In Episode 12 of The inSide Scoop on Customer Success, we tackle a very important topic: How to start a simple Customer Success Community. Listen in as our VP of Customer Success and podcast hostess with the mostess, Anika Zubair, talks to Kristi Faltorusso, VP of Customer Success at ClientSuccess and Founder of CS Real Simple.
Starting a community doesn’t need to be complicated, but how do you go about starting a successful community? What are the do’s and don’ts? CS legend Kristi Faltorusso has a unique approach and on today’s episode, she shares her secrets, learnings, and mistakes when creating her own community, CS Real Simple.
Forgot your headphones? No problem. Check out the transcript of the conversation below. Don’t forget to follow The inSide Scoop on Customer Success over on Spotify!
Show Notes + Links:
- Connect with Kristi Faltorusso on LinkedIn
- Follow CS Real Simple on LinkedIn
- CS Real Simple website
- Follow CS Real Simple on Pinterest
- Connect with Jeanne Bliss on LinkedIn
Anika Zubair (00:02): Cool. Welcome, Kristi to the podcast. Before we get into today’s topic, can you please tell all our listeners a bit about CS Real Simple, how it started, and what you’re doing there.
Kristi Faltorusso (00:15): Absolutely. For the last couple of years, I’ve been really heavily engaged with the customer success community, and I’ve spent a lot of time in private conversations with folks helping them navigate some challenges that they’ve had and sharing my own experiences with them, and brainstorming, and what I’ve learned is that a lot of folks really struggled with overcomplicated methodologies and strategies around customer success, and things that I just felt like why are we over complicating these things? Where is the simplicity and brevity in all the things that we do? And it just didn’t seem to be there.
Kristi Faltorusso (00:50): I’d listen to podcasts. I’d engage with people. I’d read articles. And I just felt like, wow, it just really isn’t this hard. Having done this for a decade I know that to be true. So really, earlier this year I decided to take that challenge on, take everything I knew about customer success, and break it down into small digestible bits, things that have really a succinct storyline behind it, easy steps to follow, clarity, but more importantly that simplicity. And so, hence there was born CS Real Simple, and really what I’m in the process of deploying is a content experience that will house all of the tools, and research, and things that I’ve developed over the years to share at no cost with the community, because I really do truly believe that, one, there’s no one-size-fits-all model, so even if I do put all this out into the universe it’s not plug-and-play. People can’t just take exactly what I’ve done in design and just put it into their organization, but at least it helps folks create that starting point.
Kristi Faltorusso (01:53): They’ve got a place to go, and reference, and somebody who’s tested it out. These things won’t always work for everybody, but it’s going to give them a place to start where they’re not reinventing the wheel every time, and that is how I think I can give back to the community, so that’s what I’ve been up to.
Anika Zubair (02:10): Awesome. I love that, and I also love that the concept of sharing with the community, and there’s really no limit to that because what you do can be completely different at what you do at a different organization, or a different company, so sharing really is caring, and I think that’s how communities really thrive, how they continue to blossom, and I’ve really loved seeing all the content you share on LinkedIn, and just across all communities that you’re a part of. Now, before we get into the real topic around communities, I want to do a little bit of a warmup. You’re no newbie to podcasts, but I thought we could let all our listeners to know a little bit more about Kristi, so I have a few questions just to warm us up.
Anika Zubair (02:50): The first question is, do you prefer Apple or Google?
Kristi Faltorusso (02:54): I am an Apple girl, but converted, so-
Anika Zubair (02:58): Noooo.
Kristi Faltorusso (02:59): Yes. Believe it or not I was a Samsung girl. I had little Android figures all over my offices, and cubicles. My husband, who has been an Apple adopter since its infancy, a couple years into our marriage was like, “You’ve got to say goodbye. You’ve just got to let it go.” And I’ve moved over to Apple and I’ve never looked back. Now, as I look at my desk I’ve got my two MacBooks. I’ve got my AirPods, my iPhone, my iPad, my Apple Watch. We are an Apple-connected family, so hands down Apple.
Anika Zubair (03:31): Honestly, I’m looking around my desk and I’m saying the same thing. iPhone, iPad, MacBook, everything’s Apple, but I’ve been an Apple fan junkie from the beginning, but it’s amazing to hear how an Android person actually made the switch because there’s such polar differences.
Kristi Faltorusso (03:48): Big time. I swore I would never do it. I preached the word gospel of Android, and all it really took is maybe two days on an iPhone to be like, “Whoa, okay. I get it.”
Anika Zubair (04:01): I love hearing that, because it’s all about the user experience which we will go into.
