Customer Success

24 Min Read

Podcast: Data-Driven Customer Success Teams

In Episode 13 of The inSide Scoop on Customer Success, we tackle a very important topic: Data-Driven Customer Teams. Listen in as our VP of Customer Success and podcast hostess with the mostess, Anika Zubair, talks to Pat Phelan, Chief Customer Officer at GoCardless.

Making sense of data isn’t an easy task for any manager, but how do you choose the most important metrics, what sort of KPIs should a company that has 70,000 customers be looking at, and how to stay on top of all that data? These are just some of the important questions that we’ll be covering in today’s podcast.

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:

  1. Connect with Pat Phelan on LinkedIn
  2. Looker
  3. Looker community
  4. Open Book of Customer Success

Anika Zubair (01:44): Welcome Pat to the podcast. I’m really excited to have you today. Before we get into today’s topic, can you please tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself, how you started in customer success and how you ended up as Chief Customer Officer at GoCardless?

Pat Phelan (02:01): Yeah, happy to. Great to be here, Anika. Thanks for asking me. So yeah, I’m Pat. I’m the Chief Customer Officer at GoCardless, as you mentioned. GoCardless is a recurring payments platform that operates on the bank to bank reel. So we help, gosh, over 70,000 customers now collect recurring payments from their customers around the globe. My journey in customer success, as I’ve said many times before, I was in customer success before it was a thing. I kind of started really in the on-premise software world, which gives an indication, I suppose, of how long I’ve been in the game. Started in sort of client relationship management, account management before we really knew that customer success was an actual concept. It was very much more on the commercially-oriented side of things and then really evolved into it and sort of had rules at IC level and for a second-line management into VP level, and ultimately ended up where I am now at GoCardless. Been with the company for two years now and loving every minute of it.

Anika Zubair (03:09): Awesome. Wow. 70,000 customers. We’re definitely going to talk a little bit more about how you’re handling that many customers at scale and how you’re collecting that data. But before we get into today’s topic, all around customer success teams and the data that they need, I thought it would be good for us to warm up, like in any good sport.

Pat Phelan (03:27): Absolutely. Yeah.

Anika Zubair (03:28): Let’s start with some warm-up questions. My first question for you is, are you an Apple or Google person?

Pat Phelan (03:36): Yeah, that’s an interesting one. I want to be Google, but I’m totally Apple. They’ve got me sucked into the ecosystem. I simply can’t get out anymore. I tried to get an Android about probably seven years ago and it was absolutely disastrous, couldn’t operate my life at all, was complaining about the graphics on the phone. They just looked crap compared to Apple. So yeah, I’ve succumbed. I’m actually in the process of buying just an obscene amount of Apple tech at the moment for the family. It’s kind of depressing how much of… I mean, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid now. So I definitely have to say I’m reluctantly completely an Apple person.

Anika Zubair (04:15): I love how they just get you in. They just hook you in.

Pat Phelan (04:19): It’s amazing. But it just shows you the value of… There’s a guy called Scott Galloway. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him. If you haven’t, he’s worth following. He calls it a rundle and Apple have this rundle recurring bundle that’s just impossible to break out of when you throw TV in there, your phone in there, your iOS, your music. Like it’s just, you can’t get rid of them. It’s impossible.

Anika Zubair (04:45): That’s the new SaaS, a rundle.

Pat Phelan (04:45): Absolutely. A rundle, yeah. Yeah. I really like it. Absolutely love it. I love the term, really resonated with me.

Anika Zubair (04:51): Yeah. That’s really great. It’s going to stick with me now too.

Pat Phelan (04:53): Yeah. Yeah.

Anika Zubair (04:53): Awesome. Next question, dog or cat?

Pat Phelan (04:56): Neither.

Anika Zubair (04:57): Oh, wow. Okay.

