Putting Customers at the Center with Maranda Dziekonski

Stuart Balcombe

27 min read
Putting Customers at the Center with Maranda Dziekonski

Companies that put customers at the center get to play the game by different rules than those that don’t. Today’s guest has built her career on putting customer centricity into practice.

In today’s world of commoditized software and infinite choice, the company that can become their customer’s trusted advisor is the company that wins. It might sound obvious that helping your customers be successful is a sound business strategy but doing it in practice and building a customer-centric culture especially as your company experiences rapid growth is easier said than done. That’s exactly why Maranda Dziekonski is joining us today to kickoff the Happy Customers podcast.

Maranda has spent more than a decade in Silicon Valley helping companies put their customers at the center of everything they do. From her blue collar upbringing in rural Michigan, she’s built a frankly astounding resume filled with customer success leadership experience with standout roles is six different startups before joining the Swiftly team in 2019.

For Maranda successful customers mean a successful company. Customers who are not successful in your product tend to churn. And that’s where customer success can really come in and help. A culture that puts customers at the center can help protect revenue for the business, make sure that customers are receiving value have a clear understanding of how the company can help them achieve the outcomes they want.

In this episode Maranda joined me for a practical discussion on creating a customer-centric culture and how customer success can be a force for change inside an organization.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

01:29 - Pitching customer success to executives means framing it in terms they care about

Miranda says everything we do should put the customer at the center of our organization. Sounds obvious enough but when  pitching executives this message needs to be presented in the context of what they care about.

figure out what does the CEO care about or what problem are they trying to solve for. Pitch customer success and show them how customer success can solve that

05:29 - Making customers successful is a practice you can build systems around with the right mindset

Start with small things that bring the customer to the forefront for more people at the company and work your way up to bigger initiatives.

  1. Daily customer pulse Slack notifications
  2. Quarterly executive business reviews
  3. Annual customer advisory boards

11:10 - Investing in CS Ops early ensures you build processes to scale customer success

Hiring for a dedicated CS Ops role makes it possible to focus on building process and leveraging data to drive smarter decisions. Improving everyones efficiency opens up time for everyone to focus on activities that require critical thinking and automate the things that don’t.

13:21 - Build a proactive customer success practice

Partnering with key stakeholders and treating customer success like constant project management means shared accountability, a documented success plan and a mutual plan for driving action.

Let’s partner together to figure out change management … you create that dynamic and you become the trusted advisor with the customer. And that just keeps the machine rolling. And it helps the customer success managers be in a constant proactive state because you’re actually managing towards the future.

16:49 - How customer success can partner with sales to ensure everybody wins

Aligning everybody around a culture making customers successful rather than customer success as a function creates cross-departmental alignment.

I hope that our sales team views us as a tool to help them meet their goals. And we view them as a tool to help our customers continue to grow and achieve value. And it’s a joint effort on both goals because quite frankly, if one team is winning, the other is winning. And if the other team is winning, the company is winning too.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of the Happy Customers podcast. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, stream on Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Building a Culture That Puts Customers at the Center

Let’s jump right in with Maranda’s elevator pitch for customer success as the foundation for any company.

Maranda Dziekonski (01:14): I have had to pitch it before, and it’s a difficult position to be in when you do have to pitch it because customer success, while there is a function in an organization that does customer success, the customer success I’m passionate about is the mindset of everything we do puts the customer at the center of our organization. So the decisions we make around business practices, the decisions we make on product evolution, around what type of customers we want to partner with, everything. In my mind right now, I’m envisioning the old covered wagons where it had the wheel with all the spokes out of it. The customer is at the center of all those spokes, that’s how I pitch it. But of course, you have to go a little bit deeper with a lot of folks. You have to tell them why it’s important. And really most CEOs, at the center of it, is the revenue.

I’m envisioning the old covered wagons where it had the wheel with all the spokes out of it. The customer is at the center of all those spokes.