Kristi Faltorusso (04:04): 100%.
Anika Zubair (04:07): I already know the answer to this next question, but for our listeners that don’t know who you are, are you a dog or a cat person?
Kristi Faltorusso (04:13): Woof. Woof. Woof. Puppies all the way. I recently just welcomed into our home this February a little Aussiedoodle. She’s a mini, and she’s seven months old, and she’s the love of my life, and if she wasn’t sleeping on my feet right now I would pick her up and show the world, but she’s amazing, and dogs, dogs, dogs.
Anika Zubair (04:31): 100% for dog moms. I’m also thinking about my dog that’s now also sleeping at my feet. Otherwise, I would hold her up and share her in every Zoom call I ever do. Awesome. And then, the last question for the warm up is if you were stuck on a desert island which three things would you bring with you and why?
Kristi Faltorusso (04:51): Do they have to be things?
Anika Zubair (04:52): They can be people.
Kristi Faltorusso (04:55): I’m taking my husband and my daughter, and I want to take my dog, but then I also feel like if it’s a deserted island I don’t know I feel like I need to take a book of matches or something. I feel like I need to have something, maybe a knife, or some tool to help me while we’re on this island, but if I had that in one of our pockets I’d take the dog. Otherwise, I’ve got to find a utility something, tool, to just help us out there.
Anika Zubair (05:23): It’s so evident that you’re a people person, because you just named all three things as not objects, but rather human beings, and your dog, which I think dogs are part of human life and our families, but I also love that the survivor instinct in you is like I should take something useful.
Kristi Faltorusso (05:43): Help make sure that the people that I’ve taken along on this deserted island that we have a way to survive.
Anika Zubair (05:49): Yeah, awesome. Let’s jump into one more warmup question, and this one more around CS, since that’s the topic we are going to talk about. What inspired you to work in customer success, because I know you come from a nontraditional background, but really curious what led you to where you are today?
Kristi Faltorusso (06:07): Completely accidental. I was using a technology for a couple of years at a few different companies. I was a huge fan of the value I was getting from the product, and I was obviously a customer of theirs, so I very much connected to the community that they were serving. So for me, it was like, wait, I get your product, I get your customer, hire me. And so, they did, and I went along on this journey and for the past decade, I’ve been thriving. And you know what’s so funny is I look back at my career, and I think, wow, how could I have ever done anything else. I love the work that we do so much, the good days, the bad days, the challenges, the highs, the lows. There is nothing that I could ever envision myself doing ever again in the world.
Anika Zubair (06:52): I love that. I also feel the same. I sometimes look back at it, I’m like how did I fall into it from sales into CS, but at the same time there’s nothing else I would spend my day doing, and I think that a lot of other people who work in customer success could probably feel the same because we just have such strong feelings towards being empathetic towards customers or helping them, or just trying to see success in whichever way we can, so really love that. Really, really do.
Anika Zubair (07:17): Awesome. Let’s jump into the topic of communities, especially the CS Real Simple community that you’ve spent probably more than the last year building up. I really want to talk to the audience about why should a SaaS company start a customer community. You started CS Real Simple. Why would any sort of SaaS vendor, or SaaS company, start communities?
Kristi Faltorusso (07:40): The real value behind it is that human connection, right? Leveraging technology, but sometimes it’s in person as well, where at the community it’s like bringing these folks together, connecting them, because it’s mutually beneficial. Everybody involved in it gets value. If you are a technology provider being able to connect with your community in this manner, this asynchronous environment where you just have ongoing conversation and dialog, it’s very organic, it’s natural. You’re answering what they need. You’re adjusting their needs. Their peers are helping one another. There’s just a ton of value.
Kristi Faltorusso (08:19): And when you can anchor it around your solution you’ve got an entire group of people who are coming together and you’re at this epicenter, right? And you’re helping them, you’re guiding them, but they’re all helping and guiding one another. There’s an immense amount of value whether it’s you’re trying to help them build their careers, you’re helping them transform and drive change management, you’re helping them adopt and operationalize their workflows around your technology. You’re just connecting them with other thought leaders. There is just so much value that everybody who’s involved gets from a community that it’s almost shocking that so many technology providers really haven’t already gotten onboard with developing theirs.
Anika Zubair (08:59): I always think about it too, like a community can serve so many end-users it’s not just for the purposes of, hey, let’s scale our CS efforts, or let’s find a different way to interact with our customers. Like you just mentioned there is connecting thought leaders. There’s making sure you operationalize CS efforts. There’s also just content and being very brand aware of what your business is doing, but making sure it’s in front of your customers, and all of those are brilliant reasons to start a CS community.
