Bridging gaps in a remote work environment

Irene Lefton, VP of Customer Success, MentorCloud talks about remote work, its challenges, and how to make it more effective
Shuvedha Subramaniam
June 21, 2023
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We are kicking off Season 2 of The Launch Station with Irene Lefton, a seasoned CS leader who is currently the VP of Customer Success at MentorCloud. She acts as a CS advisor to many startups. She is always featured in the Top 25 and Top 50 CS Leaders lists year after year and is also the co-chair of the Customer Success Leadership Network.

Irene is an expert on remote work and has been managing remote teams for the past 25+ years.

In this episode, Irene talks about:

  1. Remote work, its challenges, and how to make it more effective
  2. Forming the human connect when working remotely
  3. Customer relations in the remote environment
  4. Hiring and onboarding employees in a remote setup

… and more. Tune in!

Check out our conversation below.

Sri: What are some key things that need to be paid attention to in order to make remote work effective?

Irene: There are 4 key things that need attention:

  • Building those relationships with the team
  • Collaborating or sharing any information with the team
  • Setting some ground rules, norms or etiquettes - For example, how frequently you will be meeting, when you need to be on camera, when is it okay to have your camera switched off, etc.
  • Tackling communication differences - These challenges tend to amplify with remote work. Things that might otherwise seem quite common might need to be paid extra attention, like whether or not you have a good speaker to ensure people can hear you properly, or how are you going to present yourself visually.

Sri: Could you share some challenges that people typically face when working in CS or Customer Onboarding remotely?

Irene: I think there are pros and cons to the remote work side of things for customer success and onboarding.

  • Working with people who you didn't know before
    I think these functions impact everyone and some of these impacts may be more amplified in either the customer success or the onboarding space because you're working with people that you may not be knowing or having a personal relationship with.
  • The CS folks are made to rethink how onboarding works in the remote world
    Customer success folks who used to just hop onto planes to visit and onboard customers before, have to rethink how to do these things remotely now. In some cases, customers are left to do more of the heavy lifting in the remote world. When it comes to onboarding especially, there might be certain complex setups that only happened once. And in the pre-remote world, the team could just go in-person and do that setup for the customer and it was done. They didn’t need to ponder over it later. But now, if the team can't go, and the customers have to do it themselves.
  • Playbooks have to be adapted to remote environments
    A lot of people in customer success over the years have built playbooks that help them. You know exactly what to do and when to do it with their customers. Many of those playbooks included in person components. All of a sudden, those playbooks seem to have become obsolete. They are gone and not only do you need to replace those with how you're going to do things virtually, how it is going to work virtually, what needs to be there and what doesn't need to be there.
  • Benefits - budget gets cut down when there is not much travel
    This is an upside when I think about it. From a customer success budgetary perspective, you no longer need to spend tons of dollars on travel. Travel is really expensive and when you’ve figured out ways to accomplish things remotely, you can just save all that money from here on. That's awesome for our bottom line!  All of a sudden you have more revenue, you either have  more profit or you have more to invest in other things that you need to do, because you aren't having to be there and then in-person.
  • Finding the right set of people - staffing and hiring for a remote environment; geographically it is more pros.
    Customer success and onboarding are both high growth areas right now. So finding and hiring the right people for the team is hugely impacted in the remote world. There’s both sides to the coin when hiring remote. It could be more challenging or it could be easier. The challenge comes from not being able to meet people in person, when you're hiring them. You have to be more intentional about making sure they match your culture and look for a good match, because we all know that bad hires are very expensive. But the benefit is you can hire anywhere. You often used to be limited to certain geographies. But boundaries have blurred and there's so much work from home now that you can hire where there are skills that may not be in your market, and you can hire where your costs are lower.

Sri: Reallocating your travel budget when shifting to remote work environments is always a topic for discussion. Could you shed some light on how teams can look at reallocations?

