Advice for Aspiring Customer Success Leaders from Megan Bowen at Refine Labs

Chelsea Castle

In our first episode of CCO Secrets, we had the honor of speaking with Megan Bowen, the Chief Customer Officer at Refine Labs

Refine Labs is a demand accelerator for B2B SaaS companies. At its core, it’s all about generating demand for their clients and meeting the buyer where they are.  

Meet Megan Bowen

Compared to a traditional CCO, if there even is one, Bowen’s role is unique. She breaks it down into two mandates: 

  1. Designing the experience of how the Refine Labs team delivers service. She spends a lot of her time defining a customer success strategy for what is essentially a consulting business. While Bowen doesn’t manage customers directly — she has a team for that — she interfaces with all customers and ensures the excellence of their service delivery.
  2. Internal company operations. Refine Labs thoughtfully places a significant focus on people — both their customers but also their employees. You can’t have a good customer experience if you don’t have a good employee experience. So part of Bowen’s job is “recruiting, hiring, training, challenging, and motivating our team of people, which I think is actually a key to any customer success strategy, is really investing in your internal team first.”

So how did Bowen arrive here? 

Like many others in customer success, her path was not a typical one. 

Her career began in sales and account management before CS was a category. While she managed the traditional AM responsibilities of upselling and cross-selling, the role also involved adoption, expansion, and the entire customer life cycle.

She then spent time working in customer support at ZocDoc, the online medical appointment booking service. After spending nine months on the support phones, Bowen saw an opportunity to be more proactive versus only reactive. (They didn’t yet have a post-sales customer success function.) 

Speaking up when she noticed this need and white space led her to building the customer success practice at ZocDoc. This opportunity involved constructing a team and structure from scratch, hiring, creating playbooks, sales collaboration, and more. 

Bowen’s experience thus far set the scene for being recruited at Grubhub, the online food ordering company, where she built out the account management function for their B2B business — another opportunity to create from scratch. 

“At Grubhub, they acquired five other B2B food delivery companies. And I essentially migrated all of the customers from all of those different products to the [Grubhub] platform to retain those customers and that revenue,” Bowen said. “Very interesting learnings around change management and how to manage customer expectations through that type of transition.”

Operating through a customer-success lens

Her next move was back to a startup called Managed by Q, a platform for workplace management, which is where her scope began to increase. She led sales, marketing operations and then became the chief operating officer (COO). 

“What was really cool there was growing up as a customer success person and having full scope over all go-to-market teams — I viewed everything through my customer success lens, and I credit a lot of my success to having that mindset,” Bowen said. “The other thing I realized was how important the collaboration and the interplay between marketing, sales, and customer success really is for the whole customer experience. That was very eye-opening for me.”

Bowen then went to Platterz, a workplace culture platform now known as Thriver, where she was the VP of Customer Success before joining forces with Chris Walker at Refine Labs in 2020. 

Chris Walker (left) CEO of Refine Labs and Megan Bowen (right) CCO of Refine Labs

“Fifteen-plus years and five different B2B SaaS companies, being an individual contributor, being a leader, and ultimately, leveraging my time at Q to level up and get to that executive level was sort of my story and how I got to where I am,” Bowen said.

Chief Customer Officer vs. Chief Operating Officer

In many organizations, it’s not uncommon to see COO’s owning the post-sales customer experience. And this c-suite role tends to be more prioritized over CS c-suite roles. Having held both positions, Bowen thinks the title of COO can mean different things in different contexts. 

“Ultimately … the reality is retaining your customers is required for the long-term sustainability of your business. I think that we have a ways to go, but I think there’s been a lot of good progress in companies recognizing and acknowledging the importance of retention and customer success,” Bowen said. 

The role of Chief Customer Officer

A recent study found that customer experience will overtake price and product as a key brand differentiator. Customer success is the top priority for businesses in the next five years, and CSMs are one of the most advertised roles on hiring boards. A LinkedIn report found that job postings for Customer Success Specialists grew 34% year-over-year. 

With all of this growth in customer success — we’re still not seeing a fair representation of CS at the leadership level. Bowen agreed that she would like to see customer success roles and executive CS roles becoming more prominent and respected. 

“If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business.“

“At the end of the day, the whole point of building a business is to create a machine that solves problems for your customers and your potential customers that ultimately result in driving meaningful outcomes to them that they are willing to pay for. And to design your organization in a way that solves those problems profitably over time. 

