Zero to One: Customer Success with Gong's Linda Lin, previously Slack and Zendesk

To measure the success of a Customer Success team, companies need to ask how well the team drives adoption, maturation, and value. 

Linda Lin, Director of Customer Success at Gong, previously Slack, Zendesk

Linda Lin, Director of Customer Success at Gong, has spent the last twelve years working on customer expansion, sales, customer renewals, and account management at companies like Gong, Zendesk, and Slack.

Her superpowers are building and scaling world class Customer Success (CS) programs from $50M to $1B+ and building methodology for moving upmarket into the enterprise.

Slack is primarily a self-serve product– prospective customers don’t need to go through a demo or have a sales team member hold their hand when they sign up. Even so, as Slack grew to meet enterprise demand, they needed a more systematic approach to customer success. Enter Linda as one of the first 5 Customer Success hires at Slack.

In our recent discussion, Linda shared lessons learned from some of the fastest growing software companies.

Some highlights: 

  • The role of Customer Success
  • Zero to One: hiring your first CSM
  • The first 30, 60, 90 days for CSMs
  • Start scrappy, then centralize the strategy
  • Leverage early customers as evangelists & product experts
  • Beware of customer health scores

Every company is different, so there’s no right way to build out a customer success team.

However, Linda’s experience at Slack and perspective on engaging with customers will help you build a more systematic CS program, understand how to leverage early customers, and implement a methodology for measuring customer health and effectively engaging with customers based on their unique needs.

“The goal of CS is to be the bridge between the product and the people who use it. The CSM’s objective is to help customers find more value in the product.”

The role of Customer Success

According to Linda, many founders don’t understand how Customer Success is different from Customer Support. But to Linda, Customer Success is all about understanding your customers’ successes so you can help the company grow. When you have tons of users who love your product, you’re able to capitalize on their wins and grow rapidly.

How is Customer Support different from Customer Support or Experience (CX)? Linda answers as follows:

  1. CS is strategic and proactive. CS teams should take strategic and proactive action, while a customer support team should be reactive, responding to inbound questions, concerns, asks from customers.
  2. CS focuses on specific subsets of customers. As your company grows, so does your customer base. A CS team will define subsets of customers to focus their efforts on. A support team, in contrast, helps each and every customer.

To measure the success of a Customer Success team, companies need to ask how well the team drives adoption, maturation, and value. 

Zero to One: hiring your first CSM

Hire Customer Success shortly after your first GTM hires in Marketing and Sales. If you haven't already, hire in parallel with Customer Support.

If you have a scaled, tech touch CS model, you may be able to have one CSM experiment across the portfolio for some time before you layer on additional headcount.

If you have a high touch CSM model where the CSM owns a book of customers, then you need to determine the right ratio of customers/ARR each CSMs owns and project headcount needed.

Staying ahead of CSM capacity constraints is key in hyper-growth for the customer's experience and success.

Every company and product has a different proxy for capacity depending on what the CS challenge is and where you need the CSM to drive.

For example, at Slack, ARR indicates number of seats and as the CSM motion is mostly focused on driving adoption, you have to hire every x ARR that you bring into the business.

The first 30, 60, 90 days for CSMs

Not all fires need to be put out at once.

The first things to build are:

  • Your earliest customer journey playbooks, Implementation, launch, and onboarding
  • Early risk systems
  • Voice of the customer programs
  • Company centricity on customer success

My design principles for building CS programs are:

  • Agile, incremental approach - leave room for experimentation, let it be a graduate evolution of customer success methodology
  • Strategic planning & prioritization - have a framework for prioritization, knowing what fires to fight and what’s around the corner and which inflection points matter. Get around firefighting by  planning the work and working the plan
  • Democratized approach - Getting everyone involved within CS and include stakeholders outside of CS on the journey. This builds in change management and creates early alignment and company centric on customer success

Start scrappy, then centralize the CS strategy

When a company recruits its first customers, a Customer Success strategy is not usually top-of-mind.

Oftentimes, founders are interacting directly with their first customers, iterating on the product in an alpha or beta stage until it’s ready to see the light. And, in the case of a SaaS company, the goal is for customers to get the help they need on their own.

When Linda first joined Slack, the company was growing, but leaders knew they needed a more strategic CS strategy as they began taking on larger enterprise customers, many of which signed up on the website and came through other inbound channels. In the first few months at Slack, Linda said that the team was very scrappy. 

