Get Back to the Basics | Allison Carroll
Katie: Welcome to Revenue Talks. I'm Katie...
Justin: And I'm Justin, and on this show, we get real about what it takes to build pipeline and successfully scale businesses.
Katie: By having conversations with folks who have been there before, we explore what it takes to create strong cross- functional alignment, how technology factors in, how different teams think about attribution, and so much more.
Justin: If you're looking to win in the revenue era, you're in the right place to learn how. Hello, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Revenue Talks, The Podcast. I'm Justin, the VP of revenue marketing here at Drift and today we're talking with Allison Carol, who's the SVP of customer success at Avalara, which is an automated tax compliance platform. Allison oversees all post sales functions at Avalara, which is a huge job because you guys have like 25,000 customers or more. And that includes onboarding, it includes pro serve, technical support, customer success, renewals. On this episode, we're going to be talking with Allison about how all those different functions work together to meet the needs of the customer at every point in the journey. So, Allison, thank you so much for joining us. You spent about 20 years at IBM, but you weren't on the services side of things, you were actually on the marketing side of the house, which is where I am, so you had some time focused on partnerships and then you took on a variety of services jobs. So how about you just unpack that for everyone that's listening in, give us an overview of what your career trajectory looked like.
Allison: Sure. And Justin, thanks so much for having me and thanks everybody for joining in. I'm thrilled to be here today. So like Justin said, I spent 20 years with IBM and then about a year and a half ago I joined Avalara. I just want to put a plug in for Avalara, because you all have probably at some point used Avalara and not even realized it. When you're checking out online and you're in your digital cart and it says" calculating tax" about seven, eight times out of 10 that's Avalara. So you may not have known it but used us anyway. But I actually started in the it industry of right out of college and I was an editor. I was an English major, communications minor, and I started as an editor and, Justin, really that evolved into marketing. So the first part of my career, I spent in the presales functions of marketing, sales enablement, offering management, and development. Then the latter part of my career, I switched and went to the post sales functions and I did professional services, technical support, and customer success, account management, and renewals. Interestingly enough, I actually never did sales. I just did everything around sales. Anyway, that's my career in a nutshell.
Justin: That's awesome, and also a fellow English major here. I feel like that is such a good starting place for a marketer. When I think about marketing one of, one of those things I think about in my career is just the promise, we're responsible for making promises to our customers. It's easy for the marketing team to do that. The sales team you skipped around it, me too, but they get the customers to come on board and that promise really ends up living with the post- sales group, right? And fulfilling that. How have your experiences your career like informed the way you formed your philosophy around customer success and customer service?
Allison: Well, here's what I tell my team, and this is the kind of guiding principle that I operate by. We're all consumers of something. We've all bought something and we've expected a certain level of value based on what we bought. Especially in post sales functions, you've signed on the dotted line, and if you're calling in to 1- 800 and you need help, at the end of the day we're all human beings. We want someone who is willing to help us, even if they don't have the right answer, is getting them to the person who does have the right answer, and just helping them and practicing empathy. That's what I share with my team. You don't have to know everything, but you do have to help and move the ball forward and can think about how you feel when you are a consumer and you call in and you need something or you've bought something and you need to onboard and to start using it. How frustrating can that be if it's not intuitive or you call in and someone's like," Hey, sorry, here, take a look at this link," and send you a link to an article. I do expect our teams to keep up with their skills but more importantly, I like for them to remember that they're talking to a human being who is in need of something and our job is to help them.
Justin: Yeah. I think that is right on and that's so spot on. I think everyone listing will agree that that human element and treating someone like a actual living, breathing soul and not just a cell on a spreadsheet or a person on the other end of the phone is the most magical and transformative thing that you can do in business. Then why don't we see that all over the place? I think it's just because it's so hard to scale that human experience. You've got a huge organization. How do you make sure that message goes through and is part of the fabric of your team?
