Jul 1, 2022

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9 Customer Success operations questions answered by experts

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What does CS operations do that a CS team doesn’t do already?

It’s a common question among leaders, executives, and CS professionals.

Like many specialized roles, the boundaries of CS ops aren’t always black and white. Get comfortable embracing this gray space, because CS ops is what separates the good from the great—or in finance’s terms, the cost centers from the profit centers.

To scale, your team’s operations must be down pat. Just ask your friends in marketing or sales, which defined their spaces for ops long ago. CS is not an exception to this rule, and it’s high time we stop treating it as such.

But truly, ignoring—or more innocently not prioritizing—operational finetuning as you grow compounds issues and gaps over time. A small snag in a workflow that was a minor inconvenience becomes an acute pain whose only real fix requires unraveling the whole system. A lack of process consistency leads to inefficiencies and varying levels of service levels. With no reliable baseline, it becomes impossible to spot trends across the group and get to the root of problems.

As CS matures, CS ops is becoming a necessity, not a luxury.

Your CSMs will welcome the efficiency and process that CS ops brings, especially if they’re already maxed out handling difficult executive sponsors, devising customer business strategies, rescuing at-risk accounts, and selling solution upgrades.

At ChurnZero’s recent virtual RYG, we hosted a panel discussion with CS ops leaders to discuss the who, what, when, where, and why of CS ops, plus how it differs from its close neighbor CS enablement.

Our panel was joined by Nina Walker, the head of CS operations for ABBYY, a leader in intelligent document processing and Sarah Yaksic, the senior program manager of CS at Synopsys. Moderating was ChurnZero’s Bree Pecci who runs CS enablement.

vRYG CS operations panelists

During the discussion, we polled the audience to ask if their organization has a dedicated CS ops role or team. Over half (56%) of attendees have a dedicated CS ops with 17% saying they don’t have one, but we’re going to create one soon. The remaining third (27%) had no current plans to add the function.

But as Bree points out, “Just because you don’t have a solidified CS ops function or formal title, it’s still something that all teams are doing. It’s going to be important to formalize that to get by in at the table.”

Learn how to make a business case for CS ops and more in the Q&A below.

1. What is the mission of CS operations, and how does it support the CS team?

Sarah: “I like to think of CS operations as a CSM for the CSMs. Being a CSM is really challenging. You’re juggling a lot of responsibilities. You’re having customers put all their issues on you. You need to be as efficient as possible in your day and have access to all the tools and the data that you need. That’s really what CS operations provides, including access to data and automation through a tool to streamline your day. They help you understand what conversations you need to have, when you need to have them, and what you need to support that conversation, which then rolls up to the mission of the company. Because all companies want their customers to be satisfied and to keep renewing.”

Nina: “It’s all about supporting our CSMs and making sure they’ve got everything they need—data, clear processes, workflows—so they can focus on their mission, which is to make their customers successful so they can reach their business goals. But there’s also a second element to it, which is if you do it right, it can have an impact, and that impact internally is you can start measuring and controlling things. You get greater visibility of ARR or similar KPIs that are relevant to the CSMs. Then you can start reporting on them internally, sharing them with other departments, and making strategic decisions.”

Bree: “CS ops covers such a broad range. Boiling it down, it’s a lot about the execution and strategy of your CS team as it relates to people, data, process, systems, and the customer experience. At the end of the day, it’s designing and implementing those processes efficiently and effectively so that we can move customers toward adoption, success, renewal, and even expansion.”

2. What does your day-to-day role look like in CS operations?

Nina: “Overall, it could be split into three categories. Data, obviously, is a big part. It’s making sure we are syncing the data and that the data is accurate and relevant for our CSMs. Then, we want to have dialogue and transparency between the CSMs, CS ops, and other departments to make sure this is beneficial for everyone. Then, processes and automation. Here, a big responsibility is to set up processes or plays or something that can be automated and pass it over to the team. The team may need to customize it a little bit if there are regional differences. We use ChurnZero globally, so we’ve got a couple of different regions. We still have strategic programs around customer satisfaction and talk to our renewal, support, and product departments to pass on customer feedback.”

Bree: “In almost all those pillars is being that strategic liaison between CS, other teams, and the customer to make sure they work together efficiently. We know that our CS teams have their hands full, so being able to make things run more smoothly and give them the tools they need to do their job on the easiest path forward is critical.”

Sarah: “We’re both ChurnZero administrators, so ensuring plays, automation, segments, alerts, everything in the system is set up for the CSMs to be efficient. I’m lucky enough right now that we have a separate reporting analyst, so I’m not as hands-on in the data as I have been before, but that’s a huge part and it varies by company of where that data is. I’m still looking at the data, but not necessarily managing it, although that’s part of the role.”

