Customer Success — the art of putting value & people first
haydar.al-saad
14 Dec

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nir Kalish, Director of Customer Success at StrongDM, CS coacher, and CS advisor. Nir has 15+ years of experience building QA, Solution Engineering, and Customer Success groups from the ground up in early-stage startups. He is a husband, a father of two kids and has a passion for history and martial arts.

Thank you so much for joining us!

Can you tell us about your journey in Customer Success?

For most of my career, I worked in startups wearing many hats, including customer success and sales engineering hats. The significant shift occurred in 2011; after ten-plus years of building QA automation departments, I wanted to do something more business-oriented.

Back then, I worked in Cotendo. I spoke with the CEO, who not only gave his blessing but pushed me further to relocate to the US to manage the hybrid team of Sales Engineering and Customer Success.

Once I made the change, I fell in love with the worlds of Sales Engineering and Customer Success. Both worlds are similar from my point of view but have different timelines for building relationships and demonstrating value.

I also understood that I love to build those departments from scratch as it allows me to have multiple challenges that make my day-to-day more interesting and scalp the department with the values I believe in.

Since then, I have joined startups to build either customer success or sales engineering departments. My roles over the years led me to StrongDM, a hyper-growth startup that not only allows me to bring my experience to the table but also brings the ultimate challenge for a CS leader. The day-to-day challenge is building a scalable CS organization with a mix of high and zero touches.

What is it that excites you about this space?

There are two analogies that I believe can explain the excitement I have working in the CS world:

  1. Customer success is like a Chess game. You need to plan seven steps where you want to navigate your customers to build a deep partnership and to be able to penetrate the customer entirely. You want to guide your customers in how they use your service in their day-to-day life and see your service as a valuable and must-have solution. When you succeed in doing so, two things happen, the churn probability goes to almost zero, and you maximize the revenue without causing the other side to feel they are paying too much.
  2. Customer success is like marriage or a long-term relationship. You can keep the flame of love only by continuing to work on the relationship and not taking it for granted. In the customer success case, it means demonstrating the value of the product and CSM every time. When you look at your customer as a relationship partner, you start to care about the people on the other side, not their wallet.
    Like any relationship, over the years, you need to think more outside of the box about keeping the relationship honest, exciting, and valuable.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see CS teams face? And any advice on how to tackle them?

The current recession challenges all companies and CS organizations. CS leaders face a rare churn situation where they often don’t control it. You lose seats because your customers are letting users go. CFOs are taking an extra look at every expense, challenging renewals and new deals. In addition, many companies are reevaluating their services and tools. They consolidate tools and choose the ones that provide the most significant value for their needs.

Last is that CS teams may have had to lay off CSMs, and now they are facing the situation of doing more with fewer people, and the feeling can be unpleasant, scary, and stressful both for the CS leaders and the CSMs themselves.

There are several pieces of advice I can share from my experience as a vet of the 2001 and the 2008 crisis:

🞇 Focus on the value — CSMs must understand the value of your service. It’s a brainstorming that needs to be done between the CS, Product, Marketing, Sales, and the executive team. If our service is nice-to-have, it’s time for a cross-functional effort to understand the following:

  • Where can we bring value?
  • What should be our Ideal Customers Profile (ICP)?
  • Who are the executive sponsors we want to target?
  • What evidence can we put in front of them to demonstrate our value?

Talking about value is not good enough; we need to demonstrate it by working with the champions and understanding the ROI we bring. Then, we need to leverage our relationship with the champion to put the ROI results in front of the executive sponsor and buyer.

🞇 Focus on scalability — Everyone’s business will be weaker during the recession, but we can invest the efforts to build the CS organization’s scalability:

  • What do we need to manage customers with fewer CSMs?
  • What automation do we need in place to support hundreds of customers?
  • How can we manage customers’ health and pulse in scale?
  • What can we do to make the onboarding of customers faster and demonstrate our service value more quickly?
  • How can we work together with the marketing team, the support team, the sales team, and the Product team in a way we all help each other at scale?
  • Which processes and decks need improvement to take the CS to the next level?

🞇 Focus on people — When our customers have tough times, the last thing they want is a service provider trying to push their agenda. This is the time to be human. Give them the shoulder to lean on, and suggest leveraging your network to help them and their colleagues who lost their jobs. The business can wait a bit; if you do that, you will gain credibility and build humanistic relationships that can later pay off in stronger business relationships.

Focus on your team members, providing them confidence in the company and the changes that happen. To do so, you must also believe in those. Build your team members to feel comfortable taking risks, trying out things, and failing. Your team members can often have great ideas that can reduce churn and increase value, but they need to feel empowered to try out their ideas.
It does not mean not challenging them. Our job as leaders is to build our members to their next role, to be able to replace us at any given moment and to learn how to challenge themselves.

