How I Buy – David Sakamoto, Head of Customer Success, Americas, Cisco

By Steve Woods in #HowIBuy

How I Buy – David Sakamoto, Head of Customer Success, Americas, Cisco

Keeping our focus on the role of customer success leaders in setting the tone for an organization’s engagement with its customers, I was thrilled to sit down with David Sakamoto, Head of Customer Success for the Americas at Cisco.  

Our conversation was around how David thinks about the people on his team, and the clarity of his vision on how to make that team better was fascinating.  Too often, when we are thinking about selling a service or a platform, the benefits and capabilities of that offering are top of mind, but David was able to reset that with his “North Star” guided vision that starts from his team’s ability to deliver value to the customers they serve.

I hope you’ll find the conversation as interesting as I did.

Here are David’s insights on how he buys:

Let’s start off with your role and the kind of things you spend money on throughout a year.

I lead customer success for the Americas for Cisco, covering North America and Latin America. We have three direct routes to engagement for our customer success motion; high-touch, low-touch and a digital-only adoption. I also run the partner success management where we help Cisco’s partners justify, build and optimize their adoption practice.

My spend is mainly around headcount. That headcount can either be internal or external through outsourcing partners. I also spend on training, events, and tooling to serve the team and allow them to be more effective and efficient at delivering customer outcomes and experiences.

How do you think about the future of customer success and what your team needs to look like going forward?

I always leverage a “North Star” vision and strategy vision to prioritize investments and spend.  My management philosophy is centered on servant leadership, and the fundamental belief that serving the team will ultimately allow the team to drive the best experience for our customers. In addition to bringing in the people with the right mindset and experience, serving the team means we focus on providing the right success platform to help CSMs and PSMs deliver for our customers. Our operations team has the motto that captures it well. “We listen. We respond. We engage. We serve.” Ultimately, the team’s feedback is a key lever to help us calibrate and decide on our platform investments. The platform being a combination of culture, tools, process, training and enablement to allow them to maximize value delivery in an efficient way.

I look at strategy and execution in terms of windows of time.  Where do we need to be at the 18 to 24 month mark? Where do we need to be in 6 to 12 months?  And where do we need to be in the next 3 to 6 months to put us on that path? The 18 to 24 month window is effectively the “North Star” though my spending window is typically focused on the 6-12 month goal. My spend within a 3 to 6 month window is immediate-term fine tuning of our plan to address pretty tactical items, such as investments to accelerate initiatives or to fine tune the plan based on new learnings.

My process for prioritizing and shaping future purchases will start with a formulation of the problem that needs to be solved or the needed outcome.  Ultimately, the discussion is focused on the necessary changes. We will formulate the problem statement or goal and leverage both the internal team and respected customer success leaders in the industry.

You can think of it as overlapping networks. My internal network is closer to the internal problem (e.g., culture, team dynamics, specificities of the product, etc.), while the industry network is closer to the cutting edge of what is happening and what is possible within the industry. The intellectual exercise for us is testing what the industry sees as the future against what we believe will work within the constraints of our internal team.

Help us understand a little bit more about how you learn from the industry. How exactly do you go about that and what precisely does that mean?

I come at it in essentially three different layers, where each layer has a different richness of information to it. At a high-level, I do a lot of reading, which is great for broad ideas on customer success but low on richness of information. Unique to other practices like sales, there isn’t a lot of published content on customer success. The next level down is engagement with a number of forums, many of which have detailed discussions by true practitioners, moderated by experienced leaders, and more specificity on the details of specific approaches and use cases.  The third, and richest, level of information comes from connecting with leaders who I have tremendous respect for who really understand the customer success motion and bring deep expertise and unique perspectives.

Ultimately, it is about trust for all the sources of insight. Who do you trust who really has the insights and really understands the philosophy, approaches and methods that work? When I’m talking to someone I trust I can make broader assumptions around how they are tackling some of the problems we are facing.  Obviously, each level of the stack has a different level of investment that is commensurate with the amount of detailed information you are able to get out of that level.

How does someone become one of those trusted sources of information for you?

There are two main factors to it. First, does the individual understand the industry and have the experience to justify a point of view. And second, are they giving you an honest perspective on the challenges that they have seen.

For me, it’s not a huge group, it’s a handful of people. I know that each person in that group has put in the blood, sweat, and tears to understand what it takes to become a successful customer success executive. The discipline of customer success is very hot right now so there are many people who have just joined or renamed themselves customer success recently. I look for people who have been there in the “post-sale” trenches for 10+ years and understand the philosophy of customer success.

The second element of trust comes down to the forum and the context of how the information sharing is taking place. We are just sharing as practitioners. I seek out private and trusted contexts that help establish that we have no interest in trying to make ourselves look good in front of the other person.  We are just sharing what works and what doesn’t work. The context has to set up the environment so that there’s no motivation to try and look better than the facts would dictate. Basically, the relationship is setup for mutual benefit (i.e., help each other).

The relationships that I have with those individuals have a long history.  We’ve shared a lot of information on both successes and failures with each other.  That allows us to establish a level of trust in knowing that the information we share is the straight goods.

What happens then internally? How does your team come together to build up or tear down an idea? How do you ensure that the team is delivering ruthless honesty around what is best for the business?

I’m driven by speed. It’s a tough to balance velocity of decision-making with the need to ensure you’re getting the right input as part of the process. This needs to consider the risks and consequences of the decision, but speed is a critical factor for decision-making to us. That puts a time cap on our ideation and decision-making process. Within that time cap I’m looking to put ideas on the table and have the team debate them without any ego or ulterior motives.

I don’t generally use a lot of tools or formality to help with this process.  It is usually an open discussion within a meeting. This is hard as I need the right people to have the right input, considering different preferences to process and communicate ideas. The muscles needed for speed and iteration need to be build and refined given the unique personalities and needs of the team.  As a typical example: if you have people on the team who are more introverted, you are at great risk of missing their input unless you consciously seek it out.

It seems like in your scenario you could invest in one of three main areas; more people, more tooling for efficiency, or more analytics for understanding. How do you balance those three areas of investment?

I’m ultimately centered around the “North Star” strategy.  More specifically, I’m looking at how I’m measuring progress towards delivering on the strategy, and how I’m driving success for the shorter term goals that build up to the strategy.   Staff augmentation gives me a level of flexibility and agility to ramp up and ramp down.

The way I look at my priorities comes down to four main factors. The first is “run the business”; execute against what you need to do with the tools that you have right now. The second priority is to build and enhance our platform for delivering the appropriate experience to each and every customer going forward. The third is focused on our coverage and our ability to support additional customers and products and the needed investments to support scaling. Finally, the fourth is culture – building together the environment that supports and promotes our shared values.

I view the investment options as dials that allow us to tune and accelerate specific aspects of our execution priorities. I like to work off the simple principle that you need to be effective before you can be efficient. It’s important to know where you are in your various investments.

I place a lot of value in having my team know the products and have the soft skills to build trusted relationships with our customers. I think that in the customer success field, people will sometimes get enamored with all the new tooling and technology.  When they do, they can lose sight of the fact that it’s all about relationships, so I try to keep my team grounded in that first and foremost. The systems and tools should help you build and nurture your client relationships to deliver on their needs.

Thanks David, those are great insights.  I really appreciate your time in sharing them!

Steve Woods
CTO and Co-Founder