The expansion of Customer Success in terms of scope led to new roles with specializations such as Customer Success Operations (CS Ops).
CSMs or even CXOs cover this function at early-stage startups. Still, as the company scales and the CS teams mature, having a separate operations role or team will be essential and prevalent.
At Rocketlane, we want to actively help out organizations trying to build this function by interviewing folks in CS Ops and bringing out their stories of successful transitions into CS Ops.
We spoke to Soumitra Joshi, CS Ops Manager at Trifacta. He talks about his transition to CS Ops, the experience and skills that helped him make the transition, the challenges he faces in CS Ops, and what he finds the most enjoyable about working in CS Ops.
Here’s the conversation between him and Sri, co-founder, Rocketlane.
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Sri: Let’s start with a little bit about your journey. Tell us how you landed a CS Ops role and what you were doing before that.
Soumitra: I graduated from IBS Hyderabad way back in 2014 with an MBA in Marketing and Operations. I started my career in a CSM role at Zenoti, a SaaS company based in the US at the time. I was handling India as well as EMEA regions and then moved to Dubai after a year. I worked in Dubai for two years for the same company and started working with the customer base in the Dubai region.
Later I Hortonworks as a CSM in 2016. The role was new when I joined. But once I joined and understood what the job entailed, I realized I like to help customers. I like to help people by default. So I like to help customers. I like to understand their journey, where their pain points are, etc. Work was not really ‘work’ for me. So that was a plus point.
And then there was Cloudera. I worked there for three years as a CSM and was responsible for account management, where I was assisting customers with day-to-day activities. It was essentially these processes that led me to think that there's more to CS. And then along came Trifacta, offering a CS Ops role, which was new to me. And while I was already doing parts of it earlier, I wasn't a CS Ops person per se. I was looking after the administration of Gainsight, and I was building up new processes and coming up with some health scoring metrics at Cloudera. But it wasn't a full-time role.
When I joined Trifacta, they told me I needed to work with the internal folks to help them set up Gainsight and make sure that I have clear cadence between multiple departments, and help the CS team grow. I’d always wanted to do something new or enter a non-customer-facing role because while I was comfortable and happy doing that, I was enjoyed the analytics, data, and improving processes.
As a CSM, I’ve faced issues where I used to think, “Okay, we can do this better,” but the moment I wanted to implement it, there would be time constraints or some other dependencies or obstacles. So when this opportunity came, I was more than happy to give it a shot. I wanted to understand if this could be the new direction that I wanted to get into. And it has paid off because, in the last year, I have not regretted making this decision and am more than happy to have joined the whole CS Ops life, as I like to call it.
Sri: Perfect. And when you joined, how many CSMs were there globally?
Soumitra: We had globally about 10 to 12 CSMs. The CSMs were based in the US and London. We didn't have anyone in India when I joined. And then, it was a whole shift in our strategy where we wanted to focus on SaaS customers, and we started hiring for digital CSMs. That's when we started hiring in India. But yes, when I joined, I think it was a team of 10 to 12 people.
Sri: And were you the only CS ops person? Or was there someone else as well, on the CS Ops side, when you joined?
Soumitra: So I was the first CS Ops hire. They had a Customer Success VP who was working with Gainsight to get the implementation started. But they never got to a point where they had someone dedicated looking at Gainsight as an instance and helping things speed up. Even Gainsight had recommended that approach of having someone look at it full-time and not just do it as a side activity.
Sri: Yeah, I think I've also seen posts from Gainsight about how CS Ops is the next growing function like CS once was. And that's part of the reason we are also doing this series because we want to bring out stories of others who have been through the journey to help others who want to take the leap and get inspired by what they hear from you.
So, I’m curious. What worked? What made this work? What are the qualities that helped you so far in the CS Ops role?
Soumitra: Honestly, a lot of it comes from having a Customer Success background. That helps me understand the CSM life. If I want to understand what they have to do daily, I can relate to them because I have done that. But when it comes to the skill set required for a CS Ops role, I think three things usually come in handy.
I'm always curious about how things work. So I'm always trying to develop a new process or trying to improve the process that we have in place, always ready to get my hands dirty, essentially put my hand into data to understand why the data is messy and how it can be cleaned up.
And I'm a good listener. I have spent six years listening to customer complaints, understanding why they are not comfortable with a certain thing. If a customer says, “I don't like the software,” it's not necessarily coming from the fact that the software is bad; it’s just that maybe they had a bad experience with it.
Suppose you have that understanding or the patience to understand where people are coming from, then yes. In that case, you can work with different teams because CS Ops essentially sits under Sales Ops or even Customer Success in certain organizations.
