Harini Gokul (AWS) Customer Success as Offense
Blake Bartlett: Coming up on today's episode of Build.
Harini Gokul: One metric I am passionate about is time to value, and I am inaudible and I goal everybody I know, on accelerating time to value. And to me, that's an important consideration when you're starting out. How do you make sure you are accelerating time to value for your customers? What mechanisms do you have in place to do that? What metrics do you have in place to measure that? And how do you make sure the customer understands what you're doing for them?
Blake Bartlett: Welcome to Build, the podcast from OpenView. I'm your host Blake Bartlett, and the show features conversations with software founders, leaders, and investors. Each episode unpacks a new key insight on how to build your company and navigate the fast changing world of software startups. Today, we revisit the topic of customer success. And my guest today is Harini Gokul, Head of Customer Success at AWS. Given the size of AWS and its mission criticality to nearly all aspects of technology today, she has a unique purview into customer success. She works with the biggest organizations in the world on their most strategic digital transformation initiatives. And in this context, it could be easy to be reactive to your customers, chasing fire drill after fire drill. And while that might feel customer centric, the lack of prioritization in chasing these fire drills is actually doing everyone a disservice. Customer success instead needs to be proactive and strategic. And this approach starts by reorienting the definition of customer success in the first place. It's not doing anything and everything a customer wants in order to prevent churn, but instead it's aligning to true business value. And the key insight here is starting with your customer's customer and then working backward from there. And that's exactly what you'd expect from Amazon, the company with the mission to be Earth's most customer centric business. In Amazon and AWS's worldview, it starts with customers and its customers all the way down. So with all that, as background, let's dive right in with Harini Gokul to understand what this view of customer success looks like in real life and how it can help you shift from reactive defense to proactive offense. But I think maybe first as a starting point, I want to talk about a concept that is very popular these days, a little bit of a buzzword, and that is customer centricity. And it sounds like a great thing, but as with any buzzword, what does it actually mean? What's it all about? So maybe let's start there. What does customer centricity mean to you?
Harini Gokul: To me, customer centricity is focusing, staying, and delivering on what our customers and their customers want, at all times across all engagements across the journey. It is moving away from intent to do the right thing and actually being set up systematically, programmatically to consistently deliver that experience day in, day out, across every engagement. And finally, it's about making sure culturally that every member of your organization has the customer's priorities baked into the DNA of how they do business. At AWS and at Amazon, it's called customer obsession. It starts with the customer. It continues with the customer. It ends with the customer. So that is customer centricity. It means being obsessed about customer value at all times. And I'll take it a step further and say, for my many of my customers, they care about their customers. So where I start my customer centricity is my customer's customer. If you're a food delivery startup, you care that your customers are getting their food on time, cheaper, faster, better than anybody else. So I'm going to start there and say, what do you need to do to elevate that experience? Let's work backward from there. Talk about your priorities, translate that into actions and initiatives that we can help you achieve. So start with your customer's customer. Talk about the value they want to achieve, translate that intent, make it into mechanisms. Again, consistency, regardless of whether you're in Singapore or Istanbul, you should be confident that you're delivering the same consistent experience day in, day out, regardless of the event at hand, and then bake that into the DNA of your organization.
Blake Bartlett: I like that a lot. You could stop at well if we're customer centric, or if the customer's always right, or whatever, then anything they want for any reason we're going to do. And the tail wags the dog at that point. And so the way that you're saying that you focus on your customer's customer, that's a really interesting way to sort of define and frame customer value, because it always gives you the same starting point. And it will be different for most companies, but it's a common framework and it allows you to start with the language of business value. And your speaking their language, because it's about their customer and that helps to really get that common starting point, get you on the same page, as opposed to, again, just chasing a million different perhaps disparate and oftentimes conflicting desires from one customer to the next. I like this unifying framework.
Harini Gokul: Fantastic. And I think it helps build deeper, richer partnerships because your customers know that you care about their goals. How they deliver value to their shareholders and stakeholders and investors and customers. So there's a real deep partnership because you're both aligned on priorities versus coming in and not being aligned. We come in with our own lens versus the customer has their lens, and that just does not set the stage for a relationship, for a relationship to get customers for life. So I'm a big believer, you start with customer priorities, work backwards, and then deliver on it day in, day out. Like we said, excellence and execution is a fundamental building block. We need it now more than ever, but we always need it. So say what you mean, mean what you say, and then make it happen.
