Know who your customers are, how they measure success of the relationship with you/offering you provide.
Hire the right people and then empower them to do the best work of their careers.
Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing April Oman, a transformative and proactive Global Customer Success Executive.
April joined D2L in 2016 as Senior Vice President of Customer Engagement overseeing D2L’s end-to-end customer experience — from their initial onboarding and throughout their entire journey of launching, optimizing, and expanding their adoption of the Brightspace platform. She works to understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the customer journey to enact the strategies, processes, technology, and an operational mindset that deliver maximum value to customer. April, who has extensive background in customer management, previously holding leadership positions with Zuora, Salesforce, and Cornerstone OnDemand, is also a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an advisor to start-up companies and customer success professionals around the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been an animal lover, so I wanted to be a veterinarian. After taking a few animal-science courses that I uncharacteristically struggled with — and realizing my gag-reflex would not serve me well — I switched to Psychology. I really loved learning about why we do what we do. After graduation, I joined a boutique, global consulting firm where I designed, analyzed and reported on employee and customer relationship surveys for Fortune 1,000 organizations. That allowed me to work with a wide variety of companies, in different functions and roles. I learned how to listen, connect solutions with problems, make recommendations, present to senior executives and pack a suitcase. I also earned my Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology while working.
Throughout my career, I have been focused on customer success and equipping teams to deliver better customer experiences. It makes me happy when customers realize value and I’ve gained invaluable experience in customer management while at Salesforce, Cornerstone OnDemand, Zuora and now D2L.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Well, on my first day with D2L I was trapped on a plane from San Francisco to Toronto sitting beside my new manager. That could have been nerve-wracking, but she was great. The flight was basically my onboarding.
How D2L responded to COVID is what really stands out for me, ultimately. We enhanced our infrastructure and provided more support/training to help our customers transition to more fully online learning.
Some of the highlights were launching a Quick Start Care Package, which also included optimizing our deployment processes for our flagship product, Brightspace, for new customers. We also hosted hundreds of webinars and added thousands of resources to the Brightspace Community. In the end, in 2020 we achieved 99.99% service availability and our education customers rewarded us with a Net Promoter Score of 45.5.
Our teams ensured that our customers were well supported — and that’s a credit to how D2L responded internally. While we are a global workforce, many of our core team members are based at HQ in Kitchener, Ontario. With the leadership of IT, Facilities, and People and Culture, we made a seamless transition for all to work productively from home.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I live in Berkeley, California where the weather is obviously a lot more … temperate … than Kitchener, Ontario. I was smart enough to buy a big puffy coat but thought I could make do with regular shoes. Big mistake.
At the sales kickoff, I wiped out in front of the hotel. In front of my colleagues, too. So, I am now a proud owner of a pair of rubber boots made from recycled tires. On the plus side I didn’t hurt myself … because I fell on my big puffy coat.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Being a remote leader of multiple, global post-sales teams can be challenging. Along the customer journey, there are different outcomes, processes, and metrics that matter team by team. I recognized that I was going to have to step up; How was I going to transform this team? Ensure an exceptional customer experience in every interaction? Build a culture of high performance? Build boundaryless relationships across the company?
I chose to do a few things to start. I hired a professional coach whom I had worked with previously at Salesforce and Zuora. Bobbie LaPorte knew me well and was instrumental in helping me craft a 30- to 120-day plan. This plan outlined goals with success measures, whom (and in what order) to build relationships with and why, steps for understanding the current strengths and develop opportunities for the teams and the key leaders whom I have the direct privilege to lead.
I also chose to travel to HQ every other week for my first year of employment. This amount of travel was tough personally, and I am so grateful for the support of my husband, Lance. This decision expedited my onboarding, relationship building, understanding of the challenges and where to focus.
Between 60- and 90-days I held a roadshow to share what I had learned, introduce goals and measures, set expectations and reset the culture. I introduced these six guiding principles: 1) Transparency 2) Collaboration 3) One Team 4) Balance 5) Accountability and 6) Innovation.
Transparency means being candid so people can do their best work. Collaboration is a necessity in today’s work environment. “One Team” means that we support each other in service to the customer. Balance is about ensuring we always do right by the customer while remembering the metrics we need to achieve. Accountability is about having a high say-do ratio; you are one step along the customer journey so be respectful of that opportunity and do your best. If you cannot do your best, ask for help and because we are One Team you are not alone. And technology and process improvements are how we Innovate.
