Scaling Customer Success - SaaS Business Asia Podcast Episode #2

Customer Success is a main revenue driver in a growth stage SaaS business, and as it proves its ROI, it can become one of the largest teams. 

This podcast episode features and interview with Saloni Singh, the VP of Customer Success at Ematic, a SaaS business selling email marketing solutions powered by AI. Her Customer Success team currently counts 55 people across 8 markets, mainly in SouthEast Asia but also beyond. 

Click Play to hear Saloni sharing her experience and advice (or read the transcript below).

 

Transcript:

Adelina Peltea: Welcome to SaaS Business Asia Podcast episode #2 on ‘Scaling Customer Success’.  

Today we're going to discuss with someone that has tremendous experience in Customer Success and has managed to scale teams across corporate and startups in the SaaS environment. 

I am Adelina Peltea, co-founder at SaaS Business Asia and CEO at Growthsmiths, and I have today with me Saloni Singh who is VP of Customer Success and Growth at Ematic, and was previously in Customer Success roles for LinkedIn. 

At Ematic, she scaled the team from 6 people to 55 people, across 8 markets, in one and a half years. She also has a very interesting approach to Customer Success as a revenue driver. I’ll let her tell you all about it. 

So, Saloni, would you like to introduce yourself and say a bit about your background and how it all evolved.


Saloni Singh: Thank you so much for having me. I currently represent Ematic Solutions. I lead their Customer Success and Growth team. Ematic Solutions is a SaaS startup in the AI space and we are helping digital marketing folks use AI to drive intelligence across cross-channel strategy. 

Before this I was at LinkedIn, which is not only my favorite networking platform, but also one of my favorite companies there. I started there as a Junior CSM, and then moved up to lead strategy and operations for APAC, and eventually took a lead in digital marketing / Customer Success globally. And before that, I was in marketing, advertising, and branding, and a few other industries.

Adelina Peltea: Awesome. And what were your main learnings from the times at LinkedIn? And what made you switch to the startup world after that?

Saloni Singh: I think the underlying learning for me across my career is that Customer Success has a pivotal role to play. I felt that when I was a really young CSM in my first job back in Mumbai in India for LinkedIn, and I felt that when I was in a more strategic role at LinkedIn, and I felt that Ematic as well. 

And Customer Success in APAC is in very nascent stages. We're seeing an evolution here. Compared to North America and EMEA even, we're a few years behind. But I think the good thing is that we get to be part of that story. 

My learnings from LinkedIn were how to do Customer Success at the scale of business that LinkedIn Talent Solutions is, working with really big customers which have extreme presence, and with very small SMB customers back in Mumbai. 

So I worked in the SMB space, followed up by enterprise, and key accounts, and global. And I learnt what remains the same and what changes when you move up segments. 

Why I came to the startup space is... I think everybody who joins a startup comes from the build mentality. And when I met Paul, who is my CEO here, in our first meeting over coffee, he looked at me and said "I'd like you to build the team that you think Customer Success should be like". And that was a challenge that I just couldn't resist. 

Adelina Peltea: And how important was Customer Success at Ematic from day one? 

Saloni Singh: The reason Customers Success in most companies is perhaps undermined - it's leadership mindset. Most CEOs, most founders probably carry a very traditional view of Customer Success - which is left over from customer support, tech support, account management, and relationship management - which are all standard teams that should exist and very much have a role to play, but they don't represent Customer Success. They are subsets of what Customer Success can be today. 

So I think the reason I was enthusiastic to take this on is because Paul believed Customer Success could be more. 

The first thing I wanted to do was build Customer Success as a revenue driving team. So I wanted to get that 'support team' tag off our foreheads and really be seen as a business partner, a profit center even, if possible.

The second thing was: what do you need to be able to do to deliver that. The team started with six people, six really bright young kids, when I joined. Obviously this was their first job, they didn't really know what to do, how to work with customers even.

But what we did first was organising what the Customer Success will do, set KPIs - they were very important to me. So our KPIs for instance, at Ematic, are threefold. We have baseline retention - which is of course churn prevention. Then we have organic month on month growth of the portfolio, in terms of revenue. And then there is up-sell and cross-sell. All those three combined contribute to one big number that Paul and I have agreed on, which is just portfolio growth month on month. 