Blake Bartlett: So that gets us a really good starting point for this conversation. Customer centricity is all about customer value and the way you get to customer value is through thinking about the customer's customer. So with that as a starting point, and once you get that philosophy and framework in your head, then how do you do customer's customer success as offense versus defense? What does that difference mean? What does that look like to you?
Harini Gokul: Right. When I started, Blake, this was more years ago than I care to remember, there was a lot of reaction to what customers said. Like you said it, if a customer wanted a product or a feature, you would sort of say, how high should I jump? When an escalation came and you were committed, and that creates a culture of noise. That creates a culture where you're not working or operating at your optimum efficient best because you're always reacting. So 20 years ago, I made a commitment to myself and the customers I served, that I would be committed to thinking, to looking around the corner with them. And what that meant was think about the value I bring to the table. I work with a customer, but I work with the portfolio as well, which means I have patterns and practices that I've learned based on these engagements. And I owe it to my customer to serve them with that experience, to bring those patterns and practices to them, and then apply it to their journey and say," Depending on where you are, the industry, the business, the macroeconomic environment," we're going to go there in a minute, I'm sure." This is what we think are the next best set of initiatives, actions for you." And make that a conversation with the customer proactively. And that needs to be a strategic imperative. And it's also a cultural imperative, because everyone on your teams and your stakeholder teams needs to be thinking about," Am I looking around the corner?" With my teams," I always say, if you are delivering on what you say you will, you report the news." Anyone you've committed to doing X, you do X. Great, the job starts now. How are you making the news? How are you combining everything you've delivered, your understanding of the customer, your understanding of the market, your understanding of the industry, to say," Based on these three things we believe innovating in X area, adopting Y service, expanding to Z is best done this way," and then bringing that to the customer proactively so they're equipped to that information as they chart their future roadmap. So I'm a big believer in make the news, not just report the news. In order to do that, you need to have a very strong analytics and instrumentation foundation built for your customers. So a lot of customer success is about not data. It's about insights and patterns, and how do you then deploy these insights and patterns in the service of your customer. When you do that, then you start working on offense. You know what is coming. You anticipate. You're looking around the corner, and the customer then again, you build a different relationship. Because as an example, we have customers who are looking at product investments. They're going," Do I build, do I buy, what am I doing here?" Based on where they are, the capabilities of their team, based on what we've created as a company, if I go to them and say,"You know what? I know you're thinking about this, let's give you a third scenario. How about we experiment on this?" Show some skin in the game, experiment, and that gets them to a better outcome than they would've had on their own. And it builds this bidirectional working relationship that elevates it from being a technology vendor to a true partner. So if you work with me, you will hear the statement," Did you make the news today?"
Blake Bartlett: One of the things you just said there really jumped out to me. I was kind of taking notes as you were talking about it, but this ability to move from being just a vendor to a true partner. And I think that's very, very powerful and there's a lot of, I think we can kind of draw this juxtaposition, this binary to sort of help folks think or understand kind of what this actually looks like in practice. And so where I started with it is classic and software is, are you a tool or are you a solution? And more often than not, you start as a tool. I have a little problem. I'm going to get this tool. It's going to solve the problem. And then what do you know, there's some land and expand. The tool starts getting used more and more. And that's a great thing to see happen. But at some point that land and expand, or that customer journey is going to stall out, if you can't switch your messaging from," This is my little tool and here's how it solves problems" to" Here is my solution and here's how it brings you customer value. Here's how it solves real strategic things in your organization." And so this tool versus solution, or tactical orientation versus strategic orientation, or even from the human perspective, are you focused just on the transaction? Getting the sale, getting the renewal, getting the upsell, sort of closing the ticket, sort of more transactionally orientation. Or are you a true strategic relationship to this person, so that you can get to that point of being a thought partner, not just another vendor that is kind of on a procurement list somewhere?