Since joining D2L, the Customer Engagement team has developed a plethora of innovations to facilitate scale in onboarding, launching, optimizing and growing our customers in constant pursuit of providing an exceptional customer experience. These guiding principles are introduced to every new hire and part of every Town Hall — which is how we keep them top-of-mind. We live them. This year we are emphasizing scale because more and more customers are realizing that learning requires a real learning platform, so we are continuing to ready ourselves to enable more customers globally to facilitate this transition.
While there have been times, too, where work is exhausting, I don’t give up. I pivot; I reflect and learn; I start out incrementally noting what milestone/success measures will indicate if I should keep going or pivot. Failure is a lesson learned. Feedback is a gift.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents taught me that working hard is a virtue. But “hard” isn’t necessarily the best way to work — so I am grateful to many people who have helped me understand that along the way. Jenny Blackburn, Steve Greene, Jenny Cheng, Tien Tzuo, Todd Pearson, Frank Riccardi, Cheryl Ainoa and Bobbie Laporte. Each of these talented people helped me grow as a leader, to experiment and refine my approach to customer success, to contribute to the success of teams and company, to manage conflict and to celebrate all wins. They led by example, provided candid feedback and inspire me to this day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” While I have changed roles and companies, my passion for customer success and leading teams are constants. I love what I do! I love hearing customers share stories about how Brightspace has helped their learners learn! Education is accessible, mobile and grounded in pedagogy. When customers talk about the partnership with D2L, I know that the effort we put into ensuring an exceptional customer experience is worth it. I believe leading teams is a privilege; it’s an awesome opportunity to enable people’s development, to give feedback and recognize accomplishments, to coach and mentor and give the kind of support that lets everyone do their best work every day.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Our mission is to transform the way the world learns. What’s standing in the way of that — the pain point — are the barriers that learners face to getting a great education.
For some, the barriers are accessibility. We build Brightspace with empathy and with accessibility in mind. That’s why our products are easily usable by people with disabilities, interoperable with assistive technologies and meet global accessibility standards.
For others, the barriers are technological. That’s why we design for access from any device from the beginning, so whatever device a user has or can afford gives them access to teaching and learning.
Another barrier learners face are the limits that technology puts on teachers. We don’t accept limitations that way. We let teachers teach the way they want — and they can use a single platform for any teaching style.
Removing barriers to learning means going beyond traditional models to support skills development, workforce partnerships and so on. It’s removing barriers to lifelong learning — not just traditional student learning models. This helps employers with skills development and employee retention while also helping academic institutions grow at a time when many are seeing traditional enrollments decline.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ve heard that back when D2L was still being run out of our founder John Baker’s dorm room at the University of Waterloo, he only had two questions for people who wanted to join D2L. The first was, “What are the barriers to a quality education today?” People had no trouble answering that one — and cited everything from class sizes to attainment to reaching people globally. The second question was harder, “How do we solve these problems?”
John asked those two questions because he wanted more than just skilled people — he wanted people who could identify the big issues of paramount importance, and who would also have the courage to go out and tackle those problems creatively. It was a way for D2L to find people who were committed to education and who could think through the challenges that were going to lie ahead.
Because John felt there would be no shortage of challenges to solve.
One of the biggest challenges was identified by the team early on: how do we reach every learner? In fact, that’s still a goal of D2L today. It was also inspired by some of D2Ls first customers.
John still remembers the first letter the company got from a parent — delivered by mail. It was from a mom living in a first nation community in northern Canada who said that — for the first time — her child would be able to learn online. In the past, she would have had to travel 600 miles to attend the closest school. That mom was overjoyed that her daughter was able to stay connected with her family, in her community, and still finish high school.
And that’s when John knew that “reaching every learner” would become D2L’s answer to some of the most pressing problems in learning. And for that, Brightspace — and our company — have won a ton of awards over the years.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Along with D2L’s CTO Nick Oddson, we led an initiative targeted at smaller customers to help customers launch Brightspace quickly with minimal human engagement, while maintaining high satisfaction and adoption.
