The evolution of Customer Experience at Hyper-growth Startups
Director of Customer Success
Today on the show we have Alison Prator, Director of Customer Success at Float.
In this episode, Alison shared her experience transitioning from leading a sales team to leading a whole department across sales, account management, and support.
She walked us through the natural evolution these teams make as they grow into areas of specialization.
We then discussed how feedback loops between customer success and product teams are challenging to close, and ultimately solving the problem is a cultural challenge.
As usual, I'm excited to you think of this episode, and if you have any feedback, I would love to hear from you.
00:00:00 Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew, and today on the show, we have Alison Prator, director of customer success at Float. In this episode, Alison shared her experience transitioning from leading a sales team to leading a whole department across sales, account management and support. She walked us through the natural evolution these teams make as they grow into areas of specialization. We then discussed how feedback loops between customer success and product teams are challenging to close, and ultimately, solving the problem is a cultural challenge. As usual, I'm excited to hear what you think of this episode, and if you have any feedback, I would love to hear from you. You can email me directly on andrew@churnfm. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter and enjoy the episode.
00:00:40 Intro: How do you build a habit-forming products? How do you Don't just guns for revenue in the door?
00:00:49 Andrew: This is CHURN.FM, the podcast for subscription economy pros. Each week, we hear how the world's fastest growing companies are tackling churn and using retention to fuel their growth.
00:01:01 VO: How do you build a habit forming products ? We crossed over that magic threshold to negative churn. You need to invest in customer success. It always comes down to retention and engagement. Completely bootstrap. Profitable and growing.
00:01:15 Andrew: Strategies, tactics and ideas brought together to help your business thrive in the subscription economy. I'm your host, Andrew Michael, and here's today's episode.
00:01:28 Andrew: Hey, Alison, welcome to the show.
00:01:31 Alison: Hey, I'm excited to be here.
00:01:33 Andrew: It's great to have you. For the listeners, Alison is the director of customer success at Float, the number one tool to plan capacity and schedule project work, where she leads the department across sales, account management and support functions. Prior to founding Float, Alison was a sales lead at Hotjar, where I got to work with her personally for about three years. So my first question for you, Alison, is what has been the biggest challenge for you since making the move to Float from Hotjar?
00:01:59 Alison: Oh, gosh, biggest? I don't know. Actually, there's been many, I guess probably the biggest being cultural. But I think really, when I think of the overall scope or the largest challenge has been moving from just a sales focus over into looking at the entire customer experience and customer journey, holistically. There's a lot of overlap in a lot of those functions and roles, and I've had experience doing almost all of them, but it's harder to piece them all together when you're zoomed out, when you're at the high level, making sure that everything is cohesive. It's a lot easier. When I was just focused on numbers, sales get all the money as soon as possible. Now it's like, okay, how do I make sure that the customer has a very cohesive experience end to end?
00:02:51 Andrew: And how do you do that? Because I think in the context as well of the teams that you support and you work with sales, account management support, they have different goals from their own personal objectives when you think about how they serve the customer. But ultimately, really it's about creating that enter and cohesive experience. And how do you get the teams to work together effectively in your current role today?
00:03:15 Alison: Good question. I mean, I think that there's a natural evolution that teams normally take where they start off and you're the very first thing that you need to do. You've got your product and now you need to support it in some way because people have questions, they have forms that they need to fill and typically that role is a hybrid role that you wear many different hats. It was something that I did at Hotjar where it was a lot of various different parts of the customer journey. And then even now when I had first joined Float, we really just had that hybrid role that was like, whatever the customer needs, do it.
00:03:57 Alison: And then I think there comes a point where you need to start dividing and conquering. And I think that happens naturally even amongst the team where you have some people that really love the demos or some people that really just love tackling tickets all day long. And while there's that shift within the team, there's also the shift in how, I guess, sophisticated the customers are coming in and the questions that they're asking where they're not just wanting like a recorded demo, they want to have a much more bespoke experience with someone holding their hand through the procurement process. So I think that next step is where you start to divide the teams by basic functions, being it might start off, you have your support function and then typically you grow from there a sales team.
