Gillian oversees Talkdesk’s Customer Success and Technical Support teams, partnering closely with customers to achieve their CX vision. In this session Gillian will walk you through how to build a high performing CSM Team.

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Gillian Heltai | SVP of Client Services @ Talkdesk


Hi! Excuse me. My name is Gillian. I’m the Senior Vice-President of Client Services at Talkdesk, and I’m really excited to be here today; also, a little nervous. The stage is a little bit bigger than I thought it was going to be. I might have heeded my husband’s advice when I walked out this morning not to deliver the baby on stage, if I had known, so just bear with me.

The theme of today’s talk is How to Build the CSM Team that Generates 130% plus Net Retention. I’m really excited to talk to you about this topic. At Talkdesk, we have achieved really amazing customer retention, net retention, advocacy, loyalty. My goal today is to share with you some of the learnings and tactics that I’ve gathered over the last two years. Hopefully, you could leave this session enabled with a handful of action items or ideas that you can take back to your organizations in order to start to move the needle on net retention.

Before I dive into the main content of today’s presentation, which is really going to focus on the success organization and how do you build, how do you manage, how do you establish process, there are a couple of building blocks that I wanted to touch on before I start getting into the tactics of the customer success organization, in particular.

These are some of the business foundational elements that if you don’t have established within your organization, you’re going to have a really hard time working with your success team to achieve industry leading net retention, such as the 130% the Taskdesk is able to achieve. What are these building blocks? The first is your customers have to have more stuff to buy. This is pretty simple, but when I look at this industry, a lot of times what I see is organizations crafting pricing packages that would enable, for example, an enterprise-wide license, where an organization pays you X amount of money, and they have unlimited seats, unlimited usage. If you don’t have an element of a variable usage model, whether or not that’s licenses or users or some other consumption-based metric, your CSMs are going to have a really hard time moving net retention over 100%.

The second is low purchase friction. The customer and the CSM cannot be spending undue time in a transacting motion for a couple of reasons: One, it’s not good for the relationship. You don’t want the customer to be perceiving your customer success manager as a salesperson, and it’s not a good use of your CSM’s time. We’re going to talk about hiring in a minute, but most likely, you’re not hiring people who specialize in that transacting.

What we do at Talkdesk is … and I’ll give you a little bit of context on what we do in a minute if you don’t know. We have a license-based model, and we’ve built into the product that our customers can add additional licenses as needed, as they go, in a way that is co-terminus with their contract. That really helps to reduce purchase friction and allow the CSM to grow the account without working on contracts.

Then finally, there have to be some barriers to turn. You can have a great product and a great CSM team, but if you don’t have something that keeps your customers retained with your organization, you’re going to struggle. Common barriers to turn are satisfaction, they really like your product; product value, maybe your product offers something that is highly differentiated in a crowded industry, or maybe you’re building a new category; and then finally, another option is switching cost. If switching costs are high, that could be another barrier to turn.

Again, if you don’t have some of these building blocks, you’re going to struggle to get the momentum with your customer success team to start to hit net retention numbers that are 130% plus.

A couple of quick facts about Talkdesk, really just to help you level set. My perspective, my advice, the tactics that I offer are shaded by the industry in which I operate. Very quickly, what does Talkdesk do? We sell contact center software. It is a very, very competitive space. We are operating and selling mostly against companies that have been around 20, 30 plus years. Talkdesk is a new entrant to a market that is just beginning to be disrupted. We are the largest young company to be shaking up that industry. Final point about Talkdesk is that we started selling about five years ago in the SMB space. And then over the last three years, we’ve migrated more into the enterprise space. What that means is that when you look at our customer portfolio, they really, really run the gamut. We have customers that spend seven figures a year, and we have customers that have two or three licenses. Our customer success model has to accommodate a really wide breath of users.

Without further ado, I want to talk a little bit with you all today about what are the characteristics of a customer success team that is able to achieve industry-beating net retention numbers. What I’m going to focus on is hiring, how do you build organizational structure around your customer success team, what kind of culture do you build, and then how do you incentivize them. You have to nail all of these items in order to be able to boost net retention within your organization.

First up, hiring well. If you’re operating in a high growth organization, and you’re a manager, a hiring manager, you’re probably spending 25% of your time in this hiring motion. One of the things that I often hear, particularly, from younger people managers, is that they spend a lot of time on the job description. They get compulsive about over-architecting it. There are requirements around industry expertise, customer success and Sass; really a lot of criteria that make the hiring pool very narrow.

