With hundreds of customers worldwide, Achievers delivers a powerful new way for companies to engage, align, and recognize employees to drive business success.
We sat down with Vanessa Brangwyn, the VP of Customer Success, to discuss how Customer Success has evolved at Achievers over the last five years.
Can you tell me a little bit about your responsibilities at Achievers?
As the VP of Customer Success here at Achievers, I oversee the CS team which consists of about 30 people in Toronto and San Francisco, with some employees working remotely across North America.
In that role, I’m responsible for ensuring that we’re delivering value to our customers, making sure they see the results of their recognition programs, and the value of their employee engagement efforts through our partnership.
How did you get started in Customer Success and what was your path into your current role?
Prior to joining Achievers, I worked at several other successful software companies in the area of customer enablement and best practices, I knew that I loved working directly with customers, and that I had the skills and the passion to stay even more closely connected to them. But during my time in customer enablement, I would only be engaged with a customer for a certain project and then have to move on. So I always wondered, “What happened with that customer? Did they hit their goals? What does success look like for them?” And I knew Customer Success was the evolution of that.
I joined Achievers as a CSM in January 2011 and managed a portfolio of accounts across all industries (one of the nicest things about our solution is that it’s industry-agnostic -- all employees from all industries want to feel appreciated). As our company and customer portfolio grew, there were a lot of growth opportunities from a CS perspective, and I moved into a management role. I was able to learn a lot through that experience because by then I had been exposed to so many more customers (as opposed to just my own individual portfolio).
I continued to lead a number of other cross-functional initiatives in that role. And through that exposure, I was able to enhance some existing processes and develop some new, which led to this moment, where I’m heading up the entire Customer Success team. I’m really excited about it because I get to work with the best team in the business, every day.
How is your team structured at Achievers and how have you seen that structure change over the last 5 years?
At Achievers, there are two main components to our CS team – the CSMs and our Customer Support Services team.
Our CSMs, who each report to a CS Manager or Director, differ in the types of customers they manage. Everything from our smaller, mid-market customers to our larger, strategic enterprise customers, various CSMs are aligned to those portfolios. Collectively, although we’re about 30 people, we are very close-knit and connected, always sharing learnings and recommendations with one another. I still get involved in a lot of customer situations, and the Directors and I meet on a very regular basis to stay in touch with what’s happening. Our executive leadership team is also very involved with our customers demonstrating their commitment to customer success.
When I first joined Achievers 5 years ago, we had a smaller team that didn’t have as many layers -- there were just the CSMs and then our VP. As we’ve grown, we’ve definitely had to add an extra layer of strategic management to ensure we focus on the relationship-building at a higher executive level and on optimizing our service for consistency and excellence. Also, when I first started at Achievers, the CSMs kind of did everything. Since 2011, we’ve formalized our scaling efforts by implementing a customer support services team. We now have about 10 people who manage the day-to-day interactions with our customers on a tactical level. If a customer needs something from the platform that they can’t get themselves (ie. a report, a configuration change), this team is available to support these inquiries more effectively and efficiently. I call them the “heart and soul” of our team and I really mean that, because they allow us as a CSM team to be more strategic in our conversations. While they’re focusing on the day-to-day stuff, the CSMs can maintain that a strategic-level relationship.
In addition to that, we have a centralized field operations team with five amazing Subject Matter Experts, who support everything we do from a Customer Success perspective with respect to data analysis and insight, communications and customer enablement.
"When I first started at Achievers, the CSMs kind of did everything, typical for many start-up SaaS companies"
What’s the biggest advantage of your team structure?
One of the biggest advantages is that we start the customer relationship process really early. Many times, a CSM or member of the CS leadership will be involved in mid-late stages of the sales cycle. We help the customer understand and get to know the folks who are going to be an extension of their team and their partner in this journey. We really believe in a long-term partnership.
For many of our customers, they’re moving from a home-grown solution or from no formal solution, so this is uncharted territory for them. They’re a little apprehensive or anxious because this is something that’s going to touch every single person at their company, and so they want it to be very successful.
