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Designing for customer success.
James Young in conversation with Alison Holmlund

James Young, Principal

Alison Holmlund is the Vice President of Customer Success at Lookback, where she is responsible for all customer facing functions, from sales to customer support.

Listen to Alison and James discuss the importance of customer success to overall customer experience design and some of the ways this is achieved at Lookback.

Designing for Customer Success from Tangible on Vimeo.

James:
Hi, I’m James Young. I’m one of the principles of Tangible, a customer experience agency. I’ve always felt that a key part of customer experience strategy is customer success. I really believe that not enough companies pay enough attention to it, but to me, it’s one of the most important parts of the overall brand experience. And I’ve always said this and I always feel this, that I feel your brand is only as good as your customer success.

James:
I have an opportunity to talk with Alison Holmlund, who is the vice president of customer success at a exciting company called Lookback.

Alison:
I, as you mentioned, I’m the vice president of customer success at Lookback, and really, I’ve spent the majority of my career working at tech companies, helping them scale and grow, and currently, Lookback, which is a platform that really connects product teams, the people that are designing and building products, with the actual users, and we do this in a real-time, real context, real user fashion.

James:
So, the term customer success, it’s pretty relatively new on the scene as far as companies go, and I don’t think everybody defines it the same way. And so maybe you can explain your perspective on what is customer success, how you define it.

Alison:
To me, customer success is the idea that if you can make your customers successful for the long-term, then your business will be really healthy and will grow. And it really started with technology companies in the dawn of the subscription era, where instead of selling a bunch of software that may take years to install and configure and really start to use, we now have this business model that requires that your customers renew every year, and sometimes every month. And people started to pay attention to churn, and people started to say, “Hey, what do we need to do to make sure that all the good revenue that’s going into the bucket, so to speak, doesn’t leak out, and ideally, that that water line keeps going up.”

Alison:
And the interesting thing is, is when you look at especially like cloud technology, the numbers are, it may take two to three years to break even on a customer. So, meaning that, if it takes two or $3 of sales and marketing budget to acquire a dollar of recurring revenue, you better keep that customer for two or three years and beyond in order to just be a profitable business. So, as a result, you’ve seen this excitement around stopping churn, but now it’s really shifted from just stopping and preventing churn to, if we take care of our customers and make them successful, they’re going to invest more with us, which means expansion and upsell, but it also, with the dawn of social media and just mobility, our customers are becoming a megaphone for us, right? When you buy a product, James, you go online and you read reviews. I always start my Amazon list by average customer review, right? So, we’re now, in a sense, giving a megaphone to our customers to broadcast to the world how good or how bad a product or service is.

James:
Yeah, that’s really true. I think that makes a lot of sense actually. Two or $3 to gain $1 of recurring revenue, I mean, I didn’t know that. That’s pretty huge. And I have seen companies, I’ve heard of companies, I’ve worked for companies whereby they sell it, the product, and then too often, nobody touches them or reaches out to them until all of a sudden three years later, it’s subscription day, and then they swarm in with all the, “Here’s what you did, here’s what we did for you,” and all that data. And that just seems inane to me. It’s like, that really isn’t true relationship building.

James:
I mean, I do know from my business, it’s easier and it’s more fluid to keep those customers I already have, right, and it’s really hard for me to get new customers. That’s where the effort is, so it makes sense.

Alison:
You touched on an interesting point, which is the importance of getting your customer off on the right foot in the beginning, and when I look at churn data, or I look at reasons why customers moved away, swooping in in the last moment to try to convince them to renew, first of all, it’s expensive, right? That’s a very high touch, “Bring in all the execs and show them some love,” but it’s not very genuine and customers don’t appreciate that, and usually, they don’t respond well to it. You’re much better off starting off on the right foot, giving them all the tools and resources that they need to be successful with you from the beginning, along the way, and hopefully, for a very long time.

Alison:
And that’s something that I say to my customers when I introduce myself, my team. I say, customer success actually starts before the customer decides to sign with us, because they want to know who is going to be taking care of me? Who’s going to be my point of contact? Who can I go to when I need to escalate issues? Who’s really partnering with me to make sure that this investment that I’ve made, that I’ve put my name on the line for… I mean, a lot of times, people will have to go and ask for budget and it’s their name that’s associated with this product or service, and if you let them down, it’s horrible for them, right? You’re hanging them out to dry, in a sense, so we want to do the opposite. That’s the goal.

