Sitting on My Hands - The Real Job of a Vice President of Customer Success

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By Lauren Costella

I’ve never been one to sit on my hands. I’m not an idle person. I love solving problems, being hands on, and making things happen. It’s in my nature. It’s probably why I’ve cultivated a career in Customer Success! I want to create change and make things better than they were before, and given this very youthful area of business, it’s easy to want to jump in and take action and experiment for the better.

There’s nothing wrong with general attitude this per se, but the question is: should an Executive Leader be jumping in and being hands on? As I reflect back on 2018, I’ve come to think that my best position as an executive is actually sitting on my hands.

One the one hand (no pun intended), there’s certainly benefit to knowing the ins and outs of how things work and actually being able to do them. Having worked in multiple startups, small companies, and now a company growing to that $100M revenue mark, I’ve seen that it’s not uncommon for executives to be hands on in some way. In fact, part of the thrill with any early stage company is managing the typical chaos into something that grows and scales. And in many ways, it’s a very visible measure of productivity and success for early employees. There’s a sense of community to everyone working together to get things done, and there’s a sense of “respect” for those folks willing to jump in and get their hands dirty!

On the other hand, as the company grows it’s becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with every moving part of the organization and the team, especially as an executive. In the past 18 months, my CS organization has grown from around 9 people to almost 30 globally, with three different teams (Support, Professional Services, and Customer Outcomes (CSMs)). Locations span from the US to Japan to Australia and EMEA. Given the growth and change, my challenge has been trying to keep up with those changes, product changes, go-to-market changes, and how customers change! Quite the whirlwind to be sure. And in my attempt to try to be hands on, when I reflect back about what I could improve going into 2019, I’m wondering if hands on does more harm than good?

I recently sat down with my boss, Mike Novotny (CEO of Medrio), and talked about these challenges, and he gave me a really simple piece of advice: “Lauren, realizing impossibility is freedom.” Now, I’m not necessarily one to believe in “impossibility” so his advice was difficult to digest. But when I reflect about what he really meant by it, he is absolutely right. It’s literally impossible to know and be proficient in everything. If we could do everything, there would be no need to have support and help! And the real beauty of this advice is this: with freedom, you can focus on the right things, not everything.

There are some common traps that I’ve personally fallen into that led me down a path of either doing, dictating, or directing, when I needed to be stepping back, sitting on my hands, and listening. When an executive is doing or dictating or directing, we often miss the mark of productivity. Why? We aren’t on the front lines, we don’t have all the context for actually producing success. When we are dictating or directing without context, we force teams into situations where they haven’t bought into those decisions or executing plans, which typically leads to missed deliverables, and this is a recipe for disaster. Talk about no fun for anyone.

As an executive, my job is this:

  • Provide an environment for a Cohesive Team: a team that has trust, healthy conflict, commitment to decisions, peer-to-peer accountability, and produces results

  • Radial Transparency: decisions should be made by the team, not me

  • Sitting on My Hands: I listen, watch, but I do not decide; I do not do.

While on the surface, this may seem obvious and maybe perceived as a little “easy” but speaking from my own experience, this is probably the hardest thing I’ll do!  

First, let’s talk about creating a cohesive team. I just became a certified facilitator for The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team powered by everything DiSC. The 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive team are these:

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Trust is the single most difficult piece to build in a team. Trust is not about “predicting” how a person will act in a given situation. For example, If I tell David X, I know he’ll respond by saying Y. Rather, it’s about being vulnerable. This is creating an environment where team members can freely admit things like “I messed up” or “I need help” and the team can support that person in solving the issue. It’s having a foundation of mutual respect, so that healthy debate of issues (healthy conflict) can occur without team members looking at debating issues or questioning methods as a “personal attack.” More often than not, teams don’t have the foundation of trust needed to support all of the other areas above it. And when the other areas aren’t supported, it’s not often that results are achieved or results are short lived. As an executive then, it’s my job to ensure these 5 Behaviors are understood, maximized, and executed within the team. If the team isn’t a team, there’s no room for achieving results. The leader sets the culture and the environment.

Secondly, my job as leader is radical transparency. If my team doesn’t have access to all of the information I have, how can I expect them to make decisions and drive change? Context matters! It’s exactly the reason I can’t execute (I don’t have the context needed to do it well). By the same token, if I don’t provide visibility into the data and facts that I have, the team can’t make good decisions. Decision making should happen as close to the front lines as possible. Setting the culture for that type of work happens at the executive level. So, as an executive, my job is to make that transparency possible, give the team context to drive decisions, changes, and ultimately results! A really great book that discusses “radical transparency” and was introduced to me by my boss, is called Team of Teams. It talks about how the military incorporated radical transparency into their practices. We’re talking top, top, secret stuff being shared at all levels of the military, so troops on the ground can make decisions. And what do you think the role of the Commander is? I can promise you it’s not deciding what the troops are doing in various military raids...rather sitting back, watching, and listening. Pretty crazy right?

Which leads me to my third point. My job as an executive is to sit on my hands! I say sit on my hands because I am a talker, and as a part Italian gal, the only way I can successfully speak (at least according to my boyfriend) is also using my hands to express myself. When I sit on my hands, I stop talking. And when I stop talking, I’m engaged in listening and the craziest things happen. My team becomes the problem solvers. My team debates ideas back and forth. My team figures out the “hows” and the “whys” and the ways forward. My team commits to decisions, and hold each other accountable. They think, they commit, and they do! And we all achieve results. What a beautiful thing!

