Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Surviving and Thriving in a Sales Culture - 6 Lessons from SuccessFactors' Dynamic Culture

“Everyone is in Sales.” I understand the point of this famous business quote but for many it is simply misleading. We are not all in Sales. Yes, we are all responsible for enabling Sales. Full stop. But Sales, capital S sales, is the role of the Sales Team. Customer Success Managers can often be confused by the difference in roles. I have repeatedly told my teams over the years, who often have deep engagement and occasional friction with Sales, that if you want to carry the bag and live by a quota, go for it. You can make more money. You can realize greater organizational recognition. You can go to Hawaii or the Caribbean for Club. But Sales is really hard work. Really hard work. From the outside it looks like bigger budgets, increased latitude, greater organization influence and recognition. From the inside, it’s stress, anxiety, pressure… It’s an all or nothing world. You either sell it or you don’t. And if you don’t for a quarter or two in a row you start over somewhere else. We are all responsible for enabling Sales, but we don’t all feel that pressure. 

In some organizations, that pressure to sell is felt more broadly than just the individual Sales rep. In organizations with a Sales driven culture, that pressure to succeed in selling is shared across teams. It creates the foundation of the organization’s values, relationships and operating model. I had the good fortune of working at SuccessFactors from about $10M to $300M+ in revenue, spanning the time from pre-IPO through IPO, and for a year after the acquisition by SAP. Throughout this incredible growth one thing remained consistently true. SuccessFactors was heavily influenced by a Sales culture. Led by Lars Dalgaard’s remarkable executive leadership and driven by Dave Yarnold, Greg Nash, Jay Larson, and Phil Carty, among others, SuccessFactors was led by a highly capable and influential Sales team. As a company we were passionate about customer success, we had a fantastic marketing team, and it was disruptive technology leading the market at the right time, but we were led by an incredible focus on winning the market through Sales. 

Over the course of the more than 8 years I spent with SuccessFactors in a variety of roles partnering with and enabling Sales through Professional Services, Strategic Consulting and Customer Success leadership, I learned (sometimes the hard way) that the following characteristics are critically important to not just surviving, but thriving in a Sales driven culture. 

Surviving in a Sales Culture

Your work must be connected to Sales outcomes 

To get and stay on the radar in a Sales driven culture, your role, regardless of what function you are in, must be connected to Sales outcomes in a clearly defined way. If you are in Professional Services that means supporting Sales calls while ensuring that customers realize quick time to value and become ready references. If you are in Finance it means the Sales team proactively partners with you to creatively price and negotiate deal terms. If you are in marketing it means leads, market awareness and compelling events that create the perception of market leadership and scale. There is little time and patience for talk that doesn’t drive opportunities or for process that doesn’t enable Sales execution. Surviving in a Sales driven culture starts with understanding this dynamic and ensuring that when Sales comes calling, your answer is "yes and ..." with a focus on making them, and by extension the company, successful. 

Slowing down the Sales process is a cardinal sin

I learned this lesson the hard way on several occasions. In Sales driven cultures there is an 8th deadly sin: slowing down the sales process. Whether you are in Professional Services and take too long to scope a project or can’t commit resources fast enough to meet the Sales Rep’s discussed timeline, or you are in Finance and require additional approvals on special pricing, slowing down the sales process is a sin in Sales driven cultures. You might be right about the process, the thoughtful approach to review and approval, but it’s not going to matter. It's about "points not yardage". 

Sales is paying your salary

A common frustration in many organizations is Sales compensation. It is hard for individuals without context on compensation structures to hear the rumors of outsized Sales pay days. Often the broader teams don’t connect the dots between the big deals that are paying the rent and their pay checks and the big Benz in the parking lot. Surviving in a Sales culture requires understanding that Sales is a hard job and the reps earn their big pay days through risk, hard work and persistence. To my earlier point, if you want the Sales pay day go take the Sales risks. Otherwise, to survive, accept that the sales team closing deals is going to make more money than you and you should be happy about that. They get paid, you get paid. Period. 