Pat Phelan (05:00): I’m not an animal person. It always gets weird looks from people. It’s amazing actually, how judgy people get when you say you just don’t like animals, as opposed to which one you like or don’t like. But yeah, I grew up with dogs and cats in Ireland. And yeah, it’s never done it for me at all. I’m fighting that fight here at the moment, constantly with a 12-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son who are literally at the point of doing PowerPoints to try to convince me to get a dog, but I still haven’t cracked. I still haven’t cracked.

Anika Zubair (05:31): I love that they put together a PowerPoint

Pat Phelan (05:32): Oh, yeah. I got a presentation two weeks ago downstairs. My daughter came down with her presentation. It was seven slides, very compelling. It finished with the quote “remember, a house is not a home without a pet”, which I thought was pretty impressive and when a seven-year-old and an eight-year-old and a 12-year-old say that to you, it wobbles you, but I stood firm. I stood firm.

Anika Zubair (05:58): It sounds like she has a really strong future in sales, if she’s closing with strong closing lines.

Pat Phelan (06:03): Do you know what, she’s pretty… I would say more probably the PR potentially the kind of marketing world, because she’s certainly locked on the emotive angle. That’s for sure. She did that naturally. That had nothing to do with me.

Anika Zubair (06:17): Oh, that’s too good.

Pat Phelan (06:19): I know. I know.

Anika Zubair (06:19): Awesome. One more before we jump into today’s topic. If you were stuck on a desert island, which three things would you bring with you, and why?

Pat Phelan (06:29): That’s a tricky one. Probably, being completely practical, a water desalinator probably just purely because-

Anika Zubair (06:37): That’s pretty practical.

Pat Phelan (06:38): My mind goes to survival. I think the second thing would have to be my golf clubs and there’s no rhyme or reason on a desert island other than I just wouldn’t be able to survive without some interaction with golf in some way, shape or form. I was going to say my family, but when I think about the consequences of that, it’s probably better that I didn’t bring them all. So I think the third one would be probably something around music, the ability to play it and listen to it to keep me sane.

Anika Zubair (07:11): Awesome. I was going to say, maybe it’s tough bringing all those kids without the dog or cat because that could drive you crazy.

Pat Phelan (07:17): Well, this is it. Yeah. Yeah. And even though it sounds like, oh, that’s very sweet to bring your family, conceptually taking them away from their life to survive on a desert island is probably not the best decision I could make.

Anika Zubair (07:29): Probably not. Awesome. And before we jump into today’s topic, what inspired you to work in customer success or get started in the customer field?

Pat Phelan (07:39): Yeah. Yeah, that’s really interesting. I wasn’t inspired. It was a journey. I never consciously made a decision to work in this industry. I was very much, I found myself in the industry because it aligned very well with my own natural talents, if I’m being totally frank with you. So it wasn’t necessarily something that I kind of woke up and thought, I’m desperate to be part of. I just actually found myself at every step in my career, going more and more towards that because I was just very good at it.

Pat Phelan (08:20): Again, I’ll play the Irish card here, I think it took a long time for me to acknowledge that these were actually skills that I had as opposed to just being good with people, if that makes sense, because the common preconception of Irish folks is we are very adaptable. We are pretty friendly people and we can engage with multiple types and different types of people at any time. But as soon as I realized it was something I was actually very good at and that I could leverage as a skill, then customer success really became, okay, this feels like the right world for me. So yeah, it was something that evolved over time rather than being a very explicit decision on my part.

Anika Zubair (09:06): Well, that’s a unique story as well. And I think it’s really awesome to hear everyone’s story about how to get into CS, but it’s nice that it naturally evolved for you and that it just seemed to fit with your personality type. And also what drives you and your behaviors-

Pat Phelan (09:18): Exactly.

Anika Zubair (09:18):… which is also really, really unique in CS, because I think you need to have certain behaviors to be able to be successful in customer success in the long run.

Pat Phelan (09:26): You do.

Anika Zubair (09:26): So glad you figured that one out.

Pat Phelan (09:29): Yeah. Yeah. By default, if nothing else.

