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Troy Pratley of Amplience on onboarding, sharing knowledge and developing relationships in customer success teams.

With a career spanning 10-plus years at Amplience, an API-driven headless content management platform for enterprise retail, Troy Pratley has spent much time dissecting the best way to provide value to customers, as Head of Customer Success, EMEA.

Troy began his journey as a developer, moving on to work in consultancy then sales, where despite much success, Troy had a keen eye for problem-solving and developing long-term relationships with clients, leading him into the arena of SaaS-focused customer success.

We asked Troy to share his insights and best practices for customer success—one of the fastest-growing roles in the market.

What is one customer-guiding principle you and your teams try to live by?

The first thing is to listen. That is the single most important thing that I would say to my customer success managers (CSMs). When you’re first speaking to a customer, listen, and be inquisitive. You can talk for an hour with someone, but whether any of it is relevant, is a completely different matter. You need to listen to understand their problems, and what they’re trying to do as a business, and spend a lot of time doing that upfront.

Every meeting we have with customers, we spend 20 minutes asking questions, just trying to understand the problems and what they’re trying to do.

The second point is to have some empathy. You can have a playbook that a CSM can go through and be a robot, but you need to understand that this customer is going through a bit of pain at the moment, so maybe that [response] isn’t the best one to give.

The third thing is to be a thought leader. Yes, you can solve their problems and you can listen to them, [but as a customer] actually tell me how I should be doing things. You’re the thought leader here, you’re the expert in your tool, so tell me how I should be using it. It won’t always stick but customers like it—they like having ideas thrown at them as well.

Fourth is to have an open-door policy. You don’t have to be regimented in the way you speak to customers. The concept of having a quarterly business review (QBR), although still relevant, is much more focused on a strategic level (you need to review where that business is every 3-6 months), but for the people using it on a day-to-day basis, be available.

Let’s jump on a Zoom or Google Meets for 10 minutes, let me understand your problem; don’t trade emails for 50 threads. That’s how you’ll build stronger relationships and solve things more quickly as well.

How do you onboard and train your reps?

We have around 130 customers altogether, and we currently have four Customer Success Managers who look after 30-40 customers each.

Like any SaaS platform, it takes time to understand, depending on the complexity. I want my CSMs to feel comfortable before they engage with customers. I don’t want them to feel that they can’t answer questions when they go to meet customers. Also, it doesn’t really benefit the customer either because they feel they have a CSM who doesn’t know anything.

The most important part is making sure CSMs feel comfortable so they can become thought leaders. To be able to do that, you have to give them time to onboard and understand the platform.

We normally put a 3-6 month period to feel comfortable in their role—not doing any customer engagement for the first two months. They’ll sit down and understand the platform by getting a sandbox area, which they can play around with, then we’ll do some tests during that period to see how they’re getting on. We’ll also allow them to understand and talk to many stakeholders within the business; sales, finance, HR, marketing, product, engineering development, because that’s critical for the context. They need to know who to speak to in the business as a whole, and understand the value of the platform. If you can’t describe what the value is as a CSM, you’re not really in a good place.

That’s the process we have, and we will iterate that. After about 2 months, if we feel comfortable, we may allocate some less [high-risk] accounts to them, which I’ll drip-feed in, then scale those up to the more enterprise level.

We’ll also do some peer learning and shadowing. Generally I’d sit down with them and let them lead the meeting, but I’ll be on standby just to jump in, so they learn from the process, as there’s only so much you can learn from a handbook.

How do you share best practices with each other?

There are a couple of people involved. Let’s say you’re a new CSM and you need to understand what best practices are, peer learning is the best way to do that. Stick them with another CSM to understand how that process works. So [as part of] the onboarding, they’ll sit with a CSM and look at emails, see what’s coming in from Slack, see how they respond to problems, and the most important thing is for the CSM who is training them, to explain why they’re doing something.

Questions from customers will be phrased in completely different ways, so there’s no machine to tell you: “For question A, give answer B,” it doesn’t work like that, so you have to expose the CSM to all the different ways that it works and shadowing is probably the best way to do that for learning the existing platform.

