Saturday, December 13, 2014

This isn't going to work

The role of a customer success manager can be difficult. Okay, that is a bit of an understatement. It can be incredibly difficult, frustrating and downright depressing. Being a Customer Success Manager requires solving problems. Really solving them. Not just selling past them, working around them or changing the focus. Solving them. And solving problems is hard. Another understatement. Customers who don’t want to adopt the product they purchased, technology that doesn’t work in the customer’s environment or with the customer’s processes, stakeholders who leave without selling the solution internally… these are all big problems and a typical day for a Customer Success Manager. When the problems surface and it becomes clear there is no simple answer it is easy for doubt to creep in and to think, “This isn’t going to work.” It is easy to give up.

In my career as a Customer Success Manager and leader of the Customer Success function I have experienced my share of difficult days. The most difficult are not just when we lose customers but when we know we deserved to lose them. Maybe there was more that we could have done as a team, more I could have done as an executive, more we could have done to find a technology solution faster. Whatever the reason, there is almost always more that we could have done. We live and learn and constantly improve, but losing always sucks. It can be especially depressing because in Customer Success we own it. We are often the last line of defense. We need to solve the problem or it doesn’t get solved and the customer leaves.

Over the years I have found a few things to be effective in dealing with difficult customer situations. 

Understand the problem  There was a great quote on the walls at SuccessFactors, “If you don’t want to do something, any excuse is as good as another.” Customers make excuses. They make excuses for not adopting the technology, embracing a new way of working or managing the change associated with it. To solve the problem you need to understand the real problem. It isn’t always the technology that doesn’t work. Sometimes it is the people trying to use the technology. Fixing a slowness issue or a broken workflow isn’t going to solve the problem of someone who simply doesn’t get it, or worse, doesn’t even want to.

Take it personally  This is not A problem. This is MY problem. The best Customer Success Managers make the customers’ problems their own and work to solve it as if their own career depends on it. If you don’t feel personal accountability for getting it resolved, it is hard to continue to find and fight for solutions to the most difficult issues.

Use the team  While Customer Success Managers need to own the problem, it is not theirs alone to solve. The most effective Customer Success Managers leverage the team to solve the problem. They build relationships and credibility along the way that allows them to come back again and again as different issues surface.

“If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.”  I love this line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. In Customer Success and in solving the most difficult customer situations it is absolutely true. To solve problems you need to get into it. You need to get into the details, get into the issues, keep digging until you get to the heart of the problem. It doesn’t work to nibble around the edges. Problems don’t get solved that way.

I have also found a few things to be effective in dealing with the disappointment and often outright depression that comes with losing customers.

Own it  You need to take it personally to solve the problem and if you try and fail you need to own it. If you blame the team, the technology or anything other than your own ability to execute, you can easily slip into a sneaky hate spiral that leaves you depressed and defeated. Losing sucks. It should. Owning it is the fastest way to feeling better.

Walk it off  Walking helps. Really. Get some air. Change your view. Think through the problem, the failure and the lessons learned while walking. Sitting at your desk brooding is ugly. Walking it off will make you feel better.

Learn from it  Shit happens. Asking yourself what you are going to do differently next time, then putting a plan in place to do just that will help you feel better.

Solve it anyways  I love the movie Tin Cup. In the final scene, Tin Cup is convinced he can hit it on the green. He misses. He misses again. He has lost the tournament and is at risk of not qualifying for the next. But he keeps trying until he gets it done. Solving the problem that couldn’t be solved in time to save the customer can be very consoling and make you feel better.