Anika Zubair (09:32): Awesome. So today I want to talk more about data-driven customer teams. And I know you mentioned that you guys have 70,000 customers at GoCardless, and I think you have a pretty diverse customer success or customer team as well. And data is becoming more and more critical, more and more important as SaaS companies or any tech company scales. And I would love to hear from you, how did you guys actually start becoming more data-driven at GoCardless? And when do you think a company should start building data analytics into their customer team?

Pat Phelan (10:10): Yeah. Yeah. I kind of look at this from a couple of lenses. So if I look at the evolution of GoCardless, when I joined two years ago, we were a super analytical company. I mean, we had instances and environments that I’ve not seen before in any organization that I’ve ever worked with. We had product data that you literally had at the flip of a switch. We were using, I think it was Tableau at the time, but our actual product data and our usage data was the best I’ve ever seen. What we didn’t have was the commercial data lens. So if you think about the standard and the CS commercial data that most organizations would use, we didn’t know when customers renewed. We didn’t know how to apply product usage to a risk metric, for example. So there was a very clear delineation between product data and adoption data versus actually commercially impactful data. And that’s, I think the case in many organizations that I’ve seen, particularly ones that grow up around the product. Remember we started as a self-serve company, very much a long tail SMB type company that are moving into the enterprise.

Pat Phelan (11:32): So that was the initial kind of challenge for me when I came on board here, which was okay, we’re bringing together a customer team. That customer team comprises of customer success, onboarding and support, let’s say as the three core verticals. Each of those have different data requirements. None of those requirements basically live and breathe necessarily by adoption metrics alone. So there has to be different lenses on top of that. And I think that was where the first real challenge and opportunity was, how do we bring that data together outside of adoption, Plug adoption, obviously into it and usage into it and come out of it with the kind of metrics that I would classify as the north star, the ones that drive our decisions, the ones that drive the conversations and when a CSM logs in every morning, what are they actually looking at? Because there is the analysis paralysis kind of potential, obviously with data. And we were in a position where we were sometimes going down that path, too much data.

Pat Phelan (12:36): So the way I kind of operated when I came in was focus and simplification were the two kind of pillars of what I looked at. I feel like sometimes we can be like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to data, that all of a sudden you’ve got lots of it, so you just want more and more and more, and you want report after report, after report. And I’m guilty of that too. There’s lots of people that are guilty of that. And I think from that perspective-

Pat Phelan (13:03): Lots of people that are guilty of that. And I think, from that perspective, it’s one of those scenarios where you’ve got to be really specific, in terms of what you’re looking for. And be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve here. So, I think they were the initial pillars that we approached. So, when we went down that path, it became super clear as to what we actually need to see, and start to build the blocks, if you like.

Pat Phelan (13:28): From crawl, walk, run. 

Anika Zubair (13:31): It’s really interesting that you guys had product data first, because most would probably have commercial data-

Anika Zubair (13:37): Because, things that are captured in your CRM, and then obviously filtered down to your customer teams. But, it’s interesting that you had so much product data, and then the sales, or commercial data came next.

Anika Zubair (13:51):

And you mentioned that, that’s all now in one place, which is great, but what were some of the basic metrics that you first started looking at, on the commercial side to maybe either understand churn or upsells.

Pat Phelan (14:05):Yeah, I think the first thing we did, was put together a very clear customer journey. And the challenge I have in my role, is there isn’t all one north star metric in reality, there’s lots of lagging metrics and leading metrics, and you’ve got to keep an eye on all of them. So, the first thing I always try to do, is to build a customer journey and be really clear about the milestones as part of that journey. And then, once you know what the milestones are, identify, what are the data points, that you need in order to track against those milestones? So, there will be top of funnel milestones. And then, there’ll be, as I say, the end of funnel milestones. And end of funnel being, the traditional metrics, such as Churn Retention, Net Revenue Retention, Logo Retention, all of those things.

