Featuring Rachel Orston, Chief Customer Officer at SmartRecruiters
This article is part of our 2.0 Leadership Series, where we provide practical insight into what strategic Chief Customer Officers are doing so the rest of us can level up more quickly.
CCOs often believe that if they’re handling the demands of managing their team—hiring, running training programs, talking with customers—they’ll be seen as a strong member of the leadership team. But then, when important company decisions are being made like a restructuring of responsibilities, they’re passed over as being “not strategic.” They’re stuck. What could they be doing differently?
Rachel Orston has seen all sides of what it means to be an ally at the executive level. She’s led teams in Marketing and Operations. She’s been a CEO, a Founder, and a Board Member. And today as Chief Customer Officer at SmartRecruiters, Rachel actively thinks about how her role expands beyond her own department.
Throughout her career she’s noticed areas where executives—and specifically CCOs—often get stuck on their path to becoming a strategic leader:
- They don’t know how to get “out” of the tactical work
- No one “owns” Customer Marketing
- The CCO doesn’t proactively influence the ICP
- The CCO is hired as a “way to reduce churn”
Below, Rachel shares steps CCOs can take to overcome each blocker.
Problem #1: Many CCOs can get stuck in a whirlwind of solving the problem of the day
Probably the most common pattern I see with CCOs is a tendency to get too much in the weeds. They're stuck in a whirlwind of dealing with people and the day-to-day tactical issues their leaders throw at them.
Don’t get me wrong, CS leaders who are stuck in this trap aren’t bad people leaders. In fact, their teams usually love them: they're the go-to person who solves all the problems. But leaders in this habit become exhausted, and they don’t get any strategic or proactive work done because they've spent all day reacting to the problems du jour.
This problem is felt in all company sizes. Leaders managing global teams at companies with $100 million+ in revenue have come to me completely drained and drowning in tactical work.
There’s a 3-step system I’ve used to help CCOs get out. In short, it’s a People, Process, and Systems analysis.
Before we dive in: even after doing this analysis, CCOs must reframe how they think about their priorities on an ongoing basis. No more “I’m going to get 30 things done on my task list.” Focus on the work the company needs you to do and the big strategic rocks you need to accomplish to take the company to the next level of growth.
Step 1 of your analysis: Do you have the right People?
Sometimes leaders get so close to their work they can’t see beyond it. A year passes, and the CCO realizes that the skills and people they have supporting them today are not the roles they need for the business tomorrow. This is a tough realization, but an important one and impacts roles at all levels.
As an example, the head of CS needs to regularly assess if the right CSMs are being hired to drive the right outcomes, to deliver the right value. In growing companies, you’ll find that the CSM profile your company needs will evolve quickly.
Before you proceed with hiring a new profile of CSMs, ask these questions:
- Do you need more enablement and skills training? A good example is if your customer is more technical and your CSM is seen as a go-between on product questions creating a frustrating experience for customers who want fast answers. Perhaps you need better training and enablement on the product for your CSM team in specific areas and/or better customer training.
- Do you need more relationship building with your Product team so CSMs can level up technically? Are you having the right conversation with Product leadership so they are clear on the training gaps? Are you receiving feedback from Product on their assessment of the CS team?
- ...Or do you actually need to start looking outside your existing team?
I'm a firm believer in team development and building folks from within your team. But there are times, for example, when you start to close multi-million dollar accounts and the profile of someone who can manage those relationships is very different from the CSMs that are managing 40-50k deals and have only 2-4 years of experience.
Step 2 of your analysis: Are you building a proactive muscle with the right Process?
One way to determine if a CCO is operating strategically is if they regularly review churn causes and customer feedback with their CS Ops team. Do they provide insights to the rest of the company with clear action plans and recommendations to support? Do they spend time digging into the reasons behind low adoption and lost accounts, instead of accepting high-level and unactionable reasons like “our champion left” or “the company lost budget”? Do they surface patterns in both causes for churn and in behaviors of “successful” customers, and then share that information with the departments that need it?
And from a team perspective: Is there a CS Ops team that identifies common activities their team does that either leads to success or loss, and then shares that information with the team?
Proactive CCOs have the right processes in place to identify patterns (with customers, and with their team) to make strategic decisions that drive company growth.
Step 3 of your analysis: Do you have the right Systems to drive the desired behaviors in your team?
The mistake too many leaders make initially is when they start with a system (e.g. purchasing AI or fancy reporting) before they think about the people and processes to make that system effective.
Once you have the correct people in the right roles, proper processes in place, and when you understand where you are creating your own problems, then it’s time to think about the best way to automate it. Do you need a playbook? Do you need a new system? Do you need a tool?
