“Customers will know that they can rely on us when things go wrong and that could be a deciding factor in them deciding to stay with us rather than go elsewhere.”
We were talking to Gemma Cipriani-Espineira about the reason she re-branded her support team as the department of Customer Love. Cipriani-Espineira was last week promoted from VP Customer Success to Chief Customer Officer at B2B scheduling software vendor Chili Piper. “We do scheduling and routing of meetings,” she clarified. “The meeting might be going through to a salesperson, account manager or a CSM. Our premise is, life is too short to spend time booking meetings.”
Cipirani-Espineira has been in SaaS customer success throughout her career, including in senior account director and VP Customer Success roles at Cision and Medallia respectively. She has had a front-row seat for the evolution of those roles during a period when B2B go-to-market has become less transactional and more focused on long-term customer engagement.
From account management to customer success
She looked back at her Cision days, which concluded in 2015. “Back then, there was no such thing as customer success; it was all very account manager, account director-focused.” She then moved to a London-based start-up, Decibel, to scale their client services practice. “It worked out that that meant taking a team from account management to customer success, building a team from the ground up.”
Joining Chili Piper, she found a few people doing a mixture of reactive support tickets and proactive onboarding and training. Again, she needed to build the team from the ground up.
Why this evolution from account management to customer success? “I think it’s the whole subscription model taking over the way that we do business now. Account management is an extension of sales — how much more money can you get out of customers? The focus is on the here and now, the deal, the renewal, the expansion. Customer success is more a notion that you’re not going to lose your customer just at that point of the contract; you can lose them at any point, because there’s more ability to move to different vendors. Most software is easily replaced now compared to the days when everything was on-prem. You need to build a team around helping customers, not just selling to them.”
Lifetime customer value is also important. “If they have a good experience with you once, and they move on to another role, they’re likely to carry you over with them. It’s a long-term view of the customer rather than a short-term view of the individual account.”
The cloud, SaaS, the subscription model — plus an environment which is making digital transformation mandatory — all come together then to support the concept of long-term customer success over transactional account management. Is there another step to be taken? After all, the B2B experience should surely be at least as good as the B2C experience, especially when B2B buyers, with the exception perhaps of real estate and very high luxury items, are making more expensive and more highly considered purchases.
Stepping up to customer love
“It’s about defining your purpose as a business,” she said, “something that makes people want to work with you beyond just the product and services side of things.” At Chili Piper, customer love starts with technical support. “It’s not the entirety of my team that’s now Customer Love, it’s the people who are the technical support agents.”
The initiative stemmed from a center of excellence program Cipriani-Espineira put in place at Chili Piper. “It’s a way of implementing best practices in a time of steep growth and change in the start-up world. It empowers individuals to go and research what the best companies are doing out there for their departments, and apply some of those learnings to how we can be improving in our own functions. Customer love was not a novel concept — it is something we learned from a company called Looker, now part of Google Cloud. What really clicked was that customer support at Chili Piper was already customer love.”
New name, new metrics
The re-branding as Customer Love went with a re-thinking of technical support and a move away from quantitative metrics like numbers of tickets. “We’ve taken a very different approach with our team. We build the headcount around availability to customers. We look at how many hours customers like to spend with the team. Often what they call in for help with is not what we end up resolving for them. Having that space to show that we love them by giving them time is another reason we decided to go with the re-brand.”
With technical support re-branded as the department Customer Love, where does that leave the rest of the customer success team? “Success managers, as we call them, are assigned to a customer from the moment they sign the contract. You have a dedicated success manager who will get you launched as quickly as possible, train your end users, measure how much you’re using the product in terms of adoption and utilization, and try to drive that number up. The customer success managers that we hire, we look for the same profile as the customers we’re working with; so people that have an interest in operations and in the integrations — like Salesforce, HubSpot and Marketo — that we work with.”
On the Customer Love side, Zendesk is the platform on which tickets can be raised, and a support agent responds to the ticket. “They’re not dedicated to a customer, they’re subject matter experts.”
A sense of community
The kinds of moves Chili Piper are making reflect, of course, not just passion, but hard-headed strategies to retain and please customers in the highly competitive SaaS space. Building community, like sharing love, may seem a quaint concept to apply to B2B, but it’s another increasingly widely-adopted strategy with a business purpose behind it.
“We have a very strong community of customers who will go to bat for us, not just giving feedback on product recommendations, but even talking to future investors. We don’t have an official community, but that is something we would like to launch in the new year. We have customer Slack groups and there’s tons of collaboration and peer-to-peer support.”
That kind of community engagement drives what Cipriani-Espineira refers to as “ticket deflection.” Every challenge resolved at a peer-to-peer level is one fewer ticket for the support team.
Where’s the ROI?
Building long-term relationships with customers and helping them with their challenges over months or even years is perhaps something which doesn’t generate immediate and obvious ROI. It’s key to have executive buy-in to the idea that the strategy nevertheless makes sense. “We’re fortunate to have that buy-in with Chili Piper, but in fact we have been able to make a very big impact in terms of ROI, not just through the concept of the department of Customer Love but through a number of other initiatives which have come out of the center of excellence program.”
One example: “We wanted to avoid customers coming to us with the same problems over and over again, or us making the same mistakes. We set up a monthly event in customer success and support called the FUC event.” Eff-up and Conclusion, she explained. Everyone on the team submits a mistake they’ve made — customer-facing or internal — and there’s a vote on the worst one. “Let’s fail fast and fail together.”
The results from a range of such initiatives include an 8% improvement on retention rates, a 23% improvement in dollar-based net expansion rate, a 36% reduction in time taken to onboard customers and a 91% increase in monthly active users. “It’s part of the reason for the promotion,” she laughed.