Whitney Hillyer (LinkedIn, Twitter), the Vice President of Customer Success at BounceX, began her tech career as an Interactive Project Manager with Home Depot, before moving on to Scanbuy, where she served as Director of Account Management and Client Services. Then Hillyer moved to Bitly, where in four years she rose from Senior Customer Success Manager to Vice President of Sales & Customer Success. Following her time with Bitly, Hillyer was Vice President of Client Success for Collective[i], before coming to BounceX.
In this interview, Hillyer reveals her deeply methodical approach to various aspects of customer success and corporate management. She discusses how motivation and goal attainment can be pulled into alignment with professional development. She tells us how to measure morale, happiness, and the strength of client relationships—but also about the limits of those measurements, and how the value of, “You just know it when you see it,” persists amid the myriad metrics of a data-driven industry.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the important characteristics that you look for?
We’re in the process of doing a lot of hiring right now, so this question comes up frequently from our recruiting team. We look for a track record of success from candidates. That could be in college, it could be in a lot of different things. They don’t necessarily have to have a resume showing that they started at a company and moved up the corporate ladder. But we do need to see a pattern of success.
“One thing I have started looking for more recently is humility. People who have tried things, and have failed—and who have learned from their mistakes. Candidates who are coming in with the attitude that they don’t have all the answers, but they’re looking for them.”
Additionally, a general curiosity and a thirst for knowledge are really important.
We have a strong process. After the first few rounds, candidates are given a take-home test with a series of logic exercises. It also includes some generic questions—for example, about their experience with adversity and overcoming it. One of my favorites is: “Do you love to win, or hate to lose?” There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s just a way to see how people think and how they write. A big part of the customer success job is communication.
In the next phase, candidates come into the office and meet with one of my managers. They conduct a basic interview: tell me about your background, tell me about yourself. They talk about the position, about our culture. Do they think they would be a good fit? In the next round, I meet with the candidate and have a similar discussion, for the first half of the interview. Then we go through a marketing exercise. It’s not something they’ve prepped for; they don’t know what’s going to happen—because I want to see how they think on their feet, and how they deal with push-back. We start with basic marketing knowledge, not hard questions. If they handle those well, we go to a mock call scenario. We send them a slide deck, some fake client data. Then the candidate has a quick call with someone on my team who can answer any questions they might have about our product and our data. Then they get on a forty-five minute to an hour call with me, in which they present some marketing campaigns. I run through it with them, poke holes in their pitch. Some candidates push-back more and better than others. And going through that process, I’m able to see whether they prepared, whether they really spent time learning about our product.
In general, we pay a lot of attention to our candidates’ communications, how well they formulate their thoughts in their take-home exercises, their emails with us, their thank-you’s and follow-ups, and in the interviews. Communication and presentation is a big piece, and we look at that in a number of different ways.
Adversity questions are helpful. We’ll ask, “Give me a time when you were given negative feedback at work.” How did they alter their behavior or change based on it. That’s one of my favorite questions.
“You might be surprised at how many people actually say they’ve never been given negative feedback. Not a good sign. You also get a lot of candidates who respond by trashing their former managers or other people in the organization—it wasn’t their fault. Another red flag.”
The most important thing is to have a plan and to make sure that everyone understands the process. We want new hires to know from day one what day thirty looks like. Day sixty, day ninety. They need to know what resources will be available, what the training schedule is. I think if you hire really good people they are actually going to be okay, regardless. But you still want to equip them by keeping them informed.
People learn in different ways, and understanding how a new hire learns is essential for onboarding.
“I always ask in my reference calls, how did this person learn best, and what can I do to get them up and running as quickly as possible.”
Some people may do great in a lecture setting, and other people may need a more hands-on approach. So listening to them and the people who’ve managed them in the past is very helpful.
The tech industry as a whole has done really poor job of this.