Allison: Well, we do pretty deep dive training in our new hires. Avalara is a high growth company. We're hiring, we're hiring globally, and so we have a lot of new talent and expertise coming in the door. We really take that first two weeks to not only ground them in Avalara and our products, but if you're coming into the customer success organization, which again, includes onboarding, go live, professional services, technical support, account management and renewal, if you're in any part of that, we take you through what our culture is and what our mission is. Our mission is to make customers' and partners' lives easier. We do that by stressing to delight them at every interaction, that's our goal. We want to delight them at every interaction. From the moment that you walk in the door at Avalara, this is what you're taught and what you learn. More recently we've signed up with the company, I wanted to say it's on Soft Skills, softskills. com, and my entire organization is going to go through it. It's how do you communicate via email? How do you talk on the phone? We're really going to go back to the basics in several parts of my business this year, because we have such a variety of skills and talent who have come in the door over the past few years, and I want everybody to be operating off of just the same baseline.
Justin: That's awesome. If I'm Avalara's CMO, I am way excited about that because when you provide that exceptional customer experience, it makes my job easier in recruiting new customers, because we've got such great stories to be able to tell. What does your relationship with sales and with marketing look like? How do you all work together to create that unified customer experience?
Allison: Sure. Our chief marketing officer is Jay Lee and interestingly enough, Justin, Jay, and I just did our kickoff together. We did our company kickoff for 2022 and he and I were paired together because there is such synergy between marketing and customer success. If we have happy customers, we know that they'll be advocates for us, there'll be references-
Allison: ...for other prospects, so we work in really close association with marketing. Marketing helps sales for new prospects and new customers of course, and then there's a customer marketing team for us. We're rolling out a new model and I'd love to share it with you and see what you think.
Allison: This year we're piloting a model with marketing. Of course we always talk to customers by segment, right? Because different size customers have different needs, so this goes beyond customer segmentation and certainly assumes customer segmentation. We have emerging small business and small business customers, mid- size which we call core customers, and then our large enterprise customers. I think that's probably pretty straightforward for the industry. The model that we're rolling out with customer marketing is called our layer cake model. There are three layers to the model. The bottom layer is considered customer satisfaction, the middle layer is around sales effectiveness at a renewal or trigger event, and then the top layer we are calling is really more around marketing programs, because this is kind of off cycle, so there isn't a renewal coming up. Let's go down to that bottom layer, customer satisfaction. These are customers who have our subscription, they're running on our automated tax compliance software. They're calculating their end users' taxes where they're doing business, and they're happy. We are checking in with them, we're nurturing the relationship, and they are renewing and based on their usage, they may upgrade but really they're happy customers. We really kind of just more so nurture them.
Allison: Okay? We just want to make sure they're satisfied and nurture. They might not need a lot after they're set up. The second layer around sales effectiveness is okay, now they're coming up for renewal and we see that they are really approaching where they are in their tier. They're almost to the top of their tier, we don't want them to have overages, and we use that as an opportunity to upsell.
Allison: Then also cross sell. Sometimes we see that, hey, they've acquired another company, they may want to go global, we've learned this in our account management. We use that trigger event to upgrade them or cross sell based on where their company is heading. By the way, about 55% of our customers do some kind of cross sell upsell at that trigger renewal event within about 90 days of that. Then the third layer is, hey, we are working with our analytics team just to look at customer behavior, mine data, and the marketing is saying based on what we're seeing, their spending, how they're growing, we are going to market to them. We're going to target them in a marketing campaign and see what happens. Those are our three layers that we're really focusing on and we have targets for each of them and we'll see how it goes.
Justin: Oh my gosh. Okay. I love this because this goes back to what I was asking earlier about how do you scale treating someone like a human and it seems like you guys are figuring out because it is one of those things where you do need some automation, you do need those triggers, you do need to be paying attention in the aggregate to what's happening out there, but then being able to take those signals and then process them and turn them into a really human way of communicating is right on. I think that's fantastic.