You have a background in building and scaling teams. Can you tell us more about your approach to doing so?

When I join a company to build a customer success organization, I invest my first 30 days in understanding how things are working today and learning the service well.

I interview the Product, Sales, and Marketing leaders and teams to understand our service value, ICP, roadmap, and the challenges they see. Then I speak with as many customers as possible to see if there is an alignment between what we see and what they see.

The calls with the customers also help me understand their pains with our service and identify risks and opportunities.

Then, my first focus will be customer onboarding. The onboarding period is the most critical time for a new customer and can impact the future penetration and success of the customer.

If the onboarding is too slow, we lose momentum to move our service across the customer’s teams; the customer frustration levels move higher, and we increase the probability of churn.

At this stage, I will implement the handoff between sales and CS, onboarding kickoff, the onboarding phases, how to demonstrate the customer’s reasons for buying, and the overall value of our service. I will focus on making onboarding as short and easy as possible for the customer without impacting the training and the foundations of growth. The onboarding retrospective will be the final step of the onboarding and the base for the development of the customer.

Then, I will focus on two essential areas in parallel:

🞇 The customer health and pulse — which parameters do we need to consider to measure customers’ health and pulse to predict potential risk and customer satisfaction?
At this point, I will build the churn, risk, and opportunities playbooks to help scale the CS group down the road.

🞇 The CSM profile — by now, we should better understand the product, the basic CS needs, and the customers’ challenges. We can now start defining what type of CSMs the department needs. We can describe the ideal CSM profile, the interview process, and the new CSM onboarding process. We will ask ourselves the following questions to help me build the profile:

  • What type of customer handling will we do? (High touch, low touch, no touch, hybrid, etc.)
  • What is the focus of the ICP? (SMB, Growth, Enterprise, hybrid, etc.)
  • What is the complexity of the product and the technical knowledge required to be a successful CSM?
  • What technical knowledge and skills do the CSMs need to have if it is a technical product?
  • What background and previous experience do they need to have to be successful?
  • What time zones do we operate by, and do I need the CSMs to be in specific time zones?
  • What is the company’s DNA — remote work, in-office, or hybrid?
    Personally, even before COVID, I managed people remotely.
    I can hire the best people globally when not being tight to one place. This allows me to control expenses smartly and build a better team that is diverse and unique and, as such, can be more innovative in CS activities.

The above steps, on average, will take between 4–9 months, depending on the company, customers’ situation, and the other departments’ maturity level. After that, I can start focusing on the growth activities such as QBRs, customer advisory boards (CAB), and more activities that create more stickiness to post-onboarding customers.

It might sound like I build everything myself, but it is a CS team effort to help develop the processes and the playbooks. When involving the team, we gain:

  • I can coach the team members to think strategically.
  • Mutual brainstorming creates better processes and playbooks than any idea from a single person (regardless of their title).
  • It is the first step to building a team that works together as a team, and the members are empowered to impact how the department will look.

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 power of AI and NLP can bring massive value to the CS world. It can help drive revenue by giving the CSM and the manager the ability to look at all the customer data, identify risks better and help the CSM to be on top of things.

The amount of data per customer is getting more significant over time. There are multiple points to consider both for opportunities and risks. Static alerts are good up to a point; you need to fit it by the customer size, vertical and other parameters.

Also, usage tracking tells part of the story; you want to measure the engagement of the customers and the engagement’s tone, questions, and tasks that were asked during a call, email, or Slack channel.

It is not an easy task, but we need more intelligent tools that help give real insights and smart alerts (static and anomaly/pattern-based), measure engagement quality, and help the CSM identify risks and opportunities faster.
Those kinds of tools can positively impact identifying CSM weaknesses and help the manager build a better coaching plan for the team members.

Here is an example of my wishful thinking. The CSM gets an email from the tool telling her that on customer X, the health is being reduced because there is a recurring request, and in the last call, the tone of the speaker, who is the CTO, was a bit upset. In addition, there was an email sent from the customer three days ago to which we have yet to reply with an answer to the question.
Last, the risk is higher as in the past three weeks, more users were deleted, while in the news, the company announced closing round B of $50M.

The CSM manager gets statistics that over time one of the CSMs has difficulty following through emails and requests and suggested a coaching plan should be around time management and tasks management.

If you had to share, “words of wisdom,” with a CS leader, what would they be?

Look at your customers as partners and people, don’t look at them as goals and revenue targets.

When you look at them as partners, you care about them, and they will start to care about you.

That helps to build honest relationships and build more vital communications.

