I had the pleasure of interviewing James Levine who brings with him over 21 years of experience in the Customer Success space including a wealth of Business Intelligence, business strategy, analytics and SaaS expertise. James joined Axonius in February 2021 to form the Account Management division. A team focused on ensuring customer satisfaction, value, ROI and retention throughout the customer journey.
Thank you so much for joining us!
Can you tell us about your journey in Customer Success and post-sales over the years?
In my early years as an analyst at WebEx, my focus was on identifying trends and anomalies in our data. Customer Success Managers’ KPIs were determined by who had the most activity with customers, number of calls, number of meetings, and more. I quickly realized that volume of activity does not necessarily equate to success. Some of our highest-performing CSMs were reporting activity much lower than others on the team . When examining the behavioral aspects around why this could be, I quickly realized that the high performing CSMs were focused on outcomes and the value of the customer, while the remaining CSMs were simply focused on checking the boxes. They were not focusing on the core things that would help drive continued relationships beyond the first year.
After over a decade at WebEx, I had my first opportunity to join an early startup, Act-On Software. I was able to influence the company decisions around CS bysing data to determine what is a true customer fit, which persona renews at a higher rate, and what makes an ideal customer. By identifying these traits and focusing our CS teams with marketing and sales, growth came quickly since we knew our key demographic. Around this time, I started working with thought leaders in the conversational analytics space and business intelligence sector. Quickly realizing that there was so much more to a customer experience than what is on the surface, I was able to start correlating conversational analytics to day-to-day activities. Considertwo CSMs who come across as high performers, but the metrics don’t align. Realizing we could leverage conversational data thanks to Amit Bendov, CEO/Co Founder of Gong, we became early adopters and design partners and found staggering information around pacing, how to approach conversations around growth, and around risk. This was a lightbulb moment in my career with a stark realization that there was so much we didn’t know and hadn’t explored on how to perform at a higher caliber.
I spent the next 4 years working at Sisense in the business intelligence space helping Fortune 500 customers use analytics to storytell and improve company direction. This is when I knew I had found my true calling. Seeing how the information we collect can truly impact business decisions quicker and faster than ever before allowed my team to get in front of issues proactively. Most importantly, we were able to quantify the value a customer got from our offering.
Fast forward to the last 10 months, joining Axonius has been the crown jewel of my career. The opportunity to build out an entire Account Management function from scratch has given me the most growth of my career in the shortest amount of time. Axonius is the fastest-growing cybersecurity company in North America. This means we need to grow and scale at an exponential rate, and all while keeping our culture and values and ensuring we deliver a world-class experience to our customers.
Which inevitably raises the question: How are we doing it? It’s a combination of the perfect ingredients: a world class technical account management team and support organization, a laser-focused sales and marketing team, a product with irrefutable value, and a company culture that allows me to bring in the best and brightest into the account management team — all of which creates an ecosystem of collaboration that I’ve never seen to this caliber. Spending two decades in the CS space may seem like a long time, but due to the constantly changing climate, it’s the most transformative, exciting place for me to be!
What is it that excites you about this space?
Customer success is such a fascinating space. The amount of transformative tools and approaches available are what continues to keep me excited about it. Earlier in my career as an analyst, I would look for trends and data anomalies in which I could correlate to behavioral changes. These changes, or early detections, are where we started to see customer success really form into its own identity. That early insight is what sparked my interest in customer relationships and focusing on the goals and mindsets of our customers as they go through the customer journey. Getting into the mindset of a customer and understanding what value means to them is what continues to push the idea of customer success into a formidable powerhouse of change to an organization. The ability to not only tell important stories about the problems our customers are facing, but also focus our metrics on real insights that drive change is what continues to fascinate me. There is a real science to it!
What are some of the biggest challenges you see CS and post-sales teams face? And any advice on how to tackle them?
The biggest challenges facing CS teams today involve 3 major areas:
- The constant state of economic change in market conditions. It’s not enough anymore to just focus on the value of the product you support, you must be proactive in understanding the economics and what is driving the customer outside of the solution you provide. This includes determining risk factors outside of mergers and acquisitions such as stock declines, layoffs, and structural changes. These are all risk indicators that we must focus on as a CS organization, and it takes additional skills to learn.
- Definition of value, and the lack of clarity around what value actually is. It’s not enough to define use cases and value you perceive a customer will get from your product or service. The ultimate goal is getting into the mindset of the economic buyer. It is critical to understand the business needs both short-term and long-term, and then align your success plans to those business drivers.
- Clear understanding of the Customer Journey. Understanding the customer journey and highlighting key milestones during the journey is critical to risk mitigation. It is crucial to uncover any value concerns long before any renewal conversations begin. These customer milestones are key touch points that provide guardrails to preemptively illustrate value, avert risk, and secure the renewal.
You have a long background in CS and have seen the space evolve over many years, what are some of the biggest changes that you have seen and continue to see today?
The most exciting thing about the evolution is that CS and Account Management are now a core component to churn mitigation and driving NRR goals. Fifteen years ago, CS was more of a transactional function, but it has evolved into relationship science. Companies that understand this core change are now focusing on customer success to be more than just relationship management.
Aligning company NRR goals and growth targets where the CS team has a stake in this number drives the right approach. My mentor Amir Orad, CEO of Sisense, taught me early on, “If a customer is not growing, it’s dying.” That mentality stuck with me. We cannot rest on why someone bought a product as priorities change, and so do budgets, and we constantly need to evolve our value proposition to get deeper and wider into the customers ecosystem. Just because the economic buyer loved the product at the sale doesn’t mean the decision maker three months from now will feel the same. Value needs to be seen and felt at every level of the organization.
What major trends do you expect to see in this space in the coming years when it comes to driving revenue — renewals & expansion — in the customer base?
The biggest shift to the CS space I expect to see is further adoption of the account manager model vs. a traditional CSM. The Account Manager is the quarterback of the relationship, responsible for value, growth, success, and renewal. Focusing on the right metrics and allowing that deep personal relationship to help grow the account financially is the future of CS. While still heavily relying on sales teams to help drive new products, get wider into organizations while the account manager ensures the client is seeing value at every stage. Account managers should have a financial component as well as a churn mitigation component. It’s not enough to save a customer if you aren’t growing them.
How do you see technology impact CS and the broader revenue engine moving forward?
A lot of our legacy CS tools were created over a decade ago, so I expect to see a complete overhaul in the focus and value that future tools provide. Too many tools try to do too much and be too much. Simplify the goals, allow the CS organizations to be agile, automate as much as you can, leave the personal touch to them, and most importantly, align your goals to the success of the customer. Using technology to build out a maturity model, measuring growth of the relationship is not always dollars first. You need to make sure you have adoption, enablement, and deep ties to the economic buyer and company goals. As much as we need to measure churn and expansion, we must focus on the maturity data that get us to that next growth milestone.
If you had to share, “words of wisdom,” with a CS leader, what would they be?
My team is my strength and source of inspiration. I am as good as my team is. Each team member brings a unique experience which drives team collaboration and improved processes. It is natural to fail, but the key is when you fail, fail fast. I encourage my team to take risks and try new things. And it’s okay if things don’t work out. Win and lose as a team is the best approach to growth.
How can our readers follow you on social media or elsewhere?
I would love to connect! Knowledge is power and it’s great to connect with other thought leaders. I can be found on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesmlevine/
This was very insightful. Thank you so much for joining us!