Podcast #14

How sales and
customer support
work best together

Paul Collins
VP of Sales at The Dotcom

 

About this podcast

Today we interview Paul Collins, VP of Sales of The Dotcom and formerly Google.

We talk about how sales and customer support can best work together for maximum success. Paul chats about how artificial intelligence helps both sales and customer service.

 

 

Explore the power of AI and NLP for your customers and agents

Interview Transcript

Welcome to the Future of Customer Service Podcast. I’m Andrea Palten, from Inbenta and I will be interviewing customer support and service professionals to see what is currently working well, what issues they’re trying to overcome, and the future success of customer service.

Andrea Palten
Hello there. Today, we have Paul Collins. He’s currently the VP of Sales from The Dot Com and yes, we’re going to get into that and the name of that company, because it’s so unique so I’m going to be asking Paul some questions. Paul’s a sales expert. He also used to work at Google. So, Paul, thank you so much for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do for The Dot Com?

Paul Collins
Thank you, Andrea. Yeah, a pleasure to be here. I’m excited to have a conversation this morning. Yeah, so I am currently the VP of Sales at The Dot Com and I’ll just quickly plug the URL because it’s one of the most unique and best parts of the organization. It is simply the, T H E.com so check us out. We are a professional website building platform really built for agencies and freelancers and other SAS businesses who build a lot of websites, build websites at scale. 

Really the problems that we’re trying to solve in the website building market are today, you have two options if you want to build a website. You either build it from the ground up super custom on a platform like WordPress or Drupal or you use a very simple kind of templated program, a drag and drop builder like Squarespace or Wix. But it’s really hard to build something super cool and custom that also works really well is super-fast and easy. So, we’re trying to take the best of both worlds and that’s what the.com is all about and we’re revolutionizing the way to build and manage and deploy websites. It’s really exciting.

Andrea Palten
Oh, I love it. Are you targeting more a solo entrepreneur or freelancer or are you targeting more big enterprise companies?

Paul Collins
Well, we’re an early-stage startup right now. I’ll mention we’re out here in Boulder, Colorado a great place to be in the startup community. So, right now, our bullseye target and the users, the customers who we’ve found can derive the most value from our solution the fastest are these small agencies, small web development, and design agencies and freelancers. So, if you think about the gig economy and you think about what’s happening in our current situation with a global pandemic. There’s just a huge movement to:

(1) businesses turning to online to open up their storefronts and build their businesses online but 

(2) also, people have side hustles. People have their side projects and have a need and a desire to get their message and their word out. So, eventually, our platform can solve a lot of problems and address a lot of use cases but right now we are focused on that smaller agency/freelancer/semi-developer which is a huge and growing audience. All these people who don’t necessarily go deep into programming and coding language, but they know how those things work and that’s the evolution of software in general, just more low code developers.

Andrea Palten
Okay. I don’t know if you knew this, but I went to CU Boulder and I actually live in Colorado so we’re neighbors. I’m in Colorado Springs. I’d rather live in Boulder.

Paul Collins
Yeah. Well, come visit anytime. Someday we’ll be able to get together and do this live maybe over a cup of coffee.

Andrea Palten
Yes. So, how the heck did you guys get that URL, the.com?

Paul Collins
The.com, yeah, it’s an interesting story. So, the company was founded by two gentlemen Clarke and Jeff, who used to run a WordPress agency themselves here in Boulder. So, they built thousands of custom WordPress websites, finally realizing there’s got to be a better way. So, they started building this tool as an internal workflow management tool that now has become a full-fledged CMS plus website editor platform. In their early days, they linked up with an advisor who is now an investor who spent a lot of time in the domain world for one of the big domain registrars out there. So, this person was sitting on this URL the.com and pitched it to the co-founders as a place to build the platform. 

There was some reticence early on. While unique it can also bring in maybe some unwanted traffic because it is just so ubiquitous. But then as the vision materialized, we’re really about redefining how you get onto the internet, onto the web. That is what our platform fundamentally does. So, then they took the adviser up on the offer and moved everything over to the.com. From a sales perspective, I love it because it’s a great conversation starter. It’s a great hook. People are always like; how did you get that domain? That’s so cool. How much did you have to pay for it? The answer is actually not that much because there’s a vested interest, by the person who owns the domain.

Andrea Palten
That’s so unique. I do, and I like that you guys even have merchandise. I went to your website and saw the merchandise. That’s really neat. So, Paul, the reason I wanted to interview you is because usually, we interview a lot of customer service folks or a lot of AI experts because that’s the domain that Inbenta lives in, but we haven’t really talked to sales folks and how you work with customer service. Since you worked at Google and now you’re at the.com, you obviously have a great experience as a VP of Sales. So, I wanted to ask you as the VP of Sales how do you work with the customer service teams?