Adelina Peltea: That's actually very interesting because I know many Customer Success teams out there that just report on number of tickets solved or churn prevention or stuff like that - while you're talking about revenue as main KPI which makes perfect sense in the SaaS world. It's a subscription business, you have to pay every month or every year. And Customer Success is the team that is in charge of customers from the day they sign, basically. But how did you manage to introduce that mindset? 

Saloni Singh: The work that Customer Success Managers were doing when I joined was very tactical.

What you are delivering to customers also directly impacts the role that you play in customer relationships. If you're someone who's just answering the phones and responding to their tickets then that's how they will treat you. And then that's your role in the company, you're supporting. 

So that's why the first role that I actually launched was a role called Customer Success Strategist, which was basically focused on partnering with the customer in driving their digital marketing strategy.

Or at that point we were predominantly email so we were driving that email marketing strategy. But no longer saying things like "oh well, we've sent the email it went out at 6pm last night". It was about "well, here's your e-mail marketing strategy and here is what our data looks like". So just changing the narrative entirely.

That didn't take away the day to day work. I feel every job in the world, including CEOs, have grind work that they must do, discipline work that they must do every day, which we continued. But we added a layer of strategy on top of that, and that made a change in the way people saw us internally, a change in the way customers saw us.  

And the next step, of course, was training. I don't think I've ever invested in internal training as much as then. Very hands on. So I pretty much got on the plane every week to travel to individual markets where I not only met customers because they were going through their own evolution and education, but also took my teams with me at meetings to see what kind of conversations they should be having. So slowly the wheels began to turn.

And then we even reorganized the team, and some people became the CS strategy folks, some people remained as Customer Success Managers. And we said "all right, you just think big and you get work done". And "both of you work together and make sure that the customer is successful". 

Adelina Peltea: What was the journey of the team structure and the team roles? So you started with six people. What was their main responsibility? And then you said this role, the Customer Success Strategist, was your first hire. How did things evolve from there? 

Saloni Singh: In fact we were hiring quite aggressively at that point. So when I joined, we were in four markets. Now we are in eight. And luckily the Sales team was absolutely killing it, so we were getting new customers every day. 

Adelina Peltea: Can you share what was the baseline in terms of revenue or number of customers or anything? 

Saloni Singh: I think we were around 100 customers when I joined in July 2016 and we are closing at around 500 now. So it's been enormous growth for a year and a half. It's been a phenomenal year for us. 

And so, because of that, geographically... the countries were exploding and.. And what's great about being in Asia is that each country brings its own culture, and language, and dynamic. So we had to make sure that we had a country level understanding of the model and a regional plan for what Customer Success did. 

So in terms of how the org developed, there were two main people needed on every team. So there was a Customer Success Manager, and we also had a Customer Success Engineer, who is basically someone to manage the API integrations and any technical work that needs to be done. So we mixed them into a tag team. They worked together and there was a team that was attached to every customer. 

The Customer Success Strategy person sat on top of both of them. He or she was the one who came up with the plan for the customer, in each market. So we had eight markets, therefore we had eight Customer Success Strategy people that were on a separate team, and then there was a whole execution team below it. 

The execution team eventually grew from two people to eight people per country. So that's where the growth came from. And then the Customer Success Strategy people eventually became managers. So it was a direct path to not just owning strategy, but also owning revenue responsibility. 

So now the country leads own their entire portfolio. So my country lead in the Philippines has a book of business. She decides what she needs to do, how many people she needs - so we eventually coach them into absorbing talent planning, account planning, account allocations, visiting customers planning, marketing collateral.

Took us a year and a half to get there, but that's how we grew. 

Adelina Peltea: I know many people out there would like to have more people to hire, to have bigger teams. But they have to prove why would that make sense for the business. They need to show some ROI basically. So how did you convince your CEO or the investors, whoever you needed to convince, to grow the team? 

Saloni Singh: Two things worked for us. So the first was that we had clear KPIs, which were around revenue growth.

So as long as my team was doing their job, we were contributing to revenue growth for the company and therefore the CEO had no qualms investing back in that team because we sort of became the golden goose. The more you fed it the more golden eggs we laid....a horrible analogy. But that was one.

Eventually, over time, as a company we got very close to profitability. Full credit to my CEO, he came up with an expense prioritization exercise where, as a business, all of us, would get together and then say "if you drew 40 percent growth month on month, then 20 percent of that we would invest back in the business, and 20 percent would go back to what's driving profitability for the company". So if you wanted headcount, well then - do something. Get the company to revenue. And then you get part of the headcount, and you run with it, and you hire people. 

