Apr 26, 2021

What Does Customer Success Bring to a Leadership Team?

David Sakamoto, Eleanor O'Neill, Steve Sanchez,

By David Sakamoto, Eleanor O'Neill, Steve Sanchez

Leaders at GitLab, Gong, and Spacemaker AI share their take on how to advocate for the Customer Success organization and become more strategic at the executive level.




How do you view the role of the head of Customer Success?



I’ll start by saying that it’s important the CCO has a seat at the executive table. If you think about the skills of a Sales leader, that person is focused on new growth. I view the skills of the CCO as being focused on scale—they protect the majority of the revenue that supports the company. They’re making sure the company can deliver value to a growing customer base. Those are two unique perspectives that both need a place at the executive level. 


Considering Customer Success spends more hours with users than any other group in the company, one of the core responsibilities of the CCO is making sure there’s a central place where the rest of the organization can view data about the customer experience. 


Customer Success has a lot of raw material coming in from user interviews, customer calls, usage data, customer advisory board meetings, support messages—they have a whole bank of raw qualitative and quantitative data about the customer experience. The magic happens when you synthesize the data and roll it up. 


The first level of rolling up that data is to visualize trends. What’s going up, what’s going down, what are customers asking for, and what is the impact of those requests. It’s offering a view into the “state of” the customer experience so other teams can leverage that information.


Level two is to use that information, along with what you’re hearing in meetings with executives within your customer accounts, to provide strategic recommendations to other functions. That’s when the Customer Success leader starts to advocate for which partners the company should integrate with, which headline features the company should be thinking about, and where the company is falling behind. 


I’d note that having this information asset is especially important with Product, because Product teams without access to this information tend to become disconnected from user needs. So apart from having this information asset in place, one of the initiatives we have at Spacemaker is to also create space in all of our user meetings for product people to attend. We essentially create another channel for Product Managers to get closer to users. 


In short, no team should have an excuse for being disconnected from the customer, for making assumptions, or to think they know best about what customers need—and it’s the CCO’s job to put this environment in place. And if the CCO can be proactive to provide strategic recommendations to the CPO, CRO, and CMO, that’s when Customer Success becomes a truly equal ally at the executive level. 


What’s your approach to building relationships with cross-functional peers?



Customer Success should be a company-wide approach and culture, not a department. If I were to stack-rank the relationships a Customer Success leader should develop, I would recommend the following order: Sales, Product, and Marketing. 


Sales and Customer Success are fundamentally connected, requiring a deep integration between the two organizations to create processes, metrics, and experiences that lead to a successful customer journey. At GitLab, the Sales and Success teams are organizationally aligned to the CRO, so some of that relationship happens by structural design. However, we’ve also developed a GTM strategy, processes, and mindset that is focused on the entire customer lifecycle. As an example, the first slide of our recent board deck was the customer journey map, establishing our multi-year adoption and expansion approach as a foundational element of the long-term strategy. While a Customer Success leader needs to drive initiatives to operationally connect the teams, it’s critical that the executive leadership team is aligned to the customer culture and mindset.


Building a relationship with Product is critical to facilitate customer interactions, feedback, and metrics between the customer and the Product Team. As the head of the Customer Success organization, I try to start from a place of empathy.


Product Management is a challenging job as they have multiple channels of feedback, including customers, industry analysts, sales, partners, executives, etc. They have to process all this feedback and ultimately drive a product strategy with detailed requirements at each release. I believe the Customer Success leader should assume the responsibility to coordinate the interactions, enhancement requests, and customer metrics to make the feedback as consumable as possible to support this decision-making process. Ultimately, this will result in a better product that will help both the customers’ and company’s outcomes.


Customer Success leaders sometimes forget about the relationship with Marketing but it’s so critical, especially at scale. When you’re creating a digital journey that serves a diverse set of customers, there’s a big overlap between CS and Marketing. You have to create rules of engagement to establish digital governance whether it’s emails, campaigns, events, surveys, etc. This ensures the digital touchpoints are orchestrated as well as providing consistency in messaging throughout the journey.


Ultimately, your company-wide Customer Success approach should look to create a consistent experience across all the customer touchpoints (e.g., Sales, Marketing, Product).

How can Customer Success become more prominent at the executive level?



I’ve always been on the side of Customer Success owning a number that matters. Forecast a dollar amount target, work towards that target, and be held accountable for the results. That alone will bring Customer Success more clout at the executive level and, typically, more resources over time to serve your customer needs.


Remember, your customers are your biggest asset. The better you can fuel their loyalty and feed that back into your customer business, the more wins you’ll have to communicate back into the business and your future customers. 


At the end of the day, Customer Success can be a relatively thankless job and so in some ways you’re signing up for that. That said, CS is a growth function but HOW it serves that growth and the form in which it takes on to achieve it will change over time. As this evolution occurs, your measurement of CS and its impact on the company’s growth must be communicated to all levels of the organization. 


The CS leader is responsible for aligning with the c-suite to define the short and long term charter and how to fund Customer Success over time.


Without a true north to drive towards and a funding model even loosely agreed to, you will inevitably lack focus and, sooner or later, lack the funding you need. 


You can't expect additional headcount or additional investments (like tooling) if you're not tying it to how that impacts the business. 


In my opinion, we’re moving past the exploratory phase of Customer Success and it’s now put up or shut up. 

How do you see Customer Success evolving in the next 5 years?

There are two key areas where I see Customer Success evolving, and the first is digital. Often, people relegate digital to the lower paying customer segments but there’s a lot of opportunity to leverage digital capabilities to provide better experiences and efficiency across all segments.


The second area is the general maturation of the Customer Success practices. While it will provide some common, shared approaches, the bigger benefit is creating a larger pool of experienced Customer Success professionals in the market.





Customer Success will become more systemized, both operationally and in the tooling. There’ll be an integrated playbook across Sales and Customer Success instead of having two separate playbooks. Today there’s the Sales playbook and the maturing Customer Success playbook, but I think the companies who are going to be most successful in the future will have a truly integrated playbook so that these teams are cooperating for the ultimate success of the organization and its growth.





I have two predictions. First, COVID has shown a business response for companies to "protect their base". For those slow to invest in CS in the past, this was a rude awakening. However, the reaction to deploy processes to mitigate customer risk and drive deeper value (core charters for customer success) will remain long past any "stay at home" order.


Also, SaaS companies in the public markets are educating everyone on the power of subscription models. CS, being a core function to support this model and growth, will ride the coattails of this maturing model and find itself expanding into other industries and verticals as well.