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Mastering CS – Candid Leader Insights- Parul Bhandari | Ep 2 Podcast

November 7, 2023 19 minutes read

Summary points:

Welcome to another episode of “Mastering CS: Candid Leader Insights,” where we delve into the world of Customer Success (CS) through the eyes of seasoned leaders. Today, Irina Cismas, our Head of Marketing at Custify, is joined by Parul Bhandari, Customer Success & Startup Leader, Advisor, and Speaker.

Parul carved her path through the dynamic and evolving landscape of CS, starting from occupational ergonomist to pioneering a CS department in a SaaS startup. Join us as we explore the twists and turns of her career, the strategic planning of the first 90 days in CS, and the nuances of navigating issues and challenges within the field.

What You’ll Learn:

  • The foundational steps for starting in customer success.
  • Developing a robust 30-60-90 day plan for new CSMs.
  • Overcoming common challenges and controversies in CS, including the debate on quotas and ownership of revenue.
  • Strategies for handling escalations and the departure of a champion within a client organization.
  • Balancing client expectations with deliverables and the art of setting and resetting expectations.
  • Selecting the right tech stack for CS and ensuring tools serve the team efficiently.
  • Building a cohesive CS team, focusing on engagement, data-driven decision-making, and adaptability to ambiguity.

Key insights and takeaways for CSMs based on the interview

The Crucial Early Days: Parul’s first 30 days in CS were split between mining customer data to understand their health and simultaneously drafting a strategic plan for the department. She likens the 60 and 90-day marks to having a learner’s permit, where learning is pivotal, and understanding the product and customers’ nuances is crucial.

Strategic Planning: For new CSMs, Parul emphasizes the importance of knowing who you want to be in your role and grounding yourself with that identity. A 30-60-90 day plan is essential, setting personal milestones alongside those outlined by the organization.

Negotiation and Ownership: Even experienced CSMs can hesitate with negotiations, an essential skill since every interaction with a customer involves selling the company’s value. On the contentious topic of quota ownership, Parul believes it’s situational, with early-stage companies often requiring CSMs to wear multiple hats due to resource constraints.

Escalations and Champion Departure: Parul notes that escalation management is a significant challenge, implying that CSMs may lack critical knowledge about their customers. When a champion leaves, it’s almost like a reimplementation, where retraining and realignment with the new contact’s goals become essential.

Balancing Expectations: Setting and managing expectations is an ongoing task. Success planning should be revisited annually, adapting to changes within the client’s and your organization. Transparency and communication, especially when business practices change, are critical.

Tech Stack Selection: The right tools should be easy to use, data shouldn’t be siloed, and they should integrate well with other systems. The selection process must be rigorous, involving demos and team scoring. Remember, tool deployment often takes longer than anticipated, and clean data is vital.

Team Building: Engagement, data-driven decision-making, and experience with ambiguity are non-negotiable traits for new hires. To maintain team harmony, regular internal syncs and meetings with other departments are necessary to ensure alignment and collective understanding of priorities.

Podcast Transcript

Starting out in customer success

Irina 00:35
Thanks for taking the time to do to do this. I know that we only have 30 minutes. And I want to be mindful with your time. And there are a lot of things that I want to ask you. And to be honest, this is actually the second episode from mastering CS Candid Leader Insights. And to say I’m nervous would be an understatement. So I suggest we jump into directly into the conversation. I wanna start the discussion asking you if your journey in customer success was a movie, what would be its title?

Parul 01:20
Oh, wow. Um, I think it would be like, some of the Incredible journey of Miss Parul, because honestly, I think that my career and my journey has been one with twists and turns. And so it would probably be the story of some young person going through a lot of life’s twists and turns to get where they are.

Irina 01:48
How did you end up in customer success?

Parul 01:51
I started my career as an occupational ergonomist. And I dabbled around it and other functions came back to ergonomics. And the company I had worked for for many years became a SaaS startup. And we needed something after the sales process. We needed this, we didn’t know what it was. We called it account management for a little while, until we stumbled upon customer success. So I got the opportunity to grow my first customer success team from the ground up.

