Sushila Sahay, VP Customer Operations & HR at Lightbend joins us in this episode of Support Ops Simplified.
Sid: All right, I think we’re live. Sushila, thank you very much for joining us today for another very special episode of Support Operations Simplified. With you, we have someone who has a huge amount of experience in the industry with customer operations and customer support and software and technology in particular. I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Maybe you can start off with you telling us a little about yourself, what you do today and how you ended up here.
Sushila Sahaya: Sure. It’s great to be here. Thanks for the invitation. I’m really here. Right now I’m with a company called Lightbend and have been for the past seven years. Which is like a lifetime in technology, as you know. [chuckles] I currently manage several groups on customer satisfaction, customer experience, customer success side. I manage support services, which include training and consulting, customer success, which is our account management, and HR. Pretty much everything that makes customers and employees happy is under my umbrella here.
Sid: Wow, that’s a big group.
Sushila: It’s big, yes. Prior to that, I spent a career in software, over 25 years, on the business side of things. Managing any one of those things, sometimes a couple of those things, but pretty much always on the operations and customer success side of the house.
Sid: Okay, well, that’s great. Let me ask you a little bit about your current company. It sounds like you have almost all the departments that have any customer interaction component to it. How does Lightbend or how do you think about that, in the sense that you’re touching a customer interaction from end to end? Can you give me a little bit of the philosophy behind it?
Sushila: Yes, and that is the philosophy, is that it’s an end-to-end approach. We are very tightly integrated as an entire team. Including marketing, sales, my groups, and engineering, we work together all the time to ensure our customer success. While I have specific responsibilities for several groups, my team is connected very strongly to every group in the company, so that we can really take a collaborative cohesive approach.
There’s never really a hand-off of the customer relationship. There’s a hand-off in who’s exactly managing it, but the entire company is very focused on the success of our customers. That’s a philosophy that I’ve brought here since day one with the company and it infuses everything we do.
Sid: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Now, do you think– well, actually, before I ask that, well, how big is the company? What size of a team are we looking at?
Sushila: Yes, we’re about 140 people in 16 different countries. We’re a very distributed team. We have customers all over the world, and particularly in the Global 2,000. Yes, it’s a pretty big company. Well, we have a big customer list for the size of the company we are, but we interact with our customers across every department in the company.
Sid: Okay. The question I was going to ask was, how do you see the scaling? One of the things that as a customer operator in the past, and now, and even on my end, one of the things we were always cognizant of is, “Hey, this works great with this size. What happens when we add 20, 30, 40, whatever that number is more bodies to the equation? How do we prevent getting into that silo mode where people aren’t communicating as much? What strategies have you put in place to make this scale proof?”
Sushila: Yes, that’s an excellent question. We’ve probably grown 4X since I started. It’s something that I’ve been very cognizant of. Ideally, I think I would summarize that as you put processes in place, as early as possible to ensure that customer information is centralized, and that everybody knows where that information resides and has access to it. Of course, you want every touchpoint to be documented, but that’s impossible.
You have to make sure you’re tracking the key interactions, from the very first time they respond to a lead to the time that they renew, and why they renewed, and the time they do a case study and the time they evangelize for you. You really want to have that same comprehensive approach that I’ve talked about. You want to have that view into the data you’re collecting, of course, not making it too onerous for people to keep up with.
You have to do that as soon as you can. We were really smart about it and that we did it right from the beginning. Ensuring that people have access to that information is really critical. Not only are you storing it, but you’re making sure that it’s visible to people in the company.
Pretty much at any point, if someone wants to know, support activity for a customer that they’re going to be talking to, they can look it up in the system and get a very strong sense of not just the activity, but their satisfaction levels. That’s just, the basic table stakes. We have dashboards to monitor customer health and share that information throughout the company as well. Then, yes, [crosstalk] we talked–
Sid: Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but that’s a very interesting point. It’s a perfect segue into the fact that tools and technology make up a lot of this infrastructure in customer operations and customer success. You were leading to that point where you were saying, all this information needs to be accessible. It needs to be accessible easily. You have a bunch of metrics you’re tracking. Give us a little bit of insight into your tech stack? What is it that you’re tracking and how do you go about doing it?
Sushila: Sure. We want to ensure, like I said, that it’s not onerous on people to keep the information updated and accurate. We try to leverage the same system for as many things as possible and that is primarily salesforce.com. We use different tools that plug into Salesforce or are part of their own offering, like desk.com, and then Qualtrics for survey management.
Then we have a services system that the services group uses. Pretty much Salesforce is our primary source of this type of information. We try to leverage that as much as possible. We do all our recording from Salesforce. If it doesn’t feed into Salesforce or connect with Salesforce, we’re unlikely to use it at this stage because it’s just become such a fundamental tool.
Sid: Right. Great. That’s your source of truth, basically?
Sushila: Yes, exactly. Our connection is a little unstable I think.
Sid: Yes, I’m noticing that on my end too. Sorry, give me one sec. Let me just flip over my network and see if it’s better.