Anika Zubair (09:31): With reference to the last year of building up CS Real Simple, I know you said it’s a labor of love, which I think all communities are, but looking back at it what do you think was the hardest part of starting a community?
Kristi Faltorusso (09:45): Becoming relevant, right? And I don’t know that there’s an exact tie to why that’s the hardest, but I had to make sure that there was continuity in my messaging, and my brand, and what I was putting out there in the content. I had to make sure that there was consistent content being pumped out there. I had to make sure that the content was resonating with the folks that I served. I had to be diligent about building that community and engaging with individuals, and I can’t tell you what my … I feel like my LinkedIn inbox looks a hundred times worse than my email inbox ever did, but I try to make sure that I’m getting back to everybody.
Kristi Faltorusso (10:17): So, I would say it’s really that being relevant, doing what I say I’m going to do, selflessly serving and selflessly giving back, but making sure that I was doing that with a level of frequency that was going to keep myself at top of mind, and now that I’ve done that for about a year now I think when people think of customer success I’m a relevant name that comes up because of everything I’ve done to serve them, and so it’s been really hard to cultivate that and build it up, but I think now that we’re there it’s just making sure that we deliver.
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Anika Zubair (10:51): I have to agree that I think a lot of people starting community always think like I’ll post a few things here and there, and then other people will comment, and engage, and start posting their own things, and I think that happens naturally, but like you said it’s taken a year for you to really see traction on those sorts of things, and really see more people contributing to the community. And also, I really loved that you mentioned that it’s consistency, like making sure you’re not burning yourself out, but also making sure that you are posting relevant content regularly to build up that audience, and that engagement, and then at some point it does flip. Naturally, the community is always going to see you as that thought leader, as that person that really knows what they have to say about the CS community.
Anika Zubair (11:38): But I think that you’ve also been a part of a lot of other communities before even starting CS Real Simple, which is awesome. I think it’s great to be a contributor as well as a thought leader, but everyone can join a community, right? How did you get traffic onto your community rather than other communities?
Kristi Faltorusso (11:57): I think it was really being specific with what it is I provided. I don’t try to be everything to everyone. I think there are a lot of customer success communities out there that are fantastic, and almost general hubs. My content and what it is that I’m trying to engage with folks on is very specific around strategies and operationalizing customer success in a simple way, right? So, I’ve become very specific about who I’m serving and it really does serve I think more specifically … Anyone can use my content, but if I think about my audience in particular I really am serving a newer CS leader, right? Somebody who has got less experience, is trying to learn, is trying to move quickly, navigate challenges internally. That’s who I want to serve. And so, because I was so intentional about who I was targeting and the content that I needed to provide for them I think it really helped to foster that digital dialog that happened organically as a result of that.
Kristi Faltorusso (12:54): They felt that I was serving them. They were able to engage with it, and it didn’t compete with other areas. They just knew that if they were going to come to me, to my content, to any of my websites it was really for a specific need to engage in a certain way, and they knew that they would get what they were looking for.
Anika Zubair (13:12): I totally agree, and I think a lot of people get nervous about being super intentional and niche down, or be very specific, because a lot of people think maybe they’re a competitor, or maybe they’re going to steal my content and use it in their own way, which they can. That’s actually I think stealing content is a form of flattery, but I think also being niche and being super intentional as to what you’re putting out in a community can really drive your brand. Like you said, you’ve very much thought that you were about operationalizing CS. Yes, real simple, isn’t everything and anything, but it is just how to operationalize, how to build it from the ground up, and keep things really simple, and that’s why people would come to your community rather than going to a CS leaders community that’s going to talk about board decks, or how to present, or all these kind of things.
Anika Zubair (14:02): So, it’s very, very important I think for all businesses to hear that, is that if you start a community and you’re putting any sort of thought leadership out there in a community you don’t have to necessarily worry that someone’s going to steal it, or someone’s going to take it, and rip it off.
Kristi Faltorusso (14:17): Gosh. That’s the biggest joke of all time. Let me tell you how many people ask me why are you giving all this away for free, and I’m like … I’m almost confused because I don’t get why they don’t understand why I would give it away for free. It’s not like you’re stealing my IP. Just because I’m putting content out there doesn’t also mean that someone can go and do the work that I do. They don’t have the experience that I have. Not everything is plug-and-play. They’re going to have to really take it, internalize it, and build a strategy around it that maps back to their product, their customers, in their organization. It’s not like an outlet, right? You can’t just plug it in.
