Dear Growth Molecules: How Do I Scale a Successful Customer Organization in 5 Steps?
I recently interviewed Brian Hansen, Director of Customer Success at Aurora Solar, about their approach to operationalizing their team of dedicated customer success professionals. Aurora Solar is a leading cloud-based software transforming solar design, sales, and delivery. Brian and I met when his team engaged Growth Molecules to host customer success training. I was intrigued by the respect the team has for him and impressed with the foundations the team has been building.
Brian shared upfront:
“The building blocks for scaling customer success are sometimes overlooked by leaders because we have so many ideas to execute. The excitement of growth and apparent benefits of daily problem solving tend to leapfrog over the foundational building required for sustainable practices. We all understand that firefighting distracts from strategy, so it is a must to take a step back and review what structures we’re developing for the future.”
As leaders, reserving time on our calendars to analyze data, talk to customers and cross-functional leaders, and write out business plans for customer success can be challenging. One can get lost quickly in non-strategic work, impacting our leadership and CSM teams’ confidence in us.
How does a customer success leader stay focused on building the foundational pillars – people, process, and systems – to scale a fast-growing business without getting bogged down by details that won’t move the business forward?
Here are 5 Practical Actions To Stay On Track for Durable Growth:
1. Start By Checking Our Ego At The Door.
One of the more underrated practices is to strike a balance between confidence and humility continually. Ego can hold us back from building a scalable customer organization because if we push aside feedback for fear that different ideas will reduce our ideas or stature in a company, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
As a leader, emotional intelligence and open-mindedness will help us to connect with our peers, team members, and customers. Spend time talking to our customers and employees and authentically listening to what they say. Avoid quickly replying to “sound smart” and dig further into ‘The Why’ behind their statements. For example, why does that feature matter to a customer contact? Listening and asking questions will help others gain trust in our leadership. When we have buy-in on our leadership, enrolling people in our vision for the future is easier. They will understand we are incorporating their voice and putting their needs into that path towards profitable growth.
We are all human, and ego is a part of us. It helps us grow, but it can also have negative impacts. We can recognize the two sides of ego and practice leveraging it, not being bound by it.
2. Understand Which Data Points Are Leading and Which Ones Are Lagging
In most instances, the metrics that Customer Success professionals are responsible for are lagging indicators of success: Gross Revenue Retention (GRR), Net Revenue Retention (NRR), and Net Promoter Scores (NPS), for example. The key, then, is to understand what is impacting these numbers before the customer journey.
- From the start, are we easy to do business with?
- Are we reducing customer effort in getting started and adopting?
- Did we deliver our responsibilities throughout the implementation process?
- Did the product quickly and repeatedly alleviate the pain points the customer sought to relieve by buying our product?
A big piece for the foundational building is understanding whether you are tracking the key actions CSMs take to impact those leading indicators. For example, do CSMs know a customer’s desired outcomes and how the customer is measuring success? It’s not about how we are measuring success (usually adoption and expansion data), but how the customer experiences success. For the customer, it is about their quantifiable return on investment (ROI). And that can actually mean different ROI measurements for different contacts. Customers are a group of contacts, not a monolith. We must understand what each of our contacts wants, why they want it, how to get there, and how to make them look good on that journey. Those leading-indicator actions matter; if we’re doing those things consistently right, the result will be quality GRR and NRR reporting.
The following foundational block to build upon is the People element. Being able to answer ‘What’s In It For Me?’ for all team members is critical. We should always keep in mind that our team members can work anywhere, and they choose to spend so much of their lives working for our company. Why is that? Understanding what drives the individual team members – and them as a collective unit – is vital to allow managers to coach well. We can tailor our messages to call out how strategies will impact each team member’s ROI.
For customers, as mentioned earlier, ROI can be personal to each contact, similar to team members. Usually, though, customer companies measure ROI as a unit. This is seen through qualitative and quantitative data points. We must understand our customers’ reasons (the Why) and expectations. If expectations are unrealistic, we have an opportunity to be a consultant and help them understand what is realistic. We can talk about what other similar customers are experiencing with our products and how that customer’s ROI could also resonate for them.
For both customers and employees:
- Understand the pain points.
- What are the expectations? Are they realistic?
- Are we meeting expectations? If not, why not?
If we can confidently say “Yes” to meeting and exceeding expectations, our contacts – external customers and internal- will also be well positioned to feel that positivity.
“Process must include a cascade.” – Brian Hansen.
Meaning, we must go up as many levels as needed to get to the root cause of problems or opportunities. Only then can we start to build foundational processes that can cascade down. If we skip too far ahead, we can be doing good work, but it will be haphazard and less effective. Taking a beat to look at what we want to fix – not just in the short-term – will allow us to establish processes and the training of those processes in the proper way. Enablement (i.e. teaching, courses, training, etc.) of important operations is vital, and leveraging an enablement partner is a great way to execute teaching. Overall, we need the tools, the buy-in of why they’re helpful, the knowledge of how to use them, the time to use them, and ongoing coaching to improve. If we are missing any of those pieces, key processes will not take hold and will be a wasted effort.
- Do CSMs have the right processes in place? We can’t answer this question unless we have a customer journey.
- By building a customer journey (or bringing in a consulting firm to help build one), we can quickly identify the opportunities for a customer to grow and also where there is potential for churn. How does our team address these opportunities and risks?
- Do we have Success Plans and Relevant Outcomes identified?
Answering these questions will help us build and scale faster, as we now know where the foundations are unstable.
Speaking of tools, implementing technology to enable our team to adopt a proactive approach to customer management, improve customer satisfaction, and drive long-term revenue growth will be essential. The right tools will help create a customer-centric culture and ensure that customers derive maximum value from the products or services they purchase. Our team will have more time to spend on customer outcomes instead of doing tedious work.
Note-taking applications (We love Update.ai), call recording apps, scheduling links, Slack, a Customer Relationship Management, and a Customer Success Platform are all time savers that promote clean data, collaboration, data-focused conversations, and opportunities to coach teams in more thoughtful and data led ways.
Invest in systems early, or we will have to take valuable time later to assess data integrity, scrub spreadsheets, and gather missing client information.
6. Gap Analysis (BONUS ACTION!)
Make assumptions. You heard this correctly. We can start with a foundation of assumptions about what success looks like about our north star with any relevant data. We have to be okay with making assumptions when setting up the foundations of a customer organization based on the current state of affairs. The foundational model can include everything from who we have working for our teams, the systems and processes in place, and where we want to go.
If we take actions one to 5, we can conduct a gap analysis between the current state and future state of what customer success looks like now that we are in the position to lead and make decisions for scalability. The gap analysis needs to be objective, and the output needs to have quantifiable goals.
We should be honest about the gaps and build a plan to share with our stakeholders. Update them often on the progress, including roadblocks and significant milestones achieved. Sharing what was once a blank white page with people, processes, and systems – essentially, the journey map to scale will help our company grow faster, and our team will gain time and be more organized and confident. We will come out on top as a leader who understands what it takes to build a successful customer success organization.
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About The Authors:
Emilia D’Anzica is the founder and managing director of Growth Molecules™, a management consulting firm focused on protecting and growing revenue. The company aims to help organizations increase profit while maximizing customer value. Emilia is also on several advisory boards globally and an active contributor of the Forbes Council. She is a part-time Adjunct MBA Marketing Metrics Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Brian Hansen, Director of Customer Success at Aurora Solar, is a customer success executive focused on positive forward motion, seeking to solve problems by addressing root causes, then scaling the successes. Brian lives in Northern California with his wife and two daughters, where they enjoy spending time outdoors.