Paul Collins
Yeah, it’s a great question. I’ve spent my entire career on the commercial side of the business. Account management roles, business development sales but I’ve never had customer success in my title or worked for a customer success organization. That being said I just philosophically believed sales is an output of customer value and creating customer success. So, I really think about sales and customer success almost as one and the same. So, at the.com it’s very early. I’m a month in, there are about 10 employees. We don’t have a customer success organization yet. Really my goal if successful is to not need customer success for a while. 

When we scale-out a customer success hopefully it’s lean and small. The way in which to do that I believe is to instill a very deep customer service and customer success orientation across the organization. So, I think a lot of companies get it wrong and think about customer success as something that happens after the sale. If you’re waiting that long, you’ve probably missed the boat and you’ve left a lot of opportunity on the table. So, what I’m trying to do from a sales perspective and a pre-sales perspective and even a product perspective is orient everyone around customer service and make sure everyone is accountable for creating a great customer experience and delighting our customers. That makes everyone’s job a lot easier. 

I really learned that at Google managing a sales team, but we were a hybrid sales and account management team. So, we had a quota, our goals were revenue related, but the way in which we achieve those goals was in part by providing great customer support and service every single day, understanding our customer’s needs, what success looked like from their perspective, and enabling them to do that. Oftentimes that’s doing things that don’t make you money immediately, but that’s how you create long-term value. So, I really think there’s a very strong linkage between customer support and sales.

Andrea Palten
Yes, that is so important. For everybody that’s listening, I really want you to even rewind… Is that a word we still use? Go back and actually listen to that again, because I’ve worked at an agency where sales got the sale, handed them off to customer service, and there was no connection. It was such horrible onboarding for the customer. Then the sales guy was gone, and they promised something that customer service didn’t know that they did. We did the same thing that you guys do at the.com and at Google. At Inbenta we did the same thing, it’s like, you stay together, everybody knows what you’re doing, and we’re all there about the customer and getting them to success. I think that’s so important. I love that you said that. I like that you have this behemoth Google and this starter company the.com and you’re doing the same thing. That’s really cool too because you don’t really see that a lot of times. So that’s neat.

Paul Collins
Trying. Yeah. I mean the.com we’re very early. We haven’t quite done any of that yet, but I’m trying to lay some of the groundwork and again, a lot of that philosophy is rooted in my time at Google and just seeing how important it was to deeply understand and be accountable for our customers at Google. So, I’m trying to borrow a lot of that experience and apply it to this new context. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah. So, I imagine being in a company with how many employees did you say? 

Paul Collins
Again, I’m a month in, and I think I’m number eight, number seven, number eight.

Andrea Palten
So, with limited resources like that, eight people how do you manage with like lack of time, lack of people. How is that going?

Paul Collins
Yeah. I mean, it’s a startup world and this is a new experience for me coming from a place that was flush with resources. So, I’m certainly learning and adapting. But the cliché holds true,  everyone does a little bit of everything based on what is needed for the business. What the.com is doing, has done to date and the co-founders I think saw this as an opportunity and a necessity early on as customer support again was embedded in everyone’s role. So, everyone including the co-founders themselves is involved in answering customer questions. From day one, they set up multiple channels of customer support and service. One because I think they knew that our platform was different and unique enough that customers would likely need that kind of handholding to onboard successfully and they were committed to helping new users learn the platform and be successful. 

Also, just from a business perspective, it’s a great differentiator in this space. Customer support and service is not something website builders do well. You can’t get someone on the phone at WordPress. You can search endless forums online and DIY builders. They just have so many users that they can’t really prioritize high-quality customer support. So, it’s a differentiator for us as well. So, we have live chat. Again, we’re a team of eight. Live chat, a Slack community, customer success, email alias, although again, it doesn’t go to a dedicated team just yet. It goes to the co-founders, it goes to me and it goes to our developers, even the people on the back end.

Andrea Palten
So, everybody gets to see if somebody has an issue or if somebody is giving you a compliment. That’s actually really good. I like that too. 

Paul Collins
Yeah, and it goes both ways. One, you get the people who are deeply embedded in the product every day, providing great quality support from a developer, an engineer perspective and they stay connected to the customers which are vital for an early-stage company. As soon as you start losing touch with who your customers are and why you’re building what you’re building then things can go off the rails pretty quickly. So, the co-founders set that up from day one which has provided a lot of benefits.

Andrea Palten
I love it. Can I ask you about Google a little bit?

Paul Collins
Of course.

Andrea Palten
You can say no.

Paul Collins
No, I was there for nine years. I mean, I had a wonderful experience at Google. I really admire the company and have great friends and relationships there. So, yes, I’m always happy to talk about Google.

