Many CS organizations need to move from delivering high-touch services to every customer, to a more scalable approach. Developing a high-impact customer education program that enables customers to achieve success on their own is one approach for reducing the need for high-touch CS. In this episode, we sit down with Vanessa Neurohr, Vice President of Customer Success at MuckRack to learn how she has transformed and scaled her CS team by building out their customer education program.
Guest: Vanessa Neurohr
Vice President of Customer Success at Muck Rack
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Jason Whitehead: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening everyone, and welcome from sunny Washington DC to another episode of the Jason’s Take on podcast. I’m here with my partner in crime, Mr. Noble, over in the uk. Say hello, Jason. Hello,
Jason Noble: Jason. Hello everyone.
Jason Whitehead: There you go. And today we’re really excited. We’ve got Vanessa Nero here and Vanessa is the VP of Customer Success at Muck Rack, which is a great PR related technology space that she’ll be telling us about.
And I’m very fortunate I’ve had the chance to get to know Vanessa over the past year or so, and I’ve learned a lot about what she’s been doing with her CS team at MuckRack. And they’ve seen some amazing growth as a. But also within the CS team, they’ve made some great strides in scaling and changing and she is going to tell us about her journey there.
So Vanessa has built a high-impact team and they’ve really taken some status to transform how they deliver customer success. And one key area has been, Evolving customer education and programs and [00:01:00] reducing the need for one-to-one customer engagements to really help all their customers be successful.
So today, Vanessa, we’re looking forward to your experiences, your tips, any advice that you have, and just learning from you. So thank you so much for
Vanessa: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited.
Jason Whitehead: Absolutely.
Why don’t you just take us all off, just tell us a little bit about your background and your experience at MuckRack and about the company itself and just give us some context.
Vanessa: Yeah, a hundred percent. I joined Muck Rack in December of 2016 when we had about 15 employees at the company total, and at the time I was the second customer success hire at the company. So definitely doing a lot of tasks back then, wearing a lot of hats, everything from support. To onboarding, to helping with renewals and value selling there.
So I got to learn a lot about our product, our customer base, and the other functions within the company at the time too. And as the company’s grown, I’ve been able to take on a growing list of responsibilities as well. And now leading the customer success department, which includes [00:02:00] over 50 employees. So went from essentially a.
Two to now 50 plus and growing. We’re actually hiring for five more people this quarter within my department, so I’m really excited to be part of a growing company and a growing team, and I really enjoy the different functions that are now represented in the department. Two, which include customer support.
So we have a dedicated support team. We have a customer onboarding team that’s really engaging in the higher touch, one-to-one facilitated trainings. And then we have our C S M team. They do own renewals. I know that’s a hot topic too within the customer success world, but our C S M team does own the full cycle post onboarding.
And then last but not least, we have our newest function in the department, which is customer education. So really excited to chat more about that too.
Jason Noble: Vanessa. I’ve always enjoyed.
I was gonna say the growth in that team is quite incredible. What kind of spearheaded that, as you join as person number two, to see that growth over quite a short timeframe what kind of was the [00:03:00] catalyst to getting the growth and how has the team found it and what have the biggest challenges been to you growing that quickly?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a great question. I give a lot of credit to the product itself. We have great product market fit, and that’s ultimately the catalyst for growing my team. We have so many more customers that we ultimately wanna support, enable, train, and make sure they’re getting value out of the product. So that’s really been the catalyst for growing my team and specializing the team as well, so that we don’t have.
Someone one role if, for example, trying to do everything under the sun, we really wanna specialize so that we’re bringing the best of ourselves based on functional areas to our customer base. So our product has expanded definitely since I joined in 2016, but the core of our product has been the same. So we’ve really been able to maintain a lot of strong customer relationships for at least as long as I’ve been here.
But I know some of those predate me to joining the company. .
Jason Whitehead: That’s great.