Part of it is always to bring value before asking for favors — demonstrate value in everything you do as a CSM, not only from the product point of view.

How can our readers follow you on social media or elsewhere?

People can follow me and reach out through my LinkedIn page.

This was very insightful. Thank you so much for joining us!

Check out our other blog posts

The New Way to CS

Listen here on: Apple Podcast Spotify Google Customer Success has evolved in recent years - from focusing on old-school, vanity metrics and being seen as a support or services function to focusing on value-creating, ROI-driven metrics and being seen as a revenue...

Go-To-Market Spotlight

The spotlight is on GTM leaders in 2024! Throughout the year, we'll be sharing insights and perspectives from conversations with our friends and thought leaders across a range of tech topics. Enjoy! Interview #3: We asked Cliff, “Do you have any thoughts, predictions,...

Setting Customer Success Goals for 2024: A Guide for Success

It’s another new and exciting year in the tech world, which means it’s time to set clear goals and expectations for the coming months! In this article, we'll dive into the significance of goal setting and offer some practical tips for creating goals that are both...

Future Customer Value Podcast Episode

Our CEO, Haydar Al-Saad, recently sat down with Sagar Shukla, CEO of Foresight, on his Future Customer Value podcast. In the episode, Haydar and Sagar dive into: -How you scale a post-sales organization  -Who "owns" the customer?  -Why RevSetter does CS Audits instead...

Salary and Compensation Models Guide: Mastering & Aligning Customer Success, Account Management  and Revenue Team Compensation Models

In today's highly competitive B2B SaaS landscape, achieving and sustaining rapid growth is the ultimate goal for any company. However, the path to scaling successfully involves more than just acquiring new customers; it's about retaining and expanding your existing...

The Essential Role of Customer Success in Driving Revenue for SaaS Companies

In today's competitive SaaS landscape, ensuring customer success has become paramount for companies looking to drive revenue and achieve sustainable growth. Customer Success professionals are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in maximizing customer value,...

Maximizing Customer Success & Revenue Potential: A Holistic Approach to the full Revenue Journey

In today's fiercely competitive SaaS and tech industry, driving revenue is a multifaceted endeavor that extends far beyond the realm of the sales team. Companies that embrace a comprehensive, customer-centric approach to revenue generation are thriving, and this...

Maximizing Growth: The Synergy of Customer Success and Account Management in B2B SaaS

In the ever-evolving landscape of B2B SaaS, the triumphant ascent of tech companies hinges on their ability to not just acquire customers but to retain them profitably. This demands a cohesive approach that aligns every facet of the organization towards...

Achieving Success as a CSM

Being a Customer Success Manager is a rewarding role, but can often be overwhelming if one doesn’t prepare and prioritize properly. After all, keeping a full portfolio of clients happy and successful while still actively pursuing growth opportunities requires a...

Executive Insights: Unveiling the Top Priority in Customer Success Today

Life in Customer Success is certainly never boring. With the business landscape in technology constantly evolving, Customer Success teams must be capable of adapting quickly and prioritizing the right strategies. Given the uncertainty of the last 6 months, our team at...

Webinar: Proving Customer Success as a Profit Center

Rewatch our webinar from April 20th 2023. The core reality of corporate life is simply: Power Follows Money. If you are not perceived as being necessarily connected to strategically significant profitability streams, in hard economic times, your job and your team may...

How Customer Success and Account Management Teams Can Grow Enterprise/Large Customer Accounts

In the highly competitive B2B tech SAAS market, winning large customers is a top priority for companies. However, once the deal is closed, the real work begins to keep these valuable customers happy and retain them for the long term. This is where customer success and...

I love Customer Success because People Matter! It’s not just business, it is absolutely personal.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenelle Friday, VP of Customer Success at Forecastable. Hello! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I’m originally from the Seattle, WA area so yes I love cloudy rainy days, green surroundings all year...

Grow Your Business From Within with the Premier Customer Success Platform

Stop wasting time on expensive, low-conversion sales and business development tactics. Instead, maximize the value of the customers you already have with RevSetter. The Customer Success Platform Built for Revenue Retention A Suite of Customer Success Tools at Your...

Understanding the Rule of 40: How Net Revenue Retention (NRR) Drives Success in B2B Tech

The "Rule of 40" is a common benchmark used by many B2B tech companies to measure their success. The Rule of 40 is the sum of a company's growth rate and profit margin, and a result of 40 or higher is considered a good indicator of a healthy and sustainable business....

What Is CSM Software? A Comprehensive Guide to Customer Success Platforms

Customer success management software (commonly known as CSM software or Customer Success Platforms (CSP)) is an immensely powerful tool for businesses of all sizes. It helps companies focus on the satisfaction of their current customer portfolio to grow their business...