Allison: Yeah, it is. I know Drift is sponsoring this, obviously we have a partnership with Drift. You all are our chat partner in our sales and marketing group. We also have a partnership with Gainsight and Gainsight is an automated customer success platform. We are just now rolling it out. We did a pilot in the fourth quarter with one of our customer account management teams. In 90 days through that tool, we booked 150,000 in revenue, so we were really excited about that 90 day rollout. What we're doing with GainSight is we're incorporating that cake model that I told you about. Some are just, they're happy with their subscription, the next layer, hey, they're happy, but they're using more, there's a lot more going on in their company, we know there's an opportunity. The third is that propensity to buy.
Allison: That's where Gainsight and the analytics come together and we can we can load up automated marketing messages and we can drop campaigns in the tool, they'll get an automatic email, there'll be links in there. So the customer can then basically self serve through a journey, through a journey map on an orchestrated journey. We have a lot of new things going on in terms of how we're segmenting customers, how we're marketing to them, and then the automated journey and intelligent journey behind that to really get them through the funnel.
Justin: That's so cool. Similarly Drift is doing something pretty comparable with Gainsight as well, so shout out to our friends at Gainsight, really, really amazing tool. How does sales fit into the mix with all of this? Are they kind of part and parcel of the marketing campaigns that are putting on that work ultimately with customer success or how does that go?
Allison: Well, yeah, certainly there's a strong partnership between marketing and new product sales and new acquisition sales. Greg Stivers leads our global sales organization and they are really focused again on acquisitions, right? One of the challenges, Justin, that we have internally at Avalara is from the time that a customer buys until the time that they go live, there's several steps that have to happen. We are in the tax business, so we need to know where you are selling so that we can understand what kind of taxes that you need to collect at what rate. There is a little more nuance to getting set up to calculate taxes properly or if you're a returns customer, submit your returns, et cetera. One challenge we have is from the time the customer buys to the time they go live, we have a small percentage of them that stop responding to us. Think about it. If you're an emerging small business customer, you may only have 20, 30 employees in your company.
Allison: One employee who may have bought AvaTax, which is our flagship product for sales tax calculation. That person may be doing three or four roles. A jack of all trades. When they're having to go grab some tax related information to go live, they may be off to the next thing for a couple of weeks.
Allison: We're like," Hey, we're ready to get you live." Two things are happening. Number one, we're teaming with sales to say," Hey, can you help that customer with us stay engaged if they do go dark on us?" That's number one and we are seeing some success in that because they've built our relationship. There's a step in the customer journey between buying and between being a steady state relationship managed customer, and that's the go live portion. We don't really have that established relationship in the go live area yet. Sales is helping us with that. And the second thing that we're doing to really minimize that non- responsive rate is we're automating our product. We're trying to get you through an automated self- served journey so that you can fill out for us in a very simple product wizard, if you will, onboarding wizard, where do you collect tax? What locations do you operate in? What are your, nexus is a term that you would hear in the tax industry, which is, have you met certain thresholds in terms of how much you're selling, the revenue that you're generating, and in a particular location that you do owe, or you do need to collect sales tax, because you owe it to that jurisdiction?
Allison: A little nuance there, but that's how we're teaming with sales to help us keep the customer engaged and we're teaming with product to say," Hey, we have all of these steps, we have about 12 or 15 steps. Can we get them down to three and get the customer through it in a more automated fashion?"
Justin: Yeah. Amazing. The last two years have really had a commercial impact on Avalara just because of the new world we live in. How's that worked for you? How has coronavirus and work from home impacted you and your organization, but then maybe we can ask that same question in a little more zoomed out fashion. How do you think that's impacted customer success in a meta way?