Kristi Faltorusso (14:56): I’m not concerned. I see it as like, listen, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m going to go out there. I’m going to put it all out. I’m going to help everyone. I’m going to do everything I can to serve the community that I love, that I’m passionate about, and you know what the benefit is to me? Is I get folks like you who ask me to participate in these really fun conversations. I get a lot of opportunities to build my brand and get myself out there, so to me it is mutually beneficial and I feel like there’s a lot of folks hopefully getting a lot of value from the stuff that I’m doing.
Anika Zubair (15:23): Definitely, and I think that if there was a company looking at communities, even looking at your experience and what you’ve done with CS Real Simple you’re just building brand awareness, and you are just putting yourself out there to make sure that you are the right place for your customers, and future customers, to really trust in you as a vendor that you have all this knowledge to share. And like you said, it’s not plug and play. You’re not going to be able to … Whether you build a community and share everything on it someone else isn’t going to be able to just take that and be like, “Yes, I magically built another SAS software company that’s exactly like yours,” because of what you put on, a community, so I do totally agree with that.
Anika Zubair (16:03): But let’s get into the nitty-gritty. We’ve talked about the last year, building up CS Real Simple, but honestly how much time did you spend on it. If I was someone new starting a community today how many hours did you spend? Did you ask other people for help? What was the initial push? Because as we know it’s a labor of love. It takes a village sometimes to get things up and running. Where was the time spent?
Kristi Faltorusso (16:28): Initially, listen, this is not my full-time gig. It is that labor of love. I have to work off-hours, so it’s a lot of hours in the evening and weekends spent developing and designing what I want to put out there. I will say the cool thing about it is there wasn’t too much extra time that was required, right? This is all stuff that’s in my head. It’s stuff that I’m doing in my day-to-day, so it’s already part of what I’m creating, what I’m designing. I’m just putting it out there and packaging it differently. I’m putting different messaging around it.
Kristi Faltorusso (16:57): And so, listen, it definitely took some more time. The more I wanted to ramp things up, and really start to build on it, it took more time. Building websites to support this stuff, getting things out there, the financial investments you’re making behind tools, and resources, and designers, and other folks to help join and participate it’s been a bit more work, but honestly it’s been worth it, and the folks that have helped me aren’t necessarily folks that are doing anything specific to do the work, but it’s more like partnerships with folks like yourself, and Gain, Grow, Retain, and other platforms that believe in what I’m doing, and that are helping spread the word organically.
Kristi Faltorusso (17:43): I don’t have an army of people behind me that are building my infographics, and my website, and doing all the things. Rather, I’ve got people who have bought into what it is that I’m trying to do, who believe in what I do, who feel that I am an authority in this space, and that what I’m doing is good, it’s accurate, it’s relevant, and supporting me in that regard. And I feel like that actual support has transcended and actually propelled the brand a lot further than if I hired an army of people to go build more and produce more content.
Anika Zubair (18:10): Yeah. I totally love that, and I think that with anyone that’s starting a community, whether you’re an individual, or a company, you definitely need that support system, and that support system gets you so far, more than hiring someone to do the job. You really need people who believe in it, and who really want to see you succeed with the community in order to see it to get to next steps.
Anika Zubair (18:29): You already mentioned that you have a few support people, and you have other thought leaders in the space that have definitely helped you get to where you are. Everyone can ask people for help. I think that’s something that a lot of people can do, but how did you actually go about doing this? What was the tactical ways of asking for help without really giving any … Not really not giving anything, but maybe not paying someone let’s say?
Kristi Faltorusso (18:54): Let me be very honest with you. I think what I did was I created something that people believed in that felt was really helpful, and I didn’t have to ask anybody, fortunately. And I’m not saying it’s going to be the same for everyone, but in my instance I really had people reaching out to me to ask how could they help, right? I think if you’re out there and you do have a very clear purpose, you have a very clear vision, and a mission behind it, you’re doing good work, it is self-serving, it doesn’t feel like you’ve got this self-oriented intent behind it where it’s all about you I think people will naturally gravitate towards wanting to support it, right?
Kristi Faltorusso (19:34): People want to be a part of something that is bigger than them, that is really giving back. Think about charities for example. How many people get behind a charity? Not because they get anything out of it personally, physically, financially. It’s because of that feel good just wanting to give, wanting to help, and I do believe that is big in the CS community, right? We are all helpers. We’re all people that want to give back.
Kristi Faltorusso (19:59): And so, I think even as SaaS companies think about building communities if you are really intentional about doing something special that is serving your community, is serving your people, is serving a big, great purpose, and everything you do is around that, is targeted about that, and it’s not about you, it’s not about driving more revenue, it’s not about driving your retention and your growth, let those be the ancillary things that happen as a result of the goodness you’re putting forward and organically people will want to get behind it.
