Innovative Trends in Customer Success
Recently, Brian Lafaille of Google Could, Sonam Dabholkar of Gong, Graham Gill of Accent, and Daljeet Virdi of Cast.app, discussed delivering Customer Success value at scale and provided tactical first steps to getting started.
A video replay of the webinar along with panelist bios are at the end of this post.
The content was edited for clarity and conciseness.
Welcome to the innovative trends in customer success scale presented by cast app.
My name is Graham Gill. I'm the Vice President of Customer Success and Services at Accent Technologies.
We have an amazing panel with us today. For those of you that joined earlier, you got to see us backstage for a bit.
We're excited about this. Our panel will share their thoughts and tips on transforming customer success within their respective organizations. If you have any questions, please feel free to use the chat feature. We will get to that at the end of the session.
Let's introduce the panel.
- First up is Sonam Dabholkar. She is the Director of Customer Success Operations at Gong.
- Next up is Daljeet Virdi, he's the co-founder and CTO of cast app.
- Finally, joining us is Brian LaFaille. He's the global lead of SaaS customer success programs at Google. He's also the founder of the Customer Success Field Guide.
Brian, I want to start with you. What is your business goal for scaling customer success at your organization? And why is it important?
Before I answer, just thank you to everybody kind enough to show up here. I realize you guys have busy calendars, and to take out an hour of your day to hear us banter about customer success - means a lot. So, I appreciate everybody in attendance.
When we had to scale our customer success motion, we went about it as most customer success teams do - hire additional CSMs. For every a hundred or every 50 accounts or so, you just continue to employ additional CSMs to get more and more coverage across your customer base. However, when we hit this inflection point, we realized that our new logo acquisition would outweigh the number of CSMs that we were going to be able to hire and ramp and train.
We realized that we had an acute need to scale our Go-To-Market and serve our customers in a more digital-first experience. And that was the business need.
The second thing was, it was kind of a forcing function based on the finance restrictions that we had from our CFO. But I think we also wanted to do it, within a CSMs portfolio, as we continue to hire more CSMs.
We continue to add more accounts to each of their portfolios; some natural level of segmentation happens within a CSM portfolio.
While you may be assigned 20 customers, you're working with the top 10% diligently, and everybody else is on the back burner.
We realized that there was probably a better way for us to serve all of our customers, not with a CSM, but through digital means.
The two business initiatives that forced our hand [to use digital CS], one was the financial toll, but the second was just improving the customer experience for those subsets of customers that were with the name CSM but didn't get all that much attention.
Great. Do you want to talk a bit about what your goals were for first scaling CS?
So, here at Gong, one of our core operating principles is to create raving fans.
The way that we have been doing that has evolved over the last couple of years as our business and product has changed.
Our customer base has grown and evolved, and also our customer journey has changed because we're continuing to innovate on how we deliver value and support our customers.
We hit a natural inflection point where we began to think about how we continue to optimize how we serve the long tail of customers.
We have a very high volume of customers on the lower end of the spending spectrum.
It felt like a very natural evolution for us to start thinking about using a tech-enabled approach.
So, how do you lay out what you are scaling for short-term, mid-term, or long-term, knowing that it's going to evolve?
There's a long-term vision that we're aiming for, but that vision is almost a moving target because our approach here at Gong is to kick off many experiments.
Every quarter, we have a couple of initiatives running to scale the business, scale the customer journey, and test and iterate.
We learn a lot at the end of every quarter that informs what we do the next quarter.
We're building a path towards long-term scalability.
That's awesome. Brian, does your scope change when you think about what you've done in the past and what you're doing now?
Yeah, just to give some of the listeners some context, Looker is a business intelligence platform primarily focused on the enterprise. We've got customers paying, at the minimum, somewhere down in the range of 35 to $50,000 annually. And, on the upper range, in the multi-million-dollars. So, we're focused on enterprise-type accounts. When I joined, we had about 50 paying customers. When you have those 50 paying customers, you can treat everyone with a white glove type service. That's what we wanted to do. Our CEO and our founder at the time said that we would know we're successful when we have a thousand raving fans. And that was something that kind of stuck with us.