Pat Phelan (14:45): So, when I started out really, there was probably three things that I wanted to know. The first one, was how quickly are we onboarding our customers? That was the first metric that I cared about. Because, that accelerates everything else. And once you know how quickly you’re doing it, the next question is, how well are you doing it? So, in the onboarding phase, they were the two metrics that I obsessed over. So, time to value and the actual CSAT around that time to value launch metric, let’s say. So, if we know how fast we’re doing it, and we’re measuring that when it’s done, how good it was, that gives me a fairly decent sense that we’re doing something right, here. So, we had certain tools that were enabling us to do that, but not particularly well. So, we’ve undergone a massive overhaul of our onboarding tech stack, we’re actually trialing the pre-launch today.

Pat Phelan (15:34): So, very excited about where that’s going, because I feel we’re going to get a lot of value out of that. The second metric, from my perspective, I wanted to get a sense of some activity. And I know, it’s a very contentious topic, but I don’t believe in time tracking CSMs necessarily, because I don’t hire mid-market enterprise people to constantly spend their time in a CS piece of software. But, I do want to understand, what activities are we driving? And how regularly are we driving them? Because again, that will give me a good sense of, are we doing the right things? Or, are we just doing things? So, we launched and rolled out this concept of high-impact activities. So, we identified three activities ranging from QBRs to strategic engagement, to renewal conversation. And each engagement, if you like, would be classified under one of those lenses.

Pat Phelan (16:29): And then, we’re able to get some good metrics around the portfolio, in terms of what percentage of our premium customers have had a high impact activity in the last three months. So, that lets me see how regularly, or not we’re doing this. And then, the logic behind that then for me is that, that tells me, “Okay, if we’re not doing it regularly, are we staffed enough? Are the ratios leveraged too much?” And those areas. So, that was the second one. And then, the third one, was really around Risk and Churn Management. And I used the term Churn, I know it’s a negative and everyone says that, “We’re always negative in CS, we need to be more positive.” But, fundamentally the first thing any leader does when he comes into an organization usually, is to protect the base, right?

Pat Phelan (17:20): You need to understand how well do we understand the risk in our portfolio before we look at the upsell lens before we look at the expansion lens because I’ve seen too many times the net number hides stuff. If you’re looking at net revenue retention and you’re having a smashing up-sell quarter, the hole in the bucket could be ginormous, but it’s being covered by a strong upsell. I believe in the separation of those metrics, completely. They have to be completely separate. So, they’re the four, or five that we tackled first off the bat. And it was a journey. Obviously, our Salesforce instance needed to be completely overhauled, redone, we did it. But yeah, I think we’re on a very good trajectory now, we’ve gotten to a place where I think we’ve got good control and most importantly, we know where the, as I would classify the whispers are, before they become screams. So, we get that sense of getting ahead of the game a little bit.


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Anika Zubair (18:16): Yeah, I really liked that you mentioned those high-impact activities, because I totally believe in that as well. You shouldn’t just be doing something as a tick list item. You could definitely be doing something, to create impact and make sure you are driving outcomes and bringing value to your customers when you are having certain meetings, calls, yeah, QBRs, you name it.

Pat Phelan (18:36):


Anika Zubair (18:38): And in regards to those high impact metrics, what are some of those things that you are tracking right now, that are considered high impact?

Pat Phelan (18:47): Well, like I say, I mean, it evolves very much, depending on what the focus of the org needs to be. But initially, as I mentioned, there was about four that we started off with. Because again, going back to my point about simplicity and focus, I want everything that we do to be super, super laser-focused on something. And a customer outcome ideally, but if not a customer outcome, a problem that we’re trying to solve for, and then I want it to be utterly simplistic in terms of how we execute it. Because again, going back to, software is a good example, the more complex your instance, the less value you’re ever going to get out of it, because it’s just too cumbersome. So, the trade-off I had with my CSMs was, I’m going to ask very simple things from you folks, but the quid pro quo is that it gets done, right?

