Influential Women in CX: Irene Lefton Shares Insights from a Lifetime in Customer Experience

Jayaram Bhat | June 25, 2019

Headshot of Irene Lefton

The latest profile in our Influential Women in CX interview series focuses on someone who’s been immersed in customer experience since childhood. Irene Lefton is a customer success executive and evangelist. In part one of our interview, she shares how she became involved in customer success and where she’s currently focusing her talents. Irene also discusses the relationship between customer success and customer experience and the impact that customer success can have on other departments across the organization.

(Please note that the following interview has been edited slightly for clarity.)

What was your entrée into customer success?

I feel as though I started in customer success a long time ago. Growing up, my family ran a shoe store. As is true for most small businesses today, we had an obligation to maintain very close connections with our customers in order to be successful.

We had a rudimentary customer relationship management system on index cards that documented every single purchase that each customer made. We also had a lot of rules governing customer interactions. For example, customers had to be greeted within five seconds of walking through the front door, and we only served one customer at a time when fitting shoes.

Through those early experiences, I learned at a root level how to best serve customers and how to provide an outstanding customer experience. As I got my degree in business and moved into various jobs — finally ending up in the software industry — I always found myself applying that same model of customer success that I had learned from my family business long before the field of customer success even existed.

What are you currently working on?

Today, I’m a serial customer success executive who is passionate about startups. Typically I join a company in the early stages — usually A and B series funding, sometimes C series funding. I help these startups build out their post-sales functions, which can include support and professional services, customer success, training, and managing renewals.

I’ve also run pre-sales and done sales and marketing work over the course of my career. But now I prefer to focus on the post-sales side of businesses, working with select clients and evangelizing the field of customer success.

In addition, I’m finishing a book that I’ve been working on for a number of years titled Who Speaks for the Customer, which I hope will become part of the curriculum for MBA programs. My goal is to teach a whole new crop of business leaders about the impact that serving customers can have on subscriptions, as well as how important it is to be customer centric in your business and how that translates into a strong bottom line.

Finally, I sit on a couple of governing councils and standards committees, speak at events, and engage in other activities to evangelize customer success. I do occasional consulting, but it’s not my primary focus. My primary focus is evaluating startups and looking for the next one that I’ll join.

What is the Customer Success Leadership Network and how are you involved?

The Customer Success Leadership Network is a self-formed group of customer success executives. We’ve been around for almost four years now. We initially started by meeting for breakfast or lunch once a month, just as a peer-to-peer group. Over time, we decided to become more organized.

Now we put on monthly events, which you can find on under Customer Success Networking. The events are all over the Bay Area; we try to be in the city, in the East Bay, in the South Bay, and on the Peninsula. We’re volunteer-based, although we do accept sponsorships from a small group of vendors in order to help cover the cost of event venues and other expenses.

We bring together top leaders to share knowledge and educate anyone who has interest with a mission to sustain the field of customer success. We want to make sure that this very important function doesn’t fall by the wayside as business changes over time. We want it to live on far into the future because we all share the philosophy that the true path to growth is through adding value with good customer experience, which is rooted in customer success.

What about the Customer Success Association?

The Customer Success Association is a large group run by a gentleman named Mikael Blaisdell, who I’ve known for a number of years now. It has a broader focus than the Customer Success Leadership Network, and it is for everyone working in customer success, not just for leadership people.

They have a website and the largest LinkedIn group in the world of customer success people. I think it’s in the tens of thousands now, with lots of discussions and tons of information. They also put on conferences around the United States and in Europe.

I sit on their standards committee, which has been working to find a common standard for customer success. We conduct surveys annually of various organizations and how they are structuring and using customer success, and we’re watching those trends from an analytical perspective.

Do you think customer success can benefit other key functions throughout the organization?

As it sits today, customer success is essentially a hub of everything that touches the customer. So they had better be interacting with finance, product, sales, and other functions.

It’s a core premise in my book, actually, that you’ve got to find each employee’s connection to the customer. Every single person who works in a company has an impact on customers, from the janitor who sweeps the floor to the receptionist at the front desk to the people who work in the back office and never have a personal conversation with a customer. Everyone has an impact.

It could be a secondary impact; it could be supporting the engineering team who is building the product that is touching the customer. But offering every employee good support and a good environment to work in ultimately makes a difference for the customer.

Everyone needs to know they are a part of what makes the customer successful. Right now, most companies don’t have that level of customer focus as part of their culture. But I think that, as companies grow up, you will see this begin to change.

Last year, I spent the bulk of the year working with a security company as their first VP of Customer Success. I spent my first three months building relationships with the heads of engineering, product, sales, marketing, and other executives. Those relationships were the starting point for me to educate my peers about the impact and importance of customer success.

I should note that you have to do what’s right for a company at its particular stage. Sometimes it’s not all about customer success. Sometimes it’s about customer acquisition, and the best thing the success team can do is make sure that new customers are really successful or even to help the pre-sales team. A lot depends on the size and stage of the company.

Cross-communication between departments is absolutely critical because everyone touches the customer. I chose the title Who Speaks for the Customer for my book because it’s one of the biggest challenges that companies face. In interviews, customers regularly tell me that they get very mixed messages from their vendors.

In one example I’ve seen, a customer was getting nasty letters from the finance team because they were late in paying for their subscription. Yet they’re talking to their customer success manager (CSM) and senior management who are telling them, “No, we know there’s a problem with the product and you’re not getting any value out of it, so you don’t have to pay.”

Clearly the communication did not loop back to the finance team. So the customer is getting nasty letters every week about being delinquent at the same time that you’re trying to fix their real problem and retain them. What does that say to the customer? It says that your company doesn’t have its act together. It’s a mixed message.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between customer success and customer experience?

I think there’s an overlap between the customer experience and customer success functions. Typically customer experience sits inside the product team. I have a theory that right now product and customer success can be a kind of new power couple within a company, especially a subscription company.

When those two teams are working really closely together — when the important feedback that the CSM is hearing from the customer gets fed directly to the customer experience or product team — that is what fuels the right product direction. That product direction, in turn, adds value for customers, driving both top line and bottom line revenue and leading to growth.

Given how much customer success has evolved over the last 10 years, I make no promises that the dynamic is going to stay the same going forward. But that’s how I see the relationship right now.

Stay Tuned for Part Two

You can connect with Irene by following her on LinkedIn. And be sure to stay tuned for part two of our interview with her, as well as additional interviews with CX superstars.