The role of a Customer Success Manager can be a difficult one and involve complex problems that defy simple and fast solutions. Some customers will be unhappy. Some customers will leave. It sucks every time. Customer Success is about finding the path forward, owning the issues and dealing with the outcome, win or lose.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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With the Customer Success teams I have had the opportunity to lead we focus on continuous improvement and moving from "good to great". One of our team exercises is to post both things that we needed to start doing and things we needed to stop doing to move from good to great. Fear is often a common theme. Fear of weaknesses being uncovered, of asking for help, of stepping outside the status quo, of stepping outside what is comfortable and known, fear that we don't have anything to say for blogs and social media, fear of criticism or saying no to customers and meeting requests. Many of my team members have noted that fear led them to second guess themselves. Fear erodes their confidence. Worse, fear stops us. It keeps us from leaning into opportunities and challenging ourselves to work at the next level. Fear keeps us from testing new ideas, new ways of thinking and fixing what we can see is broken. Fear can, and fear will, prevent us from achieving our goals. It will prevent us from disrupting and achieving our potential. It can prevent you from achieving your personal career ambitions.

Earlier this year I confronted two of my personal fears, a fear of heights and a fear of helicopters, by heli-skiing in Alaska. It was absolutely terrifying. As the helicopter rose into the mountains outside of Valdez, I imagined all of the things that could go wrong. I looked out the window at the jagged peaks and imagined falling out of the sky. As we flew up the ridge, each small gust of wind served as a reminder of how small and fragile our helicopter was. As we passed over cliffs and the earth fell away beneath us, I could hardly bear to look at how far we had to fall. It didn't get better after we landed. The helicopter touched down on a ridge top in a space no bigger than a small car and hovered while we carefully stepped out, unloaded our gear, and then huddled together as it lifted off again and dropped down over the ridge. On one side of the too small snow pad was a cliff that plunged thousands of feet, and on the other, a cornice and our route down. In that moment, if I could have backed out I probably would have. I was terrified. But standing on the ridge looking over the cornice to the run below there was no backing out. No escape. I was forced to confront my fear and drop in to the bowl.

Unfortunately, in career development and in trying to move from good to great, it is all too easy to back out and escape our fears. We can put that blog post off. We can pretend that we don't see or don't have time to embrace that speaking opportunity. We can tell ourselves that it isn't the right time for a networking event. We can tell ourselves we will speak up in the next meeting, we will challenge the status quo tomorrow, we will have time to offer up that new idea or solution next week. But in sidestepping our fear, we will miss the opportunity. We won't move as quickly as we could. We will fail to achieve everything we can as a company and in our individual careers.

Ask yourself, how is fear getting in your way? And then challenge yourself onto the ridge where you have no choice but to go for it. Then drop in.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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The Big Picture

Your development
An old forest full of trees
Visualize your path

A development haiku for the week. The message: Don't lose sight of the big picture. It is easy to get heads down. Focused. Specific. Tactical. And that's not a bad thing. It is often what we need to do to execute. In work or in development it is no different. I am going to focus. I am going deep. I need to get into the details. Into the weeds. I have to get this one thing done. I need to develop this skill. This expertise. 

But remember, it is important not to lose sight of the big picture. Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? What is my plan, my purpose, my vision? Where do I see myself and how does developing this skill help me get there?

Don't lose the forest for the trees. In work or your professional development.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Three important relationships

Driving results through Customer Success requires balancing relationships across Customers, Sales Partners and Product Management. This balancing act can, at times, resemble juggling chainsaws: each relationship is important, powerful on its own and has the potential to be a great resource, but if not handled properly, each can also cause significant damage to everyone around it. While balancing these three relationships is the key to driving results, creating effective relationships requires more than just back slapping and big talk. Within these relationships, Customer Success requires understanding and executing three key roles:

  • Advocate
  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Trusted Advisor 

These three roles are foundational to building effective relationships with Customers, Sales Partners and Product Management.


Advocate – Customers need a voice in the organization, and an advocate for the features, functionality and services they need to be successful. Customer Success is charged with acting as this advocate. The challenge in the role of advocate is knowing when a customer is asking for too much, asking for the wrong things or just being a pain in the ass because they can be. Effective advocacy for customers starts with knowing when to go to bat for your customer and having the relationships and business case to make each request most effectively.

