An Interview with Maranda Dziekonski, SVP of Customer Success and People at Swiftly
Human capital management (HCM) in Customer Success can mean slightly different things to different organizations, but it all boils down to making your employees successful so they can make your customers successful. As one of the 17 capabilities of the ESG Customer Success Maturity Model, we interpret HCM as the systems and processes CS leadership puts into place to promote internal engagement on their team and enable their Customer Success team to thrive.
To learn more about what it takes to set up a thriving CS team, I sat down with Customer Success and Human Resources rockstar, Maranda Dziekonski, the SVP of Customer Success and People over at Swiftly. Maranda has been a part of the CS world since before there was a formal definition for Customer Success, and she has been shaping CS teams for various tech startups around Silicon Valley since 2001. I got to pick her brain about Customer Success management, building a CS team from scratch, and figuring out the best ways to scale a CS organization from a People Operations point of view.
Marley Wagner (MW): Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today! I’ve got to start with the question I’ve been dying to ask you: How did your role at Swiftly evolve into a hybrid of both Customer Success and People Operations?
Maranda Dziekonski (MD): When I started, we were under 30 people. In the interview process, there was talk of need in human resources. I had owned and built out the HR function at my previous company. Just being in startups, especially early-stage startups, you touch so much to make sure your team members are successful. So, when I was asked if this was something I could help with, I said yeah, absolutely. The rest is history. I’ve used a lot of the methodologies and processes for setting a customer up for success to help set my team members up for success. If you think about everything from acquisitions, which is similar to marketing, to hiring, which is similar to sales, to onboarding, engagement, and adoption – it’s funny how much the hiring journey aligns with the customer journey.
MW: And this approach has allowed you to scale and grow your CS organization.
MD: I’ve also been very fortunate to have an amazing team. I wouldn’t say that who we are today is directly because of me because it’s not. It’s a culmination of many people coming together to make all of these things work both on the Customer Success side and on the people side.
MW: Do you think that human capital management was pretty critical for building out your CS team?
MD: The term “human capital” can feel really cold. So, let’s talk about setting a Customer Success team up for success. First, you have to have a strong understanding of the problems you’re trying to solve. What does your customer profile look like? What are the desired outcomes for the customer? If you back into all of that, it helps you build out the profile of the CSMs you want to bring in.
It’s really crucial though, before you post a CSM job, that you have a strong understanding of what you need to have happen on the business side. If you have a churn problem, you’re going to want a different type of CSM than you would if you have no churn problem but you really want to focus on expansion. Think about your overall business goals and what type of candidate profile you’re looking for.
MW: It helps to have both your business goals and your CS goals in mind. That makes sense. Where do you go from there in terms of finding the right CSM?
MD: After you build out your job description, then you’re going to want to set up your interview process and your interview team. Make sure you are asking the right questions to suss out what you need for your business. Make sure that you’re also giving the CSM the opportunity to suss you out. It’s important that you’re thinking about what they need as well as what you need. Are you going to be able to set them up for success? What does success look like to them?
MW: That’s great insight. Remember to look at things from both your perspective and their perspective. Another example of the CSM – employer relationship mirroring the customer – vendor relationship. What other elements do you think might be overlooked in developing a successful CS team?
MD: It’s very important to have a strong onboarding process for new team members. Especially in Customer Success. It’s important that CSMs have a strong understanding of the business. If you think about building a house, you don’t put the roof on first. So, you’re not going to want to just throw them out to your customers and say, “Go.” You’re going to want to create a process that gives them the foundation, then the walls, then the roof. How I’ve done it, is thinking through the company-level onboarding. Who do they need to meet with? I’ve always paired folks with people throughout the whole organization so they can get multiple perspectives. Even in a remote environment, doing it over Zoom, having them paired with and learning from multiple individuals within the organization is important. Then they learn about everything from what are the norms of Swiftly, to what are the things they should know about our culture, our dynamics, and how we communicate with each other. What does life look like here?
I also like to talk to them about the history of things that are important. If we have a certain system or a tool that we use and it’s not perfect but it’s a huge improvement, I let them know that. I say, “Hey, just so you know, we are now working in this tool. It’s not perfect, but what we were doing before was everything in spreadsheets so this is a great improvement. It may feel clunky to you, coming in not knowing, but it’s a big improvement for everybody on the team and it’s going to just keep getting better.” Little things like that, I make sure I pepper them with that foundational knowledge. Then I move onto systems and role specific training and I break it all out.
MW: Oh, let’s talk about training, because we all know how critical it is.
MD: Yes! Depending on your product and how complex it is, the actual core training can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to up to five weeks or more. Then, you should actually pair your team member with a mentor for two, three, four, five months. For however long they need. And this is someone within their immediate team that they can buddy with to continue to learn the norms and make sure they’re not flying solo. This is very important, especially in a time of remote-first environments. It can be very lonely and intimidating to be the new person at an organization. Pairing them with a mentor can make a huge difference.
MW: It sounds really similar to Customer Success best practices for onboarding and getting customers through the adoption process.
MD: Absolutely. So, you think about it in the same way. Setting up your customers for success is the same thing as setting up your team members for success. Think about your team as your customer. I also talk to the CSMs about who their customers are, both internal and external. It’s the same thing for the hiring managers. Who are your internal and external customers? One internal customer is definitely your team. If you put that hat on, and you think about it that way, you get a different perspective. What would you do if they were paying you to set them up for success? It just kind of really flips the script in your head.
Q: Would you say that your background in start-up organizations has helped you think about these things in this uniquely CS-oriented way?
