As a customer success leader, whose insight do you rely on for success? Your field is maturing, yet your profession is one of the fastest-growing in the world. There are tons of books and blogs written by success professionals, sharing their experiences and strategies, but how do you know what will work for your specific situation? Whose advice is the expertise you can trust?
In his new book, The Seven Pillars of Customer Success, Wayne McCulloch provides an adaptable framework for building a strong customer success organization. From customer journey action to the development of transformation advisors, you’ll read detailed examples of how companies put these seven pillars to the test. To create a culture of customer success and stand out in the marketplace, you need a proven framework and knowledgeable perspective, and this book provides both and more.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Wayne McCulloch, author of The Seven Pillars of Customer Success: A Proven Framework to Drive Impactful Client Outcomes for Your Company. Wayne, thank you for joining. Welcome to the Author Hour Podcast.
Wayne McCulloch: Hey, thanks a lot Drew, super excited to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a rundown of your professional background?
Wayne McCulloch: I’ve spent most of my professional career in the software world, actually, starting back in the 90s with a little company called PeopleSoft that grew to a big company. Throughout the last couple of decades, I’ve primarily focused on B2B SaaS software companies.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Did you have an “aha” moment? Was there something really inspiring that happened? Did you simply have a lot of time on your hands because of COVID?
Wayne McCulloch: Well, let me just start by saying, this journey started three years ago and I can’t believe it has taken that long to build a book. I have so much more respect for people that have done it since going on this journey. The reality was, like many people in the world of customer success, which is a relatively new profession in the software industry–born out from companies that were in the cloud and software as a service, becoming more of a business model for how to deliver software to customers–I pivoted into this career out of a world of education, training, and certification. Like many people before me and now after me, people from sales, people from a consulting background, and support, people are pivoting into this group for this organization called ‘customer success’, and for me, it was a really tough pivot.
I understood what ‘customer success’ was about, I recognized it was super important but, for someone who is coming in new, I really struggled to understand how I could be really good at it. I felt like there were lots of thought leaders, and lots of blogs, and articles, and conferences, and training programs out there but none of them seem to really fit the situations I found myself in all the time. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t, and I didn’t understand why someone could be successful doing something a certain way and when I repeated that in my organization, I didn’t get the same result.
The “aha” moment, if you will, was sitting there at midnight on a Friday after a really tough week at work and I’m thinking, “I just don’t get why I can’t repeat the success of others.” That was the moment I realized, it’s because of other people’s success–and the way they go about doing this – it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t actually solve my problems the way they did. There are many reasons for that.
That started a journey for me to start to understand why certain situations work when certain methodologies are applied and when it doesn’t, and whether it’s a small company or a big company, a public company or a private company.
For me, going on that journey of understanding why things work and they don’t, led me to realize that what’s missing for all of us in this profession is a framework–something that we can establish and build an organization around. Then what we put into that is more tailored and personalized to our personal situation, our company, our marketplace, our products. That’s what was missing for me was the framework and that’s what this book is about.
The Face of Customer Success
Drew Appelbaum: Now, while you were writing the book, in your mind, who are you writing it for? Were you writing it for an entrepreneur or business owner? Were you writing it for a manager? Were you writing it for a customer success agent?
Wayne McCulloch: Yeah, so, funnily enough, I wrote it for me, initially. It was like I was trying to teach myself how to do this and so, if I could convince myself how to go about building a successful customer success organization, then I felt like I was much more in control of my career, much more in control of my organization, and ultimately, giving our customers the ability to be wildly successful with our products.
So, I started off writing it for me, and very quickly, I realized, if this works for me–and I knew many people who were pivoting into leadership roles around customer success–I thought that maybe this can help them.
It wasn’t until maybe a year and a half ago, that as I’m writing the book, I was delving into things that were very pertinent to a Customer Success Manager, a CSM in the field who is actually the face of the customer success organization in many situations. Then I realized that a lot of what I was doing around the framework, and giving the examples, and creating these templates, and explaining why it was important, actually was relevant to the Customer Success Manager.
About six months ago, when I was talking to someone about the book and they weren’t even in customer success, but they were interested in moving into it, I started talking about the book and then I realized this book is actually useful for people who are not in customer success at all, but interested in what it is, interested in potentially pivoting their career as I did.
