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10 Secrets to Growing a CS Team from 3 to 20+ in 6 Months

We grew our CS team exponentially in less than a year, and so can you!
Patrick Icasas
March 4, 2022

When you join an early-stage startup as a CS leader, you’re generally building out the entire Customer Success operation from scratch. This journey can be incredibly rewarding and fun, but it can also be extremely challenging and there is often a lot of pressure on you to do it right and do it quickly. It is a pivotal moment for the business, because the steps you take in creating the CS team will determine how the department grows and, consequently, how CS will affect the rest of the organization and business strategy for years to come. 

If you grow the CS team too slowly, your customers will not get the level of service and support that they want and need, which could result in churn. If you grow too fast, you risk having the CS team become bloated and inefficient, again, leading to potential lapses in service and support, and ultimately, churn. 

Sydney Strader, VP of Customer Success for Catalyst, faced this challenge when she first joined the company. She was essentially building the team from scratch. But through hard work, hard decisions, and a whole lot of perseverance, she managed to grow Catalyst’s Customer Success team from 3 people to over 20 - in six months

She related this story and her learnings in a session at the Catalyst Customer Success at the Center Summit. Below are the key learnings from her presentation, and we hope it will help you make the right first moves in developing your Customer Success department.

1. Don’t underestimate the value of your vision

When Sydney first started in Catalyst, she wanted to build a Customer Success team that would be the best in the industry; a team that was so good that everyone would want to work with them because they knew that they would experience the best of the best. 

“I shared that vision with my leadership team,” says Sydney. “I have shared that with every single employee and individual we’ve interviewed as part of our recruiting process. It’s important for everyone to understand what that vision is and be like, ‘heck yeah, sign me up.”

When you unify an organization around a single vision and outcome, everyone’s efforts become intentional. Everyone is driven to achieve the vision, and in so doing it becomes a reality. 

Many hands make light work!

2. Your first hires are critical

It may be tempting to hire cheap, especially when you’re first starting out, but that is a terrible idea for any number of reasons. 

“I strongly recommend you do NOT hire an inexperienced, junior employee as your first hire,” Sydney stresses. “You need to set the bar high from the beginning. This sets the tone for your future team. Having a Manager who knows customers intimately, has been in their team’s shoes, and has personally experienced both inefficiencies and opportunities will have a tremendous impact on team development.”

Instead of looking for new employees, Sydney recommends that companies look for those with 3+ years of experience, who have helped build a process and aspire to be a Manager.

This is what Sydney did for Catalyst’s first batch of CSMs. Her first hires wanted the coaching, the feedback, and the career path. They were given the opportunity to take ownership and help build out processes from scratch. Then, when the company got to the appropriate stage of growth, Sydney was able to promote them into management slots. 

“So much of the knowledge that they acquired when they were individual contributors (ICs) has been instrumental in their ability to manage and lead their team. They continue to up-level the processes that we’ve built across each function.”

3. Set a high bar for your team

Invest in a system that defines, guides and motivates your team to deliver at the highest standard of excellence. 

“A-level players want to work with other A-level players, and it’s on you as the Customer Success leader to set that bar,” Sydney says. “But you also have to communicate that bar, hold accountability to that bar, and routinely give feedback against that bar.”

Sydney has incorporated the “Diamonds and Spades” feedback format into her management process. “Diamonds” feedback is positive, valuable and specific, while “Spades” feedback is negative, but specific and helpful in improving an employee’s performance. It helps build a culture of transparency, accountability, and actionable feedback where people can grow and be fulfilled by the work they’re doing. 

It also helps to set proper expectations for each role and define a career path for each moving forward. Sydney has a documented promotion pathway that she shares with her team so that they know what’s being asked of them. She even uses it when recruiting, so that she can clearly articulate her expectations to candidates and how she will help them achieve that career growth. 

4. Anticipate and adapt to the business

As the business grows, so will the demands on your time. Responsibilities will mount - as will all the asks, tasks, and must-do’s on your plate. 

Sydney was nearly overwhelmed by the load. “I just got caught up in trying to do it all,” Sydney admits. “The reality was that the business was growing so quickly. I couldn’t continue to operate as the Head of Customer Success at that rate. I needed to ground myself in the vision, anticipate the growth that was to come, and prepare myself accordingly. This meant building the right team and raising the right structure around me, to support where I should be spending my time.”

You might be in the same position as well, if you’re still growing your CS org. And while you can do many things, you have to ask yourself: should you be doing those things? Where are you investing your time now, and where should you be investing your time?

“It’s natural for us to lean towards what’s comfortable or what our strengths are,” Sydney says, “but that doesn’t mean what is best for the business.”

As a growth-minded CS leader, you should be dedicating your time and attention to the areas that have the most impact on the business - both now and in the future.

5. Hold firm on what you need

If you’ve ever tried to grow a CS team in tech, you’ve probably been told at some point, “We’re a startup, so we have to be resource-constrained and scrappy.”

Don’t take this for an answer.