Subject Matter Expert – Customers don’t always know what they don’t know. The role of Customer Success is to provide them with access to subject matter expertise they need to make good decisions. It does not mean that the Customer Success Manager needs to be or needs to position themselves as the all-knowing oracle. Rather, they act as a facilitator, bringing in the right expertise when needed. It also doesn’t mean that the customer is going to listen. The challenge in the role of subject matter expert is providing access to this expertise in a way that empowers the customer and the Customer Success Manager, maintains the relationship and sets a clear executable path forward.

Trusted Advisor – The path to customer success sometimes involves telling the customer things that they don’t want to hear, telling them the answer is no or that the problem is not with the software but with their team. The most difficult relationship for a Customer Success Manager to establish is that of trusted advisor. Customers are slow to trust vendors, especially those that call their babies ugly. The challenge in the role of trusted advisor is first establishing, then knowing when and how to leverage the relationship to help customers be successful.

Sales Partners

Advocate – If a sales person came to your front door would you let them in the house? What if they came calling every day with some new and even more important innovation than the day before? You might start pretending that you aren’t home. But what if that sales person came to the door with your best friend and trusted advisor? You, like many customers, might be inclined to hear them out. The role of advocating for sales partners is a difficult balancing act. You will quickly lose your trusted advisor relationship if you are beating a path to your sponsor’s door with every new discussion the sales team wants to have. At the same time, if you aren’t enabling sales, you simply aren’t doing your job.

Subject Matter Expert – The best sales partners are eager to find subject matter expertise and leverage that to solve a customer’s problem while driving a sale in the process. The challenge in the role of subject matter expert supporting sales is ensuring that the expertise you provide is not distorted to fit a sales agenda that is in conflict with true customer success. There is a well-worn saying about sales and customer success: “They [sales] sell the dream and we [customer success] live the nightmare.” The role of subject matter expert can be a clear competitive differentiator with sales, especially when combined with the role of trusted advisor to the customer, but this is a relationship that needs to be carefully cultivated and managed.

Trusted Advisor – Sales managers, and not all of them will admit this, don’t always know everything about the product, the customer or the customer’s business challenges. Driving big deals requires aligning these three elements and the role of Customer Success is critical. In the role of trusted advisor, the Customer Success team can provide the sales team with insights into the customer and product fit, helping sales find the optimal alignment.

Product Management

Advocate – While the customer needs a voice in the organization, the product team needs a voice with the customers, an effective advocate for how the product works today, what it is designed to do and why, and balance the legitimate needs of the customer for product evolution with the needs of the product team for innovation. The best Customer Success Managers balance these competing priorities because they truly understand their customers’ needs not just today but tomorrow and a year from now. And they enable the product teams to get there by managing expectations on both sides for incremental evolution as well as step-wise innovation.

Subject Matter Expert – Product management and engineering need eyes and ears on the street to ensure that the problems they are attempting to solve through the software are 1) the right problems to solve and 2) being solved. The role of customer success is critical here. As subject matter experts and trusted advisors to the customer, customer success managers can help interpret the business and ensure the most effective alignment of software to business need. This requires not only subject matter expertise but the ability to understand current and future business needs of the customer, and support the product management team in making the translation to software requirements.

Trusted Advisor – Product management needs a trusted advisor who can help deliver bad news to customers and properly interpret customer feedback. Not every feature is going to be released on time and not every release is going to be bug free. Product management needs a trusted advisor in Customer Success to understand the level of impact of the product miss and to understand the right course of action to correct the customer impression and frustration. The challenge for Customer Success in the role of trusted advisor is removing personal emotion from the conversation and focusing on advising the product team on what the customer really needs to move forward.

Driving results through Customer Success requires balancing these three key relationships. By understanding and seamlessly executing the three roles of Customer Success, the juggling act becomes a feat of skill rather than an accident waiting to happen.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Six Elements in Launching Customer Success

How do you create customer value? Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to present what I believe are the six key elements to creating customer value through a customer success team. First...

Customer Focus

Keep it simple, keep it focused on the customer.

Customer Focus requires that the Customer Value team be focused first and foremost on the customer. Not internal processes, not case studies or success stories or marketing or sales. The team needs to be focused on the customer and ensuring that they are getting value from our products and services. Simple as that. All of the good things for the company-- renewals, up sell and expansion, net promoter score, references-- come from a clear and consistent focus on customers and their success. The customer value team plays the pivotal role in ensuring that customers experience an extraordinary relationship with the organization.