I went on this amazing journey of self-discovery for me, through to other people like me, through to people that one day want to be a leader, to, now actually, anybody that’s interested in customer success can take this book and hopefully–I’m saying ‘hopefully’ because I don’t know yet–but I’m hoping that it’s a very simple way to digest some very complex methodologies and approaches to making the customer successful and creating amazing experiences, and allowing them an easy entry point into being able to talk about customer success, know what’s important in the world of customer success, and have really concrete examples on how it’s applied in the real world.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, as a forewarning, do you want to tell listeners what’s not in this book?
Wayne McCulloch: Yeah, as strange as that question sounds, it’s actually really important. I think most people in the industry–there’s a book called Customer Success. For me, it’s the benchmark. It was written by Nick Mehta, Dan Steinman, Lincoln Murphy and it was written about five years ago. Really, it helped to define what customer success was in a way that was very consumable. I read that book, I think I have multiple copies on my bookshelf–I don’t know why I have multiple copies but I do–and I do read that book from time to time because it’s a good refresher. That really talked about the importance of customer success, the emergence of customer success, why customer success has come into existence. So, there’s a book for that and there’s tons and tons of information, blogs, articles, and in fact, some books that all talk about why it’s important, where it came from, and really, establishing the credibility of this new profession inside the software world.
On the flip side, there are some books, and training courses, and certifications that are really specific to how to be a great Customer Success Manager. How someone is actually going to be delivering these amazing experiences to customers, and there’s tons of content and information about that.
I can tell you, my book doesn’t really go into either of those two in any amount of depth. In fact, the former, the “why is customer success important?” and going into the history, and all that, I don’t delve into that at all, because I feel like there’s great content out there already. Some people actually already know the content and are looking for something else.
On the Customer Success Manager side, while there’s really great in-depth stuff about how to be an amazing CSM–I touch on a lot of those areas–but in the context of the framework in the book. It’s not really a “how to be the best CSM I can be,” because there’s great content out there and I refer to a lot of it in my book, to be honest because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and my book doesn’t talk about the creation and the importance of customer success.
It doesn’t address either of those two things. If you’re looking for those two things, don’t buy my book, which is a weird thing to say out loud.
Drew Appelbaum: I want to dive into the beginning of the book, and you talk about your grandparents who taught you these tools you needed to survive and how to get back home if you’re lost. Are there other lessons that they taught you that are still in play in your professional career today?
Wayne McCulloch: Yeah, I had an interesting upbringing, I was originally raised by a single mom for a while, and then my grandparents stepped in and said, “Hey, we’d like the opportunity to raise this kid.” Who, to be quite honest had been a little lost and needed some more guidance. I was raised then on a farm in the middle of nowhere and a very different lifestyle from being an inner-city kid.
What happened was, my grandparents spent a lot of time trying to teach me these life skills. For example, I get lost in the bush, how can I find my way home? How can I find food and water and use my compass and things like that, just how to be more self-sufficient? You don’t recognize it at the time, but when I backpacked around the world after I finished university, those skills were invaluable. I felt very empowered, very confident in being able to go into very unknown situations with very little resources, and still be comfortable navigating my way through.
Throughout my career, I look back and I’m looking at all these lessons my grandparents taught me, for example, speaking in public, getting me into theatre class, learning to debate, those things now, when you’re an executive in a software company, you’re constantly presenting, you’re on stage, you’re negotiating with other executives, you’re talking to customers in pressure environments, and I feel very comfortable. The reason I do is that I get it, for years and years and years as a kid that just became natural and normal for me.
I think throughout the book, you’ll see, I mentioned little life lessons I’ve learned from my grandparents. My grandfather, when I said, “Hey, I bought a new car,” and he said, “You need to get insurance,” and then I said, “Oh no, that’s too expensive.” He said, “Well then, you can‘t afford the car if you can’t afford the insurance.”
I know my grandfather didn’t invent that phrase but, for me, these little tiny nuggets have stayed with me throughout my life and permeated my professional career. Because the framework really is a guide, it’s giving you a set of tools. The things my grandparents gave me as a kid to be a better person, a better adult, translated to tools we can use in our professional lives to create better outcomes for our customers.
What is Customer Success?
Drew Appelbaum: How do you define ‘customer success’?
