On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Harini Gokul, Head of Customer Success at AWS. Harini and I talk about the importance of working backwards to define customer success. And how companies can better understand customer needs to create better products and services. Let’s get started.
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Interview Transcript with Harini Gokul, Head of Customer Success at AWS
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Harini Gokul. She is the Head of Customer Success at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Welcome to the show.
Harini Gokul: Thank you. It is such a pleasure to be here. I’ve heard many episodes of your show and I’m so excited to have this conversation.
Brian Ardinger: Obviously, Amazon Web Services is one of those companies that we think of when we think of innovation. I first want to just start with, what is your role at Amazon Web Services and what is the Head of Customer Success actually do?
Harini Gokul: Yes, it’s a great question. So, AWS is all about customer obsession. It is baked into the DNA of how we build products and go to market and take care of our customers. I lead what we call as the customer solutions function. What the industry sometimes also calls customer success, for our next generation of customers.
What that means is we want to make sure that we are investing in our highly innovative hyper-growth customers to make sure that we are supporting them in their transformation. In their digital transformation and their business transformation. At the end of the day, my job is making sure my customers can take care of their customers.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s dig into that a little bit. So obviously you, by working with a lot of different companies, you’ve seen both the good and the bad of how people focus on customers. And what are some of the insights or maybe biggest mistakes that you’ve seen from customers when it comes to interacting with customers.
Harini Gokul: There’s certainly a lot of good and a lot of opportunities for us. Our starting point is how we define value and good with the customer. Right. And the one challenge I see is we start with our definition of what good looks like. And we are nodding. We are in customer conversations and nodding sometimes.
But not really actively listening or absorbing what the customer’s articulating their problems. Because we so badly want our solution to fit their problem statement. So, I think the biggest hurdle is starting with what we think is good. And thinking versus truly actively listening to the customer and focusing on a customer defined value.
Brian Ardinger: So, are there particular tactics that you use when you start that first conversation with a potential customer to understand their needs and then subsequently what to with that?
Harini Gokul: Absolutely. So, my, my favorite, I’ve many tools in my toolkit, but one of my favorite tools is actually an Amazon methodology called Working Backwards. Many of our listeners, and probably you have heard about it, Brian.
Working backwards as an approach of creating a press release before you build a new product or a service, or you create a new program and what that does is it starts from the customer. And it says, when we do this, this is the problem we are solving for. This is the challenge we’ve addressed. This is the benefit we’ve provided the customer. And it’s an articulation of value. And what good looks like when the job is done.
So, you work backwards and place the customer squarely in the center of what you do. And then work backwards from that to say, what do we build, create, stand up, create as an organization to deliver on that value?
Brian Ardinger: And through that process, I imagine you’re not always right. Those assumptions that you make at the very beginning of what you think the customer needs and that. So, you need to, I would imagine to be agile or adaptable to how that works.
So how does that initial, I guess, take on the customer and that, how does that play out in real life when you’re actually then executing and finding out that some of the things that you thought were correct. Some of the assumptions you had are now incorrect.
Harini Gokul: And, you know, it’s two ways. It’s one be, make flawed assumptions. Or we, like I said, we truly want to believe that some of our beliefs are true. So it’s important to dis-confirm our beliefs. Also, especially in the past two years with the rapid growth and innovation we’ve seen, customer needs are constantly evolving, right?
So, we need a muscle to continuously listen. You listen first and then you create what you believe, what you’ve heard and have that document from working backwards. And then be constantly check in. You know, as we do the work with the customer, to dis-confirm our beliefs and understand if customer needs have changed. If what they are looking for has changed. If their customer needs have changed. So, there is a process to constantly check in and iterate.
It’s about actively continuing to get customer perspective. And as we do our work, and also being open to going back on positions, we’ve made. Always sort of examining decisions that are being made. Commitments that have been made. And say, is this the right thing for the customer.
Brian Ardinger: I imagine you work with a wide variety of types of companies. So, startups to more established ones. And all kind of growing fast. Is there a different mindset from a brand-new startup, that’s trying to spin up some new things in the marketplace? Versus an existing customer that’s trying to grow and expand their existing business model?
Harini Gokul: It’s such a great question, by the way, because I do work with the diversity of customers. And the more I see at the spectrum of customers. All from sort of more mature companies to born in the cloud companies, there are certain common foundational things that go across them that help them succeed.
One is this focus on customer defined value. And putting the customer at the center of everything they do. The second is making sure that there’s a culture of innovation that is built into how you solve those problems, right?
And that goes back to creating an environment where your talent feels fearless. They feel like they can take risks. They feel that are two-way doors here, where they can make decisions, experiment, and fail fast. Those are the things that are common across these companies.
What is different, of course is the approach and the execution, right? So more mature companies have more legacy assets as an example. Or a mindset that needs to evolve. And born in the cloud companies have seen growth, but they’re struggling with how do I sustain this growth.
Now that my product, is such a great fit. Now that I’ve seen such early traction, how do I build the foundations? How do I build the culture, the people, the scale that’s required for me to sustain this growth? So, the leavers are slightly different depending on where you are, but there are a number of things that span across this range of companies.
Brian Ardinger: So, let’s talk about some other tools or tactics that you use to remain competitive and innovative. What are some of the things that you’re looking at that are changing the game out there?
