Customer Success Best Practices During Covid-19

by James Ker-Reid - June 10, 2020


Sales for Startups founder and CEO, James Ker-Reid, talks to Chris Mitchell at Success Strategies to talk about customer success.

Over to the interview with James asking the key questions and answers:

  • For those that don’t know you, tell us about your background and yourself

Well due to COVID, I’m providing a lot of support around online communications and one of those important elements is getting your video image correct, the framing, making your background interesting, but not distracting and your lighting correct. So I hope I’m practicing what I preach right now and it’s nice to hear that as one of your first comments! (James and Chris did a Zoom call together for this interview and James commented on Chris’ ‘tropical background’ when they started the conversation!)

But anyway, my background is very varied and I’ve done many different things, starting my working life in the military before moving into telecoms. I’ve now got to the stage where I tend to refer to myself as a ‘specialist generalist’, which seems to be coming back into vogue, especially in customer success. In order to be successful in customer success, you really need to understand all parts of the business. Having worked in pre-sales, post-sales and across different parts of the business and having experience working from the technical engineering side of the product, right through to post-sales has really helped me to understand the role of customer success a lot better. 

As part of my varied background, I was a part-owner of business for about 5 years, I’ve worked with a lot of startups and scaleups, but always personally focussed on enterprise and strategic accounts, that’s where my personal interests lie. 

I worked at ON24 for almost 10 years – where I was the VP of customer success. I started with them in the early days of their EMEA region growth when we were still a services company and in 2013 oversaw the EMEA region pivot to become a SAAS company. I oversaw pretty much all roles apart from new sales and marketing, up until the point where the company reached almost £100M ARR. I was looking after all post-sales activities, but towards the backend of my time I took on the responsibility for the account management team and the sales team working with the existing customer base. This meant all cross-selling and upselling came under my remit too, which gave me great insight across everything related to the customer.

  • What are some of the areas that some tech companies really struggle with customer success and existing account management?

It’s a really good question, and it obviously depends where they are in their growth stage. Some of the key things I would say start with the responsibility of CS – what should my CS team do? Do I need a CS team now? And if I do, what are their responsibilities? Are they going to become account managers? Or non-commercial and be a trusted advisor type role? A lot of founders are hearing ‘I need a CS team’, but what do they do then?

Then when you have a customer success organisation, the relationship between the customer success and the sales team is important. How do you hand over a new customer into the customer success organisation? Where does that responsibility start and finish? Are my sales team selling to good-fit customers and what’s the responsibility of customer success to feed that back? There’s a great article written by Mark Roberge who was the VP of Sales at Hubspot where he talks about the different plans for sales compensation based on where they were in their sales progression and growth as a company – some really interesting points come from that.

The last thing is, understanding the importance of customer success to the bottom line. We are in a situation with COVID-19 where a lot of people are getting laid off. I’ve seen some salespeople posting on LinkedIn and other platforms, talking about the fact that sales are the only part of the organisation that can’t be laid off, everyone else can be. Actually, customer success should be the growth engine for SaaS companies so they should be just as important to you, and in some respects, you could argue more important. They are all about protecting the base, and you have to build and grow from the base. If you’re really early stage and you’re still in the new logo acquisition stage when you’ve got to focus on that, maybe not quite so important, but the fact is, once you’ve got a good customer base, you’ve got to keep it and grow it. 

  • How do you know if you’re struggling or not performing in CS and what are those early indicators or metrics that you can review?

You’re going to have that early indication probably even before you have that first CS team member. Are you losing customers? That’s something you have to get a very early handle on, which goes back to what was said earlier; understanding the ideal customer profile and if you’re selling to the right customer base.

Also, check that the customers you do have, are they growing with you? Is our base coming back to us, is it renewing, is it buying more? If you’re not seeing those patterns, it could be a good indicator of problems. Then I would say things like health scoring. You’ve got to understand your customer and get some kind of health understanding related to them. Whether you’re just doing a manual scoring matrix, because you’re too early-stage to have any tools in place, or you have something more sophisticated in place you’ve got to make sure your CSMs get a handle on the health of the customer base.

And then data – you need to capture data. What are your usage rates like, what are your adoption rates like and what story do they tell. So really focus on data and see what that’s telling you. Lastly, listen to your customer! This is what it’s all about – they’ll tell you if you’re not doing well. Make sure you have a really good way, especially as founders, of meeting as many of your customers as possible, especially early stage, you’ve got to be talking and listening to your customers. 

  • Any examples that you have seen that have worked well in terms of the inputs in the health scoring? 

Yes, there are many things that go into that. You have basic tools like NPS and CSat surveys and that type of thing. But again, unless you’re implementing those well, it’s easy to say you have a certain score and therefore you’re doing great – that’s not necessarily the case.

Actually NPS is a feedback mechanism and you need to be responding to programmes like NPS. If they’ve given you a detractor score, then you’ve got to understand why and even if they’ve given you middle of the road, you still need to understand why and how you get them into being an advocate and then those at the top end, how do you replicate that across the rest of your customer base?

And don’t forget those that don’t respond to NPS or CSAT, are they silent because they are at risk? So, yes, there are tools and there are other elements that feed into a health score but importantly don’t forget the gut feel of the CSM, those are the people talking to the customer, they should have such a good understanding and relationship with the customer that they should be adding a manual element into the health score as well. 

  • A lot of people talk about having a great customer experience, but how do you actually implement that in real terms in the customer success division? 