Thriving in a Sales Culture

Enable but don’t confuse your job with that of Selling

Sales meetings can be great. I have thoroughly enjoyed attending meetings with great salespeople like Dave Haskell, Payntner Higgins and Marty Pitkow. It is easy to get caught up in the energy of the moment and confuse your role with that of the Sales person. To thrive in a Sales driven culture you need to remember that the salesperson is playing long ball in a thoughtful and planned way and your job is to share your expertise, insights or project/product plan, not to close the deal. Often, junior resources get caught up in the moment and feel like they have something really valuable to say that will help land the deal for the rep. Well intentioned as it may be, it is often not helpful. Thriving in a Sales driven culture requires understanding your role and enabling the salesperson to do his/hers. 

Understand the Sales process is made up of incremental steps

This applies to every organization but is especially important in Sales driven cultures where the methodology of selling is fully baked and the Sales leaders are building on a proven model of success. Selling enterprise SaaS is hard work and deals take time to come together. Thriving in a Sales culture requires maintaining perspective and appreciation that while you may have quoted the services work a month ago, or helped the rep with a product discussion weeks ago, deals take time to come together. Sales is an incremental process of moving the ball down the field to put points on the board, not just taking hail mary after hail mary for the game winners. 

Coffee is [not just] for closers

One of things that I loved about the Sales culture of SuccessFactors was the shared success mentality. While the organization was biased toward Sales effectiveness and execution, success was shared. Coffee was not only for closers, but those individuals who supported, enabled and accelerated closing, whether that was the product team who helped innovate with the prospect and prioritized the critical features, or the support team proving their effectiveness with impromptu conference room calls to the support line. As Lars notes in his excellent post on Thoughts on Building Weatherproof Companies “A company that is truly grateful to the people in all of the constituencies it works with — investors, customers, partners, each other — will almost always be a great company and a great place to work.”

Every company has a distinct culture that defines the organization’s values, relationships and operating model. Often the culture of a company is not a deliberate choice but a reflection of the values of the Founders and early employees. Sales driven cultures can create an intensity that doesn’t exist in a Product or Engineering centric culture. It can be the cause for anxiety and frustration or it can be an intoxicating mix of growth fueled by deliberate and focused action. Surviving and thriving in these environments is dependent on your attitude and understanding and embracing the role you play. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

6 Characteristics of High Impact Customer Success - The Mover Mindset

I have been reading Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and thinking a lot about how the ideas apply to the role of Customer Success. The “growth mindset” she talks about is critically important to everyone, and especially those working in software startups today. Achieving success in the Customer Success function requires a growth mindset as a foundation, but it also requires something more. Labeling it the “Customer Success Mindset” is inaccurate (and a bit too cliche). It’s about more than customers and it’s about more than success. It is a mindset focused on harnessing the power of the organizations, both the customer’s and yours, to utilize the full potential of the people and realize the full potential of the software. To me, it’s about moving things forward. I’ll call it the Mover mindset. 

Over the last few years, Customer Success has evolved from the new must have function to an essential element in startup and scale up growth plans. Everyone now understands that new revenue growth alone isn’t sufficient to grow a business if churn and negative customer references create a counteracting force. The role of Customer Success is to not only minimize the negative forces, revenue churn being the most obvious, but to augment the positive forces of customer advocates, references and up sell revenue expansion. The Customer Success Manager’s role sits at the center of the organization and the more effectively they leverage the Mover mindset the more effectively they can affect this balance. Here are six characteristics of the Mover mindset that I look for when hiring, developing and growing Customer Success teams.


One of the most essential characteristics of great Customer Success Managers is passion. It is also one of the most difficult to identify, hire and develop. In the interviewing process it can be difficult to see through the typical answer of, “I really enjoy helping customers succeed,” to identify those individuals who can set aside their own ego to truly focus and thrive by helping the customer realize their potential. The success of Customers often goes hand in hand with the success of Customer Success Managers. But for those individuals who truly possess a passion for customer success the results play out differently. As difficult as it is to identify true passion during the interviewing process, it is even more difficult, if not impossible, to develop a passion for customer success in someone. 

I look for the passion in both obvious and subtle ways when interviewing and developing/coaching the teams that report to me. “I just launched a fantastic new campaign with Company X” suggests that the CSM is more focused on their role than the customers. “We just launched a fantastic new campaign with Customer X” suggests a good customer success partnership focus. “John at Customer X just launched a fantastic new campaign” shows the passion. It’s not about the CSM - I. It’s not about the partnership - We. It’s about the Customer - John - and his success. The connection to Our success as a team and company is obvious and to the individual with the passion for customer success it is important but secondary. 


