Aligning a Practical Customer Success Strategy with a Scaling Organization — In an Interview with Kari Ardalan, Regional Vice President, Scaled Success at Zendesk


4 min read
29 Jun

Gone are the days when customer expectations were easy, simple, and manageable. Modern customers are now in control and leading the change. They are no longer just waiting for the company to approach or contact them. 

Customers today have better resources to access and quickly compare and analyze the competitor's products or services internally and externally. They also won’t hesitate to leave reviews.

In this interview, Kari Ardalan, Regional Vice President, Scaled Success at Zendesk, shares some practical strategies that organizations can take to ensure customer needs and challenges are met and clearly articulated. 

How did you get started in CS?

I started in sales and realized that I was good at value-based selling. This skill is focused more on establishing and reinforcing why your product or service is valuable against a customer's needs and challenges.  

When I joined Deltek as part of Member Advisory Services, that started my formal customer success (CS) foundation. It is a skill-based portfolio role, where you manage a comprehensive book of business through webinars and site visits.

When I moved to SAP, I was a Lead, Platinum CS. This role is a combination of technical and CS roles. Other tasks such as implementation, support, and driving product adoption are also part of this role. 

After SAP, I joined and led the public sector of CS at Box. I went on to manage the East Strategic Enterprise team and built their scaled team. I became more involved and engaged in leadership assignments, projects, and initiatives. It includes roadmap planning and managing the team's headcount, strategic conversation, account ratios, pivoting the customer journey, and scaling the CS operations.

For the last two years prior to Zendesk, I was at Workday helping them scale CS all the way to the high-touch model and redefining customer experiences. It is more of a strategy and operations role. 

With Zendesk, I oversee teams across APAC, EMEA, LATAM, and America. My focus is to enhance the customer experience and scale CS field engagement on a global level. 

How do you make sure you address the needs of every team you manage? And, how do you resolve issues?

I spend a lot of time with each person, having 1:1 meetings, really understanding their career aspirations, and how we can enhance or improve their skills. My leadership style is transparent and casual, allowing my direct reports to feel comfortable coming to me for career advice and development conversations.

Since not every role is one size fits all, we need to develop the skills and talents of our employees not only to meet the needs of our organization but also to ensure their career growth. Having a flexible career path and understanding how to build internal and external connections is very important. 

When you understand the needs of your employees, organization, and company, you can build out a team model that supports all three. 

How did you distribute or break each team workflow or project success?

From a field perspective, you need to look at it in terms of portfolio size, Annual Recurring Revenue, engagement score (the level of customer effort), and you need to align it with a sales rep, region, industry, or vertical.

Once you have all the information, you can start mapping where those territories fall and see if they are balanced. Then you add it to the headcount planning. Through this, it will allow you to allocate the right resources and measure the team's performance. 

How important is a vision in scaling the CS organization?

For me, having a clear vision is key to success. Many people think of scale, as a term to manage lower ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue) accounts when in reality, it is transforming the entire go-to-market model to enable productivity. 

For a company to truly scale, you have to stop throwing headcount at problems and start to look at how to make your day-to-day operations more efficient and manageable. It comes through leveraging data, automation, self-service to extend the reach and influence of your Customer Success Managers (CSMs) and allow them to be more strategic in managing their accounts. 

Today my team at Zendesk utilizes meaningful indicators to enable dynamic account management to reach a customer at the right time with the right call to action. We are constantly iterating on this vision and testing leverage points of what can remain automated vs. high-touch 1:1 meetings. 

How can you measure success, priorities, business objectives, KPIs across all business units with this high-touch method of scaling CS organizations?

First and foremost, team KPIs are customer interactions. Based on productivity levels, we should be seeing a minimum number of interactions each week that they should meet. 

Customer-facing time should not be replaced solely by webinars and automation, so you have to have a healthy mix. The customer experience should always be at the top of mind and focus, so we measure CSAT scores after every meeting and make sure we are maintaining a high score. 

Like many other companies, we do measure Gross Revenue Retention and churn and contraction to team targets. We also measure Objectives & Key Results that funnel down to my employees' day-to-day work. 

What do you think organizations should measure or keep an eye on when scaling CS organizations? 

There are a few things organizations must do correctly. Here are some practical strategies that organizations can take to ensure customer needs and challenges are met and clearly articulated against them. 

  1. Engagement. Due to this pandemic, everyone wants different channels to engage through chat, self-service, in-product, or with an actual human. Customers do not have the time to wait to get their questions answered, so having multiple channels to engage in will help increase their time to value. To measure the success of this engagement, we have to build an engagement score and measure each channel and its effectiveness.

  2. Engagement score. With this process, we want to measure how customers are interacting or engaging with us. For example, if our marketing team sends out an email to our customers, we might consider tracking the click rate and conversion rate. The same goes for webinar attendance. The purpose of doing this is to understand how customers engage across different support channels. It helps to build or form that go-to-market journey in those different touchpoints. It works and patterns with the Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) flow. Once you gather all this information, you can build out that engagement score.

  3. Retention. We have traditionally viewed adoption as a measuring stick to gauge whether customers will renew, and many times it is around license utilization. We need to start thinking more holistically across depth and breadth of adoption but also consider customer sentiment. By having a solid adoption maturity model and listening architecture, we can measure the ROI/value of our product to the customer.

  4. Dynamic Account Assignment.  We need to move out of the traditional ARR account assignment and move to a more dynamic model based on growth, logo, ARR market (locale or emerging), and engagement style. If you can build a dynamic model to assign accounts from high touch down to scale, you can stop throwing headcount at problems and truly support the right customers with the right level of service. 

How can a business drive an increase in product or feature adoption?

We need to look at customer use cases and the value it provides. If we can tie use cases and business value to product features, we can improve overall adoption. By encouraging customers to consider these use cases, we will achieve two main benefits. 

First, it helps improve customer's confidence in our understanding of their situation, which in turn increases their confidence in our ability to deliver a meaningful solution. 

Second, we will discover information that will help us articulate how vital our service or the value of our solution is to what they do, which will help position the value it will provide. It will not only encourage a product or feature adoption, but we will also provide the necessary support and services relevant to their success.

Any final thoughts or words you would like to share?

There is a lack of awareness of the go-to-market motion around data, scale, and operations. In today's world, we cannot afford to have siloed teams within the organization. We must strive to unite these siloed teams for us to deliver the success we want to achieve. 

I have observed that less matured companies rarely invest in the overall customer experience, primarily because of that siloed operation or mindset. We must think about how we get our initiative done in the most efficient and user-friendly passion. Any time we think of a better way of serving and delivering success to our customers is an opportunity to earn their trust and loyalty. 


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