Customer success leader Chris Hicken shares his secret sauce
In this episode of CCO Secrets, we had the honor of talking to Chris Hicken. While he currently does not hold the title of chief customer officer, he spends a lot of his time working with CCOs while focusing on the work that matters to them and customer-led growth.
We talked to him about recurring revenue, retention as a wall street metric, and what happens to a company when they have a CCO.
Meet Chris Hicken
In his words, Chris has been “obsessed with customers” his entire career.
From working in customer care and support to his time as President and COO of UserTesting, Chris has always been hyper-focused on the quality of the experience being delivered.
Customer success teams are one of ‘nuffsaid’s core ideal customer profiles (ICPs). Focusing on this persona was an organic fit both for the product and Chris.
“That's one of the reasons for choosing customer success, but as an executive, I've been surrounded by and have lived a lot of my career around customer obsession. So the customer success department is a natural fit for me in my career,” he said.
“I’m really driven by making strategic decisions and guiding the business through the lens of the customer, making sure that the customer has a seat at the decision-making table.”
The lack of representation
Like many others, Chris posits that one of the reasons for a lack of CS representation at the board level is the fact that the function is still relatively new.
Thinking back to when software used to be sold on a CD per license, a company would get recurring revenue by selling the next version of software on a CD. That’s simply how renewals and upsells worked at the time.
“The idea of retaining customers has been around forever in software. It's just that the title of that department used to be account management and account management rolled up to sales. But as SaaS came online, it became a more common business model, and a SaaS company started to outperform other business models,” he said.
The metrics that evolved in SaaS, particularly the retention metric, became critical.
“Now it's a wall street metric. So there's a growing demand for a much more high-powered executive that oversees the retention function. Also in the SaaS model, the account management paradigm doesn't quite work,” Chris said.
Account management was more about personal relationship building than selling new versions of your software. The model switched with the incorporation of SaaS — the focus was put on helping to make sure customers use the product, are engaged, see value, and you earn the right to renew every year.
“So that's how the customer success department was formed. I think now SaaS businesses need to have much more sophisticated leadership in the customer function,” he said. “We're just starting to see a trend of chief customer officers appear in the market. It's a growing trend, and we still have a long way to go before I think CCOs are well-represented at the board level.”
What is happening is we’re seeing a lot of VP-level individuals in the role and they often report to the head of sales or the chief operating officer (COO). This is a common reporting structure but one that is problematic, Chris says.
“The problem with that of course is that the objectives and the needs of the customer success team are filtered through the eyes of an executive that has focused on many other areas,” he said.
“It's probably the most diluted when customer success reports up to sales because of course the sales executive is almost exclusively focused on acquiring new business. And so the part of the success that they care about is the expansion, which is the cross-sell and the upsell. They care a lot less about the actual retention piece.”
The absence of a CCO
In his vast experience, Chris has noticed a big difference in companies when they have a CCO versus when they don’t.
When a company has a CCO and they report to the CEO, he says, the entire DNA of the company starts to shift.
“The customer regularly gets a seat at the decision-making table, which means the customers are represented in almost every strategic decision that the company makes,” Chris said.
“So that's one big benefit. The other is that when the CCO reports to the CEO, the CEO almost always responds by providing a company-level retention metric, a retention goal. And when that happens, everyone in the company — marketing, product, sales, engineering — everyone has a KPI tied to retention. And that actually has a huge impact on the company’s overall retention rate.”
Advice for aspiring CCOs
It’s a shameless plug, he says, but one of the best things any aspiring CS leader can do is check out the ‘nuffsaid blog. We let the plug slide only because it’s true.
The majority of their work is heavily researched. They’re talking to CCOs and thought leaders in the space, so the resulting content is the product of talking to the best in the industry.
Additionally, for anyone aspiring to climb the ranks in their CS career, Chris advises making sure you truly comprehend how the company makes money.
“What I mean by that is really deeply understanding what are the things that go into gross profit margins. How does the company think about investing in product and engineering? How does the company think about the cost to retain revenue?” he said. “Is there a benchmark metric set? Or are there ‘finger in the wind’ metrics?”
Having a deep understanding of revenue acquisition and what the company is willing to spend to acquire revenue are key skills. This makes you a better partner to your peers on the executive team.
“People will start to see you more as someone who will drive the business forward, as opposed to just customer success forward,” Chris said. “Usually if you're a manager or a director, most of your day is focused around executing programs, making onboarding better, coaching and managing your team, and proving renewal rates.
“But when you get to the chief customer officer level, you're driving strategy across the whole company. And you're expected to be able to think about and talk about metrics — forecasting and enabling your peers to be successful through your unique access to customer data.”
The key is in the data and details, and having a high-level understanding of your business.
“And it’s about having the ability to arm others in the company with data and metrics that will help them be successful.”