Customer Success is a field and career path that has been really taking off, particularly in Europe, over the past few years, and that is understandable with all of the new SaaS companies that are establishing themselves all around the world.
I got to speak with Sue Nabeth, owner of Success Track Enterprise - a customer success consulting company and one of the co-founders of Customer Success Europe, and pick her brain about her experiences in the business for 7+ years and some of the differences she sees between how customer success is done in the US versus the EU.She also provides insights and advice on what companies can do to help improve their customer success efforts.
Megan: I’m have to have you on [the podcast] because this will be a...interesting topic to talk about. So...you have your Customer Success in Europe foundation that you’ve started. But really, I want to talk first about how you got into Customer Success and what’s been your career path up until now.
Sue: Yes, well I’ve been in Customer Success for quite a few years, let’s say 7 something like that. But I was actually doing Customer Success without it actually being called Customer Success. I’ve had a variety of roles, all very client facing over my career, and I’ve always been very concerned with making sure my clients get value for their money.
And then...one of my roles was in a French [company]...and they had this slogan...that said “Driving distinction,” and I thought I like this moto...let’s do something where we really are “driving distinction.”
So at that time I had the idea of putting into place a whole new approach. Instead of we’re delivering...integrating software, like CRMs, MDMs and business intelligence, etc., was to really make sure that the clients who were integrating these software solutions that they were actually getting business outcomes. So I put into place this whole approach, which is really all the...ingredients of customer success, but at that time I didn’t call it that because at that time in France, 7 years ago, they had never even heard of customer success. So I was calling it the BBC, it had nothing to do with television...but it was an acronym meaning Boosting Business Change, and that’s what it was. So that’s how I got into customer success.
And then when I really had the hat of customer success I got hooked and thought yeah this is the career for me.
Megan: What was it like trying to pioneer that role? [Because] you didn’t know exactly what this what...you were having to create this from scratch. What was that experience like and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Sue: Yes, I mean...when you’re creating that kind of approach from scratch obviously it’s a change in the mindset. So I think, that’s one of the things I’ve observed in fact, that when people are trying to implement customer success it’s considered as something that’s parachuted onto the existing foundation. So whatever you’re trying to do in terms of generating revenue, generating business with the traditional roles of marketing and sales, for example, when customer success comes in it’s something that’s considered to be an add-on and in fact it’s not.
So the biggest challenge is to say it really is a corporate mindset and responsibility, so you really need to review those existing foundations and all the people who are involved in those existing foundations, so all the current roles, whether they be direct client facing roles or in the backstage. So everybody’s impacted...that’s what you have to do.
So the biggest challenge is changing the mindset internally, and then of course explaining to your clients what is the role of customer success. So there’s a lot of evangelization to do both internally and externally.
Megan: Yeah, and I think now it’s becoming more and more well-known, [customer success], so I think people are struggling a bit less about that...Can you tell us about your company Success Track Enterprise?
Sue: Yes, so Success Track Enterprise is a boutique consultancy company which I started in 2016, and basically it’s a niche company which helps recurring revenue companies, or any kind of company, in Europe to define and refine their customer success organization and program.
I’m obviously British as you can tell by my accent...but I’m based between Lisbon and Paris so my clients are based mainly in Europe. And I was inspired by the name Success Track Enterprise by Star Trek Enterprise. So I don’t know if you’re a fan of Star Trek and Captain Spock but I was always a fan of that program as a kid, and the slogan of that series was “Live long and prosper,” so my slogan for Success Track Enterprise is “Succeed long and prosper.” So that’s what I try to do to help my clients.
Megan: And when you’re coming in to help these clients, what’s one of the things you see is the most common that you’re needing to consult on? What’s the most common thing people could improve on...or that they’re missing out on?
Sue: I think that there are 4 main areas where there are common mistakes. And the first one, as I have said previously, it’s really with this add on - thinking that customer success is something that you parachute onto the existing organization. So...really it’s corporate wide, and you should really review the whole range of roles internally, and see how each of those roles is contributing to customer success, whether that be directly or indirectly. And make sure that there is a responsibility and that everybody knows what their contribution is towards customer success.
So that’s the first thing, and I think the second common thing is thinking customer success is a new fancy term for...support...so trying to camouflage the role of support, which of course is a very important role, but I think we really need to evangelize that customer success is different than the traditional support role, being proactive, etc.
And the other thing is probably holding hands too much with your clients, and not making clients accountable for their own success. I think sometimes there’s too much partnering of the clients - trying to do things that really they should be doing themselves. So I think right from the outset it should be communicated to the client that they are accountable for their own success. There’s often too much communication around the customer success team as this kind of superhero...when in fact the customer success team is there really to be in the wings of the stage, prompting the customer, coaching the customer, but the real star of the show is the customer. So they should be held accountable for their own show, they’re in the limelight and they’re the ones who are responsible for their own ROI.