Pat Phelan (19:33):

And it’s accurately done. So, high-impact activities for us, we separated them out, in terms of, some of them commercial, some of them strategic. So, we had a standard QBR/ EBR session. We had renewal conversations, which we classified as high-impact activities. We separated renewal from upselling, so expansion conversations. And then, we encouraged strategic engagements or audits. We have some health audits that we do with our customers. And those four were classified as high impact. Now, there was a lot of other conversations that happened, that probably, traditionally would have been, “Bucketed as high impact.” But, they weren’t really.

Pat Phelan (20:14): A catch-up is not high impact in any way, shape or form. A monthly check-in or review is not high impact. I want to really just limit it to that. And it’s still a work in progress completely, but what we started to find was, the classification and the definition made the CSMs more focused and continue to do so, in terms of, “Okay, what about this engagement, is going to be the high impact?” Because, if it is a question, or if it is brought up in a team meeting, I need to be able to be very clear of what happened in that session.

Pat Phelan (20:47): And as we’ve evolved, as we’ve brought different things into the mix, we can add different things to that list of high-impact activities. So, at the moment, for example, we’ve just launched a new feature around open banking. That education of our customer is so critical right now. So, that’s the fifth high-impact activity. So, we’re tracking how many conversations are the CSMs having around open banking, specifically? So, that then encourages the CSMs to include open banking in the conversation, to surface it, to raise it and we set targets around it, so every quarter we review performance and they know, “Okay, well, 70% of all my portfolio need to have had an open banking conversation. That’s what I got to achieve.” So, they’re the core metrics. And obviously, as we evolve, we’ve added things like NPS. We’ve always had a very strong NPS program separately, but we’ve brought that into the CS world, as well.

Pat Phelan (21:44): So yeah, I feel pretty good, in terms of where we are from the core metrics. The big challenge Anika, is not about the metrics, but how it’s engaged and consumed. And we’ve done a lot of work around that with the CSMs, to make sure that they’ve got dashboards that are super operational, literally telling you, “These are the three things you need to care about today, now do them.” Or, that’s the next big iteration that we’re working through.

Anika Zubair (22:16): Yup, you’ve actually just segwayed into the next part of the conversation that I really wanted to highlight today, is it’s so important to actually leverage all that data. You just talked about five high-impact data points that you are tracking day-to-day. It’s really important that your CSMs are focused on these data pieces, but you need to be able to empower your CS team to do something with this data and make sure they’re making data-driven business decisions. So, curious, how you guys are going about doing this at GoCardless? It seems, you have a lot of data, all in different places. Did you make your data accessible in one place? Is there a downpour to CSM, looks like? What does it look like, when you have this many data points?

Pat Phelan (22:57): Yeah, so we’re broken up into multiple different teams. So, we have what we call, an enhanced and premium customer success engagement model, which is the more high touch. And then, we move into what we call essentials, which is the middle layer. And then, we have small business/ self-serve, which is the bulk of the long tail set. That’s probably about 55, 60,000 of our, of our 70,000 customers. So, there’s different data points for different functions. And what we’ve tried to do, is primarily over-index for, how do we make our CSMs lives more easy and more efficient? So, we’ve built out very, very expansive dashboards for our mid-market enterprise CSMs. And those dashboards are very, very focused on the operational metrics of their portfolio. So, it integrates product data, and we finally got that integrated, which is fantastic, because now product adoption and product activity, is part of the risk forecast and risk score that’s in their dashboard.

Pat Phelan (23:54): So, we use Looker, as our BI for our dashboards. And the great thing about Looker in my mind, is that it’s hugely malleable and very alert-driven as well. So, if we want to set alerts, we can, and the CSMs can do it themselves as well. So, we’ve gone down that path from a CSM high touch perspective, and it’s worked very well, because obviously that then rolls up into management, and that then rolls up into me, so I can share it with execs and we can see multiple views. And the beauty about the dashboard, is it can include multiple lenses from renewal to churn, to upsell propensity. And then, as you go down the layers if you like, into the low touch digital world, the dashboards obviously, become a lot more reactive than proactive, but because we have such expensive product data, we’ve been able to build algorithms that identified for example, propensity to upsell, at scale.

