We sat down with Avi Avital, Head of Customer Success at Census to discuss growing Customer Success from the ground up at startups and scale-ups.
Thanks for joining us today, Avi. For starters, can you give us a little bit of background about yourself and your career journey thus far?
Sure. I’ve been in tech for more than twenty years now, playing really different roles. I started as a software engineer, moved to manage business applications in large international corporate IT, and led a Product Management team back at PayPal.
The problems I saw at PayPal, where we built monitoring and logging solutions used across the engineering team, ended up leading me to discover this Israeli startup, Anodot. At first, I just wanted to embed their technology inside the product we were building at PayPal, but a few weeks into the POC, they ended up closing a Series A, and the CEO asked me to join them and lead the Customer Success Organization. That’s when my Customer Success journey really started.
That was a pivotal moment in my career, because I had never been part of a startup. I always thought of myself as more corporate. But because of the technology, the vision and the relationship I had with them, I decided to give it a chance.
And I didn’t know much about Customer Success. I started to connect with some of the key thought leaders in the space. They were my mentors, and obviously I read books and blogs to get myself up to speed. It was a really fun experience.
I joined Anodot really early on, we had maybe 20 customers, most of them friends and family. I built the organization there from the ground up. It was a global organization – small, but very effective.
Did you find that having a Product background helped your transition and impact into Customer Success?
Absolutely. The Product Management background has really helped me manage and have empathy for both teams. In fact, when I was at Anodot, one of my team members on the product team was an aspiring CSM based in San Francisco. So I appointed him as a Customer Success Product Manager, and he bridged the two functions, working with CS to collect all customer feedback, and with Product to prioritize and product-manage.
The other thing is that I’ve been on the customer side, too, for most of my career. I’ve been in the shoes of B2B enterprise customers and understand where they’re coming from. So when they run into struggles internally, I can relate to that. It’s been great, taking my experience from different companies and roles and funneling that into Customer Success.
If you think about it, Customer Success is really the heart of a company. Customer Success naturally works with sales, engineering, marketing, product, finance and so on – so you have to have some empathy and always find the fine balance between conflicting interests. Externally, but also internally, we all have constraints. Being able to speak in their language is really important.
Talk to me a bit about Census, your current company. What problems are you solving for your customers?
I’d say Census is spreading the truth about organizations’ customers. Companies are collecting lots of different data into a data warehouse – a single source of truth. In the last 10 years, most companies have transitioned to a centralized data warehouse on the cloud using something like BigQuery, Redshift, or Snowflake. They’ve spent a lot of resources and money on different tools to collect all that data and they’ve likely implemented some analytics tools on top of it like Looker, Tableau, or Power BI and many others.
Now, we all love dashboards – and we all hate dashboards. They’re not really actionable, and for the most part you are dependent on a data analyst to generate the reports for you.
With Census, our approach is different. You already have the data in your data warehouse, so let’s take the data that you have and push it back to the business application where you’re spending most of your time. If you’re an Account Executive and you’re using Salesforce, let’s bring the customer-360-data into Salesforce. Getting the right data points and metrics into where you spend most of your time, that’s of great value. That’s what Census helps you do really easily.
How do you think about high-touch vs low-touch Customer Success models at Census?
My first two startups were very much high-touch engagement, and those customers were typically six figure deals. When your customers are paying that much, they will chase the CSM to get their time.
A lot of vendors with a Customer Success organization want to have weekly check-ins, QBR’s, feedback on the product, etc. The truth is, that’s a lot of touchpoints. So a common customer's answer to the question of how often we should meet was, “Hey, we don’t want to waste your time. The product is working, we love it, and it’s very easy to implement.” What they were actually kindly saying is: “We don’t want you to waste our time.”
So here at Census, it’s more of a low-touch engagement model. So you have to ask, what’s the point of meeting? And the answer, at the end of the day, always has to be it’s all about the customer value. What kind of value can I provide a customer by meeting?
If it’s not technical enablement, or education about how to use a feature, then the value becomes around best practices, community, and benchmarks. What other customers are using the product like we are and how are they using it? The key question which is the true differentiator is how to do that at scale.
What does the Customer Success team look like at Census in terms of size, and where the team sits in the org chart?
I report to the CEO, and I have three functions that report to me: Customer Support Engineers, Customer Success Managers, and Customer Data Architects. They are working very closely together to address different customer needs and assuring we provide an optimal experience.