The role of Customer Success Manager often sucks. It is deeply discouraging to reach out to your customer’s executive stakeholders with a well crafted, thoughtful - we spent an hour working on the wording - email and not get a response. It is depressing to work night and day to solve a key customer’s challenges, coax the organization to jump through hoops and negotiate a steep discount on pricing, even agree on a go-forward plan and then have them cancel and opt to go back to the old process. Sigh! 

Customer Success Managers who possess the Mover mindset don’t just deal with or manage through the negative aspects of the role but thrive on the challenges and opportunities that they create. This is a foundational element of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. It is also an essential element of the Mover mindset. Developing persistence in Customer Success Managers requires ensuring a continuous, persistent focus on ensuring they see the connection between input and output. Much like developing Sales reps who need to learn that X number of calls = Y number of conversations = Z number of opportunities, Customer Success Managers need to learn that engagement alone does not drive results. Consistent follow through and pulling the right levers to drive action and results does. And persistence in ensuring follow through is at the heart of the Mover mindset. 


Customer Success can be confused with consulting sometimes: when poorly executed, both can be summed up as hand waving. A CSM shows up to the big meeting. All of the stakeholders are there. This is about business value, driving outcomes and hitting the financial targets. The CSM has done their job and gotten everyone in the room ready talk about leveraging the software solution to drive the company’s success. Well developed slides are shown, relevant anecdotes about what the market and competitors are doing are shared and the meeting wraps up with handshakes and smiles. This was a really impactful meeting. Cue the crickets. 

All too often this is how the story ends. Ideas not execution. This is the moment of truth for software as a service. Does the conversation drive adoption. Everyone has a great idea. Every product is going to drive business outcomes in a way that the customer hasn’t imagined. No one shows up saying this is a nice to have, non-strategic point solution. As software as a service customers you will forgive us when we roll our eyes at your “next generation” “platform” to “drive business”. Customer Success Managers need to possess the discipline to deliver beyond the hand waving. CSMs need to understand that the meeting is only the first step and the customer’s success is dependent on them following up, guiding the actions, and providing the motivation, support and expertise to execute.


Understanding your customer’s challenges is a critical component of being a successful Customer Success Manager. One of the three pillars I frequently reference, subject matter expertise is essential if you are going to effectively guide your customer in the adoption of your product and achievement of the business outcomes. Empathy is something more than just understanding. The best Customer Success Managers I have worked with possess the skill set to not just understand but put themselves in the shoes of their customers when dealing with the challenges and issues. They fully appreciate how the customers feel about those challenges and engage with them in a way that demonstrates they want to impact not just the issue but the emotion that it causes the customer. 

Emotional Intelligence

Empathy is one essential element of the Mover mindset, but closely related is emotional intelligence. The CSM must be able to discern between his/her feelings and the customer’s feelings about a particularly challenging situation (empathy), but they must also be able to manage their own emotions in a way that enables them to effectively impact the situation (emotional intelligence). 

During my time as a Customer Success Manager I managed a number of Fortune 500 accounts valued at several hundred thousand to several million dollars in ACV. During phases of rapid growth the solution we had sold didn’t alway scale as quickly as the customer’s needs. In some cases, and anyone working in software will gasp, our product had bugs. In one particular situation our solution had failed in multiple consecutive months despite personal assurances from myself, the CEO and CTO of the company. Leading the call, for the third month in a row, prepared with explanations of why this month the issue was different than last month, required an incredibly high level of emotional intelligence. This is not a humble brag. I didn’t handle it well. But I learned a great deal about what not to say in that situation from both the customer and our CEO. Customer Success Managers need to learn about the fundamental aspects of  emotional intelligence, not as an academic topic, but as an essential element of the way they work. I don’t think you can put too much emphasis on this important characteristic.   


The Mover mindset is not complete without the willingness, desire and ambition to act, to just GSD (Get Shit Done). The Customer Success Managers who possess the Mover mindset exude this quality. They are the individuals in the organization looking for solutions to the big hairy problems, challenging the status quo and picking up and solving the small long standing friction issues that slow everyone down. The Mover mindset is not just about the ability to execute but the innate desire to try. 


Success in start ups and as high growth companies scale requires a growth mindset, and Carol Dweck has written an excellent book on this. But success in the Customer Success function also requires a Mover mindset, a combination of special skills and capabilities that are key to realizing the potential of the software, the customers and the CSM to move things forward.