Brainshark B-B Chief Customer Officer Diane Gordon – CB42

Episode Overview

Diane has an interesting background for a CCO — she actually began as a technical writer. One of the more interesting aspects of this discussion is about the skill development necessary to grow into a customer-facing role — and how that professional journey can really start from anywhere.

About Diane

Jeanne Bliss Diane GordonDiane has been working since the early 1980s, serving in a number of transformative customer experience roles. She was SVP of Worldwide Customer Solutions at Endeca, SVP of Services and Support at Enterprise Mobile, Chief Customer Officer at Bullhorn, and now CCO of Brainshark (following a stint as SVP, Customer Care) at the same company. Brainshark is a sales enablement and product suite company in Massachusetts; their customer experience efforts were profiled in Forbes recently.

As you’ll see in this episode, though, her beginnings emanate from a very different background than most.


A Tech Writer As A Customer Foundation

It might seem counter-intuitive in some ways, but Diane believes that starting out as a technical writer was the basis of her eventual customer-driven work. As a technical writer, she had to put herself in the shoes of others (often clients/customers) in terms of explaining a process end-to-end and exposing the pain points. That type of work gives you an unique perspective on how customers think, which is unfortunately often shrouded internally at companies by how internal stakeholders think.

Diane shifted from technical writing to consulting for six years or so, and developed a deep technical background. She’s extremely detail-oriented but high in empathy (“If I notice someone is out of water at a meeting, I want to go get that person some water”), and those particular personality traits drove her towards service. “You have to have the DNA of truly caring what the other person is thinking or feeling,” she admits.

A lot of her work pre-Endeca was pre-SAS, meaning customers bought once and you (the company) made their money. Customer experience was still about convincing customers to buy (once) and then pay for maintenance (recurring). Her Endeca work started when the company, later acquired by Oracle, was into its first round of renewals. The company was concerned that customers would say “No one’s spoken to me since I bought,” and she came on board to develop her first true customer experience project. Since then, that type of work has been her cornerstone/focus.

The Evolution Of Her Brainshark Role

Over time, Brainshark evolved into a role of creating great content to train salespeople. Customers would buy it, thinking it was a “cool tool,” but then they would be called for renewal — and they’d say “Oh, that was cool, and I used it to build one thing, but then I didn’t…” Their renewal rate, as a result, was fairly low. This was one of the challenges she was initially brought on to address. Her core question quickly became:

What aren’t we doing around customer experience?

Once the focus became that question, her title changed to CCO.

How Did She Make The Case For A Role Change?

“Simply put, I asked for it,” she admits. “It was important that our customers understood we were taking customer experience very seriously.” The CCO title has a greater meaning that “Head of PS” or “Head of Services.”

Diane also wanted to focus on building out a great employee culture, but believed that was out of scope with a “Head of Services” title. That’s part of how she argued for, and defined, her broader title.

Proving The Impact

Being data-driven is key; Diane believes being a tech writer helped her with this as well.

Renewal rates had to change over time to show impact. If decreased time of implementation directly led to increased renewal rates, her concepts were working. Similarly (longer-term), if employee turnover declines and renewals increase, then there was a sustainable connection there.

All these correlations and impacts helped her secure the broader role. “Often, organizations don’t know where to put these roles, and they just think it should go to someone who really wants it,” she admits.

The First 3-5 Months

Low renewal rate was her first killer issue.

Because Brainshark has been around 17 years, they have a huge renewal book of business. Every percentage point makes a major difference in the annual numbers.

“I had real data and anecdotal customer data that customers really liked Brainshark,” she says. “So I had to drill down into why these customers were leaving.” She found two major reasons:

  • Tiny/going out of business or had been acquired (business change)
  • Customers weren’t using it (it wasn’t a part of their behavior)

When they got into the value discussion, they realized they had to end every implementation by changing one process; in other words, they needed to know how a customer intended to use their product to change an existing process. The sales cycle, implementation, and post-implementation had to focus on “Here are three things you believe will improve in your business because of our product.”

The customers would agree, and provide benchmarks. Customer success managers could then measure that over time — i.e. “Oh, you did cut on-boarding time in half.”

In sum: clarify what value means in the beginning stages, and it’s easier to track said value in the later stages.

What Does Providing A Great Experience Look Like?

Diane blogs on these concepts, actually. Here’s one example. All the posts are on her LinkedIn.

She calls her approach “Big CX.” In their first few meetings, they tried to answer this question: “A customer has a great experience when…?” The goal was for Brainshark, but it ended up becoming generic to many customer experiences.

One aspect they came to quickly was this one: “Customers have a great experience when they think the employees like working there.” (Think of the fast food industry.) This concept helped her get a buy-in on culture.

The five tenets of a great customer experience, in Diane’s view, are:

  • Relationship is mutually beneficial
  • Customers feel valued/respected
  • They believe doing business with you is easy
  • Sense that employees love working there (above)
  • Feeling that they (the customer) are part of a strong community, i.e. “I love driving this type of car”

That last bullet point speaks to the idea of “tribes,” and that’s where Diane says her team still needs to drive the work forward.

Quarterly, Diane’s team uses a CX dashboard to measure progress against these five pillars. That drives her funding resource “asks” of the rest of the leadership team.

Examples Of The Above

  • Customers always have ideas: Every software company deals with this. But oftentimes, when customers tell a salesperson an idea for the product, it goes into a black hole. Diane created a group that was tasked with getting back to customers on their feedback. The best policy was honesty; if Brainshark had no desire to add “New Feature No. 1,” they would tell the customer that directly.
  • Transactional Surveys: Brainshark implemented them at three major touchpoints: post-sale, post-implementation, and post-renewal. They were a bit scared of “survey overload,” but haven’t seen that yet. One of the big things they’ve seen, though, is customers thinking each stage isn’t talking to each other. This has led to internal organizational improvements.

Diane’s Team Composition

Brainshark has about 300 employees, with customer care being about 100 of those employees. There are professional services teams, an in-house agency, customer success (aligned with regional sales organizations), learning/development, and more. The customer experience work directly sits under Diane, but is driven by cross-functional collaboration around the whole organization.

Brainshark has about 2,500 customers, ranging from small training organizations to GE. 20% is “mom and pop” (toughest on churn), and half the Fortune 100 is counted as customers.

“What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then”

I ask all my guests this one. Diane went with:

  • Wish that I’d understood it’s not enough for customers to be happy: They still may not renew, or not pay for maintenance.
  • Things related to customer satisfaction cannot just be related to a CX department: It’s the responsibility of everyone.
  • Whole company must understand customer use cases: That starts with a discussion of value. But if you go talk to Engineering about customer value measurements, it’s like speaking a different language. The thinking needs to move from focused (silos) to broader looks at “Why are we doing this work?”
  • This role is new: No books, conferences, podcasts, trade shows, etc. about a decade ago. The network online and in-person today is an astounding array of resources. A community has been built around those in this role. That’s a big win that newer people in the field should be tapping into.

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