My passion for helping customers goes back to when I was 16 and dealing with customer returns at Target. Working in retail is an experience you never forget. You learn very quickly whether you’re a people person. That was my first taste of getting excited about helping customers.

After graduating from college with a bachelor’s in industrial engineering, I started my career as a business analyst, helping customers implement large-scale ERP systems for pension administration. That included gathering information and very technical work coordinating acceptance testing. The common thread was working closely with people to find out what their pain points were via customer feedback, devising solutions, and ensuring customer needs were met. The success criteria were how well you could train and educate customers on new products and solutions. That’s what got me interested in customer education and how critical it is to seamless change management.

Customer First: The Core of Customer Success

At ServiceRocket, I worked as the implementation consultant on the Learndot product for about a year, expanding my knowledge of customer education. I took the company’s value of delighting customers to heart. Around this time, I started learning about customer success as a business function, reading anything I could get my hands on. I felt a real buzz and had a lightbulb moment: Customer Success was putting words to what I had been doing subconsciously for years, which was helping customers define and achieve their business outcomes. I knew this was the niche I wanted to go into long-term. When our organization restructured, there was a need to implement customer success. They offered me the opportunity to take that on, and not only be the first CSM, but to lead the success team itself.

Customer Advocacy on a Lean Budget

Many businesses are dealing with budget constraints right now. When our customer success team started, we had no additional budget to help us drive customer happiness or improve the customer experience. We dealt with this in two ways: working with the people and skill sets we had, plus creating a plan based on forecasting to share with the executive team.

We knew that a lot of these internal changes were not all lateral moves, and we would require some initial investment. This is where our forecast plan came in. I reviewed our accounts, forecasted customer churn, renewals, what was driving expansion, and what was high risk. We put a dollar amount on everything, allowing us to make a case to the executive team to say, “This is our forecast, this is the opportunity value, this is the risk, and here’s our strategy to tackle this. If we get this investment, we feel we could hit these results.”

You need to have a plan, and a plan based on forecasting is the best way to ask for money regardless of your industry or situation. It shows what you intend to do with the money and the forecasted return on that investment. There has to be a financial business case behind every investment that you ask for.

Customer Experience Mission

Our mission is to be our customers’ most reliable partner in accelerated growth. We do that by helping them build profitable training programs that lead to more sales and increased product adoption. That mission drives our focus as a team and as a business. This is how we start every meeting with customers and internally with our teams. When you are starting small, hyperfocus and alignment across the board is critical.

When creating a customer success team, we had to think about the roles and responsibilities of our CSMs. We wanted to ensure these also reflected back to our core mission and came up with 3 key factors:

  • Customer on-boarding
  • Retaining customers through renewals and expansion
  • Helping customers achieve their outcomes

The main thing we wanted was for all our CSM conversations to follow a similar pattern: Defining the customer’s business goals, checking in on those business goals by consistently tracking projects and initiatives that support those goals, plus sharing key product usage data and metrics. These elements eventually became part of every single customer conversation.

Balancing Leadership and Individual Contributions

There’s a challenge balancing leadership and my individual work as I still have clients that I work directly with. How do I bring the right leadership to my team whilst serving those customers? First and foremost, if you manage people, your team needs to be your main priority and that is the hallmark of a good leader. Making time for 1:1s is critical as well as being there when someone needs an ear. When you have a strong cadence of communication with your team, you are better able to help unblock obstacles when needed and offer guidance when asked. If you want to build and scale a successful team, this has to take precedence over customer work.

Delegating becomes a necessity to have any semblance of balance. Sometimes this is the hardest thing to do when you are used to being an individual contributor that does it all but it’s important to note that delegation has benefits outside of freeing up your time for other responsibilities- it means you trust your team, you’re encouraging cross-training and upskilling, and you give someone the opportunity to shine.

Though all of these things lend themselves to being a good leader, customers still have needs and this is where expectation setting is the best tool in your arsenal to make sure you retain your trust and rapport with customers.

One thing my boss says is that you don’t need to reply to every email right away. Of course, I’m not saying ignore them. That would be CS blasphemy! Sometimes, you need to coach your customers and manage them, too. If you reply to everything within two minutes, you are setting an expectation. So, when you do need to take a couple of hours off, your customer is more likely to raise alarm bells because you haven’t replied immediately. It’s about managing your time and your priorities well, whilst still being helpful for your customers.

Mel Bilge is the manager of customer success at Learndot, a business learning management solution. Mel took over customer success after becoming the first Customer Service Manager (CSM) in the organization. She’ll be sharing her approach to growing customer success inside a startup and moving from an individual contributor to a management position.

Mel Bilge

Manager of Customer Success, LearnDot