MD: Yeah, so I am very addicted to the start-up world. I learned so much at the larger organizations I worked for before, but tech startups are so challenging in a unique way. If you’re somebody like me who likes to go in and make order out of chaos – asking how do I create standard operating procedures (SOPs) that get us all on the same page, how do I think about scale, how do I think about efficiencies that get us to scale – those are all key traits and skills that you need in a startup and also in the Customer Success world.
MW: So, it makes sense that you landed in Customer Success at tech startups.
MD: I think so. I think it was just meant to be. I love looking at something that could be more efficient and thinking about a process for how to make it more efficient. It even extends into my personal world.
MW: When you first joined Swiftly, what did your team look like in the beginning? And what does it look like now?
MD: I was hired when we were just shy of 30 employees as the Vice President over Customer Success and People. I had a team of three or four individuals at that time that were doing Customer Success. Swiftly is one the most sophisticated Series A companies I’ve ever joined. They had so much already documented across the org. It was pretty impressive. Swiftly had everything together early, and it has helped us along the way. We now have 15 of us in Customer Success. We own Implementations, Tech Support Engineering, Customer Success, and Renewals Management.
MW: That’s how you’ve evolved your unique Customer Success team’s structure.
MD: Yes. There’s no one size fits all Customer Success solution. It’s very rare where you’re going to be able to take something someone else is doing and plug and play it into your Customer Success organization. You have to think through, how could this work in my organization?
MW: How was that scaling process? How long did it take?
MD: It took us a couple of years. Essentially, we talked about all the different functions that were owned within Customer Success. We started out as a team of generalists that did every single thing.
MW: That’s typical for Customer Success!
MD: Yeah, very typical. And we started thinking about the layers of this onion and what can we peel back? And which layers should we peel back first? What we determined was that a lot of our time was being spent on implementations and onboarding, but it was a crucial phase of the customer lifecycle. So, that was the first team that we peeled off. We started that in January 2020 with just one person, and now there is a team of three that do onboarding and implementation. We slowed down in 2020, and then in the September and October time frame, we peeled off renewals management. Because renewals are so important.
MW: It tends to be those bookends that are so critical, onboarding and renewals.
MD: Yeah, and it was strategic because I was looking at the biggest areas of risk for us. First, onboarding was taking up so much of the CSMs’ time that they were not able to focus on the core things they needed to do to be proactive CSMs. All they were doing was onboarding and data review, training, and building decks and presentations. I’m like okay, this isn’t good because there is a whole portfolio of customers that they aren’t able to talk to. They weren’t able to make sure they were getting a return on investment or achieving their outcomes.
Then I asked, what is the next biggest risk factor for the company? And it was renewals. We have one-, three-, and five-year contracts. We’re a young company. We’ve only been around for seven years. This year we had a ton of renewals for the first time in the entire history of the company coming up that needed a lot of one-on-one attention. These are government contracts. It’s not as simple as I’m going to bill your credit card. That was the next risk factor. It wasn’t that it was taking up a ton of CSM time, but it would have. So, we peeled that off.
Then, we looked at, what is the next thing that we need to do to get the Customer Success team to a more proactive state? Where are they spending the next amount of their time? And that was tech support. So, peeled that bad boy off. Then, we hired a couple more CSMs and right-sized the portfolios. We are a high-touch motion, we’re not tech touch, a lot of folks use the 2-2.5 million per CSM as a barometer. I try to keep my team rate around 1.5 because they have to have a ton of interaction. It’s not entirely scientific, there’s a lot of maneuvering depending on the needs of the customer.
MW: That sounds like a really good process for scaling up a Customer Success team.
MD: That’s how we approached it. By keeping track of everything that the CSM team owned, we figured out what we could peel off. Other things that we need to peel off are some Customer Success operations functions. We’re not doing a ton of it, but we need more insights. We need more data. We need more processes. And then we’ll probably build out an enablement team because our product is very complex and things always changing. Somebody facilitating trainings and keeping everybody up on the latest product developments would be really helpful.
MW: Would you have any advice for someone just starting out for how to set up a Customer Success team up for success?
MD: First things first, is just to take a step back and really get the lay of the land. Don’t start jumping into buying tools and hiring people. Really get an understanding of what your customers need. What kind of model is going to set them up for success? Start first with understanding what that is. Write it on a white board. This is what our customers need. And then back into that. What kind of skills am I going to need? What kind of skills do I have? Let’s say you’re inheriting a team. Say, okay, these are the skills I need, these are the skills I have, these are the gaps I have to fill. Do I need to fill those through training or hiring? That will help you find a direction that way. Then, look at how everybody is working. If there are already tools in place, how are they using those tools? Are the tools working well? What’s missing? Where are the gaps? Then, after you do that, that’s going to help you understand if you have any gaps in your tool sets or your processes. I bucket those two together. I think process should come before tools. I think you should have an understanding of what needs to happen before you put a tool in that helps you make it happen. Once you figure out those couple of things, it’s going to give you a path for all the actions and activities you need to take to help you get there.
MW: I’m so glad we had the chance to sit down and chat about this really important topic. Thank you again for sharing your CS wisdom with us and our readers!
As we can see from our conversation with Maranda, there are many facets of strong Customer Success. Keeping it all in mind as you build and scale your own CS team might feel overwhelming, but if you are able to follow in the footsteps of the Customer Success leaders who have come before, you’ll find your footing in no time. Sign up for our new webinar series, Customer Success Unlocked, for more guidance from Customer Success rockstars like Maranda. Hear from Oracle’s Peter Armaly on Change Management in Customer Success on July 21, and stay tuned for Maranda’s session on our series in August!