When you’re adopting new systems to support your business, think about behaviors you want your people to follow. How are you going to drive consistency in the business? What predictable behaviors do you want to see as a result of implementing a certain system? How would a new system change how you lead day-to-day?
Take call recording tech as an example. I love listening to call recordings and I spend time doing it because it drives a behavior that I expect of leaders—to coach their team, to listen, and to detect patterns. By using a recording tool, leaders can not only coach the individual on the call, but also the broader team.
Part of purchasing new technology is considering what culture you want to drive with the tool. If you don’t present a call recording technology in the right way, for example, team members might think you’re auditing them or using it as performance management. If you instead introduce the tool as being part of your coaching culture where the team is constantly learning and sharing from collective experiences, people will be more willingly adopt it.
Running a People, Process, and Systems analysis will help leaders get out of the daily technical work and identify longer-term initiatives that’ll have a larger impact on the business.
Problem #2: No one “owns” Customer Marketing
Two dynamics exist in many companies: Either the Marketing leader doesn’t naturally think about existing customers (they’ve spent their entire careers focusing on MQLs), or there aren’t company-level retention metrics that require Marketing to think about customers. In either case, if no one cares about marketing to customers, Customer Success must take ownership of that area.
These dynamics are so common that I foresee in the next 5 years that Customer Success will expand its influence over Customer Marketing as an extension of how to further drive value to customers. (By “Customer Marketing” I mean a combination of community, engagement, and customer advocacy that drives demand with existing customers and keeps customers wanting your product year over year.)
But today, Customer Marketing is highly under-invested in and there are few companies doing it well. The problem with no one owning Customer Marketing is simple: without a dedicated person creating onboarding materials, sharing ongoing product communications, and hosting customer webinars, CSMs have to scrape together this content on their own (and they have enough work to do already).
If a team is drowning in this type of work, it means the CCO isn’t scaling themselves effectively.
“I foresee in the next 5 years that Customer Success will expand their influence over Customer Marketing as an extension of how to further drive value to customers.”
So for CCOs new to building Customer Marketing programs, I’d recommend considering starting a customer community. They can be one of the most scalable ways for companies to connect with their customers, provide education, promote advocates—and for customers to connect with each other.
Here are some tips on running a stellar community:
- Establish a central focus of the community. Tie the “core” of the community to something that authentically matters to your business. Some examples: bringing together a specific role within companies (CS Ops, CSMs, DevOps, Sales Engineers, etc. - your target audience) so they can learn from each other. You could have a core message, mission, or otherwise shared activity you’re promoting, and bring together people who also believe in (or want to learn about) that message.
- Create compelling content around that message. I’ve heard the saying, “content is a magnet and community is a moat.” Content is how you can teach others about the core message you’re promoting. It can be fueled by your community to reach new audience members, or delivered to your community to spark discussion.
- Set expectations with the community and ask for expectations in return. Focus on building up your customer experience by asking the customer to set their preferences for the relationship. Ask them how they want to be treated, what they’re interested in, and what they don’t want in this community. Using this information will ensure you share relevant information with your customers.
- Build rituals into the community. That could mean Q&As, office hours, regular introduction messages, conferences… Help community members gather in a consistent way.
- And don’t shy away from conflict. Too many companies are scared of bad press or negative posts in their online community. Communities become stronger by highlighting, not erasing, the boundaries that define them.
Customer communities today are powerful, purpose-built solutions for engagement across the customer lifecycle. I aspire to provide a platform for customers to build a community upon—where customers are truly learning from other customers and improving their crafts together. When you've achieved this standard, you’ll hear customers say that their personal careers have grown because of their engagement in your community.
Problem #3: The CCO doesn't proactively influence the ICP
Type “Customer Success Ideal Customer Profile” into Google. You’ll see dozens of resources about how to create an ICP but almost zero on the role Customer Success should play in defining it. Why is it that the leader who is most in tune with customers doesn’t have a real impact on the process of defining what a good customer looks like?
Whereas problem #2 (“no one owns Customer Marketing”) means the CCO isn’t scaling themselves, the problem of not proactively influencing the ICP means the CCO isn’t showing peer leadership. They’re not thinking beyond their team. And it hurts their team’s performance, especially if the ICP is incorrect and the company is acquiring bad fit customers.
“I believe that the CCO’s imperative is to come into a company and ultimately define what success looks like for the customer and then align the company to deliver those outcomes.”
