A reflection from one of the co-founders of Mission Control, Byron Abrigg, about his experience with customer success!
When you start a business, there are many roles to fill across a very limited team. For my cofounder Austin and I during the seven years we’ve now worked together, we have always distributed responsibilities like so: Austin is the strategic, big picture thinker who focuses on everything six months from now; while I, the GSD (Get Sh*t Done) operator, focus on everything that has to happen over the course of those six months.
Within our first year of working on Mission Control, my role of GSD operator directly translated to the role of Chief Customer Officer. This was in large part due to one of our trusted advisor’s guidance that having a founder be responsible for overseeing your customers’ success is a key to your own business finding success.
That advice sounds great on paper, but what exactly does that mean in practice? After all, customer success isn’t something that’s taught in business school.
My first attempt to answer that question was through books. I purchased multiple with the most obvious starting point being the one aptly titled Customer Success. And it was incredibly helpful! I learned a great deal about how well-run customer success teams work at established enterprise companies, how roles and responsibilities are distributed across a well-oiled and funded team, how customers neatly fit into clearly defined support tiers and processes, and how data points like customer health score and churn are the lifeblood of a CS department.
Unfortunately, that didn’t really help me, because at the time that I first read the book, we had ~30 customers and my customer success team consisted of just myself, so these processes and theories discussed didn’t directly translate our business’ reality. Now, a year later, despite the fact that we have served nearly 300 customers and have a team of 3 supporting our growing customer base, I still find myself asking, how do I go from this reactive and (at times) disorganized team to the well-oiled machine that I read about in my book?
The answer I found? Identify experts, and go ask them for advice.
“Asking for help” is one of the most important values we have at Mission Control, and it has been one that has served Austin and I incredibly well from our very first day on the job.
So, I did just that. I reached out to our board this past fall and asked for introductions to other customer success leaders at their portfolio companies. As a result of those intros, I was fortunate enough to have over a dozen conversations in the past six months with directors and senior leaders at SaaS companies ranging in size, revenue, and industry, and each conversation I had left with me pages of notes and insights to soak up and take back to the drawing board. Additionally, during that time, I had the chance to try applying those insights to my day-to-day work, and I gained some personal lessons first hand as well.
So, what did I learn? Here are my four main takeaways:
1. Delegate, and remove yourself from the weeds.
If you have ever been in a position where you previously shouldered all responsibility and now have to entrust that responsibility to someone else, it’s not easy to do. We have long embodied the concept of “doing things that don’t scale” at Mission Control, and it has been immensely rewarding and insightful for us over the last two years because of what we’ve learned about our product and our customers as a result.
But, as soon as you need to scale, you immediately have to find ways to remove yourself from that unsustainable practice. For the sake of the business, your customers, and (very likely) your own sanity, you have to find ways to get out of the weeds and be able to see the forest from the trees.
This should come in the form of two things: tools and delegation. First, evaluate what can be done with your own product (or with the help of an outside one) to automate the manual work that you are doing. Find ways to remove yourself from the equation when you can.
And then, secondly, when someone absolutely has to be involved in that equation, learn to delegate it to someone else. Train and empower others to take the reins and own the immediate support that your customers need to succeed. Become the second line of defense, not the first line, so that you can begin working more on the business than in it. And don’t wait for things to be perfect before you delegate, because if you do, then the delegation will never happen.
2. Eliminate excuses for your customers.
We’ve all been there: you purchase a new product or software subscription, and upon opening and booting it up for the first time, you quickly find out that it’s not as easy or as straightforward as you had hoped. You are immediately disincentivized in using this product or service, and before you know it, you’ve returned the product or cancelled the subscription.
Your customers have the potential to do the exact same thing with your business. How do you prevent that?
Make it impossible for your customers to make excuses for why something didn’t work.
“Well, onboarding didn’t make sense.” Build out product walkthroughs and tutorials in addition to any onboarding webinars or meetings.
“We just didn’t see the adoption we anticipated.” Make marketing your service a core piece of your product’s functionality so that your customers don’t have to turn elsewhere to execute.
“It was too much effort.” Do everything in your power to help your customers find success, whether that is taking up social media ads on their behalf or working alongside every team member until they understand what needs to be done.
And when you do inevitably lose customers, find out why, and take those hard earned lessons back to the people, product, and processes that make up your business to make improvements to eliminate those excuses in the future.
3. Focus only on your customers. Period.
At the end of the day, everything that you and your team does should be in the service of your customers. If it isn’t, the focus needs to be readjusted and other tasks assumed by different departments in the company. Your limited time should be spent answering your customer’s questions, helping them strategize their best path forward to success, and ensuring that they accomplish the goals that they’ve set. The time will come for specialization and tiered strategies, and while you absolutely need to have that in mind and build towards that, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t support and retain your customers in the meantime.
4. Learn to accept, deal with, and move past the inevitable failures.
There will be times that your business and product come up short: you overpromise, but under-deliver; you have great intentions to complete something by a certain date, but it takes longer than you had planned; or you simply don’t have an answers to the questions your customers ask, let alone the ones they want to hear. This is life, and this is sure as hell the life of a startup. You are building something that hasn’t existed before with limited team members, financial resources, and most critically, time, so you will have failures.
As your company’s touchpoint with your customers, you will be the ones that most feel the weight of their frustrations, concerns, problems, and sheer amount of tasks that need to be done to help them. So, what have I learned in how to weather the storm?
First, try to provide honest, concise and (ideally) weekly updates. Your customers simply want to know what is happening, and you need to provide them that as frequently as possible. However, the more time you are spending preparing updates, the less time you are actually working to solve the problems at hand, especially if you don’t have a simple, defined process for sending mass updates. So, set realistic expectations for updates and hold yourself to them.
Second, do whatever you need to to maintain yours and your team’s personal sanity. You cannot do everything, and you cannot work 24/7. So find a way as a team to prioritize everything that’s on your collective plate to ensure that you are getting done only what absolutely needs to, and push off everything else that is less important until you can come back up to breathe.
And lastly, you will have to decide at a certain point that it’s time for this storm to be over and for the sunrise to happen. Acknowledge your shortcomings, show the progress that you’ve made, and commit yourselves to continued improvements going forward. If you allow yourself to remain in the storm for too long, you will never get to the other side of it.
This past year has been an incredibly humbling, rewarding and insightful education into the world of customer success, and I know I’ve learned so much. Yet I still have so much more to learn. Every conversation I have, every A/B test we do, and every new customer who joins or churns will be a learning opportunity, and every day I open up my laptop is a chance for me to strive to be better. But this deep dive and reflection over the past six months has provided me immense clarity and direction for where I should be directing myself and my team. I hope that this can do the same for you.