Maranda Dziekonski (02:13): If you have successful customers, it begets a successful company. Folks that are not successful in your product or a bad fit or not achieving value, or are not seeing the evolution of the product to where they need it to go, they tend to churn. And that’s where customer success can really come in and help. We can help make sure that we’re protecting that revenue, making sure that the customers are achieving that value and not just achieving the value. They know they’re achieving that value. Like we communicate that out to them and then create more goals and keep that partnership rolling. So you have to figure out what does the CEO care about or what problem are they trying to solve for, and then pitch customer success and show them how customer success can solve that.

you have to figure out what does the CEO care about or what problem are they trying to solve for, and then pitch customer success and show them how customer success can solve that.

Stuart Balcombe (03:03): Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It seems like that’s becoming more common that that’s the consensus or that’s the view that is becoming more of the norm. So how do you structure around that at Swiftly? This obviously, like relatively larger, or your CCO, there was already a team in place. How do you build a team that can go beyond the function and actually make customers successful?

Structuring the Customer Success Organization

Maranda Dziekonski (03:27): So I will just quickly talk about how our customer org is structured now. When I came in, there were a few individuals that did everything, soup to nuts. So we had folks that I would call generalists that managed everything from the onboarding all the way through to the renewal. And what we’ve since done is split out the organization and the customer success org, and I hope I’m answering your question right, to have multiple specialties, to not only help individuals have a career path, help the company scale, but provide a much more improved customer experience. So we’ve specialized out onboarding and implementation, renewals, customers’ CS operations. We are looking at our digital touch motion this next six months.

Maranda Dziekonski (04:16): And on top of that, we had a support function. We ended up absorbing that back into the CS org. So we’re splitting that back out this next period. So there’s a lot of things, a lot of moving parts going on right now. But that’s really how we’ve structured it so far. And we do have mechanisms in place to where we have executive business reviews. And those are very cross-functional to where we have an account manager present, sometimes a product manager if there’s a big product roadmap component, if it’s a very strategic customer. So we’re a heavily cross-functional company and we collaborate on the customer experience and the customer development and the product development.

we’re a heavily cross-functional company and we collaborate on the customer experience and the customer development and the product development.

Building a Customer Centric Culture

Stuart Balcombe (04:58): Yeah. This is one thing that I’m always really curious about because it’s a thing that gets said a lot. Like you have to be cross-functional, you have to align everybody around the customer, you have to bring the customer into those discussions. What are some of the sort of rhythms or practices that you have that sort of make sure that that’s actually the case. For individual customers, you mentioned sort of strategic and maybe larger customers, but how do you make sure that that’s actually true when it comes to sort of day to day operations?

Maranda Dziekonski (05:29): I will first say there is no company out there that I’ve seen do this perfectly, and I’ve never been part of an organization that does it perfectly. However, when I’m at an organization, that’s one of the things that I like to assess for before I join is to make sure everybody is as passionate about the customer as I am. And I certainly have seen that here at Swiftly and in many of my previous organizations. The organizations that I’ve been a part of that have been uber successful are those that do this well. And some of the key practices I mentioned, one already is the executive business review. So that is a very collaborative cross-functional thing. We also have other things that we’ve put in place like a customer advisory board, where it’s a partnership with product marketing myself. We put on a customer advisory board once a year and invite 20, 30 different customers to come and share ideas and spend time together to build that community.

one of the things that I like to assess for before I join is to make sure everybody is as passionate about the customer as I am

Maranda Dziekonski (06:29): Other things, we have a customer success tool that feeds pulse information to our Slack system so anybody and everyone in the organization is in this Slack channel and they can see what’s going on with the customer and get the latest and greatest. Also we do NPS on a regular basis and feed that information into Slack. And everybody has access to that and can read that. And then I present that out to the company as well, sharing the score because NPS is owned company wide. We have many other mechanisms like that. We also use OKRs objectives, key results for planning and everything funnels up to the company level goals to make sure everybody’s aligned. And we’re all marching in the right direction.

Maranda Dziekonski (07:15): Again, we’re not perfect. We do have moments where we have friction and we realize, okay, this process isn’t working well anymore, or it needs to be revisited because we’re feeling friction here. And that’s a big thing I think in startups in general is when things start feeling fragmented or there’s friction, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and take a look at the processes again. So those are just a few things to think through.

when things start feeling fragmented or there’s friction, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and take a look at the processes again.

