Support Star Interview: Deepak Chawla of Nutanix

It’s my great pleasure to kick off a new series of posts, the Support Star Interviews, starring colleagues and friends who have had an interesting career in support and customer success.

For this first installment, I am interviewing Deepak Chawla, who is the VP of Worldwide Support at Nutanix. In his 25-year career in support, Deepak has worked in both startups and enterprise organizations including VMware and Cisco Data Center. For the past four years, he has worked at Nutanix, which provides data center infrastructure for enterprises to build their cloud platforms, and has grown the support organization from scratch to close to 350 heads, most of them support engineers. The organization also includes a Critical Accounts team, a Support Readiness team, Technical Relationship Managers, and a Business Operations function. Nutanix has 7 Centers of Excellence and uses a Follow-the-Sun approach to support.

FT: How did you manage growing the organization from startup to the current state?

DC: Great question! I have a great management team and great recruiters – and a few differentiators that have helped with our success:

  • Automation. I believe that the majority of lower-complexity cases can be eliminated through good tools, a robust support portal and search capability where customers can find solutions to their own problems and do not have to call support – and we have invested heavily in each.
  • Customer experience: When customers cannot solve their own issues, we want to give them a great experience with:
    People: Our engineers are very technical, good troubleshooters and very empathetic to customers. They will not rest until the issue is resolved, whether it comes from Nutanix software, hardware, or another component in the stack. We hire the best folks we can from industry and new college graduates, and invest in training (technical and soft skills), 3 times of what our peers do. [FT: TSIA surveys show an industry average of 1 week of training per head per year.]
    Process: We make it easy for customers. Our engineers take calls directly from customers (we do not have a front-end customer service layer). There is a big “escalate” button on the portal that customers can click at any time to get management engaged. Our engineers escalate to partners in the solution stack (e.g. Microsoft, VMware, Citrix) without putting the customer in the middle of every multi-vendor escalation discussion.
    And we do not believe in tiering support – our engineers can solve Level 3 issues. The goal is to have a 100% “touch and hold” resolution model.
    Infrastructure: We rely on data and data-driven decisions. We have invested in data scientists and a data mart so we can run reports to drive decisions: flagging customers who are likely to get escalated, determining the most important bugs to fix, driving customers towards the highest-quality releases based on patterns of cases and bugs reported – these are just some of the data driven decisions we take.

FT: How do you measure success?

DC: We decided early on that our one metric was going to be our Net Promoter Score, which is a proxy for customer loyalty. Nutanix has had an NPS of 90 over the past four years, and we want to continue!

Internally, I work to keep customers and employees happy. Our renewal rates are high so we don’t have to reduce costs in artificial ways. Our attrition rates are the lowest I have seen during my tenure in the industry because of all the investments we make in the engineers, and the opportunities we provide for job enlargement.

FT: Is there something you learned or saw done earlier in your career that you now completely reject? What was it and what made you change your mind?

DC: Life is full of learnings. I used to think that the best technical folks made the best support engineers – and I have learned over time that empathy and passion are very important, and much harder to teach than technical skills. We have data on every support engineer in the organization (school/major, past employers, tenure, etc.) and the correlation between technical skills and productivity, CSAT and teamwork is not as high as I thought it might be.

FT: Without stressing you out, what keeps you up at night? What do you worry about?

DC: How we continue to scale! We have been growing at an average of 65% YOY as a company, with no end in sight. How do we build more automation into the product, how do we train partners and OEMs to provide the same quality of support that we take pride in, how do we hire over 200 engineers a year and bring them up to the same level as the first 300 in a programmatic fashion, and faster than the previous batch? Growth is a good problem to have but it is a problem.

FT: When you look at the support field today, what do you wish more organizations would do or try?

DC: In the recent past, some of our competitors and peers have focused on short-term gains instead of building long-term brand loyalty. To focus on customers and data to drive decisions, to collaborate on behalf of the customers regardless what the business relationships may be between the companies you are “collaborating” with seems very straightforward, and common sense – but common sense is not so common anymore!

