekeepers. But I have heard that statement that some people say, “Well, it has to go through the customer success team, otherwise you’re not allowed to talk to the customer.” That’s not a customer-centric organization. And it’s not a scalable way of communicating with your customer. And let’s be honest, they’re going to get bored of hearing from us all the time. They want to hear directly from the product team, from other individuals, executive to executive. So there are a lot of smart people that have many things to say. Yes, they, in many cases, love working with their CSM or the CS team. But there’s going to be times when they need to talk to other departments and where they may get information from a different mechanism that then helps us as well. So, it’s you’re able to do a lot of strategic things when you’re multi-threading those conversations.
CS trends and predictions for 2024
As we wrap up, I love to hear your thoughts on the future. What are your predictions for Customer Success industry in 2024? Are there any trends or changes you foresee that we should all be keeping an eye on?
Great question, I think AI is going to continue to be a hot topic. And it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in terms of tooling and technology that might become the front runner for CS tools. So, I think for quite some time, the conversation has been really a lot around the customer success platforms that are out there. Then this year, there has been all these different types of tooling that’s available to make time more efficient, to be able to summarize your notes, key actions, and just be able to do things that were tasks that are were very tactical and mundane. So, I think that that’s going to continue to be something that gets pushed and emphasized. It’ll be interesting to just see what tools become the popular ones, and then how efficient are they making teams? And are there things that we didn’t foresee coming about AI? That might be in the say not so positive category. So, it’s like, I think there’s a lot of excitement around it. But I think there’s also a lot of unknown. So, it will be interesting to see how that definitely plays out. But I think people will be looking to make investments, but being really smart about how they’re using their money.
I think the other thing we might see is companies deciding that they may need to scale back on tooling, just given the economic conditions and the way that they’re trying to manage their money. So, I think there’s going to be a shake-up in the types of tools that people may have access to or may decide. The CRM is enough for now, or we’re going to be figuring these things out while we see what happens with the economy.
Thank you very much for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you today.