I joined the startup ALAN as the Director of Customer Experience in August 2020, during a volatile time in SaaS due to the pandemic. The company needed someone to scale Customer Success and Customer Support—a role that the leadership team saw as a key strategic position within the company, being largely responsible for driving the adoption and growth of the ALAN platform.
I'dd already led and grown Customer Success teams from the ground up. So, by leaning on those past experiences, and on former colleagues, industry best practices, and the team at ALAN, I set up a 90-day plan to build the foundations of a robust CX org. Here’s how it went and what I’d recommend for others who are building out a CX team from scratch:
Day 0 - Research and Plan
There are a few things CX leaders building a new team need to learn before their first day: they need to know about the company’s culture, current processes, pain points, and the vision for the future—both for the company in general and more specifically with your department. Do your own research, but also set up time with the CEO, CFO, Head of HR, and all go-to-market department heads. (I was also fortunate to be joining a company that provided a suite of helpful resources for me to learn about the company and product.)
After researching and planning, we established these high-level goals for the next 90 days:
- Goal #1: Establish a basic framework for how to build the CSM team and assign clients, roles, and responsibilities
- Goal #2: Review all current processes of pre-onboarding, onboarding, ongoing interactions and propose where we can improve our Customer Success and Customer Support
- Goal #3: Determine what platform should be used for client management and what we could tweak, consolidate and even eliminate
- Goal #4: Map out the growth org chart for customer-facing departments (customer success and customer support)
Month 1 - Be a sponge
In order to meet all four of those high-level goals, I needed to learn some additional key aspects about my role, the company, and the team. I took notes and tracked conversations in an excel sheet about all of the following:
- Director of CX Role:
- Understand the 4Rs (role, responsibilities, results, requirements), internal and external expectations, and the long-term vision of the role
- Organizational Resources:
- Learn and understand the internal systems (software and SOPs), including what are the pros and cons of each system from my perspective and my team's
- SaaS Platform:
- What does the software do, what does the competition look like, what current resources are available?
- ALAN Clients:
- Who are our current clients and what are the successful characteristics and challenges they are facing?
- What does our ideal client avatar look like? How can we help our clients succeed and how do we bring in more of our ideal clients? — Note: This was a team effort with the CEO, Co-CEO, VP of Business Development, Product Manager, and CSM Lead.
- CX Team: Skills, opportunities, gaps
- Get to know each CX team member to learn about personalities and help me determine where we were doing well, where we could improve, and what gaps we had
- The CX team was responsible for support, implementation, CSM, training, community, and renewals/upsell
- Company and CX Metrics
- ALAN had overall revenue goals, so I focused on identifying the leading and lagging indicators to help hit our target. Note: We kept it simple to start. Leading indicators included Revenue performance, CX Engagement, and Marketing Engagement. And lagging indicators included our NPS Score and Testimonials. We used these to create a simple 5 out of 5 health score for clients, as well as a weekly Engagement Status to alert us to major changes in client status. I collected a detailed list of MANY CX metrics and identified if they were leading or lagging and picked these 5 to start.
Month 2 - Create a strategy and take action
After learning from all of the above, the team was ready to implement the initial plans: 1) Hire in sharp, hard-working team members to fill gaps in our Customer Success and Support teams, 2) Implement systems and processes to scale our efforts, and 3) Enhance communication both internally and externally. Here’s a more detailed look at how we took action on some of those learnings:
Acting on customer insights about the ideal client avatar
One of the most important findings during the “be a sponge” phase was when the strategic team identified that our ideal avatar was not a “revenue level,” but instead a psychographic. The partners who have had the most success with ALAN have all started with their businesses at different points, but they all had the same character traits and similar behaviors, including an entrepreneurial spirit and being open to change, and strong engagement with marketing, sales, and Success materials and calls.
With that insight about the behaviors of our most successful clients, we were able to revamp the onboarding process to avoid inundating new clients, involve more ALAN team members and resources, and provide opportunities to hold the clients accountable to self-learn and ask questions.
Implementing a SaaS platform
The company was using a CRM before I joined, but was using it for very basic tasks. We decided to implement a new CRM system and use it to support live chat, shared inboxes, marketing, sales, and the customer experience in one central location. I created a plan to implement the CRM team-by-team (breaking down the features we needed to implement by team) to avoid trying to boil the ocean. The implementation was a daunting task, but it was important to get the appropriate foundational elements in place so we could build and tweak them over time.
Enhancing communication both internally and externally
One of the things we found in Month 1 was that the customers that were least successful with us were the ones that didn’t have expectations set at the beginning. We realized we needed to engage clients earlier and on a more consistent basis, and we needed to extend the onboarding process to allow for more time to learn and get fully comfortable with the product.
Internally, it was important that we set up cross-departmental leadership meetings and remove some redundant meetings the team identified. I set up ongoing weekly check-ins with key stakeholders, the product manager and VP of Business Development. And as Sales ramped up, the CX team was instrumental in guiding the sales process in making sure expectations were set early with clients and ensuring a strong client fit prior to the deal being closed.
Month 3 - Refine and scale
Month 3’s focus was all about refining processes, removing manual efforts, and working towards growth. We were able to consolidate systems and remove redundancies. And as our client pool grew, we were able to hire smartly, but slowly, to ensure we could plan towards the future and support current needs. This allowed me to delegate to my incredible team sales, customer success, and customer support experts.
With the new team members in place, the CX leaders were able to dig in to projects, learn the new systems, and implement meaningful processes to allow our team to perform at top-of-license. I am so incredibly proud of the company, leadership, and the team I work with. We are in the middle of creating something great and I look forward to learning, growing, and helping our team succeed.
My final pieces of advice:
- Develop expectations and goals with the team to ensure buy-in
- Learn from the best and rely on your own experience - if it ain't broke, don't fix it
- Do the boring work – getting your hands dirty is often the best way to learn and help the team grow
- Delegate – leverage your best resources – your team
- Open the lines of communication – touch base with your team and key stakeholders from other departments to ensure a fluid customer experience
- Stay hungry and have humility – you won't always know the answers, but you can ultimately find the answers that “work best” for the team
This week's top resources:
How to Engage Executives at Your Key Accounts
Shari Johnston, Partner at Winning by Design, offers a quick and helpful framework for thinking about delivering compelling value to get executives to both join your calls and be engaged with the content.
All Customers Start in the Red
Here’s a podcast interview with Kristi Faltorusso, VP of Customer Success at IntelliShift. The 40-min interview covers a lot of ground, but overall I appreciated Kristi’s (healthy) approach to viewing customer health scores, not over-relying on lagging indicators, and focusing the team on getting customers to reach their desired outcomes.
Making Customer Feedback Your Superpower
Josef Trauner, CEO at Usersnap, makes the case for setting up a process for customer feedback to be heard company-wide. One thing he mentions in the post stuck out: “Inspire your team to believe in feedback.” Just as customer-facing teams will lose the motivation to collect customer feedback if Product doesn’t take action on it, Product will be less eager to learn more about customer needs if customer-facing teams aren’t painting the full picture behind each request. Simply implementing a process isn’t good enough, you have to regularly inspire people to follow it.
My Approach to 1:1s
Here’s a quick post that’s worth bookmarking and regularly referring back to. Marco Rogers, Senior Software Engineer at Mode (former Director of Eng at companies like Lever, Clover Health, and Yammer) outlines the high-level areas he aims to cover in 1:1s.
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