Managing Customer Success with Third Party Vendors

Working with third party vendors to provide your customers with additional services is beneficial to you and the other vendor involved. It can do a lot from a sales perspective by helping to drive business to you and your partners business more quickly.

But in Customer Success we’re all about the relationship post-sales, and there is no reason to drop the ball on the customer relationship and success for either party.

The third party vendor relationship can be a challenging one to navigate when it comes to how to handle customers; when is it the third-party’s responsibility to step in? Who is the best contact for the customer when it comes to handling issues?

I talked to Violaine Yziquel, Director of Customer Success at Box, about it. She’s in the process of creating and testing out new processes to ensure that this relationship doesn’t sacrifice the customer’s success.

Meg: Before we get into the topic, please tell our listeners a bit about Box, and what you do there?

Violaine: Sure thing!

So Box is a cloud content management platform and its mission is to transform the way companies work, through digitizing their workplace and their business processes, and also by providing more and more intelligence in a security conscious and regulated environment.

Customer Success at Box aims at supporting this mission by inspiring and empowering customers to actually achieve this!

As for me, I joined Box in May 2017 and I run the whole Customer Success Management team in EMEA from London. CSM entails both high touch and low touch (i.e. at scale programs) and on top of that I am also responsible for post sales relationships with partners on a global scale. Leading this program has helped me better understand the partner ecosystem and the challenges associated with that - but we will talk about that in details a bit later.

The team is made of 16 CSMs at the moment, from 10 different nationalities, which makes a very diverse team.

My own mission - apart from inspiring and empowering customers - is to have a healthy base of customers as well as a strong and successful team here in EMEA

Meg: How did you find yourself working in Customer Success?

Violaine: I spent 8 years at Accenture, going from product to operations, mainly in a tech environment, with a strong appetite for digital transformation and business processes improvements.

I then decided that customer success was a great opportunity for me, as it actually connects the dots between functions - product, marketing, sales, customers etc., which is fantastic when you usually can only pick one. The beauty of CS to me is to be able to find interlocks between all of these areas, find broken processes, in terms of communication, documentation, etc., and fix them!

I could see this in action in a few start ups and mid size companies while I was working as a freelance [Customer Success professional]– so I could talk about scalability challenges, health framework complexity, a lot of areas where customer success can also make a difference.

As I am quite passionate about the future of CS, I am also now the co-founder of a CS community in EMEA – called Customer Success Network –and we are aiming at evangelizing around CS, helping to define CS best practices across Europe, and finding talents to make them grow! So I’m very passionate about customer success as you can tell.

Meg: Yeah, and I love the Customer Success Network - I’m in there too! Before we dig too much into the topic could you tell the audience a bit about the typical relationship with partners?

Violaine: I will start with the definition of what a partner is; an organization who is responsible for selling, distributing, or supporting a product offered by another company (i.e. Vendor).

The Partner may have offerings of their own and may sell offerings from multiple vendors. So that’s, again adding some other complexity, right? [And] I guess it’s now becoming a second nature to use the extended network of a partner to increase the customer base, in areas or regions you don't cover yet – its an awesome way to grow the reach of your product. For example, in Japan I know it’s very common to use business partners to just extend the business.

Obviously you have other reasons, all of them are mainly cost related. You can increase brand awareness so that you can use the marketing reach of your partner, then you can reduce your marketing costs. It can open the door to new vertical markets which may otherwise be inaccessible or require too much of a marketing investment to enter. And also, you benefit from an army of additional sales workforce without the complex contracts, wages, office I guess just based on all of this you can aslo launch much sooner and faster, so you can also cover more regions faster.

And just one little difference between the reach of the resellers (be them local or global), or the nature, as well. If they are SIs (System Integrators), for example, or vendors – their motivations, the moment of engagement, etc. can obviously differ based on the nature of the service provided by the 3rd party.

My experience so far is mainly with strategic resellers.

Meg: And of course this presents some issues in Customer Success and how you manage that. What have you found to be the main challenges in this 3rd party relationship?

Violaine: I would say there are 3 types of challenges – depending on the lens you are taking. The first lense I would say is the customer perspective; their expectations are evolving, not just their buying habits, but also the way they consume products and services. Engaging experiences are key to them in the digital age, so you have to cope with that. And adding a third party in the mix just adds another layer of complexity to their perspective.

For example, they might not know who to talk to to get the most out of the solution they have purchased, sometimes they don’t even know what solution they’ve purchased because potentially the reseller can just have a bundle of products they can sell to the customer. Sometimes get a different message from one person to another, and they get frustrated because they have to say it again, and again.

Most importantly shifting their focus from a transactional business model to a more diverse environment of solutions, because, again, the reseller is selling a large suite of products, is not that easy either for the customer, especially because today there is still a lack of multi-vendor licensing knowledge across the workforce. So it’s very difficult for the reseller workforce to actually understand the whole scope of the large suite of products they’re selling.