The first 30, 60 and 90 days in CS

30-day mark

Irina 02:20
Super. And do you recall how the first 30 days were? How was the journey the first 30 days?

Parul 02:29
So that’s a great question. So the the first 30 days for me, I was not only CSM number one, but I was also growing the team simultaneously we’re building the department. So I was doing two jobs. So on one side, I was essentially mining a lot of customer data, trying to understand what had been done in the past with these customers. I think that’s very similar to the first maybe 30-60-90 day journey that a CSM goes through, you’re given some data, you’re given some customers, you go and try to figure out where are they at? What’s your status, what’s your health? So I spent a lot of time mining data, talking to people internally calling customers really trying to understand what their health was in their current state. And then simultaneously on the other arm, I was reading about customer success, deploying a project plan and actually getting buy in from leadership on how we would deploy this department. So it was kind of a interesting 30 days.

60 and 90 day marks

Irina 03:26
And moving forward, how were the next 30 days? How was your 60 and 90 days?

Parul 03:32
Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think I call the 60 and 90 days like your learner’s permit. So you are able to drive but you do not have full rein. You don’t maybe understand the product perfectly and you don’t understand every customer nuance or every customer question, but you’re spending all the time you can learning and driving alongside people in your internal organization that can help you or your customers that are particularly focused on coaching, and helping bring you up to speed. So I think that 60 to 90 day period is really a lot of learning and deploying what’s going to work for them in the next six months forward, one year forward, and three years and five years and beyond. So I think we’re really understanding what that vision is going to look like.

Irina 04:20
In order to build a successful 30-60-90 days plan, what do you recommend to new CSMs? How should they approach this strategic planning?

Parul 04:33
Yeah, that’s a great question. If I think about what should a CSM do when you’re coming into a new company, you’re brand new, thinking about what you want to show up as before you enter that company is really a good solid way to ground yourself. You’ve had experiences working somewhere before, maybe you haven’t, but you come in before day one saying here’s the person I want to show up as here’s my bag. I’ll use as an individual. And I think if you kind of use that as a grounding force, as you’re getting into a company, every onboarding looks different, every customer playbook looks different, every journey looks different. You can kind of use that to grow yourself throughout that path.

I really think it’s important to define out a 30 day 60 day 90 day plan. When I onboard new people, I actually help them. I’ll put a plan together and say, “here’s the milestones and goals, I think you should hit”. But there’s milestones and goals, you’re going to determine yourself that you should hit. And that’s honestly a practice that continues on. You might not talk to every customer every month, you might talk to them on a quarterly basis. So understanding where your metrics matter, and how you’re going to deploy them. That’s kind of some of the key to that early stage journey.

Issues, challenges and controversies in CS

Irina 05:48
I want to switch gears a bit, but still remaining on the learning learning path. Being in CS, have you noticed areas where even experienced CSM might sometimes gloss over?

Parul 06:05
Yeah, um, I think that even the most experienced CSM is what I see in my work is a little bit of a fear of negotiations. You know, we usually are in CS, and we may have chosen not to be in sales for some reason, right? But you think that you’re doing something that’s very different than a seller, but in actuality you are selling your every conversation you’re having with a customer, you are selling the value of your company, you’re selling the value of yourself as their partner, you’re selling, you know, kind of the future vision or future expansion potential.

If you own renewals and you own expansion, you’re really selling, you’re actually doing the act of selling with pricing. So I think negotiations is the area that I feel like even the most seasoned CSMs have a little bit of like a fear factor. And I look back I went to business school, I took this classes of negotiation, I don’t think it was one to one, but I call it negotiations one on one, it was one of the most popular classes in my business school because I think so many of us recognize that was a gap.

It wasn’t just CS, people with many functions, it was a gap and taking that class really kind of opened my eyes to just taking some of that fear away. So I tried to do that with my CSM is try to encourage them to try negotiation tactics. We don’t always come in with the bottom price we come in at a competitive price and we talk to the customer we hear what they want to say. So that we can also be a partner in growing the business as well as growing the customer’s value.