One of the things that we do at Talkdesk that is really effective for us is we go through a criteria building process, where what we look to do is establish what are the criteria that are absolutely must-have. If you come out of that exercise with more than three criteria, you’re probably over-architecting. What we really try to do is focus on criteria that are incredibly hard to train for.

For example, on the customer success team at Talkdesk, the criteria that we look for are the CSM needs to be curious; they need to be scrappy; and they need to be likable. These may feel a little soft, but they’re incredibly helpful in the hiring process, because probably like many of you, I spend a lot of my time on video conferencing, interviewing candidates. If I can focus on those criteria at the beginning, then I’m going to spend less time in that interview process and screening, because I’m going to figure that stuff out really quickly. And then if I can focus on hiring people that fit in those criteria, then I can divert the rest of my attention into training and enabling people on the industry information, the playbook, etc.

Number two is how do you structure your organization around the customer success team or around the client services organization. There’s a lot here. One of the things that we often see from the earliest stage company is that the CSM is absolutely a jack of all trades. They’re doing implementations; they’re doing support ticket troubleshooting; they’re running the renewals; they’re doing product advocacy; maybe they’re managing defects or outages or incidents. That’s okay at the beginning, because when you’re a very small company, everybody is doing everything. But as you start to scale, it is really critical that you start to think about how do you segment out your organization to optimize for the skillset that you’re hiring for.

When I joined Talkdesk two years ago to run the client services organization, there were three primary client services teams. There was professional services; they manage the implementations. There’s customer success; they manage the ongoing relationship with the customer. And then there was technical support. That was satisfactory for us at that point, two years ago. However, given our growth, and the fact that we have more and more very large customers, enterprise-sized customers that are on our platform, we have since added two additional job functions within client services. We’ve added a technical account manager function. The TAM sits alongside the CSM, and they work with, in a dedicated fashion, with our strategic accounts on any sort of technical projects. Then they are a resource that the CSMs can reach into for the mass of our accounts to be able to do any sort of ongoing technical projects like migrating to a new system.

The other things that we’ve done is stand up a proactive support team. Our technical support team is amazing. They have incredible satisfaction rates. They are incredibly responsive, but at the end of the day, they are responsive, they are taking tickets, and replying as quickly and proficiently as they possibly can. We’ve added a proactive support team that is focused on mining data to be able to understand when might our customer be having an issue before they even know or before it’s been raised to the administrator or senior stake holder. These are just two examples of roles that you might find to merge as you start to grow.

Another point here is that it’s not just your client services team that needs to be segmented. You need to segment your customers. I think most of us do this. But I’m surprised at how many people I talk to in our space that tell me that they pool all of their customers together, because they don’t want their large customers to be treated differently from their small customers. They want everyone to be treated the same. This is incredibly unfair to your customers, and it’s also unfair to your customer success team, because at the end of the day, your customers have different needs. The big customers have different needs than your smaller customers. There’s industry-based segmentation. There’s lifecycle-based segmentation. If you’ve got everyone pooled into one bucket, the likelihood of you being able to pull the right levers for the right customer is low.

One other thing that I want to talk about is customer journey, and something that I think Talkdesk does that is really special. For us, we say that the customer journey starts before the customer is a customer. What does that mean? In just about every organization I’ve ever seen, the sales engineering function sits within sales. They’re commission-based, they work alongside the AEs.

At Talkdesk, we made the decision about a year ago to bring sales engineering into the delivery team. Sales engineering reports up through my client services organization. This may be counter-intuitive since they operate entirely in the pre-sales motion, but it has added a tremendous amount of value and accountability, because what that means is that we’ve got someone who is delivery mindset-based, has a ton of synergy with our professional services team that has engagement with our prospective customers really, really early on in the cycle.

This does two great things. One, prospective customers absolutely love it when we tell them that sales engineering is a delivery function. It creates a lot of trust. Rightfully so, because what this enables is a lot of accountability for us. And taking it back to net retention, what we’d have is customers who come onboard, and they very rarely end up in a situation post-sale where they feel like they were oversold, there was functionality that was promised that wasn’t there, because we have a sales engineering team that is so ingrained in the ongoing success of the customer relationship, which takes me to the last point.

Ensure everyone cares about the same metrics. If your organization isn’t constantly tracking and celebrating logo retention, net retention, customer advocacy, NPS, if that is the network that you track, you’re not going to have educational alignment around moving the needle on that element.