00:04:47 Alison: And sometimes it can be just as easy as saying like, you've got a quick divide. You could just say you like doing demos, you're going to be in sales and you like doing tickets, you can go to support. But sometimes in that growth, you might have a different change in how the team is growing. So you start to hire outside and then you want to hire more intentionally to focus in on those types of skills. Like when we did decide to grow out the sales team at Float, I was hiring... really looking for those rock stars, looking for the people that have a lot of experience selling. They do really well at it. They like that kind of period of growth within a company where they have a lot of control over their sales right now. And so that was a very intentional growth of wanting to have the right fit.
00:05:34 Andrew: Very interesting. So you've essentially sort of seen this transition twice now, both at Hotjar and now in Float, where, as you say, the team starts to grow. The one thing you mentioned I found interesting as well, in the early days, you don't really have that many demanding customers either. So it's just like people come in, you're getting the early adopters, they have the biggest pain. They want to start using your product, but then as the company starts to grow, as you start to mature as a product, you start to get more of those nuanced use cases where people want that bespoke handheld thing. And I think in my mind it relates a little bit to Crossing the Chasm with Geoffrey Moore. But I think obviously it's still very early days that you're talking about here. But it almost is that sort of inflection point where things start to happen and you start to move away from the early adopters and into the early majority where you start to need to get these more technical and focused roles. You joined Floats about a year and a half ago now?
00:06:28 Alison: Yeah, October, I guess, two years ago.
00:06:32 Andrew: Yeah. And when you joined the team there, you joined to lead the team. What did the team look like when you got started there?
00:06:40 Alison: Yeah, when I first started, I was coming in as the director of customer success, even that was... customer success is such a funny term because it can mean it's so many different things. Some people are like, "Oh, it's account management." Some people are like, "Oh, it's everything in the customer journey." So even when I had started, it was team roughly three to four people, and they were doing a little bit of everything. There was already this kind of divide or this switch where there were people that preferred doing technical troubleshooting and people that preferred doing demos. And so at the time, they were kind of experimenting with the concept of a sales team. And then as soon as I came in, I was hiring pretty heavily, wanting to grow out the team.
00:07:26 Alison: But then very shortly after growing it out, already seeing those patterns of what people preferred meant starting to split the team. So the very first split was support from sales, and we kind of moved the existing people into each of those teams and then also started hiring partially for a bit of redundancy. I really like, especially from a support team perspective, where you have other people that you can lean on if you want to go out of office and it's not so much pressure. Support can be really heavy, it can take a toll because you're just doing the same thing over and over again. So wanted to have more people that were in each time zone. We cover across the world so I had to cover America's EMEA, APAC. And then on the support side, again, we had a couple of existing processes, but a big part of that change and build up was hiring the right people that were these rock stars in sales and then establishing some of the most basic foundational processes. I'm talking like if I looked back at December, 2 years ago, literally could not tell you how much w e sold, how much we touched. The basic thing that I could maybe tell you was how many calls we had that month. And now we've built everything up into our CRM, into HubSpot. So I can see activity, I can see sales and we get to be a lot more intentional about that MRR growth.
00:08:55 Andrew: That's very interesting hearing sort of that evolution that you're going through as well. And I think as you mentioned, support itself. I think that's typically one of the first areas in most companies. It gets a little bit of special attention and focus as you start to grow, you start to hear more from your customers but echoes all what you say. That is probably one of the most stressful jobs in the company because it's like literally your job all day and every day to deal with people that are not happy with your product or service. And often sort of like that can alone by itself be very stressful and even more so when it's just you or like there's no really redundancy in the system. So you got that set up, like started the focus there, built redundancy into support. You said next you moved into sales trying to get the foundations right there and the building blocks. What was next from there while you're building the team out?
00:09:48 Alison: Account management, customer success. Again, there comes that phrase where it's like very embedded into it. But with account management, this tied very closely to sales. So we had the sales team established, starting to see growth in MRR numbers, also starting to see larger midsize to enterprise, larger companies were becoming interested in Float, or they already were, but at least now it was much more explicit that they needed to have a different experience than just watching a recorded demo. So while that was happening, we already had a large amount of our larger clients that had bigger requests.