FT: Thank you very much, Deepak, and congratulations on what you are building!

Ultimate Scaling (aka Consumer Support)

Many thanks to Ram Ramadas for suggesting this topic.

Some support organizations have hundreds of customers. Others, especially those serving consumers, have millions. What approaches work for very large customer bases? I suggest 10 approaches — which may be of interest to you even if you do not have anywhere close to millions of customers.

1. Make your product bulletproof

If you have a handful of customers and your product is just a little buggy, or just a little difficult to use the first time around, you can cope by giving each customer a little nudge. But you cannot afford to do that for very large customer bases! So work with the engineering and product marketing teams to make sure that usability and stability are near-perfect.

2. Assemble a top-notch support-readiness team

It will help you with goal #1, above, and with all the other goals below. You cannot afford to improvise.

3. Invest in self-service options

Self-service scales best, so anything you can do to improve your support website, in-product help, documentation, knowledge base, or product diagnostics will have a high return.

4. Invest in onboarding

If your product or service is “obvious” to use, great — but if not, invest in onboarding. It could be as simple as a short cheat sheet on getting started, or a series of short videos on how to accomplish common tasks, or regularly-scheduled webinars. If you can, do all of the above.

5. Encourage community support

With lots of customers you naturally have enough volume to sustain a community, as long as you provide appropriate guidance, and regular answers.

6. Invest in social support

Any customer, but especially consumers are likely to take to Facebook and other online media to share their experiences with your product. Be ready to harvest compliments and react to concerns in real time with a proper social support monitoring tool (and process and people behind it).

7. Make 1:1 support the last resort

No, I’m not talking about taking it away entirely, but it is a valuable commodity so provide lots of faster, and helpful alternatives (and check out #10, below).

8. Prepare for peak demand

Whether your busiest day is the day after Christmas, the day after a new release, or the day when your largest offshore center is closed due to a typhoon, you want to plan carefully for how you can deliver a good customer experience under the most demanding conditions. Self-service and community service are likely your best bets.

9. Learn from every customer interaction

One of the important goals for support is to be the voice of the customer, and it’s even more important with a large customer base. Categorize your cases to determine where volume is coming from, and do something about it: get the product fixed or changed in some way, do a better job of onboarding, have a knowledge base article ready, etc. And since most volume will come through self-service and the community, analyze those interactions as well.

10. Nurture a partner community

You may not want to deliver personalized service to every customer, but some want and need it, and some partners will be interested in delivering it. By offering some inside information to (selected) partners you can make everyone happy, partners, customers, and you.

Having a huge customer base is a challenge, to be sure, but it is also a wonderful opportunity since your budget allows many experiments for self-service and community service. Focus on providing a great customer experience without the need for (too much) assisted service.

5 Questions to Ask before Hiring a New CSM

You have a req for a new CSM (Customer Support Manager). Great! But wait: before you start hiring, answer 5 questions that will determine your approach.

Who are your customers?

Working with consumers, small businesses, or enterprise customers require different skills and a candidate who has plenty of enterprise experience, for instance, may not be so great with the other two audiences.

What do you expect your CSMs to do?

Some CSMs are mostly trainers. Others, mostly technical account managers. Others, support engineers. And some seem to be pretty much sales reps for the installed base. Of course each of those roles will require different person: clarify the role first (and be honest with your recruiter, if you are working with one).

How much of the process is already in place?

If you already have a customer lifecycle defined and a structured CSM calendar with templates and activities, you can take a chance on someone less experienced. Otherwise, look for someone who has successfully implemented a new customer success process.

Who is already successful (or not) in the role ?

I’m not suggesting to hire clones –diversity is good for CSMs as with any other role– but identifying critical success factors for the role helps a lot. In general, companies are overly focused on finding hires that have worked with the very same type of products, when often it is knowledge of the overall industry that matters.

When did you hire last?

If you hired in the last six months (and the hire was successful) you can probably use the same criteria and techniques. If not, the landscape probably changed: be open to adapting your approach.

