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Highlights from CS Meetup 2019

By Durand Vadnais

The 2019 Kick-Off for the Customer Success Meetup was a tremendous success Wednesday night, scoring on both turn-out and topic.

Our official count was 347 attendees squeezed into the back-half an inviting space at General Assembly, San Francisco – for folks that have been coming for a few years, the growth from 20-30 attendees to 347 is outstanding and mirrors (outpaces?) the growth we are seeing generally in the Customer Success field.

Additionally, while I personally consume an incredible amount of Customer Success related content from a variety of partners, vendors and events, the CS Meetups continue to keep me engaged for three reasons:

  • small group networking with an outstanding community of pros
  • inspirational panelists sharing a volley of perspectives on hot topics
  • the convenience of great local venues no more than a few minutes from my office (alright- the food + beer + wine might help as well!)



Today, I simply wanted to share a few key takeaways from the conversation on a great topic with our excellent speakers David Sakamoto (Head of Customer Success, Cisco), Greg Tate (VP Customer Success, Salesforce), and Sylvie Woolf (VP Success and Services, Periscope) – moderated by Customer Success Meetup co-founder John Gleeson.

The theme for our discussion was 2019 Planning  – covering high-level approaches, a few challenges, and how to address a potentially tighter economy into 2019.


We had three fairly unique takes on how to approach planning as the three organizations represented were all very much in different stages.  Cisco – transitioning from hardware to software to SaaS.  Salesforce – very established, highly efficient and Periscope – moving from being a start-up, shifting up-market. Greg talked about optimizing 4 Pillars of Success – Services, Support, Strategy and Renewal and having appropriate teams for each.  When planning strategy the go-to framework for Salesforce is V2MOM framework (Vision, Value, Methods, Obstacles, Metrics) as many in the CS crowd already knew well.  I loved Greg’s example of how much fun it can be to write down a value statement (“can be kind-of-fluffy”), come-up with some creative methods, and then struggle with metrics – having to start the whole process over again. Cisco’s David Sakamoto leaned into the notion of leveraging a Agile-like approach through a VSEM framework (Vision, Strategy, Execution, Metrics) – constantly testing and iterating to build the entire “platform for success.” David’s catch-phrase for the evening quickly became “Always Be Planning.” This Agile-like approach became a fun topic with Sylvie providing some perspective as it related to a less mature company like Periscope where so much focus is on topline, the business itself is changing so rapidly, and CS owns an upsell target as well.


Common challenges faced by all leaders included the math to validate a CS model, identifying the right metrics, and overcoming cross-functional obstacles. David had a few great recommendations on math and metrics 1) Work closely with your CFO or finance team to develop a solid financial model for CS – don’t develop this in vacuum. 2)Spend the time to identify the key drivers to qualify your coverage and your spend.  You want these to be well-understood and to have collaborative buy-in early.  Greg and Sylvie agreed and added much commentary including the advice to focus on leading indicators as metrics (ie adoption vs churn) in order to provide much more opportunity for addressing obstacles early-on.

A nice segue into obstacles – the obstacles called-out by our panelists were a little unique to each business however all were quick to point out that not adequately partnering cross-functionally can ultimately be one of your biggest obstacles.  David jokingly used the example of buying the product and engineering teams lots of gifts to get those key contract-saving features pushed through backlog.  Greg noted how critical it is to get ahead of the curve with IT for any major tools you intend to deploy.

Tougher Economy?

Greg spoke to his relatively more mature SaaS business and how Customer Success could actually become more valuable as the cost to retain a dollar of revenue is a lot less expensive to retain vs the cost to go get new revenue.  David predicts while being a “Trusted Advisor” is of course essential to Customer Success, so is having an impact on revenue –it’s important not to lose sight of that -in fact CS might be more closely aligned with Sales in a down market.  Sylvie spoke of targeting churn and being able to identify incremental improvement in ROI compared to the investment in people and tools.  All agreed and recommended that you invest the time to clearly demonstrate concrete ROI for your key stakeholder and contract signer.

Questions from the crowd:

What are you doing to help develop culture and growth in your organization?

Again from left to right on the panel – David’s perspective: Just as customer journey needs to drive strategy, culture is driven by core values and then making sure behaviors align.  Your culture will also be driven by the lowest common denominator of behavior you are willing to accept. Greg and Sylvie agreed – Sylvie adding that employee feedback is critical.  I think it was David (might have been Greg) that said with a chuckle from the crowd “I guarantee that in any employee survey- no one is being paid enough, and no one knows what their career path is” outside of that, of course, feedback and communication is critical.  Greg: “If I ask for feedback and get crickets – that’s a real problem.”

Customer Success can be challenging – how are you helping your team stay healthy, providing tools for self-care?

This is favorite topic of mine – Customer Success Managers are obviously the front line with customers and if you aren’t providing them the tools they need to keep themselves balanced, successes will ultimately be short-lived.  While I entirely understand Customer Success as a function needs to be a cost effective endeavor, it can quickly become expensive as you being to churn through Customer Success Managers (and ultimately the relationships they manage).

The team had much to say on this as well – David returned to the importance of feedback from the team – CSM needs are often a “mirror of your customers needs.”  Greg dove into making sure you have the right people for the job, and the Empathy is the number one skill – something you frankly “can’t train.” He gave a number of good examples on how identify candidates with the right amount of empathy (read my article on this topic here).  Sylvie echoed the situation I’ve often faced – once you find good people with empathy – the challenge becomes training them to know when it’s OK to let go, and giving them the tools to defend themselves appropriately (i.e. reasonable industry benchmarks).  David pointed-out that the ability to stand one’s ground can become increasingly important when dealing with larger Enterprise customers, and is a delicate skill that needs to be rooted in confidence, together with the experience of potentially more senior Client Success Managers.

Finally the session ended just as it had started as a great discussion with sage advice that ultimately promised to be part of the day-to-day lives of 347 attendees as they mingled and left the event.  I’m looking forward to the next Customer Success Meetup San Francisco!

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