The other way is when new functionality comes out, and that’s coming down from our product team. We do releases every two weeks, and we have to find a way to distribute that knowledge, so the product team will send out videos and upload documentation. It’s really for the CS team to access that and look at it, but we also have open-forum meetings where the product team will show how it all works, and give people the opportunity to ask questions as well.

Then they need to put it into practice, they need to be able to have their own test area and be quite hands-on with it. You need a three-step approach: Listen and learn, practice, and apply it to your customers, then you’ll really understand how it all works.

What are your biggest lessons and challenges at the moment?

The biggest challenge I’d say is to really get visibility on the health of a customer. Trying to understand that health to the most granular detail is the most important thing, and there are a few things that need to go into that, which are quite easy—things like how to track engagement. But our challenge is to understand how much value the customer is getting out of the platform. The reason I say that’s difficult, is because you can have lots of metrics like understanding what they’re using and how they’re engaged, but how does that translate into how much they pay for your software?

We work with retailers to say: ”You’re spending ‘x’ on your licence and it’s converting ‘this much’ on your website (there are a lot of parameters that go into that), so it’s difficult to present a very clear ROI [if you don’t understand] how much value they’re getting and whether they’re getting enough value is probably the most difficult thing… that’s just an evolving thing.

You need to keep on layering all these different data points to understand what value means to you. The challenge we have now is going to be an ongoing challenge.

The other thing is trying to balance the pure customer success metrics, with the more commercial metrics. The worlds between sales and customer success with subscription-based models is merging, so how do you manage that transition? I think what we’ll see in a couple of years is the transition that sales and customer success is going to be one-in-the-same.

How do you ensure reps have all the knowledge they need?

On top of the peer learning and shadowing, it’s also about trying to engage with the different teams. One of the teams I always get my CSMs to engage with is the sales team; letting them hear sales pitches for new business. It’s important they understand the context of what’s going on. If they’re in an environment where they can, then they should speak to the CEO, the CTO, the CFO, etc., because they’ll all have different perspectives about what you can do with the platform, and that would help you with overall knowledge and context. It will also allow you to have more interesting conversations because you’re going to be talking to lots of different people, from lots of different departments. The IT department or business for example, so if you can talk their language, it really helps you. You need to be proactive. CSMs who are going to be onboarding successfully, need to feed themselves.

“How does this piece of information from someone in the IT department, translate to what it truly means for my customer?”. You need to speak to them to understand it, digest it and then translate it.

If you were asked to implement a ‘customer success’ playlist, where would you begin? And hat would you share?

Read some of the customer success books by Gainsight, [such as] Dan Steinman’s Customer Success: How Innovative Companies Are Reducing Churn and Growing Recurring Revenue. They are thought leaders and they’d be able to outline the key principles of customer success for those who are completely new to it.

You can connect through different networks, such as the Customer Success Network, and then go to events. You’ll find you’re all very similar and you have similar experiences. It becomes a therapy session: “Oh, so you have the same problems as I do! Customers don’t talk to me. Why don’t they answer emails?” So there are similar problems that CS people have and it only takes you 5 minutes in a room at an event to understand that, and then that stimulates other conversation: “How do you deal with that?”

Join virtual breakfast sessions. It’s easy to sign-up but make sure you actually watch them and then take it and apply it to your own world. You’ll soon find that some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, but give it a go. Fail quickly, learn from it, and then move on. Don’t just do a ‘copy-and-paste’ job, understand how and why you need to apply it to your business and remodel some of those success plans they suggest.

How do you make sure the customer’s voice is heard through your entire organisation?

Account reviews and qualitative feedback. Talk to your customers and ask them: “How are we doing?” Lay it on the table. I want to know every minor detail that you have on the feedback of the platform—nothing is too big or small to share with the customer, you collate that and share that back with the business, maybe in an email.

Share it with senior stakeholders up to the C-level. I think people make the assumption that [C-level] don’t care sometimes, because they’re too busy doing their own thing, but that’s not true. They built the business and may be interested in the customer, and it doesn’t have to be long-winded emails either, it could just be: “Went to see a customer recently, and here’s their feedback on it…”

The other way is through the product team. Collate the information, build a system where you can track customer feedback — you can use a Jira board, Google Docs, Excel — then take that back to the product development team, and try and quantify the value of the feedback/feature requests. Put in your calendar every month, a meeting where you meet with the product team to talk about those in some detail, and hopefully get those prioritised on the product roadmap.