And I think [the last one] is, I think customer success is often used as a gap compensation. So there could be gaps in the company like a product gap...maybe some kind of misalignment with the promise of what you’re offering, and often customer success is there to try and close this gap. So...you have to really align customer success across all the internal roles to avoid those gaps and the need to compensate.
Megan: Now I want to talk about Customer Success Europe...Tell us why you founded it with your co-founders and what the goals are with this?
Sue: I’m very honored to be working with the 4 co-founders...there’s Peter Lyon, Evin Conway, and Oonagh McCutcheon and we’re all fully involved in daytime jobs, this is something we do out of passion. We all met at events...customer success events in Europe...and we observed that this is an emerging movement of customer success in Europe. However, what we did [also] observe is that there is a gap...and we think that in Europe we need to make sure that customer success is really adapted for the local markets. So it’s not just a question of language is a question of culture, it’s a question of etiquette, and the speed and maturity which customer success is developing here.
So we wanted to provide events so that customer success leaders [and] professionals can get together and share and learn all the best practices which are emerging.
You know, customer success is not something which is taught in universities, in the business schools, we don’t have frameworks like you have in marketing and sales so it’s something which is really being built ground up. So this is why we give these [customer success professionals] the occasion to meet…
And our goals, we can summarize using the acronym SCALE, because we really want to scale customer success across Europe and adapt it for the European market. S [is] sharing...sharing the framework, sharing the best practices. The C is connecting, so providing the events either physical or online later on for professionals to connect and to network. The A is anticipation because we’re anticipating the trend of customer success in Europe...those are emerging so we want to monitor those and we want to benchmark what is happening. The L is learning - learning all the time. In customer success you can never learn enough so you should always be asking questions and learning all the time from each other. The E is...evangelization...so we’re evangelizing because there are so many different conceptions of what customer success is so our role is to help evangelize the gains of customer success throughout Europe.
Megan: Wonderful. Since the beginning what are some of the main differences you’ve seen between customer success in the US versus europe, and maybe where it’s going to be different in the future?
Sue: Well, I can’t pretend to know…[haha]...but when I’m talking with my American peers, and peers who’ve actually had the opportunity to work in customer success in both the US and Europe, generally they tell me there’s a 2 year gap in terms of maturity. And when you say Europe, of course, that’s a big thing as well because there are so many different countries, and differences in maturity across Europe itself. However, with this customer success Europe community we are very honored to have joined up with customer success association, which is run by Mikael Blaisdell, so we’re working together and one of the things we’re doing is benchmarking. So the CSA sent out a survey recently and the results of that survey will be able to better answer your question...so I’ll have to come back to you in a few months time.
However, I think we can say, very generally, that there is a difference in terms of the role of customer success because of the maturity gap. In the US I think that customer success professionals are more associated to the monetization, where as customer success here, in Europe, is very much so focused on adoption, creating added value which will contribute to that monetization, but in the US they in fact are accountable for monetization more. That’s one difference I think.
The other difference, I think, is the scaling and the automation aspect. So I think in the US they’re probably more automated, they have probably more of a low-touch approach through technology...whereas in Europe...there’s more of a high-touch approach [and] that comes down to more of the culture and relationship, and those kind of things.
And then a third aspect, that’s related to this scaling, is the investment in customer success platforms. So I think that customer success platforms are more widely used and there’s more investment already made in the US than there is yet here in Europe.
So I think what’s probably happening here is they’re probably waiting to see the ROI of those investments in customer success platforms before they actually take the step to invest themselves…
And the other thing, I think as well which is related to the maturity, are the best practices. For example, I remember doing an event once and we were talking about the health score and the health score is a best practice which is quite common in the US, whereas here in Europe it’s still not something which is part of the best practices. So those are just a few insights, and as soon as we get those survey results I’ll tell you a little bit more…
Megan: That’ll be fabulous, thank you. What are some areas of Europe you’re seeing are really booming right now?
Sue:For SaaS of course...it’s really booming in Paris. And they built the Station F, which you probably heard about as well, last year. It’s booming, it’s startups, it’s SaaS and it’s really exciting and Paris, of course, was nominated the European innovation city last year…
And there are other places, obviously, Amsterdam, Berlin, and I’m lucky enough to be here in Lisbon and that’s really starting to boom with the Mayor of Lisbon who has openly said that he wants Lisbon to be the next tech hub. So they’re certainly starting on the right path…
And then I think there are other cities [such as] London and Dublin, but where the companies there are more enterprise size companies...Salesforce, HubSpot, etc. So of course the customer success in those cities is probably more mature because of those hubs and those big tech companies.But I think that customer success is not only the fruit of the big companies, it’s also the fruit of the startups and that’s what’s so interesting as you can be a small startup, funded or not, and still have these wonderful ideas to innovate with customer success.
