Self-service customer support

21 Min Read

Scaling Customer Success using Tech Touch: Arbor Education

It’s already Episode 7 of The inSide Scoop, and this week we’re talking scaling Customer Success using tech touch tools. Join me for a conversation with Sonia Leighton, Chief of Customer Success at Arbor Education to find out how employing tech touch tools like community has helped them with the digital transformation of their CS function.

Don’t want to listen this time? Your wish is our command. We’ve included a transcript of the conversation below. Don’t forget to follow The inSide Scoop over on Spotify


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Show Notes + Links:

  1. Connect with Sonia on LinkedIn
  2. Sonia’s two book recommendations: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Customer Education: Why Smart Companies Profit by Making Customers Smarter
  3. Google Keep keeps Sonia on track and is her favorite tool
  4. Finally, check out the Monzo community for inspiration!

Dani Juson (00:07):

Today we’re talking to Sonia Leighton, Chief of Customer Success at Arbor Education

Arbor’s cloud-based MIS (or Management Information System) is the tool of choice for primary, secondary and special schools across the UK, bringing administrative tasks and data into one place for their teams. 

Over the past 12 months, the Customer Success team at Arbor have been scaling fast, so today we’re talking to Sonia about how they’ve utilized tech touch tools like community to facilitate their digital transformation. 

Sonia has been working as a senior leader in Customer Success for the last 20 years and she’s spent the last 6 years specifically in SaaS. 

She tells me she loves tea, curry and family (although not necessarily in that order!). A true Brit!

Dani Juson (01:09):

Welcome. Great to have you here today, Sonia—I’m glad to be chatting to you on this sunny afternoon! You’re in the UK, I’m in Amsterdam, but we’re both enjoying the weather here. How are you doing?

Dani Juson (01:21):

Oh, wow. It’s beautiful, yeah, but like we were saying, it’s a shame we can’t enjoy it a little bit more by being outside, but yeah, it’s fantastic. Long may it continue!

Dani Juson (01:30):

I know. I know. We’ve got to look for the positives haven’t we? We’ve all had a pretty weird few months, so it’s nice to have the sun shining.

Sonia Leighton (01:38):

That’s very true.

Dani Juson (01:40):

So tell us a bit Sonia, and introduce yourself to our listeners. Who are you and what brings you here today, to the inSided podcast?

Sonia Leighton (01:50):

Well, my name’s Sonia Leighton; I’m the Chief of Customer Success at Arbor Education over here in the UK. A little bit about me… I’ve been working in tech for about 20 years—always in the Customer Success space—although many years ago, it wasn’t called Customer Success! I think it’s had a few different face changes over the years! I remember it being called service delivery many years back. So that was really where I started. I started in some of the big tech firms, such as BT Consulting, O2, VocaLink in the UK and, yeah, I kind of learnt my craft there—always with an eye on making the customer experience as positive as possible, and managing large operational teams.

And I made a decision that I wanted to jump out of the corporate world about six years ago now. And I did that because I’d been working really closely with customers that were small to medium enterprise, size wise. And I actually loved working with them. You could really see the bottom line. I thought: “I actually want to work for an SME or an SMB”. So yeah, I took the leap out of big corporate land and went and joined a SaaS business and I’ve never looked back! It’s a thrilling ride, shall we say!

Dani Juson (03:20):

It is, it is! Things move fast in the SaaS world, that’s for sure!

Sonia Leighton (03:23):

So for the last five or six years I’ve been heading up either service delivery teams or Customer Success teams. And in lots of different sectors as well, which is interesting because you always have to turn your hand very quickly to get to grips with new sets of customers and their needs and wants.

Dani Juson (03:45):

Wow. It sounds like you’ve got quite broad experience, then!

Sonia Leighton (03:49):

Yeah, but that means I’m showing my age!

Dani Juson (03:54):

Nothing wrong with that! So, tell us a bit about Arbor Education. What are you guys all about?

Sonia Leighton (04:00):

We provide a management information system (MIS) to schools within England, and what that management information system does: It’s a system basically for them to take in attendance, behavior information, exam data, pupil record information—everything really, that makes the school tick, would sit within the MIS. So that’s what we provide: A cloud based solution to schools in the UK. We’ve got just over a thousand schools and we’re growing extremely quickly. Actually we’re doing really well.

