Making Customers Successful - StackPod Episode 17
Annerieke: Hey there, and welcome to the StackPod. This is the podcast where we talk about all things related to observability because that's what we do and that's what we're passionate about, but also what it's like to work in the ever-changing, dynamic, tech industry. So if you are interested in that, you are definitely in the right place.
Annerieke: Today we are talking to Martin Lako. Martin is Director of Customer Success here at StackState and has been here since almost the beginning - for over 3.5 years now. So to give you a little bit of a background story: As you might know, the StackState observability platform is offered as both a Saas and an on-prem solution. On-prem solutions are often used by large enterprises with highly complex IT environments consisting of many different, sometimes mission-critical, technologies. That means StackState not only needs to be implemented very carefully by Martin and his team, the team also needs to be able to integrate StackState with many different technologies.
Annerieke: When onboarding gets complex, you might expect that it is hard to keep a high customer service level. Nothing could be further from the truth for Martin and his team. According to many of our customers they do an amazing job. On technology review site G2, one customer said: “The StackState team listens to what their customers need and has fantastic customer support.” Another customer said: “Vendor/Friend with which I would like to grab a beer!”
Annerieke: So obviously, we wanted to invite Martin to the StackPod to ask him about this: What does his team do to keep our customers happy, even if onboarding can be very complex? How does he deal with all of the different time zones? How does he make sure he and his team continue to deliver the same level of customer service now that the company is growing?
Annerieke: Apart from that, Anthony and Martin talk about Martin’s biggest hobby: playing the guitar, which he started when he was 40. Martin shares why you are never too old to learn and his top tips on learning to play a music instrument. So, let me finally give the floor to Martin and Anthony. Enjoy the episode.
Anthony: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the StackPod with your host, Anthony Evans. Here we talk with interesting and innovative people in and around tech, not necessarily your CIOs or your CTOs, but we like to talk with people who actually have their hands on technology, who use it on a daily basis to drive impact for our customers. And at StackState, there's nobody in a better position to talk about customer impact than our director of customer success, Martin Lako. Martin, do you want to give everybody a brief introduction about yourself and what you do at StackState?
Martin: Yeah. Absolutely, Anthony. Thanks for having me. Nice to be part of this StackPod. So, as you mentioned, my name is Martin Lako. Living in the Netherlands, in the southern part of Netherlands, actually. I'm 48 years old. Director of customer success at StackState. And working for StackState now, 3.6 years already, so time flies when you're having fun, that's what they say, but that's really true, Anthony.
The biggest challenges when running a customer success organization in complex environments
Anthony: Awesome. So what would you say is one of the biggest challenges that you have to deal with running a customer success organization on a daily basis? So StackState has a unique set of challenges in that we've got numerous customers with numerous setups, our products integrate with a lot of stuff. How do you manage all that and make sure that it doesn't balloon up out of control and then obviously result in bad customer reviews at the end of the day? How do you combat that and how do you manage that on a daily basis?
Martin: We get in touch with a lot of people, we integrate with a lot of technology. So the biggest thing we need to manage when we start on an implementation, or a project, is really get a good relationship with the customer. So as soon as we start implementing and we want to know about how the organization is built up, who's responsible for what part of the ecosystem or the technology. And then I go in with my people, with a small team of implementation consultants, and we try to get the understanding of how people work, what they do, how their technology is built up. So it's really a lot about talking and understanding how the customer's running the business, how things work.
People first, technology second
Martin: And it starts with the organization part and then we slowly dive into the technology, which always comes second. We always think technology is the most important one, it's not. First we learn the people, get an understanding of what they do, and then dive into technology and make sure we understand the nitty gritty details. And it's extremely important that we always call them technical champions, or our champions, so we try to find sponsorship and champions as an organization, who we can work with. And we do that on a very personal relation, having frequent calls, jump in a call, talk about the technology stuff. So that's really how we manage this and that's really needed to solve these complex problems which customers have.
Anthony: One of the things I do like about the fact in your response, you didn't mention once anything about spreadsheets or project management or whatever, obviously that's all being done in the background, but the focus is on, what do we get done? Who do we need to be in contact with? If we need a data point, how do we get our hands on it? How do we enable you to have a conversation internally so that you can get more out of StackState? All that other stuff that kind of comes along, it kind of makes us more like a true customer success organization, where it's more than just like, "Hey, I have 50 hours and I'm going to deliver this many lines of code and that's what you're paying me for."
Anthony: We have a vested interest in our customers being successful. And actually, you've done a great job of that because out of everybody in StackState, you probably have the most public recognition of things. If you go to the AWS Marketplace or G2, there's notes in there. One of my favorites is, “StackState is the kind of people I like to have a beer with.” And that kind of shows that type of partnership and is a demonstration of what I just said, which is what you do provide in the organization and how you deal with it.
