The Impact of Customer Success Before The Sale

This is an interview with Kia Puhm, Founder and CEO at K!A CX Consulting, on how Customer Success can get involved in the buyers journey and impact the sale before it happens. 

Welcome, Kia! Tell me a little bit about your consulting business and how you got there.

K!A CX Consulting is a strategic, advisory firm that helps companies accelerate growth through our customer-centric approach. The methodology used is based on my 23 years of experience in the software business, having built every post-sales function required to ensure that customers are successfully using technology—while making sure that it is done efficiently with the resources available.

With businesses moving to subscription-based revenue models, there's a huge demand in the market to figure out how to retain customers, expand revenue, and do it in the most scalable, cost-efficient, and sustainable manner. 

A quick look at your career path shows an impressive list of companies including Eloqua (Oracle), Intelex, and Day Software (Adobe). Why make the leap from these leadership roles to starting your own consultancy?

At this point in my career, I love to build out the strategy of where to take a company and accelerate growth. The next logical step was doing that in a more expanded and accelerated manner. Instead of being at one company and looking at the strategy and having a team to execute, I could do this in parallel across a lot of different companies.

I have had the great fortune to be at some amazing companies that were rapidly growing and were very forward-thinking in terms of Customer Success, making me an early frontierswoman in this space. Notably, Day Software, an enterprise content management company that is now Adobe Experience Cloud. That’s where I had my first role officially as Customer Success before Customer Success was even a term.

The CEO had me become the VP of Customer Satisfaction. The whole idea was to understand customers so well that he wouldn't need to bring in field sales reps to be selling to the installed base. Just by making them successful, we could continue our relationship with them and earn the right to upsell.

When I joined Eloqua, it was to innovate the customer experience because churn had become a significant threat to the business. We had to figure out how we were going to address it. It was Customer Success on steroids at a very early age when not many companies were even thinking about it.

In the space, there weren't many people out there talking Customer Success and that’s why I was continually asked for my expertise. So, that’s why I felt there was an opportunity in the market to go and try this out on my own.

"Companies need to operate in a customer-centric manner by aligning the people, process, and technology to support success through the entire journey."

What we wanted to talk to you about today is how Customer Success can have an impact before the sale. Let’s start by discussing when Customer Success should be entering the buyer's journey?

In order to answer that question, it's important for me to share my philosophy, based on my learning and experience on how I believe companies need to operate. I fundamentally believe that companies need to operate in a customer-centric manner, which means that they're aligning their people, process, and technology to support customers' success through the entire journey.

If you think of the customer journey as a proxy for the success path of your customers, then the objective is to understand what that journey is and what success looks like. Everyone involved in the journey should understand what prospects, (then customers,) need along the way in order to see success.

For me, it's not so much about a point in time when success should enter the buyer's journey, it's about understanding the buyer. Based on that understanding, It’s making sure the people that are best-suited to service those needs along the way are getting involved internally.

In some cases, there's no need for Customer Success to enter the buyer's journey directly because Sales and Marketing have it handled. In other cases, there may very well be a need for Customer Success because they're the ones that have the skills to satisfy the prospect’s needs.

What sort of value can Customer Success bring at the earlier stages of the buyer's journey, before the sale, that Sales and Marketing might be lacking?

I would counter this question with ‘what can Marketing and Sales not handle at the earlier stage, that it would prompt this type of question’?

The objective should not be to bring more people into the sales cycle, but to arm Sales and Marketing with the information they can provide to prospects to give them greater line-of-sight visibility as to what they can expect from this particular organization.

If Customer Success is required during the sales phase, then it may be to conduct a deeper dive into the subject matter or technology that Sales may not otherwise have expertise in.

So Customer Success should be involved behind-the-scenes in crafting the strategy of how customers travel through that buyer's journey so that customers are better served at each stage of the funnel?

What I'm advocating is that the company has a consistent story that's based on the successful journey of the company's customers.

You want a process that is efficient so that buyers not only have their expectations set properly—which always helps with adoption and retention—but that they have a seamless experience. Because what they've been told by Sales upfront is what they're going to experience post sales.

You mentioned the closed loop feedback circle between Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success requires a deep level of alignment and partnership. Do you have any suggestions of ways to make sure that all three teams are communicating and remain on the same page?

A customer-centric business model that is predicated on the customer journey helps to ensure partnership within the company. This is where everybody in the organization is aligned with providing that seamless adoption and ongoing usage experience versus thinking about their own individual roles.