The third point that I want to talk about is culture, specifically, creating a culture of accountability. I loved this post from Jason back in November. You said, “If your boss is doing it herself, then the work isn’t beneath you. It’s a startup.” I was like, “Yes!” Talkdesk is 500 people and we still absolutely operate this way. I’ve worked at organizations that are five times the size of Talkdesk, and we still operated that way. I can’t imagine that there are too many people in this room that feel like they have the luxury of being above it all.

I’ve recently been interviewing a lot of folks for a middle management layer within customer success, and I’m always stunned at how much time they spend talking about scale and process and automation of the count health temperature, and so little time talking to me about the direct relationships that they have with their customers, how they support their CSMs when some things are going wrong and they need to be pulled in. There’s such a habit of thinking so big that you don’t think about the next six months, the next year or the next two years, and the relationships that we should all be building, CEO and down, directly with our customers.

Second point here that I feel very passionately about is get it right when things go wrong, A.K.A. a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It is so easy when things are going well to have a good relationship with your customer. But when we really show our stripes, is when we mess up. When we have down time, when we release a product that’s imperfect or it has bugs or it’s late, that is such an amazing opportunity to build a better relationship with your customer than you had beforehand. You can engage with them. You can show vulnerability. You can pull them into your process and help them feel like they’re a part of it. It is such a missed opportunity if you bury your head in the sand during those moments rather than capitalizing on it to strengthen the relationship.

The third point is customers must feel and be heard. These are different and they’re equally important. Customers need to know, and this is where the CSM is so, so, so critical as a CSM management. The CSM needs to be able to intake the customer’s need; be empathetic; make them feel heard; and then critically, feed that information back into the organization. The product partnership is so critical.

The way we do this at Talkdesk is we built an object into Salesforce. It’s called the product gap. Anytime a CSM hears something from a customer that they want the product to be able to do, they log it, they score it in terms of level of importance. It automatically goes into a Slack channel where CSM product and engineering can engage in a conversation about – Can we already do this today? Is there a workaround? Is it in line with our product strategy? Rather than waiting like once a month or once a quarter to be engaging on these topics, we have a constant dialogue, and it makes our product management team really strong, because they’ve got this constant flow of information from CSM, who is the main advocate, to be able to understand what it is that customer needs.

And then finally, the entire org is responsible for customer success. I mentioned that I joined Talkdesk two years ago, and the customer retention rates were already really high to be honest. My contribution over the last two years has really been around the edges. There was not a major overhaul that was needed, which was great for me. But there were some areas that needed to be overhauled. One of them was our internal process and in treatment of customers that turned. What I find when I joined was that customer retention was so high that any time when a customer left, there was defensiveness and disbelief, and no one wanted to talk about it. They want to sweep it under the rug; consider it a one-time issue and just move on.

One thing that we have implemented is every time a customer turns now, and I realized this is not scalable if you’re in the SMB space and you have 50000 customers; but for Talkdesk with 1500, any time a customer turns, we do a full postmortem. Often, it’s cross functional between CSM, support, and sometimes product. We have a form that we fill out. We log it on the account page in Salesforce. It’s publicly available for anyone in the company to see. And we talk about it at our executive steering committee meeting – Why did the customer leave? What are we learning? What that has enabled me to do is to take this customer turn that had been subscribed to customer success; it’s like, “Oh, the CSM team screwed up here,” and start to get better engagement across the organization to be reflective, and make sure that we learn from it and try to improve our process.

Final point on customer success team management and structure: incentives. For those of us that are on these CSM Listservs or attend meetups, I think this is probably the most common topic. Creating incentive programs for CSMs is so hard. At the end of every fiscal year, I tear up the old one; I try to build a whole new thing, and then I end up basically where I was the year before. The big fundamental questions that people are generally asking are: “Do we don’t we on variable or don’t we don’t we on bonus?” There are two camps. There’s a very intense camp that feels that any sort of variable comp for customer success doesn’t make sense, that if you hire well, these individuals don’t need to have a variable compensation. There’s also a question of what’s the ratio. How much of a CSM’s total OTE or compensation should be tied up in this variable element?

