Customer Success leader Pat Phelan shares his secret sauce
In this episode of CCO Secrets, we had the privilege of speaking with Pat Phelan, Chief Customer Officer at GoCardless.
GoCardless is a global payments provider with a mission of making payment collection easy, transparent, and hassle-free. So customer success (CS) must be firing on all cylinders; thus, Pat is at the helm.
We talked about his intriguing path to CCO, CS’s role in an organization, and some sage advice for aspiring and current leaders.
Meet Pat Phelan
Leading five independent functions across the CS organization, Pat has been leading CS at GoCardless for a couple of years now. His previous experience includes Brandwatch, Bazaarvoice, and TALEO.
Many of our conversations with chief customer officers revealed that CS professionals tend to have varied backgrounds. However, Pat may be the first in the series who started in marketing.
He studied marketing in postgrad business school, and it was through this experience that he learned he had a love for customers.
“That was the first taste of realizing that I’m pretty good in front of customers,” he said. “I quite like them. I began to realize I could sell a decent story. I could engage pretty well. And there was something in that.”
Pat’s story gets more intriguing: He went on to work for an Irish carpet company, effectively selling carpets in the Middle East. His journey then traversed into technology when he started his consultancy and found his way into CS before the function officially held such a title.
“What underpinned all of [my experience] really was being in front of customers,” he said. “And I think having a fairly acute sense of how customers operate and what makes them tick — whether it be selling something for them, selling something to them, developing something with them — was always really at my core.”
The role of a customer success organization
Pat's mindset on the role of CS in any org is twofold: there's an internal and external view.
"You've got to start with the external view. Our job is to make sure that when we sell to our customers, they want to keep coming back for more and more," Pat said. "Because we are delivering — over-delivering in most cases — on what we promise them, based on what matters to them."
That's the most crucial part, he says. It's not about what we think matters or why we think something should matter. It can be easy to get caught up in theories about what should work and what a use case should be, or what features should be there, rather than what matters to the customer at the end of the day.
"The other aspect is the internal one, which is, 'we are all there to do business, and we're all there to help close deals and to get customers to renew,'" he said.
"Those two lenses are super important because what I've seen in the past is a very myopic focus on one of them and a very high level of aggravation that occurs when that one level of focus is not replicated across the entire business."
The lack of executive representation
When it comes to a lack of representation of CS at the board level. Pat says it’s all about the evolution of the role
Over time, sales leaders developed the requirements, needs, and understanding of what a CRO does.
"If you go back 20 years ago, the first thing most people would hire was multiple reps and just let them out and let them go wild. And then eventually they realized, 'oh crap, we need a manager.' We need some structure around this." he said. "And then that manager became three, which led to a VP and so on. These things don't happen overnight."
Consider the history of the chief marketing officer. Over the last two or three years, product and marketing are becoming so intertwined that it's inspiring this shift into a chief growth officer mode. The same thing is happening for CS.
"CS is moving more into competing with professional services as a discipline, and maybe support, too. Eventually, people realize these three or four customer-facing elements need to level up into a role that is actually in charge of making sure that the customer is at the heart of the business."
That level of care and direction is critical. Every executive has oversight on a particular set of things, Pat says.
"You want to make sure that somebody has oversight on customer numbers, and I'm not even talking about solely retention here," he said. "One of the things I think you'll start to see the CCO role become more and more focused on is where we start to bring other functions into that role."
It's not just about customer success. It's about support, customer experience, professional services, and technical account management. All in all, it's the customer view.
Advice for aspiring CCOs
One of Pat's biggest changes when first venturing into a leadership role was learning how much he had to trust himself. The idea that he was the one who made the decisions now was challenging.
"Honestly, that scared the crap out of me," he said. "I remember walking to the train that morning, and I was really happy, then I realized, I'm now going to have to make these decisions. There's no one else. The kind of imposter syndrome that kicks in with that is hard."
His advice? Learn to trust yourself.
Secondarily, to anyone aspiring to be a CCO one day, Pat advises embracing change.
"You should be challenged every day on what value you're bringing to the table, but you shouldn't be paranoid about it, and you shouldn't be defensive about it," he said.
"You should try to embrace that because that means people care enough to ask questions. I get nervous when people are not asking questions."
And lastly, don't worry about promotions and comparing yourself to others.
"Do what it takes to get to that point rather than try to manufacture. Some of the best CSMs who went on to become superb leaders for me were all those people who came to me and never saw a time with me as a catch-up. It was like, 'I'm going to show this guy that when I leave the room, I'm someone you need to keep an eye on.’
“And I think the same applies to leaders at any stage in their career. Don't go aimlessly down paths. Identify the three things that your manager or direct report worries about on a daily basis, and plug into that."