Sales as a Multiplier of Customer Success

Assaf Barnir, VP - Customer Success at Netomi, talks about how the sales process can provide a leg-up for customer onboarding and more
Srikrishnan Ganesan
June 7, 2021
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In this episode, we have Assaf Barnir, VP of Customer Success at Netomi. Assaf has worked in the software space with the Israeli Air Force, moved to consulting, delivery, and professional services roles with companies such as IBM and Zendesk, transitioning to leadership roles in Customer Success.

In this episode, we discuss with Barnir:

  • How the sales process can provide a leg up for the customer onboarding team
  • His learnings and takeaways from his career journey so far
  • The transformational changes that he brought into the Sales team at his org that had a multiplicative effect on Customer Success
  • How his customer-oriented way of looking at things driven his high-impact initiatives
  • How you can convince the leadership to focus on customers instead of on the dollars
  • When to invest in a customer success tool

... and more.

Here's how the conversation transpired:

Sales as a Multiplier of Customer Success by Assaf Barnir

Sri: Welcome to the Launch Station. Our topic for today is about using sales as a multiplier for customer success.

Assaf Barnir, our guest for today, has specific ways he's used sales as a multiplier for success. Assaf comes with a very diverse background. He's worked in software, with the Israeli Air Force, in consulting and delivery professional services roles across companies like IBM and Zendesk, before transitioning to leadership roles in customer success. He is right now VP of Customer Success at Netomi. As someone who has enjoyed working with – and listening to – customers, even as a software developer, he believes that his customer orientation has served him well throughout his career. Welcome to the show, Assaf.

Assaf: Thank you, Sri. I think you really know me. You covered everything!

Sri: Lets start with a fun question. What's your favorite quote from a book or a movie?

Assaf: Alright, I've got a great recommendation for you. But, I must mention that every person I've suggested this book and its quotes to hasn't enjoyed it. So, there are no guarantees or warranties, but I'll still give it a shot and share it with you. The book is Three Bags Full,  written by a German author who is a philosopher, psychology major, and English literature enthusiast. It's a unique detective story, where a flock of sheep are personified and try to navigate their surroundings while unraveling a mystery. It’s originally written in German, though I read the English version.

One of the quotes that resonated with me is, "They can herd you only because you cannot herd yourself as a group. Forget the flock, forget the dogs. Herd yourself." This quote holds significant meaning for me. To be clear, it's not against being part of a herd or a group – they hold importance. But the book highlights that at the end of the day, no single team is superior to an individual. With this mindset, you have the opportunity to be different, better, and bring additional perspectives to the team. It's a calling that left quite an impact on me.

Sri: That's very unique and interesting. Thanks, Assaf. 

So, you've worked in a bunch of roles, from delivery to professional services to customer success, with some of the biggest companies in the world. What are your learnings and takeaways along this journey that you brought to Netomi?

Assaf: In my role, I interact with customers and prospects at different stages of their journey, including a wide range of companies selling various products and services. This includes both large enterprises and smaller, more isolated companies. Regardless of their role or processes involved, one thing remains consistent - these individuals expect exceptional service and a great user experience. It's important for service providers, software builders, product owners, and customer experience teams to recognize that these individuals are the same, whether they are at work managing complex acquisition and delivery processes or using our product to guide us through the purchasing process within their organizations. 

By keeping this in mind, we can elevate our entire industry and provide the best possible service to customers, regardless of who they are, what they have purchased, and how they have been serviced. Building trust and tailoring our approach to meet the needs of these customers will depend on when and how we engage with them.

Sri: I think that's very beautifully put, Assaf, I guess that's why there's this whole movement around consumerization of IT, and now, bottoms up product-led growth, because people are voting with their wallets and saying that they will use products that understand that they're the same users who are using Facebook, Uber, and Google.

Assaf: I completely agree. Fifteen to twenty years ago, we started using the word ‘persona’ to describe who we are selling to. It's important to remember that these personas represent real people, whether they are decision-makers, champions, or the ones signing the checks. They play a role in our program management and are ultimately responsible for working with us. So, while we may have different roles in our day-to-day work when we pick up the phone, it's important to remember that we are speaking to individuals like Michelle, John, Varun, or whoever is on the other side of the line. Our success with these customers or prospects depends on how we interact with them when we meet them.

Sri: So, in our earlier chat, you had mentioned the transformational changes that you've brought in for the sales teams that had a great multiplicative effect on customer success. Can you share more about this?