The second lense, is the partner perspective. Their role is often unclear, sometimes they don’t know when they need to engage with the customer. Do they need to engage with the customer? What success metrics is he accountable for? What’s in it for him apart from a good margin at the point of sale? All of these questions make it difficult for partners to actually understand where they fit in in that relationship with the customer and what’s in there for them – they need to stay motivated throughout the entire relationship to keep selling, and not just at the point of sale again.

The last lense is more from a vendor prospective. They need to rely on the partner to actually message and position their solution as well as their culture the same way an internal person would do it. A poorly trained partner can damage your brand, gives a poor image of your company, and can also lead to missed opportunities. Investment in enablement as a vendor, as well as commitment on the partner side are essential for a 3rd party relationship to be successful.

Meg: There are so many layers to that. What is your role, specifically, in these talks to ensure that you’re all talking about it the same way, the customer’s expectations are being met, etc? What unique perspectives can you bring, from working specifically in customer success, to these conversations?

Violaine: I would say, because we have different perspectives, challenges and motivations - the partner motivation is going to be different than the vendor’s - they obviously need to change the focus to not just be on the pre-sale but also on the post-sale. I think this is why I believe having a unified customer success strategy across the customer journey is essential for a healthy partnership.

Because for all of the reasons that I mentioned’s a great opportunity but you still need to nurture that relationship. Because even though it could mean [acquiring more customers faster] it could also lead to more customers leaving in the long run [if not managed properly]. So you really need to nurture that, and really need to understand the motivations of your partner to create that unified customer success strategy as much as possible.

And I would say, now, it’s no longer enough to measure the channel partner success only on the transactional basis. With the rise of the subscription model you need to be setup for success the entire customer lifetime, and you need to have everyone, including the channel partners, be setup for success the entire customer lifetime. It’s critical for channel health and expansion going forward.

And I have a very simple example; if you don’t have the same reference in terms of customer health along the way you can have missed opportunities because you cannot have a partner raising an opportunity while you have flagged on your side this customer is a super risky account. It’s a very very simple and basic example, but it’s really how and why it makes sense to have this customer success strategy created and understood by both parties.

And you need to understand, as well, that the customer should not be the one impacted by the fact that you have a specific channel to sell your solution.

Meg: Have you faced any challenges with unifying that with partners at certain points?

Violaine: Obviously yes, because partners can have their own way of doing client success. They also can have no client success methodology or best practices on their yes it can really go from letting them know what customer success is from the very beginning, or adapting their client success methodologies to yours and making sure you have a single and strong messaging back to the customer. So yes, big challenges there.

Meg: What key elements have you focused on from a CS perspective, as a start? And which ones do you already have in mind for the next stage?

Violaine: When I started working on this partner program, I only had to cover EMEA, and the assumption taken was to have dedicated CSMs taking care of the partner accounts. We were also focusing on our largest partner. By doing this we were able to better understand the partner organization, but also our own channel organization. I would say it started some great internal dynamics with channel marketing, channel reps, channel enablement, all these people that were actually making sure we had a successful and healthy channel strategy. So we managed to create this relationship internally as well to have a common goal all together, and actually customer success was included properly in the channel.

We were then in a better position assess the pain points our joint customers were facing (who should they talk to? the partner or Box? etc).

So we came up with a set of guidelines and repeatable processes to really asses what key information we need (use cases, success roadmap and stakeholder mapping), the handover process with the partner - what key information we needed from them and what kind of information we rely on them to give us - and it lead to very good take aways.

For example, we started to take part in forecast calls so we understood if we had some deals in the pipeline where we already needed to raise a flag, saying “we are missing use cases, we are missing a direct contact to the customer. So very beneficial for a long time with both the customer and the partner who sold the solution.

We also created specific 3 touch emails to partners to get direct access to customers, and then if they were not willing to do that we would then take this back to their management. I know it sounds a bit harsh, but, honestly, if you want to move the needle you need to find processes where you can actually do that. And this helped us a lot.

We also created an escalation process to raise any red risk (ie no deployment in x months before the renewal date, and no decision maker engagement etc).

These takeaways have allowed me to take over the global remit and to really focus on what mattered most to move the needle. And this is when I decided the best option was to organize a face to face Customer Success joint workshop without strategy partner - the first ever - with leaders from both sides. It was a very fruitful workshop and I will share with you the main topics that we covered.

The first topic is building the partnership by aligning on objectives/metrics. A partnership is like a marriage in which partners have to set boundaries. Obviously having [shared] objectives and shared metrics makes sense. The main shared objective for a partnership is to make money and have lots of expansion opportunities - let’s face it.

