Podcast

Success Teams Align with the Customer, Not Sales

Eric Crane

Posted 1/26/2021

A successful customer success team always aligns with the customer — even over the business. 

But you can marry customer success to business outcomes. 

You just need to start with the right mission and values. 

In this episode of Customer Success Leader, I sit down with Richard Myers, Vice President of Customer Support & Customer Success at Linode, to discuss what customer success really looks like — and how to achieve it. 

Defining ‘success’

Richard thinks (and rightfully so) that customer success is really cool. To him, it’s about whatever you do in your organization to help your customers become successful. Sure, it’s easy to connect the dots between your customers’ success and their increased spend on your platform, but it doesn’t need to be much more complex than that.

The key is in aligning the goals of your customers with the goals of your own company. 

If they succeed, naturally so do you. 

How did Richard Myers find his way into working in customer success?

What’s so great about this episode is Richard’s honesty. He mentioned that when he first started at Linode, he hadn’t even heard of customer success. With the company still being a startup at that time, there naturally weren’t a lot of people on the team.

As time passed, Richard says that Linode identified a need for customer success because of the growth that their sales and marketing teams were experiencing. There was a bit of research and digging around into it: the name ‘customer success’ in itself, what it was all about, how it was used elsewhere — anything to understand it more and leverage it the right way. Kicking off their own efforts in customer success, Linode began by including it as a function of marketing within the organization.

Like with most startups, this was a move akin to feeling your way around in the dark, and understanding that landscape more as time passed. Richard shared with me that, over time, Linode’s mission and values as a business evolved to become more closely aligned with what their customers actually need. 

They’re still evolving and are only a few years in to having a designated customer success team.

What makes Linode’s customer success function unique?

As a function or tactic, customer success first appeared in the context of software companies. 

Because Linode offers Infrastructure (and not software) as a Service, this means that their customers are slightly different, have different needs and consume Linode’s offering in a different way than that ‘traditional’ SaaS client-provider relationship works. Linode isn’t locking their clients into contracts either, creating more freedom for change in the mind of their customer, but also more business risk as Linode has a tougher time predicting and forecasting revenue.

Even measuring retention and growth becomes challenging in this situation, let alone improving those metrics. 

Richard’s team is taking what’s available in the context of Saas and adapting it for their unique environment, which means that every step of their nuanced customer journey is considered and accommodated for. He compares it to being a gas company to consumers: customers don’t speak much to them as the provider, but they can turn their gas on or off, and it’s really only if there’s a need to then customers will reach out to talk to them.

Today, though, there’s more two-way engagement, but at first it was an odd thing for the customer to receive Linode’s proactive outreach.

Why success teams are a function of support, not sales

Richard feels super strongly about this one, more so with time. 

He shares that account management exists for a very good reason, but its purpose is different to customer success: account management engages with customers with the goal of getting customers to consume or buy more product, increase usage and so on. Customer success, though, can be counterintuitive if you place its actions next to your own company’s objectives.

A customer success team’s primary goal is to help their customers succeed. 

At times, the route toward that is not necessarily in the best interests of your organization, which is what the primary goal of sales, business development and account management is, when you think about it. Of course it’s possible to incentivize your customer success team on metrics like retention or growth of a customer, but there needs to be an understanding that their success leads to them consuming or using more of what you have to offer.

Customer success leads to customer growth, which leads to your organization’s growth in turn.

How to align with your customer and your business goals

Linode’s way of achieving this alignment:

Alignment begins with engagement, so I got to ask Richard about his starting point with the process. 

In his mind, the logical starting point aligns with the account management route. Your biggest customers are going to influence your product roadmap the most, and probably going to want to speak with you — at least more so than someone who’s inclined to switch away at the drop of a hat.

Although Linode doesn’t lock customers into contracts, it also does kind of happen naturally. IaaS is a hassle to change, for most companies, so even though it’s possible to do, it’s not a likely scenario. This being said, though, it’s important to remember that keeping your customers starts by finding out how to make them happy and successful, and that can only come from conversations with them.

Some customers will be, and are, more vocal and will actively reach out for assistance and support. Richard explained that this is pretty much what motivated Linode to create a customer success team: a big client asking for support often enough, eventually saying that they needed something like an account manager.

How you can go about achieving the same:

Apart from engaging with customers, there are some foundational elements to think about when you’re trying to align your business with your customers’ businesses. 

Your customer success team, for example, is really there to help you bridge knowledge gaps between what you see within your own organization, and what you can see within your customers’ operations. Enabling your customer success team to proactively identify value expansion opportunities that are win-win for you and your customer means creating an organizational environment and communication structure for information sharing.

You need a strong foundation on core values and a mission statement that should be clearly understood by everyone on your team, whether or not they’re in customer success. If these things are in place then by the time a situation comes around, where customer success isn’t immediately or directly pointing to an uptick in your profit margin, there’s no uncomfortable decision-making process for you to endure. The values are clear. 

The end-goal is clear. 

Everyone knows what to do.

It’s not an easy thing to get right, and you have to consider that absolutely everybody in your business and value chain is affected by the way you develop, articulate and strive for your organizational vision. There may be a need for iteration, just like with Linode — it took a couple of tries to get that alignment to a point where it really hummed.

How to establish that foundation with your customer:

This comes down to setting and managing expectations, and it links back to Richard’s mention of that specific value that sales and account management really has within any organization. 

That’s who sets those expectations upfront with the customer, when it’s time to sign or renew a contract. 

The customer success team can even be involved at this stage of the relationship, to advocate for both sides and make sure that the foundation is strong enough for both parties to build upon.

Why you should be your customer’s first choice — not their only choice

Richard nailed it when he said that this is the responsible thing to do for a business like Linode. 

Using the example of back-ups, he spoke about how important it is to have redundancy, and so advising their customers to consider some competing brands’ infrastructure is bold, and certainly unconventional, but it’s the right thing to do from a customer success standpoint. It goes back to what he said earlier about customer success prioritizing success for the customer, even when that isn’t a direct translation into the best interests of your organization.

Showing and proving to your customer that you’re not out to get 100% of their wallet, as Richard says, is bold and it shows that you’re fully focused on what will work for them. It’s selfless, and how many companies can really compete with you on that when you’re sincere about it? 

This is value creation at a level that’s far beyond ‘just doing business’ — it’s how you make your customers feel secure enough, how you win trust, and how you become their go-to for advice and likely for critical needs, expansion support and so on, in the future.

In this episode of Customer Success Leader, we discuss: 

  • Why success teams are a function of support, not sales

  • How to align with your customer and your business goals

  • Why you should be your customer’s first choice — not their only choice

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