Q&A: How to build and scale a world-class customer success org

A tech company needs certain obvious things to be successful – product, sales, and marketing, for example. But in today’s world where the customer rules all, you’ve got to have a secret weapon in order to grow and scale: Customer success.

I spent 14 years building and growing the Customer Success org at Salesforce, followed by 4 years as Slack’s CCO and Global Head of Customer Success, so I’ve seen firsthand the value and growth opportunities a great org can bring. I grew right alongside those teams, and also witnessed what it takes to build a high-performing org from scratch. Here are my answers to four of the most common questions I get about growing and scaling an early stage customer success organization. 

1) What are some tactical first steps when building a customer service org from scratch?

Building a customer success org from scratch is tough, and the impulse is to hit the ground running. But customer success means something different at every organization, and the only way to define it at yours is to start getting to know the customers. The concept of agility and partnership with your customers is so important. 

As you do that, you also have to plan to scale. And the way to do that is to get a team on the ground. At Slack, I spent my first couple months interviewing candidates; it was important for me to get the key players in place so that they, in turn, could scale and hire. If you can’t get ahead of building that hiring engine, you’re never going to be able to scale. You’ve got to get that layer of leadership in place, so that you could manage up into the executive team and out to the customer, and then manage volume as well.

2) What do you do when there’s a service outage? 

Outages are painful for everyone involved, but they can also be incredible opportunities to gain trust with your customers and create a sense of partnership. The first thing – always – is to apologize. You have to show empathy and demonstrate that you understand the impact this outage is having both on their business and on them personally. The people you’re talking to often bet their careers on your technology, so not only is their business being impacted, their reputation is on the line, too. Acknowledging that can go a long way. 

Next you’ve got to dig to find out the biggest impact on each customer. As you do that, it’s vital to be transparent about what’s happening on the product side – even if you have to say, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to stay on the phone with you.” Do what you need to do to keep them from going into panic mode, because in the absence of reassurance or information, they’ll create their own dialogue as to what’s happening. Sometimes your update will have to be: “We don’t have any new information right now,” but even so, it’s important to over communicate.

3) What’s a specific early-stage challenge you’ve experienced and what was the lesson learned? 

One thing that comes to mind stems from my time at Salesforce. When we built the customer success org there, we created a “heroic” culture. It was very high touch (we had people that would drop everything to make a customer successful), and we really needed that kind of setup to get us over the early-stage hump. In doing so, though, we also created a dependency on that high-touch model, which doesn’t work as you grow. 

In those early days we had a phone number any customer could call to get support – 1-800-NO-SOFTWARE – but this service method wasn’t scalable at all. So we made the decision to get rid of the phone number… yet we’d created a culture that was very dependent on it. We beefed up self service, created one-to-many programs, and added resources and guides, but the change was still incredibly painful. 

As you grow, be sure to think through the scaling aspect. You likely need a high-touch model when you start, but be careful about building your program around one touch. At some point, you’ll want to shift to a programmatic setup and offer new help options as needed.

4) Sometimes there’s a product gap and the current product is not quite where the customer wants it to be just yet. How do you respond? 

That’s an age-old kind of tension, and most tech companies run into it at some point. The first thing is to understand business value: What are your customers trying to achieve? Many of them go immediately into the how, instead of letting the product and success experts guide them on how to best use the technology based on their goals. There’s often a way to achieve their goals based on the product as it stands. 

One of the most important things your customer success team can do is create a tight feedback loop to help identify any gaps. That feedback, in turn, can directly influence the product roadmap. It’s great to involve your product teams in conversations with the customers or create advisory boards that determine, for example, the top three features that would move the needle. Those loops also create a real tightness between the company and customers.

Ready to talk Customer Success?

I love talking Customer Success, sharing experiences, and learning from others. For more information, check out this Customer Success Q&A I did last year with fellow Customer Success junkie Nick Mehta, or feel free to reach out on Twitter with questions.

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