But the crux of it is that you have to talk to multiple people, and you have to be patient with everyone—because you're going to be talking to VPs, CEOs, and in some cases, senior CSMs. So you’ll have different levels of folks talking to you. And you always have to keep a level head in terms of understanding or help them understand what the big picture looks like. It's not about just solving a particular issue by, say, just adding a button here or maybe just improving changing some process just because you want to make something simpler. It's about whether it makes sense for the company and its strategy. So it's always about prioritizing things. And that's when the whole listening, understanding, being curious bit comes in handy.
Sri: Awesome, that's good to hear. And right now, are you still the only CS Ops person, or have you started hiring? What do you look for when you try to grow your team?
Soumitra: Right now, we are not looking at expanding the team for the simple reason we need to have that many customers and that many data points to capture right now.
I mean, when we talk about CS Ops, it can be broken down into multiple dimensions: the financial aspect, the product aspect, the feedback, and the customer experience. These can be the main four buckets under which you can start looking.
Sri: So when you first came into the role, was there a lot of pressure to, say, provide data that's not available? And were you behind the curve for a while before things shifted? Or was it a comfortable journey at the beginning?
Soumitra: I would say it was a comfortable journey. The only thing I had to transition into was understanding what the CS Ops role is supposed to do. I needed to understand the role better. I needed to understand what to do in the areas mentioned in the JD or how to tackle certain situations.
One of the things that I would highlight here is that while I understood Gainsight inside out, it took me a while to get Gainsight certified. So in a way, I got lucky because many companies have this blocker that if you want to get into CS Ops, you need to have Gainsight certification. Thankfully, the folks at Trifacta were generous. They tested my understanding. I was able to get certified eventually. So while I knew the product and I knew I could get certified, it could be a matter of priority for others.
When it comes to staying behind the curve, it wasn't that competitive for two reasons. One, if you have a good understanding of Gainsight and a good understanding of how the CS process is set, you will understand the things that you need to identify. Two, you need to be independent. You can't be waiting for people to give you instructions or tell you the things you need to do. You need to be independent and autonomous. That way, you just need to come up with ideas. It varies from person to person.
The only challenge, as I mentioned, was to understand the role itself because it is a relatively new one. I don't think I know a CS Ops person in my entire circle of friends and colleagues. So I don't have anyone I can rely on or talk to ask: What do you do in your day-to-day life? What do you what does your job look like?
That was the only thing that I would say is a bit challenging. You are doing a fantastic job of interviewing a few folks already in the CS Ops stream. It helps us connect with a lot of people.
Sri: Thank you! What do you think your path looks like from here? What areas do you want to develop yourself on, and where do you think this will take you?
Soumitra: Today, I would like to focus on two things that need to be improved or taken in a whole new direction. The first is Enablement. Some people want to keep it in a particular pocket to keep it tangible. Some others want to keep it in a separate Enablement team. A few folks like to have it under Customer Support. I feel that Enablement is one of those bits which needs CS Ops involvement. And that's something that I'm trying to drive at my company—to make sure that we are incorporating Enablement, a lot more, not just for the internal folks, but even for the customers.
Since we are talking to the CSMs, we get the customer vibe and pulse, and since I'm managing Gainsight, a lot of customer health is available to me. I can look at the analysis. I can look at what customers are saying about us. And enabling them just makes our job easier. It makes a lot of sense to add enablement to the whole mix.
I am also working on introducing better ways of analyzing what CS Ops does. If I had a table, I would maybe have it like a four by six table where I have multiple sections or multiple things that we work on to make it tangible. Today, if you ask me how I am evaluated or how my goals are aligned to the company’s, it’s hard to tell. I know that I'm doing certain things that make sense for the CSM and the company as a whole, but it becomes difficult to put it in numbers.
I'm trying to get to a point where I can showcase that, say, if CSMs were taking maybe an hour to complete the tasks and that now they’re taking only half an hour, and so efficiency has increased. I'm essentially trying to introduce some metrics, which help identify what CS Ops is doing. What does my future look like in terms of making changes or looking at things? I think these are the two things that I'm focusing on right now.
As I told you, the next thing is that once we have more customers, the best way would be to approach it category-wise. We could have some folks who are looking at just the financial aspects of CS. We could have some folks who are helping us understand the feedback we’re receiving. Then there is the kind of analytics that we have done to improve customer experience. Yeah, these are things that we are doing, but it boils down to making it tangible and putting it in, say, four sentences. Everyone wants numbers, right?