In some respects, a bit of a crossover with what we’ve already discussed – talking to your customer and listening to them. But you’ve really got to focus on the desired outcomes of the customer. I think too many companies get hung up on ‘this is what I need my product to do, these are the features and functionalities’ and you see it designed from an engineering perspective.

However, customer success starts in building your product – you build it to meet a  need. So listening to your customer about what they need and what their outcomes are from you as a vendor/supplier, really should be giving you as much steer as you need around your customer experience. You then need to start digging, so don’t just listen to your normal users, you’ve got to get a couple of levels higher as well.

How do you actually make the day to day user of the platform so successful in meeting their line manager’s objectives and their line manager’s, line manager’s objectives right up to the board that you’re going to get them promoted using your platform?

That’s the kind of mindset you’ve got to have and that will naturally lead to good customer experience. You can’t over-promise, you’ve got to be upfront, honest and communicate well. Have good feedback loops. But doing what you say you’re going to do and making sure your platform is doing what it should do, that’s what delivers great customer experience. 

  • What are some of the tools or frameworks or software that you’ve found being really effective in growing and leading a customer success division?

Starting off, especially in the early stages, but also throughout your time as a CS leader or founder, hiring is critical. Having a good hiring framework is really important. People talk about an ideal customer profile all the time, but I haven’t often heard of an ideal hiring profile? Actually, that’s what you need.

That hiring profile changes throughout the growth of your organisation, particularly in CS. At the early stages when you’re hiring your first on the ground, you need to focus on domain knowledge for example but also AQ or adversity quotients. You hear IQ and EQ a lot, but not often AQ – it’s actually a really critical skillset in the early stage hiring of CS folk, so getting someone who is very adaptable, able to wear lots of different hats.

Then as you start to grow the team, that’s where you need to diversify a little bit too. Of course you need diverse cultures, diverse language sets, but you also need diverse skillsets. You need someone who is very process-driven, to start taking care of your high touch, high volume clients. You want someone who is very consultative in their approach who can work with your high end and strategic clients, for example.

You’ve got to start thinking about how balanced the team is, how much they complement each other, to actually come together as a really strong unit. You can then start to organise and scale your growing customer success organisation. One of the mantras I’ve always lived by as a leader is always trying to hire people who are better or smarter than me – they’ve got to know more than I do in the area I’m hiring them for. Certainly at ON24, I like to think I left a really world-class CS organisation there, I promoted 3 people from within to director roles, for me, that’s really critical – the hiring framework.

Once you’ve got that, you’ve got to look at optimising processes and how people are operating before you start looking at tools. Obviously you’ve got CS tools like Gainsight and Totango – where you can start capturing your success plans, your goals, your touch points and your objectives but most of that should be planned in advance. There’s a whole conversation we could have around the thinking that goes into choosing and implementing a toolset like that, but you’ve got to make sure you know what you want from it, you’ve got to have good basic CS principles and processes in place before you start implementing a tool, so you know what you’re expecting the output to be. Then you can start customising and pushing the boundaries and getting it to do more and more for you. 

So summed up, hiring frameworks, CS tools, but then also the framework of how you operate. Really mapping your whole customer journey and understanding all the touchpoints across the customer journey, what the actionable parts of that journey are and how you overlay things like your renewals framework. I often hear people talk about renewals and making sure you contact them 3 months in advance – I just hate that as an idea. For me, the renewal framework or process actually starts in pre-sale. You need to start engaging with your customers about how they renew in a year’s time before they’ve ever signed your contract. 

The process side of things is way more important than tools in the early stages. 

  • What are 3 recommendations you would give founders to increase the output of their customer success division in the next 7-10 days?

I don’t think you’ll be able to change that much from an output perspective in 7-10 days but you can start to implement in that time frame – I would say the first thing I would like to put on founders is to empower your CS organisation to become that growth engine.

So often I talk to different Customer Success leaders and they don’t have a seat at the board table, they’re not seen as impacting revenue in any way and of course, they are and they should be. This also means things like recognising Customer Success qualified leads – if you think logically, even if you’ve got a non-commercial Customer Success organisation, and your CSM is talking to your customers, they’re going to be the first people that can spot a growth opportunity. If we’re not tracking and understand how much of that is starting in Customer Success, as a founder/board room, you’re never going to understand the importance of Customer Success until you see that. In terms of your system, your opportunity is going to be ‘created’ by the AM and as far as you’re concerned that’s where it starts. So you’re not seeing the Customer Success organisation as part of that growth engine – make sure it’s empowered to show and do that. 

The second thing is remembering that Customer Success is a company-wide responsibility. The CS team are just the front line of that. They are the people doing it today, but the product is critical to Customer Success, the sales team are critical to Customer Success, every single facet of your organisation is part of your CS philosophy and how you should be operating as a business. Not just the Customer Success team – if you make it company-wide, it’ll make your company much more successful and customer-centric, and ultimately, you can achieve sustainable growth. 

Thirdly, is to really start listening. You have to deeply understand your customers. Not just your CSMs, but you as a founder. You have to talk and listen to your customers and you’ve got to work out how you can help them deliver on their desired outcomes. Do that and as a business you will be more successful and, as mentioned, your growth will be more sustainable. 

  • For those who want to connect with you or find out more, how do they get in contact with you?

LinkedIn is probably the easiest place to connect with me.

We want to thank Chris Mitchell for today’s interview. That is all from us at Sales for Startups today, be sure to tune in soon for more interviews with CEOs and Founders of some great companies that are shedding some light on the current issues we are facing. If you’d like to be interviewed please comment below or feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or submit a request on our website.

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