The Importance of Retention and Customer Success for SaaS companies

Net Revenue Retention (NRR) is a key metric for Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) companies as it measures the ability of a company to retain and grow its customer base over time. In the B2B (business-to-business) space, the importance of NRR cannot be overstated as it is...

Customer Intelligence is the key to unlocking revenue growth!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Poppen, Chief Business and Customer Officer at involve.ai recently. We discussed all things “Customer” and how to drive amazing customer experiences at scale while growing Net Revenue Retention! Mary Poppen is the Chief Business...

Customer Success goes beyond a function — it is a mindset

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Hamilton, a gregarious woman who has dedicated the past 15+ years to the Hospitality Industry. Stephanie shared her own personal thoughts, opinions and ideas with us. From multiple positions at hotels to post-sales...

Customer Success — one of the greatest revenue engines ever

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ariel Benzakein. Ariel has over 25 years of experience leading high performing teams at software companies, currently in SaaS, but going back to the on-premise software days. Ariel began his career in software sales, but spent the...

Value is all about the outcome, not just the journey.
(Although he loves customer journey’s too!)

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Boyd, a long-time customer success leader who has just stepped into a new challenge as the VP of Customer Success at Vanta, the leading automated security and compliance platform that helps companies continually monitor...

Axonius’ James Levine sees an exciting future for the Customer Success space

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...

Building an Effective Customer Success Team

Customer success teams are crucial to organizations from SaaS companies to small businesses to global corporations. But what exactly does a customer success (CS) team do? What might your team structure look like? And what should you look for in candidates to build an...

How to Calculate and Improve Customer Lifetime Value

One of the most important metrics for SaaS companies is your customer lifetime value. Understanding this metric can help you strategize your business growth and nurture high-opportunity customers. Here’s everything you need to know about how to calculate CLV  and...

How to Calculate Customer Retention Rate: Exploring Customer, Gross, and Net Retention

How do you calculate customer retention rate? What’s the difference between gross and net retention rates? And most importantly, once you know your retention rate, how can you improve it? Get the answers to these questions and more in our blog. What Is Customer...

How to Improve B2B Retention With the Customer Journey Map

The customer journey map can provide insights into your audience, offering, and future as a company. But how can the customer journey map work for B2B audiences, especially in relation to a service or subscription instead of a product? Today we’re taking a look at a...

Why Investing In Customer Success Software Is Key to Business Growth

Growing a business sustainably is tough. New business is risky and lead generation tactics can waste significant resources only to fail to close. At RevSetter, we believe that the best customers are the ones you already have. Our customer success software helps you...

How to Identify the Best Upselling & Cross-Selling Opportunities for Your B2B Business

Existing customers are one of your most valuable assets when it comes to company growth and expansion. But how can you best grow the lifetime value of a customer? Upselling and cross-selling are two classic sales techniques that, when used correctly, can have a huge...

How to pick a Customer Success tool

As Customer Success continues to boom, there are more and more leaders out there in search of a great Customer Success or Customer Growth software that will help them become more structured and deliver better results. So, what should you do before you get your next CS...

Help! How do I hit my CS quota?

You are in SaaS. You are a CSM, Account Manager, or CS Account Executive and you are measured on churn. Gross Revenue Retention (also known as Gross churn/GRR) and/or Net Revenue Retention (also known as Net churn/NRR). You are trying to figure out how to consistently...

Ditch the old-school Customer Lifecycles

What is different between pre-sales (new business/new logos) and post-sales (customer success, account management etc)? Well, there are many things of course. But fundamentally one of the most important differences is that the (pre-) sales process is mostly linear in...

Maximize your CS portfolio today

Having the right strategy to get the most out of your portfolio will help you unlock your full potential. But as all Customer Success (CS) professionals know, getting the most out of your portfolio is not always easy. Getting the right data, structuring your portfolio...

The Next Transformation of Customer Success

The story of CS is still in its early stages, but is entering a pivotal point in time. A time that calls for innovative technologies and an approach that helps companies take that vital next step. At this moment, the truest measure of value is when a customer decides...

How to stay organized in Customer Success

Most CS leaders would agree that staying organized is key to being successful in CS, whether it is on a micro-level (rep) or macro-level (org). You need to be organized to succeed long-term. Mastering organization in a fast-moving and complex CS world can be tough. It...

Does your team know what truly creates value?

To all CS leaders & CS professionals out there. Go to a few of your CSMs/account managers individually and ask them (or yourself) a simple question: what is the single thing that creates the most value for our customers? Start with “what”, not “how” - because if...