When, we’ve talked a lot before and it sounds like there’s some customers that really do need a high touch, one-to-one model, but you’ve got a lot of smaller customers where either they [00:04:00] don’t have the same needs or they’re, or it’s cost-prohibitive to do that.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your vision is for the customer education program and how you’re switching the model in months working?
Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. We decided to invest in customer education. 21. And I had the idea because we have such a fast growing small business customer base, and when I joined in 2016, it actually was realistic for me to talk to every single customer of ours, one-to-one.
But at the size and scale that we’re at today, it’s no longer possible. So how do we still bring a premium experience to small business customers knowing that we cannot. Communicate with them one-to-one when they come in the door. So that’s where customer education comes into play. And I started out by hiring an instructional designer because that’s really the foundation for strong customer education.
You wanna make sure you’re bringing in if this is something that you want to invest in, that you’re bringing in. Someone who understands all of the ins and outs around instructional design, knows [00:05:00] how to train adult learners, knows how to keep them engaged, knows how to structure curriculum or content in a way.
Keeps people wanting more. So that’s where we started. I started by hiring our first ever instructional designer at M Rack. And then since then, that same individual has really expanded the function within my department and is now leading our customer education team as our manager of customer education.
And so now, We have another instructional designer on the team that reports into him. And then we also have an L m S administrator too, who’s ensuring that all of our content within Skill Jar, which is the L M S platform that we use, is staying up to date, that our customers can continue to rely on all of our academy materials that our education team has developed.
Jason Noble: How did your customers find the transition? So going from that one-to-one relationship conversations. not doing it. How? How was the transition and kind of over what timeframe did it happen? Yes. Were customers happy [00:06:00] with it? Because I can imagine some quite challenging cus customer conversations cause it’s a big shift, big change in your model.
Vanessa: That’s an excellent question and it all comes down to internal enablement. If you are fundamentally ch changing the way that you’re training or onboarding customers, your sales team needs to know that inside and out. So that’s where we started. Our sales team needed to be brought up to speed on. Not just what we were changing, but why we were changing it so that way they could sell it in a way externally that really resonated with our customer base.
And we are still delivering a high touch onboarding experience for our mid-market and enterprise customers. So honestly, the biggest change through all of this is in small business or S M B. So we really spent a lot of time training our SMB reps. On what to say and why we’re doing this. Without that internal enablement and messaging, I think you’re setting your post-sale team up for failure.
Because what will happen, and what probably does [00:07:00] happen quite frequently is the sales team will say one thing and then once they become a customer, the experience does not align. Yeah. With what they heard during the sales process. So that’s why. We did spend a lot of time up front there, and I know our manager of customer education here also has spent a lot of time building strong relationships within our sales team, so that way we can continue to move this forward in a way that doesn’t hurt the customer experience, but actually maintains consistency from pre to post sale.
Jason Noble: How did the sales team find that then? Because it must have been a very, was it. What’s the opposite of a sales enabler? If previously they were selling the ability to have relationships, and now for these small customers that’s gone, did they find the sales more challenging?
And again were customers and prospects really receptive to this kind of more digital level of engagement. .
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a really good question too. And there’s always a little bit of hesitation, right? Whenever you feel like you’re taking something away. But we framed it, which is true, that this is a way to meet our customers where they [00:08:00] are.
Honestly, our customers within our S M B segment have a lot of jobs, a lot of hats that they wear. So PR tends to be one of many. Things that they own within their organization. So they don’t always have time to schedule a one hour meeting with us. And it’s actually better if they can learn on their own time how to use the product.
So that’s really how we’ve been positioning it, which is the truth. And it’s, that’s how we communicated it to our sales team too. So it’s not that we’re taking something away. We in theory, are taking away the one-to-one training component, but we’re bringing back a lot more because now you don’t have to reach out to a human at muck rack to get value from it.
You can learn on your own time. You can choose to digest all of the information in one setting, or you can break it up for yourself and maybe do 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. That’s the positioning and that’s how we’ve communicated it to our sales team now. We definitely had to balance customers that were already in the onboarding process that weren’t sold this [00:09:00] new experience with brand new customers that were coming in the door with this expectation.