00:10:38 Alison: So fortunately, one of my current account managers, she was kind of flip flopping back and forth between doing sales and account management and more and more the account management side was taking up a lot of her time. And we had these some of our largest customers that really loved Float but they needed more training, they would hire new people and so they needed more time. Someone to dedicate really getting into the basics: how do you use Float in your current workflows? So it started there, and then also just wanting to start to double down on the expansion opportunities within account management and seeing the trend that oftentimes people were starting with their first team, like their general team, then they might be adding a couple more people into the team and then they were actually referring to other teams within the company. And so that was a whole different segment that was joining into Float. And so there's a lot of expansion opportunities that weren't really being nurtured.
00:11:42 Alison: So moved Emily over into account management full time. Hired another counterpart in the Americas. And I think right now we're still kind of in that foundational stage. Same thing that we did with sales. If you asked me last year what was happening in account management, I'd be like, "Oh, we had some customers we talked to." Now we're tracking a lot of that in HubSpot. So they have their book of business, probably way too large, but it's around 150 to 200 for each of them, which is immense. But it's an experiment at this stage. We're kind of just throwing spaghetti at the wall and going to see what sticks and then experiment from there.
00:12:21 Andrew: Yeah, having a large book of business is a good problem to have, I guess, the challenges around that. And one thing I actually forgot, let's backtrack a little bit. I gave a brief intro as well at the beginning, what Float does, but maybe if you want just give us a little bit more context as well. So what does the product do exactly? Who is your typical customer and how do you help them?
00:12:42 Alison: Yeah, so Float is in resource management, so we help a lot of companies that are wanting to better understand how to plan and schedule their people on projects. It's not just scheduling and it's not just like capacity planning. It 's really looking at all of the people that you have, various projects that you have, and making sure that you' re allocating each one appropriately. So are you utilizing them in the best possible way and gives you that high level overview whether you're a project manager or you're a department manager or what I find interesting is resource management as a field in itself is starting to grow. So we're starting to see people who literally their title is resource manager. And they're part of these teams that are actually figuring out that capacity planning and doing all the scheduling. I'd say our bread and butter is kind of wide right now. It's anyone that needs resource planning. But oftentimes seeing a lot of engineers, a lot of marketing teams, a lot of agencies, of course, that they have various different clients, various different projects. And they want to be able to have that high level view of understanding who's working on what and what projects are within budget or going on too long and have that high level view.
00:14:07 Andrew: Very interesting. And then how have you used then Float in the context of sort of building out the teams now that you're working with from joining? Has that been helpful in that process or it's more really like focus on project management itself?
00:14:23 Alison: Oh, man, you hit on a funny point because that was actually something in the past year that we've been talking a lot about is eating our own dog food, using Float to really understand what projects and what releases that we have going on. There was a big push at the end of last year to get everyone moved over to using Float personally. We were using it for things like holiday tracking and PTO, that sort of thing. And then in using it we realized that we weren't fully ready to be using Float in its fullest capacity. Which was like awe moment of like, "Oh yeah, well maybe we should use our own feedback to figure out what we need to be building Float for the future." And that's actually a lot of the we just had a product vision meet and that was a lot of what we were talking about is what does it take to get Float from the point that we can use it.
00:15:27 Alison: And not just our engineering team, because the engineering and product team are the most obvious ones, but they are even looking at how does customer success use Float and what that might look differently because we have different projects. But I'm not necessarily scheduling people on these projects and tracking how long they take. I'm really just looking to see when are they done, what's next and who's available during that time. So we hadn't used it historically, but we tried it out, realized there was a big gap. And it also just kind of was a great moment to realize that there's a lot of stuff that we want to be able to do for ourselves and build the product for ourselves so that we can fully use it in the future.
00:16:09 Andrew: Yeah, it sounds as well a little bit about the size of company makes a difference as well. When this problem becomes more of an issue and when it becomes more important, we see that similarly as well. Like at Avrio where the larger the company is, the more they adapt. They are like continuous discovery and continuous research so they're more attuned to a product like ours. We're in the early stages. It is a lot more like project based in the RNE where you do a little bit of research and then that'll be it for months and you'll come back and do it. So it sounds similar, like perhaps you're not the ideal fit for your product just yet, but maybe growing into it. Nice. So you got the team set up then foundationally sort of figuring out how you split it up into the three different functions. How long did this take you to get to a point where you felt like the team was getting into a groove now and you had made the right moves.