Harini Gokul: Well said. I think when you do that, you truly uncover more value at the customer. It is the right thing for the customer and it presents you with opportunities that you would have not had before. So I love that. I think it's about making sure that we are elevating every transaction and sort of elevating that to a more strategic conversation. What I will say in addition, is in order to do that, you really need a coalition of the willing. In order to do it efficiently and effectively, you need to have broad, big tent conversations and think of roles like customer success as a company wide charter, as opposed to a role that somebody does. That's the other thing that we tell our teams is you are just the manifestation of so many other things, this hidden network that is behind you. And that's really how big tent we need to think when we go to a customer. And I'll say from a customer's perspective, it often surfaces opportunities that even they had not thought about. And I'll give one example, we'll pause, I know we have other things to talk about. But climate tech has become such an important topic for so many of our customers and they are anxious to move climate tech away from a quarterly earnings conversation, I'm going to bring my VP of sustainability out, to a more how does this impact the business discussion? And I've really enjoyed bringing in the leaders of sustainability into some of our technology discussions, and then those discussions become so much richer. Because it's not just a technology I'm going to retire a data center, or move, modernize, or adopt the service, it becomes when I do that, here's the carbon footprint that I save. So there's a two for one right there. And you can repeat this with so many roles. The CFO these days is a very popular role for us to engage with, given the cost optimization pressures that many of us are facing and our customers are facing. And inaudible those discussions, again, when you cost optimize, you're often doing a good thing for the environment and you're helping your sustainability codes. So constantly thinking about one, how an activity could embrace multiple stakeholders and bring benefit across multiple believers, I think is something we should do in our roles as customer success leaders.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. And I think those are really great examples of what it looks like to actually do that in practice that you were talking about. This idea of being a thought partner not just a vendor. And the examples you gave a really helps shed light on what does this actually look like in practice, how you take the philosophical into an actual QBR or into an actual customer review conversation. So, that's great. Just a quick break in today's conversation to make sure that you are getting all the latest in PLG content from OpenView. First things first, if you haven't subscribed to Build in your favorite podcast app, make sure you do that now. We drop four episodes per month and subscribing is the best way to stay in the loop. And while you're at it, drop us a rating and review for the show so that others can find it as well. And secondly, did you know that I'm a YouTuber? I put out weekly videos on the latest and greatest in PLG with my show called The PLG 123. Every video is two minutes or less and features VC perspectives from yours truly on the latest in VC, SaaS, and of course, product- led growth. So find me on YouTube by searching Blake Bartlett and make sure to subscribe to my channel so that you don't miss a single video. Okay, now let's dive back into today's conversation. Another thread that I wanted to pull on was what you were talking about with this idea that customer success isn't just a department. It's not just a role. It's really sort of an initiative that needs to be across an entire company, and that it's a multi- player initiative, cross- functional initiative in a lot of ways. So I guess how should customer success partner with other teams, perhaps like sales and product, and how should those teams partner with customer success?
Harini Gokul: I love that conversation. I call it building a coalition of the willing. If I step back, and I'm fortunate to work for AWS where customer obsession is in the DNA of all of us, and we are always seeking to raise the bar and I generally find that the intent to do the right thing by the customer is omnipresent. You will not really find a role that says," Nope, I do not want to serve the customer." We're not having those conversations. The important thing is to say,"There is great intent. How do I translate that intent into systemic mechanisms that will showcase our customer obsession and translate into business outcomes consistently?" And you will hear me say these words a lot because this is important. As companies think about scaling, growing and scaling, consistent execution and raising the bar to be programmatic is so critical for scale. It's so critical to get rid of the noise and really help you soar. And that has been a disproportionate focus for me. But I will say, start with the culture. Customer obsession needs to be baked into the DNA. It means all the way from the view from the top. Is your boardroom and your leaders starting the customer conversations? What opportunity do you have to influence them to start with those conversations? And then as you translate it into priorities and execution, think about how you build those accountabilities with your stakeholder teams. I'll give an example. I have many customers who are hugely innovative. They're pushing the limits of innovation, just because of this amazing work they do. When they decide to invest in a new service, in a new capability, I bring in that service team and that leadership and the leader of that team becomes the sponsor of that account. And that way you've taken customer obsession, which we all have and which we share, and made it real. There's an accountability now that this leader of a service team has taken to make sure his, her, or their service is successful with the customer. That they're learning from it. And it's a great feedback loop, you learn how the customer is actually using your service and you learn it to make the product better for everybody else. SaaS is all about your investing in futures. So the customer has invested his or given his shareholders an investment in your future. How do you repay that trust? By knowing that the gentleman who led the team and the people who coded that service are with you. Often, on the site with you, on the phone available, but they are making sure that you customer are going to be super successful with this new service that you've adopted. And that is a real way for me to walk the talk on making customer obsession real across stakeholders. With my product teams, the example I just gave, and my sales teams are my best friends, are my BFFs. I do talks on this subject. Because I think it's such an important conversation, when you feel you're working together for the customer, as opposed to working at each other. So, especially as you think about sort of your post- sales and pre- sales journey and all the lines blurring there, we've broken down those silos, where I am today. Our account teams, when you look at a customer, you will often see a triad of accounts representing us. It'll be the account manager, who represents the sales charter. It'll be the customer success manager, representing the customer experience charter, and a deep technical role, which we call the solutions architect. And this triad makes sure that the customer gets what they want from their commitment to AWS. And it's a single pane of glass, and they are not seeing any of the connective tissue work that needs to happen. But that kind of teaming partnership comes when you have goals. Because this triad shares customer goals and they are linked by their joint accountability to customer goals. They will only win when each all of them win. So I'm very passionate about making sure that we are inculcating customer obsession in the DNA of a culture. I'm very passionate about making it a part of our execution rhythm, and most importantly, our accountability rhythm, and having mechanisms in place to translate intent to reality.