Your job is to deliver what’s best for the business. You are the expert in your domain, so you know what the CS team needs to function and grow. 

Sydney feels this way, too. “It’s on me to ask for what I need to be able to make my vision a reality. People like to say it’s normal to be stretched, but the reality is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You are accountable for ensuring that it’s not the case.”

Communicate your needs to management in terms they can understand. Align your asks with the goals of the business, and frame them in terms that will resonate with a CEO/CFO (simply put, relate your asks directly to the impact on revenue). You need to clearly articulate how your requests will impact Net Retention Revenue and account growth. 

6. Crawl before you run

“Building an organization takes time,” explains Sydney. “And so does building the foundation of your CS team. It takes time to hire and develop a team.”

According to Sydney, 2021 was the year when she and Catalyst laid the foundation for their Customer Success team, and 2022 is the year when it’s all coming together. 

Sydney recommends that you write down your vision and everything it’s going to take to get there. Segregate your tasks into “must-do” and “nice-to-do” buckets and focus on prioritizing the former. 

Gimmicky tactics like having an elaborate gifting strategy will not drive NDR when your CS org is still trying to figure out how to consistently realize time-to-value. 

“It’s not realistic to believe that you’ll deliver exceptional performance overnight, but if you make progress each and every day, then your vision will eventually become a reality.”

7. If you’re starting from scratch you’re doing it wrong.

It might feel like you’re building the CS team from the ground up, but the reality is that you don’t have to. You don’t get points for doing it the hard way. 

Be resourceful and don’t be afraid to look to others for assistance. Here are some examples of ways to speed up the process of building your CS function:

  • leverage your network
  • research what solutions currently exist
  • delegate tasks to team members
  • build off of existing processes

“There will never be enough time in the day to do everything,” Sydney reminds us. “It’s highly likely you’re not the first one to do this. Start at 50% based on what currently exists and then invest in building the additional 50% yourself. You’ll get further, faster, and at the highest level of quality.”

8. Don’t delay process standardization

When you invest in a standardized team process, you set the tone and expectations of what the ideal customer experience should be. A Customer Success Platform (CSP) helps operationalize these workflows so that you can train the team consistently and hold them accountable. 

“Your first steps should be to write down all the processes you want to build, brainstorm what excellence looks like, and build supporting assets.” 

Once the process has been standardized in a CSP, performance becomes that much more predictable. You’ll be able to clearly articulate every customer who is at risk and why. You can help sales understand which customers are great fits and which aren’t. You’ll be able to give the engineering team intelligent feedback and help steer product development. 

The earlier you standardize your process, the sooner you can reap the benefits, and the more your growth will accelerate. 

9. Invest in your customer feedback process ASAP

Customer feedback is the most important way to know whether or not your product is on the right track. And so you should be formalizing that process as early in your company’s growth as possible in order to drive meaningful change. 

But customer feedback only works if you’re asking the right questions. 

“One of my favorite questions I learned to ask was, ‘if your renewal was tomorrow, would you renew?” Sydney says. “And the level of honesty and clarity you get is simply amazing. Quite frankly, it diffuses a lot of the anxiety that CSMs feel, because now you know exactly where your customer stands.”

Sydney’s question is so effective that we at Catalyst even incorporated it into our health score. Also, we routinely ask this question at multiple points in the customer lifecycle: post-implementation, at the six month mark, and even long after the customer renews. 

When you have the answers you need, you should analyze them for common themes. Then communicate these themes to the business. Don’t be afraid to ask other departments for support if it will address customer concerns, because in the end these actions will help drive NRR and CSAT. 

10. Bring CS to the center

“There’s a reason that bringing CS to the center has been Catalyst’s mission from Day One,” Sydney says. “You can fundamentally change your organization. When everyone is oriented around the customer, everyone understands  what’s working,what’s not working, where there are opportunities, and where there are challenges, ultimately leading to  Net Revenue Retention growth.”

According to Sydney, Net Revenue Retention is not simply a Customer Success number. It’s a reflection of the entire company’s performance, and shouldn’t be shouldered by CS alone. From marketing to the right prospects, to selling to good fit customers, to building a product roadmap aligned to the ICP, every department has a key role.

One way you can apply this to your own company is by channeling key customer insights into company-wide Slack channels. That way, everyone maintains a steady pulse on the customer. The more informed your team members are, the more intentional they can be in applying customer-centric values to their daily roles. 

In conclusion

Building a Customer Success team in 6 months was a major feat for Sydney Strader and Catalyst, and she did it by sticking to three core philosophies:

  • Having a solid vision and staying true to it
  • Prioritizing long-term benefits over short-term solutions
  • Bringing CS to the center

Now, Catalyst has a solid team of over 20 trained and motivated CSMs - all of whom have the best interests of the customer in mind. 

But is this something only Catalyst can accomplish? Absolutely not! By following the above strategies, you too can grow your own world-class CS team within a year. 

To watch Sydney Strader’s entire presentation as well as other insightful presentations, visit the Customer Success at the Center on-demand summit.

Better relationships. Less churn.

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