This may be hard to do in every instance because you don’t want to stack all your resources, but where it makes sense , I would highly recommend that your CSMs get involved during the sales process to help set expectations and help the prospect understand what the future looks like.
What’s the biggest challenge of your team structure? How do you address it?
The first thing that came to mind, which to be honest was a challenge even back when I started five and a half years ago, is onboarding. The role is so varied and there are so many areas to learn about and understand that it’s really hard to onboard efficiently. Not that we can’t do it -- but it takes a lot of time.
So one of the things we’re always challenging ourselves to do is, “How can we onboard someone more quickly? What are the best practices around getting up to speed in this type of role, in the CS world?”
Some of the things that help us with that is having a great Achievers onboarding strategy from an HR perspective when we onboard all new employees. For the CS team, we now have a dedicated enablement person to make sure that we do a lot of story-sharing, a lot of certification, a lot of roleplaying -- things like that. On-the-job learning will always be part of being a CS professional, and we make sure our new hires understand and are okay with that.
"How can we onboard someone more quickly?"
What does the culture of Customer Success look like at Achievers?
Achievers in general is very “work hard, play hard.” In fact, every single one of our job descriptions includes the phrase “9-to-5-ers need not apply.” We believe in results and are flexible enough to allow CSMs who know their book of business and commitments best to plan their lives, meetings, appointments as necessary.
Ultimately we have 8 core values at Achievers and the first one is “Focus on Customer Happiness.” However, it goes beyond, “Is our customer happy?” We’re looking beyond satisfaction. “Is our customer seeing the benefits of the investment that they’re making?” is really what we’re looking at. We spend a lot of time in Customer Success thinking about that value but we also know that every single department of the business helps us meet those goals and targets.
Another important value: “Learn from Failure and Celebrate Success.” Going back to our overall culture, we move quickly and we don’t always get it right. We make mistakes and we acknowledge them. We do reviews, we figure out what we could’ve done better, and then we move forward. And when things are going really well, we celebrate -- we celebrate enthusiastically. It’s not uncommon to come into Achievers and see us drinking champagne to celebrate the launch of a big new customer or the success of a new initiative. It’s something we take very seriously -- the flip side of failure is success and making sure to celebrate that success is important to growth and achievement.
How have you seen the culture change over the last 5 years?
That’s a good question because when I started, we were only 80 people. Something that kept our executives up at night -- “How are we going to maintain this culture as we grow?” We used to all be in the Toronto office. Not only did we grow in terms of number of people but also physically in terms of space. So how do you make that work?
I think one of the keys to success for us has been that we really live our values -- they’re not just written on the wall, they’re actually a part of our daily lives through our recognition platform, Aspire. So that's really helped us to maintain our culture. No doubt that as we’ve grown the culture has evolved, but I’d say the work hard, play hard mentality and the value-driven pieces of our culture have really stayed consistent, and the leadership team has done a great job in making sure that’s the case.
"How are we going to maintain this culture as we grow?"
What’s a typical day look like for a member on your team?
It’s funny -- I get asked this question during every single interview and usually I’m pretty honest: “No two days are ever the same. If you’re looking for something that consistent, you may want to look for something outside of CS in general, not just outside of Achievers.” The only constant in Customer Success, really, is change.
Generally speaking, a “typical day” would have a lot of meetings -- meetings, meetings, meetings. But it really is a lot of variety; there’s the customer work that you’re doing, then there’s also the internal groups you’re a part of, and then there’s the actual strategizing: Learning about your customer, spending time to see what’s going on in their world. One day you might be having an executive call with the head of HR for a 50 000 person-organization, and the next day you might be chasing down an accounting issue with our Finance team. But like I said -- a LOT of meetings!
"The only constant in Customer Success, really, is change."
How has your user base changed since you started at Achievers?