Blake Bartlett: On the sales side, when you're talking about this triad of different roles that represent different charters, which then to the customer looks like a single pane of glass and certainly a lot of consistency. That certainly is different than I think a lot of what has been perceived as best practice, or at least commonplace in customer success. Which is there's this big question about handoff, when does something get handed off from sales to customer success? Figuring out the right time to do that, and how do you do it the best way, but what I'm hearing here from you here, based on this cross functional, kind of multiple people in a pod helping the customer, there's no real formal point at which a handoff happens. It's kind of a progressive thing.
Harini Gokul: I love the progressive thing. If you think of it as three legs of a stool. And so there's a connective tissue for the three legs of the stool that makes sure that while we each know what our roles are, we also know the collective vision we are working towards. And that makes sure that people understand that while it is important to do your job, it's equally important to make sure everybody else is set up for success and we are doing this right. So it's not a, I'm going to throw it over the wall, or I'm going to just pass a baton and keep running. It's very much what needs to be done, do you need help supporting what you do? And if the two of us thought about something, could we have a better outcome? That's often the mentality going into it. And I will say, that it can be a resource intensive mentality. I have a digital customer success program, of course. And I often think a lot about how I take some of these deep engagements and translate them and productize them into IP and practices and assets and playbooks that could benefit our customers, some of our longer tail customers or customers who are not there yet for some of this deep engagement. So there's a lot of thought going into what do we bring to the customer? How do we bring it in a frictionless, easy to consume experience for the customer? And then how do we productize it to benefit all at scale?
Blake Bartlett: And on the product side, if I think about customer success being BFFs with product, it makes a lot of sense to me. But if I think about sort of making that actually work, because there's so much feedback that's gathered, how do you navigate that and get a really good interface between customer success and product, in a way that it doesn't become overwhelming but the right things get prioritized built for the right reasons?
Harini Gokul: Another conversation that I love. And I will say, that it's a learning journey for all of us. As our environments and ecosystems evolve, I'm constantly learning what I could do better. But I'll share two things, Blake. One is to earn customer trust and to feel like an owner with them in their journey. There are mechanisms that I deploy to share roadmaps between our customer teams and our product teams. And what that does is it's a deep immersive session. You do it for a half a day or a full day. And both sides come to the table prepared to talk about their roadmaps. And this is confidential, sensitive. It's not a discussion I take lightly, but it's important because one, it shows the commitment on both sides to be invested in the relationship. Second, more pragmatically, given where how tight resourcing is and the focus on efficient growth and costs, I think it's important to share where each one of us plan to go so we can make the right prioritization discussions and trade offs. So our customers will come and say, under NDA, all of this very confidential and say," This is what our future looks like. Here are some priorities we want to achieve. Here is the working backwards roadmap." We will show up and say," For all of these services, this is where we are." And together say," What are opportunities to partner? If you are investing in this already, then the customer maybe does not have to do a build inaudible." So it's about earning trust. It's about being transparent. It's about having ownership. But that mechanism starts a two way conversation and dialogue on what futures look like and how we invest in our future together. Second, once that is done, and let's say you adopt a service, you're going down the road. The discussion on product features and how do you prioritize, that is sort of the conversation at the heart of all of this. And there we are very transparent. There's a mechanism I've used at Microsoft, at AWS, it's called Product Feature Requests, and that's a way to prioritize our feature requests that are coming in from our customers and use a scientific way, a quantitative way to understand the impact of these features. How do you sort of collate them? How do you categorize them in a way to have most impact for our customers and prioritize them on our roadmap? So these are active strategic discussions that happen all the time. I'm actually in the middle of one of these product feature discussions with the customer and our service team today. And the mechanism for both means that even if things always don't go the way you want to from either side, but having this mechanism in place and a process in place means that both sides know what the expectations are. Know that there is commitment and ownership to see this through and to see this through in a way that's successful for our customer. So if you are a customer success leader or a practitioner listening to this, I highly recommend thinking about these two mechanisms and talking about them with your service teams, and seeing if they're comfortable having this conversation, sharing a roadmap with the customer, and then prioritizing in a very intentional quantitative way. If I could add a third thing, which is depending on where the customer is on their journey, it could be you could elevate the strategic and we call it an envisioning session. You could have a complete, like," Let's go to the whiteboard and talk about what good looks like," and then move to the end as sort of that conversation moves the way it should. Then at the end, you're talking," This is my feature and this is how I've adopted it.: So I think about it as a sliding scale and meeting the customer where they are as we deploy these mechanisms.