Wayne McCulloch: Well, that’s a loaded question. It’s funny because I read these amazing articles, insights, people’s opinions, really, that focus on specifically what customer success means to them, and the reason why I’m laughing is that there’s no industry standard term for what customer success means. The reason I say that is because customer success, to me at Salesforce when I was there, actually is slightly different from what customer success means to me at Google.
Ultimately, in the end, it’s about the customers being successful and that is about as generic as we can get. We can all agree that’s what it is.
Then, the definition of, “it’s about customers getting the desired outcome that they want, that’s customer success,” well, that’s great, but what happens when the customer gets their desired outcome? What’s the role of customer success? If it’s to get the customer’s desired outcome and you achieve it, then if you check the box and you said, “Oh, customer success is done, we now exit stage right,” the answer is “No.”
Some people say, “Well, it’s now helping the customer identify their next objective. What is the outcome they’re looking for? What is the business value they’re trying to drive by deploying the solutions?” You’ll go and attain that, and is that now customer success?
In the book, I talk about things like how customer success is maturing. It’s gone through these waves–basically, when customer success was invented it was a firefighting position. Its focus was to come in when these new SaaS products were rolling out in the world 15 years ago, and they were really cumbersome and difficult to adopt and customers would try it and then leave, and churn was everywhere. Really, the job of the CSM was to get in there and fight that fire. It was to do whatever it takes to save that customer and stop them from leaving. If that was playing a role of support, or whether it’s playing the role of training, playing the role of advocacy inside the organization, that’s what it was.
Over the years, our engineering product and design teams have gotten really smart about building easy-to-use, simple applications in the SaaS world that make it easier for customers to get on board and adopt the product, so now, that allows the CSM to be more value-focused.
Customer success suddenly became something about how to help customers achieve value to achieve their desired outcomes, to actually drive value from their investment in your technology. That elevated the CSM’s up to helping customers, not just consume value, but to expand on the value, which led to customer success now becoming a growth engine all of a sudden. Now it was finding opportunities to add more licenses, add more products, solve more use cases because that’s what success was. It was about defining what that outcome was, and going in to achieve it, and then showcasing it and advocating for it, and creating these opportunities to grow.
What we’re seeing now is the definition of customer success morphing once again because I think customer success can do way more than that. If you think of a CSM that has knowledge about the industry, knowledge about the customer, and knowledge about your products, well the CSM now becomes something of a strategic adviser. The CSM could be defining the outcomes for the customer. Customer success is not just achieving the desired outcome of the customer, it is actually creating a desired outcome for the customer.
So, when you define customer success, I think it–depending on who you ask–it depends on where they are in this maturity journey, it depends on their experiences, it really depends on how they apply customer success principles to an operating model inside their organization. It does change what it is but ultimately, customer success is about customer success, but the definition of that is different for everyone.
Drew Appelbaum: What are the major pieces that you’d need to put together to form a cohesive strategy to build a successful customer success organization?
Wayne McCulloch: Well, I’ve got a great book I could recommend to you to learn about that. But seriously, I think that was the one eluding question that as I was writing this book and I was putting all of my knowledge down, I was talking to as many of my industry peers, I was reading articles, I was attending conferences, I was actually practicing as a Chief Customer Officer, or Head of Customer Success, depending on my role. I was doing all of these things but the one thing that was missing is how do you pull it all together?
I have learned amazing things about how to build playbooks. I’ve got amazing examples from people that have deployed amazing voices of the customer programs. There is a customer risk framework, success plans, segmentation methodologies. You’ve got customer journey mapping, customer health analytics, just plain metrics of what’s important to measure. I’ve got all of these amazing best practices and insights and yet, how do I pull all of that together into a cohesive framework I can execute against, with a team of five, 50, or 500 people in my customer success function?
That truly was the breakthrough when I suddenly realized that the framework itself, as defined as it is, needs to be as flexible as it can be–depending on the type of company, the size of the company, the market, the maturity, all the things that go into making your customer success function unique–but what’s a common framework we can all use? So, the seven pillars are about these seven pillars that cover your company, your customer, and the Customer Success Manager’s ability to execute.
Those three areas are encompassed by the seven pillars and what underlines the pillars, what we call ‘tools’, there are 10 customer success tools in the toolbox that once you have these tools in place–no matter how big or small you are, no matter how coordinated or manual it’s going to be–these ten tools allow you to then execute the seven pillars in a way that makes sense for your business.