Irene: There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to reallocating your travel allowance. But some of the money, you may need it for automation, where tools can help you pick up some of the slack between what needs to happen and what the person needs to be able to do.
The other area where you can reallocate the excess funds is with online or entertainment related activities. You know you can't always give customers presents. But, if you're not going to take them out to lunch or dinner after the meeting, you can maybe have a meal delivered to them. We need to be creative on how we form that connection while working remotely - like getting the same pizza, coffee, or cookies delivered to everyone. One other creative way to connect would be to arrange for a wine tasting for all the folks in different locations. I also think you can put some of those funds straight to your bottom line where it is actually needed. I definitely see the value of being in person, and there are certain times when it is needed. But I also think we were inefficient when we had to travel and we did it more than that was necessary. I always go back to The Big Book Of Business Games by John Newstrum and The Guide to Virtual Team Building by Constantine de Gendre,

Sri: What are some things that can go wrong in customer relations when in a remote work environment?

Irene: Things go wrong in customer relationships all the time, whether you are remote or not. But like I said before, the remoteness can amplify certain things. 

  • Communication and collaboration
    When you're physically present when meeting someone, you can see the person and read their body language. This eliminates the need for you to explicitly ask certain questions. You also don't have to think twice about being dressed professionally for the meeting. However, when somebody is working from home, they might have to be extra conscious of being on camera. They might be working in their sweat pants or comfy clothes. But as business has to be professional and you don't always have a whiteboard that you can both look at, at the same time, communication has to be made clear and more explicit. This means when you're remote, you've got to pay attention. That’s actually one of the places to spend on tools, those that help you collaborate and communicate better with remote teams.
  • Presentation
    20 years ago, when I was managing a remote team that was spread all across the globe. We had staff and customers in different locations and a lot of my staff were also very technical. They didn't always have English as a first language, because it was a global team, and not all of them had the best communication skills either. We were also really compromised by the technology then and we didn't have whiteboarding systems like today. We didn’t have zoom or teams, or very good quality video. All we had was webex and Skype now and then. The Internet connectivity was not what it is today, and that too created a bunch of problems. I had a team member who had really bad lighting and another one whose microphone was echoing. I could see customers squinting to even see the person and cringing over the echo sound of the microphone. Added to this, customers were trying to lip read or try to figure out what he was saying as they found him to have an accent. So, we arranged for language coaching for one person who had a heavy accent and really needed better communication skills, especially online. We also purchased some extra lighting equipment and figured out a better environment to help with the person’s appearance on camera.
  • Team burnouts
    I think this is another challenge you face because remote work can lead to the need to always be on for your team members and even for your customers. We've heard of zoom fatigue and you get tired of being in front of the camera and being always ‘on’. When in the real world, you can take a quick bathroom break, or a walk or even go into your office, close the door and get 15-20 mins to yourself. But you can’t always do that when on camera, especially during onboarding sessions that often tend to be lengthy. And so you need to consciously figure out how you take breaks, how you let people strategize about whether it's okay to be off camera for these parts and things like that.

Sri: What are some tactics to form the human connection the right way from the start?

Irene: I would say there are 4 tactics that can help form human connections from the start.

Start early and charter breakout sessions
Everyone wants to have a well planned meeting, and they like to have an agenda all set for it. And as soon as everybody’s arrived, they jump right into business and get talking. But, before diving right into the agenda, it’s best to have a check-in at the beginning and a check-out at the end to ensure you form that human connection. This is just like an in-person meeting, where you interact with the people when you get your coffee or walk down the hallway to exit the building. Having these check-ins and check-outs built into your agenda also allows for people to know each other’s mind spaces. Somebody might have had a really hectic morning with their kids and they might not be in the right mind space. You wouldn't really know that when connecting remotely, unlike being able to read the signs a little more easily from body language when in the same room.

Listen and ramp up your emotional intelligence
It’s important to bear in mind that you are zooming in on someone’s home when they are on camera and this might make them feel uncomfortable. So, be patient and listen keenly to what they have to say. Always be on the lookout for clues to help ramp up your emotional intelligence and understand how to navigate a situation.

Be curious and ask open-ended questions
Asking open-ended questions gives the person a chance to choose how much information they want to share with you. You can then gauge if they’re comfortable sharing personal information or not. I think that architects the icebreakers that you can include on the agenda.

This tip is exclusively for your staff. We know everybody is fatigued by always being online, sitting in front of a box somewhere. One essential means to deal with this is by having some downtime for staff, where they can turn off their camera and avoid more burnouts.