James:
Yeah, and that’s interesting. And also the other point you made that I thought was really interesting is that you were saying that, in this day and age of fluidity of social media and word of mouth that is off the charts, I think there’s also an aspect to this that you think there’s got to be a way that… For example, I just know with my business that when people who love us and love working with, it’s a fluid workplace as well, so they go to another company. And what’s the first thing they do, is they call me. So, I imagine it’s the same kind of thing. It’s like, okay, if somebody will change jobs, and guess who they will bring with them if it’s a good relationship, and only if?

Alison:
Yes. It is so true. And in fact, as we’ve seen the average tenure of employees shorten and shorten, if the average is 18 months to two years, imagine how many different places someone can take your product, or not take it. I mean, there’s the flip side of that, right? Oftentimes you’ll hear that, “Oh, I had a bad experience with this product. We would never consider that.” Right? So, it’s absolutely critical that you focus on that customer success.

James:
So, I want to talk a little bit more with you, kind of back to more of the maybe the high level version of customer success, and I think that’s it, but is there kind of the nitty gritty of it? What are some of the components, if somebody was to say, “What are the components of it”?

Alison:
Yeah. It varies from organization to organization, but typically what we consider to be customer success, at least in the technology or cloud technology world, is owning the customer journey from the point at which they signed with you to renewal and beyond. So, it’s that whole post-sales life cycle. So, functions may include customer training, right? Which hopefully happens early on, teaching them how best to use the product, helping them get onboarded. So, professional services, any sort of tailored or special configurations for that customer. The other is customer support, right? It’s a product that won’t always do what it should do. Who do you go to when you need help? And then ongoing sales. So, renewals and upsell. Those tend to be the main components of a customer success organization.

Alison:
I think one of the interesting things that I’ve started to see come about is this concept of the customer journey and customer experience and where customer success is really starting to play a role in that. We are really the input for many people into what a customer or a user experiences. And so a lot of times I will have product teams, and product managers, designers, ask to interview me or get me in touch with a customer so that they can better understand what the experience is today and then map out what the ideal experience should be and then really tailor to meet those needs.

James:
You work for Lookback. Can you explain what Lookback does?

Alison:
As I mentioned, we are a platform that really connects the people that build and design products with the people that actually use them in a live real-time fashion. And it’s intimate. I can see where you’re clicking on your phone, or I can see exactly where you’re going on my website, I can see your face, I can see your reactions. And what this does is it really helps the people that are designing and building products to have empathy for what the users are experiencing, and it really allows them to build and innovate based on that user experience.

Alison:
And it’s interesting. So, at a previous company, I had some quantitative data that was really supporting some of the things that I was hearing from customers, but I was missing qualitative data. And let me just talk a little bit about this experience that I had and I wished, at that point, I had a platform like Lookback to help me.

Alison:
I would run a regular survey of our hundreds of customers, enterprise software customers, and I would ask a number of questions gauging their satisfaction with various services and our product, and one of the trends that I saw over a period of time was the number one thing that our customers wanted us to change was our product performance, meaning our product was just very, very slow and it was creating this poor customer experience. And I would talk to the developers, the product managers about this, and they saw the data for what it was, but it wasn’t something personal until I actually took one of our developers with me to sit side by side with a customer and look over their shoulder to watch how slow our product was performing for them. And at that point it was like the light bulb went off. And we raced back to the office, and he had this whole new appreciation for what our customers were struggling with from a product perspective.

Alison:
And so it was the marrying of the quantitative data that said, “This isn’t just one customer that’s having this problem, it’s hundreds of customers that are asking for this to be fixed,” married with that real-time, real life example that gave the right empathy to go and make it better.

James:
Yeah, I’ve loved doing that as well when we do kind of audits or research along those same lines. If I can capture some really awkward moment, even in customer success, where they’re having a problem, they can’t find it, it’s not working, and it’s painful to watch them in that, “what should I do? Do you think I should call customer support or you do what you think?” And then we record them waiting online for 15 minutes. And I’ve done that before where I’ve been in with execs and I’m like, “Well, just watch this for a while. Let’s just all experience the pain.”

Alison:
Right. And it’s one thing to say it, but it’s another to actually see it live. It’s a whole nother level of appreciation that you develop for the user.

James:
Yeah. That’s great. And it’s great that you have that, where you can watch them, you can look at them, because suddenly, they become real people with real lives and real things that they need to do when they go home at the end of the day. They’re not just a meal ticket. So, that makes sense to me. No, that’s great.