And it’s true that many CCOs don’t play enough of a role in defining the Ideal Customer Profile (ICP). But the ICP is an ideal; it's fictitious to some degree and it needs to be constantly revisited and compared with reality. CS should play that role of sharing “the reality” and that insight should drive the ICP definition forward.
Here’s how they can get more involved.
- Validate the ICP with real-world examples. Bring forward where the company is meeting the needs of the ICP and where they are not. CS also needs to expose the gaps and offer up opportunities for where the company can shore up those gaps.
- Proactively go to Marketing and Sales to explain changes in stakeholders and new personas emerging in the buying cycle. That's where CS can be a huge influencer in defining the ideal customer. Go back to the profile—are we selling to the right buyers? Is there something shifting in the profile of those customers' roles? Sometimes the buyer and the end customer are different. Sometimes new people and characters show up.
- Develop an avenue for CSMs to share who is having success with the product and why.
- Don’t forget to include Key Product Functionality (KPF) areas when talking about successful customers. Are your most successful customers spending time in a particular area of the product? That’s valuable information for Marketing campaigns and Sales talk tracks.
We're in the early stages of evolving this, but one of the things my team has in place is a program for CSMs to earn advocacy points when they surface win stories. CSMs fill out a form that gets put into a database to be shared with Marketing.
Keep in mind, not everything has to be a full-blown case study. We get ourselves trapped because we think of win stories as needing to look really beautiful, be seamless, and published to the website. Sometimes we get so focused on the deliverable that we don't break down the wall to just start getting the data flowing. Don’t worry if everything ends up being polished or not, let's just start surfacing win stories.
In a previous company, we actually took the win form with a summary of what the win was, what the customer saw, and why this led to a success milestone. Then this got pumped to a Slack channel that the whole company could check in on. Everyone wanted to hear about the wins.
Problem #4: Retention and churn are treated like CS's problems
Usually, when a new CCO is hired, it’s because another executive thinks “we have a retention problem.” The result of this is that CCOs tend to focus on decreasing churn by running a better Customer Success team. All the while, what the market actually needs CCOs to focus on includes the areas that impact the entire customer journey.
Instead of being “churn fighters”, what if instead our first thought in CS was to create more successful customers? I believe that the CCO’s imperative is to come into a company and ultimately define what success looks like for the customer and then align the company to deliver those outcomes.
“To start with retention feels like there’s a problem in a bag that one person is holding. Instead of owning “retention” (which is another word for churn) CS needs to own what good looks like, what success looks like, and what best looks like.”
Making sure that customers are successful is not a CS initiative. It's a company initiative. And the CCO is the person best suited to drive that motion. The CCO of the future is ultimately the champion of the customer who:
- Defines what success looks like.
- Aligns the company to deliver customer outcomes around that criteria.
- Develops the metrics and systems for accountability and identification of issues.
It's easy to focus on what's not working, but one of the first things I do at a new company is ask to see the successful customers. I line up all the other executives individually and ask, “What does success look like?” There’s a problem when 10 executives have 10 different answers. Therein lies, do we even have a shared interpretation of what a good customer looks like?
Every company has unhappy customers. But there are a lot of reasons why they're unhappy and the job should not necessarily be to fix all unhappy customers. Clearly, you want to save them, but that's how the whirlwind starts.
If we truly want to get out of the tactical work and start aligning the company around the customer, we have to start with what success looks like.
If my sole responsibility and my success is based on addressing negative retention problems rather than magnifying what's already working well for happy customers, I’m on the wrong path to be a strategic, effective CCO.
Managing these 4 areas where CCOs often get “stuck” will help them become more influential at the executive level:
- Problem 1: Many CCOs can get stuck in a whirlwind of solving the problem of the day.
- Solution: Use a 3-step system to dig yourself out of tactical work—use a People, Process, and Systems analysis.
- Problem 2: No one “owns” Customer Marketing.
- Solution: Decide who cares most about Customer Marketing, assign ownership over the responsibility, and consider creating a customer community.
- Problem 3: The CCO doesn’t proactively influence the ICP.
- Solution: CCOs need to work collaboratively with other departments to 1) validate the ICP with real world examples and expose where the company is currently falling short, 2) communicate with Sales and Marketing to explain changes in stakeholders and new personas emerging in the buying cycle, and 3) develop an avenue for CSMs to share who is having success with the product and why.
- Problem 4: Retention and churn are treated like Customer Success-only problems.
- Solution: CCOs need to convey the fact that retention is a company-wide initiative and goal, and also 1) define what success looks like, 2) align the company to deliver customer outcomes around that criteria, and 3) develop the metrics and systems for accountability and identification of issues.