In this episode of CCO Secrets, we had the pleasure of speaking with a leader who has done what this series is all about. She progressed from CSM up the ranks to representing CS in the C-suite!
We talked to her about her path through marketing and sales to CS, the power of cross-functional relationships, and the importance of a shared vision in an organization.
As we teased in the introduction, Kellie was recently promoted from SVP of Customer Success to Chief Customer Officer. The leap, she says, is really about expanding her scope to include the broader post-sales organization.
“My ultimate responsibility as CCO is being the number one customer advocate and injecting customer-centricity into every single conversation across the business,” she said.
But before her most recent success, Kellie’s career began in marketing and sales
Her extroversion and love for people and seeing results lead her to her first sales job.
“I think through experience, you learn where your strengths lie and what energizes you. And it was a combination of those two things that really led me to customer success,” Kellie shared.
“I knew that I didn't get as energized by hard negotiation and just the transactional feel of sales. That wasn't my thing. So I kind of pivoted from the hunter to more of a farmer-type sales capacity, account management, which kind of blurred into customer success.”
She went on to work at ADP, went through formal leadership development programs, led teams, and eventually followed Gainsight as they built the customer success category as we know it today.
Kellie’s entry into Gainsight was actually as an Enterprise CSM. She took a step back from people management and learned the business from the ground up. She’s held a total of seven roles at Gainsight before reaching CCO – a true example of what’s possible for career progression in CS.
Kellie describes CS as “the learning engine” of the business.
“There's so much goodness at our fingertips that we collect day in and day out and being able to really weave that into conversations, both with the executive team, with our board, drawing those cross-functional alliances and collaboration across the organization. That's really the foundation for success and continued growth from an organization perspective.”
The conversation of how CS has evolved over the years is an important and exciting one.
“We've gone from the really early nascent days of customer success, where we're just trying to get people to understand, ‘what do we mean by CSMs and what do they do?’” Kellie said.
“We're really starting to make those leaps and bounds toward customer success being that company-wide imperative, with a lot more momentum and energy behind it.”
Kellie shared she sees positive momentum around the CS function and the establishment of Chief Customer Officers. But there’s still a disparity between the number of CSMs on the front lines and CS leadership at the board level.
“Fundamentally it ties back to the idea that it's taken a while for organizations to really catch on and appreciate customer success — it's not just a reactive support-type motion — it's truly the growth engine for our businesses.”
While she doesn’t like to use the phrase “silver lining,” in some ways, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic taught many organizations about just how crucial their customers and customer-facing teams are to their organization.
“I do believe that [the pandemic] served as a catalyst for many organizations and businesses to have an increased level of appreciation for their install base and start to, as a forcing function, realize that, “Hey, like our customers are really important,”’ Kellie said.
“And in many cases, as [a business] matures, you're needing to retain as much revenue from your install base, if not more than bringing net new logo acquisition. They realized that customer success is an extension of sales, and we’re really in a continuous sales cycle.”
Ultimately, every member of an organization is trying to orient and drive a customer toward a desired business outcome, which then drives financial results. As these concepts are more widely discussed and established, the more growth we’ll see in CS.
“As these conversations are elevating their way into executive meetings and the board room, we're seeing a lot of third-party consulting firms really grab onto this as well. So this is kind of coming at people from all different directions — consider investors, as we start to see the appreciation of net retention rate. Customer success and CCOs are essentially the de-facto owner of that.
“So all of these things are kind of coalescing together. And CEOs and board members alike, they're starting to shine more of a light in terms of the importance of CCOs and what our customer base can do. Not only from a retention perspective but an advocacy and expansion perspective. And I think we're going to see a really big acceleration in terms of the role of CCO.”
When we asked Kellie what advice she would give to any aspiring CCOs, it was not surprising that she already had several brilliant answers in her queue. What may be more unexpected is just how powerful her advice can be for any professional, regardless of role.
“Don't underestimate the power of cross-functional relationships. Even in your early days as a CSM, being able to build those alliances with sales, product, and all these cross-functional teams will pay off in dividends over time.”
Especially if you’re interested in climbing the ladder from a people management perspective and get into the C-suite, those alliances are paramount. And in the same way, if you’re creating any detractors per se, she says, that can come back to bite you over time.
Her second piece of advice is what she calls a “bias of action” or “bulldog mentality,” and it applies both internally and externally.
“Internally, I had an eye for process optimization. I can’t stand when something’s missing and you just talk about it, but you don’t go do something about it,” Kellie said. “So it’s the idea of, constantly figuring out, ‘How can I have an impact and actually do something about it that’ll benefit the broader good of the team?’”
This mentality applies to working with customers, too.
“Never settle for mediocrity. It’s about considering, how can you constantly, truly be a thought partner for them and challenge them up their own maturity curve, and never settle.”
Her last piece of advice may sound minor, Kellie says, but it’s actually quite important. She calls it the “adaptability quotient.”
“It’s about bringing an even-keel mindset and attitude to everything you do. Customer success can be quite the rollercoaster ride — good days, bad days, any and every emotion in between. And being able to balance yourself and constantly say, ‘OK, what's the next best thing I can control and what am I going to do about it?’ Rather than getting too worked up.”
Rolling with the punches cannot be underrated. This mindset and control are critical to possess, especially as you go into CS leadership.
“You’re going to be at the forefront of driving some of those escalations forward, and challenging the organization in terms of what can we do better.”