Globally scaling a customer success organization
Anthony: You are also facing a unique challenge as we're expanding into a global organization with customers who have 24/7 needs. We've got customers in Australia, we've got customers in the United States, obviously, in Europe, and then by extension, I even had a call with a guy from Brazil the other day who was a customer of ours, so we have a global customer presence. How are you going to scale out the customer success team? And what are some of your ideas and thoughts and notions on how you go about solving those types of challenges?
Martin: Yeah. That's a good question, Anthony. So, as you mentioned there, we're working locally from the Netherlands. So my team is based in Netherlands. However, we are able to cover a couple of time zones. So we have, as an example, we have a new US based customer. It's a customer on the cloud, on our self-service platform. So what we do is we work at the end of the day or maybe in the evening. We're not so rigid that we say it's five or six o'clock and we stop there. So we set up a couple of calls for that customer, bring the consultants in and so on.
Martin: For me, it's quite easy to skill my team. So I have a really strong team there who was really educated. And for me, it's quite easy to add more people covering the different time zones. So processes are in place. The people are in place. The knowledge is in place. So while we grow, I can easily grow the team in different parts of the world to deliver the same type of services that we do today, Anthony. So that's, for me, a no-brainer and probably one of the easiest things to do in the organization we have today.
Getting to know new customers as quickly as possible
Anthony: Yeah. I do like how flat we are though, it's not hierarchical like that. So when it comes to having a customer, we all pitch in to customer success. Whether it's the people that were involved before the deal was closed, in the form of myself and solutions architects and what not, there's no passing the buck at all. That's how we transition into these things smoothly and we work with each other as one organization and one team. So it's great though, to have that continuity, where we can talk to each other, we know each other, we wear the same t-shirts. We can really work together on that same customer pipeline, if you will, of getting to those G2 reviews. Because that's what it's all about, if we don't have success-
Martin: It's pretty cool, if you work with my team, they probably ask me on a weekly basis, "Hey, do we have already a bunch of new customers or prospects? Can we already talk to them? Can we meet them?" Because what those guys want to understand is, okay, what's the problem that we are going to solve for this particular customer? And how quickly can we get value for them, of the products for them? So how quickly can we add the value of StackState and that customer? So my team actually wants to be involved already before even the deal is done. And that's really the eagerness and the enthusiasm that my team has, including myself. What's coming up? When can we chip into that customer? When can we set up the first calls to meet with them? And how fast can we deliver their value? Because that's what they're looking for and that's always what we strive for.
Martin: First of all, what's the problem? How can we solve it? And in the shortest amount of time, maximize the value of StackState and the customers. And that's really something that is automatically grown into the team. It's not something I have to manage. So it's my belief in managing a team, like a customer success team, is really the people with the different roles, like technical support, the implementation consultants, my job is to put them in their powers. They're very intelligent people. If they can do their work properly, I've done my job pretty well and they will definitely get connected to the customer and do everything in their power to maximize the value. And that's something for me that makes me extremely proud to have and work with a team like that, which is, actually in StackState, across the board like that, Anthony. Engineering, it's all the same mindset and we're on something really cool, and everybody is really committed to make it happen.
Anthony: Yeah. And I think that's the one thing. We're all committed to making success of the organization, where we're going, because we do believe in the product, and that's our primary motivation for everything that we do. And as we grow, as we move, as we transform and we're presented with new challenges and new ways in which people will use our product, because that's another thing that changes with each implementation. It's not just the integrations. It's, what am I getting out of StackState?
Anthony: And that's really a big part of what you and your team help solve because that's not always done for you, even if you've got a customer. Sometimes excitement gets the better of you and you can do a, even a proof of concept, and be successful. But that doesn't mean that the implementation is going to wield the outcomes that the business wants and that's really where you come in.
Anthony: And knowing that stuff in the sales motion allows you to then guide the overarching solution. It just bleeds through seamlessly. And I do involve your team quite frequently in customer facing calls, even when we're just doing some onboarding, because people ask me all the time, "Hey, how do I build a view in StackState?" Well, I mean, I can tell you how to do it, but you've probably heard me tell you how to do 50,000 things and you're sick of my accent and the way I say it, so let me bring somebody else in who builds this for our customers, who'll know how to communicate to somebody who comes from that world and does that. That's been invaluable for me and the team over here in the States and it's been really helpful.
Martin: Yeah. That's good to hear. And again, emphasizing it again, technology will come second. First, we need to understand how the organization is moving. What's the problem and how are we going to help them? And the technology will come second. We know exactly how it works. But first we need to get at understanding and that's something my team is very good at. So, again, extremely proud on that and that's actually the very fun part of working at StackState for me. So I stepped in more than three years ago, 3.5 years ago, something like that. And the reason I did that is because I already sensed from the very first call I had, in what was the summer of 2018, I immediately spotted, okay, this is something cool.