So you don’t necessarily have to be in a capital city, I know that in France there are lots of towns like Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Lyon...where there are lots of great startups, SaaS or not, and where customer success communities are emerging.
So I think the future of customer success is not just in SaaS - it was born with SaaS, of course, but I’m hearing more and more of other sectors like insurance, in retail, like real estate, tourism, media where they’re putting customer success teams into place. So it’s really exciting...to be on on the dawn of this new way of doing business.
Megan: It is very exciting. And I kind of want to go back to what you said about how culture influences the way we do customer success...and is that because customer success is so focused on relationships and building those...is that why culture affects it so much more? And how you relate to other people?
Sue: Yes I think so. I mean, for me, customer success...a lot of people think customer success and immediately relate that to technology...customer success equals SaaS, equals technology. And for me customer success is more about...the soft skills, the human aspects of change. Because when you’re implementing technology software it will obviously bring with that some kind of change and I think that’s the real challenge, that’s the part of the iceberg which you don’t see and it’s the biggest challenge -- dealing with humans, dealing with relationships. And I think when you’re doing customer success because you have maybe 100s, maybe 1000s of customers that’s the real challenge, and it’s to know how to interact, how to engage with your customer so that you know...how you’re going to deliver...through relationships, through the mind set, through you knowing what is the business etiquette, through you knowing what is their sense of humor, you know - all these very soft skills. And they’re just so different across Europe, and that’s one of the main points and the main challenges for doing customer success across Europe.
Because you can know you’re own software like the back of your hand...and that’s necessary of course, but what’s going to be really challenging is softer skills and how you orchestrate that with multi-teams across Europe.
Megan: Yeah, and I’m even thinking reading a customer from a culture that’s very different from yours you can get different indicators. So say maybe your indicators of and unhappy or an unsatisfied customer in one culture is different than the other. So that has to be challenging…
Sue: That’s a good example, I had that very example with an NPS...in certain countries you can give a score of 7 or 8 and that’s considered brilliant. Whereas other countries you can give 9 or 10 and that’s normal for them to give 9 or 10 because culturally...for example, in the US it’s normal to get high marks...whereas in France (right from schooling) if you get a mark of 18 or 17 out of 20 you’re considered a genius. And anybody who gets 20 out of 20 well they must be gods!
Megan: But, yeah that is interesting because how do you adjust for that...So I guess one thing I like to ask everyone is, what is your definition of customer success?
Sue: Ah right, that’s a good one. Well, for me, customer success is a corporate wide mindset and responsibility which adapts to ever evolving contexts, - both internal and external, to create added value and win-win growth for both clients and vendors alike.
Megan: And then one that I’d also want to ask you is, what advice would you give for younger companies...when they’re first starting out?
Sue: I would summarize that in 3 main points. I think the first would be to remain as agile as possible because when you’re starting out with customer success there are so many things to put into place and sometimes you might feel a little overwhelmed with all the different things, the organization aspects, all the internal and external processes, the data of course, and then the tools that are going to support all that…so you may feel a little bit overwhelmed at times. So I would advise to be as pragmatic as possible and adopt a very agile approach, build a backlog like you do with agile with all the methodology and things you need to put in place and prioritize them...just focus on those priorities and don’t try to do everything all at once.
Keep open-minded. Make sure that you’re listening externally what is happening to your clients and to their market…
The second I would also advise on...is learn. Just learn, learn, learn, learn all the time. And you can be a customer success leader and be really successful in one company and move to another company and learn all the time, because the context is different, the clients are different, it’s always different. So learn all the time, don’t be afraid to ask questions, be curious. Learn from you peers, join customer success communities, go to customer success events, learn from each other. And I think that’s a really great way of building up your own customer success organization at your company.
And there’s a third aspect as well...which is really try to become, as much as possible, an expert in the domain in which you are operating. So whatever you’re selling...you have to know really really well the domain in which your clients are operating and be an expert on that, so that you’re really providing added value to them all the time. The tool is just a tool, it’s a means to an end...but be a domain expert so that you’re like a coach to your clients so that every time you have engagements with your clients you’re providing added value to them. And of course they’re in a context which is moving all the time as well, so you have to be on your toes all the time to know what the domain is doing and how it’s moving. So read a lot about the domain and be on your toes all the time.
Megan: Those are 3 great points. Well thank you so much for doing this interview, Sue. It was fantastic speaking with you.
Sue: Thank you very much, Megan.