Ematic it's a hyper growth company that, surprisingly, had a very planned approach to how we spend our money - which is great. And a lot of that credit goes to the CEO.

In terms of talent, we were literally a small unknown startup. We still are. And therefore we don't have brand equity to attract talent sometimes. We were attracting a lot of talent that had no customer success experience whatsoever, and therefore they had no way of being able to do the job that we were hiring them for. 

Adelina Peltea: Actually, where do people that apply for this kind of job come from? Like, from which kind of backgrounds? 

Saloni Singh: We got a lot of Account Managers. We got a bunch of people who are on Customer Support teams. Those are the two big categories. Both have parts of the job.

So the Customer Support people are very good at tactical work. They are very good with the response times and just the right attitude. But they didn't understand revenue. You showed them a revenue sheet and they just panicked. They had Excel fever. 

Account Managers on the other hand understood portfolio, understood managing revenue, understood growing customer relationships, but they always had the mindset that "when the customer asks me a question I have four people have at my back to pass that question to". So "if they ask me a technical question, I will pass that as a ticket to someone else in the back and then that person will resolve the ticket". So they lacked ownership. They didn't know how to do it all themselves. 

And we had built fully equipped Customer Success Managers who manage each relationship end to end. 

Adelina Peltea: So what is the secret of your training? 

Saloni Singh: Just training. On the job training, calls every week, hands on training. We did workshops. We invested in getting people to the same location and training them for two days. I think it was about learning on the go. So there were some moments where we said "all right, let's hustle and get it done and then we'll go back and fix it". But yeah. 

We decided to go with the 'hire young'. So we were looking for attitude more than skills. We were looking for people who were customer centric. That's my number one red flag. If you're going to look at a customer, come back and bitch about them, then you shouldn't be on a Customer Success team. You need to have problem solving skills. In Customer Success things go badly more than they go well. It doesn't matter if you're 25 or 45. If you're a Customer Success person, you're giving advice to someone else who is an expert in their business, so they will only trust you and follow your advice if they believe in you, believe that you care and believe that you're saying the right thing.

Those are the three things I think I changed in the entire team relentlessly. Just every week we would talk about it. 

Adelina Peltea: So far we talked about scaling Customer Success more in terms of the team and how the structure evolved. But what about the other side about making it more scalable through other means? Would you like to cover that part as well? 

Saloni Singh: So I think somewhere around Q3 last year is where our business expansion began to stabilise. So we had the four markets to eight markets, that stabilised. We had teams on the ground in each market, so no one was flying in and flying out anymore. Everything was good. 

And I think after that point, given the hyper growth coming in from our acquisition team, it was very important for us to come up with a plan that we wouldn't have to double the team every year. Because that's not feasible, even if we were able to do it, but it's not a good idea to have a large Customer Success team. 

We should plan for is efficiency. So more and more, if you can hire experienced people - that's the shortcut. If you can train your existing people, the same CSM can manage more customers over time. And then you just have to keep those milestones, which is why training is something we should invest in. 

The second thing is internal tools. So how do you make sure that information is noticed correctly? How do you make sure that information is tracked at the right time? Work is getting done, cross-functional collaboration is happening?  

Adelina Peltea: I assume you have lots of one-to-one interactions with customers. Do you also have one-to-many? 

Saloni Singh: One of the things that we did, which really helped us: we launched a webinar program last year. So we do a one-on-one kick off with every customer, we haven't change that. But to support that we've launched four education webinars which customers could attend as many times as they wanted. These webinars were around data driven performance, training on email marketing, how to manage your success within the company, things like that. So that was definitely helpful. 

We also started building collaterals, we wrote an e-book on email marketing, and then the e-book is something that people could download. Making more pieces of available self-service is something that we want.

I think people are hungry for information. Customers want to know more. And therefore how easily can some of this information be read by them on a plane when no CSM is on the plane with them is great, and we should balance that.  That also adds a lot of value to the one-to-one interaction that a CSM is having because a lot of the tactical work, a lot of the basic discussion has already been covered. So then that meeting is much more efficient and the conversation is higher level, which benefits both parties. 

Adelina Peltea: Any advice to people out there about how to spread the insights that you get from Customer Success to other teams? 