Dani Juson (04:38):

Oh, that’s brilliant. So you’ve been growing quickly and as a result you have had to scale pretty quickly to service all of those customers. So you recently started an online community, and I know you’ve been working with a number of different kinds of strategies to scale your tech touch approach. Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for community came from and why you decided to go that route?

Sonia Leighton (05:09):

Yeah. I’ll first of all touch on the whole concept of scaling. It’s interesting. Somebody at my level, my role, tends to come in at a certain point in a SaaS lifecycle. It’s usually four to five years into the startup journey, where they realize that scaling is now needed and they need somebody to come in and oversee that, and help the organization grow in a scalable way. And I think that’s an important point in time that a lot of SaaS businesses go through. So often I’ll come in at that point. And when it comes to the tech experience that I would normally start looking at when I join a business, I would be thinking about things around—depending on the business, but where I am at the moment—it’s very much about customer education.

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Sonia Leighton (06:05):

So for Arbor, and our schools using the management information system… It’s a vast, powerful tool and there’s a lot for our schools to get to grips with. So the emphasis is very much on making sure that the customer has the information at their fingertips on how best to use the tool set. So that was really the challenge for me: “Okay, how can we scale that?” Because this is not… You can’t just feed them a one pager and away they go… It’s not a click and play piece of software that you might get in some SaaS industries. This is a big beast! So the community part of it is super, super important because if I tie everything back to education and knowledge—the schools, they’ve been using management information systems for a long, long time, and they know how to use it best within their setting.

So I just feel that it’s their best place to discuss with each other, how to get the best out of the MIS. And a community can really help drive that knowledge. It’s of course a good way to ensure that your support team is not overrun as well, and enable customers to see that there’s somebody else out there that’s using the system and hook them up so they can talk to each other about best practice. So that’s huge for us in terms of being able to scale, but it’s also been really important for referenceability. That’s really important in the industry that we’re in. Schools talk to schools. They’re very close knit, especially in their local regions. And if they’re having a good experience on your system, they’re very, very likely to go and speak to the school down the road about it, and then they will buy Arbor… So referenceability is very, very important to us. Community is the driving force behind enabling something like that as well.

Dani Juson (08:06):

Okay, fantastic. When did you guys start with your community then?

Sonia Leighton (08:12):

So, it was only in December actually that we kicked off, that we launched our online community and it’s been a really, really big success. There’s more room for growth; there’s no two ways about it. I would say that we spent maybe two to three months—maybe a little bit longer—planning the launch. So we really did take time and consideration, and put a lot of time and effort into making sure that the launch was well planned and well resourced as well, because we knew that we weren’t just going to be able to launch a community and leave it to do its own thing. That’s a common misconception that people have. We actually went so far as recruiting dedicated people who are going to be looking after the community and helping it thrive and grow. They do have other responsibilities, but that was one of their primary goals.

So subsequently, now in June, we’ve got over 50% of our schools signed up and registered on our online community, which is pretty good actually. Now we are starting to think about things like targets around threads and making sure that the active user membership is thriving now. Kind of moving into the next phase a little bit already, but I mean, I think we’ve got a little bit more legwork to do with our community around making sure that people come back to it regularly for advice and guidance. So I think probably we’ll still have an element of high touch work that we do with our community to keep it moving throughout the course of this year.

Dani Juson (10:02):

Okay. It sounds like you’re already in a very good place—only six months in—with your membership base. It’s now around those engagement strategies and how you can embed the community into the entire way of working for your customers, so that it becomes not just an afterthought when they’re looking for advice or troubleshooting, for example. Why do you think then that these tools like community—these low touch, technology touch tools—are so vital when it comes to an organization that is at that scaling stage that you mentioned earlier (in terms of customer success maturity)?