Allison: Right. Okay. Well, I'm going to talk about it from an Avalara perspective, then a customer success with Avalara perspective, and then we'll talk about it from an industry perspective. The explosion of eCommerce during COVID was a big benefit to Avalara and a lot of companies moved online and a lot of entrepreneurs decided they were going to launch small online businesses. That really expanded our opportunity to help consumers who kind of want to sell individual businesses, B2C or B2B. COVID was a benefit to us there. We were able to scale our platform pretty quickly. From a customer success perspective, I will tell you, our IT team and our engineering teams within a couple of weeks, they turned a switch and we were all remote and it was incredible. The coordination and the sophistication and the simplicity by which that happened in a really impressive effort there. What we've seen, Justin, is outstanding productivity.
Allison: It's almost to the point where I have said," Please. Take your vacation."
Allison: "Go out for walks, take your conference calls, take them on your earbuds so you could get outside." My fear is just hitting a wall because the teams have been all hands on deck. I think about these working parents and family members who may have come down with COVID and all the extra stress that has happened to our employee base and we just want to practice empathy and be sensitive. But I have to say, they've just been outstanding in terms of the results that they've delivered. When I've talked to some of my industry colleagues in round tables, of course we've seen now in the past six, seven months, this great resignation.
Allison: There are a couple of things at play there and there are probably a lot of things more at play that I don't even know about but like I said earlier, you have people who are like," You know what? I'm going to do my own thing. Now I'm going to start my own business," and so they're leaving, trying to do their own thing. I think there's burnout. I think working parents with kids at home during that time, some of them opted out of the workforce. We have experienced, even at Avalara, we've seen the implications of the great resignation, and then the next phase of that was an explosion in market of demand for top talent.
Allison: Especially over in India, we are really seeing a lot of activity of very hot market to get some key skills. We've had to really be sharp in our hiring. We've had to be really diligent in terms of looking at the market compensation to make sure that we're now paying to market as these rates increase. It's been a really interesting two years.
Justin: It sounds like it. Oh my gosh. Out of all that growth, out of all that hiring, do you have any tips or hacks that you guys have found in scaling effectively because that is so much growth that it, it's one of those things where you got to hold on tighter, the wheels are going to fall off as you grow that quickly?
Allison: It's true. It is a challenge. I'm not going to sugarcoat it and tell you that it's been easy and we are still learning and we are still trying to figure it out. One of the approaches that has served me well in my career is just making sure that you cover the basics. Like I said earlier, the example of you don't have to be an expert in everything when a customer needs your help, but you just need to help them. That might mean getting them to your colleague who does know what they need. When we talk about scaling, one of my biggest challenges is technical expertise. Pretty much everybody operating at a similar level so we can help customers. One of the ways that we're doing that is training. I want to make sure that people aren't on their phones while they are training, so we are right now, in a month, we're going to be deploying a pilot around the learning management system. As you go through the training, you will have to actually answer questions and get tests along the way to make sure you're consuming the information that we're trying to train you on. That's number one, we're going to track what you do and we're going to test what you do and you're going to have to pass. The other thing that we're doing in sales, which I think you might find interesting, Justin, is it's something that I learned at IBM and it's called stand and deliver. We are getting ready, we're starting in two weeks with our customer account management team. We have some strategic products. Some of those have come to us through acquisitions and some we have launched organically. We really want more focus on these strategic products because the reason that we built them or bought them is because there's a need in the industry for them. For example, one of those is like cross border. As companies go global and they want to sell over in Europe, cross border, we have a solution that really helps them sell cross border in a much more simplified, seamless way. Anyway. Back to stand and deliver. Every quarter this year, so four times a year, we are going to choose a strategic product, and we are putting our customer account managers in groups of five. They will come on a conference call for an hour. There will be five different sales scenarios. They'll come on the call, there will be assigned to sales scenario randomly, they don't know which one it will be, and then they will have to sell one of our strategic products to the leadership team for about seven to eight minutes. The benefit of that is A., they're going to prep and they're going to learn the strategic product, and then number two, they hear a sales pitch four other times. They do it once and then they hear it four other times. We are going to run this program every quarter and it's going to take us about three weeks to get through the entire team. Obviously the leaders are dedicating our time to it, so we'll be experts on these strategic products as well but that's what when we talk about scaling, sometimes it's not just this big, big effort and everybody running big. Sometimes it is just going back to the basics.