Harini Gokul: Absolutely. I think we’ve been in a period of hyper growth, hyper innovation. And companies and customers are all thinking about a couple of things. They’re thinking about how do I serve my customers better? It’s becoming competitive. So, they want to differentiate themselves. So, a number of our customers are thinking about what do I need to do in terms of product, in terms of experience that can help differentiate.
And my role is to help them figure it out. A lot of the conversations we’re having right now is working backwards from what they want to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, what they want to serve to their customers, and saying what are some decisions they have to make?
And that’s really, to me, one of the most important things about what I do is helping companies place their bets. How do I determine where do I put my talent? Am I going to put them in sort of this technical, heavy lifting in the back? You know, this undifferentiated heavy lifting. Do I put them to build a product? What am I going to focus on? Is there a go to market I focused on versus building a product?
And so, a lot of my work is bringing in my product teams to sit with the customer to think about what good looks like for them and help make them the right decisions. So, if I step back, I think the element of helping customers place bets. Talent is hard to find. Resources are not finite. Infinite.
So, helping them place their bets and prioritize best to serve their customers is probably the most important thing we do. And that includes working closely with our product teams, working closely with our sales teams. And really up and down the stack to make sure our customers get what they need.
Brian Ardinger: You bring up an interesting point when it comes to technology and data and the fast paced that the world is moving. Such that companies have to be much more adaptable at understanding where their talent is and where they should be leveraging and that.
So, can you talk about some of the things that you’re seeing when it comes to data and technology of where customers can get the most out of the new trends and the new things that are popping up there, and still remain relevant?
Harini Gokul: I think it’s important to think about innovation. But innovation that is truly important to the customer. So, I would say start with what makes a difference to your customer. What problem you’re solving. Then prioritize. And as you translate that internally create a culture that rewards making the news versus just reporting the news.
And to me, that’s one of the biggest signs of a company that sustains this hyper-growth that hyper innovation, is creating a culture that scales beyond initial innovation. Culture that rewards its people for always looking around the corner. Picking up those signals. Knowing what’s coming down the pipe. Knowing what’s important to the customer even if it’s just an anecdote they’ve heard. And then bringing it back in and translating that into a product feature into a go to market, into a sales play, that helps the customer meet their needs.
So, I think companies that create a culture of innovation that reward making the news versus just sort of delivering on what you’ve promised, are the ones that will truly be successful as you go forward.
Brian Ardinger: You mentioned having a constant customer contact and that. And I think it’s easy at the beginning when you’re a startup, because one, you don’t have as many customers. So, you can stay in touch and you’re trying to figure out what they really need.
But as you grow, as you have customers, you have delivered a solution over and over again to them. I think sometimes get complacent, from the standpoint of you think, you know, what the customer wants, or you rely on the salespeople telling you what they’ve heard in their field rather than having that direct relationship with the customer.
Are there tactics or things that you’ve seen to continue that hunger of customer centricity, that you’ve experienced or that you’ve seen from your customers?
Harini Gokul: Hunger is such a great word for that, because you truly do need to be hungry to know what your customers are thinking. And really helping them, you know, thinking around the corner with them. The one tactic that I’ve used in many, many roles that’s really worked for me is called a customer advisory board.
And you can do this, but if you are a startup with five customers, or if you are a much more mature company with thousands and hundreds and thousands of customers. It’s the importance of getting together a representative sample of your customers around the table, literally around a virtual table.
Or a physical forum and having a conversation that lets them do two things. One it lets each of the customers have a peer-to-peer connection. Because that’s really the value add to bringing customers together is having them connect with each other and share insights and perspectives.
And second, having them share with you what they think is working and what they think could be better and what signals they are seeing. And to me, these forums, these customer advisory board forums are so critical to making sure that even when an organization matures, as it grows up, that we are keeping closely connected to customer signals.
Brian Ardinger: The last topic I want to talk about is trends that you’re seeing in the space. Obviously, the world is changing very quickly, whether it’s technology or data and that. What are some of the things that you’re excited about that you’re seeing in the marketplace that are changing the way companies can work with customers?
Harini Gokul: I think there are multiple things any given day, I often say that since the great industrial revolution, this has been the decade of unprecedented change. Data is king right now, or queen. And I see a lot of focus on getting data. Understanding data. But what I’ve really liked is now that we are leveraging that data to pattern match. And draw inferences. And be proactive and predictive in how we can take care of our customers.
So, while data is great and I love the focus on it. What I love seeing is the step up. Is the transformation of using data as means to a better customer journey. I think that’s important. I love that praise. What that is driving and what that has also complimented is sort of the consumerization of technology anywhere, right?
Our experiences are so driven by what we see around us in the consumer technology, that even enterprise more traditional mature spaces are starting to understand what good looks like from the consumerization of technology and where we can adopt it. So, I think that syndrome has become more spread.
The third piece I’ll say is I’ve always been very intentional about privacy, security, data sovereignty. I worked in Europe for a while, and I was there when GDPR happened. And I could see that in order for this incredible growth in the Cloud to continue, we would need people to trust the Cloud. To trust that they knew our organizations had their best interest at heart. And I see that anxiety and I see that importance, come back again in a very significant way. Especially given the geopolitical environment we are in right now.
For More Information on Customer Success
Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. Things are changing so fast. It’s both exciting to be in this, but it’s also one of the scariest times, I think, for a lot of customers and companies out there trying to figure this out. I really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your insights. If people want to find out more about yourself or about AWS, what’s the best way to do that.
Harini Gokul: LinkedIn, please.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Harini, thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation. And I thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on customer success.
Harini Gokul: Of course. Thank you.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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