Customer Lifecycle 

Creating customer value requires that you understand your customer's journey and align people, tools and processes to help guide them along the way.

At HireVue, we created a five step customer lifecycle (on boarding, review/assessment, renewal expansion, optimization, maturity) and as a team project we mapped the characteristics of each of these phases. We looked at which customers were most successful based on net promoter score, renewal, expansion, executive engagement, etc., and identified the steps that we as a company had taken to create that success. From these insights we then created a lifecycle map that highlighted the characteristics of each step and identified what a Customer Success Manager could do to engage and drive the customer to the next level. As we continue to evolve our program we will map in the exact resources so the CSM has, at their fingertips, a map and the tools they need.

Customer Engagement Model

Aligning customer value resources to accounts based on type can accelerate adoption, expansion, satisfaction and renewal.

When we first implemented Customer Value at SuccessFactors, we focused on renewal risk management. We engaged with customers in the last year of their agreement with SF and prioritized based on contract value. We would uncover significant risk in accounts that had been neglected since their original implementation. The engagement model was reactive and led to a heavy emphasis on crisis management. Ultimately we became so effective at the "diving catch" that we were able to convince leadership that we should adopt a more proactive engagement model. That led to an expansion of the team to focus not only on renewal risk but the entire customer lifecycle. At HireVue we started there. I joined the team because they were willing to invest in proactive full lifecycle customer success for all accounts. The executive team and board already had religion, they needed execution.

Data Backed Decision Making

Long term customer value requires that we utilize all of the great data we have about our customers to make decision on how best to support those customers.

At SuccessFactors, we partnered with Jeff Ulrich and Ron Stainbrook to create a tool called SuccessCentral, an in-house version of what Gainsight, Bluenose, Totango, and similar customer success software solutions offer today. SuccessCentral enabled the Customer Value team to see all of the relevant information about an account on one page. It had the additional benefit of providing customer facing views of the data. This data included a summary of the resources and account ownership, products they had purchased and subscription dates and amounts, account health flags and notes, support utilization and benchmarking, and most importantly, adoption data. SuccessCentral gave the team a comprehensive view of the customer. At HireVue we leverage Salesforce and customer report solutions from our team Business Analyst to gain insights into the customer. Beyond just having a summary of the data though, we created a customer health index. Partnering with our data scientist we analyzed all of the data that we have on our customers and looked for those data points that were most highly correlated with account expansion and renewal. This provided some big surprises (for example, product adoption is not highly correlated with account renewal), and we leveraged these insights to create a customer health index, a single score for accounts that benchmarks them and allows us to systematically identify accounts that may be at risk or have an opportunity for expansion. The score takes into account the customer success manager’s view of risk and layers on more objective measures like implementation approach, net promoter score, and executive engagement as well.

Continuous Improvement 

Building a team to drive customer value involves planning for continuous improvement to ensure that the evolving needs of customers and the business are met in the most efficient and effective way possible.

At HireVue, we started with an engagement model of 10 named accounts per account director, 30 enterprise accounts for each customer success manager and 50 mid-market and SMB accounts for each junior customer success manager. We saw growth in the mid-market segment accelerating more quickly than the enterprise segment and we were posed with the challenge of investing in more mid-market and SMB customer success managers or in named account directors. But it was clear we needed both if we stuck with the model. We started with the data and looked at the revenue (easy, no question), impact on product evolution (not as clear cut) and adoption (not even close) for each of the segments. This led us to the decision that we should hire an account director (done) and a mid-market SMB rep but… one that would scale in a new segment, SMB. We hired a junior resource, a really smart, energetic and ambitious account representative, who could manage a portfolio of 100+ accounts in the SMB segment. Her focus, and I have been working closely with her on this, is a light touch model that still serves up the best of customer success but scales to a much larger portfolio of small business accounts.

