May 5, 2020

Advice for quickly advancing in Customer Success, from one of the valley's rising stars

Brook Perry By Brook Perry
Director of Marketing at Nuffsaid
career-advice-customer-success-managers

Every Customer Success organization needs to hire for potential and skill. There simply isn’t enough history behind the function for experience to match demand.

That means most Success leaders designed their own careers—and Carta’s Kristina Valkanoff is one of the exemplars.

 

Valkanoff has scaled world-class Customer Success, Implementation, and Support teams for more than a decade. She was an early employee at DemandTec from its early days clear through its IPO and subsequent acquisition by IBM. She then led Customer Success at companies like Lithium Technologies, MOVE Guides, and Webgility, Inc. Now she’s the Head of Customer Success at Carta—and while she acknowledges the fortune in her meteoric career, she also recognizes the importance of custom-built skill and strategy.

 

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Valkanoff says. “You want to see a sparring match? Go to a CS event, drop that little nugget of ‘what’s the right way to structure a career in Customer Success,’ and watch people go bananas.  Everyone has a different idea of the ‘right’ answer is.”

 

Still, motivated Success leaders and aspirational CSMs alike can learn much from Valkanoff’s path. She consistently drives recurring revenue growth, low churn, and high client satisfaction—but her advice on building a career focuses inward, on what you can make of yourself and your team.

 

In this exclusive interview, Valkanoff offers advice on establishing a career in Customer Success and making the transition to lead and define Success organizations, and she shares where she sees the function of Customer Success heading. 

Advice for a high-growth career in Success

After nine years at Demandtec, Valkanoff joined Lithium and moved into a management role as Director of Customer Success. Since then, she’s continued to move rapidly up management levels to VP and Head of CS. For others who are aiming for a high-growth career trajectory, here’s her advice for making smart career moves. 

 

Follow the call of your own curiosity 

Customer Success, at least as long it’s been going by that name, is a relatively young function. Success leaders are still exploring different models and playbooks; in a sense, the function is still defining itself. This makes it a reliable path for ambitious people who want to quickly advance in their careers and help define the role of Customer Success. This is especially true in startups. 

 

“A lot of people join early-stage companies because you get to define your role and wear a lot of different hats; I was lucky to stumble into an early-stage company that did exceptionally well.  Through that experience I met a lot of phenomenal people, both at the IC and executive level” Valkanoff says.

 

She joined the startup DemandTec early in her career, long before it was acquired. She joined as an analyst, worked on training customers, then moved into Implementation (back when Implementation required six to eight months of time on-site with customers) and finally into Customer Success - back when the industry was very new. Valkanoff thrived in this environment where she had a wide range of responsibilities—and where she was able to define her role in a company that didn’t yet have strictly outlined areas of ownership. 

 

“I got to be the one figuring out what our team’s post-sales, flat-fee account management support looked like at big Fortune 500 companies,” Valkanoff says. “That’s where I came of age from a career perspective.”

Your network is a powerful tool. Learn to wield it

Valkanoff learned early on that knowing the right people wouldn’t advance her career by itself.

 “Almost every role I’ve taken on happened through my network. But I had to pick up the phone.”

“Almost every role I’ve taken on happened through my network,” she says. “But I had to pick up the phone.”

 

She has continued to seek out those early-stage companies for the same reasons she started out in one. But as she progressed in her career, she knew people she could contact—the same people who were already well familiar with her work.

 

For instance, the CFO at DemandTec went on to become the CFO at Lithium. He did not call and offer Valkanoff a job, although when she reached out he was extremely accommodating. She had to spend the time and effort to thoughtfully reach out to her network. Her networking alone did not open up new opportunities for her. Instead, she researched this new company, decided it aligned with her interests and values, and then happened to ping him right when the company was starting to spin up a true CS role. She was one of the first hires in that function and she got to participate in its growth from 0 to 26 CSMs in less than two years—all because she took that initiative.

 

Be dedicated to progress in every stage of your career

Growth doesn’t just happen when transitioning into a new role; CSMs should be looking for ways to develop their skills where they are now. It took me some time to really understand that you have to go after what you want - nobody is going to hand it to you - this is an especially important lesson for women in tech to learn”, she says.  However, there are a few different “moves” someone in Success can make to position themselves well for career growth.