Initially, our customer base was primarily made up of mid-market Canadian companies, and we’re so proud of that, being a Toronto startup. But since then, our client base has grown at a faster pace in the US (many with a global presence). Now we certainly have more complex and more global customers than we’ve ever had before, which is very exciting for us because we are always learning and seeing what makes people feel appreciated in different cultures. While it’s universal to want to feel appreciated, there are different cultural nuances in the way to go about that. One of our big priorities with respect to the reward/incentive piece, especially from a global perspective, is to ensure our rewards are locally relevant and locally sourced.
What blogs or news sites are you reading at the moment?
I read a lot of stuff just through LinkedIn -- I feel like it’s an aggregator of so much great content. I’m in a lot of Customer Success groups; I love the formal articles and research-based recommendations, but I also love the community feel. A lot of learning, in my opinion, comes from people in similar situations. I also try to focus my time on attending those Customer Success meet-ups that we have in Toronto -- I feel really lucky to be a CS professional in this city, in this era right now. Every time I’ve been to a CS meet-up, I’ve always left with some really great takeaways and more connections, which has been awesome.
Because of the nature of our industry, I probably spend more time learning about HR practices and the HR industry in general. I actually read our own blog a lot; it’s called “Engage” and it was voted one of the best HR blogs because it covers so many relevant topics really well.
Finally one the blogs I follow most closely is a blog written by one of my customers. He’s the Chief People Officer at ATB Financial, and he writes a bi-weekly blog post. He’s very authentic and is also a speaker and author. His book, “The Character Triangle”, centres on three principles -- to be accountable, be respectful and be abundant. I started working with him in 2012 and it’s really shaped my career and my own leadership mindset since then.
"I feel really lucky to be a CS professional in this city, in this era right now."
What do you think is the most powerful part of your process?
I mentioned earlier that we bring Customer Success to the sales process; we also try our best to align skills and experiences when assigning new customers or when transitioning customers to an individual CSM. We do look at geography which is an important part of our strategy to have CSMs in certain markets. For us, because being a long-term partner is so important, it doesn’t make sense to have somebody on the east coast manage someone on the west coast -- time-zones are a factor and we make sure to be as available as possible for the customer.
With our enterprise customers, we try to have in-person meetings with them at least quarterly, if not more frequently. A lot of them are Toronto-headquartered, and providing them with a Toronto-based CSM allows us to spend so much more time with our customer. Today's technology is amazing with technology; you can call anywhere and see people at any time but I still think face-to-face is such a big part of relationship-building. We really leverage those opportunities for strategic and other higher-level discussions -- they’re much more powerful to do in person. We also bring our executives on site, especially for our top tier customers to reinforce the partnership.
How do you think Achievers processes differs from your competitors?
One of the things we do differently, something we focus so much of our efforts on, is having the most engaging platform. Anyone can implement a technology solution for whatever problem, but the implementation process and all of the change management that goes along with implementing something for all of your employees (possibly tens, of thousands, of employees) really is meaningless, if people don’t actually use it.
So what we really focus on is making sure that we’re creating something that people want to use. Because for most employees, when their HR team comes to them and says, “Oh, we have a new tool that we’re going to use,” very few people are going to think, “Yay! I’m so excited, I can’t wait to put my vacation request into this great form.” People don’t feel that way. Even though this is an enterprise application and most companies mandate that their employees use it, we really focus on creating the consumer-like experience – something people will love to use.
We need to make sure that people want to recognize their peers, that they want to be part of this culture of recognition, and we think that creating the most engaging platform is our way of ensuring that we stand out from the rest. Our metrics show that we do have significantly greater utilization than our competitors, and that is something of which we’re extremely proud of.
We also engage with an organization that helps us analyze why we win and why we lose. One of the things we’ve heard from these calls is that we win based on our services and we win based on our people. That’s why it’s so important for us to involve the CSMs in the sales cycle, because yes, you’re buying a technology tool, but really, you’re also buying a partnership.
"Something we focus so much of our efforts on, is having the most engaging platform."
What role do you think Customer Success should play in developing the overall business strategy?