“In the traditional tech playbook, you start off small and hire individual contributors. Then you grow a little bit, take your best person and tell them, “Great, now you’re a manager. Teach everyone under you to be just like you.” I think that does a disservice to the individual contributor as well as the people underneath them.”
First, I try to identify the people who actually want to be managers and have the appropriate
characteristics. You also need to make sure that you create career paths for people who don’t want that. At BounceX, we do what we call “career pathing.” Everyone in the department has identified a general career plan, what they are looking to do, one, two, three years out. We talk it out with them to make sure there’s a good fit. We talk with their managers and the executives to see if we all agree that the path aligns with their skill set. And then we work towards certain goals and objectives and we review their progress every six months.
When we’ve identified somebody who is management material, and they’re getting close to that point, we put them on a six-month professional development plan to ease their transition into a management role. Because I think it’s really hard to go from being an individual contributor to having five people reporting to you, and your entire life changing overnight. So we spend time transitioning them, making sure they are getting the training and development they need. Some of that is external, some is internal. We give them a variety of exercises.
We have management candidates meet with five managers inside the company and outside the company whom they respect. They ask about their management style, what they like about their position, about their worst day as a manager. Having those conversations helps management candidates assess how they might handle the role.
“We have a full customer success department meeting once a month. We start with data and metrics: what deals are coming in, what deals are we losing, what deals are at risk. Someone will talk about a client we lost this month. Someone will talk about a client we upsold. We try to make it as interactive as possible, so it’s not just me or one of my managers speaking at everyone. We try to get a lot of different people involved.”
The meeting might have a training component if we’ve identified a potentially problematic issue. Or we might be rolling out a new expense policy that needs to be covered. So general housekeeping as well as some training. Recently we went into how to be more proactive in communicating with clients.
Each month we end the meeting with three awards. We get up and celebrate those people and talk about it.
In terms of my individual team of managers, we meet weekly for an hour. The majority of that is housekeeping. And I try to make that meeting more of a discussion.
In my mind, there are performance metrics and then there are business metrics. Both of those are covered in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of every all-hands. It’s that important. It’s the most important thing.
“In a nutshell, your role is your job. But we also want people to feel that they know what’s going on with the business, what’s going on with accounts. Net revenue turn is the make or break for our business, so it’s really important that my team understands the process.”
So we go through it. We talk about clients that we just signed. We talked about clients who are up for renewal. We talk about our turn rate over the past four to six months—if there is anything trailing or outlying. If there are any clients who have opted out that we are trying to save. How much money is up for renewal in the coming months. We go through all of those business metrics.
Then we look at performance metrics—account performance, for example. There’s an ROI score that we are looking to drive for each one of our customers. The goal for each team is to have 85% of their customers over that ROI score. We make it a friendly competition.
The secret to delegation is delegating. I ask somebody for something, tell them what I’m looking for, and when I need it. I make sure to give very clear instructions or guidelines.
“You have to have trust in your people. When I talk to people who don’t delegate, and you dig deep in that, it’s because they don’t trust the people they work with.”
They don’t trust them to do as good a job as they could do. You have to hire the right people and have faith in them. Or else you are not going to be willing to delegate to them. And that will be problematic down the road. This is something I think about when I’m interviewing managers; could I turn a project over to that person? Would they do as good or close to as good a job as I would? If the answer is no, they aren’t the right person to hire.
“Goals have to be aggressive, but attainable. I have seen situations in which a CEO hands down a number to use for quotas, and there’s no way anybody was going to hit it. So, in the end, they didn’t even try.”
You should always have to feel that it’s somewhat of a stretch to hit your goal, that you’re going to have to work hard. But there’s a fine line between being aggressive and causing someone to throw up their hands and say, “Well, I’m never going to hit this. So, I’m just not going to worry about it.” You have to make sure the people on your team believe the goal is attainable and know that you are going to be there for them, and give them additional resources. My motto has always been, aggressive, but attainable.
We set goals on a monthly basis. Some of them are performance related, some of them are developmentally related. We track those goals.