We couldn't provide white-glove service for everybody, and we couldn't do it forever, but we wanted to improve that experience initially. And that does all sorts of other things for your other acquisition and just word of mouth.
Jason Lemkin has this second-order revenue concept, the people who go out and talk about your product to their peers and friends. We wanted to drive that up as quickly as possible.
And so, we did all the things that did not scale. We wanted to ensure that we were honing in on the right things to scale for the long-term.
We didn't want to scale too quickly to make sure that we were honing in on what works best for our customers. Now that takes time, from six months, 12 months, 24 months to see tip to tail.
We tried a new touch, and they finally got through their renewal event, and they ended up renewing and expanding. That's a positive indicator. Amazing. We tried this other thing, and they ended up churning. All right. Let's learn from that.
We did not scale initially. We wanted to have a one-to-one type relationship with the account, but as our customer acquisition grew, we started to ask ourselves, what can we learn now that one to two years have elapsed and we've got renewal and expansion data. How are we going to use that to inform what we go to scale?
Great thought, I appreciate that. Daljeet - what are you hearing in terms of scaling goals?
So, I think I'm going to answer that by zooming out a little bit. (Watch Daljeet explain his point)
Why are we all in this room? Why are we having these conversations? We've been able to service more customers than ever before, using SaaS, product-led growth, and self-service - now we have to reimagine customer success at scale.
Initially, the target buyers for B2B software were the enterprise- the Fortune 500. Think about the GTM for the Ciscos of the world, Oracles of the world - they were all selling to the enterprise.
B2B GTM has moved downstream from the enterprise to mid-market to SMB to now, we see this massive trend of prosumer and marketing to the user. When you have macro trends changing B2B GTM and account profiles, you have to rethink customer success at scale.
B2B Software companies were once successful with only a hundred or 50 logo enterprise customers. Now, many of the new unicorns have thousands, tens of thousands, millions of pro-summer customers. How do they scale?
If I were to share one north star for how we can scale customer success, it would be to look at our peers in consumer software. Consumer software has solved scaling customer success to millions of customers for years, taking them through digital journeys in practical ways.
If there are trends today and there are trends tomorrow for scaling customer success, many of them will come from consumer software.
When I think about how we can scale, I like to think, what is consumer software doing?
- Audio and video first experiences,
- Communities and social, and
- Game design.
I point to these ideas when I advise CS teams thinking of scaling CS. The future of scaling CS is in new trends in consumer software.
Sonam - do you have a different opinion or a different view on where you start with that initial scale segment.
We carved out our SMB customer base, a specific subset of spend to pick customers that go into our scale program.
Naturally, those translate to customers with a smaller user base that behaves more like B2C than B2B.
We're not dealing with hundreds of users that would be using Gong within those accounts. It would be a handful of users or so.
The journey isn't super different at this point for scale customers; we're still iterating and experimenting on what we can drive towards with a tech-enabled motion. But to segment - we look at the spend and the size of those companies.
Brian. Do you have any additional commentary on that?
Yeah, I do. But I want to go back just really quickly over to what Daljeet mentioned. (Watch Brian explain)
B2B and B2C are going to look more similar.
I'm wearing a Fitbit right now. I get an email every Sunday that says all of my stats and how it compares against my friends, etc. This is something that B2C has figured out for a long time. You think about Spotify and the year-end review; they don't have the luxury of having a single point of contact working through a procurement department. They have to go directly to the user.
B2B is going to be more B2B2C.
Yes, we're selling to a business, but at the end of the day, that business has employees or users going to be accessing this software. It's a trend that will continue.
The whole consumption-oriented model will fundamentally upend how software is sold in the future. It won’t be on 12-month contracts with a set number of users. It will be used and consumed and that puts even more stress and burden on the customer success departments to ensure that those customers are getting value.
But going back to segmentation, we did something a little bit different - we did everything that did not scale initially.
Our first line of defense was just to add more CSMs.
Our second line of defense was just to add more accounts to each of the CSM.
And then we realized this is breaking - that was the bottom-up feedback from our CSMs. They were overwhelmed. They had too many priorities. They didn't know what to focus on.