So to your question around what was the prospect or customer reaction, we.
Sensitive to the fact that, we had customers to disrupt that just based on a change that we made on our side. So that’s something that we had to be a little bit more patient with. And now we’re at a stage where our sales team has been fully trained on this new way of training our small business customers to the point where, you know, a new customer that we’re welcoming at this point that’s what they expect.
They expect to go through our Muck Rack Academy versus having a one-to-one training with someone on our onboarding team.
Jason Noble: I think that
guys, I was just gonna say, Jess, I think the, I we lost you there for a second with the connection, Vanessa, but I think what you’re saying, the, that transition is key.
And I think now you’re in a position where your sales team understand it, your customers understand it. You’ve not got any of these kind of ones that are stocked like that. And it’s a very clear [00:10:00] sales proposition now. And this is how you sell it and it works. And I think it’s a great process to have gone.
Jason Whitehead: Yeah, so I’m curious when you first sat down and said, okay, we’re going this direction. We’ve got the designer, the instructional designer in, but you’ve got a whole list of content that may need to be developed that doesn’t exist right now, or is in the wrong format. Did we focus just on the product?
Do we focus on how to engage with us as a company? Do we focus on how to be better subject matter expertise and be better at PR in general? How did you map out where you wanted to go first and how long did it actually take you to start to have enough critical mass of content that you could make this transition?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a really good question too. It did take some time. It took months to create the content, and the focus was on the platform specific knowledge that we wanted our customers to know. We have a lot of aspirations too, on industry level content that we wanna eventually train on and certify anyone, even if they’re not a muck rack customer in.
But the near term [00:11:00] focus has. Been on product training and making sure that we can scale that because that’s what, if people don’t know how to use the product, then they won’t be engaging with us for long anyway. So that’s where we really focused upfront and it did take months and it took a lot of cross-functional partnership.
And that’s why when we first brought on that instructional designer, I really encouraged them to. Meet with people internally in product, in sales, in marketing. So that way they’re forming these relationships before they ultimately collaborate with them on all the content that was to come as part of our initial fundamentals course for Muck Rack.
Jason Whitehead: .
And have you found. Content format that seems to be more effective and more desired with more videos or more short guys and checklists, or what sort of things do customers actually want?
Vanessa: Yeah, so we actually surveyed our customers on that too, which I think is important because every industry will likely have some sort of different preference on how they want to learn, how they want to [00:12:00] look through content the length of it, things like that.
So we definitely surveyed our customers and then aligned our content offering. Based on their responses, but what we find is that short form videos work very well. People don’t wanna sit and watch a 30 minute recorded video, but if you give it to them in smaller doses and two to three minute videos, it’s a lot more digestible.
And people retain the knowledge too, through that format.
Jason Noble: What’s the what? What’s the kind of internal relationship between your customer education team onboarding and your more? Traditional CSMs. How do they interact? What’s the kind of collaboration like between them?
Vanessa: There’s a lot of collaboration there.
That’s a great question too. So our manager of customer education, he, he’s done a phenomenal job of really getting to know not just what customer success does, each functional area within the department, but also cross-functionally to be able to [00:13:00] make those pairings happen when they need to. So for example, our C S M team.
There is essentially a committee that gets formed to review different things that our customer education team is pushing out. so they have a chance to weigh in on something before it’s been exposed to our customer base. And so it’s a way to generate buy-in as well as alignment early on. And we have even A C S M, for example, who will go through and review the course outline for a new course that we’re putting into the academy and weighing in on everything from copy edits to structure to content.
So it is highly collaborative, and I think that’s important too, because if customer education just operates in a silo, No one will adopt the materials both internally or externally. So you really want those internal stakeholders too, outside of education that will be the biggest supporters of anything that education is pushing out.
Jason Noble: I think that is critical that isn’t it, getting that alignment with the other internal stakeholders, [00:14:00] cuz it is, I think. It’s great. I love the way you guys have split this out and created this function from nothing into something that’s now driving value and getting.
