Endeavor Greece recently hosted an Ask Me Anything session with Panayiotis Vitakis from Celonis to allow budding entrepreneurs the chance to pick the brain of one of Greece’s customer success experts. As Chief Customer Officer (CCO), Panayiotis is tasked with ensuring that Celonis’ execution management system meets and exceeds his clients’ needs. Here we had the chance to learn about why customer success sometimes needs to come at the expense of your balance sheet, why the best parts of company culture ought to be its values and who is destined for a career in customer success.
Setting off on the right foot for customer success begins with pairing up with a company that already places value in its product and how it drives value for its customers. When asked what one should look for in a company, in order to join its team, Panayiotis insisted that “When you’re picking software companies, it’s all about the product”. According to him, you must make sure on the one hand that the product is solving a real problem which has impact, is big and on the other hand that it is well done. “You can tell when a product is well done, it’s been designed well, it’s functional, it’s easy to use – you can see the quality in it” he explained.
However, a company can have a fantastic product, but they might not have yet found the right way to sell it, to enter a market, to position and to price it in a scalable way. “The risk is that you can throw a lot of resources, you can hire a lot of salespeople but if you haven’t figured out the sales pitch and plan successfully, then you’re probably just going to spend a lot of money and not get to the right place.” he added. After the company has traction, Panayiotis advises to look at retention rate, as this is a big indication of whether the product drives value and, finally, according to Panayiotis, “the rest is all about the team, the people running and building the business”.
“It really comes from the top” said Panayiotis, who believes in living for customer value. “It always starts from how we can make the customer successful, because it’s primarily a mentality and a state of mind, and secondarily a process.” he explained and urged professionals to think whether they are solving a real problem and whether their strategy is going to lead to long term customers. According to him, working towards customer success comes from preaching from the top and then aligning incentives, processes and communication plans to drive customer success. “From a product perspective, it’s always thinking about and engaging the customer. You’ll be amazed to see how as the company grows, people will forget about that” he added.
As a company grows, there are multiple processes and people, and everyone has their own mentality. This is when leaders must ensure that their team refocuses on the customer perspective. “Every company experiments and changes their incentive plans almost endlessly” pointed out Panayiotis, who insisted that when it comes to post sales, things are straightforward, since the key metrics there are mainly centered on retention and expansion. “But you want the post sales organization to be driven both by retention – which in my opinion is the highest priority – and expansion, in order to have that alignment with sales.” he added.
Panayiotis also urged entrepreneurs to get their customers to be part of their marketing efforts. “Be it webinars, references, conferences, it is super important to have the customers be part of that. And incentivizing the post sales teams to bring them into this.” he explained. At the same time, the expansion goals should always align with the sales goals. There are companies, according to Vitakis, that split the account executives into hunters and farmers. Hunters focus completely on new business, they just bring in new logos, whereas farmers just stay on with logos and grow them. “Personally, I don’t believe in that strategy because your best opportunity for growth is your existing customers. The account executive needs to stay and build a relationship over time.” he added.
Panayiotis admitted that setting up a customer success and growth team is a hard thing to do and he shared a few tips on the hiring process. According to him, you should look for those traits in a candidate that cannot be taught, such as drive, desire, passion and motivation. “When reviewing a candidate’s track record, you want to see somebody who has grown, has been promoted and has evolved in the role. You want somebody who is driven to do better.” he explained. At the same time, a good candidate should show ownership in a fast paced growth environment. And the way to identify this is to ask candidates questions on projects they have taken on and see whether they have pride and a positive attitude and then ask them what went wrong, to see if they will take ownership.
He also insisted on flexibility, brains and loyalty among the traits you should look for in a candidate. “I absolutely don’t like, and typically reject candidates who jump to a new job every year or year and a half. I don’t care what the opportunity is ahead of them or what comes to them; to me that shows no commitment, and no loyalty.” he explained. Especially for customer success, he suggested that hiring managers should look for people that are customer focused, have a customer mentality and customer facing skills and, last but not least, who are likable. “The thing you have to remember about customer success is that it’s completely driven by customer needs rather than revenue. In a software company, you have to be prepared to heavily invest in customer success, rather than try to make money out of it.” he said.
When asked how a company can preserve its culture as the company scales, Panayiotis pointed out that “Culture has the tendency of creating less diversity”. According to him, all the company employees are just one team combined, held together by what they are trying to do. In small teams, there is no need to build culture, as all team members have the same focus and it happens organically. However, as a company grows, this changes and by that time you know what has made the company successful, then you can define the company values. “You really need to find a strong way to codify what makes the company special and then talk about making it part of your everyday work.”
According to Vitakis, it all comes down to sustaining that initial spirit that got you to succeed, even as the company grows. Although he acknowledges that there are things you can do such as events, recognition, rewards, fun activities, and team building, Panayiotis insists that, fundamentally, what a company needs to be held together is to identify the values that matter and that the company represents. “That’s how you bring people from different, diverse backgrounds to believe in the same vision.” he explained.
Τhere is a handicap when starting from Europe, admitted Panayiotis, who explained that unicorns spring up in the United States because the market itself is huge and quite homogenous. “Try and sell in 20 different countries in Europe – it’s a nightmare!” Panayiotis insisted that the most important thing in the United States is the experience of people that have done this before. Although it is always great to start, learn and innovate, when you bring the right talent at the right time, huge acceleration follows. “You’ve got to make bold decisions and bold investments that will make a difference and will bring people who will help you make that difference” he said.
“Now you’ll make bets and some of them will completely fail because what looks good on paper doesn’t mean it necessarily works in practice.” he said, while adding that you must take big bets if you want to accelerate growth. At the same time, Panayiotis suggested that you should innovate and set the bar really high every step of the way, in terms of what the company can do to become a unicorn. “It’s also about being extremely ambitious about the division of the product and thinking where and how you can grow the market, rather than stay in a product that can work well but maybe doesn’t scale to the unicorn or the higher level.” he explained.
Panayiotis wrapped up the session by admitting that there is no secret recipe, but these are some of the things he has seen along the way, throughout his career, and he insisted on the crucial role that the ecosystem can play in a company’s growth. “You have to think about how you build an ecosystem around what you do, that can help you scale where you can’t. You can’t do everything on your own. And the ecosystem, if you involve the right partner, it can really help you scale really fast.”
Looking to stay up to date with all Greek tech news and hear directly from leaders in the field? Sign up for the Endeavor newsletter using the banner below, and you’ll be the first to know!