By Abby Sorensen, Chief Editor
Matthew Zilli leads cross-functional collaboration for this SaaS marketing automation company’s customer success team of 75+ people.
Zilli’s trajectory at Marketo within the product and marketing teams — and that he didn’t build his resume with other customer success job titles — is fitting considering the company’s cross-functional approach to customer success. “When I look at our executive team here,” Zilli says, “they all have a stake in customer success, not just because of the financial metrics, but because they’re all just deeply immersed in this idea that if we don’t make our customer successful, nothing else really matters.”
Marketo’s customer success team has about 75 people on it. This team’s influence across the 1,300-employee company is much broader than its headcount would indicate. The structure of this team and the role it plays has changed quite a bit over the past few years. The fact that a large, mature company like Marketo is constantly fine-tuning this function is indicative of the customer success evolution taking place in the software space as a whole. Zilli’s insights on investing in customer success, actively managing customer success managers (CSMs), and collaborating with other teams can apply to software companies of all shapes and sizes.
1. Customer Success Requires Real Investment
A customer success team requires more than manpower — those people need tools and resources too. Easier said than done, Zilli admits. Even for software companies well past startup mode, pulling the trigger on customer success or product investments can feel risky. Such was the case with Marketo’s recent seven-figure investment in developing free education courses, which they had typically charged for in the past. It’s next to impossible to forecast the ROI on customers and prospects interacting with the educational marketing content. But the investment was still a logical one in the eyes of Marketo’s leadership team. “We could teach customers how to use our account- based marketing software product, but if we didn’t give them a context on what account-based marketing was as a marketing strategy, it was useless and lost on them,” says Zilli.
Marketo’s education courses had unintended positive results too. For example, the company started fielding requests to develop paid, on-site custom education for larger clients. The education materials also gave more ammunition to his team. Zilli explains, “It became a real go-to resource for our CSMs because they can say, ‘Oh, you’re asking a question about something I could spend time taking you through, but we have this amazing training that you can just go watch for 20 minutes. Then come back to me with questions, and I can help you get to the next stage of your journey.’”
Positioning a customer success team to be successful doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes executive- level buy-in and true investment. “I think the number-one thing SMB software companies need to do is to force themselves to carve out additional dollars and budget specifically for customer success,” Zilli says. “This is hard, especially when you’re a growing company and you’re not quite sure what investments will pay off yet. But the reality is, really high retention rates are more important than mediocre growth rates in a lot of cases. Over-investing in customer success will almost always send you down the right path.”
2. Actively Manage Customer Success Managers
In 2017 Marketo made two key shifts related to CSM job structures. First, Zilli describes how he actively manages the number of individual accounts each CSM has. Based on that data, Marketo decided to hire more CSMs to reduce the customer load across the entire team. He explains, “The reason behind that is we want our customer success managers to truly understand our customers’ businesses, and to do that, they can’t have hundreds and hundreds of accounts.” Second, Marketo started aligning CSMs based on customer size and sophistication. Obviously, a complex enterprise account needs more attention than smaller, nascent accounts. Marketo’s CSMs are aligned to service either a small number of large accounts or a larger number of small accounts.
There isn’t a magic formula for how many accounts CSMs should have or how those accounts should be assigned, just like there isn’t an industry standard for how often CSMs should touch customers. Zilli appreciates the difficulty in striking a balance between forcing CSMs in front of customers versus holding back, knowing customers are so busy. A “checking in” email once per month per customer doesn’t cut it. Marketo’s CSMs strive to have at least one 15-to-20- minute phone call with each customer per month.
The communication cadence might vary by customer, but it does ramp up throughout onboarding. When a new customer is acquired, Marketo’s CSMs are tasked with coordinating communications across several other departments. During this initial phase, a CSM likely isn’t communicating directly on a daily basis. After about six months, once services and support are squared away, CSMs start increasing the frequency of touch points to a weekly or biweekly basis.
3. Cross-Functional Cooperation (Even With Finance)
Zilli claims it would be harder to think of a function his customer success team doesn’t interface with rather than to recite the long list of groups he interacts with on a regular basis. Customer success can’t be successful if it’s in a silo, or even if it’s just aligned with services/support.
Naturally, Marketo’s support and services teams are closely aligned with customer success initiatives. And it’s not surprising that Zilli has daily interactions with both the marketing and product teams. Where Marketo’s customer success communication loop stands out is through its interactions with the finance department. The processes involved in billing, invoicing, and collecting is ideally a “no-brainer” when it comes to large customers that have ample procurement and accounting resources. But Marketo also has smaller customers that aren’t as operationally mature. For those customers, Zilli says, “Inherently, the way we work with them from a finance perspective impacts their customer experience. It becomes just as important to me that finance is treating our customers appropriately as it does with marketing or product or customer success. When that doesn’t happen, we feel the pain from it.”
4. The Fine Line Between Sales & Customer Success
Where does customer success stop and sales start, and vice versa? The results of acquiring a new customer are much easier to measure than quantifying the results of engaging an existing customer. In the end, both objectives boil down to revenue. Zilli is adamant that revenue should be inextricably linked to customer success. “Even in a world where customer success has a purely altruistic approach towards the hopes and dreams of their customers and they’re only focused on making their customers happy, it’s still done with an eye towards revenue,” he says.
This doesn’t mean CSMs need to act as glorified sales reps. “As a subscription software company, our guiding light is that our customers are our lifeblood, so we should always lean on the side of delivering a better experience versus trying to sell somebody more,” says Zilli. Even so, the customer success team is often closely involved on the presales side of a deal. The way Zilli sees it, the more the customer success team can hear from a customer, the better, even if they end up spending time on a prospect that doesn’t materialize into an account.
How Marketo’s customer success team interfaces with other departments, how much it invests in this function, and how its customer success team is structured will continue to evolve. “I don’t think we’ll ever have a year where we look back and say, ‘Yes, we had the perfect mix of marketing versus sales versus customer success. We nailed it. We don’t need to make any changes,’” says Zilli. “We’re always going to be tuning how we do that to make sure our customers feel like they’re getting what they need.”