This article is based on a presentation given by Roger at Customer Success Festival San Francisco in September 2023.

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Aligning business-wide initiatives and driving frictionless renewals are key goals for any customer success leader in a business that follows a recurring revenue model. 

In this article, we'll explore how to leverage customer success operations (CS Ops) to achieve organization-wide alignment.

Specific topics covered include:

By the end of this article, we'll have unpacked frameworks, skills and mindsets to align your broader organization around customer success. Whether you're leading a small scrappy team or a large global organization, this article will provide actionable insights you can implement right away. 

Let's dive in!

Transitioning to a recurring revenue model at Cisco

I've been at Cisco for a little over six years now. I was actually part of the very first founding customer success team when the company decided to make a major transition in its business model and operations.

Up until that point, Cisco had primarily been selling hardware networking equipment to its customers. However, the company wanted to switch to a software and subscription-based recurring revenue model.

Cisco reached out to me and said:

"Hey, we're trying to evolve our hardware business into more of a software and services model fueled by recurring subscription revenue. Can you help us build out a customer success team to support this transition?"

I joined Cisco and was one of the founding members of their customer success team. My role was focused on strategic initiatives, but I started out as a regular Customer Success Manager (CSM). 

I spent time trying to deeply understand our customers' needs, challenges, dynamics and how we could help some of Cisco's top customers from a customer success operations perspective.

Evolving into customer success acceleration

Now, six years later, I'm still at Cisco but my role has evolved. I currently work in an area we call "CS acceleration" which sits under our main customer success organization.

I work under a great leader named Kelly Hall. In my current role, we focus on identifying and driving strategic initiatives across the customer success organization now that many of our customers are fully aligned with Cisco around our software and subscription model.

A big part of my job now is figuring out how we can accelerate the process of making sure customers are seeing value and deriving business outcomes from Cisco's solutions as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

  • How can we speed up the time it takes for customers to gain concrete value once they purchase from Cisco? 
  • How do we start automating and optimizing our processes to ensure customers achieve success fast? 

Those are some of the key questions we're tackling under the CS acceleration umbrella.

Core customer success skills and mindsets

I want to focus on sharing some insights both on the tactical "what" skills that are important for CSMs as well as some of the broader "how" skills and strategies that can really move the needle when it comes to aligning your organization around customer success.

Lean in by facing your fears

A few years ago, I attended a seminar in Salt Lake City with a good friend of mine who is one of the top cognitive behavioral therapists in the world. He was teaching about strategies for overcoming fear, uncertainty, and inertia.

He said that one of the best ways to overcome fear or anxiety is to simply lean in and directly do the thing that scares you the most. Don't hesitate or overthink it - just go for it. As part of the seminar, he had us go out into the streets of Salt Lake City and actively find opportunities to face our fears head-on.

At the time, one of my biggest personal fears was dancing in public. I've always loved dancing, but the thought of randomly dancing publicly really terrified me for some reason. So my friend told me to go dance publicly to face the fear.

I went over to a busy street corner, feeling totally awkward and scared at first. I started shaking my hips a little, trying to work up the nerve. People were staring and commenting "What's that guy doing?" I could feel the fear rising up as my cheeks flushed red.

But then I remembered my friend's advice - lean in and connect. These were strangers I'd never see again, so I just went for it. I totally let loose, dancing my heart out to the music in my head. Something interesting happened - I started having fun with it and even making connections, and interacting with the people watching me dance.

I tell this story because it relates directly to a core customer success skill - the ability to lean in. At Cisco, we even have a framework we call "lean-in" to describe how CSMs can drive value through alignment.

I want you to imagine you have the ability to lean in and connect with customers without hesitation or fear. How much value could you drive if you were able to lean in and proactively engage with customers, sales teams, product teams and executives across the organization?

The "lean-in" model for driving organizational alignment

This lean-in model represents the trusted framework we've developed at Cisco to enable CSMs to drive value through organizational alignment:

Customer success operations: Frictionless renewals
Source: Cisco

You've probably heard the term "CS Ops" recently in customer success circles. Customer success operations is a hot new area, similar to what social media was like 10 years ago. Everyone knew social media was important but companies were still trying to define their strategy and approach.

Many companies admit they don't yet have a strong customer success operations strategy or organizational structure in place. Oftentimes CSMs at these companies feel isolated or fragmented rather than empowered to drive alignment.

That's why frameworks like the “lean-in” model are so critical - they give customer success teams a blueprint for how to align the broader organization around customer success.

Walk through this customer lifecycle methodology and you'll see how it represents a transition in how customers initially connect with sales teams or account reps vs. longer-term engagement:

  1. Customers come first - they're still connecting with sales reps and account teams during initial purchases.
  2. Product management - PM teams are responsible for building great products that customers will see value in.
  3. Cross-functional CS communities - These are forums where customer success managers across different segments (high-touch, mid-market, tech experts, etc.) come together to share best practices and align on initiatives.
  4. CS programs - Cisco has over 18 major customer success programs and each program has an executive leader who presents to the CS communities on things like adoption analytics, churn predictors, expansion playbooks, etc. This level of organization ensures CSMs have the assets and insights they need to drive adoption and retention in a measurable way.

As customers move through these stages, your sales team also starts to see the incredible value generated by proper customer success planning and execution. This makes them hungry to understand how they can target the highest growth opportunities and forecast renewals based on the same metrics and insights customer success leverages.

This is why it becomes so important to have forecasting models and processes in place to predict and push customers towards frictionless, on-time renewal based on their actual usage, adoption and risk of churn.