I am excited about this initiative because we are reducing the amount of effort associated with configurations, reducing product complexity, increasing time/resources on value-add deliverables such as change management and guided training, investing in partner enablement, etc., all ultimately resulting in customers launching quicker and more importantly solving their learning goals faster.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I am not satisfied. The unacceptable gender gap in technology persists despite efforts to address diversity, pay and increased educational opportunities. And all of that hurts companies, because we know that diversity in gender, experience, skills and ethnicity in an organization makes all organizations stronger.
I think women in particular struggle to raise their hand for new opportunities when they don’t see others like themselves at that respective level. It goes back to education. We need to inspire girls to pursue technology-based educations, and continue to:
- Intentionally seek out ideas/insights from people who may not look like you.
- Support diversity by accommodating the way people process and react to information. Send material in advance so that introverts may prepare and communicate their thoughts.
- Implement a “no-interruption” rule at brainstorming and team meetings so everyone is heard.
- Ban the word “fit” from hiring discussions — recognizing that what is intended to refer to an alignment of values can be translated into comfort with someone who looks, thinks and acts like the majority.
- Next time you ask someone for advice on a project (your go-to folks), stop and ask yourself — who did you miss/not ask? Why?
- Don’t assume that people who work differently (or even less) are less committed.
- When discussing possible presenters for a meeting, panel, or other event, make sure the group of people under consideration is diverse. Seize these opportunities to showcase somebody who isn’t heard from much, if at all.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
There are two main things we need to do. We need to fight Imposter syndrome and create an environment of diversity, inclusion and belonging.
There’s a quote I love: “Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice. And belonging is having that voice be heard.” I love this quote because it gets at the three levels of change needed.
Specifically, we should remember the following:
- Create a safe space in order to have a constructive discussion where we focus on understanding each other’s perspectives, without fear of judgement.
- Some people will need to learn more than others, and that’s okay — support each other by providing valid and reputable resources, if you know of any to share.
- Assume positive intent. Treat each other with respect, mutual understanding and patience.
- Refrain from making assumptions about another’s identity or lived experience.
- Recognize when someone has shared something difficult.
- If emotions get high, take a step back and think about how to ensure the discussion is constructive.
- Make space for others to speak. Recognize when you’ve had time to share when others haven’t.
- Lead By Example.
That also means supporting women in raising hands for opportunities informally and establishing a formal mentorship program.
I am personally paying it forward by mentoring other women, and I am co-sponsor of a Women in Leadership Network, a D2L initiative. We’ve hosted sessions on topics such as Finding your Voice/Building your Brand, Imposter Syndrome, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging and Career Development in an Evolving World. These webinars are open to everyone.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
I am always going to say if you want growth, listen to your customers. It is far cheaper and more efficient (especially if you have a long sales cycle) to grow your current customer base than to go acquire a new customer. This doesn’t necessarily mean do whatever your customer says — every company has to make focused decisions about where to invest in terms of balancing product innovation or competition or infrastructure, etc. When customers appreciate the value they are getting from your product and relationship, they will advocate on your behalf. And that’s powerful.
When I was at Zuora, I learned about PADREPPM –which stands for Pipeline, Acquire, Deploy, Run, Expand, Product, People and Money. https://www.zuora.com/guides/padre-new-operating-metrics-new-subscription-business-model/ On a monthly basis, the pillar leader (I owned “Run” and provided input into “Deploy” and “Expand”) would review key metrics with the other leaders. We would discuss and debate results and forecasts. This operating model, inspected on a regular cadence, provided great insight into where we were successful and not on the key metrics that mattered. We are now using this same model at D2L.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
What I have seen work most effectively and efficiently are the following:
- Have a solid sales process; I learned about MEDDIC (Force Management) https://meddic.academy/definition-meddic/ while at Zuora. MEDDIC stands for Metrics, Economic Buyer, Decision Process, Decision Criteria, Identify Pain and Champion. Following a process such as this methodology implies a higher probability of sales effectiveness.
- Understand the competition so that you can adequately articulate the value (what problems are solved) of your service, product and company.
- Conduct deal reviews so that success can be shared and replicated and lessons are learned.
- Understand why/when you win vs when you don’t win; this means having the discipline to document what contributes to a winning sale and sharing as well as reasons for not winning.
- Have a robust sales enablement function.
- Align compensation to the behaviors you wish to drive.