Blake Bartlett: So as we kind of wrap up here, I want to bring it down to a very, very practical level for our listeners. So many folks listening right now are smaller companies, sort of startups that might be early revenue up to maybe a couple of tens of millions of dollars of ARR. And so I guess the question is, how does this set of principles or set of concepts change for companies based on their size? And for somebody that's listening right now that might be kind of in those earlier stages, there's product market fit, there's certainly customers, but it still is a young company. What should a team of that size focus on first, if they want to make this move from defense to offense in their customer success organization?
Harini Gokul: It is never too early to think about customers and customer success, regardless of your state. I know you've heard this before. The good news is if you have product market fit, I would say, this is a great opportunity to do a couple of things and maybe three things. One, think about the customer, the voice of customer. You want the voice of the customer, a pulse on the customer, real time coming back so you continue to iterate and make the product stronger, better as you go through the journey. So have a mechanism to capture the voice of the customer. And cannot be like a quarterly survey. Please do not do that. You are small enough that you absolutely can reach out, be with your customer, co- solution, co- deploy, be with them and make sure you are making their experience the best experience they have. When you do that, you will get a set of customer advocates, marquee customers. These are the ones who are going to be your references. These are the ones that are going to go up on stage with you and talk about you. These are the ones who are going to talk to other customers about you. And for those customers, create a set of experiences that will help them get the most value from your product. And use that as a starting point to build out a center of gravity for customer success, what data, what insights, what processes you need. And it doesn't have to be cumbersome. It doesn't have to be too many processes, but start to build a center of gravity on data and insights. I feel like a lot of us wait till we really mature to start thinking about patterns and practices and insights, and that is a disservice to our customers. So build advocates, make sure they have a great experience, start building a center of gravity and a programmatic way to deliver customer success. And finally, as you grow bigger, think about how customers are coming on board. What are you doing to make them onboarding frictionless? How are they using? Have methods and mechanisms to help them get started and use very, very quickly. So we've not talked about metrics on this call, Blake, but one metric I am passionate about is time to value. And I am goal and I goal everybody I know on accelerating time to value. And to me, that's an important consideration when you're starting out. How do you make sure you are accelerating time to value for your customers? What mechanisms do you have in place to do that? What metrics do you have in place to measure that? And how do you make sure the customer understands what you're doing for them?
Blake Bartlett: Well, Harini, this has been great. The conversation has certainly served to clarify this often used term of customer centricity and this concept. And really sort of helped to illustrate that it's all about getting on the same page with the customer, through thinking through the lens of customer value and common ground and then working together to be a true vendor, or true thought partner not a vendor, and then a bunch of practical tools for how to actually move from defense to offense. So for me, this was a huge unlock and I learned a lot from it. I trust that our audience has as well. So thank you so much for joining us here today on the Build podcast.
Harini Gokul: Thank you, Blake. It was a pleasure. I learned so much and I'm looking forward to hearing what your listeners have to say.
Harini leads customer success at AWS (Amazon Web Services), which is arguably the most important enterprise technology vendor today. She says customer success needs to play proactive offense more than reactive defense. By starting with your customer’s customer, you can align your strategic initiatives with your customers’ to achieve win-win outcomes.