Alison:
Yeah. And I was just going to mention that when I heard about Lookback and the functionality in the platform, that was when… Because I’ve been in a number of different companies my whole career, and now at a point where it’s like, “I want to work at a place where I really believe in what they’re doing and can help me in my job in leading the customer success team.”

James:
What are specific ways that you could see other companies improving customer success with Lookback? How would you suggest? I mean, I think this is interesting because it’s a powerful qualitative tool to get to know your customer, to gain empathy. How would you suggest some practical ways they use it? Maybe, how do you use it?

Alison:
Yeah. I think one of the biggest challenges that companies have today is connecting the user of the product with the people that are actually building it. There’s this huge divide and huge disconnect. And the more that you can leverage technology to bring those two together, first of all, the better you’re going to understand your customer and your users, and the faster you’re going to be able to test out ideas, and the quicker you’re going to be able to confirm which direction to go, right? So, when it comes to new product functionality, new features that you’re considering, to have that qualitative feedback will really allow you to, either continue down that path or go in a different direction, fail fast, and try something different.

Alison:
One of the things that I’m trying to do in my role at Lookback is to leave behind all of the things that were kind of in my customer success playbook from previous jobs and start with what is known as a beginner’s mind. So, be open. Don’t come with a lot of preconceptions, right? Be eager to learn and to iterate based on what you’re learning. Don’t bring any assumptions about what your customer’s challenges are, instead, try to do as much research, and if you have data that you can look at, if you can go through old support tickets, things like that that can really help frame your new position and your new challenges.

Alison:
And one of the things that I’m working on is our new onboarding program. One of the most important things is to make sure that customers have what they need to be successful early on so that they can adopt the platform quickly and find quick time to value. That’s really important because that will then predict their long-term value with you. So, that beginning time of a customer is really critical. And so what I’ve done with the onboarding program is to take one customer and try out a hypothesis for how the onboarding experience should be, and then let them know, “Hey, you’re an experiment, and I have a hypothesis of what you need in this onboarding time, but I’m going to iterate it and tweak it based on your feedback.”

Alison:
So, it’s become a very conversational exercise. And I took a friendly customer, they’re a new customer, but they were very friendly throughout the sales cycle, and they were more than willing to participate. And to be honest, many of the things that I hypothesized early on were true, but there were a number of things that proved to be different than what I expected. So, I think it’s important that you have an open mind and that you’re willing to change based on what you’re hearing from your customer, which is what I’m doing in this case.

James:
That’s interesting. I would actually imagine, personally, I would appreciate that if somebody came to me and said that, like, “I have a hypothesis. I want to test it with you. I trust you. Let’s go through this, and know that you’re part of something that is innovative, in a sense, is new.” And you’re valuing me to be honest with me about that. That makes a whole lot of sense. That would actually engage me personally a lot.

James:
And I like that it’s a theme out there that everybody is talking about, but time to value is now the new important thing, and I think that’s a good theme. And I like the fact that in customer success, you’re thinking that through. What is the time to value kind of point of innovation? I don’t know how you feel about this, but I think there’s a whole lot of room in many… Especially software or SaaS, where time to value is so long, and onboarding is so painful. I think that that’s really the way to think about it. Where could we innovate? Where could we shave off one day of an onboarding process? And then keep on working through that, and testing that, and experimenting, really, what you’re doing. You’re running experiments, so that’s fantastic.

Alison:
Yeah. I think in addition to that is finding a quick win too. How can they have that aha moment where they really see the potential of your product in a very quick manner? And it’s especially important now that many companies have a monthly recurring model where you subscribe month to month. And because switching costs these days are so low, it’s very easy to just say, “This isn’t intuitive to me. I don’t get this. I don’t understand how to use this. I’m going to go research who their competitors are and switch.” Right? So, that’s why it’s so critical that that light bulb goes on early on, because then you’ve got them and then you can really start to build off of that.

James:
I like your idea and I like the quick win. That resonated to me. Get that quick win or two, and focus on that with them. It’s the same way with even consumer software, right? If I’m going to get you onboarded to something, I’ve got to give you quick value right up front, where you say, “Oh, I see this, I see how this helped me a little bit.” And there’s more behind that and more to come, but it’s that quick win. So, that makes 100% sense. And I think even in enterprise software, I would imagine that the quick win would even still be very potent. How do you show that value sooner than three years from now?

