Increasing Productivity of Your Customer Facing Teams

I came across an HBR article from 1988 about how to measure productivity of manufacturing plants, and the formula was exactly as expected:Productivity = Units of Output / Units of InputThe simple formula above can directly be translated into revenue, and it's easy to measure (and test) productivity of one plan against another.  Fast forward 30 years, the formula still applies (we track LTV as one of the  metrics for Customer Success, for example), except we need to account for a lot more "unmeasurable" factors, such as communication overhead, team morale, and customer feedback.  For customer-facing teams, it is even harder to measure exact productivity of each individual or teams.  After all, we invest money and time into our sales teams and customer service teams, we want to make sure the teams are as productive as possible.In this article, we're going to cover a few ways to increase productivity of customer-facing teams.

Effective Communication Skills

While there are many tools that help reduce communication overhead, such as Slack and ContextSmith, people generally neglect the skill set required to effectively communicate.  Think about the last time you had talk to your internet provider's customer support agent. Chances are, it was a frustrating experience because the agent was either confused or tried to upsell you another product, when the very reason you called was to cancel the service.Running effective meetings is a crucial communication skill to acquire as a customer manager.  Be able to set clear agendas and keep the team on track is something that even seasoned managers don't do well. Another way to improve communication is through training.  For example, learn how to eliminate back and forths by writing clear, concise and complete emails.  Learning from experienced sales or account management executives is also a great way to get some quick lessons about how to communicate effectively.

Get Context Around the Customer

What folds in nicely with "effective communication skills" is that having the right context can help the team better support the customers and have more productive conversations around customers' needs.  Taking your internet provider example again, the agent can help you more if s/he has information about your subscription plan, tickets, and past conversation with agents.  In a B2B setting, all of these apply as well, as your Sales team can upsell better when they know how the onboarding went, number of high-priority tickets, and last conversations with the customers.  This is where ContextSmith (and other Customer Success software) shine, because the tool aggregates all customer data, including your email communications with customers, into one place, automatically organized by your customers.

Good Record Keeping

Having your teams track their time and activities is a simple way to see who is optimizing their working hours and who is just putting in time. In professional services, this is standard practice to bill customers on the work done.  In sales, tracking the number of outreach, emails, and calls can determine how busy a rep is.   The best part about tracking these metrics is that you're able to compare historical vs now, and continuously improve your process to maximize productivity.

Use the Right Tools

Get more done with less.  Operational excellence.  To maximize output, employees need good tools.  They need the right software, the right programs, at the right time and size of the company. However, knowing what tools are necessary and which are just causing distractions can be challenging. My previous Customer Success team used Asana for task management, Evernote for note-taking, SmartSheets for project management, Box for document management, Google Docs for collaboration, Clarizen for timesheets, Zendesk for support tickets, Slack for communication, WebEx for conference calls, Salesforce to interact with sales team, and Target Process to interface internal engineering team.  11+ tools just to manage day-to-day work!  Those tool worked for us at early stages, but as the team started growing, people started using less tools and are more focused on a vertical, rather than one-person-does-everything model.

Positive Work Culture

I presented to the board once about a customer going live after 6 months of deployment and onboarding.  The board asked a great question: "What did you do to celebrate?"  If your answer is "nothing", you need to change it.It's extremely important to have good morale among your customer-facing teams. After all, how can they sell or make customers successful if they're not excited about their own product? A lot of things can effect company morale - bad leadership, layoffs, changes within the working routine, etc. Customer service reps can burn out quickly by working with toxic customers. Imagine dealing with customer complaints all day, oftentimes from people who are rude or even belligerent. This can really cause some havoc on the morale for the team.  HBR wrote a great article about how to create a positive work culture.These are some "unmeasurable" ways to increase productivity of your Customer Success, Professional Services and Sales teams.  Remember these teams are the fire-fighters and the face of the company, so it is increasingly important to make the best out of their time and move the company forward.  Let us know if you have other comments or ideas! 

How to Make Customers Your Priority Without Stalling Growth (Part 1)

As fifth employee and head of Customer Success in my previous startup, I learned a few tips about growing a company and making customers happy, while keeping everyone's sanity.  The story I'm sharing isn't about all the perfect things we did to grow the startup from seed stage to 60+ employee Series B (it was far from perfect); this article focuses on lessons learned from what brought our team to its knees, and how we adjusted our strategy to scale our growth.  I will share my experience in a two-part series on how to bend over backwards for customers without breaking your back.