Saloni Singh: I think the leadership connection is very important. So with my CEO and our VP of Product, we literally sit next to each other and there's a lot of open dialogue. There's a lot of sharing. I think people put too much of a premium on business meetings and weekly catch ups. Do those because we need the discipline, but share anecdotes from your journey. More often than not, we'd get a beer or just sit in the office and talk about what we were doing and why we were thinking the way we were thinking. 

Adelina Peltea: So really humanise it. 

Saloni Singh: Yes, humanise it a bit. And make it more of a partnership versus "my team is doing this". Those boundaries need to be diluted. 

I think especially in a startup scenario, in SaaS and tech, it doesn't matter which team you sit in. We're all contributing to growth. We better be. It's not one team or the other. So leadership connection, I think, it's the most powerful. Because that's where most of the dialogues happens and that's where business decisions also get taken. 

From a ground up approach, I think I put a huge premium on listening to a CSM sitting in Vietnam, to what he has to say about the business because he sees customers every day. I sometimes don't. So I travel a lot to meet my team. I usually run a workshop when I'm there so I can meet and talk to customers directly not through someone. 

Adelina Peltea: You've been how many years in Customer Success? 

Adelina Peltea: My first job as a Junior CSM or Product Consultant was in 2013. 

Adelina Peltea: So 5-6 years now. And before that you were in marketing, right? So is there anything that you are using today from the marketing background that you had? Also I was looking at some stats from Totango's research published last year. And they were looking at the background of people in all sorts of roles like Customer Success Manager, VP of Customer Success. And only 7 percent were coming from marketing, all the rest were like from sales, support, and so on. 

Saloni Singh: I think my marketing background helped with the initiative I took at LinkedIn actually. It was me suggesting that having a digital marketing strategy for Customer Success can go a long way. And it didn't mean to replace CSMs at all. But there's parts of information and chunks of work that can be done digitally, in a self-service environment.

I think that's when I used my ability to be able to visualise a visit on the online channel, being able to think about the UI, how do people approach things when they are self-service. That's when I did that it did pretty well. We ended up calling it the Customer Success Centre.

Where it's helped me...I think marketing is about consumer insights. Only you do it at scale. 

Even if you are the biggest SaaS business in the world you have to figure out what business problem you are solving for the customers. 

It also puts me in that mindset constantly of how can we do customer success at scale.

So I'm very proud of my team members and I think it's phenomenal that we've been able to build such a large team. We're practically one third of this company at the moment, and so we definitely the dominant team. But there's always this thing in the back of my head "all right, we built it, we built the foundation, now how do we scale without adding new people?" And I think that also comes from marketing. 

Adelina Peltea: And speaking of this, when you look at the customer journey or the retention curve, how do you split it? How long is your onboarding period? What do you do about that? What happens after? How do you structure things around this? 

Saloni Singh: Our acquisition team, or our sales team actually, sells three months pilots. So someone gets to sign up for a trial and then that gives us three months in Customer Success team to make them very happy, successful, so they decide to stick with us.

And you know how sales guys are, they will go ahead and promise 10x results. And then they will set a three months trial, and the customer comes in and we do the kickoff, and then the customers decides to take two weeks off and we're sort of sitting there staring at our watch and saying "oh my god, I just have two months left". 

What really worked for us is the fact that our product is very easy to set up. In fact the product team has made immense progress last year. You can have the product up and live in a day. That's great. So we minimized that, and we made sure that anything that slowed the process down was removed. 

The onboarding phase for me is about setting up the customer, improving their ecosystem, making sure they are following best practices, and we're introducing a bunch of success KPIs. 

Adelina Peltea: Can you give me some examples of success KPIs? 

Saloni Singh: The 3 main KPIs are around opens, clicks, conversions. And conversions lead to revenue. You need to get there quickly, but for that you need to get your opens and clicks in line. So a lot of times they'll come back and say "oh, I've spent so much money". And we say "but he made you four times that much money". So if reducing cost was how you define success because of the stage your business is in, you could have told us that. We thought that you've given us your money to drive 4x results. But you're not excited about the results because you wanted us to be cheaper or something. 

We always had churn less than 2%, which is very good for our current startup stage. But it creates angst at the pilot conversion phase. Onboarding should be owned by us, so go to the kick off, sit them down, understand their business, understand what their success KPI should be and make sure you keep them informed. And then you track those all through the months. Then you get around two and a half months to deliver performance and then at 3 months we show them the results. We've had 100% pilot conversions ... a few people moved away because the product was a misfit right off the bat.