The deeper level of alignment that you referred to is not about working harder to understand each other's role, it's about understanding what the customer needs are and which roles are best-suited to fulfill those needs. If everybody understands what will make the customer successful, then it starts to become obvious as to who is best-suited to help them.

"Just as a company is able to articulate what their value props are, they need to be just as articulate about what their customer journey looks like."

If a company's looking to get that deeper understanding of what’s needed at each stage, what sort of roles should be involved in looking at that process to decide what the customer needs at each stage?

It's a full cross-functional effort that requires buy-in from everyone. What I find effective is mapping out that customer journey from the customer's perspective.

Even before they are a customer and using your product, they're a prospect and starting to investigate how to solve a need. It's important to map that out, look at it from their experience, and then see where those critical moments are. What are your prospects trying to achieve?

Your company is selling a value proposition for the products and services it sells. You're making promises about certain things. Prospects are responding to those promises because it resonates with the needs that they have and they want to have those needs met. So just as a company has been able to articulate what those value props are, they need to be articulate about what that customer journey looks like.

I’ve had clients where the whole senior executive team participated in the strategic workshop on the customer journey and mapping it out. It starts to become a lot more apparent as to where all the various roles should be interacting and handing off to drive Customer Success when that happens.

When you first got into Customer Success, it wasn't even a department within a company. From your perspective, how has Customer Success changed from then to now?

It's been really interesting. We were a lot more company-centric in the past. We would be selling a product, talking about the product, educating in the product … everything was about the company or the product.

At any one point in time, we had a finite number of customers to interact with. It was all about the product onboarding, and you left the responsibility of figuring out how the application best-suited the customer's environment largely to the business users of the technology.

Over the years, we switched to a SaaS model which more or less prompted the birth of Customer Success. Vendors started to have interactions with everyone in various parts of the organization, not just with the technical folks. They were increasingly dealing with end business users that did not want to know anything about the technology; the nitty-gritty, “under the hood” details. They just want to know how they can “drive the car”.

Customer Success has become a business partner to customers helping them realize business outcomes and meeting with them regularly to have these types of conversations. For the role of Customer Success, this partnership is important for protecting subscription revenue and mitigating the risk of churn. The scale component also makes it that much more challenging in determining how to service an ever-increasing customer base.

Finally, there is this exponential rate of growth in terms of our expectations for technology because of our consumer experiences with apps and data. These experiences are changing wildly every day and we bring these expectations into our business environments.

These are all the challenges that are continually knocking at the Customer Success manager’s door and evolving the role of Customer Success in a really rapid manner.

"Thinking needs to change from executing tasks that need to be accomplished, to determining what accomplishments customers need to achieve."

With the rise of the SaaS model, and churn being such a big issue, how should we train and onboard reps so that they're successful in the current business landscape?

Reps should understand the entire customer journey so they’re not just focused on closing the deal, but also ensuring that the customer is set up to successfully achieve the value promised.

There's a tendency to outline a prescriptive enablement and onboarding program that is the company, not customer-centric. For Sales to follow a very well-defined process for closing a deal and giving them all the tools and plays to execute. We should strive for that because that allows for scale, efficiency, and repeatability.

What reps need to understand is a general framework of Customer Success so the account is set up to succeed after the deal is signed. They need to understand what makes customers successful, think from the customer’s perspective, and be prepared to work as a team with each other to deliver a seamless and value-added customer experience.

Companies should change their thinking from executing tasks that need to be accomplished, to determining what accomplishments customers need to achieve.

What are some must-have tools that you recommend to companies that are really useful?

There are so many tools out there that if you don't understand what you're trying to accomplish through your business, then it’s garbage in, garbage out. That’s why I advocate the importance of understanding the journey.

With that being said, a CRM that contains customer information is key. Being able to measure customer health, metrics, and the progress of customers through the journey is also critical.

Favorite resources:

Who is someone that we should go out and follow right now on social media?

Well, I want to keep building my following so I'm gonna have to say me.

You know what? I respect that answer, because I follow you and would have to agree. What would you say is your most used social platform?

Definitely LinkedIn.

What’s your favorite podcast?

I'd have to go with Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History.

A favorite book if you've got one?

I'm not sure I have a favorite one, but I guess my definite go-to business book is Jim Collins' ‘Good to Great’.

That leaves us for our famous last question: which is your favorite '90s dance song?

Yeah, this one is painful. The first one that comes to mind is ‘Everybody Dance Now’ by C+C Music Factory. I'm not sure that it's my favorite, but it’s the one I can think of right now so we’ll go with that.