Martin: And then I stepped in. And then it gave me the chance to scale it out, to build that team and to be part of it and still a strong believer we can absolutely conquer the world here. And that makes me still getting out of bed every day, jumping to the laptop, or to the car, to physical locations, which I can do fortunately, which is really good. Even visit customers again, which makes me very, very happy. But it's so cool to do and see the whole organization move to the next step. It's a roller coaster but we are doing so many cool stuff. And then the biggest recognitions, like you already mentioned, is the G2 reviews.
Martin: So we start with a customer implementation and sometimes it takes a while before you get something and you have to work your way through that organization. Sometimes it's a really flat organization with only a couple of people, but you can also imagine in the enterprises where we land, it's very political, sometimes it involves tens of people or even more. But if you then look back at it, we have now more than 20 reviews in G2, all extremely positive. How, in general, customers look at us and write the amazing reviews, there's not a better recognition than having that. And we work with them for quite a long time, we build a relationship with them, and we actually build something cool. And if you then read those reviews, there's nothing better than reading them and see what a G2 already means for us.
How music impacts Martin's life
Anthony: That's awesome. Yeah. And like I say, it's a poster child for the work that your team are doing. We don't outsource professional services. We always maintain a level of ownership of that because we want to. Well, not because we have to, because we want to. That's the key thing. And making sure that our customers are successful and that's that. You guys have done a fantastic job at that and I hope that we'll continue doing so. And I know we will. I hope that. But behind every man is, or every person I should say, whatever, is an interesting backstory. And you are a fellow busy office aficionado, let's say. I see a lot of music in the background. What's the background there? What's the influence? And how has music impacted your life?
Martin: Yeah. That's a good story, actually, Anthony, because I'm 48 years old, so...
Anthony: You just told me you were 32.
Martin: Yeah. But I passed that station already. Only for 48 years old, so I'm not even halfway, Anthony. But the funny thing is, I grew up with my dad who was always listening to rock music like Gary Moore, ACDC, Scorpions. Quite older, so there probably is a generation who's now listening to this podcast and think, who are those bands or artists? But I grew up with rock music. I always had in mind, I want to play guitar because being on stage and people delivering or bringing those awesome solos on guitar, it's amazing. It gives me goosebumps. So it took me 40 years to do that. So at 41 or 40, I actually took my first lesson, my guitar lesson. And then the virus striked me, it's really cool.
Martin: So this is the classical story, I should have done this way earlier, like 20 years earlier. But, and if you start playing music and guitar music, you start listening very, very careful to music and then I decided to collect a couple of plates, which is in the back of my background here, it's in my background. For regarding the bands I really love and I love their music and so on. So these are the inspirational people like Jimmy Hendrix, Metallica, Foo Fighters. There's even a picture of me. Not to have the comparison there with any of these artists, but it drives me to bigger heights on the playing the guitar, but I will never be a professional guitar player. It's really fun to do in an amateur type of way.
Martin: And it's also something that you really have to concentrate on. So distracting from all the cool stuff we do at StackState, sometimes you need to charge your battery and think about something else. Even I have to do that. So then I pick my guitar and just start some jamming, some stuff. And in the beginning I had some really massive blisters on my fingers, but now it's getting better and I'm a decent guitar player. So actually, really fun to do and you start watching bands, there's a whole atmosphere and world behind and around it. So yeah, that's actually one of my biggest hobbies. Yeah.
Anthony: I play the drums myself but it's a very antisocial instrument unless you're doing something as part of something else, maybe playing along with a song or whatever, or in a band. But it's always been a thing of mine and so I've always been into rock music because it's one of the best things to play. I think I started playing though when Nickelback were big, and remember that song, This is How You Remind Me, which is very simple. You could probably play that on the guitar. It's not really complicated. That was the first thing I learned on the drums. And then I then went back and did a lot of other musical stuff.
You are never too old to learn. And some tips to learn something new quickly
Anthony: But yeah, Black Sabbath, all that kind of music. I love that and I still listen to that today and I have a Spotify playlist that goes all the way from that stuff to Cat Stevens who was actually best man at my grandparents' wedding. So that's another guitar thing as well that came in. So it's awesome, and the fact that you then learnt so late in life as well, comparatively. A lot of people would say, "Hey, I'm 25 or 20 now. My time is done. I'm never going to do it." There are people that do. How was that a struggle to you? Were you able to jump off of past experiences, picking up instruments or whatever? How did you accomplish that and get into the viral stage where you're having fun, as opposed to trying to do something? You get what I mean?