Sri: Can you share some of the best practices around remote hiring and customer onboarding?

Irene: Onboarding is important not just for customers. It’s also for your staff and how you onboard them into your team makes a huge difference. So, just like with your customers, you need to build the relationship and the trust. As a leader or a manager, you will have to pay attention and be empathetic to how your staff are doing personally and professionally. You also need to have some kind of buddy system in place for your new hires. Assign a buddy to them, and make sure they check-in periodically with the new person.

We also have a chat channel, where a question can get answered quickly. This will be of immense help, especially when a brand new hire is with a customer asking about something they don't know. The chat system will help them answer the customers on the same call, instead of having to look up the answer and get back to them. It makes it so much easier. You can also decide on certain norms with your team. Sometimes you might want to have a more formal structure to your conversations and sometimes you might want it to be casual. Both are legitimate for different kinds of purposes, but it’s really good to agree upon these things as a team and hand it down to anyone new comes onboard. What you want from your staff here, is they need to be fully present at the moment and pay attention to the customer or person who is talking.

Sri: What are some softwares, systems or tools to help with remote onboarding?

Irene: Shared whiteboards and good cameras and microphones to ensure good audio & video quality are great. I also think practicing before being on camera is another really important thing. Get talking with the customers before the call and set up the meeting on the agreed platform. But remember to be accommodative to the customer’s needs and make it easier for them. Set up a cadence with customers on how your communication is going to be. Make sure everyone has the same understanding and same expectations of what you’re going to do to be working on. Build a strong relationship with the customer, but also be respectful of their company policies and such. Some level of basic research can help you find points of connection.

Sri: We now move on to our next section of the podcast. We have some questions from our Preflight Community. First question: How do you best onboard the customer onboarding folks when remote?

Irene: I like to have a detailed and explicit roadmap for all new employees, in every role. And I think you need to have a plan mapped out for people, for not just their first week at work, but for their first six months as most challenges you encounter only after being on the job for six months. So, the buddy system is key to helping them know who to talk to, and what training and product exposure they should have to tackle these. It’s also essential to make sure that the new folks aren’t pushed into the water before they are ready to handle customer situations on their own. Hires should also be made to feel comfortable and connected to the company. They need to know that the team has their back and that they are going to be able to do this!

Sri: How do you measure performance and ensure continuous learning for your team?

Irene: I think it is about having something consistent to work upon. My methods to calculate performance for my team typically have 3 components: a company-wide component, a team-wide component, and an individual component. What those are will vary widely depending on the stage the company is in and the type of position the person holds. But there's almost always those three components. What you're working on contributing to the team and the company is the bottom line. Usually, if you build a diverse team, (which is my favorite and the only kind of team I like to build), people who have different skills come together and there arises a need to cross pollinate and learn from each other.

In terms of the second part of the question, on continuous learning, I have some tricks I do in my staff meeting.

Once a month in my staff meeting, I have somebody share a work challenge that they solved or are trying to solve. It can be either with a customer or with the team. This actually helps everybody know that we all have challenges and we’re all vulnerable and that nobody is perfect. We do this in a round robin way, so everybody gets a chance to share and learn from each other. We also have another meeting a month for a sharing section on our agenda, where we share a great success story. So once a month we share a challenge and at a different meeting in the same month, we share a success. The other meetings in the month are focused more on the tactical things that we’re going to do, or sometimes a motivational session from a leader, etc.

Sri: Two trends that you foresee in 2023

Irene: First would be that there are many more categories on the tech stack like customer onboarding that are going to continue to evolve. Secondly, I think CS is going to be facing a lot of pain points in its journey. It’s an emerging function, hardly 10 years old and it is going to be facing a lot of challenges in terms of acquiring customers and more. But I hope people recognize the importance of maintaining a balance between investments in the pre-sale and post-sale part of the journey soon. We know most companies that succeed in the long run have 80% of their revenue cut out from existing customers. That’s exactly why educating people outside of the CS realm on the importance of customer centricity and onboarding is principal. We also can’t go back to selling to bad fit customers just to gain the top line revenue, but I fear we’re going to see the pendulum swing in that direction a little bit.

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