As the VP of Customer Success at Unbounce, Ryan Engley has spent the last five years building a team and culture dedicated to creating successful customers.
I had the pleasure of talking with Ryan about the roles and goals of customer success at Unbounce, how a customer-driven company can use metrics to stay accountable, and how to encourage career development in customer-facing teams. Below is an abridged version of our chat.
What is customer success?
At the Customer Success Summit, your colleague Lou Sturm shared a poll that was conducted among the audience; most attendees said they’d been part of the discipline for less than five years. The best place for us to begin might simply be, “What is customer success?” What has customer success looked like for Unbounce over the years?
Early on for us it wound up being support more than anything, but I think hiring into customer success helped build the mindset into the company. It’s certainly a separate function. When you talk to teams and ask, “What are you accountable for?” they’ll mention retention, revenue expansion, churn. But more than anything, I think customer success is a mentality for an organization and a way of doing business.
A recurring question we’ve heard from the support community is, “Where do we draw the line?” What are some of the key differentiations between support and success?
We look at it as reactive support as well as proactive engagement. I would say there’s a different mindset between support and success. Our support team is very, very focused on how a customer can get something done. Generally, they’ll field more technical questions or help the customer understand how the product works, whereas the engagement team focuses on why the customer should care or why they might need to do something.
A customer may email the support team about their landing pages and say, “Hey, I need help implementing a sticky navigation bar. How do I do that?” They’ll jump in and help them figure out the code to set up. A conversation with the engagement team, on the other hand, might start with, “Oh, why is that something that you think you need? Let’s talk about your bigger strategy.” Support is very tactical and benefits from informed execution, whereas success tends to be high level strategy. I believe that both are critical for customer success.
Brian Balfour, former VP of Growth at HubSpot, has mentioned that one way a growth team can bring value is through additional ownership. That is, it can be tricky for a product team to juggle between the product roadmap and building for growth. Do you see a similar parallel for support and success?
Yes, it’s asking people to think in two very different ways. It winds up being a different mindset, and this context switching can be challenging. I’ve found that people prioritize by the most urgent need, and urgency can sometimes get in the way of opportunity. If you put someone in a role where they’re responsible for support and success, they end up spending all of their time on support because that’s what requires their immediate attention. It’s difficult to earmark spots in your calendar for proactive outreach when you still have a few dozen emails to answer, the phone is ringing, and the live chats are rolling in. Those are things that rarely let up. We wound up divvying up those responsibilities, because otherwise success naturally became de-prioritized.
The role of a customer success team
Your customer success team features a diverse set of roles and responsibilities. How have you structured the team and what core responsibilities does each group own?
To understand that, you need some understanding of our customer base. We have almost 13,000 customers. Of those, probably 80% are what we consider to be self-serve, low-touch. The other 20% are assisted-level customers, or medium-touch. They have slightly different needs. So we’ve built our team around the four pillars of customer success within Unbounce.
The first is the Support Team. They’re incredible. They work tirelessly and go to great lengths to ensure that our customers always get what they need. They’re supporting customers via email, phone, chat — nearly every channel. Within support we have two general directions, or degrees of interest, that people might have. They may be more marketing minded or more technically minded. That’s how we split up ownership within support.
Next we have the Engagement Team. They focus on proactive, what you might call “traditional,” customer success. They look after our assisted-level customers. They focus on one-to-one relationships, and they’re responsible for helping our customers see more and more value with the product and ensuring that they grow their use of the product.
The third pillar is our Customer Education Team. Customer education has been challenging for us because there’s a lot of potential overlap with marketing. We’re a company of marketers building marketing software for marketers — surprise, there’s overlap. We did know we wanted to provide customer success at scale. The education team, who focus on “one to many,” build content to help us achieve this. They’re responsible for our self-serve customers and those who prefer to learn through our help content. Some of the content they produce will inevitably be similar to content that we might use at the top of the funnel, like on the Unbounce blog. The difference is the top of the funnel leans toward thought leadership, whereas success content also needs to help with product education and opportunities for deeper product usage.
So not just technical documentation, but also best practices for getting the most out of the product?
Yes, exactly. I was visiting a company in San Francisco earlier this year and I loved the way they described it: The marketing team is responsible for breadth of product use, like marketing new products or features, whereas the education team is responsible for deeper product use, like new ways of using features or different use cases our customers might not have considered. Once you know and understand a product, there are many different ways you can use it successfully.
Education is about improving the customer’s skillset, and in turn, their results with the product.
The last pillar is our Community Team. Community also presents some challenges. For example, social media, as a channel has always sat within marketing. Events sit within marketing. Our community forum and a lot of our customer relationships are nurtured by customer success, so now we’re adding more focus to our community pillar. They’re responsible for building digital spaces and creating opportunities for our customers to help and learn from each other. Through the community and the relationship they build, they’re also responsible for gathering customer insights and sharing them internally as part of our Voice of the Customer program. Lastly, our Community Champions program has begun to evolve into an advocate program where we can lean on our Unbounce Experts for advice, reviews or referrals, while we in turn give them early access to betas, hand-picked networking calls, and other perks we’re still working out.