Celebrate Success
By highlighting the simple things in a low friction way we have built a culture of celebrating success, building and sustaining our customer first focus and ensuring that the team knows that their small results matter.

At HireVue we celebrate success, not just of the major renewal wins, but customer feedback on the journey. When I joined the team I asked that everyone post the top three activities for the week and the top three results from last week in our open Chatter group. This exposed the broader team to what everyone was working on and drove visibility to the leadership of our focus and results. It also had the benefit of creating an environment where everyone could visit and check in weekly. We have been using this group for “shout outs” which are quick highlights of team success. Sometimes these are renewal wins, but more often, and an important ongoing focus, is highlighting simple customer success, doing the right thing on small issues that drive bigger opportunities and customer satisfaction. Recently I highlighted a CSM who had received some positive feedback from a customer on walking them through their NPS report. The process of walking them through their data and making recommendations had led to change that drove positive progress the following month.

Creating value through a customer success team requires having a strong foundation of process, data-based decision making, and celebrating success along the way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Developing an Account Plan: 5 Questions to Answer

Developing an account plan is a critical element in driving customer success. But where do we begin? To create an effective account strategy, start by answering these five deceptively simple questions.

Why are we here?
One of my favorite TED Talks is Simon Sinek's "How Great Leaders Inspire Action". His message revolves around the importance of starting with Why. Similarly, when developing an account strategy we need to start with why. Why are we here? The answer to this question requires more thought that you might guess. The easy response is that the customer purchased the product and we are here to make them successful with it. While this is true, it does not answer the question why and is not the foundation for an effective account strategy. To articulate your answer it helps to break the question of why into three parts:

  • Why did the customer buy our product? The customer has a problem they are trying to solve. The answer to why starts with the problem. And again, the answer requires more thought than you might guess. For example, the customer is not implementing our product because they want to be innovative. The goal to be innovative is a part of the solution, not the problem. The problem might be that they can't attract the best talent. One of the reasons for this might be because they are not viewed as innovative. If we accept the desire to be innovative as the problem we are trying to solve, we will completely miss the point and fail in our account strategy to solve the real problem.

  • Why do they care about that problem? Once you have identified the real problem that the customer is trying to solve, it becomes easier to articulate why they care about our solution. For example, their inability to attract the best talent is leading to a failure to execute on the core corporate strategy. HR cares about the inability to attract talent, fill the pipeline and provide hiring managers with qualified candidates in a reasonable amount of time. In turn, the line of business leaders care about their inability to deliver quarterly results. It is not an HR problem we are solving. It is a business problem.

  • Why is that problem important to their business? If you have identified the true problem to be solved and answered the question of why they care about that problem, the answer to the question of importance becomes almost obvious. If the line of business leaders fail to deliver quarterly results, this create a performance gap that may result in a loss of market share as competitors seize the opportunity, a miss on earning, and a loss of market capitalization.

Starting with the question of why we are here provides us with a solid foundation from which to build an effective account strategy. By understanding the real problem the customer is trying to solve, why they care about that particular problem, and how it impacts their business, we can more effectively plan for how our products and services will align with the problem and provide a viable solution.

Where are we going? 

Once we have a solid understanding of the problem we are trying to solve, it is important to understand where we are going. This is not the implementation, configuration, training or change management plan. It is not the product roadmap or the adoption plan. The answer to where we are going is a description of the destination. What does solving the problem look like? An effective strategic account plan has a clearly defined and agreed upon view of the destination that we are working together to reach. If the business problem is attracting the best talent, the destination may be a description of what a full talent pipeline looks like, the stream of talent in it, and the flow of candidates into hiring manager queues. The challenge of defining where we are going is in the description. The more detailed you can make it the better. A great account plan has a description of the destination that gets people excited, that generates a sense of purpose, and is a place where they can visualize themselves.

How will we know when we have arrived?