Another approach is through customer-focused events, which can be small focus groups or big annual customer events. Reach out to super users within your platform, have a small focus group with some beers and wine and talk about the platform. That’s quite a collaborative thing you can do from your CS and product teams’ perspectives.

Data. Data is King. You need to be able to present it and talk about your accounts in quite some detail. You need to be proactive, generally,no one is going to ask you how an account is doing. If you want to be visible to the rest of the business, you need to show the value you’re driving in terms of customer success.

How do I show my value as CSM? That’s a trickier question, you have to show you’re doing well, and one way to do that is through data. Show you’ve got your system in place; you can show which accounts at any given time are at risk, you can show the health of each account and do it very quickly.

Pull up a dashboard and say: “This is where my customer’s at, these are the key people, this is how engaged they are, this is how much value they have from the platform.”

The more you feel you’re a CS machine, the more recognition you’re going to get from peers in your organisation.

Also, what we run are Customer Success Stories — 5-10 page PDFs that talk about a customer — and deliver it to the rest of the business. “This is a little about customer ‘X’; they’ve been a customer for ‘this amount of time’, they pay ‘this much’ a year, this is how they use the platform and some of the key benefits they’re using”. Put some screenshots in there, and that’s how you can share the value you’re providing for that customer and the rest of the business.

How do CSM’s build authority and become trusted advisers as well as leaders amongst their teams?

Share information about customers and show you have your ship in order. Be proactive and say, ‘I’m a little concerned about this customer — we haven’t engaged with them in 6 months, they’re low usage on the platform, these are the people we should be talking to’ etc. — and be able to bring maybe a 3-page document to present to the rest of the business.

It’s very effective if you have two C-level people, i.e, your CEO and the CEO of one of your customers because you could send that same knowledge-pack document and they can take it to share with the CEO of your customer.

Customer Success Stories are important. Find a way to share it with everyone in the business. There are two ways to do this; you can either send an email, put it out there and hope somebody reads it, or, you can do what Amplience have been doing and ask for a slot within an all-hands meeting, where you present what you’ve been working on with a customer, and that will help you get visibility as well.

How do you build success plans with clients?

We do this through Gainsight, but in terms of our success plans, you have to have a three-pronged approach. You have to understand what their key objectives are, by meeting the key people within that business and talking to them. Then you need to have an internal meeting to digest that, replay it to the rest of the business and all the people who’ll influence that account (sales team, CEO, product team), document it and go through it with them.

After that, you [should] be transparent with the customer, say what you consider success and ask them if this is true or not. Focus on where they’re currently at and where their objectives are, and have a tracking document against it. Understand what success means for them. If they want 80% of people to use your software, but you know it’s going to be 50% then explain that.

Don’t just make the assumption, sense-check it against them and regularly track that. If you do that every quarter, it will take you that same amount of time to realise that you haven’t even started [on the goal]. The QBR model is probably not as applicable anymore and people will shift meetings around more. If you have shorter meetings, people are more likely to attend them and they don’t take as much time, so you can move things forward more iteratively.

Keep your success plans bitesize.

What are the best engagement strategies?

You can take a two-pronged approach to this. Generally, people use the platform on a day-to-day basis; you need to engage with them on a regular basis to make sure they’re OK. So that would be through doing NPS surveys, qualitative-based surveys, and shorter check-in meetings every month or so, to see where they’re at and if they’re satisfied with the platform. Keep it piece-meal, something digestible for them.

Then you also want to schedule more strategic account review meetings, so this is where you may have key decision makers in the business, where you can understand where the objectives are. Do they want to increase sales by 20% by the next year? How do they plan to do that? What are their key initiatives for the next six months to a year? Do that with the customer every 3-6 months because those are much larger strategic goals.

Make sure the business users are happy because if someone from the top, randomly one day, asks how things are going and their users aren’t happy with it, that’s the only visibility those management teams are going to get on it. Equally, you need to know you’re not just solving the tactical objectives, but also the strategic ones, which is what drives value as well. Having visibility on both levels with both stakeholders is really important as well.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew before and why?

Trust your gut a little bit. Just because somebody’s older or has been doing something longer, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.