That's why I put a premium on onboarding, which is why we make our onboarding pretty high-touch as well.

Make sure that you're very available, and you're listening to them, you're watching them, you're making sure that if they're giving up or disappearing or if product adoption drops even for a couple of days - reach out, retrain, re-engage. 

Adelina Peltea: Cool. Very interesting. Approaching the end of our podcast episode, let's run through some advice you can give. One to CEOs out there for other SaaS startups. Two for VPs of Customer Success. And three for people that are just starting their career in this space. 

Saloni Singh: For CEOs, the only advice I have is give Customer Success a shot. It's a mindset change. Most SaaS companies are sales oriented and there's nothing wrong with that. But I like to think about if you are a SaaS startup which has sales and customer success it's like having two quarterbacks on your team. Why would you say no to that. So try it and find someone who will build that customer success team for you. 

Adelina Peltea: And with regards to scaling the team? 

Saloni Singh: It's important to understand what segment you're in, what market you're in. So if you are a SaaS startup that is about really top notch, Top 100 clients, and that's it, then you need five senior people in the CS team. Don't hire 55.

We started last year when we were primarily in the SMB space, and now we're moving up to enterprise. So it was more volume vs value for us.

But if you're in the value play where you've just got 50 customers, invest into smart people and give them the portfolio. But invest, and then they will grow the portfolio, and you'll want to grow your team.

So scaling a Customer Success team will come out of greed of growing your business and not as a requirement. So that's that's the advice to CEOs. It is a boost to your revenue line. It's not a customer decision, it's a business decision. And think of it as a revenue driver. 

For VPs of Customer Success, the advice I would have is don't limit or don't get bullied by the teams that exist. One of the things that I've heard a lot about, but I've not really faced, is that Sales and CS don't get along because sales will sign anybody they can get their hands on and then CS gets stuck with them. Back at LinkedIn I had phenomenal relationships with all of my sales guys. It was never a problem. Even here our relationship had a rocky start because we were all in hyper growth environment, but we've stabilised and we've done really well.

Adelina Peltea: So what's your secret? 

Saloni Singh: Be very clear which turf you're on and which you aren't. And be good with giving feedback. There's been some wars and fights in the hallways about a bad customer that sales signed. But again don't make it a CS-Sales fight.

Step back and think about the business. So the way we won the war was: I sat down and I analysed the resources or the money we spent in managing the bad fit customers and then the revenue that they'd actually given to us. We were over investing in those customers and we were getting nothing back. So then I went to my CEO and asked if he wants to continue doing this because it's not going well for the business. It's not a CS call, it's a business decision. That's when he said "OK, that doesn't make money, we're losing money on those customers". 

Don't fight with the other teams, find your space, and then own the revenue. Most CS people run away from targets. Sales guys can be cocky as hell, but they have targets on their back and they live under a lot of pressure. So if you are a CS person who wants to be a revenue driving person then also realise that it comes with the pressure. So great pressure, great responsibility. 

For someone who is starting their career in Customer Success - first, kudos for making the choice. It is phenomenal to be in this job. Second, the one and only thing which in my opinion is going to be a competitive advantage is how customers respond to you. So be good at working with people. If the customer doesn't like you, your career as customer success ends.

And the way to do that, and I get that question a lot: care about your customers, learn to care, get to know their business, get to know the person better. And truly learn to care about someone. That will make their 3am calls bearable, that will make the hard days bearable, that will make you want to celebrate with them when the good days come. So that's one, learn to care about your customers. And if you don't, and truly ask yourself that, then switch , switch to something else, you're not going to be good at this.

Second, learn to be data-driven. Customer Success is as much about relationships as it is about performance. So if you don't have a data-driven approach to performance, you're not going to be able to describe success or even deliver it beyond a point and no one is going to be happy. Think ROI. Think how do you make them successful. 

And the third thing is: you're in a product company. So invest in understanding the product, invest in understanding that entire space. Don't get lost in your work to the extent when you stop reading, when you stop training, when you stop listening to podcasts, when you stop listening to other CS leaders. 

Adelina Peltea: Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing all of this and especially for being such a spontaneous discussion. 

Saloni Singh: Thank you. 

Adelina Peltea: Once again this was Saloni Singh from Ematic and Adelina Peltea from SaaS Business Asia and GrowthSmiths. Till next time, bye.