Putting the voice of the customer at the center

Stuart Balcombe (07:43): Quick note here. Customer responses are automatically fed into Slack and shared with the entire organization. Every department has visibility into the customer experience, encouraging shared ownership. This makes me wonder about the processes that Maranda uses for actually pulling out that feedback and how she makes the information digestible for different teams.

Maranda Dziekonski (08:04): So I have had voice of customer programs at previous organizations. I have not put one in place here as of yet. So I can talk though about previous organizations where we would have customer come or get on a virtual call with us on a monthly basis and give us real feedback about why they purchased, how their onboarding and implementation was, where are the friction points, what’s working well, what’s not working well, give us a wishlist. And I used to do this once a month at a lunch for the company. And the attendance was always through the roof.

Other things that I have done at previous organizations that I also have here is I have a lot of data on why people contact us and what we’re doing to solve those issues. So we use Zendesk for all of our ticketing and built out reports around this particular customer’s contacted us 50 times this year about this issue. Is there something we need to do to invest in help center collateral or whatever it may be? We also incorporated customer satisfaction scores, NPS scores, customer interviews, everything into my previous voice of customer programs. Now here at Swiftly, I share out these data points, but I don’t formally call it a voice of customer program.

Stuart Balcombe (09:24): Got you. Yeah. One thing that I’m always interested in, and you sort of mentioned this with NPS is actually, I mean, it’s a metric that you report on, but it is a whole company objective, is how do you align everybody? Like, is that the metric that is sort of, this is as a company, we know that we’re moving in the right direction beyond revenue?

Maranda Dziekonski (09:47): That’s a really good question Stuart. I would like to selfishly say yes, that’s the metric that we all link arms on and we align on. I will say we definitely celebrate it because our NPS has been pretty high. When we started measuring it, it was in the 30s, which is phenomenal. And we got it up into the 70s this last survey period, which is unheard of. Like I haven’t experienced a 70 in my career so that’s really awesome. And we read every bit of feedback that comes through and we follow up on all of it as well. So if there is any feedback that’s related to service that they’re receiving, the manager over that area will follow up. If there’s any feedback around product wishes or product evolution, that feedback would be passed on to product. So in a way, yes, maybe we all are linking arms around this, but we’re an awfully small company. So it’s probably not as deliberate or as direct as it should be.

we read every bit of feedback that comes through and we follow up on all of it as well. So if there is any feedback that’s related to service that they’re receiving, the manager over that area will follow up. If there’s any feedback around product wishes or product evolution, that feedback would be passed on to product. So in a way, yes, maybe we all are linking arms around this

Hiring for dedicated customer success roles

Stuart Balcombe (10:47): What are you thinking about going into next year? What are the things that you sort of have on your personal wishlist as this is a thing that I would like to do, but haven’t yet, that is top of mind for you right now?

Maranda Dziekonski (11:06): Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I think right now everyone is trying to do more with less. I think that’s a common theme. So I’m also watching a lot of my peers struggle with hiring and struggle with retaining talent. So a couple of the things that I’m thinking through for the next year is I just said I had hired a CS ops person. I actually promoted somebody internally to CS ops. She’s going to start taking that over in January. So heavy cfocus on efficiencies, process, leveraging data to drive smarter decisions and figuring out just how can we help everyone work more efficiently? How can we help everyone do activities that require critical thinking and automate things that don’t require critical thinking? Just getting smarter in that realm. And I hope that if we could peel off some of the things that don’t require critical thinking, we’re essentially working to level up our team and provide them with challenging environment to where they feel like they’re continuously growing.

How can we help everyone do activities that require critical thinking and automate things that don’t require critical thinking?