Bree: “It does vary if CS ops owns the reporting. They pull the reporting and manipulate the data. But your job is to use that data to inform your path forward in the strategy.”

Sarah: “Yes, I’m looking at that data, helping them to prioritize all those initiatives. There’s never any shortage of projects we’d like to do. I help determine what’s the best use of our time. What do we really want to queue up next? And keeping processes up to date, aligning processes with other teams, and continuing to maintain those. It’s a little bit of everything.”

3. How do you identify and prioritize what projects CS ops undertakes?

Sarah: “To figure out what needs to be done, partially we have an open forum for our CSMs and CSM managers to submit ideas or something they’d like in ChurnZero if they’re identifying a gap. I keep a running backlog of those. I also do interviews with our team members and with the teams they work with to identify if we have gaps. Are there things that we can smooth over? I continue to augment that never-ending backlog.

“Then to prioritize those, we—as a customer solutions and support department which makes up our tech support, CSM, and client delivery teams—look at setting business objectives as a whole and then roll those down to the different teams. Obviously, I’m going to prioritize things that align with our business objectives, and then I also can’t just do that, so I like to scoot in any quick wins that I can find.  We continue to prioritize those, and we reassess those on a quarterly basis and track progress.”

4. What’s the structure, role, and size of your CS ops team?

Nina: “Officially, we just created the CS operations team earlier this year. For right now, it’s only me. But I do have support from some colleagues who are also ChurnZero admins and we’re looking to get two new team members to join my team. We want someone to focus on data and someone who can support with admin in ChurnZero—setting up plays, processes, journeys, and so on.”

Bree: “It’s tough to be the strategy-setter that’s coming up with all of it and then also be the sole one to build and implement. It’s important to make sure that you’ve got that support.”

Sarah: “Technically with the title ‘operations,’ it’s just me. But I have a lot of support. We have a dedicated reporting analyst. We have a dedicated voice of the customer program manager running our surveys. We also have a digital experience program manager who works alongside me as that ChurnZero partner for those CSMs managing accounts with lower ARR, enabling them to scale that workload.”

5. When should an organization add CS operations?

Nina: “There are three big indicators. The first one is if CSMs are really overloaded. They’re distracted from their main tasks of talking to the customer, being proactive, reaching out to the customers. They’re caught up doing a lot of admin work and gathering pieces of information.

“The second is scalability. How big is your team? Are there a couple of CSMs? Is it OK if everyone has their own approach to onboarding and to creating their own PowerPoint templates for those presentations? Or is it a bigger team? Do you want to have a standardized approach to that? Do you want to make it scalable so that you can repeat those processes and communications with customers?

“The third is customer data. Make sure you have one source of truth and you have as much of a 360-degree customer view in one system as possible as opposed to CSMs reaching out to different departments, support, or implementation for customer data.”

Bree: “A lot of informal people end up supporting this operations function—designing a process, setting a strategy, determining touchpoints, determining different engagement cadences or tiers. So, you reach the point where there are too many cooks in the kitchen or it needs to be formalized so that your customers get a consistent experience. That’s always been a big goal for us at ChurnZero, with ops or even enablement, figuring out a way to make sure that every customer gets that top-notch experience through the processes and playbooks we set.”

6. What indicators did your organization use to decide it was ready to add CS operations?

Sarah: “It’s definitely varied. We had partial CS ops for a team that was as small as three people just because we really needed to be able to scale. It wasn’t enough for a full-time role, but we had that need for data and standard processes. Now at Synopsys, it’s me and all my supporting crew. We’ve got a CSM team of close to 50 that we’re supporting throughout our different customer segments, and they’re able to manage upwards of 50 accounts apiece because of this infrastructure that we’ve put into place, and we’re continuing to grow.”

Nina: “When we started getting CS operations, we had a team of about 12 CSMs. Right now, it’s about 20. Each of our CSMs, on average, manage probably 15 accounts. We’ve got high-touch and digital-touch accounts. So, 15 accounts would be for our high-touch CSMs and then a bit more spread across the digital-touch team.”

Bree: “That’s a really important tipping point, when your team gets to the point of ‘I’m not sure that my CSMs can effectively manage all of the customers we have.’ Maybe you’ve got this chunk of lower-dollar customers where it doesn’t make sense to invest in an entirely new CSM, then you form a digital-touch segment. It’s a very natural thing that a lot of our companies do as they scale. When you start to need that digital-touch segment, operations is super important. Because digital touch does not mean that they are necessarily even low touch. There is such a thing as high-touch digital where we’re responding to customers’ needs, their behavior, their adoption, and really steering them in the direction of success simply based on that awesome automation. When you start to realize that you need digital, that also could be a time when ops could come into play.”