Now, from a CS perspective though, you also need to know what is your key differentiator as a joint team. I would recommend creating a value proposition between you and your partner, so that it helps evangelizing around the benefits of such a partnership. What is you differentiator so that sales people actually know how to pitch the value of your joint customer success strategy. This is something really key, and I think I did it a bit too late in the partnership, and I would really recommend as a first step to do this.

Once you have this, get the names and the support of the key influential people on both sides AND define the governance – at what cadence are you meeting, who are you meeting and for what purpose? It helps put a structure and a motion. You need to keep momentum in what you’re trying to achieve all together. And provides room for escalation and visibility too.

Of course, don’t create too many meetings because you will lose the main purpose. Maybe start with a call on assessing the health of your customer base health, and then you can identify areas where your customer success partnership can help improve the situation.

Meg: Really briefly on the sales being able to sell this partnership could you expand a little more on that and the importance of it?

Violaine: Sure, no worries. I think, right now, most of the partnerships are based on a co-sales strategy - so it’s really pre-sales, it’s really about getting the first deal signed off and that’s pretty much it. So I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s a reality.

I guess it’s really about making partners understand that pre-sales is not enough. You need to nurture the long term relationship. So if the salesperson is not able to to talk about the benefits of customer success and how you can maximize your lifetime value, or maximize your ROI (Return On Investment) and achieve what you want to achieve with the solution then it’s a problem. Because you can’t go longer than maybe 3 months after a poor deployment. So you need to have this conversation with the customer in the presale cycle and if you do not enable to sales people to pitch properly about the key differentiator of customer success then it’s a miss, to me.

Meg: Thank you so much for touching on that. Continue with the goals…

Violaine: Of course! So the first topics I mentioned were aligning on the goals and metrics, then it leads towards commitment and accountability because it’s exactly what you need. And you need clear roles and responsibilities to understand who does what at what moment. So that was the very first topic, but I think it sets the tone and foundations in terms of the relationship with the partner from a CS perspective.

The second one, which, again, seems very basic but does not happen so frequently is sharing customer information, because usually your partner does not have access to, for example, your product usage or the health of their customer...It’s very essential to be able to provide insights and visibility on that customer information at a specific cadence too, throughout the customer journey.

Back to what I mentioned earlier, if you manage to have a call on assessing the health of your customer base that’s really really key. And maybe you’re going to use only spreadsheets, or a specific portal or a system integration – again it depends on the strategic aspect of your partner and the level of effort required.

The 3rd one is building and agreeing on a joint customer journey, or partner journey. [This] is a critical piece, as you actually illustrate the moments of engagement, and when you expect the partner to engage with you, and back to the customer.

I think a simple customer journey is already complicated -- to map it out, having the touchpoints... so if you add another party to the game, it obviously adds a layer to the cake.

So you can start having [too] many additional stakeholders in customer meetings because, on your side, you can have the CSM, the sales, sales engineer, some professional services, user services...and then on their side all the same. So you actually can’t have that many people in front of [and handling the customer] when there’s only one or two customer people. So, how do you actually really understand the role of each stakeholder [and their responsibilities]?

How are you planning to transfer information from sales to post sales? Who is going to meet the customer on a regular basis, and what is the value each one is delivering? Do we consider that the reseller is part of the account team from the start to the end of the handover process? Business reviews – who is mandatory?

You need to consider and map out each of these touchpoints.

I would say, in terms of drawing the journey, the first one that I’m focusing on at the moment is the handover. So, how to transfer information from sales to post-sales because this is where you can actually make sure you have the proper information to have a successful customer going forward.

Do you have the use cases? Do you have the sponsorship on the customer side? Do you have a success roadmap? Do you know that your customer is ready to move forward with you and the partner?

I really emphasize on this process because I think this is really where you can remove lots of risks from the beginning. And, again, this is not something very very different from what you should do in a direct selling to a customer, but it’s just because you’re having a partner in the whole scheme, you need to be even more programmatic and structured in the way you do the handover.

Meg: Do you have any best practices, or favorite aspects of the handover that you think are really valuable?

Violaine: Yeah, I think I mentioned one of the key takeaways we had from last year is to be a part of the partner forecast calls as much as you can. Of course you can’t make them all, but for the ones that have a very high probability to close make sure you’re involved.

Make sure you take the time to understand: are there use cases, are there sponsors on the customer side, do they really understand the value of the solution the partner is selling or not? If this is not the case you can raise a risk already and talk with your channel team internally already to make sure this is fixed before the deal even closes.

Meg: Thank you. And did you have anymore on the conference and your learnings?

Violaine: Yes, just one last. The 4th one is designing specific enablement on CS. As I said, if you can’t have salespeople pitching the value of customer success from the beginning you’re going to miss opportunities. I think you need to create specific content, just a few core ones and in a format that is readable & digestible, about what customer success is as a whole (philosophy and outcomes), what CS is in your company, what’s in it for them – this is super important because otherwise they won’t be interested in learning about customer success.

