Interview With Kate Forgione: Closing The Gap Between Customer Success And Sales

by James Ker-Reid - November 12, 2019

We interviewed Kate Forgione, Head of Customer Success at ServiceRocket and one of the Founders of Customer Success Network, a thriving peer learning community for Customer Success professionals across Europe who are looking to improve knowledge, skills and networks. And because there could be no one better to shed light on the question of “why do tech startups fail to grow existing accounts?

With so much at stake at winning often landmark and enterprise deals, we often falter as Founders and leaders within tech companies to systematically grow the adoption and usage,  and account spend within these hard-fought new customers.

So over to the interview with Kate and the key questions and answers:

  • What are the main causes for startups failing to grow existing accounts in your experience?

(Kate) Early-stage start-ups startups are searching for validation of their product, trying to prove their product is in demand and to ultimately prove to investors that given more money they can gain product/market fit. It’s often business-critical that they validate themselves with marquee names and logos. Enterprise customers are often very demanding on the initial version of the product. This can put a huge strain on the team as they try and manage an enterprise account with an under-developed product. 

There are a few things which will support the growth of these customers longer-term:

  • Invest in a customer success manager

The CSM will be responsible for ensuring the successful onboarding, adoption and embedding of your product with the customer. Their role is to understand your customer’s goals and align your product to achieve them for maximum value.

  • Build trust through a close customer-Product relationship


Secondly, the relationship between Customer Success and Product is critical for long term growth of early enterprise customers. Enterprise customers offer incredible insight into the product being used at scale. To grow, bring your early enterprise customers close to your Product team to help define additional value build in your product. Your CSM can facilitate this relationship.

 Your early marquee enterprise customers put trust in your company at an early stage. You can reciprocate this trust by working closely with them, not just to grow value with the existing product (CS), but give them space to guide and inform your future product roadmap. In summary, bringing together your Customer Success, Product Team and Customers can be the biggest driver for the future growth of your early adopter enterprise customers. 

Kate is almost professing that if you could manage to make progress on the product and meet the demands within reason of your first large customers, your future customers will receive such a great gain, especially when comparing servicing initial enterprise customers and then servicing mid-market or small-to-medium-sized businesses.


  • Why is there such a gap between Customer Success and Sales?

(Kate) This happens because of an underlying mindset in companies and teams of ‘Sales just do Sales, Customer Success do post-sales’. Customer Success should be the best friend of  Sales. CS should spend time with Sales and work together on pitch decks, sit in on pitch practice sessions and often ask the challenging questions to help them prepare for key sales meetings. The importance of this connection is often overlooked.

I certainly agree with Kate here that there is often a disconnect with Sales, sometimes even seen by sitting on different floors or other sides of the room, to the mantra of ‘let me know when it signs and we’ll chat then’. As Kate mentioned this is often too late as you are not directing and influencing the salesperson to sell the product on the core value points which make a customer successful. The lack of this feedback loop can cause a dysfunction in the productivity and culture of your team, which is ultimately passed onto the end customer.


  • How can the gaps between Sales and Customer Success be bridged? 

(Kate) Customer Success should understand the characteristics of the most successful customers; what are the common 3-4 characteristics these customers share? And demonstrate your findings with data. This data and insight needs to be injected back into the Sales team to help them sell close to the Ideal Customer Profile (ICO). 

The ideal customer profile is built by CS and executed by Sales. Using a joined-up approach to customer acquisition can help move the customer to time-to-value faster. The seller will be able to be better able to identify potential blockers based on previous customer data to give them forewarning as to the people they will need to get involved to have a successful customer and technical blockers to be mitigated.

This is a telling insight in that Customer Success will build the ideal client profile, an iterative and never-ending process, which also confirms whether the marketing and sales efforts align too. As sometimes there is a disconnect between who you are marketing to and meeting regularly and the other who is actually using your product day-in/ day-out. I especially like Kate’s take on giving the evidence and proof back to the sales team as to what makes a successful customer, this could be the involvement of a key stakeholder, a needed integration, even as simple as the first kickoff date agreed by key stakeholders or even downloading the desktop app of your product.


  • What’s your opinion on Customer Success owning renewals?

(Kate) I think that owning renewal discussions is a different skill-set to customer success. Customer Success should be focused on enabling your customer and understanding what works and what doesn’t work. Some people might say, ‘well if you give renewals to Sales they got all the glory, that’s not fair is it?’ In my opinion, you didn’t sign up to Customer Success to get the glory and significance of landing a renewal. You are in the role to empower the customer and to drive adoption. 