From a CS perspective, the landscape changes quite quickly, and you should trust your gut in terms of what you know about your craft. Try and push for it, don’t just stand by and if somebody says, “no that doesn’t work”, try and push the boundaries and see how far you can push it. Don’t be rude about it, but try to make your point, because even if you’re not successful, they’ll see you’re passionate about something.

Also [from a life perspective], do the things that you like and don’t care so much about what other people think. It may sound a little cliché but people like those who are real, even if it’s not to their taste. I think everyone’s got a friend who’s completely transparent to the world, and everybody likes them because they’re them, and the sooner you get to that point in your life, the better.

I’m not influenced by social media, but I would say that even with all different types of input that you have, just care about yourself and everyone else with care about you.

What productivity hacks do you use daily for your personal development?

I make lists such as Trello lists or lists on my phone, but they’re not productivity hacks. Don’t put too many things on your list. If you have a list of five things you want to do, then do one of those things very well, even in your personal life. Don’t try to lay it on thick and try to improve 100% over 2 days, it’s much better to do it incrementally and do stuff properly over a year, rather than quickly.

I think there’s a pressure to self-improve overnight and everybody thinks there’s a quick fix, to be an expert on stuff. It’s not going to happen overnight. You’re not going to improve yourself physically and mentally over two day, accept that. It takes some commitment and the only way you can do it, is to piece-meal it, small chunks. You can then look back in a year and say: “Was that where I was? Bloody hell, I feel good about that now!”

If you’ve got a gap that’s 10 metres wide, and think you can get over it in one day, you’re always going to fall down the gap, but if you can train yourself to do a 30cm leap, a metre leap and then a two-metre leap over time, there’s more chance you’re going to do it as you’ve trained yourself to repeat that over and over again.

How do you teach yourself and your team to deal with failure?

Just accept it, accept you’re going to fail and move on from it. But, what you really have to do, is learn from it. It’s going to come, but don’t beat yourself up about it, especially when you’re in CS.

Generally, what I see of CSMs, is that they really do care, but they take a lot on, so anything that may go wrong in an account they feel that it’s their fault because they should be owning it, but that’s not always the case. External factors will influence [the situation] and as soon as you accept that, the better. The sooner you can review that and learn from it, the better, and also involve the team.

Be transparent about it, and say this is something we could have done better—you live and you learn from it.

One of the things I do as a manager is take it on the chin. They’re going to look at you to see what your reaction is. If someone says something’s gone wrong and you go: “What?!?! What happened?! Why’d that happen?!?” It’s not going to make a productive or emotionally-stable environment.

Instead go: “OK, let’s understand what happened and put a plan in place to get it done.” Deal with it calmly and accept you’re going to fail every now-and-again. The more focus on the process of accepting that and making improvements, the less you’ll fail going forward.

It’s going to happen, there are so many things outside your control but this is where [the importance of] data comes into it. Try and foresee that there’s failure coming, and the only way to do that is to understand risks—risk analysis within CS is critical. Risk always comes before failure, so if you can catch it at the risk stage, you can avoid the failure.

You have to monitor the situations on a regular basis. If you’re only checking in with them every three months, they may have made a decision two months ago, but if you checked-in with them every week or month, chances are you’re able to capture that risk earlier and solve it for them.

What’s one life philosophy that everyone should try to implement and how could they do this?

Accept yourself and what you like. Everybody’s different and everyone has their passions, but I hope people respect that people are passionate about their passions.

Be open about it and don’t try and hide it because you think somebody might not like it. Be yourself in all situations, personally and professionally as well. People like characters, but you’ve got to be your own character.

It’s easier said than done, and it comes with age. You’ve got to say: “This is what I like, this is who I am” and let everybody else know about it, as you’ll be surprised at what people are interested in when you actually talk to them.

I think people try and mimic what they think others might like, [but really] you might say to someone: “I did XYZ this weekend,” and you’ll spark up a new conversation, “Oh I like XYZ too.” But that’s a very difficult thing to do, truly I think that’s not until [you’re] 30-something!

Also, I’ve got very strong views on social media and how it puts a lot of pressure on people — philosophy, self-improvement, life hacks, etc., all these things are very immediate to me — you have to make a difference now.

There is no quick fix for it. The most satisfying things in life are the things that are the most difficult to do. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, do things naturally.