Want more help? The Smarter Customer Success Hiring e-book has over 300 questions to inspire you — plus recruiting and screening techniques.

Share your experiences hiring CSMs by posting a comment.

Crisis Management – A Primer

Outages happen. SaaS vendors need to have a robust process to minimize them, manage them to happy conclusions, and learn from them.  The 7 steps described here explain how to proceed.

Step 0: Define roles and responsibilities ahead of time

During an outage, emotions and confusion reign. Prepare ahead of time by defining roles for everyone likely to be involved, and in particular:

  • The support team, who is usually responsible for customer communication
  • The operations team, whose focus is to return the system to a stable stat
  • For larger vendors, the marketing communication team, who can help craft the communication both during and after the outage
  • Executives and the customer success team, who can help bring resources to bear (execs) and spread the word to customers (CSMs) but are more in a bystander role

Define and document the crisis management process and the communication template to be used in steps 3-5. Practice a few dry runs, including off hours when reaching appropriate individuals may be challenging.

Step 1: Monitor systems to detect outages early

Outages are bad, but they can be a little less bad if you detect them before customers do. Have tools and processes in place to find out about problems right away — and alert internal parties, chief among them the support team.

Plan how the Operations team will be alerted if the outage is discovered by an internal party, or by a customer. This is usually a direct, synchronous contact such as a phone call.

Step 2: Qualify the outage

Not every outage deserve a formal crisis management process. If the outage is very brief, it’s often best to skip the entire customer alert process (in other words, proceed to step 6, post-mortem). The Operations team makes the call of whether to declare a formal outage, based on what is known about the issue and the solution.

Step 3: Alert affected customers

It may be tempting to simply keep quiet when there is a system issue, but customers will likely be incensed if they find that you knew about the issue but did not warn them. The difficulty is to avoid unduly alarming customers who won’t be touched by the issue. Do all you can to identify the customers who are using the server, service, or tool that is experiencing the problem, and alert them and not others.

Alerts are usually proactive, by email, but they could be by text or phone — and they can also be posted on the website to be seen by customers who seek information.

Best practice is to use a template so information can go out quickly and yet be reasonably worded so as not to create panic. Include:

  • The nature of the issue
  • Its likely resolution time, if known
  • A time commitment for the next update
  • If appropriate, a method to obtain progress information such as a document in the knowledge base

Having the marketing communication team help craft this and other customer messages is wonderful, but focus on speed rather than craftsmanship at this point (and think about how you will do this at 2am on a Saturday).

Step 4: Send updates at regular intervals

If the outage lasts more than a few minutes, you will need to send updates. Best practice is to:

  • Commit to a specific time for the next update in each communication. You can always give an update sooner than promised if a new development occurs.
  • Give updates at least hourly unless there is a well-understood resolution path that has a known, longer duration. (Very frequent, systematic updates such as every 15 minutes are usually worthless since they may detract from a quick resolution and not much is accomplished in short intervals.)
  • Provide high-level progress summaries. Customers want a full resolution, of course, but will be encouraged if a diagnostic has been made, even if the resolution path is long.

The support team usually sends the updates, relying on predefined templates appropriate for your particular environment and customers. When you create the templates, remember that you may end up sending multiple updates so make sure that they create a spirit of reasonable hope and not just a pile of empty sentiments.

Step 5: Alert affected customers of the end of the outage

Once Operations give a green light, the support team sends the final update. You will want to have a template for outage ends as well.

Step 6: Conduct a post-mortem

Up until this point, all efforts are focused on resolving the outage. But step 6 is the most important step because it uncovers the root cause of the outage and defines long-term fixes.

The Operations team leads the post-mortem and produces an internal report. In turn, the Support team can disseminate an appropriately-edited version to affected customers. This should occur within a few business days of the outage and does not need to occur immediately, especially if the outage is off-hours.

Most vendors review outage post-mortems at the executive level to ensure that appropriate efforts are being deployed to minimize outages, especially repeated outages with the same underlying cause.

Do you have a crisis management process? What works well for you? Share your tips in the comments.