Sid: Okay, let’s see how that pans out. If not, we can do without the video maybe, and see if that can help the equation a little.
Sushila: Better. Okay, the sound is good right now, I think we can keep going.
Sid: Okay. All right, cool. You were mentioning with your tech stack, it’s all plugged into Salesforce and that’s where your source of truth comes from. My question was more along the lines of customer satisfaction and being able to track that in a pre-sales post-sales equation. Because they’re very different metrics that feed into it. What what are some of the things that you’re doing there, both from a technology perspective and a people perspective, to get a better insight into that?
Sushila: Yes, it’s an excellent question. Because we are a relatively small company moving really fast. We try to keep things as lightweight as possible for employees. We’re doing as much tracking as we can through Qualtrics feeding back into Salesforce, so we’ve done a lot of back end work with the Salesforce code that we can consolidate information there. We track satisfaction during service engagements, as well as on every resolved support case. Then the customer success team and I, and the managers across services, support and customer success.
We meet every week, and we discuss, I won’t say every customer every week, but certainly, any escalated customers, and then significant customers that have renewals coming up that quarter, and any red flag customers. Any customer where we’re anticipating that there could be an issue. This is one of my favorite calls that I do every week because it’s just really insightful for everybody on the call to understand what’s happening with our customer base at that moment.
The systems and the technology and the processes are incredibly important, but I think the communication and collaboration where you can discuss these things in a group forum is actually fundamental because everyone’s got a perspective based on their interaction with customers or similar situations. We do that call and we make sure it happens every week, that’s another one really effective way to stay on top of customer health. Is it the most scalable? [chuckles] No, but it is incredibly impactful.
Sid: Yes, no, you’re right. In all of my previous positions, as well, where we were managing strategic accounts or getting to that point where we were managing escalations, there was always a big human factor of reviewing those on a weekly basis. One thing I found, and I’d be curious to hear about your experience in this is, there was more of an art to it than a science in the sense that you would always look through the KPIs that were being reported from the system. Just some people had a better gut feel for what’s going on underneath the covers than others did.
Sid: What we’re trying to do over here is the bridge that gap to our analytics. I’m curious as to other than just playing MacGyver, how do you go about bridging that gap when you’re going through these analytics, right?
Sushila: Yes, and I think that’s exactly how I would describe this weekly call that I’m talking about, because it’s incredible how Customer Success professionals, and people who are very experienced at working with customers directly, how intuitive they can be, not only about how to approach and resolve the situation, but also the personal motivations of the people that they’re engaged with.
That’s a big factor in enterprise software, is there are lots of people who are putting their own credibility and reputation on the line at work to bet on your technology. That’s an incredibly– You have to really appreciate what that takes from a person to be your world champion, and so that’s a relationship that we really wish success as much as we’re setting the customer up for success.
That’s where these bridging the gap is so important because my interaction with a person at a customer site can be very different than somebody else is given my role, their role, how much they’ve put on the line with us as vendors. That multi-pronged perspective is hugely important. Yes, it takes some time and experience, I think, to really develop that intuition. I do have to say the folks on our team are incredibly skilled at this, and we learn from each other every day.
Sid: Yes, it’s great to have a great team behind you, right?
Sushila: Yes. Absolutely.
Sid: In light of that, tell me about one customer experience win that you’ve had recently, or something about your customer experience, that you’ve changed in a big way?
Sushila: Here’s a good example, and that’s an excellent question. Starbucks is a customer of ours and has been for a few years. They’ve really gone on a journey, we’ve taken a really interesting approach with them that we’ve modeled now and written into our customer experience journey. It’s basically, I won’t take you through the whole thing, but it’s essentially an approach that starts with the customer and then ends with self-sufficiency. They’re essentially dependency on our technology for their mission-critical applications.
Now, what we changed about the customer experience in learning from them and with them, was that we brought services and customer success together under my umbrella. To really ensure that the two teams were tightly integrated and that the change from enablement to more product usage and self-sufficiency was going to be really successful for the customer.
What that means is services own the relationship and the success metrics for a while, and then Customer Success takes over, but it’s all part of the same journey for the customer. We brought those two teams together, under me, and that improved and tightened up the collaboration incredibly. It’s part of bridging the gap as you said. That is now the customer experience that all our large enterprise customers get to take advantage of.
Sid: Okay, that’s actually a very important point because a lot of times when I was referring to the silos earlier, it’s one organization gets to the end of their cycle. Then there’s a bit of an awkward toss, where the customer gets moved from one team to another as part of a transition. Having smooth transitions where things are handed off properly, and there’s a continuity is really important to making sure that the overall experience continues to be consistent.
Sushila: Absolutely. What we try to do is introduce the customer success manager into the relationship right from the beginning. Often they’re working with the sales team, doing some prospect calls, and helping the customer understand, the potential customer understand what the experience will be like. The beauty there is you really know from the beginning why a company has engaged with you and why they’ve chosen your technology, and now it’s your responsibility to live up to the promises. I think by doing that, the customer success teams feel really entrenched in the success of that customer because they were putting their own selves on the line in the beginning with aligning expectations.