Alison:
Right. And what’s interesting is that at the core of this is the product, right? I mean, so much of the customer experience is the product, and if the product isn’t performing well, it’s not intuitive, the user can’t adopt it on their own, they have to read some manual. And this is where I think qualitative research can really be powerful because you can very quickly see where users are struggling and then change, and then try out a new user experience. Right.

James:
Right. That’s great. So, here’s another question. Back to customer experience. I feel that trust is a huge motivator for users and a good customer experience. Can you kind of talk about how that affects customer success?

Alison:
Trust is the bedrock of customer success, in my opinion, and trust can mean so many different things. There are so many different elements of trust. Trust can be that I as a customer success manager, I’m going to start the meeting on time and I take good notes and follow up, right? That is building trust. Trust is also that the product is reliable, right? That when your customer needs that product to submit their reports for year end or perform that research or what have you, that it’s fast, and it’s stable, and that they can use it, right? Trust is also setting expectations and making sure that you’re under committing and over-delivering, right? It’s their interaction with your accounting team, right? Like when the customer has to pay, what is that experience like and can you rely on that to be a good experience? Right?

Alison:
So, trust I see is like the foundation, and then from there, you can really build a great customer experience. And I think what’s tough is there are so many opportunities to break trust, and when you do, it’s very, very difficult to rebuild. So, you have to view every opportunity as one in which you continuously builds on that trust.

James:
Yeah. And I would imagine just like if you’re a successful team, you may not even be a big team, but you just need to look at every single point of touchpoint with them and ask that question. Are we building value? Are we building trust?

James:
You mentioned that I thought was interesting, which is your accounting team. And it’s kind of like, well, accounting team is not part of customer success. What are you talking about? They have nothing to do with customer success, right? So, how do you get your organizations and departments on the same page about customer experience, and in organizations, how do you get them to see the value of it, see their role in it?

Alison:
Right. Well, first I want to touch on something that you said, which I thought was interesting. Customer success is not just a department that is on the front lines with customers, customer success and customer experience are every touch point that you have with a customer, and every touch point is an opportunity for you to, not just build trust, but also more loyalty with that customer and more desire for them to continue to partner with you. And that starts from the cold call that an SDR may make into your organization, right? Were they nice and respectful of your time or were they cheesy and trying to push product down your throat that you don’t need, right? It’s the interactions with the person who’s invoicing you, right? What is that interaction and what is that experience like?

Alison:
And I think it’s important to note that it’s not just your product, or it’s not just the people that are on the front lines, it’s every touch point that you have creates the customer experience, and therefore, your brand, their perception of you and the things that they’re going to say out in the market.

Alison:
So, your question is a good one. How can you get other parts of the organization to really be more customer centric? I would say, at some companies, it’s easier than others. Some companies really have it in their DNA, right? And I’ve been fortunate enough to work at some of those customer organizations where there is an executive at the seat of the table that’s really promoting customer success. But in those organizations where it may not be in their DNA, I mean, it can be kind of a tricky thing. You don’t want to be seen as the person that’s the voice of the customer that’s always shouting about the things that need to be fixed, right? Because then, people will become desensitized to that.

Alison:
So, what I’ve seen work well is earning trust within the organization, to earn the right to heard, to share what some of those customer experiences are, and that’s a really good starting point. I’ve joked that some of the ways in which I’ve helped other parts of the organization be customer centric is I will invite an engineer to come to a customer meeting with me, and that is just a very quick and easy way to give them exposure into what are our customers are experiencing with our products and services.

Alison:
Another thing that I’ve done is any time I hire a new employee on my team, I have them start in support. So, even if they’re going to be a customer success manager, or an onboarding specialist, let’s gain an appreciation for what our customers are challenged with. And at a couple of the companies where I’ve worked, that has become a widely adopted approach. So, you hire a new engineer, they start in support for two weeks, and that gives them that empathy and really creates that appreciation for how the product is being used.

James:
That’s interesting. And you can even take that to the extreme, like have the accounting departments sit down with the customer and explain the bill that they get every month or whatever quarter, or get the questions that they have around that bill. That’s interesting.

Alison:
Right. One of my customers is doing an interesting thing using our technology, and they call them ride alongs. So, every person within the organization means to ride along in a user research session from the CEO down, and it really is instilling in their organization, this appreciation and regard for what they’re building. And I think that’s another great way, is yes, use quantitative data to show what customers experience, see trends, but once again, marrying that qualitative to really help people become more customer centric.