Assaf: Certainly. I believe there are two hidden questions in this discussion. Firstly, what exactly is the sales and customer success role, and secondly, how can we improve it to benefit the company as a whole? 

Currently, the focus in many board meetings and company documents tends to be solely on the dollar amount. We analyze what is being sold, how it is sold, and its associated costs. However, I think this approach misses the point.
We must remember that the customer is the central entity in all of this. Instead of simply tracking dollars withdrawn, paid, or disputed, we should be looking at whether the customer is finding value, making purchases, increasing spending, or downgrading the service. If we shift our focus to the customer and prioritize their satisfaction, it will be easier to identify areas of success and areas that need improvement. For instance, identifying a leak in customer satisfaction or discovering that customers are not utilizing a specific feature would be more meaningful and actionable than trying to find a link in the overall churn rate. By understanding that the customer is at the center of all these conversations, we can better address their needs and make informed decisions.

Keeping that in mind, let's circle back to your question. In some of the companies I've worked for, we established a framework prioritizing the customer over the contract. This framework consists of six steps, often referred to as the "famous six steps" within the company, which ensure we find the right customer. Many of these steps are not new, especially when sales cycles involve account executives conducting demos over the phone. However, it is crucial to emphasize ownership, attention, and accountability throughout these six steps. The first step is to evaluate the opportunity. This involves determining whether the customer has reached out to us or if we have reached out to them. We ask a series of questions to assess whether the customer has been provided with accurate information and is genuinely interested in the value we can offer. This includes gathering information about the customer's industry, specific organizational roles, and relevant details about using our conversational AI platform.

The next step is where things get a bit more unique: determining the ideal customer profile for customer success. While the company may have an ideal customer profile, it is up to the customer success and delivery teams to prioritize the customer's needs above all else. We have several questions to determine if a customer is a good fit for our company and if we have the necessary resources to make them successful. These questions cover various aspects, including whether additional product development is needed and if our key performance indicators align with the customer's goals. We also consider if there are any existing accelerators, such as if the customer belongs to an industry we have worked with before. There are additional steps in the process, such as gathering the customer's data and sending them a questionnaire, ultimately leading to an implementation proposal.

We approach the entire process with a focus on the customer's needs rather than just the sales cycle, ensuring that we can identify and mitigate risks and provide a successful implementation. Our commitment lies in delivering a job well done and satisfying the customer, regardless of the contract duration. This customer-centric approach is something we value greatly.

Sri: That's really interesting, because I think usually your ICP stops at, “Okay, we're going sell to these kinds of people.” But instead you're looking at, “Hey, is this the kind of customer we can make successful?” And I think that's an interesting way for a company to operate. I'm curious, have you actually turned down customers? If you know it's hard to make them successful?

Assaf: Yes, it is possible, but there are several factors to consider. As a software company, we have the capability to create and implement anything. However, our product team has a specific vision and target audience in mind. If we believe that taking on a project for a customer with unique needs will divert resources and hinder other projects, we may choose to decline it. Alternatively, we may choose to prioritize the 50 other projects that are more scalable, predictable, and aligned with our ideal customer profile. These decisions can sometimes be challenging, especially when discussing with the sales team. Nonetheless, it is part of our growth strategy as a company.

Sri: Yeah, so Customer Success, as a team, informs what the real ICP is versus just looking at how many dollars came in from those customers and saying, ‘Let's get more of those. Now, we are looking at which customers we made successful before. And let's go and get more of those.’ And I guess one mistake a lot of startups make is that we somehow think of this as a limited pool of opportunities. And so, we feel we need to chase every opportunity coming our way. Instead, if we can pick only those that we can make successful today–I'm sure there will be enough of those–then we're going to set us set ourselves up for success as well.

Assaf: Often, the best approach to addressing this issue with the board, yourself, and the team is to incorporate an additional feature into the sales pipeline. We can make a note of the fact that we have received 100 leads, but 20% of them have expectations that we cannot fulfill within the next two years. In these cases, it would be wise to invest in relationship-building and maintaining communication with these leads. Additionally, when appropriate, we can involve them in our decision-making process. However, for now, we simply need to decline their requests.

I have firsthand experience with Zendesk, where the platform's functionalities and limitations were well-defined. My team and I utilized Zendesk's APIs and JavaScript access to cater to customer needs when implementing the platform. This was possible because Zendesk ensured its product was extendable through various development tools. However, even in these types of situations, we sometimes encountered customers whose requests were initially deemed impossible. But we didn't stop there – we looked for alternative solutions. Therefore, it is not always necessary to reject customers outright. Instead, we can find ways to adapt and align their requirements with what our product can offer, fulfilling their needs in the process. This is where a knowledgeable and opinionated product team can significantly impact. In such cases, we don't even have to say "no"; we simply need to present an alternative approach and sell it to the customer.