We do a lot of individual metrics-tracking here. For example, we do monthly call reviews where there is a score card, and people are scored based on fifteen different characteristics of the call.
“We always look at the ROI we’re driving for our customers, making sure it’s hitting benchmarks that were either set by the client or set by us internally. We live or die by that number. At the end of the day, it’s all about driving performance.”
“I think the hardest thing to track is customer happiness. There are a lot of metrics that try to gauge it, NPS or CSAT, but at the end of the day it’s tough. Clients are not always logical.”
We have clients who had a great performance from an ROI perspective who left us. We have had clients with disappointing ROI, but stuck with us. A lot is based on the health of the client relationship and that can be difficult to gauge. We are talking about people. Your client could have just had a bad day on the other end of the phone, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like us on a normal day.
What are the aspects of qualitative performance that you like to pay attention to, but which are hard to instrument?
“How well do you develop relationships? How well do you develop a rapport? How well do you build trust with your clients? It’s very hard to measure. You just know it when you see it.”
We are actually doing an entire offsite on how to better develop trust with your customers, and rapport, and relationships. But it’s very difficult because it’s subjective.
Building on that, it’s not just about the relationship with your point of contact, but building executive relationships. Making sure you’re changing your communication style based on who is in the room. Changing your talk tracks. Being able to go into a meeting and commanding a room, running an agenda. Being persuasive. Being able to get what you need out of the meeting when your clients try to derail you. I think things like that are probably the qualitative aspects of the job that are most difficult to gauge and measure.
Positive and negative feedback both have to be authentic. You have to be authentic. And you can’t give either too frequently or too infrequently.
“You can’t be a constant cheerleader because it comes across as disingenuous. And if you give too much negative feedback, people write it off: “Oh, this is just their personality.” Choose the opportunities where feedback will have the most impact.”
That’s why we end every one of our accounts all-hands with three awards—on a team of fifty-five. Winners have been nominated by their managers and voted on. It’s a big deal, and I think opportunities like that go a lot further with a person, rather than constantly giving them positive feedback.
There are two primary aspects to negative feedback: it has to be delivered with compassion and there has to be a plan to correct the problem. You need to communicate that you care about them and that we’re going to work together to make this better. It’s never, “Hey, you messed this up.” It has to be, “Hey, you messed this up, but here are three things I think you can do better next time.”
“If negative feedback isn’t actionable, people won’t necessarily know what to do with it. Be authentic, but be sympathetic, and deliver it with a plan.”
“Probably the most important thing to consider when coaching is to be specific. Don’t just give overarching comments like, “Hey, I think when you go into client meetings you let them sort of take you off task. You don’t accomplish what you are trying to accomplish.” When managers are nervous about giving feedback, we use these gross generalizations.”
Instead, give specific examples and say, “Here’s how you could have handled that situation.” You have to have credibility as a manager, so you have to be able to show them how to improve. You can even workshop it together.
“We create a lot of scorecards here, because it’s important to make coaching as quantifiable and measurable as possible. For example, when we are doing call reviews, there are seven or eight things that we look for. And we chart that on a graph over time, so people can see how they are performing in each of the feedback sessions.“
Even certain aspects of client relationships can be charted for coaching purposes. For example, at the beginning of the call, did the client reveal something about themselves or something they had done in the last two weeks? We chart all of this on the scorecard and track it over time. That way, you can look at the scorecard, going into a call, knowing what you need to focus on. It gives you an internal agenda.
Citing measurable issues is easy; you put the data in front of them. For less measurable issues, you have to walk them through specific examples, explain how an event can be viewed from another side, but also give a person the opportunity to rebut you, to tell you why they did something a certain way. Talk it out together, and have empathy. If the person understands your feedback is coming from a place of mutual trust and care, they are more likely to respond well.
“When someone starts working for me, one of the first things we do is talk about how they best respond to feedback. I’ll say, “Here are some examples of ways I could respond if you were behind on your goals. What type of response would be useful to you?” And you would be surprised how many different answers you’ll get.”