And, top-down from our CFO, they were like, you need to figure out a better way to scale. So, what we ended up doing is evaluating the CSM portfolios and saying, “look, which customers have confirmed value with us, who have just renewed? And what are the customers that have a lower-end license scope with less downside risk if they churn? Let's start to move those customers in batches over into our scale program.”
It was an iterative approach. We started with 15 customers in it. That was it. But then the next month, as another batch of customers renewed, we moved another 20 and then another 30. And over time, we started to fill up that portfolio of customers in our scaled segment.
When we talk about the digital experience, we're doing that for every user and every customer, not just customers in the scaled customer success pool.
The primary audience is scaled segments, but it's also the audience of enterprise accounts where we have thousands and thousands of employees who benefit from accessing the webinars, the emails, the drips sequences, Pendo in-app messages, Casts, etc. They all help us.
Daljeet - I'm curious about your thoughts on defining scaled segments.
I think one of the things everyone knows is that they need to scale. Everyone knows that there are tools, solutions, and some sort of process they need to adopt.
But quite frankly, I think we're in the infancy of being able to scale.
We have many opinions on where to start on scaling CS because there are so many ways to do it wrong that you would initially think are intelligent ways to go about it.
For example, we often see a fail point when you build a generic tech touch for all of your customers - the shotgun approach. You have every segment pooled, and you are serving a generic tech touch that is mediocre across the board.
One thing that works well is to zero in on a segment that you want to drive a key customer outcome for, like download a mobile app or join a webinar.
Be careful about what you choose here. The outcome should have a high correlation with customer retention. Then, find a segment that you want to drive that key customer outcome for - this can work as your first scale CS foothold.
Another failure case I’ve seen is to start with an unengaged segment, such as a segment of users likely to churn. It’s a tough place to build your first tech touches because you don't get much feedback from this cohort. You aren't learning very much, and not getting the quick wins you need to prove scale works.
I recommend starting your Scale CS initiatives in favorable segmentations where you want to drive specific customer outcomes.
We briefly touched on this, so I want to go deeper; what success criteria do you use to measure scale CS?
Totally. Yeah. Piggybacking off what Daljeet was saying, (Watch Sonam explain this point)
it's essential to have an outcome-driven approach - have a CTA for every outreach or type of experiment you run.
That's aligned with how we were doing things at Gong. With our scale customer base, we look at the customer journey and make iterations in a very focused way.
We looked at the onboarding piece of the journey and said:
“How can we flip onboarding, so CSMs aren't doing repetitive manual work and they're brought in for more strategic work where we need CSM intervention? The rest should be digitized.”
When we run experiments for tech-enabled journeys we define particular success criteria, a combination of CSM activities that we're tracking, leading indicators, like license utilization and adoption, and granular customer behaviors, like updating a particular in Gong according to a timeline.
We measure granular customer actions. The tech enabled touches we are implementing now, we probably will see the impact on renewal and upsell rates in a year. Customer actions tell us if there will be any impact to our lagging indicators, to our financial outcomes.
We are looking at the metrics in a couple of different layers —the lagging indicators, leading indicators, CSM activities and customer actions in the product.
Have there been any surprises where you thought there would be one specific outcome, and it turned out to be something completely different in any of these mini journeys?
I wouldn't say there are surprises. There are mini setbacks, mini-challenges that are just excellent opportunities for lessons learned.
Nothing we launch is going to be a hundred percent perfect. The CS Operations team has partnered closely with CS leaders in each segment to drive enablement.
We're monitoring why customers are having a hard time completing specific actions.
Is it because they don't know what to do? Is the CTA not clear, or is it that we don't have the correct supporting content? Maybe we need to create an article that has better product documentation. So, when things go wrong or when metrics aren't trending correctly, we ask ourselves those questions and then solve them quickly.
We keep testing and experimenting to see what else we need to improve. But we don't expect everything to go perfectly.
Brian - Do you want to talk a bit about some of the decisions you had to make early on in scaling CS - when you should start, who should you convince, and then what hesitations did you hear?
