Baking Customer Success into your company’s DNA from day 1
Customer Success Leader
Today on the show we have Harini Gokul, Customer Success Leader at AWS.
In this episode, we talked about the challenges of building and scaling customer success teams at companies like Amazon and Microsoft, and how they bake their customers’ customer perspectives into their work, to deliver true value for their customers.We also discussed the importance of being proactive and knowing what your customers might be wanting next, the characteristics and traits Harini looks for when hiring for customer success and why she invites different department colleagues to be part of the hiring process.
[00:00:42] Andrew Michael:Hey Harini, welcome to the sow
[00:01:29] Harini Gokul: Thank you, Andrew. It's great to be here.
[00:01:31] Andrew Michael: It's a pleasure for the listeners.
Harini is a global business leader, driving cloud transformation and growth in a 20 plus years at Microsoft and Amazon web services. She has built, grown, and scaled cloud businesses to accelerate the digital transformation journey for fortune 500 customers. She's a thought leader in customer success with experienced it in customer success for enterprise ISV and startups at AWS.
She currently operates as chief customer officer. For multi-billion dollar profit and loss [00:02:00] portfolio, that includes the most innovative and hypergrowth startups and platform solutions. A global experience spans India, Europe, and the United States and hearing is a strategic leader recognized for big thinking, making complex business decisions and having scale how, and he's also a venture investor and a strategic advisor to late stage B2B.
The investments include fine fish partners and pioneer square labs. She's also an elected council member for the city of Medina WWI and is on the board of the Washington technology industry association. So very special guest today on the show, everyone. And my first question for you then Irina is what has been your biggest challenge of fun building and scaling customer success at such scale, such as Amazon and Microsoft.
[00:02:42] Harini Gokul: Thank you, Andrew. I think it's a great question to kick us off. There are multiple challenges, as we've evolved the customer success muscle over the past five plus years, but it's gone from being this more reactive. Let me come to you. When I have a problem function to how do I get a seat at the table and be part of [00:03:00] growth conversations and help shape what good looks like.
Function. And so the journey there has had its inflection points, and I would call out three. The first one I would say is being proactive and being able to work backwards from what value means to our customers has been one key thing for us to figure it out and get really good at right.
And I say this often, which is defined value as your customer defines it and even better define it as your customer's customer defines it. Very often, we tend to have our own definitions of value and I think moving past that and working backwards from what our customers want has been one of the key leavers and inflection points we've worked through.
The second part is to be proactive and think about once, what that value is thinking on the corner about what our customers are looking to do, right? If they are using a service today, or if they're in a use case today, [00:04:00] what is the next best thing? What are they looking to do going forward?
What's happening in their scenarios that we can anticipate and be proactive about? I think has been the second thing. And that's th that's a combination of. And science, right? There's data. That's telling a metric that helps you with this, but there's also having the right person in place to help you make those decisions and guide you.
And that is my third thing. It's about having the right customer solution. Person customer success hire. And I would say talent is probably one of the things I've disproportionately focused on in, as we've built businesses at the scale, you need the right talent that will work to be a trusted advisor for your customer, who can build a relationship with your customer and help bring the right people to deliver solutions .
So we're oftentimes we're looking for a unicorn, right? This pink unicorn that doesn't exist, but shaping that role and building that talent [00:05:00] has probably been the most fulfilling part of this,
[00:05:03] Andrew Michael: Super interesting things. Now, when I pack all of them, actually the first thing, definitely like I agree with you.
And this is something as all we hear a lot about on the show is that this transformation of customer success, and initially really trying to fight for a seat at the table. And almost being seen as this cost center, where today now becoming more of a strategic partner. And I would say it's only recently, like you said, five years, like I'm noticing now, even like the show's been going for about two and a bit years when I started the show, it wasn't as relevant as it exists today.
Like speaking to different CS leaders. And now like it's really seems like it's an inflection point. More and more companies are taking customer successes more and more companies realizing they need a strong seat at the table and they need to be your customer strategic partners. But I really love the point about the proactive nature and more so what you mentioned about measuring value, because often even on the show, we talk about measuring value of what is the value your customers come to extract, but I don't think we've ever discussed.[00:06:00]
They come to you to get value, but what is your customer's customers value that they're expecting? And I can see that in the case of like Microsoft and obviously AWS and the services that you deliver, because one, okay, your customers coming to get a place to host their websites or to host their apple products.