This question is an obvious element of an account plan but is often only addressed as a box checking exercise. Did we ask about the business objectives? Check. Did we ask about the measures of success? Check. But developing an effective account strategy requires more than just checking the boxes. It requires clear, metrics-driven answers to whether we solved the business problem and arrived at our destination. An effective account strategy maps out these details, ensuring that the customer and the HireVue team have a shared vision of success that is not left to subjective assessments or the current impression of the tools. By articulating clear measures of success that tie back to the core problem and business impacts, we can easily overcome hiring manager objections, recruiter and talent acquisition obstacles, or other challenges. By clearly defining specific and measureable objectives that are aligned with the tools and processes to measure them, we can be sure that our customer knows what success looks like and when we have achieved it.

How will we get there? 

We have a clear problem to solve and we know where we want to end up, but how will we get there? This sounds tactical. And it is. Creating a strategic account plan does not mean setting aside the tactical elements of execution. A strategic account plan actually goes deeply into the tactical plan to ensure that the path to achieve results is clearly mapped out. This is the implementation, configuration, training, and change plans. It is also a well formulated governance model that agrees in writing to the rules of the road. If we are going to reach the destination, we need to agree who is driving, who will participate when there is a question of direction at an intersection, who changes the flat tire and who we call for help if we run out of gas. A strategic account plan clearly maps out these roles without losing sight of the problem we are solving or the final destination. It is easy to focus on the How when creating an account plan because it is tactical and easy to define, but without a clear reason for going and a clear vision of where we want to go, we are just driving around.

What do we need to do? What do we need to not do? 

A critical part of managing a strategic plan is deciding what we are going to do. That's obvious. Less obvious is the need to decide what we are not going to do. This is harder than it sounds. It requires more than simple answers like "we are not going to get off schedule" or "we are not going to get distracted". It requires firm commitments and a proactive plan to address distractions and detours. For example, we are not going to start socializing the scheduling solution until the interviewing solution has reached 80% of our target audience with a 90% adoption rate, which we plan to be November 30, 2014. These commitments become especially difficult when you start to realize some success in an account. When adoption is growing, when the customer is happy, referenceable and eager to speak on our behalf, it feels like a great time to pitch additional use cases or introduce additional products. While we don't want to limit our upsell potential in existing accounts by waiting and watching as the full account plan is executed, we do need to be very careful and strategically pick our opportunities. It doesn't make sense to attack an opportunity to solve a scheduling problem when the talent pipeline isn't filled with people to schedule. But by carefully considering what we need to do and what we need to not do, and including these considerations in our account plan, we will be more effective in solving the core problem and will position the account for long term success instead of just another short term contract win.

Creating an effective account strategy begins with identifying the core business problem to be solved, agreeing with our customers on a vision of success and including specific measures to understand when we have succeeded. An effective account strategy also requires understanding and planning for the tactical details required to reach that destination and a formal plan for addressing challenges and questions that will arise. Finally, a effective account plan requires planning in advance for what we will and will not do along the way. By starting with these deceptively simple questions you can create an account strategy that leads to customer success.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July. But it is not just a three day weekend. It is not just a day off. A day to go to the lake. A day to barbecue. It is not just a day at all. It is a symbol. A symbol of everything we have. A symbol of the Freedom we enjoy. The freedom to choose our own path. Our own work. Our own religion. Freedom from tyranny and oppression. From injustice. It is a symbol of our Opportunity. Our opportunity to work for ourselves. For our families. Our opportunity to believe what we want. To be who we are. To become who we dream. It is also symbol of our Responsibility. Our responsibility to do our part. To answer the call if it comes. To participate in the process. To vote. To engage. To be neighbors. To allow others the freedoms we enjoy. It is not just a three day weekend. It is not just a day. It is our Independence Day. It is who We are.

I love the Fourth of July for everything that it represents. The same characteristics are why I love working in a start up. To me, it is not just a job. It is not just a paycheck. It is not just work. It is something more. It is Freedom. Freedom to create new things. New products, new services, new experiences. It is the freedom to have a vision and make it real. The freedom to create our own path. It is the freedom to bring our real selves to work. To be who we are. It is also an Opportunity. An opportunity to build products that change the world. An opportunity to see our best be challenged. An opportunity to grow. As individuals. As a team. It is an opportunity to create a legacy with our work. To create our marks professionally. But with these bring Responsibility. Our responsibility to give 100%. To speak up. To accept the challenge and rise to the occasion. And then push further. It is our responsibility to not accept good. To not accept satisfied. It is our responsibility to want more and to want better for our customers, for our teams, for ourselves. It is our responsibility to make it happen. To make the most of this moment. To earn it every day. It is not just a job. It is our company.