00:17:10 Alison: Getting into a groove. I don't know if we ever really feel that we're in a groove yet because it's just constant experimenting. I'd love to say that I have this perfect strategy and vision and when I get there I'll know it. But really we're just adapting and figuring things out as we go. I guess at the basic level, I knew I needed to have some level of coverage for our customers even if it was just something very light touch, especially again, pulling up the account managers. They've got a book of business that they really can't be offering up a large dedicated amount of their time doing calls every day or calls even every week with one or two team members. They've got to figure out different layers of being able to do that support. So they have high touch, the ones high value customers that have a lot more requirements and are a little bit more complicated versus some of the lower touch customers that they probably know what they're doing.
00:18:17 Alison: It's not even just by value. Oftentimes it is about the team's experience because we find agencies, oftentimes they know what they're doing. They don't need someone to tell them how to use Float because they've used various different types of tools like that for a while now. But what I find interesting about resource management is that like I said, I feel like there's people that are just getting into this role for the first time. We're starting to see dedicated people in resource management and just in the same way that they're figuring out what their job looks like, we're also trying to help define what resource management looks like and we're kind of doing that together. It's like they're figuring out what their job is and we're like, okay, cool, so you need this and we're going to build that and we're figuring out what that workflow looks like, if you will.
00:19:07 Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. And you're obviously then spending a lot of time speaking to customers, trying to figure out what that looks like from their perspective. And also from your side, how does the customer success team then operate and work together with your product team as well? In terms of feeding back this input and the feedback, what does that process look like on your end?
00:19:29 Alison: Yeah, that 's something has been really exciting. I think because we're still such a small team, it's a lot easier to be able to communicate across the lines. I will say, I don't think that there's a company out there that does this well or perfectly because so often there's a pretty big wall between customer success and product and making sure that that feedback loop is closed and you can have all the tools in the world. You can say, oh yeah, I put that, we use Canny. Oh, I put that in Canny. Or like I told this 01:00 PM About something or sales is always talking about, oh, I lost a deal because we didn't have XYZ. I think when you're a smaller company, it's a lot easier to just annoy someone enough to where they're listening to you. And then we have the larger systems that are intended to track that light. Canny that help kind of guide, I think, themes. I think that's what's really helpful is having something like that where you start to see these trends and themes amongst what people are looking at. But then it's really important to also have this more anecdotal evidence, if you will. So the way that that looks is if we do see something as a trend, particularly in support, that's something that we might bubble up and escalate outside of Canny.
00:20:53 Alison: And actually just this week we have a new hire that was going through some training and support and found a ticket where he didn't really know how to handle it was like a problem with the project and how they were removing people from it, which is a pretty basic question. He had asked this in a public channel and then a couple of people from product, our CTO saw this and they were like, hey, that's actually a really interesting use case. And then other people chimed in, sales chimed in and another person chimed in to add more anecdotal evidence to say that they're seeing this happen. And here are some of the other reasons why this is happening and just organically that kind of bubbled up into here's some workarounds today. But hey, why don't we add this into some of our later product fixes that we're going to do down the road. And I think that's something that can easily happen when you're under 100. Once you get above that, it's just noise.
00:21:54 Andrew: Very difficult. Yeah, I think you make a very good point as well around the tools not being the solution to the problem, because I think it is like it's much more deep rooted and I've definitely seen it as well. At a lot of different companies where there is this big divide between success, sales and products. And no matter how much people want to say we work together closely with our partners and we input feedback and things, I don't know what it is, but there is always that sort of like you can feel that barrier within an organization. That it's like you do your job or we'll do our job and we'll get things done. And I don't think no matter what software, you don't solve the problem with software, you solve it with the culture and figuring that out first and how do you break down those barriers. But I think this will also be a super interesting topic. If anybody out there is listening and you think it works at your company, I'd love to hear and have a chat about it.
00:22:50 Andrew: Nice. So I want to make sure we're almost running over time, that I leave two questions for you that ask every guest that joins the show. Let 's imagine a hypothetical scenario. You join a new company. Churn and retention is not doing great at this company at all. The CEO comes to and says, hey listen, you're in charge. You got 90 days to fix this. What do you do? The catch, you're not going to tell me. I'm going to speak to customers or figure out their pain points or look at the data. You're just going to take a tactic that you've seen work previously at a company and run with that blindly, hoping whatever that is that you do works. What would you do?