But their customers are looking for a place that's going to have a fast app that they can access their product to service. And there are services that you deliver through that transaction that actually transcend onto that end user. Very interesting. Like how did you come to that? What was the realization?
What are some of the things that the team was looking into and
[00:06:33] Harini Gokul: Yeah, it's a great question. And you're right. This is a journey, right? We bought this muscle. I remember five years ago when we were starting this work at Microsoft, LinkedIn had maybe 300 hundred job openings for the broad customer success category.
And it was often supporting. Experience, it was this kitchen sink. And now I think you have 30,000 plus, right? It's become this, it's this very significant real role. That's often sea [00:07:00] level now, which I'm very excited about. But to the point on value, and I think a lot of this growth is because we have put a fine point on bad view and being able to not just talk the talk, but walk the talk and delivering value, right?
So re, helping our customers realize value and. So to your question there, when I think about how we work with our customers and I work with my customers, right? I don't go in with this laundry list of actions for a customer, right? I don't have a checklist or a formula for customer success. My job is to listen and to listen bell and listen actively.
And the thing Andrew, you, and you know this, which is as you have these conversations, Each one of my customers cares about making sure that they are distinguishing and themselves and delivering value with their customers. This is a crowded marketplace. If you're in the space we are in today and our customers have a lot of options.
And because of the [00:08:00] move to the SaaS model that as a sub-service business model, the dynamic between the company and the customer has changed where stickiness, where, you know, your podcast is all about churn, this it's more than I think customers understand what value is and they will go to the provider where they get that value.
So my job was then sitting with our B2B customers is to say, What does good look like for you, not just today, right? Near term, you may have challenges, right? There may be product experience challenges. There may be friction and onboarding, but long-term, and I have this framework that I'll talk about in a few minutes, but long term.
What does good look like for you? And each one of them said pretty much the same. I want to make sure that my customer gets more value from my product, uses my services more than anybody else in the marketplace. So what does that mean if you took take the example of of a food delivery company, right?
COVID really [00:09:00] accelerated that business. We've all become door dash Instacart, swaggy customers. Even if we were not before. And so what each one of these customers care about is can my customer be able to look for menu options and navigate my site milliseconds faster than they can on another site, and where we can provide them the building blocks to help build those solutions that help the term sheet term in a marketplace. That is what value looks like for that customer. To your question of how we have the discussion. It was sent, it was sitting down with the leadership. It was sitting down with that, people talking about what good looked like for them.
Long-term working backwards from there to say, if you want to be milliseconds faster, what can we bring to bear for you to help make that solution happen? And then the second position off plan customers have to make is where do they spend their. We have X talent. We have X engineering talent.
Where do you want to use that [00:10:00] time? Do you want to use that time, that front end product piece, do you want to use that time with infrastructure? So there's some trade offs that customers make, but that is how we get to making sure that our customer's customer perspective is baked into all the work.
[00:10:18] Andrew Michael: Yeah, I love that. And just sitting down, like you say, actively listening and just seeing what is the future look like while you were talking to is all that I went into this like sort of rabbit hole in my mind. And I was thinking if you're thinking about your customer's customer, the customers think about their customer's customer.
Yeah. Keep going deep down. But definitely see huge value in this and something. I'm going to start to think about a little bit more. So going into my own company, the other thing, you mentioned,
[00:10:40] Harini Gokul: one more thing, Andrew. One more thing to round it off, which is lately we have found that there is not just one customer's customer, right?
Many of our customers have a large have other events. VC firms, PE firms, and all of those influence the direction that our customer is going. So how did we bake all of that into [00:11:00] our thinking? It can be quite the cast of characters, but I can assure you that it guarantees good results.
[00:11:04] Andrew Michael: The cost of characters for sure.
Coming from the different perspectives and pulling in different directions. The next thing you mentioned that I found as well, like very interesting. We've definitely talked a little about on the show, but was the notion of being proactive for the future, again, in the sense that like your customers come to you today to hire for a job today, that doesn't necessarily mean they have the same problems in the same jobs that they need to be done a year from today.
And just having a little bit of foresight to that. Once they come to us and they've solved what they need to do with with our product. Like what can we doing? You're doing for them next? How can we be delivering more value? I think this is an excellent way to be proactive when it comes to churn and retention is really like keeping that mindset that obviously things change the market moves your customers changed with it, their domain expertise changed.