Andrea Palten
Awesome! I’m just curious because it’s again such a behemoth. How did Google measure the success of their customer service teams?

Paul Collins
Yeah, it’s interesting. So, at Google, I mean, just from an org chart perspective they had a sales team, which was where I was managing, and we’re talking about large customers here. So, there were multiple channels of advertisers. I spent nine years in our large customer sales. So, these were big household brand names, spending lots of money on our platforms. We had a more traditional customer service organization that was a little bit more technical in nature. So, that was often an outsourced team that handled tickets. In the platform, how do I set up billing? How do I do X, Y, and Z? But my team really spanned everything that was not a simple button to push in the platform or the answer wasn’t a simple here’s the help center article. 

So again, my customers were big, they were complex, they had lots of campaigns. There was a lot of pressure on us to deliver when they’re spending that type of money with us. So, as a sales team, we were compensated and incentivized, but we were the first line of defense. So, we were measured on your traditional sales metrics of revenue and growth. But we also looked at things like CSAT, regular customer satisfaction to understand if we were delivering on our promise. Just from my experience being there a long time, I think and understand the business mechanics and how things worked and how you delivered long-term value for these customers where they’re already spending a ton of money. How do you consistently grow that base? You had to start looking at other metrics. Sorry, you had to get to a baseline of what healthy spending looks like.

In the digital ad world, it’s hard to benchmark that. Can you look at historical spend and are growing? Great, that’s good, but is it good enough? What’s the market doing? So, we used a lot of benchmarking and developed a lot of internal metrics to help us understand are our customers growing their spend? Yes. But are they getting more from us as they spend more from us? That just required a deep partnership and trust being built with our customers because we had to ask them those questions and they had to often share their backing data with us. That took a lot of relationship building and trust building for them to do that. But that was the only way we could really know if what we were delivering was actually adding incremental value to our customers. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah. So, when you were working there, how many clients would be under you? How many would you have at any given time?

Paul Collins
A dozen. Yeah, 10 to 12. 

Andrea Palten
Okay. 

Paul Collins
So, my team was about the same size. So, it was a one-to-one ratio. Again, I had account managers and account executives. There was a lot of gray areas but in the general account, managers were the ones that we’re solving problems, really focused on success, making sure the dollars coming in were well optimized and returning maximum benefit to our users and our account executives who were out there pitching new business, new channels, new platforms on a longer-term horizon. So again, I was constantly managing both. It was the same team, same customers talking to the same people and you couldn’t just go sell, sell, sell to them every day. If their stuff isn’t working well today, you need to fix that first, but they’re not receptive to hearing a sales message. So, that experience is really foundational to how I think again about scaling now, a business from the very early days. How from the start we need to be in lockstep with support and sales. 

Andrea Palten
So, I want to change subjects a little bit. I want to talk about artificial intelligence. So, as a senior salesperson that obviously you’ve been at different types of companies, it’s more your personal opinion, but I’m curious, how do you think AI is changing sales? Not in customer service because I do want to ask you that as well. So, I want to see both, how is AI changing sales and what’s going to be in the future and how is AI in your opinion changing customer service and what’s going to happen there in the future? So, start with sales. What do you think? Are you a fan? Are you, oh no, I like the personal touch more or the combination of both? 

Paul Collins
Well, the good thing is it’s not mutually exclusive. Yes, I’m a fan and yes, you need the personal touch. I think what we’re in the middle of currently in terms of AI and machine learning is really about productivity. I mean, you get chatbots. They both serve sales and customer support needs. When you visit a website, hey, how can I help you? Depending on what the user’s needs are it directs you to sales or customer support. So, those are productivity gains. A chatbot can talk to a lot more customers around the clock whereas a single sales or customer service rep can really only solve one problem for one person at a time. So, there’s a lot of value there. I think where AI and machine learning are going, where they need to go is to get productivity gains but also not sacrifice quality.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. I’ve experienced this. You would ask the bot a question and it returns a bunch of irrelevant results. That can almost be more frustrating for a user. So there needs to be a lot of continued learning which is what these platforms do to provide not only faster, more timely engagement but also higher quality. So, I think that’s where we are now from a sales perspective. I mean, there’s a ton going on if you think about the sales stack and the whole process of how AI is changing the game. Instead of just going out and buying a list of prospects and getting a phone number and you’re just going to sit there and dial, now there’s a lot of intelligence platforms out there that can take, ingest your criteria for what a good customer looks like for. For us, for example, it’s those small agencies and freelancers who typically work on WordPress. It can ingest that and now go out and scrape a lot of information to give us more customized and qualified lists of potential prospects to call or email.