Growing careers in customer success
When Emily spoke with Mireille Pilloud of TED, Mireille said customer-facing teams act as a feedback loop between a company’s builders, sellers and customers. Is it a must for the head of support/success to have a direct line to the C-level to ensure this feedback loop happens?
Yes, it has to be the case. Support is a role that needs to be a part of those conversations because other departments can unintentionally become quite siloed. People start to view the business through their own narrow lens and I think customer success has the ability to step back and look across the entire customer journey and build relationships within the company, which helps nurture customer focus everywhere.
Along with driving success for our customers, CS is responsible for driving customer focus across the entire organization.
We commit to a monthly town hall to encourage this. Every town hall has a Voice of the Customer section where we talk about the kinds of feedback we’re getting and the relationships we have with our customers. We have dashboards set up in our main areas that scroll through our Net Promoter Score and other customer focused metrics. In our main office lobby, we built a dashboard that scrolls through regular customer feedback which we’ve begun sharing as an internal customer newsletter along with data and other insights. It’s all about creating touch points throughout the company.
As far as churn, there’s been a big focus in helping people understand that, yes, churn is a company-wide priority, but our team contains a lot of expertise, and we want to be seen as a resource internally. Something I’m advocating right now is getting every department in the company to be responsible for some customer-focused KPI. Every team in the company needs to know the impact that they have on customers, so in order to build that mindset, they need to be measured on it. You need to measure what you want to change.
Lastly, customer-facing teams need to be empowered to work with other teams. At Unbounce, customer success literally and figuratively has one of the best seats in the house. They’re on the highest floor. They get the view of the ocean and the mountains. They’re prioritized.
I think a lot of people can easily burn out on support if you just leave them to respond to tickets constantly. We need to challenge ourselves to help nurture and grow individuals in those roles, or they’ll wear down and look for careers elsewhere. And they’re not the only ones looking. Other departments within a company might see the talent you have in customer success, and they may want to “hire from within” because they trust them to provide a great customer experience. In a lot of ways, that’s actually been a great benefit for us as a company, because we now have multiple engineers who came from the support team, people on marketing who come from support or customer success, and even people moving into product.
You want to talk about building customer focus across a company? This has been one of our greatest opportunities and challenges. It’s critical that we constantly push ourselves to create the best work environment and the best opportunities for our Support Coaches so that they see and want long term career opportunities on our team. We’re a tight knit family, and I want to make sure we can all grow together. It makes coming to work such a joy when you’re basically going to hang out with friends.
We’ve written before about organizing teams around players and coaches, what some might call maker/manager career paths. How have you tried to set up career advancement for such a diverse team?
We like to think of it as people wrangler or individual contributor. Someone should be able to progress in either role. You shouldn’t have to move into a people wrangling role in order to advance your career. As a team lead, you’ve got to be explicit about that and what those kinds of responsibilities or career growth opportunities are.
First is the natural reflection of our customer needs. I mentioned earlier that our support people tend to either be more technically minded or more marketing minded. That’s already two potential tracks. Then within those, let’s say for an individual contributor, we’re also looking to give people the opportunity to become experts or champions for different parts of the product. It’s a program in its infancy for us, but we’ve found we have to be really intentional about it.
The expectation needs to be that it’s encouraged to build a career in support. We’ve had people come in with the belief that they’d have to switch careers in six months. But we see so much potential and opportunity, and our work is to build and communicate that vision so that others see it too.
How collaboration works in customer success
When it comes to ownership between customer success and other departments, have there been any situations where you’ve had to clarify or draw the line?
“What happens if someone wants to upgrade?” was one of the first questions we addressed. We got together and white-boarded all the potential situations. We use a RACI matrix to show who’s responsible, who’s accountable, who do you consult, and who do you just keep informed.
Let’s say you have a sign-up who is two days away from the end of their trial, they have twenty users, but they have a concern about functionality. They would work with sales, because that’s who they have had the relationship with at this point. But our sales and engagement teams sit side by side specifically so that they can have these real life conversations and address this stuff. You can assign primary responsibility, but at the end of the day, the success of the customer is up to everyone, and they need to collaborate to make sure it happens.
How else are success and sales collaborating? Are there parts of the customer experience you share or parts where there is a clear divide?
Going back to mindset, it’s a difference between farmers and hunters. Customer success wants to nurture relationships over time, whereas sales is often looking after the new customer or that new deal, and they love being able to help customers see value quickly and then shift gears to someone else. That translates into a pretty clear difference in responsibilities.
Within sales, there are outbound sales, inbound sales, and then there’s when someone starts a trial and is evaluating your software. You may consider that onboarding, but our perspective is that a trial is still an evaluation period. This is someone who’s not made a purchase decision yet, and they’re deciding whether or not it’s a good fit. That’s part of the sales process.