7. How do you make a business case for CS operations?

Sarah: “Those business cases, they’re always a little intimidating. You need to create a whole new role. I think about: can we make a consistent experience, and can we scale? What is that going to show? Try to quantify as much as you can. If our CSMs are distracted, we can streamline their process and we can automate things. How much time are we saving for them? How many more accounts could they take on? Does that save in future CSM headcount? Who’s onboarding? Are they spending their time creating templates? What time is this going to save? Who’s managing our tool? Is it split between a different manager or multiple managers? Could their time be better spent coaching their team? How many hours would they save? Anything you can put numbers to with time or dollars helps to make that business case.

“I’ve also done it in the past where a CSM splits their role. They scale back their book of business and they take on a partial ops role. It’s a proof of concept, like when you’re trying new software. We’re seeing ‘Let’s invest a little bit, maybe not all the way, into ops. Let’s have a middle ground. Let’s see how much time this saves.’ Then, we see are we good here? Do we want to pursue something further and turn this into a full-time role? But also, you know your executives the best, to who you’re pitching a business case. Are they a numbers person? Are they a heart-warming stories person? Tailor your presentation to what’s really going to resonate with them.”

8. How do you set goals and metrics for CS operations?

Sarah: “We set goals on that umbrella level of our whole three-prong team. For example, we’re really focused on—and probably most companies are focused on—renewal, retention, and NPS. We’re planning initiatives and tracking progress on how we are moving the needle, not just quarter over quarter, but year over year because of this great data that we’ve been able to build up and have that historical information. Obviously everything rolls up, so we have similar goals under there with CSMs filling out fields and completing customer value plans for their accounts, but all pointing toward that North Star of those top three. When we’re looking at initiatives and setting metrics, we’re setting the goal against our goal of how much we want to move the needle for those quantitative goals. We also always look for feedback from the CSMs. Did this make their process easier? Did they hear from the customer that they had a really great experience because of a change that we implemented?”

Bree: “Sometimes those shiny numbers get you that seat. It’s interesting because a lot of the work we do can be so anecdotal. The effect of that work, in terms of CSMs talking about how we’ve changed their lives with something we’ve helped implement. We’re measuring the CSM effect, but also the customer effect. Because all of this is in the name of making the company successful, increasing retention or expansion, and making the customers successful, but also that you’re being that CSM for your CSM and doing informal NPS of your own team and their likelihood to recommend you as a CS ops person.”

Nina: “We look at NPS as well and churn, so the number of customers who have churned or the monetary value of churn and ARR. But it’s also qualitative metrics. It’s a dynamic process of setting up those automations. We revisit what we’ve set up in the past, on average, at least every quarter or every six months. Simply to review what was set up: is it still serving its needs? Are any changes required? Do we need to replace anything? If it’s still working, is there something else that we can add to it or make better? Is there low-hanging fruit or metrics that we could fill by changing this one little thing? That’s from a qualitative point of view.”

Sarah: “It’s always that iteration. We do something to scale to the next point. You get to the next turning point, so what’s going to help you to get to the step after that, which is another benefit that ops brings. If you had a manager or another person set up these processes, are they coming back? Do they have the capacity to review? Being in ops, you get to have that lens where your focus is supporting the teams.”

Bree: “The work is never done. Like you said, it’s always iterative. It’s actually funny, if CS ops is working well, that means you’re making large strides forward. You’re improving things and developing new processes, which in turn give different results, which in turn may lead to the need to update a process you just redid last year. It’s self-serving in that all of this progress is driven by the latest project, and you do need to revisit others. Not that you’re necessarily creating more work for yourself, because this is the goal here, but you have to be comfortable with iteration. You have to be comfortable having a critical eye looking back on the work you did and were very proud of. It worked really well at first but knowing that as you drive change and growth for your CS team, that you’ll have to go back and revisit some of those.”

9. What’s the difference between CS operations and CS enablement?

Sarah: “Right now, they’re fused [at my company]. If we make a change in ChurnZero, we then have to enable the CSMs, so it’s really a partnership between ops and our regional managers of our CSMs. Eventually, similar to making the case for CS ops, you make the case for CS enablement. Is there enough resourcing? Is it scalable? Is your ops person overloaded? Eventually, it splits up and becomes its own role that’s focused, and there’s a huge benefit to that.”

Bree: “At ChurnZero, I am on the enablement side. We have a director of operations and enablement. That individual overseas both functions, but the enablement workstream is technically separate. I am not necessarily the operations, the analyst, the strategizer, the implementer. I am instead the packager. I create the resources. I create the learning curriculum. We’ve got them paired together up at the top because every process you roll out needs to then be enabled. We need to enable the adoption and ingrain it into processes so it falls under the same leader so that we can be very coordinated. But the individuals that carry out the actual duties are separate.”

Looking for a crash course on CS operations?

Learn everything you need to get started with CS operations including the function’s core responsibilities, performance metrics, and ideal job profile in our blog, “Customer Success operations 101.”

 

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