ArticleBest PracticesApril 6, 2016
The ideal CEO for the Customer Success Age Image

The ideal CEO for the Customer Success Age

This blog is the fifth of five based on anonymized discussions from CCO Summit 2016. Read the fourth here.

If there’s only one takeaway from CCO Summit 2016, it’s that the Age of Customer Success has begun. When future business archaeologists look back on these last few years, they’ll probably refer to it as the beginning of the Customer Epoch. Our descendents may one day be lining up to see Nick Mehta’s MacBook or original editions of “Customer Success: The Book” at the Mars Museum of History.

The rise of Customer Success was really inevitable when you think about it. Not only is the perpetual software model going the way of the dodo, the perpetual everything model is dying off too. It’s not hard to imagine subscribing to sneakers, or toilet paper, or food or transportation. It’s already happening! How companies build lasting relationships with their customers is going to be the number-one defining factor for their viability going forward. That was more than obvious to the Chief Customer Officers and VPs of Customer Success at CCO Summit 2016.

It’s becoming obvious at the highest levels of almost every SaaS company, too. A recurring motif of the Summit had to do with a “seat at the table:” more and more Customer Success professionals were reporting that their voice was not only being heard at the executive level, but valued. If your CSM team doesn’t command the attention of your CEO yet, it’s coming soon.

That’s why it’s almost counter-intuitive that many Chief Executives working for disruptive organizations in a cutting-edge software industry have been relatively late to the Customer Success game. If the transition to a subscription economy indeed marks the beginning of a fundamentally new era in business, your company requires a fundamentally new kind of CEO to guide it through that transition.

As a thought exercise, CCO Summit 2016 attendees were asked to design the ideal CEO for the Customer Success Age. It was like something out of the title sequence for The Six Million Dollar Man. Each small group of CCOs put their heads together and brought to life their Modern Prometheus out of the best qualities of the greatest leaders in human history. Then they pitted them against each other in a round of job interviews that can only be described as gladiatorial. Here’s what they came up with:

Experience as a customer

One of the qualities that came up over and over was the ability to walk in the customer’s shoes. Experience purchasing subscription software was a must-have. A strong sense of empathy for clients was a crucial personality trait. Most small groups favored a CEO from a SaaS background.

Ready to take the next step

Some of our small groups’ hypothetical companies were private, $100 million tech companies with high growth potential and ambitions on going public. Most of the those were looking for someone with first-hand experience leading a company through the crucible of an Initial Public Offering. Others wanted a CEO who could guide them through the transition from SMB to Enterprise focus. No matter what, everyone was ready for next big step and needed a CEO with a proven track record of taking it.

A community leader

The era of the cut-throat, take-no-prisoners chief executive seems to be well in the rear-view mirror. Most of the CCO Summit 2016 small groups were extremely interested in a CEO with a passion for ethical decision-making and community leadership. That’s not surprising considering the value CSMs place on long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. The Golden Rule was mentioned more than once; it’s crucial in both Customer Success team and in a 21st century CEO.

A decisive risk-taker

It seemed like more than a few executives at the Summit were basketball fans; three different groups were looking for the Michael Jordan, the Steph Curry, and the Steve Kerr of CEOs. That’s not a small order. Every company would like one of the Greatest Of All Time at the helm. But the specific quality they were hoping their ideal chief executive would emulate is high-pressure decision making. One group defined it as a “bias toward action.” Companies in the subscription economy still value bold, proactive leadership. In a marketplace that’s evolving so quickly, it’s a crucial prerequisite for a CEO.

Do those qualities remind you of your company’s CEO? I sure hope so! Customer Success teams don’t exist in a vacuum - never have and never will. They’re so tightly integrated with Sales, Marketing, Product, Support, and yes - Executive Management. Without leadership on your side, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle on every key decision. The good news is that the Customer Success wave is in full swell right now, and CEOs will have to sink or swim. Here’s the fundamental question: does your CEO truly care about the customer? If the answer is yes, everything else will fall in place.

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Matthew Klassen Head of Creative Head of Creative
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  1. […] We’ve invested a lot in creating the community around the profession of Customer Success: a big conference, online university, job board, and a lot more.  And my favorite talk track is how Customer Success could be a new pathway to senior leadership – from CSM to CEO. […]

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