That for me was the most satisfying part of this journey, was looking at that framework and saying, “Now I get it. Now I know how to do it, now I can get to work with working out the priority of what to do first,” which becomes the challenge, not, “What am I doing?” which was the current challenge I was faced with.
The Seven Pillars
Drew Appelbaum: You read the book and you find out what The Seven Pillars of Customer Success are. What can you do with this framework and what can your business expect when you implement this?
Wayne McCulloch: Yes, so the cool thing about the framework is that it helps you to create a narrative. When I am standing up in front of my CEO, or I am standing up against my peers in services or support or marketing or finance or sales, I’m able to talk to them in a consistent way. “This is what our organization does,” and, “this is how we do it.” That actually, as strange as it sounds, is difficult for a lot of Success Leaders today because everyone’s understanding of what customer success is, is different. It depends on what background they come from, it depends how well-versed they are in success, it depends on how strong you are as a leader, and how experienced you are as a leader, to be able to really concisely and effectively say, “This is what we do, and this is how we do it.”
This framework enables you to create that narrative about, “Hey, this is what we do as an organization, these are all the things we touched throughout the customer journey, and here are the tools that we use to enable us to execute each one of these pillars.”
These tools are tools that can be shared or jointly owned by other organizations, so it is a natural way to start to pull together organizations outside of customer success. It allows you to partner and collaborate with other organizations to align around what the right thing is to do for the customer, so you don’t have to spend time doing RACI diagrams, or roles and responsibilities, or you do this and we do that, and getting confusion, and doing duplicative things, and gaps in the experience.
It allows you to very clearly map out and say, “This is what we do, and this is how we do it.” Other organizations like sales, services, support, they’re really good at this because they’ve been doing it for decades, and decades, and decades, and decades. Now, there are nuances in how they go do it, but ultimately, there is a sales funnel, and marketing puts things in the funnel, and it goes through, and it gets qualified, it gets work, and then it closes–very defined processes and very heavy on metrics in understanding how it’s progressing.
That level of rigor and sophistication was missing from success. “How do we have the confidence that if I have four X pipeline, I know I’m going to hit my sales number? How do I know on the post for sale environment, how am I going to retain customers, and how am I going to expand and create advocates?” That was kind of missing, so this framework allows you to do all those things and more, which, for me, was one of the missing pieces with all the great content, all the amazing knowledge, all the smart people out there that have great answers to how to do things, but no way to pull it all together and effectively communicate and execute on it. That for me is the true value of the book.
Drew Appelbaum: Is this an overnight change and what do the first steps look like while you’re transitioning to the plan you’ve created from the seven pillars?
Wayne McCulloch: No, this is not an overnight change. Yeah, I wish it was. The cool thing about the book is it says, “Look, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the end state, this is what awesomeness looks like, right? This is automation, I’m using ML and AI, I am able to automate a lot of this stuff, and here are some cool tools you can use.” But, the reality is people don’t start with the end result, they have to start somewhere.
So, in many cases, for example, if we talk about customer health. How do you measure customer health? Well, I talk about these companies out there, one, in particular, has 127 different inputs into customer health–and customer health tells you what the likelihood is of this customer renewing at renewal time.
The cool thing about customer health is if you get it right, you actually can start to predict the future. I can say with 95% confidence that nine months from now, this customer is going to churn, and I know why because I’ve got all the metrics. And because I know why, that creates a trigger that sends a playbook to my CSMs. So, My CSM knows what the problem is, has all the information on how to go solve it, and off they go, and they go fix the problem. That is awesome, you want to get there. There are companies out there that can do it to that level. That’s where everyone would like to be. Knowing when there’s a problem way in advance, solving the problem, and then moving onto the next challenge.
But I know that people can’t start there, so in the book, I actually say if you don’t have a data analytics team if you’re not flushed with money and can’t go buy all of these really cool tools and technologies that help you solve this problem, then here’s a really simple way to get started.
Even on day one in customer health, you can sort of say, “Okay, here are the three metrics we’re going to measure, and we’re going to do it manually with our CSM’s to begin,” but at least it gives us a baseline. At least it starts to test a hypothesis about what’s important and what’s not. Is it 127 metrics, like a big software company in the world does today? Or is it like an identity management company that I know that says, “Hey, we worked out with our data scientists that as long as they are using these three features, a customer almost never churns?” The CSM’s job is easy, “I’ve got to get the customer to use these three features.” Both are valid and both work for those organizations and you don’t necessarily know what that is when you begin.
