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How to Build a SaaS Unicorn with Customer Success at the Core


Dave Blake, Founder/CEO, ClientSuccess, sat down with Ryan Smith, Founder/CEO, Qualtrics, for a fireside chat to kick of the CS100 Summit in Park City, Utah, September, 13, 2016. Ryan started Qualtrics in his basement in 2002, and has since grown it into a software leader with a track record of success with over 90,000 clients and 1,200 employees across three continents. Ryan and Dave discussed Qualtrics’ amazing growth, Ryan’s opinions on customer success, as well as a surprise showing of solidarity for a charity close to Ryan’s heart.

Watch the CS100 summit presentation with Ryan Smith below:

An Introduction to Qualtrics

Dave and Ryan, both leaders in their respective fields, have known each other for quite a while. Dave kicked off the conversation by asking Ryan to describe the Qualtrics background and his experience getting the company off of the ground. Founded in the shadow of the dotcom bust, Qualtrics set out to give academics access to an immense amount of data with minimal effort. Ryan stressed that although they only did one thing, they did it extremely well. “There was no room for services in the beginning,” Ryan said, matter of factly. This meant that since there was no money for a services team and no bandwidth to support clients, the Qualtrics team (still in the basement at this point) relied on an exceptional platform, one that wouldn’t cause any problems for customers. It worked, and even now, 15 years later, their admired by SaaS leaders around the world.

When the topic turned to ‘the good old days’, Ryan took the opportunity to reflect on the days as a growing company. “You shouldn’t want to go backwards,” he said to the CS100 crowd. Growing and scaling a company can be frightening to those who are worried about a changing culture but, as Ryan said, this is a good thing. Cultures should change, just as teams change. As your customer base grows, so does your mission. This is how Qualtrics grew out of academia and into global insights.

As such, Qualtrics grew from managing data into managing the entire experience. Ryan listed off three goals, however, that have stayed consistent throughout:

  • Predict: This most closely aligns with the a research component. Companies should be able to accurately predict how customers will react to certain products or announcements.
  • Deliver: Here is where your employees come into play. How are your customers interacting with your team? How can these interactions be improved?
  • React: How is your team responding to customers? This step takes into account the response and follow up of customer encounters.

These goals fit into the Qualtrics culture: one that’s focused squarely on the customer. The entire team, Ryan told the crowd, is focused on helping clients reach their goals. One person doesn’t control a company’s culture. It’s a living, breathing things that grows and changes with a company.

The Customer Experience vs. Customer Success

Laying the framework for what would go on to become a bit of a running debate at CS100, Dave asked Ryan for his opinion on the value of NPS scores. “They’re great,” Ryan replied. “But they shouldn’t be the only metric.” Ryan stressed the importance of being able to track and measure these customer success metrics in-house, without outsourcing to a third party company. This makes for a strong customer success organization, when everyone can predict how clients are feeling and reacting without having to run a survey or crunch some numbers.

When talking about customer success as a function, Ryan mentioned that this is definitely an industry that has grown over the past decade or so, and companies like ClientSuccess and Qualtrics are tasked with building the models and setting the benchmarks. “You can’t make up for a bad customer experience,” Ryan said, echoing a sentiment that was surely shared by all of the customer success leaders in the crowd. At Qualtrics, where the entire organization is dedicated to serving customers, CSMs serve as client advocates, providing sales and engineering teams with neutral opinions on client needs.

A Culture of Giving Back

In solidarity with Ryan and Qualtrics, Dave ended the conversation by making a donation to the Qualtrics charity, Five for the Fight, an organization that supports cancer research and treatment in Utah. Ryan started the conference off with a bang and gave the CS100 crowd an insider’s look at building a winning customer culture from startup to unicorn.

Download the full “Customer Success as a Culture” eBook series:

Customer Success as a Culture: Customer Success Leaders Edition

Customer Success as a Culture: Sales Leaders Edition

Customer Success as a Culture: Marketing Leaders Edition

Customer Success as a Culture: Product Leaders Edition

Learn more about how ClientSuccess can help your company develop a strong customer success methodology and strategy with easy-to-use customer success software by requesting a 30-minute demo.

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