Martin: Yeah. It's actually really funny because when you start, you see the young people and the youth is adopting it very, very fast. How the hell do they do it? But it's really, pick out a couple of songs that you really like, some old songs, which are, of course, not too complicated. And here's something funny because it works at muscle memory. And I never believed in that one, but what happens is that you cut a song into pieces, literally, and then your teacher says, "Okay, this week you're going to study on only the first piece of the song," and then, at some point, I didn't believe it in the beginning, he said, "After a week you will automatically, without thinking, play that first part of the song, then you go to the second chunk or piece of the song."
Martin: And it actually works. So it comes with time. You have to practice. Probably a little bit more practice for me than if you are 32 or something like that. But in the end, it's playing blocks, and you start playing it automatically. So it's practice, practice, practice, play, play, play, and having fun, and pick out songs that you really like, your favorite. A couple of times I said to my teacher, "I'm not going to play this song because I really hate it. It's not going to work." So cutting into pieces and play and having fun, that's very important. And get through the pain in your fingers, which is really heavy in the beginning.
Anthony: Yeah. What was the name of the song that I was taught? It was a Bob Dylan song, The Winds Are Changing. That was the first song that I tried to learn on guitar and I like that song in the context of a movie, but I don't like that song to listen to. But it was very similar to what you're saying, here's the chords, figure out the chords one to the next kind of thing, and then go from there and build it out over time. But yeah, no, just turn it into digestible chunks.
Anthony: And we think about the whole song, the song is three minutes long, maybe. And it feels like you're taking forever to play it because that three minutes is probably taking you three weeks to get anywhere near to, but that process, once you do it once, you realize that songs are intertwined, you're going to find that one song has the same chord structure as another, just different times and with different things. And so that's when it becomes fun. It's when you've got all those building blocks and you're building a sandcastle or a Lego castle. You're doing something constructive as opposed to figuring out which one plugs into what. That's it. But it was impressive that you've done it and you've committed to it and you're making fun and done enough to get pictured doing it, so it's more than I can say for the drums.
Martin: Yeah. So this proves right, only if you think, or even if you think, "I'm never capable of it," just start doing it. That's my lesson. You're always capable of it. It's in your own pace and this proves, even if you're 40, then you're still capable of doing it and it's fun.
Teamwork makes the dream work speech inspiration: Any Given Sunday
Anthony: That's really cool. Yeah. It's a nice thought to leave on, because we are running up on time now, but I do really appreciate all the time you've given today. I know that there's a lot of things we can cover and you've been a good sport keeping up with all the different topic changes and what not. Is there something that you would leave people with in terms of something you are reading right now that you think would be inspiring to people? Or maybe something you've read or something you've listened to, a recommendation for people to go off and say, "Hey, you know you want to know a little bit more about Martin and his viewpoint on the world, listen to this album, or read this book." What would you recommend?
Martin: Ooh, that's a tough one.
Anthony: And it doesn't have to be all encompassing, because that's how I get you to come back. Because then we say, this is just a portion of the person that is Martin.
Martin: Yeah. There's one thing which always keeps with me, and I've seen it many, many years ago. You probably also have seen it already in a couple of my presentations, Anthony. But there is a movie called Any Given Sunday and there is Al Pacino and he's playing the head coach over on the American football team. And the guy gives an amazing speech and it's really about the inches which are out there on the field. And he kind of encourages the team guys, it's a really extraordinary combination of players there, but he sends them out to the field and he kind of encouraged them to go for all the inches which are out there on the field. And this is literally which always helped me and I even preach it sometimes to the team like, "Look at this video. It's really something we are also doing. So even we think we are behind, out there in the field there are all kind of inches we can grab together, and if we add up all those inches, we will get out of the field as a winner."
Martin: And that's something then, even though when something's difficult or whatever, it's always in my mind. There are still inches out there, if we grab those inches and we add them all up together, we'll be a winner. So, that's something which really applies to me and to my way of thinking in general about work in private.
Anthony: That is a very good Al Pacino movie. Very good movie recommendation. Even if you don't know much about American football or whatever, it's pretty self explanatory. It is one of the best football movies because of that speech.. It's a fun film to watch. Really good.
Martin: Yeah. It's very inspirational. So that's probably my closing lines for today, Anthony, in this StackPod.
Anthony: Awesome. Cool. Well, thanks again for your time. And to everyone listening, thanks for listening and we'll see you again soon. Thanks. Bye.
Martin: Anthony, thanks for having me and looking forward to whatever comes.
Annerieke: Thank you so much for listening. We hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like more information about StackState, you can visit stackstate.com and you can also find a written transcript of this episode on our website. So if you prefer to read through what they've said, definitely head over there and also make sure to subscribe if you'd like to receive a notification whenever we launch a new episode. So, until next time...
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