Anika Zubair (20:29): 100%, and I think that a lot of people don’t look at the whole outcome of a community rather than I really want to just put myself out there, but then I need help, and I need to ask for help, and all these other things, which is natural, but like you just said everyone in the CS space, but also even when you build a community you’re going to have people who are naturally going to want to push that community up because they’re so impressed, or they’re so amazed, or they just appreciate the knowledge that you’re sharing that they’re naturally going to share it with their peers, or they’re just going to say, hey, look at this company, they have so much amazing content, and I absolutely appreciate that they’re sharing it, so I’m going to share it with the world, but I’m also going to contribute because I believe in their community, and their vision, and what they’re trying to share, which is I think a lot of the trick that SAS businesses are missing nowadays because everyone feels like I’m too worried that if I put it all out there that maybe people won’t like, or people won’t engage.
Anika Zubair (21:23): But you know what? It’s human nature, human first. People are going to want to help build other people up, and when you are putting that kind of content out there that is relevant, that is connected to someone’s core values and what they really believe in they’re going to help. Like you said, the whole charity thing. People just want to feel good, or they want to contribute in that way.
Kristi Faltorusso (21:45): Listen, for communities also. It should be mutually beneficial. I talked about for me the benefit I get, right? I give the benefit of giving people a place to start, helping guide their journey, giving them tried and true tested playbooks and strategies, and guide rails for how they should go approach and operationalize their CS program.
Kristi Faltorusso (22:05): But I do get something out of it, right? For me, I’m building my brand. I’m building my relevancy in this space. I’m getting this platform to continue to grow professionally. And so, I think that even as you think about communities it’s okay for them to be mutually beneficial. You don’t have to make it not about you at all. Just be very clear about what it is that you’re hoping to get.
Kristi Faltorusso (22:26): So, when you’re going and you’re designing your community think about the fact that, yes, you’re putting stuff out there, but also how are you going to help other people? If I’m a community member, right? I’m hoping that maybe what I’m getting out of the community is my ability to share my thought leadership, and build my platform, right? Elevate myself, be a thought leader. And communities are a great way for your customers to do that and build off of it.
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Kristi Faltorusso (22:49): So, just be I think very clear on how everyone benefits, so that way it doesn’t ever feel icky, right? Everyone is very clear on, hey, you’re going to get this, we’re going to get this, here’s how we’re all going to grow, and how we’re all going to be a part of this journey together. I think that transparency is key.
Anika Zubair (23:06): Yeah, and having that mutual beneficial partnership is really where the key to communities are, but also it’s a many to many approach. I like to see communities as everyone else helping everyone else. No longer is it me helping you, you helping them, or whatever. It’s really a communal, again, that’s why the community word, but it’s a communal effort, but also communal outcomes as well based on what sort of effort you are putting into the community.
Anika Zubair (23:33): Awesome. So, let’s talk a little bit about what didn’t work out, or what didn’t go well, so looking back in hindsight you did ask people to help, and there have been lots of platforms, lots of places where CS Real Simple has been elevated, but what about the opposite? Looking back on it, what didn’t go well, and what would you have done differently in hindsight?
Kristi Faltorusso (23:54): It is very difficult to have a passion project that you can’t give 100% of your time to, so I think what I built over the past even couple years … Think about it if I’m just even isolating to LinkedIn before I built a brand around what I was doing. It deserves, and it warrants, and I wish I could give it 100%, and so really only being able to make it a second thought, or a side project, it’s tough. It’s really difficult for me.
Kristi Faltorusso (24:27): I wish I could be responding faster to people. I wish I could be producing more for folks. I get a lot of outreach for, hey, can you share this, and can you do this, and can I see this deck, or what have you done here. I want to be able to do all of that faster and quicker, and have things that I can address at scale, but not being able to focus more time on it and actually be focused on it has been a challenge. It’s delayed my ability to push things out, right?
Kristi Faltorusso (24:53): I had intentions of getting the website out a little bit sooner. It’ll go live this month, and I’m excited that it will go live at the end of May, but I was trying to shoot for the end of March. So, I think the challenge is when you stretch yourself too thin you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do. You might end up letting yourself down a bit. So, that’s been the hardest thing for me is just the time allocation and focus on it.
Kristi Faltorusso (25:16): What I would say to other folks you’re going to run into is something similar. Whether it is even your full-time job if you’re starting a community you’re likely not starting with head count behind it. You’re probably asking one of your CSMs to help, someone from product to help, somebody from marketing to help, and guess what? All of those folks have full-time jobs, and s