As the Customer Success team, we are the voice of the customer, the advocate of the customer. We really do position ourselves as their trusted advisor within Achievers. It’s really important that our entire business is listening to what our customers are saying. In fact, much of the development and innovation that’s happened within our platform is a direct result of customer feedback. Our Product team does an amazing job of driving our solution forward. We are very closely partnered with them and bring them to many customer meetings to hear directly from the customer.
Our Annual Customer Experience (ACE) Conference is coming up in September (returning to Toronto this year!) and our Product team will be hosting a product advisory council where we get some of our top customers together and have planned a full day working session around hearing their feedback and suggestions. We also share some early stage ideas and plans that we have been thinking about to get their feedback.
"As the Customer Success team, we are the voice of the customer."
What types of metrics do you watch closely?
We look very closely at CSAT. And we use NPS to measure our customer satisfaction -- both generally, “Would they recommend Achievers?” and every time they have an interaction with us from a customer support perspective. We’re really focused on customer satisfaction and customer engagement.
We look very closely at usage and adoption -- as I mentioned earlier, this would all be for nothing if we didn’t have actual people using the platform -- and the CSMs are measured on that from a performance perspective. Then we look really closely at revenue, as we need to ensure that we are consistently growing our business.
And finally and most importantly, the one metric that underlines all of these is retention. We look at both employee retention and customer retention. There’s a model called the “Service Profit Chain” that we preach to our customers and believe in so much internally. Essentially, what it means is when you focus on your employees, you’re going to be able to drive higher levels of customer satisfaction, which is going to return better shareholder value. A lot of organizations start with what their customers need and what they need to do from a customer’s perspective first, but your employees are the ones who support and drive your objectives forward. That’s why to me, as the leader of the CS team, employee retention is as important as client retention because I see those two as the same thing.
How important do you think Customer Success has been to the success of Achievers platform?
It’s been everything, really. The fact that we have a client retention rate in the high 90s means that we are able to focus more of our efforts on continuing to grow our business and ensuring our customers see the value in their investment. And that’s been instrumental to the success of Achievers as we’ve grown tremendously throughout our history so far.
How can you tell that you’ve made your customer successful?
We know that we need to be aligned to our customers’ business objectives and work really hard towards what they’re trying to achieve. Because not all customers are the same, we work with them to tailor specific elements of the program to align to their goals. Ultimately, it really depends on what they’re trying to achieve (e.g., increased levels of employee engagement, decreased turnover rates, higher adoption of business-critical tools, etc), but in essence, I know we’ve made our customer successful when we create a program that aligns to their business goals, and demonstrates results for them as an organization in alignment with those objectives.
What does Success look like to you in your everyday life?
For me, it’s knowing that our employees and our customers are getting the value out of the work that they’re doing.
Additionally, I’m a mom, so I try very hard to spend a couple hours with my little guy everyday (he’s two). Even if it means getting back online after he goes to bed, I feel lucky that I’m in a position where I can do that; I could leave work and do the daycare pick-up, be there during bedtime. Having the flexibility to do all of that has been really instrumental to my success in this role because I also frequently travel to be with customers. So just getting that opportunity to find balance is success to me -- our “work hard, play hard” culture aligns to this belief in finding balance, because we believe in both personal and professional development and growth.
What advice do you have for Customer Success Professionals who were in your position 5 years ago?
What I would say to myself five years ago or others in a similar position is something along the lines of, “In order to be successful, you need to be really passionate about what you do.” It’s so much harder to go about achieving success and achieving your goals if you’re unhappy with your job. Steve Jobs once said, “The only way to do good work is to love what you do”, which is completely aligned with how I feel.
That goes for both personal and professional objectives because ultimately you need to be authentic, you need to be true to yourself. To be fake; maybe you can get away with it for a little while, but long-term it’s going to be a lot harder on yourself. Also, focus on those relationships, both internal and external, as those are going to be the keys to your success both in your current role and beyond as well. At the end of the day, everyone holds their own career path and trying to figure out what that looks like for you is a very unique experience.
Photos by Trisha Armeña.