Pat Phelan (24:57): So, if a customer has repeatedly gone over their commitment in the last three months, it flags that customer to the scale CSM and the scale AE, as a customer who has a high propensity to upsell and they engage immediately, and that flow is pretty seamless. So, what we’ve tried to do there, is build a model that really has minimal human interaction, as much as we can. But, at the same time, be there, as an oversight and governance for the activities we want to drive, from renewal to upsell and all those areas. So, data is the concept and the quality of data that we’ve tried to drive in GoCardless, certainly in the CSM team is, I like to think, pretty advanced. But, the two drivers of that I would say, is number one, the governance around what it is you’re actually trying to measure and being super clear about that. And that goes back to my point about the customer journey, making very, very clear what are you…

Pat Phelan (26:03): Back to my point about the customer journey, making very, very clear. What are you actually trying to get out of this? The second aspect is the consumption of that data that it’s not just for managers, for example, it’s not just to make you or me feel good that stuff’s happening. It has to be with the CSM lens and by default the customer lens primarily, and then work back from that. And then the third one for me was the fact that I had operations is a non-negotiable as a role for me and always has been. I’ve always hired into that role. Probably my first hire in every job I’ve ever had has been an analyst or an operations manager. Yeah, not that I can’t say how critical that role is in every organization.

Anika Zubair (26:48): Yeah, I totally agree. I’ve recently hired a CS operations manager and it’s a game-changer and I think it’s an underutilized role, especially in a PS organization. And I think leveraging the data that we were just talking about is super key and having someone to be there, to leverage it, to make sure there’s data accuracy, to really look at the reports regularly and making sure they are being utilized correctly. And are they even the correct data points? And like you said, it shouldn’t be a vanity thing for any manager or VP director, head of CS. It should be used data that is used by the actual CSM on a day-to-day basis which is so critical when you are-

Pat Phelan (27:29): But it’s interesting how much I see that overlooked. And I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience on [inaudible 00:27:34] it. I see a lot out on LinkedIn and social and so much of it is geared towards that level, the manager level, the exec level, the control aspect of it, as opposed to the actual efficiency from a frontline CSM perspective. And I think the leaders that do that will always get more buy-in to this kind of thing, because if you’re not asking your CSMs, what do they need to see in order to be successful before you implement stuff like this, I think you’re going to die a death and it is going to be vanity and it will be a box ticker it’ll make you feel good because you’ve got it, but it will never have the full impact it can have.

Anika Zubair (28:18): Yeah and it’s so important to make sure you are building something that is being used, utilized, and also driving value to their day-to-day. All these dashboards sound amazing. And I’m sure they’re brilliant, but are they actually helping your CSMs-

Pat Phelan (28:33): Exactly.

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Anika Zubair (28:33): … get things done every single day? Are they actually moving the needle when it comes to churn prediction or possible product adoption if your customer is doing really, really well?

Pat Phelan (28:42): Exactly.

Anika Zubair (28:43): So all of that’s so important to reiterate and also revisit as you are building out any sort of dashboard or pulling in any sort of data fields. In regards to hiring people though, for these customer teams, it sounds like you guys are very data-driven, which I think a lot of teams want to be. Would you rather hire someone that has already that data mindset, or do you think it’s something that’s coachable, something that you can train someone on to be data-driven?

Pat Phelan (29:12): I think the former is the approach I would take. I think it’s very hard to train somebody to be data-driven. You can train them to apply data in through the lenses of different kind of pieces of software. I’ve had many people who have never used Salesforce, have never used Looker, have never used Gainsight but have learned to really, really quickly, but because they were data-driven. So I think the two things I look for, probably three things, actually.

Pat Phelan (29:47): The first one is I want them to be data native. I want them to be the kind of people who thrive in front of a spreadsheet and can see stuff like beautiful mind