I understand the logic around both of this. There’s a third point that I want to touch on, which is the structure of a bonus plan. I think about it in terms of means versus end. Means are number of QBRs, number of touches, number of on-sites, customer advocacy – reviews or references, and then there’s end, which is, for us, net retention. I think there is great justification for any combination of these elements. But what I will say is that if you are here because your primary goal is to drive increases in net retention, it’s going to be really hard to do this, if you want to have a bonus program that is focused explicitly on that metric. It’s not even because CSMs are coin operated. Generally speaking, they’re not. It’s because the bonus plan is such a critical signal to your customer success team about what matters.

At Talkdesk, we keep it incredibly simple. Our primary focus is logo retention. The CSM needs to do whatever it is that they need to do to be able to retain as many of our customers as humanly possible. There’s an air on our retention element that is kind of sub point to it. This is an incredibly powerful mechanism for us to be able to show the CSMs exactly what we care about as a leadership team and as an organization.

Final point on incentives, and I think a place where so many of us fall down, and even I struggle with, I think that we don’t do a good enough job at Talkdesk is the non-monetary versus monetary. Recognition is so, so, so powerful. If you can find ways to operationalize that into your organization, you will find that you’re going to see the needle moving in the right direction on its own. At Talkdesk, we attempt to do this through our all-hands meetings, highlighting successes. We call them “hero moments”. We’ve got Slack channels that offer kudos to people. And we try to encourage collaboration and thanks across our organizations, different teams, but I think there’s a lot more that we could be doing here.

I wanted to wrap up with a couple of totally random things that have nothing to do with anything else I talked about. I couldn’t figure out where to point them in my presentation, so I just threw them on the closing slide. They are tactics or actions or investments that I found to be hugely, hugely helpful in helping us to drive a boost in net retention at Talkdesk.

The first one is video conferencing only. Talkdesk engages with customers that are super, super old school. We sell into the contact center industry. If you can picture what that looks like in terms of the breath of customers that we deal with. I have coached my CSMs that they always have to do video conferencing. We use Zoom. Sometimes, they start the Zoom, and it’s just their face and the customer is unwilling to join via video. I say, “Don’t stop. You need to be on video every time, because they get to see your face at least, and eventually, they may be willing to turn that video camera on.”

The second is sharing meeting recordings. We have a couple of tools that we use at Talkdesk for capturing and codifying our meetings. The CSM job can be really lonely because you end up directly engaging with your customer and you’re alone on those calls. Every meeting that we have, particularly, quarterly business reviews or escalations, get recorded; they go in a centralized folder; they’re searchable. Any CSM can go in and listen to other CSM meetings, try to get ideas. For onboarding, this is really powerful, and it creates the right sense of transparency across our different organizations.

Third point is staffing around your biggest “can’t lose” accounts. I talked a little bit earlier about my angst with so much focus on scale when I talk to people that I’m hiring into management positions in customer success. For your biggest “can’t lose” accounts, scale has to go out the window. You have to think about what are all the things that I can do to make these organizations successful. That means that my CEO Tiago is part of the account team. I’m part of the account team. We staff tremendously around the strategic partners. And by the way, these are not always necessarily the ones that spend the most with us. Maybe they’re the biggest advocates. They’re the ones who are willing to go out there at conferences like this, and talk about Talkdesk, or refer us. Particularly given early stage companies. I mean, we’re a serious bee. We’ve got 1500 customers and just so much more growth ahead of us. We cannot afford to lose these accounts. I care zero about efficiency when it comes to these biggest accounts.

Fourth point is CEO exposure to customer need. When I joined, I think another failure was our CEO Tiago was sometimes protected from negative feedback from customers. It’s like no one wanted to spoil his day. We ripped that Band-Aid off really quickly when I joined. He is now deeply involved and understanding what are the things that our customers are asking from us. We can’t do it all, but having that constant feedback loop is really, really critical as he thinks to build the strategy for our organization over the next couple of years.

And then finally, invest in customer marketing early. I wish we had done this two years ago. Our customer marketing engine is so strong. We have our customers doing reviews, offering to do onsite visits for prospective customers. Our reference pool is 35% of our total customer base. They come out to events. Open Talk is our big annual event, and we increase the number of customers that have come out 5x from 1 year to the next. I really attribute that to our investment in customer marketing. If you’re considering when, I would really consider doing it now, because there is so much positive reinforcement. And taking it back to net retention, if you can engage with a customer in a way that has them advocating for you, the likelihood of them turning become so much lower because they become really engage with your brand, and they like they are part of the team.

That’s it. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate your attendance and participation.

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