Irina 07:39
Because you mentioned negotiations and now I have to ask sort of a controversial discussion about should CSM own a quota, where should they own the revenue? Should they be responsible for it? What’s your position when it comes to this controversial topic?

Parul 07:58
That is such a controversial topic. I agree with you. So I will say I think my answer is it depends. So I’ve worked now in companies of different sizes, from like 5 million to 100 million. I haven’t truly worked at billion dollar companies, but in a different capacity not in customer success. I’m the one thing that I noticed is in the startup world, we tend to and I’m in the startup world right now, we tend to wear many hats, and renewals, expansions having ownership of a book of business is I think, pretty fair game, right.

And that is something that we see very often and it’s primarily because of resource constraints. Or it’s primarily because hey, nobody really was doing renewals yet. The reverse renewal didn’t even come yet. And now all of a sudden it arrives, because you’re in this early stage company. But what I’m sort of learning and what I remember from my first year of CS job is I didn’t own renewals, and I was actually okay with that.

In that company, we had a renewals team. And they were really good at what they did they actually manage the book, they would get great increases month over month, they would see incredible value for the company. And it was a complimentary service. Like we worked together with the CS team and the renewals team. So I kind of felt like, you know, hey, that works too. I recently did a talk where we asked the room who owns renewals? And only the people at early stage companies raise their hands. So I think if you asked me a couple months ago, I probably had a stronger opinion. I’m getting more tempered in that. I think it depends.

Irina 09:40
There is no such thing as white or black. Always. There are a lot of shades. What do you think is the biggest challenges that CSMs do confront with in this environment?

Parul 10:03
Well, I think the environment, the world has changed a little bit, right? We’ve seen a lot of different buying behavior changes in typical sort of health and retention behavior, especially for teams that own renewals, things are not as straightforward since 2020. And COVID.

I think we’ve also seen a lot of changeover in organizations, to where you had a really strong champion for 10 years, 15 years. Naturally, people are retiring, but also there was a lot of exit from the workforce. So I think the biggest challenge is actually escalations. I will tell you just today, I was doing an activity with my team, where we looked at what was the health early this year. And what’s the health today, we’re looking at the trends, and it wasn’t all rosy, right?

I want it all to be rosy, I want it all to be perfect. But there were these little spikes, and it makes you go, well, wow, this customer was in a really steady state, you know, early this year, what happened in the last couple of months. And it really could be driven by a business decision that we’re not privy to. So it’s, I think escalations are one of the biggest challenge, because what it implies is that we’re not fully threaded, we don’t have all the knowledge that we need to have about our customers, we might have great relationships, we might have great partners, we might talk to them all the time. But we might not understand what fully what that organization is thinking and needs.

And I think that is the one of the biggest challenges that many teams are facing is like, too many surprises. And yeah, I don’t know that, that. That’s what I’m feeling actually day to day. So we need to get a better handle on it. I think as a generally as a function. But I think it’s one of those areas. That is a challenge across the board right now.

How to handle a champion leaving

Irina 11:45
You mentioned escalations, you mentioned the specific topic that I want to deep dive, you mentioned champion leaving, and I know from my talks, I’m a marketer, but I did I stay in contact with the customer success team. And I’m pretty close to the industry as well. And I know that one of the things that I’m hearing is the champion left. It’s like every time they need to do another sale, an internal sale, do you have any advices on how to handle this particular piece? What do you do when the champion is leaving from the organization?

Yeah, it’s almost like a reselling opportunity, depending on how big the breadth of the champions ownership was. So I mean, different teams that I’ve worked with their own. We’ve had different workflows or playbooks for this. And I think the one that sticks out the most it’s when is an escalation, right, I think we treat it your customer that’s like yellow, or green before actually, I think needs to get into an escalated state, because champions slipping is one of the things that I think has, we’ve seen a lot of change in the industry, of people being less afraid to switch over to a new platform, even in customer success, like familiarity can drive a decision to buy a certain customer success platform, right or switch from some other NPS tool that you’re using to a different one.