It gives you some insight into people’s communication styles, and it’s been very helpful because it gives you something to fall back on if someone gets really defensive or concerned. You can go back to it and say, “Hey, remember when you first started and we talked about how you wanted to get feedback? Here’s what you told me you preferred, but now you are having a hard time with it. Has something changed? Is there a better way for me to give you feedback? Let’s talk through this.” It can change the dynamic of the conversation.
Professional development is incredibly important because the average tech job tenure is around two years.
“Often, the initial investment you’re making in a person is so large that you’re not recouping the money you put into them for eighteen or twenty months. So if that person leaves at the end of two years, you’ve made a big investment in someone who didn’t give all of that back to the company. You want your employees to stay, you want them to be happy, you want them to be motivated. And the best way to do that is to grow them professionally.“
At Bounce Exchange, we have a robust career pathing program. Everyone is walked through what a career path within our accounts team and our company as a whole looks like. We show them a traditional career path, each role, from their current position, moving up the organization, management or non-management. They can see what’s expected at each level, what additional skills and opportunities they’ll get at each level, the compensation ranges at every level, and how long it usually takes people to move between levels. All of that is clearly documented and visible for everybody across the entire organization, so it’s very transparent.
We also take them through opportunities to move outside the department, and we outline that as well. So if after a year and a half in account management, someone shows more of an affinity toward sales, or marketing, we show them the process, what it would look like to move to a different department. Because people change, especially when you have kids coming straight out of school. It’s not unusual for someone to spend nine months in a first job and realize they want to be on a different path.
We set goals for each person’s path, and every quarter we check in on their trajectory and benchmark them. And then when people get within six months of that next role, we put them on a professional development track to prepare. They may go through additional training, they may take on different types of clients. We ask more of them so that they’re ready for the new role.
What’s expected at every different stage on our accounts team is very well defined. There are about twenty-five different criteria, and everyone is ranked every quarter on a scale of one to ten. Each quarter you choose specific areas to focus on improving. Somebody’s ready for a promotion when they’re consistently meeting or exceeding their goals.
“I want people who get promoted to be in a position where anybody across the organization looks at them and says, “Oh, of course that person got promoted. They’re awesome. They’re a rock star.” Those people are going to be leaders. It’s a problem if people think, “Why did that person get a promotion and I didn’t?”
“There’s no silver bullet to motivation. People are motivated in different ways and your goal as a manager is to understand that and to alter your behavior accordingly, to work with everyone on an individual basis.”
But that said, I think there are some common themes. One thing we do is try to reinforce positive behaviors—so things like shout-outs. We give three awards at our monthly all-hands meetings. We do marketing campaigns of the week, where people can win $100 Amazon gift cards. But more important than the gift card is the fact that you got a shout out to the entire company that you built something really cool.
Along with encouragement and reinforcement, you continue having that open discussion about a person’s trajectory and what they need to do to get to the next level. You show them how the company is helping and supporting them. You show what their comp will look like, their title. Having all of that laid out really helps motivate people. Some of these challenges come from people feeling, “Hey, every six months I ask for a raise or a title change. You’re just saying no, but you’re not really telling me why. You’re not really telling me what I need to do to get it.”
Every situation is different. It depends on the severity of the offense. Our goal is to make sure the person fully understands what happened and why it matters, and there are a couple of different ways to do that. Tonally, I don’t believe screaming and yelling accomplishes anything. I think the sort of, “I’m disappointed in you,” approach is more effective.
“You have to make it about them and not about you. A lot of times with discipline, we make it about us: “You hurt the team,” or, “You hurt me because of this,” as opposed to, “You’re really hurting yourself here. It’s going to be hard to get that promotion now. You wanted to move to the other team and it’s going to be really hard for that to happen now.”
You have to relate it back to them and their career goals, how what they’ve done might impede them from getting where they want to be.
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