Lots of technology companies talk about ‘customer success’. But in reality it’s a term that is thrown around with very little practical meaning or evidence. This has improved in the age of cloud-based software, where subscription models mean that companies have more incentive to ensure the long-term value of their products to customers.
Salesforce has understood this since day one, according to Brian Millham, Salesforce’s new Customer Success Group (CSG) chief. Millham joined the company over 19 years ago and was Salesforce’s second sales hire. Since then he’s headed up a number of sales roles within the SaaS provider, but has since moved over to focus on ensuring Salesforce delivers on this notion of ‘customer success’. Millham says that the move from sales to CSG was a natural one, given his previous roles:
Taking my knowledge of engagement with customers, my knowledge of the product, landing on this side of the house is sort of natural in my opinion.
Having been with Salesforce pretty much since its inception, Millham says he understands the value of the division within the company:
Inherently, in how we run the business, it’s always been around customer success. Helping customers to determine their journey and getting them to leverage our technology. To take their business to the next level has been foundational for us from the very beginning.
At the start it was all about how we differentiate the company. How we were going to differentiate Salesforce from the rest of the technology world - and it was around this customer success model. Still today, it’s woven into the fabric of who we are. We use big terms like ‘digital transformation’, but a lot of our customers are saying ‘the world has changed and I need you to help us on this journey’.
Meaning of success
Cynics would argue that ‘customer success’ is a nice fluffy term that companies use to sound like they are serving their customer base effectively - but what does it really mean? What does Salesforce actually ‘do’ to help ensure that its customers are getting value?
Millham admits that the term is “nuanced” as he puts it, but states that the division is focused on outcomes, which vary according to what the customer is looking to achieve. For example, an organization could be looking to drive results to their top-line revenue through the Sales Cloud. A marketing company could be trying to ensure that their campaigns are more effective. Or an e-commerce business could be seeking to drive more products through their e-commerce engine. In other words, as Millham puts it - “How do we make sure our customers get value back from the products?”.
In practical terms, this means being engaged with customers from start to finish:
The ideal scenario is that we are engaged from end-to-end. We don’t want to get too early in the cycle, but when we are trying to close that new customer, they want to hear from us. They want to hear from us before they sign on the dotted line. What are we going to do to drive the success of their organisation? I think it’s a big differentiator for us, it helps us close deals, if we are talking about how we drive success long-term for their business. We like to think of customers for life, we want to see them getting value every single day.
Millham adds that Salesforce’s success depends on it:
Our model mandates it. You sell software, it’s a subscription model, you’ve got to make sure you’re retaining your customers and driving value every single day. If you’re not, you’re going to lose your customers.
Working in Customer Success is inevitably going to mean dealing with some hard truths from customers, as they provide feedback. Millham argues that Salesforce aims to embrace this and takes on all opportunities for some tough critique. For example, the company is currently re-launching its Ideas Exchange app for customers, which will allow them to provide feedback on features and tools.
However, more importantly, the CSG team is very closely aligned to the technology team, according to Millham:
Our technology teams are very attuned with customers, they meet with customers constantly. We are very tightly aligned, we have a very tight feedback loop with our product teams to make sure that what we get from our customers shows up in the product.
A lot of the investments we have made over the years have come directly from feedback from the customers. Whether that’s integration, where, for example, we bought a company called Mulesoft around integration - it is now a really important part of how we go to market.
Other parts of our strategy are, if we’ve got partners out there that fill a gap in our product offering, we will go recruit them. You see a very healthy ecosystem of ISV partners out there that can help us fill in areas of our business. We give a tonne of feedback to our product teams, that is a standard process through which we run this on a monthly basis.
Adapting to changing demands
Millham is also ready to acknowledge that what customers need today is somewhat different to what they needed 19 years ago. Although the expectations around ‘digital transformation’ are increasing, both for Salesforce and its customers customers, what Millham and CSG are seeing more and more of is a need for help with cultural change. This is something we hear about time and time again writing about end users, but it’s interesting to see a company the size of Salesforce working formally with its customers on ‘culture’. Millham says:
We had a customer come to us recently and say that they’ve got a culture challenge. They’ve been a very successful company over the years, and they want to know how they can move quickly in this new world with a culture that’s stuck in ‘what got us here will take us forward’.
And frankly, CIOs and others are saying that they need to change the culture of their organisation to make sure that they’re moving quickly, with agility to address customer issues. Often it’s not the technology that’s in the way, it’s actually the culture that’s in the way. We are doing some advising on that front.
That’s interesting. We’ve traditionally advised adoption, or process changes. We are now advising heavily on culture and how we can drive change within the organisation to meet the demand of customers.
Working in a division like CSG doesn’t come without its challenges, however. - or perhaps to put it more accurately, it doesn’t come without its demands. Salesforce has grown rapidly in recent years and Millham is all too aware that with that will come increased expectation from customers. This is front and mind for the future success of CSG:
We’ve got a lot of people dedicated to the success of these organisations. I think the demands on us can be challenging. The expectations of our customers continue to grow. If you think about our platform, it is really an enabler of digital transformation for our customers, these are big challenges our customers are facing. I think a big challenge we face as an organisation is, how do we skill ourselves fast enough to meet these demands?
The world is changing, everything is going digital, how do we make sure we are constantly meeting the demands of our customers in the marketplace? It’s something we enjoy, it’s something we look at every single day, as we skill and scale our organisation. Our challenge is keeping up with the demand of very innovative customers in the market today.