Embedding customer values into the DNA of your company is the best way to ensure you deliver products and services that delight your customers and keep them coming back, repeatedly. I credit the ten years I spent at Salesforce with turning me into a customer experience (CX) fanatic. I still hold onto many of the philosophies that made it the customer company it is today, and I integrate them into much of my CX consulting practice.
An issue I commonly see with early-stage or high-growth companies is a lack of customer empathy. It’s by far not intentional. The internal growing pains are so all-consuming that it’s easy to lose sight of customer needs, pains, and concerns. There are often very few defined processes to guide decision-making or to help employees really understand the customer’s needs first, then problem solve in that context. With so many companies now competing on the basis of customer experience alone, how will you articulate what sets you apart from your competition without placing customers at the core of your culture?
One could argue that Salesforce, at its core, is a sales company, but very early on Marc Benioff set a clear customer-centric vision that was reinforced with a significant investment in Customer Success Management (CSM).
I often use “the wild, wild West” to describe my early CSM days at Salesforce, and I do so fondly. The pioneer spirit was alive and well. CSMs were given the latitude to explore approaches to customer engagement and adoption. The experimental and agile approach helped the company understand and quantify a CSM’s impact on customer retention and growth, and influenced practices that evolved into what is now a vast and thriving customer success industry.
While not an explicit policy, it was clear that experimentation was encouraged and even expected. We were operating in a relatively new and not entirely understood land. What are CSMs? How are we different from account or renewal managers? What is our relationship with the sales team? What does meaningful adoption look like, and how do we measure it? When, why and how often should we be interacting with customers?
Even with all this ambiguity, we faced these challenges with zeal. There was a general understanding that we were an ever-evolving, yet critical part of a broader goal. We operated under the belief that individual wins bolster the greater good. Sharing of best practices was expected. Our responsibilities of working directly with customers also included projects to help institutionalize CSM processes. We feverishly defined new strategies, evolved best practices, and documented internal guidelines.
In an early startup environment, customer engagements are often shaped by in-the-moment decisions from frontline individuals. Having customer-centric core values provides a unifying mantra that guides these decisions where processes and guidelines may not yet exist. There are three early cultural values at Salesforce that significantly impacted customer engagement.
Customers Come First
CSMs were expected to experiment with many aspects of the role. The general theme was scale, and areas of focus included customer outreach and engagement methods, operational improvements, and the like. However, the needs of the customer were never compromised.
Very early, reactive fire-fighting behaviors were expected and reinforced because they were effective and portrayed to the customer that they had an advocate looking out for their interests.
“Dive catches” are often a necessary aspect of early-stage customer engagements. But as a business matures, the need for operational repeatability and scale quickly become the priority, creating a need to evolve the definition of customer success.
Individuals taking their own approach to what they think is best for the customer, however well-meaning, eventually becomes a challenge to solve for rather than an asset. As such, how you deliver customer success and drive advocacy must evolve with your business. Your challenge is to establish, and then redefine, organizational behaviors that maintain core values while supporting maturation needs.
One Team and Organizational Alignment
An often talked about alignment tool that Salesforce has used since day one is the V2MOM: Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Metrics. Marc Benioff has discussed the V2MOM process in interviews and blogs, as well as in his 2009 book, Behind the Cloud.
"I’ve always thought that the biggest secret of Salesforce is how we’ve achieved a high level of organizational alignment and communication while growing at breakneck speeds. Essentially, V2MOM is an exercise in awareness in which the result is total alignment. In addition, having a clarified direction and focusing collective energy on the desired outcome eliminate the anxiety that is often present in times of change." - Marc Benioff, April 2013
The V2MOM is a tool designed to communicate the corporate vision and drive alignment throughout all levels of the company. Starting with leadership then trickling down to individual contributors, it can be defined at the beginning of each year and revisited throughout the year to ensure things are still on track. This iterative cycle drives a continuous focus on goals, and it enables and often triggers operational adjustments throughout the year, as needed.
This exercise had the impact of creating focus and cohesion across the company, while maintaining an environment that supported innovation and individual creativity. It is a tool that I use today, even in my consulting practice. With this post, I'm getting a head start on 2017, of which one V2MOM “Method” is to write more! Check out this page for a more detailed look at the structure of a V2MOM.
It's impossible to deliver great customer experiences if employees are not engaged, bought into the vision, and performing as their best selves. Salesforce’s approach to integrated corporate philanthropy, and the charitable foundation, Salesforce.org, has taught thousands of individuals, myself included, how to make giving back a core part of their personal and professional lives. Many companies continue to replicate the model. In my experience, these events always serve to strengthen my relationships, and the resulting bonds are often what gets teams through challenging and stressful times.
Tech & Products Program Management Team @ San Francisco Family House
Philanthropic initiatives organically became a point of connection and community between Salesforce and its customers, obviously strengthening customer relationships and definitely strengthening the Salesforce brand. Before we knew it, customers and employees were self-organizing volunteer events in their local regions. Is there a better way to get to know customers, build trust, and strengthen relationships? And if we're being honest, it’s these relationships that pave the way for future sales opportunities, managing through difficult customer conversations, and securing renewals!
My regular advice I share with clients is to not wait until customer values are defined for you. Your company culture will most certainly evolve. But take the time now to explore and define your core values. Communicate them to everyone in the business, and find ways to weave them into the fabric of the company. Do this early, or your culture may be dictated in a way you don’t expect or desire, with potentially negative consequences for your customers.