Sonia Leighton (10:47):

I think once you realize you’re in that scaling phase, what you probably have been doing up to that point is very personalized, high touch communication and engagement with your customers, and it’s very much down to individual contribution at that level. And as soon as you realize you’re gonna need to scale, you start needing to think about things like consistency: “How do we get a consistent approach, a consistent message across to our customers?” And of course you can’t really do that very well without good technology that assists behind it. So I think that’s really important. So consistency is number one and, of course, efficiency does come into play. It has to. To continue in that high touch, personalized model for all your users just becomes untenable. And so then you have to start thinking about things like: tiering your base, and creating a tech touch tier and maybe keeping your personalized touch for your very, very top tier base.

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It’s an interesting journey to go through, because joining organizations that are scaling are terrified when someone comes in and says, “Okay, we’re not going to do all these lovely things we were doing for this group of customers anymore. We’re going to offer them this stuff instead, which is actually great, but it’s there for them to absorb.” So I’m talking about things like a lot of good help center articles, maybe learning journeys, community—all that kind of stuff.

Dani Juson (12:27):

A lot of self-service?

Sonia Leighton (12:28):

Yeah, exactly. And then they’ve got professional services, so you’re still offering choice, right? I think it’s really important to always mention that, but most people are terrified by it. And then when you go ahead and implement it, and your NPS scores are still coming back as good, as positive, you feel vindicated! “It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, please don’t worry!”

Dani Juson (12:52):

And I guess there are also benefits and practicalities that tech touch and tech tools—especially community—bring, that you actually can’t achieve sometimes with a high touch model. You know, bringing the users together in a community, in that way so that they can actually connect with peers; that peer-to-peer element… Of course it has all those fantastic efficiency benefits for you guys, but those are also benefits for the users and customers themselves that they couldn’t get if you were sticking to an original and non-scalable high touch model. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t think as much about. But it’s interesting—you mentioned considering tiering the base and offering those different levels of support, you know: More self-service for your freemium tier and then tiering that up. And if I understand correctly, you guys have actually built this into a productized model, right, at Arbor? So your customer success offering is a service model if I understand correctly?

Sonia Leighton (14:01):

That’s right. That was a conscious decision we made. Again, it’s all about a point in time. So when you’re not ready to scale, like I said before, the concept of a Customer Success Manager is that you wear so many different hats and you’re there to do so many different things. You might be onboarding one day, you might be managing an account the next day, and you might even be doing support, you know?! And some training as well thrown in… You are everything! As soon as you start to scale that, one: Actually it becomes very difficult to recruit people who can wear that many hats. They are really difficult people to find—very much so—but also, you start to realize that what the customer wants is possibly best-of-breed for each of those particular areas.

So we made a conscious decision that whilst of course, Customer Success is at the heart of what we want to do, it doesn’t mean to say that you need to give it all away for free, right? This was a difficult message for people to absorb, but it comes back for me again, about choice—you offer customer success through digital routes. Like I said, your community, your help center, your e-learning, lots of blogs, that kind of thing. And you also offer a suite of professional services to wrap around that, if customers want to top-up in terms of things like additional training services. But also even buying the services of a Customer Success Manager, who’s got good knowledge of the system and is tightly coupled with you. The thing that I’ve found very interesting, working in education, where the system is so deep and involved is where do you draw that line between a Customer Success Manager, and the value they can bring, and what is training?

And that’s a conversation we’ve had an awful lot. And I became a big advocate of actually: Training is chargeable, unless it’s done through scalable webinars and things like that—that’s different. So what we’ve done is we’ve created a digital customer success channel that does exactly that: It’s there to run education programs at scale, which customers can dial into and absorb and join and ask questions, but they’re part of a wider community and group, right? And again, we can do that with our online community. In fact, the digital customer success managers are the same people who are in our online community. And they also do all sorts of webinars as well—education webinars. And then, if customers want to buy training on-site, or one-to-one remote training (obviously nowadays it’s remote!) they can do that. I just think it’s very important to make the distinction between the two.

Dani Juson (17:07):

Very interesting approach. And I’ll be honest, it’s not one that I’ve come across that often. And I can imagine that it also really depends on your industry.