00:23:28 Alison: Oh, God, I got to think about that.
00:23:33 Andrew: Everyone's first instinct is like, I'll speak to customers and then figure out the pain points. Then that's a...
00:23:39 Alison: Yeah, well, obviously I feel biased because I want to say that I feel like customer experience and customer success has a pretty big impact on the experience. I know that's not again, if I'm running blindly, that's what I'd say. I would invest in more support, the entire customer experience. I would invest in support account management and sales because there's a couple of things you can get from that. One, it's that customer feedback. So if you do see something that's going wrong, something that the customers hate, it's very easy to hear that firsthand from the people that are on the front lines. But also, you can adjust how you need to support them. It's kind of a band aid fix. I like to think we talked about this before when it comes to support, they're pretty inundated. And oftentimes if you have a wonky product, support is one of the first lines of defense that are directly impacted. But it's also to your benefit. You can have a wonky product as long as you have a really incredible support team or a really great account management team that can train and help you use the product really well. So it's not like a long term fix, but they're the band aid fixes that will help you start to develop. What are those next steps? One, you're hearing what the issues are. You can provide that human support, which is going to get you much further than an automated or a self service type of support. And hopefully that will get you by far enough that you can then start to figure out where the product issues lie.
00:25:22 Andrew: Yeah, I don't know, 90 days as well. It's almost like a trick question itself. It's not much time to have a big impact, but it's always interesting to hear what people would gravitate towards. And definitely I think having that human touch and having people double down and work with customers can go a long, long way. What's one thing you know today about churn and retention that you wish you knew when you got started with your career?
00:25:46 Alison: Oh, man. Everything I learned in that workshop, we all did together. I've already forgotten it at this point. It's so basic, but really understanding what are the AHA moments in the customer journey, really understanding where people are seeing the value in the product because value looks so different. And I know that 's not necessarily like preventing churn, but I think that that's such a valuable piece of information that you need to know before you want to say, I'm going to tackle churn. If you can't answer that, if you can't figure out why people are buying, why people continue to remain with your product. What are the AHA moments, the activation points? You can't answer those. I don't think that you can even attempt to take on churn and it probably seems incredibly obvious, but yeah, at the start of my career, I had no idea, I had no idea what these things were. And yeah, I really liked that workshop, actually.
00:26:51 Alison: Yeah, you would say that. But I think that's where most people actually, when you speak to them, start, I think they think, okay, they have a problem with churn. Let's speak to people that have just churned and figure out why they left. And in actuality, the inverse is more correct. It's like figuring out what did the successful people do and what made them stay and what was that AHA moment that got them to that point and then focusing there because you also have then the compounding impact as well over time, it's like the more people you're able to activate and create a good experience around, the more people you keep in the long term. Very cool. Alison, is there any final thoughts you want to leave the listeners with? Anything that I haven't asked that I should have before we wrap up today?
00:27:34 Alison: Mainly that everyone should come check out Float. It's a great resource tool if you're wanting to better understand how your people need to be planned across projects, or if you want a high level view of how your projects are running, capacity planning, or if you're on budget. Of course, I'm going in with the sales pitch. Come on.
00:27:54 Andrew: Very nice. Yeah, we'll definitely make sure to leave that in the show notes. If anyone's listening, you'll be able to find that there as well. And yeah, just thanks so much for joining, Alison. It's been good. Cool catching up and wish you best of luck now going to the new year.
00:28:05 Alison: Yeah, thanks to you as well.
00:28:14 Andrew: And that's a wrap for the show today with me, Andrew Michael. I really hope you enjoyed it and you're able to pull out something valuable for your business. To keep up to date with CHURN.FM and be notified about new episodes, blog posts and more, subscribe to our mailing list by visiting CHURN.FM. Also, don't forget to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcast. If you have any feedback, good or bad, I would love to hear from you and you can provide your blunt, direct feedback by sending it to email@example.com. Lastly, but most importantly, if you enjoyed this episode, please share it and leave a review as it really helps get the word out and grow the community. Thanks again for listening. See you again next week.
A new episode every week
We’ll send you one episode every Wednesday from a subscription economy pro with insights to help you grow.
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.