Justin: I think that is the best take right there is in order to scale it, sometimes you do just need to slow down and take that time. I am very familiar with the stand and deliver. I remember my first one was by surprise, so I've got a little PTSD from that, but I think that's great. It's very easy to fly under the radar when everyone's at home and I think you're absolutely right. Getting in front, presenting in front of your peers, hearing different flavors of the same material is just such a good thing. I love that. I love that very much. Allison, I'm going to hit you with the final signature Revenue Talks question if that's okay with you. That is what is the number one thing that your team is focused on to accelerate revenue this year?
Allison: Honestly, I want to just show you my notes when I was prepping for this.
Allison: It was stand and deliver. I wrote," Go back to the basics, stand and deliver." Really it is back to the basics. It is learning your core. It's training, learning your core portfolio, and I think of training in two ways, what I just said, learning your core portfolio, and now there's this soft skills training. We're going to really all come together and figure out how to really be empathetic in our emails and when we talk on the phone to customers, so again, that's kind of back to the basics. Then we are being very surgical about the products that we know our customers need and we know our account managers and some of our new sales, they rely on our flagship products, which is great. Of our customer base, 65% already have it, so in my area of the business, which is really delighting and growing customers, we're already penetrated on those products.
Allison: We need these new products sold. That's why I'm like," All hands on deck, we're going to see these attached rates go up, we're going to make sure that our sellers know the pains that our customers are having that these solutions can solve." That's what we're doing. I would just leave you with back to the basics for technical and soft skills training, and then we are really doing stand and deliver to bring it home very specifically, where we want to move the needle and bring value to our customers.
Justin: That's amazing. The last two years makes it feel like we're in a brand new world, but you're absolutely right. We need to keep things simple. We need to go back to the basics. I love hearing how you're keeping your team aligned with your customers and making sure you're keeping things relevant, and most of all delighting them. Allison, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us. It's been a fascinating conversation. I really appreciate you joining us.
Allison: Thanks for having me, Justin. This has been really fun.
Justin: Thank you so much for listening to Revenue Talks. We'd love it if you left a review wherever you're listening and hit subscribe so you never miss a new episode. You can connect with us both on Twitter @ katiejfoote with an E and @ justinkeller. And remember, revenue, it's everyone's business now.
Treat humans like humans. Practice empathy, and even if you don't know the answer, just try to help. These are the simple messages that get back to the basics of go-to-market relationships, and they're the messages Allison Carroll, SVP of Customer Success at Avalara -- a software company for automated tax compliance - uses to help her global company experience hypergrowth amidst a global pandemic.
In this episode of Revenue Talks, Justin hosts our first customer success guest, but Allison wasn't always on the post-sales side of the house. The now SVP of Customer Success has a long history in marketing, and she uses this background to create strong cross-functional alignment at Avalara. Over the course of 25-minutes, Allison shares how she makes sure the back-to-the-basics messaging carries across every team and country.
- (1:30) Allison’s career trajectory
- (3:30) How Allison’s career experience informs her philosophy of customer success
- (5:19) How Allison ensures consistent messaging across her global team
- (7:05) What sales and marketing alignment looks like at Avalara
- (8:12) Avalara’s layer cake model for marketing
- (10:45) The top products Avalara’s GTM team relies on
- (12:33) How sales fits into the marketing and customer success mix at Avalara
- (15:53) How the shift to a remote work world impacted Avalara’s business
- (16:40) How the shift to a remote work world impacted Avalara’s customer success strategy
- (19:21) Allison’s tips for scaling effectively
- (23:18) What is the #1 thing Avalara is focused on to accelerate revenue this year?
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