Sri: Make sense. I've seen quite a few organizations do that as well. Going back to your introduction, we touched upon the aspect of customer orientation or customer centricity. How has this customer-centricity driven some of your other high-impact work and initiatives?

Assaf: That is an interesting question. Sometimes I ponder whether I am a valuable customer to others due to the fact that I have multiple clients or if my high expectations make things more challenging for my service providers. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to this question myself. 
Generally speaking, I believe customers don't want to be forcefully sold to or dictated to about what they should do and why one option is better than another. Instead, they desire easily accessible information, guidance, solutions to their queries, and the ability to make informed decisions based on their preferences. It's a matter of providing them with the necessary knowledge and allowing them to trust their instincts. For instance, if I've had positive experiences with a company's previous tower defense games on Android, I don't need to be persuaded as to why their next release will be excellent. This trust in their product and support would convince me to invest a few dollars in obtaining it. Educating customers about different genres of games, apps, or services can help them make informed choices. In essence, customers appreciate having options and being treated as part of a marketplace. We are all competing with each other, but we should also strive to be the best at what we do, just like Netomi. Let's educate our customers, showcasing our strengths and demonstrating why we excel compared to our competitors.

We aim to educate customers on how they can measure their success.  For instance, when I receive reports from my Nest Thermostat indicating how my energy usage compares to my neighbors, it doesn't particularly interest me. I prefer to focus on other metrics related to my electricity usage and environmental impact. It's clear that one approach won't work for everyone, and there is a need for individualized education. Rather than lumping everyone together and relying on a single key performance indicator, companies have the opportunity to tailor their metrics based on what the customer truly values. 

In my experience, when a company prioritizes specific metrics that align with what the customer cares about, they are more likely to succeed. This is where our listening skills and flexibility come into play, as we can make the relevant key performance indicators accessible to you as well.
In terms of making the operation customer-centric, I initially believed this to be the case due to my experience in the industry and as a consumer myself. However, I soon realized that this is often not the truth in various sectors such as banking, travel, and B2B companies. Not only are the customers, users, and champions not prioritized, they are often unidentified, and their needs and preferences remain unknown. Through multiple sessions in different industries, including energy, telecommunications, and developer sessions, our initial approach was to develop a process tailored to a specific persona. 

However, as we delved deeper into the details, we discovered that our knowledge was limited, and the expectations varied greatly. Even industry veterans struggle to comprehend the journey and priorities of a 19-year-old engineer launching a startup. It became clear that we must acknowledge our lack of understanding and actively listen instead of making assumptions. By doing so, we truly embrace customer-centricity as a fundamental company goal, placing customers at the center and aligning other elements accordingly.

Sri: How easy is it to usually convince the management of a company, like the CEO and founders and so on, in order to start focusing on customers and stop focusing on dollars? Have you found that to be hard, or do you choose to work at places where you feel there is this alignment already in place with your philosophy?

Assaf: It is extremely difficult, and it requires trial and error. The proof lies in what your customers say, not in dollar amounts mentioned in private board meetings. These numbers are not just a story. They represent the actual results. In my past companies, such as PubNub and Netomi, the customer was always prioritized by the founders, management team, and myself. 

If a customer's experience on our website is unsatisfactory, we make it a priority to fix it. This is our winning card, as it ensures our customers see the value in our enhanced analytics. While every company may have a different level of adaptation to this concept, the key is the same motivation and object-oriented approach. It may vary slightly depending on whether you manage 100 enterprise customers or 50,000 developers, but the focus remains. This is an important question as it highlights the importance of alignment within the management team. Perhaps I am just very vocal about it.

Sri: Sticking to the customer-centricity theme you mentioned that customer success and delivery teams are the first customers of your own product. What exactly does that mean and wow does that work in your organization?

Assaf: This is something I am very proud of in the last few companies. The customer success, delivery, and professional services teams possess expertise that no one else in the company has. We have a deep understanding of the product, and we interact directly with the customers. While sales may spend more time with customers and engineers may know more about the product, we are the unique combination of both. This makes us a valuable resource for the product team, providing them with valuable insights and opportunities. 