I buy into this philosophy that Done is better than perfect. When you're figuring out a scaled approach to managing customers, it is all about experimentation.
You can't just rinse, wash and repeat what’s working at another business, plop it down and say, “all right, we're going to have some webinars and emails, and it's going to work perfectly for our customers. and they're just going to start using the product.” You just don't have that luxury.
You need to try a bunch of things out and see what works for your customers.
If you haven't started thinking about scaling or any of the digital channels to support your customers, you can get started today.
Start with one digital channel that you want to focus on: an online learning experience, a set of email drip sequences, a YouTube channel, you can start to hypothesize what might resonate with your users and develop an initial digital channel to see how it performs.
There are usually lots of customers in your scaled portfolio, so you can benefit from lots of different user usage data to answer questions like: How is this email resonating? What's the click-through rate?
My word of advice to anybody on the, on the call is to just start somewhere and pick one digital channel.
If you're struggling with what digital channel to begin with, or behaviors you should be driving, that's a different problem.
That's where you need to start thinking about cross-functional collaboration and brainstorming around your very best customers' characteristics and product behaviors and start to map those out.
When you begin to look at when your best customers renew and expand, when they have logged in into the product, what they do in the first 30 or 60 days, you can discover interesting insights.
We know that customers that go on to renewal and expansion log in to the first 30 days. All right. Let's build campaigns to drive that behavior.
You need to understand what are the product journeys that users are on that lend itself to longer-term lagging indicators of success, retention, and expansion. Often, that's 12 months away, so instead, it’s key to map it out to the current product behaviors you want to drive customers towards.
Where do we see the champion that drives scale?
Gong is a customer-centric company. I didn't have to get any leadership buy-in to start kicking off a scale program or start thinking about scale motions.
It was already a top-down priority identified as a significant company-level initiative. It became a priority for CS Ops to partner with our CS leaders to figure out what we are going to do? Because we didn't have to spend a lot of time convincing, we could spend time building this motion and doing the fun stuff.
That's aligned with what we've seen as well. Many times, it is a bottom-up pain point coming from the CSM, with a large number of accounts, and can't service everyone. They are grasping for tools that could help them scale. Of course, leaders see this as well and are supportive. But the CSM is driving a lot of these initiatives.
It's interesting. I agree with you, Daljeet, but I've also seen that the CSM can look at this as a job security issue. (Watch Graham explain this point)
You are going to be able to do more of your job to be more successful if you can scale digitally.
I've sat as a leader of a team before and was asked, is this tool to replace us? The answer is absolutely not.
Brian, you know, when we talk about hurdles and challenges, curious if there's anything else from your perspective that you've seen along the way in scaling CS.
I am envious of the type of support you got for building the digital scale segment. When you make a change like this, you're in effect, taking CSMs off of accounts to redeploy them on more strategic accounts - it's a significant change for the business.
There's a lot of hesitation from senior leadership. When we first pitched this idea, the response from the CEO and CFO was, “well, all these customers are going into the pool, and they're going to churn immediately”. That was the biggest fear. They don't have one throat to choke.
We had to do an internal campaign that got senior leaders to buy-in and help participate as part of the longer-term customer journey. You can't just seal the deal, have PS implement it, have support answer questions, and then CS does everything else.
You see, we needed to get buy-in from the other departments to say, look, we're not going to have a dedicated CSM on this particular customer.
Everybody needs to play their part. So if you're going to get a commercial question, it's not going to be the CSM anymore. We're going to have to pitch that over to sales.
We had to have these conversations with every department.
We've always had a CSM on every individual account. You have to break that model and realize that's not going to be the case going forward.
There are hesitations from a lot of people on the team. There was pushback from account executives that wanted to have a CSM on every customer. We did make that process fairly flexible. So if there were exceptions, and we had to keep a CSM on an account, we accommodated.
We needed to take a leap of faith. And that's why we started small. As I mentioned, we started with 15 customers at first, and got a couple of light touch CSMs managing them. It was a very iterative approach to mitigate risk in the long run.
I think it's also using the data to understand where the touchpoints to the CSM are from the product perspective.
There's a lot of data that's overlooked around what our customers are reaching out to the CSM for.
