Recently I was interviewed about the best way to get started in a new role as a new VP of Customer Success (CS). As I prepared for that interview, I was thinking, I can just reuse what I’ve done before. I reviewed the personal onboarding plans I had created for myself in the last few companies and discovered that they were pretty different! The plan to reuse them was definitely not going to work.
That’s when I realized that it’s an impossible task to identify and create a ‘standard’ plan for a VP of CS to use when getting started because every company that you join will need something different depending on the situation. Differences might include what is happening in the company that caused them to hire a VP of CS, the size and stage and business model, the revenue of the company, whether or not a team exists already, the makeup of the current CS Team, and where they are in their CS maturity. Another factor is how customer-centric the company and management team really are. It turns out that there are many factors that can and will impact choosing the best approach you might take to get started as a CS leader who is charged with building a CS team and function.
As I looked at the vastly different yet successful onboardings that I have done, I realized that the ‘approach’ I took to create the plans in all of these very successful onboardings had some important things in common. In all cases, I focused on the same high-level activities and by doing that, it helped me to build these vastly different yet successful onboarding plans. That approach is a framework and it’s what I’m going to share with you so that you can apply it to make your own plan.
This framework is a group of activities that will provide you with the information and support to create a foundational plan in roughly 90 days. That is a typical onboarding period for a CS Executive. Using this framework, you will be equipped and ready with an initial plan to build a strong CS organization. At the end of the onboarding period, you will have the intelligence, insights, and buy-in, needed to both create a unique and successful plan and be prepared to execute it to build a CS organization from the ground up. Note that in most (not all) of my situations I was the “first in seat” or the first CS Leader in the company. If you are stepping into an existing CS team that is more structured and organized and doesn’t need to be built from scratch, you will still find some good information here, but be warned, some of what I suggest might not be relevant.
The framework has five areas. The first area is the most important and while it is something that everyone knows they should do; we often forget to take this step when we join a new team and are ready to share our wisdom. The remaining areas are equally critical and I found that they tend to happen in parallel. The framework areas are:
- Listen and Learn
- Build Your Relationships
- Document the Customer Journey
- Evangelize the CS Function
- Build the Foundational Long-Term Plan
Listen and Learn
By focusing on listening and learning with curiosity, all of the other steps begin to develop naturally based on what you learn. This is the key to everything. While you probably bring a lot of experience and ideas to the organization, you won’t necessarily be successful just coming in and beginning to implement them. In order to be effective, you need to figure out how to integrate your ideas with what already exists, build trust with staff, peers and customers and understand what is working and what is not working. I call this the listening tour.
Only after you have completed the listening tour, is it appropriate for you to start to implement changes because that’s when you have the best traction to do it successfully. Make sure to listen across different points of view. I focused on the following areas:
- Customer interactions and how they are viewed/handled/managed/documented.
- Current challenges from various points of view.
- What is working well?
- What works but needs improvement?
- What are the internal dynamics?
I build a set of open-ended questions in these five areas, asking, listening, and then making sure I understand by re-stating my understanding back to the person I am talking to. Doing this, I learn how customers, various internal departments, the CS teams, partners, and others view the current situation.
You will find views from different stakeholders to be very diverse and that is normal. Everyone has a unique perspective. I’ve learned that as a CS leader it is my job to comprehend these views, including the differences of opinion, and work to align everyone so that the customer experience and the customer voice are functioning in a way that provides value and serves both the company and the customers. Synthesizing the information and creating this alignment is a core mission of any successful CS team.
When complete, the listening tour provides valuable information to use for the remaining steps in the framework. You might find yourself in “information overload”. This phase can be confusing and overwhelming. My advice is: persevere! The more you learn; the more things will become clear.
I gained an understanding of product use cases, customer likes and dislikes, financials, and was able to identify friction points and celebrate things that were working well. Collecting and analyzing all this information provided focus. There is always a lot to learn, and this is just the start. I found that in all the various situations I had, unique as they were, I was able to quickly come up to speed and create a targeted plan for myself using the information I gathered.
Use what you learn to relate the objectives that the company had in mind when hiring you, to your own thoughts and ideas about what needs to happen, and apply that to the challenges you identify that need to be addressed This integrated information becomes the foundation for where you spend your time and for building the long-term strategy and mapping of the customer journey. As a bonus, I’ve included some of the best questions I’ve used in my listening tours at the end of this article for you to use and modify – I hope you find it helpful.