At one to two months in, there’s a hand-off from sales to customer success. But our sales team is even hiring a launch specialist right now to help with onboarding. Again, this kind of customer success mentality is an organizational responsibility. It’s almost an easier hand-off between sales and customer success if there’s a natural extension of the same mindset.
How customer success works with product
Everybody is vying for the product team’s attention, so they get feedback from everywhere. How does the success department pass on and prioritize feedback to the product team?
Where bugs are concerned, our support team — especially the technical arm of our support team — works very, very closely with our QA team and even specific engineers on our development team. If we create an issue in our support software, it automatically creates a ticket in Jira and then our engineers prioritize those. They do an amazing job of responding to bugs. Again, this all goes back to longstanding customer focus.
The support team will field a lot of those questions and we have ways to tag and track them. Then the engagement team gets a lot of that feedback and they’re responsible for distilling and sharing it. We share general product feedback through a different form at a different level. We consider one of the customer success team’s primary responsibilities to empower other teams at Unbounce with customer feedback and data. In that sense, the dream is for the product team to identify a need or opportunity and come to us with a request, then we can help connect with whichever customers they need or the insights they’re after.
Has the success team ever been in a situation where they presented feedback to actively try and influence a product or pricing decision?
Oh, absolutely. I think that customer success and product need to be joined at the hip; they have to be well-aligned and both working toward meeting the needs of customers. I don’t think we’ve built and launched a feature that hasn’t been influenced by feedback from our success team.
We’re actively working on pricing right now, and I am one of the key stakeholders in those decisions. It’s well understood that Customer Success represents the voice of our customers, and I am in key meetings to advocate on their behalf. I have a great overview of the organization as a whole, so I can consider business needs, but I’m also there to make sure that our customers come first and that we never make customer-second decisions.
For example, we worked with a consultancy this year on our prices. They came back with a few proposals, and I knew there was no way we could launch them “as is.” We were in a situation where we might even have to speak against the data, but we knew it wasn’t the customer-focused pricing model we wanted. It wouldn’t empower our team to grow and expand revenue based on value, and customers wouldn’t understand the model. They would feel like they were being punished for being successful.
We had to re-group, and it actually took quite a while for me to get buy-in from most people, but I, our CEO, our CMO, and our product team are all closely aligned, and everybody sees a customer-focused pricing model as one that will work well for the business. It’s a shift in mentality, though, for people to go from a sales-focused model to a low barrier, easy to adopt, land and expand, value based model instead.
Measuring the success of success
You mentioned a team is guided by what they’re evaluated on. What metrics do you use as your compass?
A core metric for us, perhaps the most important one, is our Net Promoter Score. We wouldn’t make a decision that directly affects our customers in a negative way. That’s first and foremost. We would not, for example, look to expand an account if we felt it would create a bad experience. It’s just not the way we do things.
Otherwise, we look at net expansion rate. Within a portfolio of customers, how much revenue do we lose due to account churn or revenue churn versus how much we gain thanks to revenue expansion from those accounts. We also keep tabs on our number of assisted accounts. If we put revenue churn and net revenue expansion as the focus, we look at that in tandem with number of accounts, because we want to make sure that both are growing, i.e., that we’re not growing revenue from some customers but losing a bunch of other customers at the same time.
Tying results back to specific initiatives can be tricky; lots of teams struggle with attribution. Do you have ways of tracking if a new project, or process, had a concrete effect on a core metric?
Yeah, we definitely try, but you’re right — attribution is tricky. It can be challenging in marketing and definitely challenging in customer success. We do our best. We use a couple of tools that allow us to set goals for campaigns, and we’ll look at the conversion rate for a campaign and ideally we’d see those rates go up. That’s a simple approach, but it comes bundled with assumptions.
Sometimes there are campaigns that work better — they’re clearer in their result. We ran a campaign in the customer engagement team around Christmas, and we were looking very specifically at expanded MRR. We measured that week over week and we could very, very clearly tie the work they were doing to revenue expansion. Even if you plotted it out over time, you saw for the period of that campaign there was such a steep increase. It was easy to correlate.
With the metrics you track and measure, do you report to other departments in any way? Is there someone that you directly report performance metrics to?
No. I collect performance data so we can look at it as a team and be aware of what we’re doing. I sit on the executive team, as does our Director of Customer Success. This is useful because, even though we may not report on these numbers week over week, in our senior leadership meetings we have the context for it so when things come up we can easily say, “Oh yeah, that’s because this happened on the team and they were trying this at that time.”
When it comes to sharing with other teams, we do a quarterly review and use an annual and quarterly goal setting rhythm, where each team will say, “Okay, here’s what we set out to do, here’s what we actually did, here’s what we learned, and then here’s what we plan to do next quarter.” It gives us good context for other conversations.
Learn more from Ryan
If you’d like to learn more from Ryan on how to build, grow, and run a customer success team that drives business growth, watch his presentation from the Customer Success Summit, “Mapping a Customer Journey that Drives Growth.”
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