Collaboration, not just with the sales teams, with marketing to, to, how do we pitch this is a big sales pitch, it’s a big value add for us, but how do we make sure that the content’s going in the direction we’re needing it too, and the customers are wanting, and I love what you’re saying about the surveys, asking customers what works best for them, cuz that just fits into kind of how they can grow and get more value from what we’re.
Jason Whitehead: What did what did you have to do to get executive support for Yeah, for these initiatives? Because I imagine what you’re describing is a big shift in, in model and mentality and staffing as well too. Were they open to these ideas? Was it hard to sell it? How did that process go for don?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a great question too. So I would say it was easiest to sell to our CFO because really the pitch here is, By scaling more for small business, we’ll be able to still offer a positive [00:15:00] experience with both the product and the company, but we won’t have to dedicate as many one-to-one human resources essentially to that effort.
So that was a pretty easy sell, but I definitely spent time with other. They’re members of our leadership team too. And really it was providing the context, showing them the framework where other companies have already done this extremely well and saying this is what it could look like at Muck Rack if we’re open to adopting this model.
So I definitely spent a lot of time sharing the context or the why behind why I wanted to invest in this in customer education and how I felt like. We didn’t wanna wait too long to invest in it. It’s better to invest in it before you desperately need it , than to invest in it when you desperately need it.
Because this comes back to how long it takes to produce all the content. It’s not something that, and this is what I would encourage to anyone listening to. It’s not something that you can invest in and then immediately expect R ROI on three months out. It’s gonna take time. You have to have an L m S in place.
You have to have, of course, [00:16:00] At least your first instructional designer in place who’s creating all of this content, and it’s going to take months. So I also made sure to mention that upfront too, that, I’m, there’s a lot of. Potential here with customer education, but it’s also not something that we can expect an immediate return on.
So I set that expectation up front too, and we’ve been able to continue investing in it. So it is going well for us, and we’re going to keep investing in education too. I really think that Morris SAS C companies should be putting education at the center of their customer.
Jason Whitehead: Absolutely. So I’m curious as well, you designed this for the SMB market and it sounds like it’s been very impactful there.
Have you also been reusing this with your larger customers how have they embraced or is, or they still prefer the high touch?
Vanessa: Yeah I love that too. We’ve, Absolutely embraced it with our mid-market and enterprise customers too. And I’ll give you an example of an enterprise customer that’s been extremely excited about this, that I think has longer [00:17:00] term potential to or impact.
But we work with both brands and agencies at Muck Rack, so an in-house team that has a PR team of five people, let’s say, but then also agencies that have their own list of. That they’re supporting too, through the use of our product. And so on the agency side, one thing that they wanna be able to say to their clients is that, we’re an expert in this, or we’re all certified in this.
It really helps them win new business, but also helps them retain. They’re existing clients too. So with this academy and the ability to be certified in Muck Rack, we now have larger agencies coming to us saying, how do we get our whole agency certified in Muck Rack? That’s a great thing for us to be able to communicate to the market.
So that’s just one example of how we can really leverage this further to make a bigger impact for both our customers as well as for them to make a bigger impact for their own business. But, . It’s absolutely something that we designed with SMB in mind, but also has a ton of carryover into our mid-market and enterprise segments too, who are [00:18:00] getting that higher touch onboarding experience.
But let’s face it, they’re still going to have someone who wasn’t part of the original s. Sales process, who joins six months in, who needs to learn how to use muck? And so it’s things like that where having an academy in place can really help accelerate learning for any customer regardless of which segment they’re in.
Jason Noble: . Absolutely. And what are some of your big kind of lessons? Learned being along the journey. When you’ve grown your team, you’ve grown this up, you’ve had the feedback from your customers and what kind of guidance would you give to people that starting on this journey to build out an education program like this?
that, yeah, I love that too. So one big piece of advice I would say is if you’re investing in education for the first time, please hire an instructional designer. I think. Education teams al design, or should I invest in a customer trainer? And a customer trainer is great to the extent that they’ll go out there and talk to anyone and they’re [00:19:00] comfortable speaking externally about the product.