Maranda Dziekonski (12:15): Another thing that we haven’t done yet. And just for transparency, we’re a company of about 85 people, maybe 90, I think at this point. So we’re pretty small, but is again, leverage technology for the digital touch component. I would love to see if we could take that very strong sentiment and continue to increase it and improve it by providing more in app help or in tool help, in tool messaging, figuring out how we can leverage more technology, just again, to gain efficiencies. Those are a couple things that are just heavily top of mind for me. As we know, people don’t scale. So you have to really take a look at your processes, the tools you’re using, things like that to create efficiencies or else you’re always throwing people at the problem. And I want to make sure that we don’t get into that rut.

Maintaining a Proactive Customer Success Motion

Stuart Balcombe (13:09): A really consistent mantra in customer success is the idea of proactively to taking steps rather than simply responding when there’s an issue. So how does Maranda make that happen at Swiftly?

Maranda Dziekonski (13:21): Just kind of set the stage. We are heavily a high touch B2B enterprise tool. So one of the things that has worked is partnering with our key stakeholders at each of our customer locations to create goals and treat it like we always have like a project management going on. It’s like constant project management. May sound exhausting, but it works.

So for example, if you have a customer that wants to achieve greater efficiencies in their customer service team, I’m just going to use this as an example, and you have a tool that does support tickets or something like that. You would write that down. Okay. So how many tickets are your team able to answer an hour right now? Great. Where do you want to see them? Great. Let’s partner together to figure out change management or maybe other areas of our tools that you’re not using. Or are there any add-ons or plug-ins that could create more efficiencies? Like you create that dynamic and you become the trusted advisor with the customer. And that just keeps like the machine rolling. And it helps the customer success managers be in a constant proactive state because you’re actually managing towards the future. And not always to the now.

Now I will say, there’s always going to be reactive components to customer success. There’s no getting out of that. We’re going to have fire drills. We’re going to have things that we are doing right now to power the future that is very reactive. And it doesn’t feel like you’re in that proactive state, there’s no way of getting out of that. But if you’re doing that partnership and building that relationship right, and collecting goals and showing them how you’re moving the needle progress continuously, you’re there, you’re winning already.

if you’re doing that partnership and building that relationship right, and collecting goals and showing them how you’re moving the needle progress continuously, you’re there, you’re winning already.

Stuart Balcombe (15:12): What Maranda’s describing here is valuable to every stakeholder in the company. Because it’s tied to a whole range of goals.

Maranda Dziekonski (15:19): Last year, we ended at net retention about 116%. And this year we’re looking to end the year pretty high as well. We’ve created an engine of where we send over upsell referrals all the time to sales. And it is not our primary goal or our primary focus. Our primary goal is making sure the customer is getting a return on their investment and they know they’re getting a return on their investment. And we’re thinking about what more can we do? What are future projects we should be working on? But that has netted in us being the trusted advisor that when we see that they’re having this problem and they let us know this is a problem they’re trying to solve for, we can tap into our knowledge in our head and say, it seems like you should probably be looking at this. And if you have already given them a ton of value, it’s going to be a no brainer to them. They’re going to be like, oh yeah, show me that. Because if I invest $1, I know going to get $2 back. So it becomes like a no-brainer situation.

Last year, we ended at net retention about 116%. And this year we’re looking to end the year pretty high as well. We’ve created an engine of where we send over upsell referrals all the time to sales.

Stuart Balcombe (16:16): Yeah. It becomes an investment to the goal rather than a cost of a tool.

Maranda Dziekonski (16:20): Exactly.

Customer Success and Sales Collaboration

Stuart Balcombe (16:21): Yeah. That’s actually really interesting. How do you think about that, both in terms of like measuring the team, but also where the sales component, like it’s sort of a natural next step? Like at some point they have to actually have that upgrade action or that adding new members of the team or adding additional products. Like how do you think about that in collaboration with sales? Like at what point is that just success adding revenue versus a salesperson being brought into the loop?

Maranda Dziekonski (16:49): So we have a very strong partnership with our sales folks. Customer success CS has the majority of the conversations. We add an account management layer this year. So the account management folks have portfolios that is shared with customer success. So customer success does have CSQL goals. So it’s their customer success qualified leads that they need to send over.

I hope that our sales team views us as a tool to help them meet their goals. And we view them as a tool to help our customers continue to grow and achieve value. And it’s a joint effort on both goals because quite frankly, if one team is winning, the other is winning.”

