Seasoned customer success leader Eleanor O’Neill shares her secret sauce
In this episode of CCO Secrets, we had the privilege of speaking with a leader who has not only held the role of Chief Customer Officer (CCO) multiple times, she also used to be a CTO and CIO.
Eleanor O'Neill is the Executive Vice President of Customer Success at Spacemaker AI, a game-changing AI technology company in Norway. Her impressive background in technology includes a Ph.D. in computer science, a few years as a lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin, and experience as a software engineer.
We talked to her about her passion for technology, what makes a strategic CCO, and how we can increase CS representation at the board level.
Meet Eleanor O’Neill
If you haven’t noticed in this series thus far, many of the chief customer officers we’ve spoken with have an unorthodox path to the c-suite.
For Eleanor, her route was through technology and engineering. She also spent several years as a consultant; working in the professional services space gave her great insight into the world of a customer success manager (CSM).
Eleanor is passionate about the role of CCO in part because she was a buyer for a long time. Having been on the receiving end of services gave her a unique perspective on what a customer’s experience should look like.
“One thing I saw was just this huge range of quality of delivery, quality of experiences in terms of enterprise software that was being delivered in the markets. And during my time as CIO, I started to form opinions about what a good CCO looked like,” she said.
That’s how she moved into the CCO role from the CIO role, inspired by her passion for and belief in technology being for people — and not just technology for the sake of it.
“I never thought it would bring me to a customer service role in that respect. I always thought I'd be the builder of technology. But it's my passion for seeing technology delivered really well. And that brought me to the CCO role,” she said.
The role of Chief Customer Officer
As customer success is still somewhat new, there are many aspects of it that are undefined or fluid throughout CS functions in various organizations.
For example, where does customer support fall, and what about customer research? Is there a function for customer experience that’s dedicated to simply understanding your customers?
These are some questions Eleanor raised as it relates to the role of a CCO. And however you’re organized, they give you invaluable customer insights that she calls an “information block.”
“I think if you’re going to do [the CCO role] well, if you’re going to be strategic and be an ally at the executive table, I think you need to leverage that information block and do something really intelligent with it. Surface insights that can be helpful to the CMO, that can be helpful to the chief product officer and the chief revenue officer,” Eleanor said.
“And I think that’s how you end up in a CCO role that is both operational, running the day-to-day and is strategic. Which fundamentally can influence the direction of the company and what we do with the product, what size deals we’re chasing, what the revenue should look like. To me, that's an exciting CCO role.”
There are also CCO roles that are purer, she says. You’re solely focused on delivering to customers. This purist role is about bringing the software to the customer’s hands, making sure it works seamlessly, anticipating their needs, and retaining their revenue.
This kind of CCO will still need to surface insights from the frontlines back into the organization effectively.
“There’s still room to be very intentional in what you do and not to spend your days just reacting and making sure the customers are happy. But to try and stay at the front of the way you’re influencing the way the rest of the organization moves and the decisions they've taken and having a really, really, really strong and influential relationship with the product group, which is such an important piece of the puzzle.”
Advice for aspiring CCOs
One crucial element of being a strategic CCO is to have a strong relationship with the product team. It’s critical to have the respect of the CPO or CTO, Eleanor says.
“If your CTO or CPO just sees you as … a royal pain, then you’re not going to have that mutually respectful relationship. You’re not going to foster the really good conversations at the executive table. When that dynamic is going really well, and the relationship is strong, you can robustly talk about the things that are working well and things that aren’t working well.”
The lack of representation
When it comes to why there are so many CSMs on the frontlines yet so few CCOs at the board level, Eleanor says it’s an enormous question with many different reasons for it.
Firstly, it’s such a young role, and not everyone knows what to do about it, she said. And there are many, especially at a VP level, who are doing the role without the title. Another reason is the fact that there isn’t a crystal clear definition of the role to begin with.
The stage of the company is also an important aspect.
“Particularly in early-stage companies where you haven’t quite got product-market fit or product-market fit is just about established,” Eleanor said.
“Often I hear the excuse of, ‘well, the product changes so fast, we have to be able to remain flexible and move quickly and change dynamically.’ And the argument I always hold in that respect is that a CCO who has their finger on the pulse, who is in touch with what's going on, can actually help you preempt the changes you need to make.
“So you're not accidentally getting product-market fit or reacting to what your customers are saying. A really good CCO will be two steps ahead of your customers telling you what is going to be the next big push because they'll hear the conversations being held in the meeting room, as you demo with customers or troubleshoot with customers, or they’ll be really in touch with their CSMs, and they'll have a weekly pulse with their CSMs knowing what's happening.”