So how do you advise that companies start to think about implementing this sort of practice of nature, where they're thinking about what their customers might be wanting next?
[00:11:59] Harini Gokul: [00:12:00] Yeah, I I think it's absolutely a journey that many of us are on. The first thing I'll say is, like most journeys that are milestones and phases.
So I think of it as a crawl walk run. You want to start with the end in mind, which is you want to be a partner. Okay. As a customer success leader wants to be a trusted advisor and a partner to my customer. That's my net goal and help them fulfill their goals that we've just talked about. But if I work backwards, I think that our key sort of three buckets of things that we can think through, one is. Product adoption, which to me is crawl, right? Which is a crawl phase of it. The basic and the foundation is being so integrated with our product teams, with our sales teams, to make sure that we understand what the use case for our services, what people are using it for, what are they not using it for?
What are the gaps? So I think there's a body of understanding and expertise and on product adoption that we need to build next. Use the. To then think about [00:13:00] what is the extent extension of the use case. What are the other services that this will enable? And that starts to think about both growth, as well as retention.
To me, there are two parts of the same coin, right? When a customer keeps growing on, you keeps finding value in what you bring to the table that is instinctively and intuitively makes the case for more retention. And the way we do that, Expanding the conversation to think about the long-term goals, to think about what events are happening in a customer's life.
As an example many of our startups many startups across the globe are seeing unprecedented amounts of capital coming their way it's forcing or helping them accelerate their equity. And so as as a startup goes through their equity events and thinks about what building blocks I need in place, post IPO, those are things we can advise upon.
And that of course, leads to helping expand use cases, helping grow and retain the customer. But you're really doing it with [00:14:00] their end in mind.
[00:14:06] Andrew Michael: Very nice. Yeah. I think it's good thinking about the different phases and stages and sophistication of your customer and treating it as that, when you're coming into the customer success practice and thinking about, okay, what strategies are we going to be working with customers of each stage through the last cycle and as they continue to grow and definitely to your point as well.
And I think we talked a little bit about this before the show, but really. Seeing then customer success as a center for growth, as opposed to the center that becomes like a cost center where some of the older thinkers, I think still see it as like a place where they just throw a bunch of money and they don't see anything come out at the end of the day.
But really the most sophisticated companies are seeing it as like this growth center where they can actually expand the accounts through it. And then
[00:14:46] Harini Gokul: you do that. I think it leads you to, to the question you were asked to think, right? What does proactive orchestration look like when you think of it?
Not as a sales center or a cost center, but think of it as a growth revenue center. You're [00:15:00] not going to let your customer stumble around hope they get value from your product, help them figure it out. You are going to be more proactive in providing them a high-touch onboarding self-service or no.
Training professional services, working with them at all levels of their leadership to make sure you understand where they're going. And so I, I think that switch that reactive to proactive and the cost center to a revenue growth center really has helped change who we hire and how we engage with the customer.
It's made sure that I'm not at a place, but I have to wait for somebody to churn or wait for somebody to be dissatisfied before I react.
[00:15:42] Andrew Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And it it makes so much sense to today, but. Select for me in my mind, it's troubling to see like how companies didn't see this sooner.
That's if you invest in the success of your customers, it's going to lead to your success. And I think soften the not as far as specifically like [00:16:00] hypergrowth startups, like churn and retention, like maybe two, three years ago. Was not something, they was like top of mind when you're this hyper-growth and still even today, there are companies that are falling into this trap where they're not thinking about it early enough.
And then at some point they hit a growth ceiling and it's like the lights go on and the sirens, like we need to fix this. And then sometimes even two lights where you hear some of these amazing stories that just crash and burn billion dollar valuations. And then next day with this. I agree.
[00:16:27] Harini Gokul: People often ask, what is the right time to think about customer success? Like when do I think about this team? And you're like, day zero day one, start now start somewhere, right? Because you want that baked in and you may determine, it stays with my product teams. When I started most of my sales teams later.
Can happen, but start baking it into a DNA from Davis.
[00:16:50] Andrew Michael: And this is a good segue to your last point that you made from the first three, which was like, you spent a lot of time building teams when it comes to customer success. And [00:17:00] also trying to understand what makes a good profile and I'm interested in from your perspective, like after having done.
I can't even imagine how many interviews and being involved in processes with candidates, like what are some of the characteristics and traits you're looking for when you're looking for a customer success rep to join?