Build Your Relationships
The next thing to do is to build your relationships. This will happen naturally. When you have conversations with your internal and external stakeholders, you start building relationships. Why build relationships? You need them to work effectively with your team, peers, board, and customers. You also need them to: garner support for your programs; have internal and external listening posts; receive diverse feedback; help you adjust to changes, and support you personally as you continue to learn. These relationships are the foundation upon which you will build a customer-centric culture and a Customer Success organization.
One thing that helps you build strong relationships is practicing active listening. This is something to do always, but especially during your listening tour. I use a technique called “replay”. This is where you restate and paraphrase what you have heard to make sure that your understanding is correct. We all have filters and unconscious bias and for most people listening is much harder than it seems. Active listening and the replay technique help you to fully understand what your colleague or customer is saying, and it also helps to begin to establish trust. A great prompt for active listening is to say “If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying……<your interpretation of what they said>…..”. This allows for clarification in the case where you aren’t fully understanding, and it is confirming and builds trust if you do understand correctly. This technique allows the other person to feel “heard” , which is a key component to building a strong relationship.
When you consider who to meet with, look at both the formal org chart and the informal org chart. Observe who people socialize with and who are the key influencers. There are many categories of people who can add perspective and become allies. Consider early employees in startups, also receptionists, administrative/financial staff, and Board members. All of these can provide valuable current and historical context that will be useful to you as you build your plans. If an idea has previously been tried and failed, it’s helpful to know that before you roll ahead with the plans you have.
Most companies have good intentions about becoming customer-centric, but there are often unconscious barriers that don’t allow a customer-focused initiative to thrive. It is critical to recognize the level of support you can expect and know where to find it. As you talk to people and build relationships, pay attention to the tone of the conversation. Think about body language, voice pitch, and attitude. Unspoken communication will help you to understand the level of support each person has for you and your initiatives. It will help you know where you need to put more effort into building relationships. Also, consider people’s roles. You might find allies beyond someone’s job title. This is especially true in early-stage companies where people take on multiple roles unique from their job titles. Considering tone and role will also help you continue to learn from different perspectives.
Building your relationships broadly gives you perspective and context. Relationships take time so start early. The listening tour is your opportunity to learn about critical areas of the company (internally) and how it operates. One tip from the trenches, if there is a Sales Operations person or team, that is a good person to build a relationship with. They likely understand the existing customer data and as you move to the next step, building the Customer Journey, you are going to need to understand this as well.
Document the Customer Journey
While you are listening and learning and building relationships, you are actually in the best position to collect data on the key elements of your customer’s journey with your company. If there is already a documented Customer Journey that exists, validate it through your conversations, and if not, begin to create one to use as the foundation of your strategy.
There are many formats and structures of Customer Journey Maps and any of them can work. Just pick one, and the important thing to remember as you create it, is to keep it strongly from the customer’s (not your internal) perspective. One example, the renewal event. It is about your revenue and securing it (internally) but for the customer, it is likely different; they may need to secure a budget which may require re-justifying value or proving cost savings in order to renew. Focus on that. Rather than thinking about “when do we have the conversation about renewal” based on your forecast, focus on “what are the steps that will help the customer show the value” in order to secure the budget. The same goes for expansion opportunities (or the opposite, for downgrades). Being proactive and thinking about activities from the customer perspective and reflecting that in your journey will result in the outcomes you desire. Keep drilling down and be sure to give more weight to what you learn from customers than you do from internal sources as you build your Customer Journey.
Some things to consider when building your journey. Look at what is working and not working today, AND think about opportunities you have to improve things. You are likely to this feedback from customers and internal departments during your listening tour. I always create two versions of the Customer Journey Map, the Current customer journey including all the friction points, gaps, and challenges that exist now, and the Desired customer journey map where you architect touchpoints, playbooks, and automation to eliminate the friction, fill the gaps and remove the challenges. The Desired Journey map becomes your planning foundation. It’s what you need to do. It is also the place to add new ideas that will provide more value, streamline processor communications. Here is where your wisdom and ideas get included.
As you build your journey, don’t forget to ask how often the customer wants to be contacted. It might be more or less than you think. Pass information along to other groups. Marketing might find it very valuable to get some data back on the value customers find. Product might like to understand which features are most valued. If you find you have gaps in knowledge from the customer perspective, you might be able to capture that later in the customer journey (through the product or a survey) and feed it back to the marketing team. And, this contributes to building your relationships.
Whether you are building a Customer Journey Map, or one exists already, you need to understand where you stand in relation to your customers. I have yet to encounter a company that has finished architecting everything they desire in their customer journey. It’s an endless job. Remember to keep it “outside/in” because you don’t want to impose an engagement model on your customers that may not work for them.
