In two instances in my career, I’ve joined start-ups as the first hire for sales and customer success when the entire company was less than 15 employees strong. In this article, I’ll share five steps from my experience in building out these teams; focus, getting to know your customers, engagement, closing the loop, and people.

My name's David Apple, I'm the Head of Customer Success and Sales at Notion. In this article, I'm going to talk about my experience building out customer success and sales teams from the ground up at both Notion and Typeform.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Notion and Typeform, they're both definitely considered to be product-led growth companies in the sense that they both reached millions of users 10s of 1000s of paying customers, mainly driven through organic viral growth because people love both of these products.

In both cases, I joined the team when they were less than 15 employees and I was the first hire for the sales and customer success teams responsible for building those teams out.

What I want to cover in this article, are five steps along the journey of building out these teams.

  1. The first one is: focus.
  2. The second one is getting to know your customers.
  3. The third one is engaging with your customers.
  4. Then, closing the loop with product.
  5. Finally, the people side of things.

1. Focus

The reason I wanted to start with focus is that on one hand, I think it's probably the most important thing to get right. On the other hand, it's something that I've definitely gotten wrong. I wanted to share my learnings.

The biggest challenge with focus is that, especially in early-stage companies, you literally have everything to build, you probably don't have a CRM yet, a sales pitch yet, you may not even have any customers yet.

Don’t spread yourself too thin

As a result, there's no shortage of great ideas of things you can do to bring value to your business. The mistake that I made, was going to conferences, reading podcasts, or networking and coming up with all these great ideas, coming back to the office and with my team trying to execute on all of these great ideas.

What I found is by trying to do everything, we ended up spreading ourselves too thin and not doing anything particularly well. It's much more valuable to choose just one or two things to focus on and do those well in order to move the needle.

Objectives & non-objectives

That's more from a strategic perspective. From a more tactical perspective, when I'm setting goals on a quarterly basis, we obviously choose the one, two, or three objectives that we're going to focus on that quarter. But we also have started calling out our non-objectives.

These are things that may have been considered as potential objectives when we were setting our goals, but we decided not to do. What I've found is if we don't call them out as non-objectives, they always find a way of creeping back into our workload.

By calling it out as non-objectives, it helps me and my team set that boundary to say no to those as they creep up during the quarter.

2. Getting to know our customers

This is obviously very important because we want to have an intuition around who our customers are and why they're using our product in order to set them up for success. The first thing in getting to know our customers is pretty intuitive. It's speaking with them.

Speak to them

When I'm interviewing customers, I'm less focused on understanding what features they like or what pain points they have in our product. Rather, I'm focused on understanding:

  • What's their desired outcome?
  • Why did they buy Notion?
  • What's the value for their business?

I find those conversations are much more interesting, and also help me understand better how to set customers up for success.

Observe them

The second thing about getting to know our customers is observing them. I'm looking at them through two different lenses.

Firmographic

The first one is the firmographic side. What are the profiles of customers that are most likely to be successful with our product? I'm looking at the geography, the company size, the department, etc.

Behavioral

The other side is the behavioral side. What are the behaviors that people do on our platform that are the best leading indicators that someone will end up being successful with our product or not?

Ideal customer profiles

Once I have some data for both of these the idea is we're going to create ideal customer profiles. This can be pretty intimidating, especially at the beginning when we have very limited data. But I would recommend starting with something pretty simple like this.

This is Waldo, he's based in the US, he works in SaaS, he's the VP of marketing of a company between 11 and 250 employees. His use case is lead gen.

This is really valuable for our team, be it sales or customer success because we now know who we're selling to, and how to tailor our sales pitch to that profile. We also know who we're setting up for success and what templates to build and stuff like that.

Align

Furthermore, if we're able to align with the rest of the company on who the ideal customer profile is, then all of a sudden:

  • Marketing is going to be bringing more of these customers that are easier to close deals with and maybe easier to retain.
  • Our product team knows who they're building features for.

Ultimately, we can all work on setting these customers up for success.

3. Customer engagement

The goal here is to send the right message to the right customer at the right time. The first step in thinking about engaging with customers is segmenting them.

Segmenting

I like to use the simple framework of high touch, low touch, and tech touch.