[00:17:16] Harini Gokul: It is a timely and good question because we are always hiring. What I will say is my favorite, I'll start with my favorite book because I think that's the key to everything else.
Do you there's an author called David Epstein and he has a book called range and I recommend that if you like customer success, if you think you want to be a customer advocate and have. Not just surviving the career, but thrive as a customer success leader, read range and see if you can live that life.
Because really what a customer, a successful customer success practitioner or a leader needs is rage. The ability to deal with ambiguity, the ability to deal with new [00:18:00] and different things and still not be phased by it. So I think there are some. Then you hire your. Tangibles and tangibles Andrew, right?
There are some tangibles that are functional basics for the role. One common level that I area of debate is, the level of technical or domain knowledge that you require for a successful CSM. I've gone back and forth on it. I think we need to continue having credibility and a seat at the table.
Driving customer value. We need to have a degree of technical competence, what that competence looks like and how it gets defined by certification or otherwise is up for debate. But I think I would recommend that if you want a successful carreer and see us invest in your technical competence and credibility, that's going to set you apart from everybody else.
The second thing besides that to me, those are all intangibles. The role is evolving every day. If you were, if you are a new customer success practitioner this, you should be beyond excited, [00:19:00] excited that you're on this rocket ship. Right? We, this will continue to be one of the three key roles for a business in the next 15, 20 years.
And I'm, I am excited that. We get to play a part in shaping this role. So the intangibles are important here, right? Aptitude, the aptitude to deal with ambiguity, the aptitude to disagree and commit, right? You are often managing a cast of characters many stakeholders. How do you always keep the customer's perspective in mind?
How do you disagree and commit to make sure you're doing the right things for the customer? How do you earn trust? That's key for a customer to let you into their organization, share their roadmaps with you. Talk about that ambitions and goals that requires an enormous degree of trust. How are you earning the trust?
So to me, And then how are you thinking big that's the last thing I'll end with, which is you have to think beyond the [00:20:00] escalation or the conversation you're having the use case that our customers working on. How do you think big think the art of the possible is key for a customer success practitioner or a leader.
Those are what I hire for. Technical competence and an aptitude to be deep technically. And then the intangibles which to me are key principles of success for our customer success.
[00:20:24] Andrew Michael: That's super interesting. And I think obviously the tangibles very easy to measure, very easy to see. , the intangibles, I think like some of those skills and like that they need to have in order to be successful in this role are not so easy to measure.
And I think even just from a standard interview are very, quite hard to tell. So like, how are you going about the hiring process to discover if the candidate has these intangibles that you're looking for?
[00:20:48] Harini Gokul: You're right. That it is hard to know, and that's why it's so important to look for the hard things are the important ones and the way so it's never, the hiring process for me [00:21:00] personally, and for the companies that I've worked with are multi-phased and multi-faceted right.
It is not a one person decision on, is this a good CSM to hire or not? Decisions are made. By getting a multiple different perspectives at multiple different stages. So we have a base stringent screening criteria at the start that speaks to the functional capability. Once the functional bar is met, then it is about the cultural bar and understanding these intangibles and all the interviews I do, I invite many of my colleagues who will partner with me in customer success to be part of the interview.
Role again, if this person gets hired, he, she, or he, she, or they will not only work with my team and with me, but they will work with all of these stakeholders and they need to be considered part of their teams. So we make sure that we invite multiple different perspectives in who who walked through some of these intangibles.
We look for experiences and finally, we don't leave it up to chance. I met mechanisms are very important. [00:22:00] Customer success is a non-linear conversation, Andrew, which means that it's not just about adding more headcount, it's about scaling. And the way to scale is by having approaches and what we call mechanisms that help you scale what you want a consistent.
So it's by having visioning mechanisms, it's by having mechanisms to have to make decisions it's by having mechanisms to communicate your perspective. So you're not leaving it up to an individual.
[00:22:30] Andrew Michael: It's only makes a lot of sense. And I think obviously like the companies I've worked at there's multi stages testing for different things and along the way, having different perspectives and different roles coming into those interviews or working with those people that allow you to get an advantage point.
I think that you just don't get in a traditional environment where one or two interviews and then you get off made an offer.
[00:22:51] Harini Gokul: You don't need to be a multi-billion dollar company to do this, even if you are a customer success leader sitting where you are, make sure that your [00:23:00] product and engineering team and your sales team are part of your interview.