But you really need an instructional designer to scale an education program. So my biggest piece of advice is please hire an instructional designer as your first hire if you are investing in customer education. . And then second to that survey your customers. I would say even before you hire someone, it’s great to have at least a preliminary understanding of what you would be bringing to your customers through an education program.
So definitely survey your customers, listen to them, ask them how they want to learn, ask them how they’re already learning about your product, even outside of what you offer them, because you might be surprised about how or where they’re turning to, to learn about your product. And then the other thing that I would add too is look, Other certifications, look at other courses, other thought leadership content you can offer that aren’t specific to your products.
So that’s where we’re really heading now is how can we upskill the industry, not just people using Muck Rack, but how can we upskill folks across PR in general?
Jason Whitehead: That’s great. So [00:20:00] I’m curious as well too, as you as you start to embrace education, how does that throw off or adjust product launch time?
So as you’re running out new functionality, I’m assuming that, oh, now we’ve gotta build this education piece we didn’t have to before.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a great point. So we have at Muck Rack a launch leads committee that spans across multiple functions. So our product operations team is really leading that committee.
Our manager of customer education sits on that committee too, so he’s privy to our launch plans well in advance of a new feature actually going live to our customer base. So that’s really important too. Our customer education team and really any customer facing team Should not be finding out about a launch at the same time as our customers.
And you need to have enough lead time, as you’ve hinted at too, to be able to produce the right materials to set customers up for success using that new feature. Now, there will be some smaller features that don’t necessarily require a dedicated education output, but I will say help center, that’s something that our education team owns as well.[00:21:00]
It is important to update that, of course, as you’re launching new features. So regard. Make sure you’ve aligned internally with your product team specifically on what lead time you need from them to be able to get this customer facing documentation, curriculum, et cetera, available by the launch date. If you aren’t having those proactive alignment conversations internally than.
You’re not going to have that lead time.
Jason Whitehead: Absolutely. Awesome. Thank you so much. We always like to ask our guests a bold challenge question so we have one for you. What is the single most important bold action CS leader should take to quickly transform your teams and get out this one-to-one meeting mindset and embrace more of an education, customer education approach?
Vanessa: Yeah, I love that question. I think there’s two things there. Number one, Start by investing in instructional design. Even if you know you won’t be able to scale your customer education program quickly or reinvest in it quickly, having an instructional [00:22:00] designer on your team will do wonders, not just for your customers but internally as well, making sure that everyone has the same foundation of product knowledge across your customer facing teams to be able to educate.
If it is in a one-to-one fashion or in a scaled fashion. So definitely invest in instructional design. You won’t regret it. And then the second thing that I would say too is listen to your customers. Be iterative. Be flexible. You don’t have to have a fully built out academy day one. At launch. You can start with a.
Simple course and see what the customer response is to that new way of learning, especially if this is really something you’re changing within your organization. There’s obviously the internal change management that you have to navigate and the external change management, so you can start small.
You don’t have to bite off everything all at once.
Jason Whitehead: Awesome. Great.
Thank you so much for joining us today. And before we go, we always like to invite our guests to do a shameless plug, so please let us know what sort of exciting things are going on with you and how people can get in touch with you or [00:23:00] anything else you’d
like to share.
Vanessa: Yeah, I love connecting with folks on LinkedIn. Please reach out to me if you’re navigating through your career journey and customer success. I would love to share notes to help you to be supportive of your journey as. And if there are any PR professionals who happen to be in your network too, you wanna share the good word of muck rack, I am always happy to connect with those types of folks too.
So happy to share more information with anyone if you wanna just DM me on LinkedIn.
Jason Whitehead: Great. Alright,
thank you so much Vanessa. Really appreciate you being here.
Jason Noble: Thanks, Vanessa. Great conversation.
Vanessa: Thank you both.