So, you’re seeing AI throughout the sales funnel from helping define the prospects to then, okay, what message do you send? Which prospect at what time? Again, that takes a lot of work from a sales perspective. I’ve got to go to their website, I’ve got to understand their business and now there’s a lot of tools that can help enable that and you can just automate that. Again, you’ve got to do it the right way and that takes a lot of investment up front to set up those systems and a lot of customer development, so you really know what your customer needs. If you skip that step then AI can really backfire on you too. So, if you’re doing something wrong with the wrong message at the wrong time and doing that at scale, oops, now you’re just magnifying the problem. So, I think a lot of people can rush to AI because they think it’s solved and it can scale quickly but if you don’t invest in that very human-centric customer development upfront really refining that product-market fit so you know who you’re talking to, what their pain points are, and how you can address them. 

Andrea Palten
Yeah.

Paul Collins
Then yeah, don’t scale. Don’t use AI yet until you’ve done the hard work.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. Yeah. I am going to add to that do your research too. Before I came to Inbenta I’ve had the same experiences you’ve had where the chatbots and everything are just so bad, and it takes so long. They gave me the wrong answers and stuff. When I went to Inbenta and I learned about the staff, I was like, whoa, there are so many linguistics and natural language processing systems it’s crazy. Then there’s cussing cuss words and slaying and that type of thing. So many primitive chatbots, they don’t have that. So, if you don’t say, how are you doing they’re not going to understand what’s up. So, that’s the type of stuff that’s so important. So, definitely scale slowly as you said, and really pick the right tools too because there are some really awesome ones and some that are not.

Paul Collins
Yeah. Companies and the technology, it’s amazing what these technologies can do and what it’s capable of and the promise. But I think companies also have to have a trigger too to know, okay, when do we pull the chatbot. Nothing frustrates me more when I get to a website, a chatbot pops up, I close it out, and then 15 seconds later there it is again. There are just some things that we can’t take our eye off, just the user experience. Again, put yourself in a user situation every day. That’s something I try to do myself like go to my own website, go through the flow, and use my own product. Does it make sense? There are a lot of low hanging fruits and things that we can do just by being a little more human before rushing to AI and a technology-based solution.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. Okay. So, now we’re going to get to our last question, and I want to marry the sales and the customer service. I would love to know from you, for the companies that do have separate sales and customer service perhaps even what is your number one advice on how sales and customer service can and should work together?

Paul Collins
I think it’s shared goals. Goals and rewards drive behavior and I’m a huge fan of Mark Roberge former CRO, sorry I’m butchering his last name, HubSpot. He’s now an investor. I forget his fund. But his big thing is what is that early aha moment for a new user or a new customer that is a predictor of retention, a predictor of lifetime value. It takes a while and hypotheses and testing to define what that thing is. But you can’t wait to just look at retention because that’s a lagging indicator. You need to understand what the leading indicators are of retention. I think understanding what that KPI is and holding both sales and customer success accountable to that metric. 

So, for example, just to make this a little more clear for your listeners. For Dropbox, for example, it was when they saw a user upload one file to one folder on one device. Once a user had done that action, that was a great predictor that they would be a valuable user and that they would share and there would be a snowball effect. For Slack, I think they found that when a team sent 2000 messages that were the indicator that led to success. So, I think you need to figure as a business, you need to figure out what that thing is, and then sales need to be held accountable for that. So, if you think about a compensation plan, you shouldn’t just incentivize your sales team to bring in the business, and then they’re done. Maybe you withhold some of that variable comp until a customer hits that early milestone. If they don’t hit that early milestone, maybe the sales team isn’t bringing in the right type of customers. 

So, that’s one way and then for customer success, they need to be held accountable to, okay, as soon as that handoff and transition happen you need to understand where your customer is on that journey and accelerate their time to value. How quickly can you as a customer success rep get them to that point of 2000 messages or one file in one folder on one device? If both teams are incentivized to do that they’re naturally going to work together, share more, collaborate more and the customer is going to be successful and everyone wins.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. I love the ending on this. Everyone wins. That is amazing. That’s good. I love that, especially the compensation plan. I hadn’t thought about that, that you were seeing sales, they can get the rest of the compensation or the bonus or whatever you want to call it after a customer hits the milestone. That’s a really good way to think about that. Well, that is the end, Paul. Thank you so much for being here. I really, really appreciate your time.

Paul Collins
Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Thanks so much for tuning in. This podcast was brought to you by Inbenta. Inbenta Symbolic AI implements Natural Language Processing that requires no training data with Inbenta’s extensive Lexicon and patented algorithms. Check out this robust customer interaction platform for your AI needs, from Chatbots to Search to Knowledge centers and Messenger platforms. Just go to our website to request a demo at inbenta.com. That’s I N B E N T A.com and if you liked what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review. Thank you.