I hope you all enjoy the Fourth of July and take a moment to reflect on the Freedom, Opportunity and Responsibility this day, this symbol, represents.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Driving scale in a startup is about getting 3 things right

What is “scale”? Scale in a startup incorporates everything from who does the work, to what work is done and how that work is accomplished. It often involves tough decisions, not only in terms of the talent you keep and the talent you hire, but the projects and opportunities you engage and those you have to pass on. Scale is as much about what you do as what you stop doing. Driving scale comes at a critical point in the startup lifecycle. It requires raising the level of experience of the team and implementing new processes and organizational discipline. But the organization must simultaneously maintain the best of what works and avoid the trap of bureaucratic, cumbersome processes that impact the ability to move quickly and accelerate growth.

To me driving scale is about getting three things right:

  • Getting the right people,
  • working on the right things,
  • in the most efficient and effective way.

Getting the right people  When I joined HireVue in January 2013, I inherited a team of eight customer success managers. While their title was Customer Success, they really functioned as generalists managing everything from implementation and training to account management. As time permitted they focused on customer success management. It was the right model at the time, but growth was accelerating and it was clear that the team needed to scale. To scale this function we hired Kara Blumberg to build a Professional Services team and differentiate services from customer success, enabling a new level of focus and expertise. Over the course of the year the original team of eight generalists had grown to a team of 22 including dedicated Professional Services and three tiers of true Customer Success Management. This was fantastic growth but alone it wasn’t scale. True scaling is what you do with the headcount and resources that you have. It is one of the key management challenges of leading in a startup environment.

Working on the right things  In an early phase startup, say pre-100 people, everyone pitches in and has their hands in everything. It is an incredibly exciting, fast and engaging time for everyone who has the opportunity to be a part of it. But as the business grows this is no longer an option. A business doesn’t scale if the CEO is managing implementations instead of working with the board and enabling the sales team. It doesn't scale if the CTO is engaged in troubleshooting technical issues instead of driving innovation. It doesn't scale if Customer Success Managers are making decisions based on “gut” feelings about account health and tracking data in spreadsheets (or worse, keeping it in their heads). This type of engagement simply does not scale. As the business grows, everyone has to make tough decisions about where to invest their time despite their passion to be engaged in and knowledgeable of the details of every deal and project. It requires decisions that enable people with expertise to do their jobs while the original team refocuses their passion and efforts. 

In many cases scaling a startup means making tough decisions about the talent on the team. One of the hardest decisions a leader in a startup has to make is deciding to move the talent that brought you early success out of the way to make room for the talent that will take you to the next level. In some cases individuals grow with a startup, expanding their skill sets, adapting to the new level of engagement and embracing change. As we have scaled the team at HireVue, we have purposefully promoted a development culture to ensure that the individuals who want to embrace the next level have the support, resources and opportunities to do so. Scaling requires making the tough decisions to get the right people in the right seats for the next leg of the journey.

In the most efficient and effective way  Scaling also means investing in the resources, tools and processes to leverage the talent you have in the most effective ways possible. Again, scale isn’t about simply adding more headcount but getting that headcount working on the right things efficiently. At HireVue our team has grown, which is great. But we have also been laser focused on driving scale. To do this we have developed a structured methodology for implementations and change management (we call it “Change Influence”), and established a process for measuring and managing customers to success through product adoption. We have spent time creating direct accountability for product adoption, customer satisfaction and retention for the Customer Success Managers and have enabled them with tools like executive scorecards, quarterly business reviews, lifecycle maps, recommendations and customer health indexes. These and the many other projects we have been driving were, and continue to be, an investment in the team that is helping us scale by driving additional contributions from the existing headcount.