So when people ask what is my main focus as the Vice President for Customer Success, I don’t lead with net retention or revenue or churn; rather, I say “I sit on my hands.”

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that works with leaders to drive positive team behavior and incredible results. Check out our leadership programs for more information on how you can build your customer success management skills. TheSuccessLeague.io

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.

CS Leaders: End of Year Savings Can Be Yours!

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Are you planning now for 2019? You’re in luck! We are offering a 20% discount if you purchase our Customer Success Leadership Program bundle. Our upcoming winter series starts on Tuesday, January 15th, 2019 and there are two time options for your scheduling convenience. Choose from either 9am Pacific / 12pm Eastern OR 4pm Pacific / 11am Australian Eastern. Here is the schedule of classes:

January 15 - Team Metrics & Goals
January 22 - Building A Playbook
January 29 - Planning A Team Structure
February 5 - Developing Compensation Plans
February 12 - Hiring Top Performers
February 19 - Onboarding New CSMs
February 26 - Goal Based Management
March 5 - Reporting on Results

Use coupon code “ENDOFYEAR20” at checkout. Offer good through 12/31/2018.

We look forward to seeing you in the New Year!

Strikedeck Radio - Episode 43

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In our newest episode of Strikedeck Radio, Kristen speaks with Lindsay Kapsa, Director of Customer Success at Schoology. Their discussion covers details about what it was like to initiate a Customer Success department into a company. Have a listen!

Strikedeck Radio is a partnership between Strikedeck and The Success League. You can subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play, and anywhere else you get your podcasts or follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter to get updates on new episodes.

Planning for 2019: Auditing Processes

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By Kristen Hayer

Lately I’ve been thinking about processes, probably because we’ve been doing a lot of process design work to help our clients prepare for 2019. Maintaining documentation over time is something that many companies struggle with. This makes sense: When you first design a process, it is a great fit for your team, but as it ages your team and your company change. Unless you’re regularly auditing and updating your team procedures, they will quickly become outdated.

The end of the year is a good time to review your processes and edit them as needed to make sure that they are still a good fit. Here are some tips and ideas on what to look for:

Missing Processes

As you review your documentation look for gaps. Maybe there are processes you’ve never written down. Maybe there are new procedures you’d like to introduce. Think about your customer journey and look for places where a new touch point might make sense. If you don’t have anything documented, choose a handful of processes to start with and start writing.

Cross-Functional Processes

Does your sales team hand off customers to your CSMs? Or, does your CSM team transfer tickets to your support team? These are cross-functional processes you need to work on together with the other group. If you have documented a cross-functional procedure, now is a good time to check in with the other team to see if the process is still working for them.

Over-Engineered Processes

Sometimes, processes have been around for a long time and added to over the years. After a while, these procedures can feel less effective and more like red tape. Can you streamline? Is there duplicate data entry that can be eliminated? Can the number of systems and tools be reduced? Try to condense over-engineered processes to make them more efficient.

Eliminating Processes

As things change over time, sometimes entire processes need to be scrapped. Ask yourself why you’re following each process. What is the outcome you were hoping to achieve? How does the procedure benefit your customers or your company? Is the process still valuable, or are you just doing it because, “We’ve always done it that way.”?

Keep It Simple

Most people don’t read the fine print. Nobody is going to actually use your documentation unless each process is a page or less. Write your procedures like a recipe, and use bullets and numbers to simplify. If a process is really long, break it up into smaller steps to make it easier to read and follow. It doesn’t do you any good to document your processes if nobody reads what you’ve written.

If you want to turn your processes into a playbook for your team, here’s an article I wrote about designing that type of tool. Taking the time to audit your team’s processes and make any necessary changes means you’ll be ready to review them with your group after the holidays and they will be able to hit the ground running in 2019. Happy planning!

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that helps leaders build processes that align with best practices and drive team performance. If you’re interested in more information about our consulting engagements, please visit the consulting page on our website - TheSuccessLeague.io

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Kristen Hayer - Kristen believes that customer success is the key to driving revenue, client retention and exceptional customer experiences. Her areas of expertise include developing success goals and metrics, designing the optimal customer journey, selecting technology, training teams, and building playbooks. Prior to founding The Success League, Kristen built and led several award-winning customer success teams. Over the past 20 years she has been a success, sales, and marketing executive, primarily working with growth-stage tech companies. Kristen has her BA from Seattle Pacific University and her MBA from the University of Washington.

Strikedeck Radio - Episode 42

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In Episode 42 of Strikedeck Radio, we are happy to have Lauren Costella, Vice President of Customer Success at Medrio, join the podcast again. This time, Kristen and Lauren discuss details on how to upgrade your hiring process for Customer Success roles. In addition to her work at Medrio, Lauren is a member of The Success League advisory board and a frequent blogger on the Customer Success field. Listen in to enjoy the discussion!

Strikedeck Radio is a partnership between Strikedeck and The Success League. You can subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play, and anywhere else you get your podcasts or follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter to get updates on new episodes.