Myth: CS teams should be driven by Customer Satisfaction

With David Sakamoto, former Global VP of Customer Success at GitLab

In Episode 8 of this series, we were joined by David Sakamoto, who has dedicated his career to continuously delivering value throughout the customer journey.

David is driven by the thrill of leading customer success, transforming businesses and teams, and optimizing the delivery of products and services to maximize customer value and propel revenue growth. 

In this conversation, David dispels a CS myth, shares actionable advice for CS leaders, and envisions what the future of CS will look like.  Let’s dig in. 

1. What myth about customer success is due for a reality check?

While customer satisfaction is a helpful measure, happy customers churn. 

Customer success should focus on accelerating customer value and outcomes and contributing to the company's revenue growth. The strategies, operations, playbooks, and measures should align to deliver these goals. 

While practices like onboarding, adoption, risk management, and customer satisfaction are crucial, they are supporting milestones to proactively track the achievement of the core customer and business outcomes. CS leaders must continually invest in these journey milestones to improve visibility and predictability, highlight risk and expansion opportunities, and drive appropriate engagement and actions.

In today's market, it is critical that customer success practices demonstrate a direct impact on revenue results. Examples include quantifying customer revenue risk in dollars rather than merely labeling them red, yellow, or green. Customer success-qualified leads (CSQLs) with conversion rates is a way to measure the positive impact on expansion.

The team's DNA must be developed thoughtfully to ensure customer engagements bring the right mix of solution expertise, commercial focus, customer-centricity, and operational depth. Teams need domain experience, customer management skills, operational frameworks, and a commercial mindset. 

2. How did you find your way to a career in Customer Success?

My career decisions have often been guided by three simple questions:

Will I learn? Is the problem challenging and exciting? Is it something I can uniquely solve?

This approach has guided my journey through a diverse collection of experiences, including process engineering, new product introduction, sales and solution engineering, product development, engineering management, professional and support services, global operations, and ultimately, customer success.

My journey has cultivated a systems view of customer success, with a profound understanding of the intricacies of the customer journey from marketing, sales, adoption, and renewal. Customer Success is a team sport and requires a cross-functional design and framework. A successful practice aligns and integrates go-to-market strategies, product investments, and customer operations while cultivating strong organizational partnerships to deliver unified customer experiences.

3. What advice would you give someone early in their career in Customer Success?

Focus on building domain expertise, cultivating a passion for customer-centricity, and developing cross-functional collaboration skills. Evaluate your skills and experiences to identify where you have development opportunities. This process can take time, so prioritize areas that deliver the most significant impact and are a source of inspiration and growth.

As you grow, remember to build and nurture your professional network. Partner with individuals who can offer mentorship, guidance, and support, actively engaging with them. 

Remember that networking is a two-way street; make sure to bring value to your network and community.

4. What advice would you give to Customer Success leaders?

Develop and hone your storytelling skills. These will help you articulate your vision, justify decisions, and rally support for your initiatives. It's about effectively communicating ideas, actions, and preferences—internally with your team and externally with customers and partners.

It’s our job as CS to orchestrate value and touchpoints across the organization, educate the organization on what customers need, and promote customer-centricity. We should facilitate executive sponsorship and bring customer insights to the broader organization. Examples include prioritizing product requests, sharing customer metrics and survey feedback, and facilitating customer fireside chats. A shared understanding of the customer journey, operations, and culture is essential to develop a company-wide customer success motion.

Customer success is ultimately focused on delivering product success; pay special attention to this relationship with the Product Team. It is fundamental to have a systematic and repeatable way to track and prioritize customer requests. Other important areas of the partnership include maintaining a shared product adoption journey, sharing and educating customers on new capabilities, and facilitating customer engagements with Product Managers.

5. Why does your organization invest in Customer Success? How do the CEO and leadership define or measure success for CS?

At its core, it’s about the fundamentals: driving customer and commercial outcomes. Key measures should be focused on these three areas: adoption, retention, and expansion. Supporting metrics are needed to proactively manage these outcomes (e.g., time-to-value, customer risk, sentiment) throughout the journey with ongoing attribution tracking. Investments in CS and related programs must directly impact retention and growth. 

Ongoing efficiency will always be a focus. Digital journeys, automation, instrumentation, data insights, and technologies like AI/ML should be an ongoing priority for any CS organization.

6. What do you think is the future of CS, and how might AI impact it?

A fundamental shift in the market has increased the focus on revenue efficiency and profitability. Today, too many high-value services are delivered for free. Monetized offers or subscription lifecycle services will become more pervasive to improve customer experience and optimize product success. These offers will provide customers with adoption, education, consulting, and support services with packaging flexibility so customers can consume services considering their unique needs and stage in their journey.

AI will be transformative in customer success. Current investments improve productivity and data insights. Future developments will help prioritize, drive and measure digital and human engagement with a direct impact on adoption and revenue results. 

Digital and scale motions are no longer nice-to-haves. AI will contribute to developing higher-quality digital engagements. Capabilities such as more targeted and customized content, customized journeys, and rich digital interactions will continue to improve as the technologies evolve.

7. Given this focus on technology, how do we put humans back at the center of customer value delivery?

There's been talk about replacing CSMs with AI, but that's missing the point entirely. 

Humans buy from other humans. Period. 

We should leverage this innovative technology to optimize the value you bring to your customers with every touch point. For instance, CSMs can utilize AI to tailor their approach, provide specific recommendations, and have more valuable conversations. By automating repetitive tasks, CSMs can focus on what really matters: building trust, driving change, and strategizing with customers to solve complex problems. We will always need human interactions for emotional intelligence, relationship building, strategic planning, and creative problem-solving. 

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