Implementation Stories

Alex Farmer on the role of the CSM in successful customer onboarding

Alex Farmer, VP - Customer Success @ Cognite, tells us how the CS team can add value to your customer onboarding journey
July 27, 2021
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In this session of Implementation Stories, we spoke to Alex Farmer, VP - Customer Success at Cognite, a global industrial AI SaaS company supporting the full-scale digital transformation of heavy-asset industries around the world. He’s also the founder of Customer Success Excellence, an awards program for CS professionals. Alex has also been recognized as one of the 2020 Top 100 Customer Success Strategists by SuccessCOACHING. 

In this session, Alex focused on: 

  • His experiences in high-touch onboarding 
  • The right time to introduce the CSM in high-touch projects
  • Keeping the ‘value’ and ‘implementation’ layers separate in projects
  • Why mixing CS and implementation/delivery is a bad idea 
  • Experiments and experiences with customer communities

... and more. 

In the rest of this article, we share the key takeaways from the session. 

Customer implementation at Cognite: The role of Sales and CS 

Cognite is an industrial data ops platform working with heavy-asset companies in the energy, manufacturing, renewable, heavy machinery, IoT sectors. The platform uses ML and AI models to take disparate data from customers’ hardware and software and contextualizes it via dashboards to provide value to customers. 

Given the complex nature of the problems they focus on and the industries they work with, Cognite’s sales and onboarding processes are both long and high-touch. The onboarding also involves heavy lifting at their end as well as the customers’. This is why there is the need for intentional and well-coordinated relationships—across people, processes, and technology—between Sales, CS, and PS to support complex customer journeys.

The Role of Sales

The sales cycle (typically spanning 12-18 months) focuses on showing customers’ Operations teams the value in their platform’s data. This is because, typically, IT departments in their customers’ sectors are a few cycles behind, mostly focused on migrations, etc., and aren’t prioritizing data/dashboards. 

More importantly, instead of selling the platform, Sales sells the idea of visual transformation through use cases. As a result, the sales process is very consultative. 

The Role of CS

Domain experts from the CS function come in at the presale stage (typically in the last six months of the sale cycle) to help customers connect their goals to the right use cases. This way, the CS role has been established pre-sale, and a relationship has been established with the sponsor before the project team steps in to deliver the project. The role of the CS team is primarily to assure customers of the verifiable value of the recommended use cases. 

How pre- and post-sales interactions impact your business

Defining team roles

Alex recommends ensuring a clear difference between the ‘value’ layer of Customer Success and the ‘delivery/tech’ layer of Implementation. 

The road trip to business value

Alex likens a new customer journey to a road trip the customer takes towards business value, wherein a customer hails a ride with the vendor to get started. As the customer gets into the back seat, they are greeted and joined by a CSM seated there. The CSM then introduces the people in the front seat: the implementation consultant and the project manager.  

All through this journey, the CSM, at certain points in time, leans over to check in with the customer as a trusted advisor who’s on their side. This way, the CSM can establish a value layer separate from the delivery layer driving them. 

When the customer gets into the driver’s seat to drive themselves onwards, the CSM joins them in the front seat to guide the customer down a continued journey to value.  

The problem with not having a CSM in the car when the customer steps in is that the CSM then has to chase after the car after the customer has shot off on the journey, possibly with no recollection of the future business case discussed at the start of implementation. 

Why you need to introduce your CSM before sales completion

Alex shares three reasons why it is imperative to introduce the CSM during the sales process: 

1. The value vacuum: Though the sales team talks about the value that customers can achieve during the sales process, this value is largely hypothetical. Right after, when PS gets into implementation, it dives deep into features and functions, leaving a vacuum in the ‘value’ layer. 

Since the PS team is focused, by design, on implementation, it is easy to overlook the element of value. 

2. The problem with introducing a CSM post-project delivery: Customers need a trusted advisor during the “hyper care” phase. No matter how long the phase, there are changes that customers continue to need. Bringing in the CSM after the project delivery puts them in a challenging situation.

3. Quantifying ROI: Not having a clear value handover in the functions and features conversation causes the value focus to drop at a critical time—during implementation and onboarding, where you have an opportunity to show the quantifiable value that answers the hypothetical business case the customer came to the vendor with.   You cannot afford to drop the ball on ROI, the holy grail of CS and engagement, at such a crucial point. 

The correlation between the duration of the sales cycle and the introduction of the CSM 

The larger the initial time and cost, the better it is to introduce the CSM early, ideally at the 60% completion stage of the sales cycle stage. Depending on the contract size/volume/value, CS teams can adopt different approaches. For instance, for low size/volume/value projects, CSMs could use a short video to introduce themselves instead of dedicating more time and effort to plan and run a longer workshop model. 

The CSM’s role in expectation management

On the topic of remaining a trusted advisor while dispelling some of the mismatched expectations that the sales team could have set, Alex stresses the need for transparency and honesty in expectation-setting. This is especially important in industries where the challenge isn’t as much about sales setting the wrong expectations as it is about customers not understanding the extent of effort needed from their end. 