I'm curious how you know if scale CS is working?
At the end of the day, scale works when net dollar retention has improved, but of course, that's going to take years. So, it's never as simple as that.
You want to drive high-value, key outcomes. When you start seeing some lifts, you can find leading indicators for those key outcomes that work in your timescale.
If you have a three month pilot to try a new initiative out, find a leading indicator for a customer outcome in that timescale.
It becomes complicated when you have to keep finding leading indicators for leading indicators to see success in the timescale you are testing a pilot and you end up looking at metrics like open rates and click-through rates.
They have less signal to that key outcome and you end up optimizing the delivery channels and not the actual tech touch.
In essence, solid experiments for tech touch distill down to growing leading indicators for key customer outcomes that correlate well with growing NDR.
Are there any organizational behaviors that need to change for scaling?
Everyone understands the "why," but I think the "why" and the buy-in must be continual.
We have to constantly align with all those affected by the scale motions almost every quarter and remind them of the "why". Here's what it means to you and what you're working on. Here's why we're doing this. Here's how this is going to help customers. Here's how this is going to help you.
Over communication and over-emphasis on change management and internal enablement is crucial.
And letting people ask hard questions, like are we trying to automate CSMs out of a job? is important.
We don't want people to sit there and stew and worry and feel like they don't understand how this will affect them.
We want to make it super clear and give full transparency and let them ask hard questions because we're not trying to automate anyone out of a job. We're trying to help CSMs focus on more strategic things.
They're excited to work on fascinating company-wide initiatives and priorities and create a higher quality customer experience.
We have an open-door policy of being very transparent about the things we're working on and why we're working on them.
There is so much on a CSMs plate and scale is an initiative to alleviate and ultimately build a better customer experience.
Brian, what are the organizational behaviors that need to change for scaling CS?
It took a long time for sales to get comfortable with the motion because we asked them to do more. So going to each department and saying, we're no longer going to be accountable for a specific motion is a tough sell.
However, we positioned the benefits to them: here are the customers in our scaled segment, here are the expansion opportunities that we've passed to your team, here's the retention rate of these customers - More customers for you to go and upsell. We position it like that.
Then they were like, oh sweet. You guys are crushing it. This is great. I love having you guys on the team. It took a couple of renewal cycles, but within three to four quarters most of those questions had subsided, but we always left the door open.
For example, if there's a particular account that is slated to go into a digital scale from the get-go and the AE thinks that this customer will have explosive growth even though they're only paying for a 12 K pilot right now, but it's going to grow at 1.2 million in six months, we want to be thoughtful and invest there. We open those channels, and it's a simple Google form.
Are people buying into the new organizational changes around scale?
Absolutely. Yeah. As I said, the first quarter, right after introducing this change and starting to introduce the scaled segment, we had lots of requests and then it got down to a trickle, and now it's one or two exceptions a quarter.
I think that's a testament to the program itself, really, really working. Over time people get more used to the motion. There is also more trust between the scale team and sales.
Great. Well, before we get to questions let’s talk about how folks can get started with scale?
It's essential to define your scope and not try to boil the ocean. There are a thousand different strategies you could employ that fit within the scale umbrella.
Our approach at Gong that worked well was to launch quick iterative changes - things that we know aren't going to be perfect, that we know we can change quickly, because we know we're going to learn a lot.
A few operating principles were 1) to be agile and 2) defining who your core team is.
Having a team focused on running these experiments measuring the data, iterating, and sharing the results with leadership is essential. Because scaling does need that focus, and if there are not people who can devote that focus, then it's just going to get more minor learnings and less movement towards the ultimate vision you're trying to achieve.
It's essential to constantly look at the customer experience. And so, wherever you can get customer feedback, whether, through surveys or even just informational interviews, there's always going to be those channels for internal feedback, but the customers at the end of the day are affected by the scale motions that we're delivering.
Figuring out what ways you're going to get customer feedback along the way is necessary.
Brian, how do we get started in your mind?
So I think you hit the nail on the head, scale will mean so many different things to so many other people, especially as nebulous of a topic as customer success. So really defining and getting clear on: What is the delivery goal? What is the critical impact you're going to drive? That's phenomenally important!