I give people, in all cases to get started “do this.” But ultimately, “You’re trying to get here.” That could be a 12, 24, 36-month journey, but at least it’s defined and at least you know where you’re going. That’s a head start from where most people start.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, besides the resources inside the book, can readers find out more about your process elsewhere?
Wayne McCulloch: One of the things I was thinking when I wrote the book, I mean, it’s long, it’s 344 pages and I could have written so much more but I had to stop at some point otherwise it was never going to get done. The publisher was saying, “Can we publish the book now? Is it ready? Because it sounds cool, and people are asking about it, so we want to get it done.” That’s why I said, “Wow, I don’t want to write a second book and just publish the sequel.” Maybe I will, I don’t know. So, I’m creating a website called www.cspillars.com.
That website is going to house more content. For example, there are templates in the book, so the website allows you to go and download the template. If you think, “Hey, I like this template, it’s cool,” you just go to the website, and register, and then you can download all of the graphics from the book and use the templates, et cetera.
Then, over time, I am going to look at adding additional content that will augment the book that I hope one day will maybe create a new version of the book, or another edition of the book, or even a workbook to go with the book itself.
Then, I have been asked by several companies that I sort of run the customer success pillars content by, “Hey, does The Seven Pillars of Customer Success makes sense to you?” and I’ve got some tremendous responses. Over 60 companies have consumed the content and enacted a framework of the seven pillars across multiple companies.
So, I’m probably going to turn the seven pillars into a training program to enable other companies to accelerate their ability to build out a framework for their successful organization and go execute it in the market.
Yeah, there is a lot more to come I feel on this, but hopefully, the book gets people started and on their journey, and that’s my best hope, is people don’t go through the pain I went through when they’re pivoting their career. They can just get to solving the problem because your company, your customers, and you personally are all going to benefit from accelerating that type of value.
Drew Appelbaum: Wayne, we just touched the surface of the book but I want to say that writing a book, which is really going to help folks understand their customers and really be able to speak to them, and understand customer success in general, is no small feat, so congratulations on being published.
Wayne McCulloch: Thank you, as I said earlier, I have so much more respect for people who write books. It’s both thrilling but it’s also scary because, you’re putting your thoughts out there and you know people are going to read it and think, “that doesn’t make sense,” or, “that’s silly, why would you do that?” You know people are going to do that, but your hope is there’s a bunch of people out there thinking, “Oh, I just didn’t know how to get started and this book helped me on my journey,” or, “This book helped me execute and maybe I get promoted and maybe my career is better and maybe I can do more things in my life because I read this book that just helped me get over this small hurdle I have.” So, that motivated me every day.
The book was written between midnight and 2 AM every Friday and Saturday for nearly three years. I have a family, I’m busy at work, so that was this small window, but ultimately, I’m super proud of what it is. I’m very scared about how it’s going to be received, but I am also hopeful that I can improve the lives of other customer success people, either currently in their role or looking to move into that field in the future.
Defining a Framework
Drew Appelbaum: You know, the really great thing about the book is that you do mention many times that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for these problems, and so I think people reading the book will really understand that. I do have one more question and this is the hot seat question–if readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Wayne McCulloch: To build an effective customer success organization really isn’t complex. It really is a matter of just putting down a framework. You can take my framework and modify it all you want, but the fact you have a framework, it gives you a narrative, it gives you a vision, it gives you a way to explain the organization that will accelerate your ability to drive success for your organization and, more importantly, for your customers. So, don’t be daunted by the fact that it’s a big, confusing, brand new, still evolving profession. Actually, just defining your own framework, whether it’s mine or your own, will make it so much easier for you to start moving in the right direction, and ultimately, you’ll iterate and iterate and iterate until you have an awesome customer success organization that hopefully, maybe one day, I’ll learn from, and that’s the truth.
Drew Appelbaum: Wayne, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called The Seven Pillars of Customer Success and you can find it on Amazon. Wayne, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book.
Wayne McCulloch: Thanks so much, Drew, I had a blast. Thank you.