Maranda Dziekonski (17:19): So we are pretty unified and have never had an us against them thing going on, which is great. And I hope that our sales team views us as a tool to help them meet their goals. And we view them as a tool to help our customers continue to grow and achieve value. And it’s a joint effort on both goals because quite frankly, if one team is winning, the other is winning. And if the other team is winning, the company is winning too.

Stuart Balcombe (17:50): Right. Yeah, and I think that’s, you said that again right at the beginning, is aligning everybody around the mindset of making customers successful rather than customer success as a function really does make everything a full team sport and a shared success in these things. So I have one more question for you, which is hopefully a fun one. It’s little bit of a hypothetical for you.

Waving a Magic Wand

Stuart Balcombe (18:10): You’ve obviously been in many success and customer facing roles at different companies at sort of different stages, different levels of growth. What is the one customer success related problem that you wish you could just take a magic wand and just eliminate, just get rid of that problem?

Maranda Dziekonski (18:26): That’s a really good question. If I could wave a magic wand. Well, I would love to never lose a team member. So anyone who joins my team just stays forever. I would love to never churn out a customer, wave the wand there as well. I think the one area where I would really wave the wand is, and this is very internal focused. I’m just going to say that. But I would love for us to be able to have infinite resources to solve all of our bugs, all of our engineering issues. Because I feel like when products and tools, and again, I just want to put the disclaimer, I’m not saying this at Swiftly. We actually do pretty well. I’m very grateful.

I would love to never lose a team member. So anyone who joins my team just stays forever. I would love to never churn out a customer, wave the wand there as well.

Maranda Dziekonski (19:18): But I’m just saying in general, at startups, when you have a product that you are laid in with tickets around bugs, or issues, or errors, it makes the customer success manager’s job infinitely more challenging because when they pick up the phone and they’re on the phone with a customer, they want to know what’s going on with that ticket. And it makes it harder for you to get proactive with them and think about future state. So if I could wave a magic wand, all the Silicon Valley startups out there, I would give infinite resources on the tech side to be able to solve all of those tickets so customer success wouldn’t have to answer those questions and they could really focus on the future.

Stuart Balcombe (20:06): I love it. I love it. That’s a very proactive versus reactive and like some of the causes there. Thank you so much for doing this. This has been really fun. I guess one final question, selfishly for me, who is somebody who you would love to hear from, like who you think would be somebody that I should talk to as I keep going with the Happy Customers Podcast?

Maranda Dziekonski (20:26): I am going to throw a couple names out there for you. I always enjoy listening to Jay Nathan. Also my dear friend, Kristi Faltorruso. So those are two that I think you should definitely talk to and they’ll give you some fantastic insights.

Stuart Balcombe (20:41): Perfect. Thank you so much again. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’re super busy and it’s amazing to hear what you are up to at Swiftly and I can’t wait for this to come out.

Maranda Dziekonski (20:52): Thank you so much Stuart. It’s been great.

Stuart Balcombe (20:55): Thanks so much to Maranda for a fantastic conversation. Let’s hop back to my questions from the beginning of this episode. What does it mean for customers to become successful? Well, they stick around and expand their usage of our product. The needs match the product and become the central spoke from which everything else spirals out. We can gauge success from these high levels of retention too, because they view our company as a trusted advisor to help them accomplish their goals.

And how do we encourage success? One word: consistency, moving every piece of customer feedback to the appropriate department and ensuring a response creates an ongoing dialogue between the customer and our brand.

This conversation has been such a fantastic way to kick off the show. Maranda talked a lot about organizational structure in this episode, and that has me thinking about how other companies think about structuring their CS strategy. Historically, it’s been all high touch, human to human interactions. But then again, with the product-led movement in full swing and customers expecting to be able to self serve more of their experience every day, more and more companies are looking for ways to scale in a lower touch model.

In our next episode, I’ll be chatting with Dan Ennis from monday.com about the ways that they juggle these two elements to create the best possible customer experience and strategically put a human in the loop at just the right moment.

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