Scaling a startup is hard work. It is the critical element in taking the business to the next level but it involves difficult people decisions and the often unglamorous work of building tools and processes and leading the team to work at the next level. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

5 Tips for Managing Customer Churn

"I got my first real six-string, bought it at the five-and-dime. Played it 'til my fingers bled, it was the summer of '69. Me and some guys from school, had a band and we tried real hard. Jimmy quit, Jody got married, I should have known we'd never get far."

I should have known! Actually I did know. Jimmy was never really that committed to the band. He wouldn't show up to practice, he never completed his action items and when we had the quarterly business review he was busy checking his email. And Jody, well Jody's goals were never really aligned with the project. Sure she was successful in the last three bands she was a part of, everyone liked Jody, but those bands never really took off. I knew Jody was going to flake when we had our kick off meeting and she was more interested in who we knew than establishing clear project objectives with measurable outcomes. We tried real hard… but I should have known.

In Customer Success we often do know. That deal that was signed in the last days of the quarter without proper scoping, a sponsor who moves from organization to organization before anything is really ever done, the deal that got signed despite the lack of clarity on whether the product does what the customer wants... these all point to risk that the account is going to churn. Risk comes from a lot of different sources but it is seldom a surprise. Some accounts we can turn around, get back on track and save, while others, well, we can try real hard. Over the last 10 years of managing customers and Customer Success teams I have been exposed to a wide variety of customer risk factors. In a high percentage of the cases we were able to keep the band together but sometimes it wasn't meant to be. "Oh when I look back now…" there are a few things that I have learned that help manage churn.

Use the fire alarm sparingly  To successfully manage risk you need to differentiate what constitutes a risk of churn and what is noise. In any account there are going to be issues. The customer wants a new feature we can't deliver, the system didn't work as expected because it was raining last week, the customer doesn't have the budget to invest at the same level despite great ROI and success with the product, etc. Issues are important and the team has to be geared to proactively identify and mitigate these issues before they escalate. But not all issues run the risk of creating account churn. Understanding the difference between account noise and contract negotiation tactics will enable your team to focus on where the risk really is.

Go after root cause  Managing risk reactively can quickly become an all consuming job. You can build a team that is great at the diving catch in the last minutes of the game but that is not scalable. To effectively manage customer churn you have to dedicate time and resources to going after the root cause. Identifying and fixing root cause issues can be painful, create some difficult conversations internally, and you aren't likely to win friends in the process, but it is a must-do activity if you are going to reduce account churn.

Talk it out  For years I have managed an "At Risk Meeting" where cross functional teams meet every other week to discuss at risk accounts. This has been a fantastic forum for customer success managers to discuss where they see risk in specific accounts and to discuss their specific plan for keeping everyone on the same sheet of music. Just as importantly, it highlighted for senior leadership what was happening in the business. One of my favorite leaders, Lars Dalgaard, told one of his executive new hires, "If you want to learn what is really happening in the business attend the at risk meeting." This was a fantastic endorsement of what can often be a painful discussion of facts that few really want to hear.

Leverage the team  One of the reasons the at risk meeting is so successful at mitigating risk is that it engages the broader team in the discussion. I continue to be surprised by the relationships and connections people have that we don't realize until we are talking about an account that is in trouble. "Oh, the COO is my brother-in-law… do you want me to schedule a meeting?" or, "If this is really important for saving this customer we could probably get it in the next release." Leveraging the entire team in the at risk program is the single most effective way I have found to drive a reduction in customer churn.

Follow the game plan  Mitigating risk is not an art. The same game plan you used last time is probably going to work the next time. Different people, personalities, or account problems may complicate the situation, but focusing on a plan that works will help drive consistent success. Arming your team with this plan, ensuring they know what levers to pull and when, and supporting them with resources are the keys to driving down your account churn and the resources required to manage your at risk program.

"Ain't no use in complainin', when you got a job to do." Managing customer risk is never going to be fun, but by focusing on the right actions you can effectively minimize the risk of churn and keep the band together.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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