The market is super saturated, as well. So that doesn’t help us. So when we have an escalation in this regard, it is actually like kind of a full team escalation, we’re usually trying to treat this as an opportunity to not only retrain and re-coach the organization, but almost like re-implement the organization in a way, we have to go back and teach them the history that they don’t know, right?

If there’s a new champion, I literally talked to a new champion last week. You know, she wasn’t aware of what happened in 2018, that there were amazing results for a customer in 2018. To her the world is as far back as 2022, right? She’s like, that’s kind of as far back as I’m looking. So now I need to know what’s happening in this lens. So it’s about us also as a team, shifting our lens of what success looks like for that customer.

We’re taking our kind of longer journey and we’re shrinking it down. And we’re actually saying: “here’s all the things that were impactful in the period that she’s measuring”. And then I think that the thing that is hard and I really think this is important is figuring out what drives that person, what are their incentives? What are their goals? Obviously, they’ve come into this job for a reason. They’re taking in a new role for a reason. That’s usually the one thing that they can answer. They might not be able to answer everything that about the organization, especially if they’re pretty new, they usually can answer what they’ve been tasked to do. And if you can partner with them and deliver that’s really a good way to sort of continue to build that champion. But there’s a lot of variability there. So this is where multi threading this I think can also be really beneficial. If your organization is multi threaded, you have more relationships than just one.

Balancing expectations and deliverables

Irina 15:00
Balancing between client expectations and deliverables, I think it’s an art. How do we dance?

Parul 15:10
I actually think this is really a very, very, very, very poignant and very important point. Setting expectations, it’s not a one time thing, right? It’s a continuous activity. Just because you set expectations with someone three years ago does not mean that those expectations stand today.

I think there’s this whole success planning activity that we often say we do in success, but we don’t fully do. But every year we should be level setting. What are the goals? What are the expectations? What are the outcomes, we’re really trying to get to, and continuing to bounce that. Now I am realistic, things will change, right? What expectations we set three years ago, four years old, the customer, they might change for that customer due to change of ownership, or organizational shifts or whatever. They might also change process, the organization delivering it, constantly communicating, and sometimes even over communicating, I think is the key here.

So I’ll just give you an example. My last organization, we were doing a lot of services for free, that was built into contracts. And we started to realize that this is not sustainable. It’s becoming a bigger cost than we recognize. And we started to have conversations with customers to say, yes, in the past, this was our business practice. But we are shifting our business practice. And this is what it’s going to look like. We give them a lot of long lag time to get used to the change. We said, Hey, we’re going to implement this in the next year. And it was about mid year at that point. So they also had enough time to get used to the idea, and not like be sort of blindsided by it. But it was a significant change in that we were now going to start charging for something that was free before. So you want to also make sure that you’re really assessing what’s their sentiment about that. Because sometimes a business decision is made. And you may also learn that you maybe have to think about changing that business decision if it’s not going the right way. So that’s just I think, a fine art, as you mentioned, right? It’s just one of those things that if you can do it well, you will continue to have that longevity with your customers.

Choosing the right tech stack for CS

Irina 17:18
In today’s world, we do have a lot of tools that we use. And I think there’s a monetary over communication, but there are a lot of options for the CS team. How do they pick the right ones? How do they know? Are there too many? How do they consolidate? How does the technology stack in customer success look like for you? What do you recommend? How do we pick the right tools that work for us and not against us?

Parul 17:59
I love good tools, I actually think good tools can make you productive, I think they have to be easy to use number one, right? It’s not something that you can spend a lot of time training people on. And it can’t be too tedious, right? A lot of administrative effort and time is time loss that we’re not spending on our customers.

My biggest thing that I like is that I don’t want to repeat the work that we’ve done. We’ve done it in one place, it should be feeding into all the systems. So I’m a big proponent of tools that all connected now most of them do. To be frank, that all connect either with underlying systems or integrations that allow the team to see everything they need in one place. I think that is a great value add or if you are going to have separate segmented tools, that’s fine. But making sure those tools not data can actually be translated, because what starts to happen, in my opinion, is you have tools in one set. And it’s got, you know, some sort of identifier. It’s a different identifier and a different set. So your CS team spends a lot of time just doing data analysis.

