Editor’s note: The significantly increasing focus on customer success over the past two years has led many software companies to establish a new executive role for customer strategy, often titled a chief customer officer or customer success officer. I spoke with Adrian Ivanov, recently appointed as chief customer officer at FinancialForce. A senior member of the founding team when the firm entered the market seven years ago, he will now lead the firm’s customer strategy and execution for its 1,000+ customers. In this article he shares advice on selecting customer officers and how to determine where to focus customer success efforts.
At what point in your company’s growth was the decision made to establish a customer success team or program?
Adrian Ivanov: We’re an emerging high-growth company, and a customer success manager was part of our model out of the gate. But I’m the first chief customer officer. I’ve been in the role for about two months.
What drove the decision to appoint a CCO? Was it due to trying to scale your program or needing someone who was totally accountable for the results?
Adrian Ivanov: There are a number of reasons behind the decision. Scale is one of them. As companies get larger, they get more departments. Sometimes they fall into the trap where those departments get a little more siloed and focus only on whatever they are doing. In our company, I think it’s important to make sure that all those groups align to the core mission of making our customers successful. That’s why we exist, so we think it will be helpful to have an executive that wakes up every day and thinks about nothing else.
At SandHill we did a study in 2015 (“Software CEO / CFO Outlook 2015: On the Customer Success Road in a Perfect Storm”) about the trend in appointing chief customer success officers. Our study found that a lot of companies implemented this role in 2014 and 2015 but most of them brought in new people instead of hiring from within. Why did your company hire from within?
Adrian Ivanov: Like many things, there is probably no right or wrong answer. From my perspective, I think it would be difficult for an external candidate to come in here and do what I’m trying to do. My role, by definition, is aligning the various teams. Since I’ve been an executive with our company since day one, I have strong relationships with our CEO, head of R&D, head of global support and head of consulting. I’ve worked with these executives on a daily basis for many years. I think it’s very important to have those relationships to help drive alignment and also to have a working knowledge of our business.
What are the key characteristics or attributes that you think are really necessary for success in this role? I know you have extensive experience in alliances, consulting, product management and sales. Is there something else that’s really important to your success?
Adrian Ivanov: Having a working knowledge of how we run implementations, how our support organization runs, how our sales organization runs (which I ran for almost seven years) – having that knowledge of those different functions certainly benefits me tremendously in this role.
There are other attributes, which I think apply to a lot of executive roles. One is focus. There are always so many different things you can try to focus on, and the danger is that you try to take on too many at once and therefore won’t be very effective in executing on any of them. Like anything else, my approach is always to try to focus on the areas in which I think we can make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time before we try to take on new initiatives.
How do you determine where to focus your efforts? How do you determine where you can make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time?
Adrian Ivanov: I’ve found the best way to do it is first and foremost listening to our customers. We can talk about customer success all day long, or at least our version of it. But really the only version that matters is our customers’ version. And their definition of success varies across the different organizations that we work with and also varies as time goes on.
They initially reach out to us for a particular business challenge that we, with our solutions, try to help them resolve. Once we do that, like any business that’s growing and evolving, there’s never a shortage of challenges. So we need to stay engaged with our customers to have a good understanding of how their needs are changing and making sure we partner with them to continue to add value with existing solutions they buy from us.
Please share an ROI story on how investing success has led to greater profit, less churn.
Adrian Ivanov: Broadly speaking, I would point to our philosophy since day one. We started the company in 2009, which was in an extremely challenging economic market. We’ve always had a very pragmatic view as to how we work with our customers. What I mean by that is, even if the issue or problem they’re facing is fairly narrowly defined, we’ll happily engage with them and try to help them solve it.
I’ll give you an example. Billing typically is considered part of our overall financial management solution. In the early days we ran into some companies that had a real billing issue. They were running on Salesforce or maybe had a legacy ERP system in the background and in the middle was the billing function, and they were struggling. Maybe it wasn’t cost-effective to deploy their legacy ERP system in that manner or to extend it to a new business unit or new line of business. So we helped solve the billing problem. In doing so, we established credibility. When customers have a successful outcome, more often than not, they come back to us with more issues to help them resolve. So we establish credibility and a track record with our customers.
We have always had a notion of starting at whatever size the problem is, solving it, and then growing with our customers. We have many examples of where our customers are 5X to 10X the annual subscription than they were when they started doing business with FinancialForce. It’s really great to see that happen.
In the press release about your appointment as CCO, there was a statement that you can leverage your company’s CRM and ERP apps to help your customers achieve success. Please elaborate on this.
Adrian Ivanov: We definitely drink our own champagne, meaning we use all our own solutions. One of the challenges that we typically see in many organizations, and going back to my earlier comment about departments and silos, is a company that has grown and different departments have gone out and acquired different technologies. And those technologies don’t interact very well or sometimes not at all. That causes duplication of information.
We always talk with our customers about their journey going across many different groups. It typically starts out in marketing or sales; then there’s the billing and collections process and, in many cases, there is a provisioning or implementation process where other groups are involved.
One of the fundamental advantages of a financial ERP solution is we bring all those groups together on one platform – the Salesforce platform – where there is literally one customer record that all those various groups interact with. So any employee in the company has a full view of what’s going on with that customer.
As consumers, we’ve all lived through situations where you call a company and explain your problem and then they inform you that you just called the wrong department and they’ll have to transfer you. That’s not a very rewarding experience, to say the least. We believe with our FinancialForce applications we can eliminate those types of walls between the various silos. So tying back to my role, it really aligns well with what we’re talking about and delivering in the marketplace.
You said you had a customer success team or process in place from day one. If someone reading this article doesn’t have that in place, what is your advice for how to invest in customer success resources? What is involved in implementing a customer success program?
Adrian Ivanov: Obviously, it depends on where you are in the life cycle and how large of a team. What needs to happen is you need to take care of customers, or they won’t renew. They get to vote with their dollars on every renewal period, and if you miss their expectations and don’t live up to the expectations that were set, there is a high degree of risk that they will take their business elsewhere. So that obviously requires even more focus on their success than in previous integrations of the software model.
So who does that job? It varies. It could be an account executive or the sales rep staying engaged. But then that limits their capacity to focus on new customers. We decided early on that there was enough work to be done on a separate set of objectives, so we created a customer success manager (CSM) role. That’s how we started – literally with just one individual. Then as we grew, we added CSMs and a team. That’s how we evolved.
My advice is first to figure out what you have in place and then how you want to divide the workload among your current team. The company has to make a decision on which will be more effective: having one individual do it all or dividing it out across a team.
Are there any pitfalls in the process?
Adrian Ivanov: The challenge is, if you introduce a new team member, there’s some coordination that needs to happen. The account executive still needs to stay in synch with our CSM because we don’t want to confuse our customers and have them hearing different messages or not knowing who to go to. So you have to take steps to clarify the roles with your customers so that they know who’s doing what.
Adrian Ivanov is chief customer officer at FinancialForce. His top priority is to ensure the company delivers optimum value across the entire customer journey. As a founding member of FinancialForce and from his earlier role as SVP of global sales, Adrian applies his experience in customer advocacy to create a consistent, superior customer experience. Prior to FinancialForce, he held senior positions in sales, alliances and product management for Oracle, PeopleSoft and Vontu (acquired by Symantec).