I think the renewal or expansion opportunities can be surfaced and evidenced by Customer Success but not owned by them. A salesperson is used to negotiating and managing multiple stakeholders to drive towards the desired outcome. Even down to the point of dealing with procurement distracts a Customer Success Manager from enabling a customer, and more importantly, it takes a lot of time.

Kate makes a very fair point here, the difference lies in the motive, time and skillset of the Customer Success Manager. In small teams at tech startups, you won’t have Renewal Managers, Account Managers and Customer Success Managers. This plethora of roles and options are not available to you and the options are more limited. Does it lie with Sales or Customer Success?

Therefore sales are often motivated by keeping the original accounts to make their targets and commissions. They also won the new account in the first place and will have relationships with the original stakeholders that sign off the purchase but maybe don’t use the product day-to-day. Furthermore, on time, a salesperson’s role is to grow revenue for your tech company and so don’t mind the constant chase, where a Customer Success may shy away from initial confrontation or difficulty, as they are keen to protect the relationship with the customer and the end-users.


  • What backgrounds do you get great Customer Success managers from?

(Kate) There is no rule to hiring great CSMs. Much depends on what the product is, where the start-up is in its lifecycle and what the goals are for the customer success role.  The best CSMs I’ve worked with are ex-consultants. They are often exceptionally customer-focused, project and time-orientated and outcome-driven. Additionally, they are often good at getting to the root cause by asking the customer the why and what questions on the back of the customer requests. ‘Why do you want this new feature?’ If we were to build this feature, what would you use it for?’ And often, ‘what are you wanting to achieve by getting this new feature, what’s the result you expect to get?’ It’s this challenger mindset that is commonplace within consultancy, as you are often tasked with discovering why companies perform certain activities and actions and explore options for improving their situation. 

This is a great insight. Often we go ahead and build just what the customer wants rather than understanding why and measuring the risk/reward of a given product request or feature.


  • What’s the link between Customer Success and Marketing?

(Kate) Customer Success has the duty of sharing what’s working, what are activities are frequent users actually doing or performing on your product. These insights can then be shared with your target audience and sales can be educated simultaneously too. 

One of the most useful things I did was to do a week-long Digital Marketing course with General Assembly, it was only then I really understand what marketing is about and hence how it could connect to Customer Success. 

CSMs should be supporting marketing by sharing use cases and identifying customer case study opportunities. I believe that as a department we need to be capturing the insights of user value as we are closest to the customer and then passing that original story onto marketing to help with branding, format and distribution. This can, of course, be used by Sales too. 

We’ve seen video can have a tremendous effect on user behaviour within our platform. Videos of how our customers use our product and the value they get from is not just a great way to drive adoption at the customer-level but can be a valuable source for Sales Enablement too. 

I agree with Kate here, even having knowledge of the customer life cycle from the awareness stage to referrals and renewals is really important. As you are informed as to what could be used to drive awareness, acquisition or even revenue for the salespeople. We’ve used the pirate metrics as a way to show clear roles and responsibilities within a team of inbound marketers, lead generators, salespeople (closers) and customer success. It’s this transparency which brings interdependency, trust and opens up opportunities for collaboration too.

Secondly, on the customer case studies, I believe this is one of the most overlooked areas within Sales and Marketing. If you are a tech company and you are starting to win customers frequently month in month out. You will have a big (good) problem of turning these customers into frequent customer testimonials, references and case studies. These will fuel your marketing, sales and referral engine. Often the question of, ‘what’s our customer case study creation process?’ is never asked by anyone. Furthermore, if you don’t have a process you’ll look back in 6 months or a year’s time and be like, we need more testimonials, and often you would have missed a great opportunity and not created a scalable process in your business to share value consistently with your target audience.


Any final thoughts, Kate?

I really enjoyed this James. I always come away from our chats learning something either about my field or just hearing it from a different perspective. I look forward to seeing you again soon.


A really insightful interview with Kate Forgione, one of the Founders of Customer Success Network and Head of Customer Success at ServiceRocket. Feel free to join us and many others in the community at one of CSN’s next events.

Over and out from the team at Sales for Startups. We’ll be interviewing other successful CS leaders, Tech Founders and even recruitment leaders to see why we are missing the mark when it comes to growing existing accounts at tech companies.

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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