“And so when it comes down to it, I believe that successful companies, their overall company strategies, are rooted in making sure that their customers are successful. If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business. I think we’re starting to get there, and I look forward to that being more of a common mindset across companies.”

The lack of executive representation

If you look at the number of people working in marketing and the number of customer success managers (CSMs) on the front lines, there are often more of the latter. Yet, there are many more CMOs than CCOs. Bowen says there is a misunderstanding of the importance of the CS function that needs to change. 

“[CCO] hasn’t been a traditional c-level position historically. It’s sort of the status quo to have your COO, CRO, CEO, your COO — [CCO] is a new thing. I think that still a lot of leaders prioritize sales and marketing over customer success. Marketing is key obviously because that’s important in driving new acquisition,” Bowen said. 

“I do think sometimes companies over-invest in sales, over CS, early on, where they should really be over-investing in retaining their early cohort of customers in order to really learn, get feedback from them, improve their product or service as a part of getting to product-market fit. So really,  it’s a result of the way things have been done, and people haven’t really caught up.”

Part of the disparity also lies in a lack of clarity around what a chief customer officer is and what they should do, discerning their responsibilities and why they are critical to the business.

Typically CCOs oversee customer success, account management, customer support, potentially some operational teams. These responsibilities are sometimes achieved at a VP or director level. And some of these functions may roll into a CRO or COO.

“I have competing perspectives on that. When I was at Manage by Q, my title was COO, but I did manage sales, marketing, and customer success and operations,” Bowen said. “And what I realized, under one leader, I was able to accelerate making the changes that we needed to make for all of those teams to work together effectively.”

So I do think that there can be some benefit in having one leader sort of overseeing all of the go-to-market functions so that the orchestration is happening correctly,” she said. “I think that when you have silos in the c-suite, it can sometimes create a lack of healthy collaboration depending upon the culture of the company. And so there are benefits to having [these functions] centralized, but I think it needs to be the right type of leader.” 

Ultimately, having a CCO and COO can work and have a COO only, as long as there is healthy collaboration, according to Bowen. 

Advice for aspiring CCOs

Bowen says you have to think like an owner for any c-level position and anyone aspiring to hold said role one day. 

“You have to be looking at the entire business as a whole and focused on solving the most important problems in the business,” she said.

Harkening back to her experience at ZocDoc, she went from customer support agent to building out a new function. And at Managed by Q, she ran account management and grew to COO. 

“The reason that that happened was because in my current position, whether it was customer support, agent, director of account management, I identified what I believed was the biggest problem in the business.”

At ZocDoc, “I presented that business case to them, and ultimately that was why they said, ‘Oh, okay, you’ve given us some thought you have reasons you’ve experienced on the front lines. Like that makes sense. Let’s do that.’”  Bowen took on projects outside the scope of her role because they were problems that needed to be solved. 

“That mindset is how you get promoted and how you get a seat at the table,” she said. “There are really obvious and creative ways where you can leverage the fact that you are talking to customers on a regular basis to build credibility within the organization.”

For CSMs in particular, her advice is to get out of tunnel vision and look at the company as a whole. And embrace your unique position where you have customer anecdotes and data that back up what you think should be done.

“I made that mistake before, though, too. I would sometimes over-optimize for my function and not care about how that affected other teams. That’s not a good way to work. You’re not going to advance in that way.”

Getting a seat at the table 

When you hear someone’s career highlight reel, it may sound like it was all easy. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Rising in the ranks in any function and within any organization has its challenges.

When Bowen first put together her business case at ZocDoc, for example, they didn’t say yes right away. It took her about three months of discussing and advocating for it.

“I think persistence is key, and if you really believe that you should do something, in particular, that’s going to help the business, not being afraid to put yourself out there. Understand if you get a ‘no,’ it’s ‘not right now,’ and ask again.”

In addition to persistence, Bowen says it’s important to say yes to opportunities that might arise, even if you’re not sure you can tackle them. 

“Dedicate yourself to figuring it out as you go. So it’s about really understanding where your strengths are and focusing on that, leaning into those strengths, and working with others to leverage their strengths so that you can get what you need.”

About the author
Chelsea Castle

Chelsea Castle is the Director of Content Marketing at Chili Piper. A journalist turned empathy-driven marketer, she's also a concert junkie who can often be found #doingthings outside and crafting creative ways to be sustainable.

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