James:
You’ve mentioned to me, and I think this is really interesting that you said, basically, you didn’t take this job or take the jobs you’ve had to be the chief apology officer.

Alison:
That is a reflection of a lack of customer centricity, to be honest with you. If you really are designing and building and innovating your product based on the customer, you won’t have to be apologizing all the time for the product not working right, or not being intuitive and so on.

Alison:
Thankfully, a lot of customer success has evolved to the point of, not just putting out fires, but if we can be proactively engaging our customers and gathering feedback and understanding what it’s like to use our products on an ongoing basis, we can then share that with the broader teams to make better products, right? And what you’ve seen in customer success is this transformation of reacting and putting out fires to actually be in a really strategic part of the organization. If you look at most big companies, revenue, it’s not coming from new business, once you reach a certain maturity level, it’s coming from your recurring customers, right? And so I am excited about the world of customer success because it has become a role that’s really critical, not just for ongoing revenue and growing existing customer revenue, but really being that voice into how the product is being built and how it evolves over time.

James:
What are the top three or five pieces of advice or ways to improve your customer success that you would suggest to those out there that are listening?

Alison:
Number one, the golden rule usually applies to customer situations. This may sound a little silly, but oftentimes when my team members will ask me, “What should I do in this situation? What should I tell them? How should I handle this?” Put yourself in the customer’s shoes? What would you like to experience, or hear, or have done to you? I mean, this could be delivering bad news about a bug, it could be negotiating terms with a customer’s renewal, it could be telling them that you’re not going to implement their feedback because they’re the only customer that’s asking for that feature, right? If you can do it in a way in which you would like to hear it, I think that is something that can be a really good foundation for a lot of customer conversations and interactions. And that’s how you build trust, right? If you treat your customers the way you want to be treated, then they’re going to trust you, and they will have loyalty, and you’ll be able to build an ongoing long-term relationship.

Alison:
The second one I would say is… and I think we talked about this earlier, is that time to value, right? The quicker you can get that win, the quicker you can show them that they’ve made the right choice in choosing product, the better, right? The faster that you can have that light bulb go off for them, the longer the journey is going to be with them.

Alison:
The third I would say is this concept of a beginner’s mind, right? Being open to new things. Don’t bring with you a bunch of preconceived ideas or things that have worked well elsewhere. Really, be willing to listen and be open and starting with a blank slate, but then be smart, right? Take your ideas, test them out, see what works, fail fast, and iterate.

Alison:
I think that was number three. Number four, this idea that we talked about of really leveraging both quantitative data and qualitative data, right? If you just have qualitative data, you might have a blip, not a trend, right? But if you have solid evidence that you’re hearing certain things from your customers, combined with that real in-person, real experience of that user with your product, that will allow you to really make a difference in changing and improving your product. And that’s something that you can share with people across the entire organization.

James:
One of the ways you can explain this to them is, quantitative is the what, qualitative is the why. So, you can know what, you can know what they’re doing, but qualitative will tell you why, because quantitative won’t. It’s another way to think about it.

Alison:
Yeah. So, you asked for five, I would say the fifth is a basic one and should be in every customer success person’s daily life, but it’s talk to your customers. If you have a couple of days that go by and you haven’t picked up the phone or gotten on a video call with a customer, you are missing out, and chances are the other products in the market are doing that and they’re going to be innovating and improving faster than you are. So, talk to your customers. That will help you create empathy for what they’re experiencing. It’ll allow you to quickly make changes, and make improvements, and evolve, and repeat that process.

James:
And I also think that’s important to the relationship building, trust building portion of it, if they keep hearing from you.

Alison:
Right. The thing I would add to that too, is don’t just keep that information to yourself. Find ways to share what you heard from the customer with the rest of the organization. Find ways in which it really can be shared in a way in which it’s accepted and embraced, because that’s the critical thing. You don’t want to be just sending out reports that nobody reads, right? Find ways in which you can share these insights that you’re gleaning from these customer conversations so that they can make an impact on the decisions that are being made about the future of the product.

James:
So, Alison, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our audience, and it’s been great hearing about your perspective on customer success. I really do think it’s one of the more important things that companies need to focus on and it’s one of the bigger parts of customer experience. So, I’m so glad I was able to talk to you about that.

Alison:
Thanks for having me. It’s been fun.