You likely won’t finish any of this during your onboarding, but it is very helpful to have a first draft completed early in your onboarding so that you can begin to frame your long term plans around something concrete that will benefit your customers and lead to advocacy and good customer retention.
Evangelize the CS Function
Do I really need to be an evangelist for Customer Success? They just hired me, so someone cares right? The answer is absolutely YES! Yes, someone cares, and Yes, you need to be an evangelist. No matter how deeply customer-centric your organization is, or why you were brought in to build or retrench the Customer Success Team, over time, without evangelism in place, customer-centricity naturally erodes. As the CS Leader, it will always be your job to continue to evangelize the CS Function and be the voice of the customer back to the company.
When you are first starting and onboarding is when you set the stage for being that evangelist. You need to identify customer value and communicate it widely. You need to make sure everyone in the company understands how they are attached to the customer and the Customer Journey you build or refine can help illustrate that. Finally, you need to communicate the value that a CS Team will bring to the company.
Customers are always at the center of any successful business. CS is a hub that consolidates information and protects customers and revenue. The CS team brings the voice of the customer to the company through: customer feedback to help refine the product; buyer feedback to determine product/market fit; turning customers into advocates; securing strong references; increase sales efficiency by helping to understand good fit customers; providing early warnings about competitive trends, and of course protecting and expanding revenue. If you don’t evangelize these high-value CS contributions, along with the functional work of ensuring customers achieve their value with your product, no one will realize it and your opportunities for funding and execution of your plans will be more challenging.
Start your evangelism early, while you are on the listening tour, and building relationships, and creating your customer journey. This is the time to plant the seeds for how CS will contribute and improve the company. You have the opportunity to set some short-term expectations about initiatives that you can achieve quickly, and then, when you achieve them, you can promote them. This is what evangelism is. Identify some examples of quick time to value within your customer journey, improve some onboarding activities, identify the successes, renewals, expansions, and customer problems solved. You can even pass along great customer inputs and interactions to help people understand why it is important to have a CS team.
Everyone in the company impacts customers, directly or indirectly. As an evangelist, you can help to shape how those messages land. You can provide goodwill for your team, and cement a customer-centric culture. Just as with building relationships, evangelism will help you leverage support, as you create and execute your plan. There will be plenty of failed experiments, roadblocks, and setbacks. That is a part of building anything and learning as you go.
One tactical suggestion: Build some CS evangelizing elevator pitches, share them with your team, make sure to share wins, and recognize people for their efforts. This will also help you be successful in the long run. Also, it’s reinforcing, when you are evangelizing something, you feel good about it and CS is hard work. Feeling good about what you are doing helps and it’s worth the small amount of time it takes to become an evangelist for Customers and CS.
Build the Foundational Long-Term Plan
The final step is to build your long-term plan. That doesn’t mean you wait until you are finished with all of the areas of onboarding to begin working on things. As you come across ideas that can be done, allocate some time, or delegate to your team and get started with a few short-term projects. There will be a lot to do.
Plans and how they operate are unique to each company. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It usually contains some high-level goals and objectives that break down into tactics and measures with a budget projection and specific headcount and systems that are needed to execute on what you define. A lot of your plan will be informed from your customer journey. You will want to create playbooks, and identify activities, workflows, processes, and assets you need to create to fill the gaps, and eliminate the friction and build the CS Function and team. All of this either informs or leads to the objectives and goals that the company set when they hired you. Likely it will focus on building great customer relationships, and advocacy, protecting and expanding your revenue, and bringing the voice of the customer back to other departments. All plans also require metrics and measures so that you can track how you are doing. Don’t forget to make your plans measurable!
This is just the beginning
If you follow these steps in your first few months on the job you are set up for success! By listening and learning, building relationships, documenting your customer journey, and evangelizing CS, you garner all the critical details to create your Long-Term Plan, and you set yourself up for success in executing on it.
Following these steps is simple and as you do, keep track of things. The insights you gain will help you formulate your plan. Understanding what is working and not working will give you the specific tactics you need to create or change. Understanding the customer perspective and your customer journey grounds you in a context to use internally to discuss product changes, operational changes, and organizational changes that will help you know what people to hire and how to structure the CS Function to drive better results.
It all starts and ends with listening and learning. When you first start, you have the audience of many, and this is a rare opportunity that you won’t get again so take advantage of it and ask a lot of questions! As you build your Customer Journey you will find places to add value both internally and to your customers. Building relationships and evangelizing set you up with allies for success. is your early and infrequent gift, but don’t stop there. Business changes, and keep listening, learning, building relationships, evangelizing, and planning and you will find yourself successful!