It's as simple as inviting them because we talk about. Customer success, being a great partner with product and sales. How do you walk that talk? You could do that right at the start. When you hire your teams and you're earning trust with them and building that relationship
[00:23:18] Andrew Michael: I love that. It's also immediately, once that person has the job, they already know somebody in product and engineering and they can really start to form those relationships.
So instead of just being like on the other side of the fence and joining and trying to make the way in once they're in a very great point,
[00:23:34] Harini Gokul: and if the other teams hire you, they have a vested interest in setting you up for success because they are part of your hiring process. So when you come in, they go, I hired this person.
I should probably make sure that he, she, or they feel welcome into my team and be part of conversation.
[00:23:50] Andrew Michael: Very nice. I see we're running up on time. So I want to save a time for two last questions. The first one is let's imagine a hypothetical scenario that [00:24:00] you joined a new company and general attention is not doing good at this company.
And the CEO comes to you and says, hearing me we'll need to turn things around. You're in charge, but we need to do it fast. We have 90 days. What do you do? But the trick is that you're not going to tell me that I'm going to speak to customers, understand the pain points, and then start there.
You're going to just take something you've seen. That's been effective in one of your past roles and run with that playbook blindly. So question is what would be one thing strategy you'd want to implement to see results fast when it comes to generating.
[00:24:31] Harini Gokul: Yeah. I think there are two parts. It's a good question.
And I think we should all have that mock scenario. There are two parts that I would do coming in. Look at the top and look at the. So I think you have to look at where you're not seeing usage, where you are seeing a dissat, where you are seeing likelihood, propensity to churn or propensity to not engage and think more about them and reach out to those customers.
But don't stop there. Look at what you're doing well, and I think that's [00:25:00] something that most of us don't do when we are in a problem. We tend to look at the worst case, but there think about what is going well to reach out to the folks that are excited about you, where you are seeing good usage, where you're seeing a good experience where you're seeing good engagement and say, what are we doing?
And do more of it.
[00:25:20] Andrew Michael: Very nice. Yeah. And I th I totally agree with that point as well. It's something I learnt earlier on when focusing on general attention is like more often than not. We focus in the beginning when it's oh, we need to fix this. It starts okay. Why people turning? But eh, the concentrated thing is actually the right thing to do is really focusing on K.
What is success like who's being successful and then how can we make more people successful? So a great point there as well. Last question then for today, what's one thing that you know about churn and retention today that you wish you knew when you got started with your career.
[00:25:55] Harini Gokul: The one thing I wish I knew was And I guess everything that I, [00:26:00] how much I needed to do up the funnel early stage proactively to make sure that I was not having a turn hundred tension conversation. Really, if if I considered those as. And terms that come into play, then we don't do our job Andrew, or when things don't work out for a customer it's beyond when we don't do our jobs, sometimes there is no product fit for a customer. So staying up further up the value chain, engaging with our product and sales stakeholders, influencing a product roadmap, influencing sales strategies, and business strategies are things that I wish I knew from.
[00:26:39] Andrew Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I think the higher up the chain, the better and the earlier on in the customer's journey the better, I think like activation adoption, these are where the problems start and then they just get worse and worse as you progress through the customer's life cycle. So the more you can influence the earlier on the more likely are to keep around and it's like a prevention is better than churn.
nice. It's been a pleasure chatting today. Really enjoyed this time. Is there any final thoughts you want to leave the listeners with anything they should be aware of? Or how can they keep up to speed with.
[00:27:11] Harini Gokul: My LinkedIn profile is always is a good place to start. We are also heavily engaged if you're in the U S TSI and Gainsight are two conferences and communities that all customer success leaders should be part of.
And I encourage you to participate, make your voice heard. The final thing I'll say is the role is still evolving. We are shaping the role, right? Business models are changing. You have an opportunity to be have an active role to play in in shaping customer success. So use your voice and use your
[00:27:40] Andrew Michael: work.
Awesome. Thanks so much for joining today. I really appreciate this fantastic and best of luck now, going forward.
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My name is Andrew Michael and I started CHURN.FM, as I was tired of hearing stories about some magical silver bullet that solved churn for company X.
In this podcast, you will hear from founders and subscription economy pros working in product, marketing, customer success, support, and operations roles across different stages of company growth, who are taking a systematic approach to increase retention and engagement within their organizations.