Why does that structure make sense for Census?
Hearing from customers that generally feel like the product is easy to navigate and implement, they typically don’t want to spend the time to talk to Customer Success on an overly frequent basis. They basically said, “Hey, if we have an issue, we’ll reach out to the Customer Support team.” So early on, I realized that I needed to build a strong support team as a foundation.
In the first couple of months, I focused on establishing processes and building SLA’s, then eventually implemented Zendesk. We’ve hired three support engineers, because that was what was more important for the customer at that point of time.
The types of questions customers had weren’t as simple as, “How do I add a user?” They are generally saying, “I’m getting an error, I don’t know what to do with it.” At that point you need someone to look at the logs and troubleshoot and get the issue resolved asap.
After that, because we had hundreds of customers, I realized I needed to build a scaled Customer Success organization. It wasn’t going to be the 1-to-1 type of customer relationship that I had experienced at my previous companies. I knew from the beginning that the ratio at Census that made sense would be more like 1-to-50.
So if the Support team is handling inbound tickets, how did you think about the value that the Customer Success team would be providing? Why build a Customer Success function?
Good question – the answer kept evolving. I knew that I would have to get to a digital engagement, lower-touch model at some point. So I thought, okay let me overinvest in the early going, get some strong CSMs on board, have them manage accounts, figure out the right engagement, and then we can start implementing some automation.
Very quickly, I realized – that’s not the case. Customers didn’t need this kind of engagement. I asked [customers], so how can we bring you value if it’s not about enablement? I kept hearing “community, best practices, and use cases”.
I’m very pleased that we have a dedicated marketing team on the community side. I just shared with customers, please join our Operational Analytics community which is growing very nicely. I hired a strong Customer Data Architect and asked him to work on a use case library by analyzing our customers usage patterns. We’ve built that library from the ground up and by sharing it with other customers, we are able to enable new ways for them to get value out of the product.
Going back to the question you asked about the value of Customer Success, the core value is about running the business and assuring customers are getting the desired business outcomes and having the best experience possible.
On top of that, we are focusing on expansion. By enabling the customers or inspiring them about other ways they can use Census to get more value, will result in upsells. But I’m intentionally not calling it upsells. Let’s say we are able to drive customers from 30% utilization of the product to 50%, 60% – the upsells will come. Let’s make sure we are building the right content, skills, and muscles to have meaningful customer conversations.
Does that present conflicts or challenges for the team?
Sometimes, the more technical CSM’s that I’ve hired have been reluctant to have some of those conversations because they think “I’m not a salesperson.” I tell my CSM’s, we’re not selling. We’re having value driven conversations”. You’re sharing the use cases, you’re telling them what other customers are doing, and you will get them inspired.
That's a good segue into hiring. How do you think about hiring the profile for a CS team?
It depends on the maturity of the company. In the early days, I’m looking to hire full stack CSMs. At Anodot for example, my first CSM did support, training, documentation, etc. There’s lots of conversation in the CS space about the fact that CS tends to be a catch-all. That’s accurate, and my approach, I’m okay with that. As the company matures then it makes sense to split the role into more specialized functions.
My motto is we assist the organization to do whatever it takes to make the customer successful. Every CS organization is bridging the gap between the customer expectation and the reality of the product and services we provide.
So here at Census, we’re doing renewals, we’re owning G2 reviews, writing content working very closely with the partnership team – and more.
Do you see that CSM’s can be successful if they come from non-CS backgrounds?
Absolutely! It depends on the skills required from the CSM and the engagement type. If it’s low-touch, then having BDR experience is very much relevant, whereas if it’s high-touch with a consultative approach, candidates from consulting firms can have an advantage.
Generally speaking, if you think about the CSM scope or skills they need to have, it’s typically on a spectrum between very technical and more of an account management type of skill set. At Census it’s probably 80% account management and 20% technical because I still want them to be able to have meaningful conversation with the champions and decision-makers while being able to also open the platform, look at SQL, and speak to the technical aspects.
At Census, I felt lucky to have a dedicated support team from the early days so the CSM’s don’t have to be that technical. They don’t need to do the troubleshooting so I can focus on hiring CSMs with core CS skills – building relationships, driving value and expansion.
Last question! Are you currently hiring for any roles at Census that you’d like to highlight?
Thanks again to Avi for sharing his insights and experience with us. Have follow-up questions or topics? Reach us below – we'd love to hear your feedback. 💙