We are the first to use the product, API, and modules in the UI. As part of our job, we do what customers would do themselves. Our role is not just to be a QA team for product and engineering. We are the best customers, friendly yet knowledgeable. When there is a new release, module, integration, or data science capability, we are the first to provide feedback because we are not only numerous but also genuinely invested in the conversation. Product teams should expect to receive feedback from us. This mindset makes us the best customers, combining our expertise, enthusiasm, and desire for success. We are your most referenceable customers, ready to promote the best modules loudly. But for that to happen, your hard work is crucial, and that is where we come in to help.

Sri: That's super interesting. And I must agree that our own team dogfooding a product is definitely the best customer also because we don't churn. One more question around this, though. When you work with customers, you have a success team, delivery team, account management team, all of them doing different roles, taking on responsibilities. How do you orchestrate all of this and give a seamless experience to your customer?

Assaf: That's an excellent question. AI is a relatively new field for many people, including those working on projects like Netomi. Implementing AI in different companies requires additional steps to ensure the technology is customer-ready, safe, and comfortable. We have a dedicated delivery team consisting of engineers, data scientists, analysts, product owners, business owners, and QA specialists. They closely collaborate with our CSMs, whose role is not only to facilitate the onboarding process but also to align with customers, address any challenges, and ensure quick results. 

Our team's key performance indicator is the time it takes for customers to see the value of our collaboration, starting from when we begin working on their project and they understand our platform. This focus on specific KPIs differentiates us from projects that extend indefinitely without clear goals or resources. Our shared goal is to achieve a specific outcome, whether it's a deadline, volume, quality, accuracy, and more. We measure our success based on how well we orchestrate this collaboration and address any product or implementation needs. When everything comes together seamlessly, it creates a perfect orchestration, as you mentioned.

Sri: That’s insightful, Assaf. Now, we go to our next section of the podcast, which is our rapid-fire questions. Here's the first one. Who's the person you've learned from the most?

Assaf: This is a thought-provoking question, and I have a cheesy anecdote to share that might answer it. Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of learning from CEOs and high-level executives who prioritize their customers and prioritize their people. This approach has made my life easier and put me at ease. However, when asked to choose someone who embodies this philosophy, I would select a soccer player named Eli. Eli played for a team in Jerusalem and came from a struggling background, facing financial difficulties and the loss of loved ones. Despite these challenges, he became the first Israeli soccer player to win a European title while playing for a team in Belgium. Instead of pursuing further international success, Eli made the decision to return to his original team in Jerusalem, which was struggling in the league. He became a hero, leading the team to multiple championship victories and restoring their position at the top. This story reminds me that sometimes, we need to prioritize our values and follow our hearts, even if it may not lead to immediate financial gain. Eli's inspiring journey has left a lasting impact on me, especially in times when everything seems chaotic and we obsess over finding the next big thing. I often reflect on his choices and how they align with doing what's right. It's worth mentioning that Eli now also manages the team, further proving his leadership qualities and inspiring others, including myself.

Sri: That's definitely inspiring. Here's my next question. What comes to mind when I say customer?

Assaf: I can think of many other keywords, but "partner" is probably the best one. I consider customers as partners because the ones who choose you are the best ones. I love seeing a partnership between two active companies. It's the ideal setup. So when I'm on calls, I treat them as our partners. I'll be the one taking action and working for them. Our goals are aligned, and together we will make this successful. Therefore, in my mind, the term "partner" is almost always interchangeable with success.

Sri: Nice, I wasn't expecting that. Moving to the next question, what's an important metric that you always pay attention to?

Assaf:  I want to emphasize the importance of metrics in my response. Without metrics, there is no purpose or motivation. Metrics are crucial for understanding goals, resources, and measuring progress. Certainty and clarity in metrics are essential. One metric that I believe the entire company can rally behind is having referenceable customers. This means that customers are willing to provide positive feedback and recommendations in various formats, such as on Product Hunt or LinkedIn, or even at conferences.  Referenceable customers showcase the success of not just one team, but the collective effort of marketing, sales, customer success, and product development. It is a selfish metric for me because I enjoy it, but I recognize that every department contributes to its achievement. If this becomes our Northstar metric, we will have a clear direction and avoid wasting time on non-essential tasks. Therefore, I advocate for stability and focus on referenceable customers.

Sri: That's a beautiful answer, Assaf. Number of referenceable customers sounds like a great metric to track. Next question: When should one invest in a customer success tool?