And I’m a big proponent of CS tools, BI tools, because I think that’s what they’re built for. They’re built to be that portal. And I’ve implemented like 3 CS tools since I started my career in customer success. And it’s just such a value add for me. I will say the world of BI tools is a little bit more complex and different. But I still found that they’re better than there’s some other kind of tools that if they’re not easy enough for the teams to use, they get bogged down, there are some tools that we use that require like scripts to actually gather data, and I don’t think my team is actually able to get it themselves. So then we have lag times, we have to put in a request and wait and everything takes a lot longer. So I think the more efficient, the easy to use and creating a central portal. Those are those are kind of my tried and true recommendations.

Irina 20:04
Do we do mistakes when we pick up tools? Are there any misconceptions? What do you recommend, when it comes to picking the tools?

Parul 20:23
Well, so I go through kind of a rigorous check. If I’m gonna get a new tool, I go through a rigorous process, we’ll all define what our organization needs, I’ll kind of translate it into a goal. Almost like a scoreboard, I’ll create and then I’ll go through and pick the vendors based on my external research, whatever I can figure out, pick the vendors that are going to best suit our purposes, from what we can tell externally, and then set up demos.

And I’ll usually use like the demos as a broader audience, like bring people in to really listen and compare them. And then we’ll typically score them as a team. So I made two tooling decisions, two big tooling decisions in my last company, and I employed that one, I actually had an external consultant, she did a lot of that pre work for us, which was really nice. So then we were able to decide on a support tool, based on her recommendation, she was like, I did all the demos, I did this. And here’s the tool that fits your guys’s needs best. And then we went into like a demo environment. And we tested it. And we verified Yeah, we liked it. And then similarly, we ended up doing that ourselves. So I think like, you just have to do the work. I mean, I’m going to anger somebody by saying this. But this, the vendors will say, Oh, it’s like four to six weeks to deploy. And it’s never four to six weeks to deploy, because realistically, your decision timeline is probably a month. If you’re doing your due diligence, then you’re working out your negotiations timeline, and then you’re actually implementing, and if you want, that connected ecosystem that I was talking about, your data has to be clean enough to be fed. So on the back end, a lot of data is not always clean, right?

So you need to work through internal issues. So my thing is, it’s usually like a six month journey. And I think you have to also ensure that your organization is ready for that, like we in my last team also signed up a senior CSM and 20% of their role was to actually implement the tool so that they were the administrator. And this is a bit unique, because that was actually the first time we had done that. But it worked really well, because we needed top ownership at that, at that degree.

Building the CS team

Irina 22:33
I think that timeline that they provided this super realistic. And I’m glad that your described the whole process because I know there are a lot of CSMs that do not have these expectations. They do imagine that a tool will do also their job or a tool will do the strategy or tool will basically solve miracle all the problems in the CS world. And the tool can only be a partner into this into this journey. And it’s a two way street. It doesn’t solve the CS problems after signing the contract. So that I would say the hard part starts immediately afterward.

We talked about tools, we talked about processes. I want to talk about about the team. When you are hiring and when you are building the CS team what are the most important things that you look at your hires? What are those traits that are non negotiable for you?

Parul 23:44
So again, there’s a little bit of like variability. But the first thing is somebody that is engaged, so I look for people that are engaged in our interview process. Okay, so what does that mean? They’re showing up with having done some research, they’ve maybe looked at some data about us as a company, they’ve done their homework, they’re coming to the table ready for that?

I know, that sounds like kind of an abstract one. But I think you can tell the difference of somebody that just showed up to the interview and somebody that’s prepared, and being engaged in that process. That’s how I know they’re going to show up for their customers, right? So in customer success, you can’t just show up to a meeting, you got to do some preparation. So usually somebody that’s showing up to our meeting prepared, you know that they’re going to probably do the same for their customers.