Focusing on your data strategy is essential. You need to be able to understand everything about your customers, where they're struggling, retention rates, attributes from Salesforce, usage, NPS, and feedback. Regardless of what your scope is, I guarantee in a scaled model; you're going to need data.
Alongside defining your why, setting your objectives, and defining your mission for scaling CS organization, you should focus on what your data strategy looks like.
How do you pitch scaling CS to your organization? Why and what are the recommendations?
Each department that you have to go and speak to internally has their metrics, their own OKR, their things that they care about.
When we pitched scaling CS internally, it was all in the context of how it would make their lives easier.
So, in the context of sales, we were pitching, more expansion opportunities for more accounts, better retention rates. More opportunities to upsell. That was our pitch to sales.
When it comes to professional services, we asked what if we could use webinars.We introduced them to educational resources, and they're like, “oh yeah, that takes this off my plate”.
For each team we identified, what would that department care about? And honed in on one element and said, “hey, this is how it's going to benefit you”.
Now the overarching kind of lie that we pitched is, you know, this will generally improve the overriding customer experience for Looker customers. And we, we fundamentally believe that. And we validated that through feedback that we got, from NPS surveys, like Sonam mentioned, after we launched scaled.
You've got a customer spending 25 K and they are very low on the list of priorities for a CSM and CSMs are giving no attention at all to this customer. They're focused on other escalations that are million dollars plus. Instead, if we can offer more self-service resources to these customers that are often digital native.
We want to give them the resources that they need to be successful and then get out of their way. And that's the kind of overarching vision that we pitched. And it worked well.
Great. What are some of the tools that you’ve started using early on or have recommended to folks?
Yeah. I mean, I think it depends on the use cases you're trying to solve. For us, there's a couple of just internal productivity tools that we use, like Airtable and Asana. We use Gainsight for a lot of the CSM workflows. And because we have a big enough CSM team, it made sense for us to use Gainsight versus one of the other kinds of CS platforms out there. And we use Gong because that's our product and that's our single source of truth for customer interactions.
Yeah, we've been playing with Cast to deliver a tech touch as a way to supplement our CS activities in our daily motions. We also use Airtable, Google docs, and all sorts of stuff to collect data, and use our tool in conjunction with others to understand what's going on and where we should start to scale.
I want to call out that Google sheets is your best friend. We scaled to 200 customers and had analytics, and everything we knew about our customers in a Google sheet. And you can do all of that for free. All it requires is to get access to some level of source data, and you can shove it in there and do something interesting.
One of the mistakes I made was I thought I needed a CS-centric tool. I had to pause because I'm jumping to the tool and this lengthy implementation but not understanding my customer. There are so many great low-cost alternatives to just wrap your head around what's going on before buying a tool.
If you get anything out of this segment, I would strongly recommend using the data that's sitting right in front of you.
Can you scale and use automation but still have a named CSM by giving them a larger group of customers, or does that type of scaling necessitate pool CSMs?
Yeah, that's actually what we're doing today. We've not created any kind of pooled model or any kind of fully tech touch segment. All of our accounts have a named CSM. We've experimented with increasing those account loads gradually.
We're rolling out more efficient workflows and automation and journeys where we're moving the lever up to increase the account load.
I expect at some point there would be an inflection where we would switch over to a different model.
I see both - digital scale and automation and a named CSM motion working side by side. It's not either, or.
For us, we have a named CS motion and we also have a light touch motion, which is our pooled model.
And then we have the fully autonomous motion - customers that are very small in licensed scope. They have minimal downside risk, and, we have a light touch CSM assigned. We do very little interaction on a one-to-one basis to them simply because our digital channels are highly effective in driving the behaviors to mitigate risk.
Graham: I want to thank everyone very much for taking the time to join us today.
Innovative Trends in Customer Success At Scale
Duration: 60 minutes.
He is also the founder of Customer Success Field Guide — a digital publication covering the intersection of software and Customer Success.
Brian is also a member of the Cast Product Advisory Board.
Sonam is also a member of the Cast Product Advisory Board.