  • High touch is customers that I want to be proactively engaging with, customers I want to build an ongoing relationship.
  • Low touch is what I consider to be more just in time, where I'm less focused on the relationship and more focused on achieving a specific outcome at a specific moment in time.
  • The third group is tech touch where it's fully automated and fully scalable. The idea here is that for every customer that falls into that bucket, the incremental cost of engaging with them is zero.

Build customer journey

Once we've segmented our customers, the next step is building out our customer journey with the different stages and different touchpoints of when we want to engage with them.

One example of that touchpoint is at the end of onboarding, if a customer still hasn't invited any users to collaborate with, we probably want to engage with them and inspire them to collaborate with other people in the tool. How do we engage with them?

We can revert back to our segmentation model and engage with them differently based on which segment they fall under. If they're high-touch, we can offer a call. If they're low touch, we send them an automated email, which they can reply to. If it's tech touch, it's fully automated with no easy access to our team.

4. Closing the loop

The fourth thing I want to talk about is closing the loop, specifically with product. The reason I want to talk about this is I think especially in product-led growth companies, this is probably the most impactful thing we can do. Because ultimately, it's improvements in our product that help us close larger deals, or help us retain our customers better.

How to systematize this feedback loop with product

Consistent tagging

The first step is having a consistent tagging process. Tagging is basically categorizing your customer feedback. The key here is making it consistent, so it's consistent across all your different channels and sources of feedback.

Your support team should be using the same tagging system as your customer success team, your sales team, as the way you tag NPS feedback and your churn survey, etc. Because once you tag everything the same way, you can now start aggregating data, because you're now comparing apples to apples.

That means you can identify trends. All of a sudden, you can say, our number two reason for churn is also our number five source of a reason for people submitting support tickets, and it's also come up in 30 sales calls.

That type of data across different channels and across different parts of the customer journey is really what's going to help influence the product team and inform their decisions to overcome those problems.

5. People

There's obviously a lot to talk about on the people side of things as especially early stages and building things out. But I'm going to share the three things that I've found most helpful and impactful.

Maturity

The first one is around maturity. Here I'm referring to the maturity of your business. The reason this is important is at different stages of the maturity of your business, there are different profiles of people that are best suited to bring value.

For example, at the early stage, you have a blank canvas that you have to start creating everything from scratch. Some people in front of a blank canvas, get energized and get excited. Other people kind of freeze. Ideally what you want in the early stages are people that get excited, obviously not the profile that freezes.

The three stages of maturity are:

  1. The early stage is where you have everything to build from scratch.
  2. The second stage is where you have a 'hack-y' process, and there you want to have people that are happy to go through an imperfect process and constantly improve it and optimize it.
  3. The third stage is once you have a great process in place, to scale that and to have people that are going to execute on that process.

Lenses

The second thing I want to talk about is this concept of lenses. The idea here is if I look at the world through my eyes, versus a microscope, versus a telescope, I'm looking at the same world but I'm seeing it in three very different ways.

This is inspired by a book I read but the idea is that if I end up hiring people that all see the world the same way as I do, we're going to come up with much less creative and less good solutions than if I hire people that have different perspectives than I do because we'll complement each other.

Triple bottom line

The third thing I want to talk about is the concept of a triple bottom line. The idea here is the sustainable success of our team should be measured along with three factors;

  • Our business impact,
  • Our cost-efficiency, and
  • The engagement of our team.

Sustainable success is the multiplication of those three factors.

The idea is that if any of those are going down towards zero, then our success is no longer sustainable. An example would be if we're hitting our business targets, and we're doing it in a cost-effective way but we're burning out our team, then it's not sustainable.

I'd encourage everybody to be tracking those three metrics and make sure that we're doing well on all three fronts.

Key takeaways

  • The first one is focus: make it clear what you're saying no to.
  • The second one is getting to know your customers make sure you're focused on understanding their desired outcomes.
  • The third is around engagement: make sure your engagement is tailored to which segment the customer falls under.
  • The fourth one is the feedback loop: systematize your tagging so you can compare apples to apples.
  • Finally, on the people side: make sure you're hiring people based on your team's maturity.

Thank you.