SPOTLIGHT: CS Operations with Anna Hill from HigherLogic

By Jeff Breunsbach
 / Published June 17, 2019

We had a great Q&A session with Anna around the impact of customer success operations and hope that you might gain a better understanding of how this position can make an impact on revenue growth for your business.

Recently, Customer Imperative had the opportunity to speak with Anna Hill about Customer Success Operations.  Anna is currently the VP of Customer Success Operations at Higher Logic, having held positions at Ellucian and Electronic Data Systems. Her career has spanned nearly 34 years in the software and services industry.

Among our clients, customer success operations is becoming a major discussion point when thinking about the evolution of the customer success organization. As B2B SaaS companies grow, they need an individual (and often a full team) to lead transformational projects, optimize data and systems, and ultimately uncover the insights that lead to better customer outcomes.  

Customer Imperative: What is the charter of Customer Success Operations at Higher Logic?

Anna Hill: The charter really centers around the customer journey - even though you’re staffed in the customer success organization, you will be venturing into other departments that affect customer outcomes. I am charged with ensuring that the organization is adopting a customer-driven approach backed by leading and lagging indicators of customer success.

CI: What did you do in your first 90 days on the job?

AH: When I got here, my CEO already had a list for me. I jumped right into several key processes to ensure the design and operating effectivenss were at the right level.  In parallel, we began piecing together a cohesive, cross-functional dashboard that aligned to the customer journey/experience. We also set up a regular operating review designed to bring the executive team together around these issues and others. Our goal was to measure, benchmark and improve maturity across all departments relative to customer experience.

I also spent a lot of time getting to know the team and understanding their perspectives, challenges and opportunities. I’ve found that to do transformation work effectively, you must start by building trust with your team members up, down, and across the organizational chart.

CI: Why should companies invest in customer success operations on top of customer success?

AH:  If you don’t stay ahead of the curve, you cannot deliver the best customer experience.  You want to be predictive versus reactive. This position carries a lot of similarities to a sales operations position, but customer success operations has a greater purview into the operations. This role is meant to cut down siloed departments and drive change across multiple departments that lead to improved customer outcomes and stability and growth of your revenue-base.  

CI: What’s the philosophy around Customer Success at HL?

AH: At Higher Logic our motto says it all: “All Together”. Not only do we preach this to our customers, but this is just as important internally.  Software companies and especially SaaS organizations are the ultimate team sport, everyone must know their role and play their position on the field in order for the company to be successful.

If I only focused on the CSM team I’d never be successful in this role. Many of the customer experience, retention and growth challenges we face happen upstream or downstream of the CSM team. So my purview is truly company-wide and we’ve created an operating team comprised of leadership team members which meets regularly, reviews metrics, identifies issues and plans improvement initiatives.

CI: What are the goals and metrics for CS at Higher Logic?

AH: If we deliver the best customer experience to our customers then their success will drive our success.  To enable this its important to make sure you have leading and lagging indicators to help you identify potential issues and the root causes.  For the CSM team, we’ve streamlined down to three goals:

  • Monitor customer health and satisfaction
  • Maximize customer ROI
  • Retain and expand customers’ annual recurring revenue

With context and hard metrics, we can plan transformation initiatives that move the needle on the most important metrics for our customers and for our business. Another example, we bring product and engineering metrics together with time to value, NPS and CSAT so we can provide context to our cross-functional discussion on the customer journey.

CI: What are some ways that you like to improve your teams and drive change?

AH: Really we want to have a curious organization that can get down to the root cause. One of the first tools I implemented at Higher Logic is the “5 Whys.” This is an operations quality technique that we use to uncover the true root cause of issues that arise in our organization.

The way it works is that you ask why a metric is in the red/yellow zone, or why a specific issue occurred. The answer to that question becomes the basis for the next “why” question. Doing this 5 times typically gets us to root cause, then we build an action plan to get the key metric to “green” status within 30 days.  If we don’t see the situation improving after 30 days we know we misdiagnosed and repeat the process.

This allows us to methodically and constructively drive positive action and improve outcomes, while staying mindful that there could be more than one answer.

CI: The Operating Review sounds like a powerful concept, can you tell us more?

AH: It sure is. Our operating reviews happen on a recurring basis (typically monthly) and begin with consolidation of data and metrics monthly. We bring the operating team together and review cross-functional metrics as a group. We set goals beginning with best in class industry metrics. Then we determine what interim steps are required to drive improvements at the departmental level.

For example, if industry-standard Time to Value is 45 days for mid-market customers, that becomes our ultimate goal. However, it’s a journey. If we are outside of that performance envelope we’ll set interim goals so the team can make steady progress on improving that metric.

One of the keys to this forum is that it be collaborative and focused on problems, not individuals. It should be a safe place where leaders can identify issues and collaborate to resolve them.

All of the materials from this meeting are later used in all-hands calls with the broader Higher Logic team. This helps us gain support across the entire company for the initiatives that we’re driving.

CI: What systems and tools do you utilize to drive the customer journey?

AH: Right now we are working towards more automation, so ultimately we’d like to leverage our main systems of record.  We need to continue to find ways that we can leverage technology to bring forward potential opportunities as a customer matures through their lifecycle.

To build our initial dashboards, we started two steps above a stone tablet, with MS Excel. This has allowed us to prototype our metrics before investing in a BI solution that will ultimately automate the analytics and insights that drive our transformation activities.

CI: When should a company think about CS Operations within their CS organization?

AH: Customer Success is becoming a buzz-word but it goes beyond just customer success managers. You need someone who can build trust and carry authority across multiple departments - this position stays out of client interactions but ultimately leads to the success of clients.

In my opinion, SaaS companies should add a CS operations leader as soon as humanly possible. It’s just so critical to ensure that the organizational culture is aligned around the customer journey as the company grows. Certainly when companies take growth investment rounds or are scaling past the $10 million ARR mark, Customer Success Operations is something to consider.

CI: If I were a person considering a job similar to yours (VP of CS Ops), what are the things I’d want to consider?

AH: There are a few things I’d look at first:

  1. Sponsorship - do I have the sponsorship from the executive team and the charter to work cross-functionally? In smaller companies this should come directly from the CEO.
  2. Transformation Experience - do I feel strong enough about my change management experience that I can lead cross-functional teams through business transformation?
  3. Dangerously Knowledgeable - do I have the right skillset to “walk the walk” across multiple-departments to gain trust and evoke change? I’ve found that I don’t need to be an expert in everything, but broadly knowledgeable on a number of topics to be effective in my role. I also maintain a professional network of experts that I routinely reach out to for benchmarks and questions.

As you can see from our time with Anna, Customer Success Operations goes well beyond administering Gainsight. Higher Logic uses this function to drive broad customer-centric business transformation.

Our time with Anna was amazing! We spent an hour, but we could’ve spent an entire day with her as she made us feel like old friends. Her servant leader and cross functional approach to Customer Success Operations is exemplary, has us excited about the impact this role will have for many B2B SaaS organizations.

About the Author

Jeff serves as the Director of Accounts, overseeing business operations and ensuring the delivery and quality of all client engagements with numerous B2B SaaS clients to drive revenue growth through customer success strategy and execution. See full bio ›

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