One last one which should not surprise your readers — consider having a customer panel as part of your Sales Kickoff (SKO) experience. D2L does this very well; one panel is focused on new customers where we learn what worked during the sales process, why they bought, what the competition may have done, and what we can do better. The other panel is comprised of longer-tenured customers which provide insight into what we can start/stop/continue doing from every aspect of the relationship, our brand, product, etc. These panels are the highlight of SKO.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
I think it’s important to have a clear value proposition that solves real problems. Next is having a great brand that truly articulates the value your company and product. This is backed up by pricing and packaging that addresses the markets (size, segment, vertical) you want.
You also need to show how the partnership your company offers is better than the competition. You need to understand them and be where they are. If you happen to attract the wrong type of customer, the team who owns implementation, support and management of that customer must provide feedback to sales enablement, leadership and the team that sold the deal so that the mistake is not repeated. In the end you really need to understand your cost to acquire, serve and grow customers and realize that those who are low cost to acquire, serve and grow are likely the ones to focus on most.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Create multiple listening channels in order to solicit feedback and input from your customers and take action on what they say.
- Create software that is easy to use; workflows based on the best way to perform an action and involve customers in the design and testing of new capabilities because functionality should be easy and intuitive.
- Create a community whereby customers can find answers to their questions fast and easy; also ensure that it supports customer to customer connection/discussion because customers want to hear from other customers.
- And finally have a Customer Success team that is laser focused on ensuring customers are successful; success means they are using the software/product, buying more, advocating — realizing value.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Demonstrate you care about customers by establishing a Customer Success team whose focus is purely on ensuring customers derive value.
Create a customer journey that describes what the customer needs to accomplish and what obstacles may occur at each stage or milestone in their lifecycle. For D2L, we surround our customers with the necessary support to help them meet and exceed their learning goals at each phase of the journey: Evaluate, Onboard & Launch, Optimize and Grow. This journey is part of New Hire Orientation so that all D2Lers build empathy for what customers want to accomplish.
Define what exceptional customer experience means for your organization and what it looks and feels like for the customer; reward this behavior when you “see” it so that it is clear to all what behaviors to emulate.
Identify risks and establish mitigation plans to reduce risk. This means using common language for risk tracking, a regular cadence of reviewing risks, clarity on what the risk is (is it in or outside of your control), the business impact and what it is going to take to resolve the risk. At D2L, we evaluate risks pre- and post-launch and these risks are reviewed with representation from product, technology and customer engagement so that we can get to the root cause and resolution as fast as possible.
I include downsells in the definition of churn as it is lost ARR. A downsell is better than a lost logo. In the case of D2L, we look for opportunities to serve the customer better so if presented with a downsell, we evaluate where the customer could be getting value that they are currently not and present options with benefits.
Establish a 360-customer view such that you know what they have purchased and are entitled to (you might find an upsell!), usage (increasing, decreasing — and on what key capabilities that makes your product sticky), Net Promotor Score, Satisfaction with projects or case resolution, Engagement (attendance/presenting at events, activity in the Community, case study participation) and Advocacy levels (references).
Segment your customer base, offering different levels of engagement based on size, need, maturity; ensure no customer is left behind. For many companies that means creating a program for smaller customers.
There have been studies that illustrate an empowered, satisfied team is more likely to provide great service. Empower the teams working with customers, remove obstacles to their success, recognize great work, focus on a few priorities vs chasing everything and provide effective feedback.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know who your customers are, how they measure success of the relationship with you/offering you provide.
- Be agile — but have processes or frameworks for how the company will run and have a regular cadence for inspection of the key metrics that matter (cost to acquire, cost to support, cost to grow/retain).
- Focus on a few initiatives or priorities at a time with specific success criteria identified at major milestones so that you can pivot or expedite if you need to.
- Hire the right people and then empower them to do the best work of their careers.
- Celebrate wins.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I really wish I had invented Customer Success. Given that it’s already taken, right now I think what the world needs is healing.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Michelle Obama. When I was born, my parents lived in a trailer on my Grandpa’s farm in Ohio so I identify strongly with her humble upbringing, and I aspire to have the impact she has had on girls and the world. I would want to talk with her about the Girls Opportunity Alliance, which is about ensuring girls everywhere have the right to learn.
I believe education is the way out of poverty. When there is equal access and equity, opportunities are endless. And the world is better.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!