Sri: Any interesting things you did in the last year as a CS Ops person? A new process or a new metric to evaluate or maybe changes in the health score? What would be your top three initiatives?
Soumitra: I would focus on the total acquisition cost, something that we are highly focused on. And that's not a metric today, honestly. But we are trying to get to a point where we can have that as a part of KPIs because we are at a point where we are trying to make the transition to SaaS, and we don't have the time to spend on gaining new customers. So if we are not able to calculate that, and if we cannot make sense of it, we are just going to be losing time in acquiring customers.
Everyone likes to look at churn, and everyone wants to reduce churn as much as possible. But I look at it this way: improve the first two aspects of the journey, the churn automatically reduces. Just focus on making sure that the experience is really good. So experience is another indicator we are focusing on. So we look at the customer sentiment and try to break it down into multiple health scores. We look at how productive they have been with the adoption of the product, or how effective or mobile they have been, or the feedback they’ve been giving us.
We revamped the whole health scoring bit, and I contributed to making sure that we understand the customer better because there is no one set pattern to understand customers. You can have different health scores for different companies. But at the end of the day, you're just going to be looking at whether the customer is happy or not. So you define your metrics, and you come up with certain ways to define them.
And the third piece is always actually getting customers to stay with us. We are trying to incorporate new forms of communication, it doesn't necessarily need to be a bombard of emails, but it's just about getting them engaged. So, just saying, “These are the things that we have shared with you. And we want to get your experience, or we want to get your feedback on how we did”.
If it's onboarding, we want to understand how the onboarding went. If it's a case, we want to understand how the case went. Similarly, if we are organizing virtual conferences or doing seminars, we want to understand how many customers are engrossed. We also introduced a webinar about health, and we compare customer health and participation in the webinar. So if the health score is low, and we are still not attending the webinar, that's a huge red alert for us because they are not even interested in joining our enablement sessions.
Sri: What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into a CS Ops role?
Soumitra: You need to be very particular about what you want because CS Ops is a very new function. And while we can see that it's going to be like a mainstream department or goal in the next five years, the people joining need to be aware that they're going to make a switch from being customer-facing. So if you're comfortable talking to the customer, and if you don't want to leave that aspect of the job, you shouldn't opt for CS Ops because that's not something you can do simultaneously. You need to choose whether you want to be on the front-end side or the backend. That's one.
And the other thing is: Do small things bother you? When I say small things, it's like when you're working on, let's say, a CRM like Salesforce or Gainsight, you have to do certain recurring steps. Do you ask yourself: Do I have to do these recurring steps? Can there be a better way to do it? If you don't ask this question, then you're okay with it. And you don't want to change anything. And that's okay. A lot of people are okay with not making any changes there.
But it's just noticing these small things. From my personal experience, even if there is a bug in my iPhone, if a small thing is not working, I would file it as a bug. I would like to try to resolve it one way or the other. It's the same thing here. If you are working with data, you need to understand what that data entails and what information you can draw from those data points. Essentially, I’m saying that you need to understand those data points, and you need to be in a position where you can make more sense than just what is really in front of you. So you need to start looking deeper into those data points and see how to correlate them.
And the main advice that I would give is that if you want to be in the CS Ops role, it's not just about being in the function of CS. You need to understand where the other team members are coming from. You need to have the patience to work with or communicate with multiple team members. And you should be able to come up with ideas on the spot because most times, you get off a call, and then that moment has already passed, and decisions have already been made.
I think of it as an architect-and-engineer relationship. You are always going to be talking to an architect describing the design that he has made. But a certain piece of it comes to you. So while you're going to be working on implementing or building, you need to understand the concept and the design to question the architect. So you also have to be able to say, “This part of the design doesn't make sense. You need to have this in the mix”.
Sri: How much of your work would you say involves data and analysis? So if someone wants to move from CS (or any other role) to CS Ops, what tips or ideas would you give them to upskill themselves on the data front? It looks like it's an important part of the job. Right?
Soumitra: It depends on how technical you want to go. You can start by understanding the database itself or just be comfortable with Excel and be okay with that. You just need to understand how data correlates and how data sits in a table. That's where do you need to start.
So if someone wants to understand what kind of skill sets they need, I would highly recommend that as a start, at least understand Excel, and understand how datasets are joined, how you perform look-ups or joins... the basics of data sets.
There are multiple courses available today. Even Coursera may have 500 courses on data sets. But the whole idea is to understand what CRM you’re going to be focused on. Salesforce is one of those things which almost everyone uses. So understanding Salesforce would be a big plus. Or even Gainsight or Zendesk or Intercom.