 

Valkanoff cut her teeth with big-name customers like Safeway and Kraft early in her role as an IC, and she recommends that other CSMs—even those who are managing customers a fraction of that size—develop the skills to handle larger and more strategic accounts. Here are her tips on how CSMs can do that: 

 

  • The CSM should spend time to truly understand what would make each customer successful with their product - and prioritize their efforts to support that.  True success and outcome planning is so critical, and CSMs are best positioned to take this task on.  When done well, the results speak for themselves; you’ll have a happy, referenceable customer that becomes a champion for your business.
  • They should learn how different types of customers—different levels in a company, and different industries—use the product, and be able to share best practices and lead strategy sessions with customers; everyone wants to know how they measure up to their peers and how to stay current on what other companies are doing.
  • They should practice what it means to be a customer champion; listen to what your customers are asking for and find ways to help position their requests in a way that can influence your product roadmap; doing this well positions CSMs as strategic advisors and a trusted partner, and is a great foundation for developing Voice of Customer programs 
  • Or, CSMs can also explore the management path. To do this, they can train new hires to practice coaching and your ability to transfer knowledge, and practice setting direction for the team by running meetings or leading specific projects. 

 

These skills will help a more junior CSM graduate into a role that requires them to build strong relationships while providing their expertise and guidance, thus positioning themselves well for career growth. 

 

Working at a higher level 

While in some fields like Sales or Marketing the saying is “the best individual contributors don’t make the best managers,” but that’s not necessarily true in Success: the best CSMs often do make excellent managers. Great CSMs are patient, helpful, and have a coaching mindset—all traits that make for a good manager. 

 

With that said, moving from the individual contributor role into management can be a drastic mindset shift. Management is less about great performance as an individual contributor and more about the ability to shape the function, define processes, set goals for the team and motivate people to stretch to achieve those goals.  It helps to have great role models and mentors to model after.

 

Valkanoff identifies these strategies for honing and steering a Success organization toward continued progress and growth.

 

Define what Customer Success owns 

Leadership roles extend beyond the CSM purview of helping customers reach their objectives. CS leaders must develop processes and set the strategy and vision for the team and organize the team and the rest of the company around this vision. Since Customer Success is still evolving as a function, Success leaders and their peers need to determine what the function owns and how it’s structured. 

 

When Valkanoff first joined Carta, Customer Success sat in the Operations org, reporting to the COO. That placement (rather than in, say, Sales or on its own reporting to the CEO) shaped how she built and scaled the team, its infrastructure, and its strategy. “We focused entirely on retention, engagement, and customer health,” she says.

 

That focus extends through all layers of Carta’s Customer Success organization. Valkanoff says that because Carta has so many customers (and different types of customers), the way they structured post-sales support is by having an SMB and mid-market account management team that’s quota-based. Then there’s a smaller group of more tenured folks focused on “late-stage private” companies (formerly known internally as the “enterprise” tier). 

 

But the different scales and strategies don’t shift the ultimate focus for CSMs; the entire Success org is focused on retention, engagement, and customer health. 

 

Improve operations as early as possible

Valkanoff led several important initiatives upon starting at Carta. Two of the most foundational were building out a customer health score and remapping their customer journey. These strategic initiatives required months to design and implement. But Valkanoff says these initiatives have revamped how the Success organization works.

 

  1. Valkanoff and her team revamped their customer health score. “When I first joined, the team wasn’t using a CRM and they were managing information about customers in spreadsheets,” she says. “One of the first initiatives I took on was to build out a true reflection of customer health, so it was important for me to include a mix of both qualitative and quantitative. I pushed forward with the top four to five product engagement metrics and incorporated that information with qualitative customer data like CSAT, CES, and NPS. That’s how we built our first version of our customer health score, and the results have been hugely helpful for the team to manage renewals.  And now, we are looking at converging this with our churn prediction model.”
  2. They remapped their customer journey. “Journey mapping tends to be more on an Ops function than traditional CS, but at Carta we approached it in a unique way,” Valkanoff explains. “Rather than just drawing a few boxes with arrows on a chart and claiming that we’ve ‘mapped the customer journey’, we really took a deep dive and looked at the entire journey from every inbound and outbound interaction, each different customer profile, and every touchpoint that all of our different types of customers experience.  We also did this for our internal processes, paying close attention to handovers and transitions that often leave room for a loss of trust.  We looked at over 100 touchpoints across our customer base and really focused on how easy or difficult it was for our customers to engage with us.” 