“My early days at Slack felt really scrappy. But as we thought about how to build up a clear CS structure, we had to consider our customers' needs, and then decide on the most efficient way we could support them. It happened incrementally.”

Linda led a team called Customer Success Strategic Programs. This team, understanding the immense scale and rapid growth trajectory, wanted to centralize the CS strategy so that the Slack team could provide a consistently top-notch experience to customers. Customers needed to have a consistently great experience, whether they were supported by the professional services team out of Japan, a partner team out of New York, or a sales CSM out of Austin.

As Slack grew increasingly on a global scale, Linda’s team recognized how important it was to centralize the strategy. Her team supported high-touch, scale, renewal, and post-serve teams, which are the main building blocks of CS. 

Leverage early customers as evangelists & product experts

According to Linda, early customers are very different from late ones, and they should be handled differently. These early customers are much more accustomed to giving feedback and adopting new features.

“Your earliest customers will have a different relationship with your CS team. They’ll be more likely to want to give product feedback because they were excited to join your beta. These are the customers who want to engage with your marketing materials– reading release notes, watching webinars, and reviewing other assets.”

Because of this relationship, you can rely on this group to help you share their successes, which is a huge win for marketing and sales teams. Your CS team can begin to collect and showcase customer stories and encourage customers to sign off on sharing their logo.

These early customers are more than an opportunity for sales and marketing content. You can also learn from them. According to Linda, you want to open product feedback loops so you can learn and improve during those early moments. After all, when you begin to do outbound sales, you might face more resistance in onboarding those customers and need to be more prescriptive. 

Focus your efforts on challenges that only a CSM can help solve

When it comes to a SaaS product, you want as much of your audience to be able to get the help they need from customer support, as well as documentation. However, there will always be challenges that customers struggle with. It’s CS job to jump in to ensure success

“Your CSMs should be solving the hardest problems for your customers that cannot be solved with self service documentation and that require a combination of domain and product expertise to prescribe best practices for the customers.”

Slack segmented and structured CSM programs by customer ARR because the more seats a company purchased, the greater the effort for an individual CSM to onboard the company and find ways to expand to more users, more teams, ideally aiming for company-wide adoption.  

In Linda's time at Zendesk, Customer Success ran a different playbook focused on driving adoption because Zendesk's product was naturally sticky as it served as the main operating tool for a company's entire Customer Support team. Once Zendesk is configured, the entire Customer Support team has to use it. In this case, Customer Success was tasked with developing programs to empower Customer Support reps with relevant insights, improved analytics, and driving daily efficiencies to ensure product adoption across the team.

Beware of the Customer Health Score

People often think of health scores when they think of CS– measures like Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), and Customer Effort Score (CES). But Linda is weary of relying too heavily on such scores. 

“I've seen health scores fall flat on their faces and not be used. And they can be very expensive, and take a lot of time to develop, and people buy fancy tools, and they employ fancy people to design it.”

Linda admits a health score can be helpful if you have (1) customers that are SMBs or (2) a wide variety of customers. 

“If you have a narrow patch of customers to start, and if you have more up-market enterprise customers, a health score might not help early on. That’s because your customers are more likely to be unique, and at this stage, a CSM’s qualitative lens outweighs what you might get from a health score. However, if you have a huge base of customers and need a quick way to model who’s healthy and who’s not, a score can be helpful.” 

Linda pointed out a few pitfalls to consider for anyone looking to implement a health score:

  • Pitfall #1: Relying on a single dimension. Linda has seen many teams rely on a single dimension to create a score, and then give that score too much credence. For example, a product team might create a score based on product usage which becomes a “product health score,” which is then populated into Salesforce. The inverse of that would be having a multi-dimensional health score that includes not only product usage, but also things like executive sponsorship, customer engagement, and the CSM team.
  • Pitfall #2: Using a binary score. Linda has also seen companies separate their customers into “healthy” or “not healthy,” which is not dynamic enough to give anyone an accurate picture of the health of the customer.
  • Pitfall #3: No one uses it. Many times teams design a health score, but no one uses it. This is because they design the health score without creating a playbook for what to do with that health score. Alongside that scoring, you need to also have the bandwidth, and the CS manpower, and the CS experience for someone to develop playbooks for areas such as retention, and risk, and escalation.

Watch the full discussion at b school with Linda Lin here. As always, I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts and comments on Twitter.

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