Never work for free

While this seems like a no-brainer to grow business revenue, we were actually giving out free pilots left and right during our early days.  As a small startup focusing on growth, we thought about ways to get more customers using our product.  While giving out the software for free was great to get product feedback, it was terrible to get customers.  Hence, pricing had been something we always talked about even during later stages of the company: Should the pilots be free?  Are we charging too much? Can we raise our price during renewal?"Free pilot" seemed like a great idea to lower the barrier for our prospects to try our product risk-free; however, there were strings attached.  The obvious disadvantage of free is the fact that we were actually working for free - burning the hard-raised money from our investors.  We justified it as an investment and put in a ton of time to make the free pilots successful, in hopes they would convert to real customers.  Who doesn't love free product?  Assuming the chances of customers buying after the pilot is the same despite free or paid, we were willing make them free in order to lower their barrier of entry to try our product.  The result? Total disaster.Looking back and summing up all the free pilots we did, none of them converted.  On the contrary, our most successful pilots were all paid ones, and the chances of conversion was much higher as well.  The main reason why "free" was terrible for both us and the customer was that we blindly assumed all customers love free products.  "Free" basically meant that customers were actually not committed to spend the time and resources to make the pilot successful.  "Free" also meant that they didn't perceive our product as something valuable.  In fact, it almost felt like they were forced into trying our product, because it was "free anyway".  And for us, spending a lot of endless nights at work without much appreciation was a counter-productive effort.

It's okay to ask dumb questions

Building a relationship with customers require open and frequent communication.  What may seem like "dumb" questions could potentially be eye-opening.  Below are some examples:

  • What do you want to get out of our product?
  • Can you clarify how you're currently doing [something painful that you're trying to solve]
  • Who is the solution for?

These questions may seem "dumb" at first because you know exactly the answers to them, which is why your customers bought your solution in the first place.  But no, do not assuming anything until you get clear answers from them.One mistake we made early on during our customer onboarding process was that we did everything for the customers without asking for clarifications or feedback; not that we assumed we knew what the customers wanted, but our thought was that taking up customer's time meant our product wasn't as easy to setup as we pitched it.   I remember there were a few occasions which the audience were executives from a specific department.  Even though we had a good idea what they'd like to see, the demo actually turned into a completely different conversation about an use case we had never thought of.  Lesson learned here was that it was okay to ask for clarification and frequent feedback.  Remember that customers want to be successful with their investment, and it goes without saying that delivering a targeted solution is much better than presenting something that the customers don't care about.This customer journey also has the IKEA effect, which states that "consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created."  From my experience, all of the customers who invested time and resources helping us help them had been successful.  The fact that the customers were willing to spend time and money on the pilot meant that they were serious about building a relationship together.Do these lined up with your experiences?  I'd love to hear other stories, and share more about my experience growing the Customer Success team in the previous startup.  Stay tuned for part 2!

Why Customer Collaboration and Technology are a Winning Combo

Every successful project requires a cohesive team effort; however, getting people to work as members of a team is often more difficult than it sounds. Customer-facing teams such as Customer Success and Sales face an even more arduous challenge of collaborating with customers and vendors outside their organization, resulting in miscommunication and huge loss in productivity. Fortunately, advances in technology now make it easier than ever for organizations to build teamwork and bridge inter-organization communications, encouraging people to strive toward a common goal. Here are some ways that modern technology is enhancing team collaboration in businesses both large and small.

Inter-Organization Communications

Communication that happens outside of your organization, unfortunately, is still mainly through emails.  The problems with email is that communications tend to be in silos and its inability to share information easily without spamming the audience.  Some smarter CRMs, such as SalesforceIQ, integrates directly with Gmail and shares them across the Sales teams, alleviating the pain of tracking communications with the customers and sharing them within the organization.  Some Professional Services Automation and Customer Success tools are also integrating directly with cloud email providers.  Accelo has out-of-the-box email integration as a PSA platform, and ContextSmith automatically tracks every email leaving and coming in from an outside organization.  As email systems migrates to the cloud, we'll start seeing enterprise software bridging the gap of inter-organizational communications.

Bridging Location Barriers

Getting everyone together to collaborate on a project can be challenging whenever team members are scattered. Thanks to advances in technology, individuals no longer have to meet face to face with customers in order to work together. Video and web conferencing software, such as Google Hangouts make it possible for employees to “meet” regardless of location. Internally, we're using Uber Conference, which is friendlier for customers because it doesn't require any downloads or a Gmail account.  The added bonus using a web conferencing software is whenever one person is unexpectedly called away from the office, as he or she can get together remotely with the rest of the group so that progress isn’t stifled. Groups are even free to meet with experts who might be across the country or across the globe in an effort to gather additional information.