One of the ideas he recommends is sending the customer a one-pager outlining exactly what the customer will need to do before and for onboarding, say at the 60% sales cycle mark. Any potential conflict at this stage, he believes, is better than churn six months down the line after both parties have invested considerable time, effort, and resources. 

Getting Estimation Right and Winning Over Customer Expectations

The ideal relationship between CS and implementation

Something Alex strongly recommends against is establishing the CSM as the escalation point for the project team. If CSMs are viewed as part of the project lane, they get sucked out of the value layer and into the functions-and-features layer, into a reactive role, not that of a trusted advisor on the customer’s side. The CSM’s role should be to showcase the value delivered and be the trusted advisor, not be directly involved in the project delivery.

At Cognite, the PMs report to a delivery manager who handles all implementation aspects of the project. 

To drive collaboration between the project team and CS, Alex recommends that the CS team join internal meetings at a high cadence, specifically internal meetings on product updates, project and customer heath reviews, etc.

For external meetings, Alex recommends that the CSM joins the project steering committee meetings and not all the implementation standup meetings. Alex reasons that seeing CSMs in every project meeting blurs the separation between value and delivery in the customer’s eyes.  

Balancing value and delivery in small teams or those without a dedicated customer implementation team 

Alex highly recommends splitting the team/function instead of having one person take on both value and delivery layers. Even in a two-member team, he suggests making one resource responsible for CS and the other for implementation so customers can always make the distinction. Another approach he recommends is clubbing onboarding and support into one role for the technology layer and keeping the CSM at the value layer

Alex stresses the need to keep a separate layer for value and another for functionality throughout the engagement and communicate any transitions between roles clearly to the customer by ‘overdoing the delta between onboarding and implementation’. 

For instance, post-implementation, the team member would have to clearly convey the implementation’s end and outline the next role clearly. One way to do this, Alex suggests, is by showing, not telling customers what the new role is. He recommends using product release updates, feedback collection, or interviews for customer case studies/seminars as ways to show the customer that their responsibilities have changed. 

Alex also recommends investing in a one-slide CS plan instead of spending time on ABR presentations or decks. To keep the value layer intact after the sales handover, he recommends having one slide with the goals-functions-outcomes documented and playing the same back to the customer after the implementation is over. This translates into one slide and a 30-min call per customer to show them a value focus from start to finish.  

Value Realization for SaaS Businesses: Framework and Tools

Tips for companies who don’t/can’t introduce CSMs early enough

Here are some of the practices Alex recommends:

  1. Make the Sales-to-Customer-Success handover a mandatory project requirement. Ensure that the sales team provides answers to questions on the customer’s success criteria, their long-term vision with the product, etc. 
  2. Use a dedicated slot during the kickoff call to discuss your understanding of the customer’s goals, establish yourself as responsible for onboarding, and convince them that you’re committed to helping them reach their long-term role by setting them up through the initial implementation. 
  3. Use the discovery document to make references to the items that will help customers achieve their long-term outcomes. 
  4. Most importantly, take a value-centric approach by intentionally connecting features and functions to business cases and business value. 
Who should own customer onboarding?

The role of customer communities 

At Cognite, customers are asked to join Cognite’s customer community even before the completion of a sale. Investing time and effort early to build a customer community to connect, solve problems, and, importantly, showcase others’ successes in achieving outcomes can be a huge differentiator. 

Customer communities have multiple benefits for businesses at all stages.

A unified experience

Cognite uses the Community feature to give its customers a unified technology experience throughout their journey. To do this, they have dedicated private areas in the community where a customer’s project documents, from discovery docs to success plans to EBR decks, are stored. After 1-2 years, this private area helps showcase all the things Cognite has built for the customer, including all the 1:1 customer success activities.

Instead of relying on email updates and presentations that they may never look at, the community provides customers with a single place to access and experience their journey. Cognite is currently working to embed a widget in their product that gives customers a window to the community from within the product itself. 

Providing reassurance and building trust

On the aspect of the risks of having multiple customers in one place and the issues it could cause, Alex and other members of the Preflight community agreed that the community was a healthy way for customers to air their grievances. Besides, this approach signals that you are committed to being transparent and solving their issues, thereby building trust with customers. 

Acting as proving ground

In some cases, customer communities could even serve as proving grounds where customers see other satisfied customers, forcing them to consider if the issues may be on their side. 

Building connections and driving engagement

For early-stage organizations whose customers do not have expectations of robust and perfect solutions, a community is a great way to lean into and build on the closeness and engagement that customers expect from them. 

Join Preflight today for insights and best practices from industry stalwarts on customer onboarding and implementation.

More resources

  1. Implementation Stories from Preflight
  2. Customer onboarding resources from Rocketlane
  3. The Launch Station - a podcast for all things customer onboarding

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Kirthika Soundararajan
Head - Content Marketing @ Rocketlane

All things content at Rocketlane. I run on coffee and cat videos. Follow me on Twitter @kirthikasrajan

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