Assaf: The simple answer to the question is never, but there's more to consider. It's important to note that there are many other companies that offer great tools, and I actually use all of them myself. However, before deciding on a customer success tool, there are several important questions you must honestly ask yourself. If you don't address these questions, then it's likely that the answer to whether or not you should buy a tool is either never, or much later, maybe even years after you initially think you need one.

Let me explain further. Ultimately, our business revolves around our people and effective communication and conversation. Scaling these aspects in the right way is crucial. It's also important to understand who benefits the most from the tool. Is it the CEO, the VP of Sales, or the VP of Customer Success? This is a critical consideration, as oftentimes CEOs express a desire for a tool to learn specific information. However, bringing in a tool without thoroughly researching and understanding what questions are important to us, what metrics we need, and how to obtain them, can be a mistake. I've seen instances where a tool had a beautiful user interface but lacked integration with other systems. Everything had to be manually entered, offering no real-time snapshot of the status. Instead of using free tools like Google Sheets, people were using expensive software just to present information that was manually inputted. This is a clear oversight. So, who benefits from all of this? That's a crucial question. We need to consider if we have the necessary data sets, what they are, how we obtain them, and which system they belong to. I had reservations about two companies that showed me a visually appealing user interface, but that only accounted for 5% of what we actually needed to do. The remaining 95% involved our data team creating, reporting, and managing the data, which was a laborious and painful process. So, to simply invest in a beautiful interface was a waste of resources and time. Regarding the Google Sheet question, can we use it for at least the next quarter or two years? Until we have a clear understanding of what we require? Once we identify our needs, then we can determine which tool to use.

Despite my concerns and uncertainties about which tool to purchase and the urgency of implementing it, I should mention that over the past eight years, I have worked with numerous companies without using any tool. However, this does not mean that we can ignore the importance of data, metrics, and knowledge base. We certainly need these resources in place, even if we don't require a specific system for a playbook. Our system offers something different. The only time I feel it is necessary to invest in software is when we have the right data, mechanisms, and triggers in place, and when the company is experiencing significant growth. At that point, the benefits become obvious. So, it's crucial to consider many factors before making a decision. I wrote a blog post about this as well –buying a customer success tool is similar to purchasing a CRM. Many companies make the mistake of buying Salesforce too early when all they need is a simple solution. So, it's important to be aware of this.

Sri: I think I definitely can agree with you. You need to be at the right stage have that readiness, and maybe it should be an org priority for this to happen. We now move on to our last section, with questions coming in from the Rocketlane community.

Here's the first one. If sales has to work hand in hand with customer success teams and vice versa. Do you suggest making changes in their KPIs to reflect that in some way?

Assaf: The assumption in the question is that sales and CSM should work together closely, which is correct in many cases. However, there are companies where sales is not a separate department, as everything is self-managed. In situations where sales and CSM are necessary, each team will have different goals and metrics to focus on. 

It is important for management to ensure that these goals do not contradict each other. For example, if the sales team is meeting their quotas but not targeting the ideal customer profile, there is a misalignment that can lead to confusion and frustration. To address this, it can be helpful to establish high-level North Star metrics and consider the concept of referenceable customers. If the sales team is trying to sell to a customer who will not be a good reference, it may be necessary to intervene and find an alternative solution.

Sales teams typically focus on quarterly goals and revenue, while CSMs prioritize customer satisfaction, value delivery, and relationship management. CSMs are not responsible for generating revenue, but they play a crucial role in renewals and identifying opportunities for expansion. This approach generally works well, with the only exception being that CSMs do not need to worry about sales figures.

Sri: Time for the final question of the day. For CS teams in a way, it's less risky to start small from an implementation perspective. Whereas commissions for the sales team may be tied with the size of a new deal, and they may want to go big bang with a big implementation. How can we nurture a symbiotic win-win relationship between these two teams?

Assaf: This problem arises when the dollar amount is central to the customer journey. If a company celebrates a bigger contract without the necessary mechanisms, skill sets, and delivery readiness, it may not be justified. Personally, I prefer a customer onboarding approach where they start at a specific price point and increase payment as they see more value. 

This approach is clear and measurable, serving as a key performance indicator for sales and customer success. By gradually providing more value and aligning their needs, the customer willingly pays more. 

It's important for companies to consider their offerings, upgrade paths, and increased value in order to prevent a waste of the buyer's money. If this alignment is lacking, the customer success and delivery teams should be involved in building the contract and setting clear expectations. This includes outlining timelines and exit points at various stages, ensuring that both parties understand the value they will receive and avoiding any disappointments.

Sri: Thank you so much for your insights, Assaf. It was great to have you on the show today.

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