Sid: Right. It seems you have a lot of these pieces fitting into place at this point with the different teams and the relationship between them. What are the next five years look like from a strategic perspective? Where do you see customer operations going at Lightbend under your leadership?
Sushila: That’s another excellent question. I say that these pieces, they are fitting together really nicely, but it’s really important that everybody understands the role they play in the success of a customer. That’s another thing that I think when you’re outlining processes and tools and the whole customer journey, you’ve have got to be really clear about what the pieces are, how they work together, and what role each individual plays in that whole journey.
You can’t communicate about that stuff enough to your internal organization. When things change, the fundamentals are still usually in place. If people change roles and that type of thing, it doesn’t mean that suddenly the customer relationship is going to fall apart. That’s just one point I wanted to make.
I would say that we’ve been building the customer operations organization for a company with a thousand customers, X number of people servicing them since the beginning. The leadership that our company has between the CEO, myself and some of my team members, we’ve got a ton of experience that we brought to the company right from its early days. The same way we do for our– no, because we’ve always had this approach that, “Hey, we’re going to get bigger and we’re going to be ready for it,” which is great
Yes, the next five years, I would imagine that we’re going to have a transformation, like a lot of software companies in terms of our cloud services offering. That’s going to change the game a little bit in terms of how we approach customer success. What it’s not going to change is that the entire organization and I really can’t stress this enough. The entire organization is involved in ensuring the success of a customer. Everybody feels very committed to our success that way and that will never change.
We ensure that our engineer’s who do the level three tech support that they have enough bandwidth to do that and work on product. That’s actually maybe not quite so unique anymore, but it really sets the standard for how to deliver excellent support. Also how to deliver excellent products is when your engineers are heavily engaged with customers. Nothing gets tech issues resolved faster than when the engineer is working with the customer.
Sid: Yes. Support is not known to find issues. That normal person would get.
Sushila: As we grow, we have to scale the organization across, not just customer operations, customer success support services, but we also have to grow the engineering team. We fully anticipate doing. I think with cloud services, the transition is that the actual tech support you’re giving a customer directly will decrease, but then the relationship management becomes even more important, because you really have to ensure, yes. That they are getting the value that they expect from you.
Sid: The brick fix ends up transitioning into more of a dev ops kind of role, but the points end up being the same or in fact even more because there’s a constant communication back and forth in terms of expectations, service levels so and so.
Sid: I think you’re absolutely right about that. You have a wealth of experience here, from your past and your previous positions. Wondering who’ve been some of your mentors in your journey.
Sushila: Well, it’s interesting, I was thinking about that and our CEO here, Mark Brewer, he’s been an incredible mentor to me. I’ve also worked with some really just very customer-centric CEOs throughout my career and I think that makes a big difference in terms of getting the whole organization behind a customer success vision.
One of the guys though that I have learned an incredible amount from is actually one of the guys on my team and he’s my Senior Director of Customer Operations, and his name is George Nicks. His approach to operationalizing the customer success journey has been incredibly valuable for me to learn from and for our customers to experience. He’s a fantastic mentor to a ton of people in the organization, in terms of putting the customer first and that’s been a huge influence.
Sid: Cool. Awesome. We’re getting towards the end of our questions here. The one thing I wanted to make sure we get from you as a parting gift for the people listening in to this podcast, is there was one thing you would want them to take away as advice from our conversation today. What would that be?
Sushila: I think I’ve alluded to it a lot. The one thing would be to ensure that the customer success goals are shared across your entire company. That means acknowledging everybody’s role in success and having people understand when customers are being successful, and ensuring they can participate in the joy that comes from that. It’s very much in my view a shared perspective. If it’s not something that the entire company feels a responsibility toward, it’s just not going to be as successful. Everything in enterprise software these days takes a village. It really does. You’ve got to nurture that and allow people to participate in the ups and downs of all of that.
Sid: Right. That’s very well said. In fact, the core of what I gathered from our conversation here today was you need to have everyone engaged at every level to be a customer-centric organization. Leaders you’ve had the pleasure of working with, have been customer-centric leaders, which have fostered that culture and it makes it easier than do to bring it into the fold.
Sushila: Right, right. It’s not impossible to bring into the fold and you still have to do that because people come to your company to accomplish certain things and they’re looking for specific types of opportunities. You still have to get folks to understand the journey and the missions that you’re on together. Yes, the more like-minded people you have from the perspective of putting the customer first, the easier it is.
Sid: Sounds good. Well, thank you very much Sushila, this has been an absolutely wonderful time chatting with you and thanks for being on the show.
Sushila: I enjoyed it. My pleasure. Take care, sir.
Sid: Okay, hang on, let me just end the recording off.
[00:28:28] [END OF AUDIO]