Sonia Leighton (17:16):


Dani Juson (17:17):

As you mentioned, the MIS that you guys offer is clearly a pretty complex tool, and I can imagine that for SaaS platforms and SaaS products that maybe are in more commercial industries where tools are a little bit more streamlined or straightforward, I can imagine taking that approach would probably be a bit more controversial. So it’s interesting to hear the way that you guys tackle that. Do you see any impact from the way that you’ve structured that, in terms of retention?

Sonia Leighton (17:57):

Well, what I found is that by saying to a customer: “Look, you can either buy training or take the digital offerings that we have available” is they get a trainer who is dedicated to be an expert in that product, and the NPS that we’re getting back around the training is phenomenal. So actually it’s having a very positive effect. And I’m also a big believer in saying ‘never give value away’. And I think it’s really true. The customer will value the training they’ve purchased more over the one that they get for free—because they might just be turning up to the free stuff, not really thinking about what they might want to get out of it. But if you apply the training, you will really be like: “Okay, I want to get X, Y, and Z out of this; I want to make sure I get that.”

Dani Juson (18:44):

It’s a true point. I think all of us can probably think back to a time in our personal lives, as well as in our business lives where we’ve maybe valued something or cared more… It’s like, do you turn up to the gym, because you’ve got a gym membership? Sometimes you don’t! Have you paid through the nose for a personal trainer? Then you go, right?! You turn up!

Sonia Leighton (19:09):

Yeah, exactly! That’s a really good analogy!

Dani Juson (19:14):

I understand where you’re coming from there. I’m just super curious to know, if for those customers that don’t make that choice, those ones that do decide that self-service is the route they want to take and maybe the investment is not right for them, for the additional professional services… Do you feel—or do you see in the data—that that comes back to bite you later?

Sonia Leighton (19:40):

No, we haven’t, and the reason why is because we tiered the base, right? So we advocate a digital journey for the right users, if that makes sense. So if you were a top tier organization with multiple key stakeholders and a whole boat of complexity and your onboarding was going to take six months, we wouldn’t necessarily go: “Hey, here’s a load of digital stuff!” They would be there as supplementary to the services that they would need to become successful. So, actually yeah—I should point out that this is done with mapped out user journeys in mind.

Dani Juson (20:20):

Right, so the key is really in segmenting the base before you make those different offerings to make sure that you’re not enabling customers to essentially make the wrong choice for them and then not see success with the product which is of course not what you want in the long run. It’s nice to hear about this.

I’m also really interested to learn a bit more about your community, which I think you’re running on Zendesk right now?

Sonia Leighton (20:51):

We currently run the community on Zendesk, yeah. And one of the reasons we did that is that we use Zendesk as our main ticketing system and we drive our help center from it, and it was a natural organic next step to do that on there and just get things moving really. Whilst we’re finding our feet with community anyway.

Dani Juson (21:14):

That makes sense. Okay. And how does it play into the organization cross-functionally? Obviously you guys from a CS perspective clearly own this. But how is it embedded? Does marketing play a role, do you use it for product feedback processes or anything like this? Or is it really purely a success and a support tool?

Sonia Leighton (21:39):

Yeah, this is a really good point. And it’s been an eye opener for us to realize that it cannot just sit within Customer Success! And I think that was probably an early mistake that we made. I mean, we’ve always had product feedback run through the online community and go straight into the Product team, but that’s different to having the Product team actively engaged in the community; having their own section and fostering it and growing and nurturing it. And so we are now kicking off a voice of the customer program, where we’re bringing together Marketing, Product, Account Management and Customer Success to think about: What content do we want to serve up in the community? What do we want to talk about? I think that’s going to be a big game changer for us.

Sonia Leighton (22:30):

From a marketing perspective, the feedback we get around the support that we provide within Arbor is fantastic, it really is. It’s one of the best in class NPS and CSAT results that I’ve seen in my career. And we don’t necessarily leverage it from a Marketing perspective as a ‘thing’. So this is something that we’re starting to think about: How do we brand our community? How do we brand our help center, and all the support that we provide, so it becomes almost like a product in its own right? But not one you’ll pay for, don’t worry!

Dani Juson (23:02):

Haha! You’re gonna make me pay for everything, Sonia!