These are the kinds of tools that you need to understand. And you need to understand the back end. It's not good enough to know what the interface or the data or the UI looks like. You need to understand where the data is coming from.
I think I spend about 20-30% of my day making sure that the data is consistent because we keep making changes to our field sets or changes to the fields that we are using today to capture certain data. So you need to be cognizant of that. And you need to start making those changes. The moment the data is not matching up, the CSMs will come to you. You need to understand how the architecture looks. I've always had an interest in computers. So I've just become familiar with the basics. I have gone into certain things which require more expertise and just understood the whole architecture when it comes to Gainsight or even Salesforce, for that matter. So yeah, I mean, as a takeaway, I think the major tools to understand today would be If anyone is using CS apps, and honestly, many folks are managing their customer health on Salesforce itself. So Salesforce is one of those go-to solutions. At the very least, you need to have a good understanding of Salesforce.
Sri: That's very useful to know. What would you say is the most exciting part about your work?
Soumitra: Fixing things. Because every day, there's something on the other. I'm not saying that there's something broken every day (laughs). I think of my work as making a pizza. It’s a process. You have the dough. Then you have cheese. Then you have a topping and a sauce. You could be happy that the pizza tastes nice. But after a few days, maybe I'll want to go for a thin crust. And that's when you start identifying the gaps in your process.
So every day, when I'm looking at what is working versus what is not, that’s what excites me. If everything is working, that's normal. But the moment something breaks is when things get exciting because now I know that there's something to fix.
There’s another thing that I honestly picked up when I started doing this role. Every time I'm working on something, I'll never actually reach completion. So in CS Ops, when we start taking up projects, we have certain ideas and certain implementations to do. You can never expect a particular project to be 100% complete.
And the reason is just what I mentioned earlier in the pizza analogy. You may be able to build a basic pizza, and you could be happy with it for a while. But you'll always come up with something else. And then your project progress suddenly goes from 100% to 50% because now you're going to work on fixing things or the gaps in what you’ve done.
The pizza analogy is what I think helps me understand my role better because even if I've made the dough, the sauce may not come till next month, and I can't do anything about it. And that's fine by me. But for certain people, it can be a problem because if you're a perfectionist or want everything in a particular way, it will drive you crazy. You need enormous patience because you are going to be dealing with multiple parties. It will be about being okay with what the process looks like today because it's helping the company at the end of the day. It's not about making your process the best you’ve ever made. It's about making a better version of it.
Sri: Perfect. My last question is going to be about the influence you have on the company's direction. Are you the person who has the keys to the data? How often do you get invited into important conversations?
Soumitra: So honestly, while I have a lot of data, the direction always comes from the top, right? I'll give you a simple example. If the company utilizes account health in a particular way, you better communicate it. That's when you start using this data, these data points, to help them communicate better. But because you're coming from a CS Ops role, you're reporting to either CS or Sales Ops. They could have divided opinions about what makes sense for their function. So you need to provide your insights backed by data. And that's how I sell it every day.
So, when I say that we don't have a scoring system, we need to incorporate a polling system, or we don't have an entitlements system today that we need, I need to show the benefits of incorporating something—or even looking at the data to identify trends. The moment I show them a trend, say if a customer has been quiet for a while, that's also a warning sign. Either they're not communicating, or they have already decided to move on. So those kinds of data points always help because the company doesn’t want to lose customers. So if you can bring something mission-critical, that's when these ideas are going to be heard.
Sri: Those are all the questions we had. Do you have any questions for us?
Soumitra: What drove you to start this CS Ops series?
I know that this is an upcoming function, but it's not a very well-known field yet. So what drove this whole conversation?
Sri: This stemmed from a post by Ashwin Vaidyanathan on Linkedin where he shared how CS Ops is an up-and-coming function, but there was a huge gap in how many people it needs versus the current numbers.
While building Rocketlane, we often return to one of the lessons from our last entrepreneurial journey (with Freshchat): Don't just build your product. Figure out the problems you can solve for the community.
So, we built our community as well. We have Preflight, which is an Onboarding/ Implementation/ Customer Success related community. But it’s always a question of what else we can do for the people in this space. And one of the things that popped up was CS Ops and how people in the community were trying to decide on a CS Ops role and what it meant. We wanted to share stories of people who have successfully made the transition.
Soumitra: That’s brilliant because it will help many folks interested in this field.
Sri: Awesome. Indeed! Thanks, Soumitra. It was great talking to you. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences and insights today.