 

Once the team had mapped out all the different touchpoints, they identified and documented all the pain points the different types of customers would have at various stages. Then, they created a playbook and prioritized each pain point at each stage, so that we had a prioritized list of items to knock out over the coming quarters.

 

“This was a challenging and time-intensive initiative,” she says. “But the output has been phenomenal. The journey map and revamped health score were critical, foundational efforts to everything—they’re the underpinnings of everything post-sales today.”

 

Keep it simple: Stick to the fundamentals of Success

Today’s CS leaders need to be very metrics and data-oriented. Valkanoff’s customer journey map and health score provide qualitative and quantitative insights to inform her team’s direction. She has no shortage of data at her fingertips—in fact, she recognizes how easily this much information can lead to analysis paralysis.

 

“Sometimes we’re guilty of trying to over-engineer things,” she says. “So I often try to go the opposite route. Let’s boil this down and focus on the basics here; this is the only way to truly ensure that you’re building a solid foundation upon which to scale. Sticking to the fundamentals of Customer Success is very important.” 

 

Ultimately, Success is about helping customers achieve their intended outcomes with the product. So as a leader, she needs to make sure her teams are paying attention to what customers are saying about their experience with our product and teams, and whether they feel like they’re accomplishing those. “It is so incredibly important to listen to your customers and make sure that success planning is a joint effort - not something done in isolation,” she says. “I want to know not just what the CSM decides ‘success’ means for a customer, but rather what do we, including the customer, jointly decide is the path to success? It should be a mutual decision -  it’s not enough for you to decide - you need insight from the people that are actually using your solution. That gets to the core of what we’re all trying to solve.”    

The future of the function: Success as a strategic revenue driver

As Customer Success leaders like Valkanoff continue to explore new models for their organizations, it’s nearly certain that the function will continue to grow in prominence and emerge with more defined structures and playbooks in the next five to ten years. Average salaries should continue to climb, and more companies will shift to understand Success as a growth engine, and that CS should move to the center of your organization. 

 

“I’ve heard this said before, that ‘CS leaders are the next Chief Revenue Officers,’” Valkanoff says. “I loved this when I first heard it!  No longer should CS be considered similar in nature to a reactive support function; the true value of proactive Customer Success as a growth engine is finally starting to take hold.  Personally I have indexed more heavily on the operational side, but I truly believe a focus on driving revenue and growth needs to be a part of every decision we make as CS leaders.  A maniacal focus on customer retention, growth and health with a customer-first approach is how to fulfill that prophecy and grow into Chief Revenue Officer roles”  

 

Valkanoff also believes there’s a playbook for enterprise sales. “There’s a playbook for what enterprise deals should look like in a B2B Enterprise model and I think there’s a real opportunity for Customer Success to follow suit; to put some traction and operational muscle behind that.  Sales and CS should be very closely aligned.”

 

On the other hand, she also sees hurdles for the function. Among them: the industry needs to drive toward putting Customer Success in the center of the organization, and having other functions and departments spoke off around that.  “After all, we are the voice of our customers, and without customers, where would any organization be?  For example, part of my role as a CS leader is to provide actionable insights to R&D that should inform the product strategy and roadmap.”

 

"Customer Success, being so close to the customer’s needs and experience, can and should be influencing the rest of the organization."

“We can drive the biggest value by championing our customers' needs and driving the product strategy and vision and roadmap,” Valkanoff says. “One of the most important functions of any Customer Success Department should be to provide actionable insights to R&D that should inform the product strategy and roadmap.”

Conclusion

Valkanoff offers these insights for people establishing a career in Customer Success and those making the transition to lead and define Success organizations:

  • Take charge of your early career. Working at early-stage companies allows you to build skills in different aspects of CS and to define your own approaches while building out fledgling programs. Networking is always key—but even the richest network requires you to take action to leverage it.  Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help when you really need it.  
  • Strong leaders work to shape their organizations, and their teams' culture. CS leaders adapt their teams much like CSMs work toward customer goals. They shape their org’s particular focus, prioritize initiatives that will improve outcomes, and always keep the fundamentals of CS at the fore of everything they do.  Valkanoff often speaks of her good fortune of working with amazing leaders over the years.  Take and emulate what you appreciate in a leader and pay it forward.
  • Customer Success as a function will continue to grow in prominence, becoming seen as a strategic driver of revenue and growth. This field will continue to evolve at the hands of those making their careers in it—and Valkanoff sees CS claiming an ever-larger share of influence in shaping strategy at the executive level.