Dani Juson (23:09):

It’s such valuable brand and advocacy, for sure. And it does sound like you guys have a pretty robust, structured set-up for how you’re approaching this. As you said, even though as you mentioned yourself, you’re kind of dipping your toes into community, despite that you’ve also approached it in a really structured and well thought out way, which I think is very interesting for our listeners to take some inspiration from, so I really appreciate you sharing that.

Dani Juson (23:45):

I do have another question for you before we move over into our lightning round. Obviously your community is pretty new, but you’ve done a great job of getting your existing customer base on there. I’m wondering if you could pick out one piece of advice that you would give to other Customer Success teams that are looking to either grow a community initially, or stimulate stronger engagement within their community, what would you tell people? What would be the go-to piece of advice you’d like to share?

Sonia Leighton (24:27):

I think there are a few things that I’ve mentioned; I’ll just recap on a couple of them. So absolutely make sure you’ve got some dedicated resources to kick-off the community journey and plan it well—your launch. Make sure that person’s tenacious! You’ve gotta keep at it! And I think definitely bring in wider key stakeholders from your business into owning parts of that community so that they’ve got a vested interest in bringing part of it to life, as well, definitely. And then the third thing is—I mean, yes, we’ve built our community on the help desk tool that we use right now—but I would think about the actual system, the platform that you’re going to build it on, because I think pretty quickly, as these things start to become successful, you will start and then think and consider: Okay, is the platform we’re on right for us? Can it do all the bells and whistles things that we now need it to do to take it to the next level?

Dani Juson (25:37):

It’s the scaling story all over again, isn’t it? But for your tooling this time.

Sonia Leighton (25:43):

That’s it!

Dani Juson (25:43):

Well you know where inSided are when you need us 😉 

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Alright, so let’s jump on over then to the lightning round. These are a little bit more general—not so community specific—I’m just keen to pick your brain really. So you’ve got wide range of expertise, you’ve got some great experience behind you and I’d love if you could share for all the CS practitioners out there listening to The inSide Scoop, if you could pick out one skill that you think is really vital that Customer Success managers, Customer Success leaders need to possess and need to continually work on, what would that be?

Sonia Leighton (26:25):

Hmm. I think at an individual level I would definitely always advocate working on your key stakeholder management. That’s really, really important when you’re managing customers, because people kind of talk about it but then they’re not necessarily always sure how to do it. So I would definitely advise maybe going on some good training around stakeholder management. It can really change how you think about your accounts, how you engage with them, who you target to speak to, when, and all that kind of stuff. So on an individual level that’s really very, very important. 

If you are a leader in Customer Success, think about how you can scale things. And that comes back to that question—which works at both an individual level and a CS leader level—think about giving value away. Don’t ever give value away! So in your conversations with your key stakeholders always have that in the back of your mind. I was given some really good advice a long time ago… Relationships work when it’s give and take on both sides. I think people in ‘customer land’ feel like they’re the ones that should do all the giving and actually relationships work best when people are meeting in the middle.

Dani Juson (27:52):

I guess it stems from the ‘support’ mentality, you know…

Sonia Leighton (27:55):

It does, yeah! “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

Dani Juson (28:00):

And maybe in Britain we’re the worst for that! We do tend to apologize for everything. It’s a good point that you make there. It’s about collaboration, isn’t it?

Sonia Leighton (28:16):

Yes, very much so! Let’s always aim for a win-win.

Dani Juson (28:22):

Nice. And are there any educational resources, tools, associations, podcasts; things that you would recommend?

Sonia Leighton (28:30):

Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is amazing. I found it quite an inspirational read, and you can get it as an audio book as well. I think that’s a really good all-rounder… Anybody who’s dealing with people should read that one. 

At the moment I’m also reading a book on customer education— which I feel is a bit of a new term that’s floating about—but it’s really pertinent to what we do within our sector and what we’re trying to do at Arbor as well.

Dani Juson (29:13):

Okay. Interesting! What’s the book called?

Sonia Leighton (29:16):

It’s called Customer Education: Why Smart Companies Profit by Making Customers Smarter, and it’s by Adam Avramescu.