File and Document Sharing

Some projects require individuals to perform certain tasks before getting together with the group. It can be difficult for everyone to do his or her part if there is only one set of documents for members to share. Cloud-based computing takes away this obstacle by allowing everyone in the group to access documents and make changes. File sharing software, such as Box, allows individuals (inside and outside your organization) to upload and share documents document and files.  The best part about Box is that it tracks every single versions, so if someone accidentally overwrites important documents, those can be recovered.  Google Docs is also one of our favorites that we use internally everyday, as it allows teams to edit the same document at the same time.

Enhanced Communications Through Shared Inbox

Good teamwork requires excellent communication between all the members, something that can be especially challenging when each person has a very busy schedule to juggle. Unfortunately, communicating with B2B customers still requires emails.  I've personally worked with customers using various different way to centralize all communications, such as Microsoft Sharepoint and SAP JAM, but those require customers to sign up into a new software, which can be challenging if you're working with a large organization.Fortunately, some technology makes it possible to communicate with external customers easily through "shared inbox" concept.  FrontApp is one of the newest kid on the block that uses everyone's inbox to build a shared communications platform to help customer support teams.  Zendesk Inbox is also a new product that embraces shared inbox, and is suitable for small businesses that doesn't require a full-blown heavyweight Zendesk platform.  All of these software claim to make teams more productive, but perhaps the biggest selling point is to be able to scale your customer-facing teams without important information falling through the cracks. 

Efficiency and Time Savings

One of the biggest advantages of technology is the fact that it saves time and allows people to work more efficiently. Documents can be edited and uploaded in a fraction of the time it used to take, and research efforts can also be streamlined. Every piece of software that you use everyday automates a small part of an otherwise mundane or error-prone task.  Not only do teams gain productivity through efficiency and time savings, I'd even go as far to argue that these tools actually also helps build team morale and team culture, something that is highly valued but unmeasurable.These are just a few of the ways that modern technology enhances teamwork, within and outside of your organization. Generally speaking, the more skilled people are at utilizing technology, the more cohesive they become and the better able they are to overcome obstacles in order to meet their collective goals.

Why Your Sales and Services Teams Need a System of Record

In a world where every information can be tracked as “Big Data”, we are becoming increasingly thirsty for data to make informed decisions to grow our businesses.  However, there are times that you feel like you are drowning in the sheer amount of information, especially information that is hard to keep track, such as customer communications via emails and phone. Mining these streams of conversations, however, allows you keep track of not only status of your customers, but also helps your team deliver the right service at the right time. Having clear and easily accessible records that both your sales and services teams helps you deepens your customer relationship, therefore, building a loyal customer base.665757_origIn many instances, services teams suffer because they have no background information about a customer. They don’t have quick access to customers’ information and history, therefore, services team are usually working with limited information that can deliver slow or inaccurate solution to the customers. This problem exacerbates when the sales team, who may try to do a follow up sale, discovers that the customer isn't satisfied with the quality of customer service they have received. Keeping records for both sales and services teams eliminates the confusion and discontent, making your sales and services teams work together more effectively, improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Why Your Sales and Services Teams Need Access to Each Other's Records

While your sales team is responsible for selling the product and your services or Customer Success team is responsible for keeping the customer happy, it's crucial that the two have access to each other's notes and history with the customers. To give a real world example, let's say you’re selling security software and your sales team just won a huge opportunity. The customer has pointed out to the sales team that IT team is hard to work with, so contact the security team instead if deployment becomes an issue. While this information can easily be forwarded to the consultant or CSM, the information actually gets lost when multiple members start joining on the project, or the project gets transitioned to another manager.  This type of miscommunication during sales hand-off happens over an over again in organizations.  Keeping a system of record can avoid this miscommunication, and empowers everyone in the organization to get context about the history of the customer.

Syncing Emails and Notes

With global customers and working across multiple time zones, communication becomes more and more difficult, especially keeping customers and your cross-functional teams on the same page.  Having access to relevant emails and notes between sales and services team eliminates significant communication overhead and productivity when it comes to giving your customers the best experience.Going back to our security software example – instead of a sales hand off, there’s now an opportunity to upsell the customer due to its recent acquisition.  The Account Executive goes back to the customer to try and upsell more licenses, only to find out that the acquisition was a hostile take-over, and the acquisition actually hurts the opportunity of the current business due to politics.  This is not the right time to upsell – in fact, it’s the best time to give customers more love by offering free services in order to maintain the relationship.  This information could have easily been shared with the sales team only if they had access to the email conversations that services teams, who were in the field with the customers everyday, were having with the customers. Furthermore, if there is a system that monitors the emails and pushes an alert to the sales team, such as ContextSmith, that will be the most ideal solution without going through all the noise within the conversations.Having these records that are organized in a relevant manner keeps your sales and services teams working together seamlessly. With records that are available to both teams, the communication overhead can be mostly eliminated. Everyone has the same information from the systems of record, therefore, they are able to make more informed decision in a unified way.