Today’s post is part one of an in-depth interview with Damien Howley, the VP of Customer Success at MindTouch.
Damien is a seasoned customer success leader who has a proven record of building and running customer success teams. Damien has served as the MindTouch VP of Customer Success since February 2013 and has a background in professional services management and solution architecture.
In today’s portion, Damien and I discuss the benefits and challenges of transitioning from customer support to customer success, with special attention to the cultural effects the shift had.
Matthew Berger: What has been the most beneficial part of transitioning from Customer Support to Customer Success?
Damien Howley: The most beneficial part of transitioning from support to customer success, in my opinion, has been the relationships that we’ve been able to establish with our customers. When we embodied the support mentality, we valued reducing cases; we valued closing cases; we valued closing things fast, and not all of these were in the spirit of what was best for the customer. When we changed things around, we said, “How do we make our customers adopt?” and “How do we make our customers more successful?” We started thinking differently about how we interacted with our customers.
We realized that the more frequently you talk to your customer, the better your relationship is with them. You know them on more of a personal level, what is troubling them, and you’re able to relate much better to a customer. One of the biggest benefits in converting to a customer success organization has been the relationships, the knowledge, and the insight we have about our customers. It’s nice to have the ability to really know what our customers are doing, and not guessing.
MB: What were some of the challenges?
DH: At first, some of the challenges were around encouraging a culture here at MindTouch that embraced customer success. Whether we wanted to admit it or not—and I was part of this—we looked at things from the support perspective. I started making reports about how many tickets we were closing and how fast are we closing cases. I know some of these things lead to customer satisfaction, but not in the way that is healthy and results in customer success.
So I started looking at all of our reports, typically support-centric reports, and I began to get myself out of that mentality and getting myself to think how we really drive adoption. It began with how we could procedurally change the culture. It sounds counter-intuitive. How do you take something as subjective as culture and change it procedurally?
For instance, one of the changes I made about three or four months in is no matter how a customer contacts us—email, phone, chat, it doesn’t matter—we are going to call them back. I had a belief that the phone would yield us stronger relationships, more insight into what we were doing. It would allow us to not just troubleshoot one issue, but also future issues. It would allow us to learn more about the customer.
Whereas previous to that, as a support organization, we actually had one phone in our support office and nobody ever used it. Everything was through email. It wasn’t personable; it was misaligned, and sometimes incomprehensible. I had to say, “Guys, this isn’t good for our customers,” even though the support industry at large says “Phones are so damned expensive, don’t send your agents down to do phone support.” I don’t have a lot of experience running large-scale support organizations. But with the size of our customer base and our support staff, I can tell you it was very beneficial for us to change the way that we thought.
Back to the origin of your question. The challenge was getting people to welcome that culture and take away years of being judged a certain way to be comfortable being judged another way. It meant agents were changing from being someone who was task-oriented, somebody who just day-in and day-out said “I did it, I did it,” and changing them to somebody who really cared about the customer, who thought about the problems the customer might have in the future. That was challenging and something we overcame through a combination of hiring new people, procedural changes, and confidence building.
MB: Do you have any advice for companies who are in the process of implementing a customer success program?
DH: My primary advice is to get somebody to run the initiative who cares about the customer’s well being. I know it’s a business and we have to renew, we have to upsell. But if you put those goals first and not the customer first, you’ll be led down a path that ultimately leads to not achieving those goals. If you put the customer first, and very mathematically say, “They’re receiving x amount of value today, and if we teach them this, and train them here, and we add that, then we’ll increase the value,” then the end result will be the things you want: the upsells, the renewals, the growth. You’ve just got to put the horse before the cart. You’ve got to go about it in a way where you’re providing the customer value and they’re paying you back, not asking for the money with the promise of value in the future.
My further advice is to put somebody in charge of your customer success initiative that has experience with your customer base, a degree of experience with your product, and can comprehend what it means to adopt or not adopt. You need someone who can comprehend the more operational use of your software so they can relate to your customers and the people who are calling in. Not that that’s the entire body of your customer base, but you can relate to the people who are regularly on the phone and you’ll have the right sense of what helps and hurts adoption.
MB: Compared to support, it’s seems to be a more holistic approach to your customers and servicing them, would you agree?
DH: Yeah. A support organization is going to generally be focused only on support. They’re not going to be a profit center, they’re not going to be responsible for renewals. Maybe if they’re a bit more advanced they might be looking for Net Promoter Scores or Customer Effort Scores, especially in the software industry. They might be looking for mean-time-to-resolution, cases closed on first contact, and time-to initial contact. These are speed-oriented, efficiency-oriented metrics that, if you tune them, you might save some money.
But at what cost? You’re not really driving after the spirit of the customer. And of course you’re not accountable for renewals or any of the other financial metrics, so it doesn’t really have a high impact to that team if the customer isn’t successful. Customer success, on the other hand, at least the way we structure it here, houses new customer onboarding, support, and account renewals. So as soon as one team screws something up, well then the other teams are going to start suffering the consequences.
If my onboarding team doesn’t do what they need to do, maybe we don’t upsell or renew. They’re all connected and now I oversee all of them. So I have to balance out where we invest. I know that my renewals team isn’t going to get to talk to the customer about their license renewal for 365 days, but I know that my onboarding team can talk to them on day one. And my support can talk to them throughout the year. All of these other interactions are going to lead up to one interaction about renewal, so we try to take care of those customers for the 365 days and stack the odds in our favor, to make sure that they’re really doing some awesome stuff with our software.
MB: On a related note: what makes a good customer success agent?
DH: Let me just start by saying we have excellent agents. Our agents receive gifts quite regularly because of those close relationships they build. I think the common ground between all of them is caring.
Let’s go back to this theme of support vs. customer success. What is in some cases rewarded in a support organization is cost-reduction. So with this mentality, customers end up calling you less frequently and they spend less time on the phone with you, whether they’re having fewer problems or not. Sure, organizations spend less money on support costs.
What suffers there though is the relationship. The agent doesn’t have the time to really connect with the customer, to really empathize with them, to understand the problem they’re having or relate to the person they have to deal with on their side. Now, we have a much smaller customer base compared to a lot of companies, so we can talk to our customers regularly. As a result, our success agents are forced to spend enough time on the phone with our customers that they have no choice but to be totally connected to the problems that the customers are having.
Not only that, they know the product. We do a minimum of one month of product training. They have experienced different scenarios where customers might find themselves confused and they know how to overcome and explain them. So when I listen to our guys on the phone it’s not monotone, there’s no feeling of boredom. It’s a very empathetic, very respectful way of actually giving a shit about what the customer is going through. It’s not fake. And maybe just having people on the phone and talking regularly is what has made it that way.
Click Here for Part 2 of my interview with Damien.
Connect with Damien on LinkedIn