How to Build a Customer-Centric Org

The show must go on – except when it mustn’t. We loved our Challenge Series webinars, but when the recent social justice movement began, we chose to honor and prioritize our emotions and cancel our final session on Customer Success. It was the right decision, though we also missed hearing great advice from two experienced leaders. Since we couldn’t meet live, we asked our scheduled guests – Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta and Slack VP of Customer Success Christina Kosmowski – if they’d answer our questions anyway, and of course they were happy to do so. We hope you find their advice on building a customer-centric org as helpful as we did. 

What is customer success and how is it different from customer support? 

CHRISTINA: Customer Success (CS) is maximizing business value through the use of your product while ensuring a positive experience. It is proactive and business-value driven. Customer support, on the other hand, is more reactive – responding to a specific issue the customer or user is having. 

NICK: In business models where customers have power (such as SaaS), vendors are accountable not just for the sale or product, but also for the outcome. Customer Success is about getting customers proactively to their desired outcomes with a strong customer experience (CX). In our geeky Gainsight language, we say CS = CO + CX. Customer Support, by nature, is about responding when customers have issues – but what if they never call you and just silently disengage? Customer Success is about owning the outcome.

Nick, people often credit Gainsight with helping to create the customer success industry. Can you tell us a bit what that means and how that played out?

NICK: We definitely didn’t create the industry or category, but perhaps we were the chief cheerleader. We saw a tiny profession in 2013 when we launched Gainsight and knew every business would need CS over time. As such, we launched a conference (Pulse) all about Customer Success best practices and community. We hosted local meetups, online events, executive events, job boards, and more, and we just released our third book. It’s been a lot of heavy lifting, but so rewarding to see how CS has become a must for tech companies now.

Christina, I watched you create an amazing customer success org at Salesforce, and now you’ve done it again at Slack. What are the 3 things everyone needs to know when building a CS team?

CHRISTINA: I love Customer Success. It’s the perfect bridge between technology and business/humans and I’m fortunate to have found two amazingly customer-centric companies. Three things everyone should know: 1) Create a culture of innovation and agility. There’s no template for customer success. It iterates based on where customers are on the journey with your product. Recognize that and build that iteration and culture into your culture. 2) Create a culture of Customer Centricity within your company. Don’t limit it to just the Customer Success team; everyone in every department needs to feel responsible for Customer Success. And 3) Connect your customers. Your customers learn the most from each other, so don’t be afraid to connect them.

Nick, what’s the best way to think about how to create a customer-centric culture if you’re just starting out?  

NICK: Three core steps: First, make sure the leadership team is meeting LOTS of customers; I meet 500+ clients a year and build it into the rhythm of my work, from advisory boards to sales calls to executive business reviews. Second, integrate customer voices into every company event from All Hands to board meetings to internal comms. And third, encourage every employee to hear first-person customer stories – by joining EBRs, inviting customers in to speak, and more.

Christina, Slack has grown like gangbusters during the pandemic (and before). How have you been able to stay close to your customers? 

CHRISTINA: It’s important that we adapt to what’s most important to our customers. Slack is not a work-from-home product, per se, but it definitely helps keep employees connected. As we shifted to remote work, many of our customers were looking to us for advice, so we shifted some of our content and resources to support that. We utilized our connect product (formerly shared channels) to push content in a more dynamic way. And we accelerated launches to get them connected and update features as soon as possible. 

What’s the secret to maintaining a world-class customer success organization as you grow?

CHRISTINA: Keep an open, innovative mind. As your product and customers evolve and their usage with your product evolves, you need to evolve as well. Build processes that consistently bring the customer voice and feedback to your company and hold all the departments accountable to it. And connect with other CS leaders – Nick and Gainsight do an amazing job of connecting us all, and I find that network invaluable. I’m constantly learning from folks, and often the smaller CS organizations bring innovative ideas and remind me that anything is possible. 

NICK: There’s no one recipe and CS varies a lot based upon the complexity of your product and the average deal size for your business. If I had to give 3 tips: 1) have a Beginner’s Mind – read books, listen to podcasts, and attend conferences, 2) Build a peer network for coaching, and 3) Use an agile approach with your team where you change in sprints (every 2 weeks, for example). 

Attrition is a critical metric for customer success teams. What other metrics are critical to become a customer-centric company?

NICK: The other core lagging indicators are expansion and advocacy, but you need to identify leading indicators to manage toward. These could include product usage, sentiment, and other factors. We recommend bubbling these up into an overall north star leading indicator, or a health score. Our standard recommendation is to consider four core elements: Deployment, Engagement, Adoption, and ROI.

CHRISTINA: Yes, I agree – Attrition is an important lagging indicator, but we try to identify health and value earlier in the process so attrition becomes a nonevent. It’s important to measure business value up front and consistently measure. We do that through quarterly business reviews. We also measure health on three components: 1) Qualitative principles we’ve found in successful implementations such as executive sponsorship and training, 2) Quantitative usage metrics, and 3) Engagement with Slack – things like attending events, meetings, and more. 

How have metrics changed since COVID-19? What new metrics are you tracking or paying more attention to?

CHRISTINA: I think COVID-19 is just accelerating and putting more emphasis on achieving business value. We’re maniacally focused on ensuring our customers are getting value and looking at ways to accelerate our launches and activities. 

NICK: I spoke to our advisory board a few weeks ago and asked what they’re doing differently given COVID-19. In general, the theme was they were doing “everything we should have been doing all the time, just more and faster.” I think the biggest new metric is trying to understand the business health of your customers. This ties to also tracking the payment health of your clients in terms of their ability to financially survive.

How do you foster empathy for your customers across the organization? Do you have any programs or tricks you use?

CHRISTINA: Always use data and the customer lens. Tell the story in terms of the customer point of view and how they are experiencing it. 

NICK: A big trick I use is to change language anytime it’s not customer-centric. As a leader, if you hear “the customer is being unreasonable,” challenge it by asking: “Or is the customer just under a lot of stress?” Another example: “The client is so high maintenance” might become “The client is getting us to improve.” Or switch “This client is so frustrating” to something like “I can empathize with what they’re going through right now.”

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