Next one is being data driven. I think again, we’ve sold CS in the past as being like this soft skill and it’s I just don’t think that it is and I don’t think that’s a survivable mentality for the function like I think we need to be known as a data driven function because the only thing that tells us anything in CS is data, like the conversation. Customer can say all kinds of nice things, but the data is really going to be important to understand what their behaviors are, and how well they’re doing. So your CSM has to live it, learn it, love it, right? Like, if you don’t, it’s probably not the best field for you.

Yeah, I’m just gonna say that I think you have to be able to focus. And the last thing is, I think, some experience with ambiguity or some experience with customer facing work. So I see that, that’s my looser, like more vague part. But so in my past company, we actually recognize I worked at an insurer Tech, we recognize that people with any insurance background, it didn’t matter what type of insurance they worked in, but they worked with some type of insurance, they understood that insurance is complicated and heavy and can at times feel very ambiguous. And we took that as an asset to the interview process, because we knew that they would come to our company, and also be able to understand and recognize what our customers are going through. So those kinds of things, they’re a little bit like, you need to have the gray experience with ambiguity that’s in your functional area, or experience relating to your customers, so maybe they worked at an insurance company, or maybe they worked at a company like your customer, right? Just really depends what the business that you’re working in.

Irina 26:22
How do you make sure that the CS team is working together towards the same goal and not one against each other? How do you keep the harmony in the in the team making sure that you all go in the same direction?

Parul 26:42
Yeah, so I, I think this is actually very important. Your CS team needs to not only be aligned with each other, but they also need to work together. And oftentimes, I find CS teams are kind of all over the place, because everybody has unique customer needs and unique things. And they’re going after solving them. So I do a couple of things. I usually have two internal syncs every week. One is a team meeting, like what’s going on? Are you here this week, any escalations like anything to talk about, just kind of a more general, like, welcome to the week meeting.

And then the second meeting is a customer review where we’re going through kind of our high priority customers, I’m talking about action plans. I think everybody listening in on that meeting whether or not there, they have high priority customers that week, rather than have much to say, because I think we have to understand what’s happening across the customer landscape, so that we can actually help each other.

And then the other thing is, I think having some team meetings together with your product team or engineering team. So that we can discuss as a team, collectively, what’s coming down the pipeline, the roadmap, and really understanding where some areas might be prioritized by that team or not. We’re the voice of the customer. So we also want to make our case in that meeting. But again, I think if you’re doing these isolated things, it doesn’t help anyone. And like the CS team is after finding ways internally to help their customers externally. So if you’re internally aligned, you’re gonna see much more externally aligned and you’re gonna know, Oh, I understand why product team prioritize this for another customer, because I was in the meeting, and I heard the reason and I heard the discussion. And I was a part of that discussion, right? So you’re giving them the tools that they need to be better equipped to discuss with their customers.

Wrapping up

Irina 28:36
So my last question is what’s your favorite quote, book or mentor for customer success? That person that basically inspires you, that your Northstar? It doesn’t need to be all three. You can only pick one of them.

Parul 29:04
Okay, I’m going to tell you a recent quote, because actually, like this stood with me, and I loved this. It was actually from last weekend, it was in an article that was on Greg Gaines newsletter, but it was quoted from Seth Godin I wrote it down. And it said, “There are a lot of rewards for heroic saves at work, but heroic saves undermine the desire to build better systems.”

And I love that I like save that in my in my brain because it goes back to what we were talking about with escalations. We go through this escalation process, we pull in as many people from the company as we get really happy when we save. And of course, everyone’s happy because we’ve saved we’ve not lost, but I think we are not looking at the root cause of the problem, right? And we’re not hearing and taking the time to understand what the root causes are, because that escalation happened and doing like post mortems making sure that we are changing process ahead for the future. Escalation is really, really important, right? And so this goes back to data and tooling and finding ways to connect our ecosystem so that you don’t have to just do guesswork to get there. But yeah, I love that. So I wanted to share that one with you.

Irina 30:19
Thank you very much for your time! I really enjoyed the conversation and I want to keep in touch

Parul 30:36
Sounds great. Love it!

Are you curious about how your favorite CS leader started their journey in customer success? Let us know and we’ll reach out for an interview.

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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