Again create only the core ones, maybe a recording or a one-pager is enough to define that pitch and define the scripts people can use to talk about in front of their customers.

Of course, creating a handbook for CSM is also a good idea - but takes more effort and can actually be built once the partnership is more mature based on my experience.

Meg: Do you think you’ll do this workshop once a year? This was the first one you had, but how often do you think you’ll do these workshops?

Violaine: So I think we’ll do it on a regular basis. I think we’re going to meet again before the start of the next year and I think we’re going to keep that time to meet because it’s all about planning for the next year and having some strategic thinking and tactical steps.

Meg: What lessons have you learned and what recommendations would you give those who are just starting their process and partner program?

Violaine: I would say 3 main things...the very first one is identifying the right people on the partner side. It took me a long time to identify the right people, again because the ecosystem is so complex and the organization was changing so fast and so many times it was difficult for me to navigate. But as soon as you have these people identified then it’s really going to help you open doors and move forward.

I think once you’ve identified these people you need to identify each one’s role, especially with regard to the customer interactions. You are able to assess the partners customer success readiness as well...and if [they aren’t ready] how can you help? But you can’t just help them [completely] build up their own functions. It has to be done in the context of your own solution. But I think it’s about sharing best practices as well, and making sure they can really understand the benefits of customer success, customer journey, etc.

Second, reporting on a set of metrics from the very beginning. Whatever you have -- is it deployment, is it activity, churn, upsales -- you have to focus on a core set of metrics that you share with your partner at the executive level because you need to have the buy-in of these people as well.

It helps you increase the customer success awareness, and it also helps you report on the results and the successes you might have.

The last one, I would say...

"...your company must have an overall channel strategy not just a co-sales one. A co-sale strategy is great, but in the end this is not enough if you want a long-term healthy channel. So you need to think about customer success from the beginning even in your channel strategy."

Meg: Certainly, and I can just imagine after hearing the description in the beginning that that ecosystem you had to map sounds like a lot but it sounds like you’ve got a great handle on it now. So thank you for sharing your insight.

So now just a couple questions that are a bit more general [customer success] for you, how do you see customer success evolving in the coming years?

Violaine: Obviously it’s going to evolve a lot because since it started to rise in EMEA 5 or 6 years ago it has changed so the next 5 years it’s going to drastically change as well.

The first one, we’re going to see much more self serve assets and self serve ways of serving our customers. We’re going to have enhanced product capabilities, with bots potentially, and I think product is an area where we can make a difference as CS leaders, as well. Because this is where we can integrate most of the touchpoints, most of the success metrics and it’s going to help us map out our customers’ ROI directly into the product. So I would say having product managers reporting back to the customer success function would be something that I could see coming in the next years, along with customer marketing because customer marketing is really about self-serve, really understanding these touchpoints and doing that at scale.

So even if the advanced machine learning, the bots and live chat capabilities can be seen as product capabilities or customer marketing. Whatever we call it, I think this is a great asset for us in the near future.

Then, I think all the traditional industries as well are going to be soon touched by customer success and customer success practices. It will flourish in consulting companies. For example I know that all of the big ones like Deloitte, etc. they’re looking to create a success practice (they already have some). So I’m sure at some point we’re going to see synergies between the customer success practices in start-ups and mid-sized companies and the ones in the big companies and industries.

I think it’s going to be a really fun time ahead.

Meg: One episode we did with Martin at Infunnel, they’re a consulting company for marketing automation but they have, so ingrained in them, customer success processes.

What’s your favorite thing about working in customer success?

Violaine: I would say right now, what I like about this function, particularly, is that people are really really willing to share. And sharing to be best in class!

To be fair, customer success, to me, is not rocket science - we talk about simple concepts; we talk about customer relationships, automation, customer experience, account management - things that have existed for years. We’re just, in a way, changing some of the words. And I would say CS exists today to actually put all of this in music, which is critical for a business to sustain.

And the community aspect, and the sharing aspect is critical if we want to build this best in class profession, and putting all of this in music. So any reusable asset of quality makes it easier and faster for this function and philosophy to spread out. So anything we know about business review decks, success plans, customer journey maps, any job description as well because again the role of a CSM can be so different from one startup company to another. There is no single way of doing customer success, but I believe there are some foundations that are necessary to not start from scratch and accelerate the movement even faster!

So for new CSMs, don’t be shy and ask for help! You’re going to find people who are going to help you and support you in your path to becoming a great CSM. And for more senior CSMs or CS leaders, please share your experience - it is priceless! If we really want to have customer success spreading out everywhere.

Meg: And of course everyone can join the Customer Success Community! Thank you so much for doing this podcast episode and sharing your knowledge.

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