Customer success leader and legend Jay Nathan shares his secret sauce
In this episode of CCO Secrets, we had the honor of speaking with a man whose name may very well be synonymous with “customer success.”
We spoke with him about his compelling journey through product, engineering, and service that led him to CS and what advice he has for others aspiring to grow within the world of CS.
Meet Jay Nathan
If you’re reading this article, odds are you’re familiar with Nathan in some capacity. Perhaps the most well-known for Gain Grow Retain, the popular and populous customer success community.
At the time, Nathan and a business partner, Jeff Breunsbach, were inspired to launch weekly calls within the CS community when their project load shrunk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t long before their weekly calls of 50-75 people grew to hundreds and thousands.
Now just more than a year old, this community is a bustling online community for various individuals to engage, ask questions, and learn from peers in similar experiences.
“We weren't trying to sell anything through that community, which is key,” Nathan said. “And so it just took on a life of its own. We had a lot of people join us. Now we have a whole team of people that have volunteered to help, continue to drive, and grow it.”
Like many others in CS, Nathan’s journey to CCO was a varied one.
He began his career as a hands-on developer and worked his way into product management and development across various companies such as Duke Energy Corporation, Mariner, and Blackbaud.
“For anyone who is working with product managers, or is a product manager: There's a ton of respect there for what they do. They have requirements coming at them from all different directions — customers, executives, board members, employees, internally, you name it. Customer success managers have tons of requirements too.” Nathan said.
At PeopleMatter (acquired by Snag), Nathan moved into his first official customer success role before moving into other SVP roles in client success and ultimately landing as CCO at Higher Logic, where he is today.
“So I guess it's a goat path that brought me to customer success, and the common thread that sort of has always run through everything that I've done has been just a focus on, what is the actual customer?” Nathan said. “What does the actual user think about this? What is the real reality of what our solutions are doing for them? And how do I get closer to them so that I can really make an impact.”
Passion is undoubtedly a common trait among CCOs today. Nathan says his hunger to make an impact on the customer is something that has been with him throughout his entire career, even as a developer.
“Growing up, my parents were small business owners, and I was working in their businesses since the time I was very, very young, dealing directly with customers and consumers,” he said. “So I think I always had that in my blood, just from the beginning. To be very customer, empathy, and customer-centric.”
The lack of executive representation
A common answer to the question of "why is there a lack of representation of CS at the executive level?" is that it's still a relatively new function. Nathan took this a step further, diving into the current state of the role itself.
“In my opinion, there is always a chief customer officer. Sometimes that person has the role of CEO, and sometimes it's the chief operating officer or chief revenue officer or chief product officer,” Nathan said. “I think in many companies, especially earlier-stage SaaS companies, there's always somebody who is playing that customer champion role.”
He said, there is always someone playing the role of stepping into the gaps among product-market fit, delivering excellent service, and driving retention.
When the CCO role operates at a high-level executive position, a diverse career must support their success.
“In my experience, I had a professional services background. I had a product background. I even supported our sales teams at multiple companies I worked with. So I had exposure to the sales process and never carried [the title].
“So if you want to get to the point where you play the chief customer officer role, my recommendation is you have to get outside of just the CS role, right? You have to figure out how the support team works, figure out how the product team works, and figure out how the sales team works.
Because the job becomes really just a very broad executive role, at least at the point where we're at today.”
Advice for aspiring CCOs
When it comes to a director title versus VP versus CCO, Nathan thinks it doesn’t matter what you call it. But if you want that c-suite role one day, he has some solid advice.
“I always tell people that are in the VP of CS role, act like you're the chief customer officer. Be the custodian of the customer experience. Be the person who knows more about the reasons that your customers stay,” he said. “Be the person that knows the most about the end-to-end customer journey, and ultimately, you can end up in that chief customer officer role, whether it's at your current company and they recognize the need for that, or whether you go somewhere else.”
And if we learned one thing from Nathan, being a humble, lifelong learner are star qualities of being successful in CS and a career in general.
“I think I'm an amateur still. I think it's a mindset thing for me that I'm always trying to learn, and I'm sort of never satisfied that I've ‘made it.’ I don't think I have. I'm still learning a lot every day,” he said.
One of the most challenging things and a real need in CS, in general, is prioritizing the people within one’s team and organization.
“I'll tell you one of the more challenging things — and it’s one thing that we need more of in customer success — is true, real, very strong leadership. Strong customer leaders who not only can prioritize the customer but really start with their people and prioritize their people.
“Their people need to be able to serve the customers, prioritize the customers, and then also prioritize the business in that order. Employees, customers, business. So that you actually know what the levers are because at the end of the day. We all want to do the best thing for our customers.”
From the front lines to the high-level leaders, you have to give people room to make their own decisions and see the consequences of those, Nathan said. That’s how you help cultivate others’ growth in their careers, as well as yours as a leader. It’s rewarding when you invest in others, and you ultimately grow, too.
“Business is a balancing act, right? You have to keep your people in a good place. You have to keep your customers in a good place, and you have to keep your business at a good place, or you're not going to have a job.”