In December of 2023, I announced that I was joining TestBox as its Chief Solutions Officer. Since then, I've received many questions about what a CSO does, what the role entails, which functions it oversees, and how other solutions leaders can move into a similar role.
In this post, I'll answer all of these questions and provide an overview of my long-term vision for the future of solutions engineering.
What is a Chief Solutions Officer?
A Chief Solutions Officer (CSO) is a C-level role that oversees the entire customer journey, leading a company's sales engineering, professional services, customer success, and customer support teams. It's a technical executive who's aligned to the customer experience.
There are four core pillars of the CSO role:
- Trust: 70% of leaders say achieving trust is a strategic business objective. Trust is a core pillar of a solutions engineer's day-to-day, and as an executive, trust is imperative to internal and external success. Data also shows that executive roles in trust are growing, so the CSO has a strong opportunity to own this.
- Customer-centricity: When solving problems, putting the customer at the center of every decision is mission-critical to success. Too often, organizations are shortsighted, focused only on driving revenue, which creates a strain on internal resources and leads to churn within 12 months.
- Alignment: Having a single executive owner of multiple functions drives shared outcomes by creating alignment on goals and compensation. Letting organization lines blend in the best interest of the customer experience has a net-positive impact on upsell, cross-sell, expansion, and renewals.
- Value: The role of the solutions professional must expand from focusing on discovery and demos to dollars and cents. Solutions orgs must focus on driving real business value in every interaction. Since solutions teams see so many customers across all deals, organizations need to better deploy that knowledge to drive revenue and ongoing success.
The overall goal for the CSO is to bring solutions expertise to the Chief Customer Officer role.
Why is the CSO role important?
Sales roles are traditionally focused on bringing in new business and getting contracts signed. Occasionally I'll see sales teams that are incentivized on renewal and expansion — though usually just within the first year. And it's rare to find one that's incentivized on implementation.
AEs and SEs spend so much time building trust and creating continuity in the sales process. But all of a sudden a customer signs a contract and poof: they're assigned to a new team they haven't met and have no relationship with.
It's a poor customer experience.
A lot of times customers get frustrated because they feel like they're repeating information; they have to start over explaining everything that was discussed in great detail during the sales process.
The Chief Solutions Officer solves this problem by aligning the buying journey with the customer journey and becoming the point of contact for all customer interactions.
The goal and outcome of this role are improving the customer experience by taking a holistic approach in unifying priorities and objectives.
What is the CSO responsible for?
The long-term vision for the Chief Solutions Officer is to lead:
- solutions engineering
- professional services
- customer success
- customer support
All of these teams touch the customer journey and are influential in closing deals, but — more importantly — these teams are also responsible for implementation, supporting customers, and helping them realize value.
However, different organizations may implement this role in different ways. I've spoken to leaders at other companies where the CSO was also responsible for product, field marketing, and product marketing. At TestBox, my CSO role includes CRO responsibilities, overseeing sales as well as solutions and customer success.
There's always nuance and room for variations. But in my long-term vision of this role, while the CSO has influence on and is highly aligned with disciplines like sales, product, and marketing, the role does not directly oversee those functions.
What KPIs are the CSO accountable for?
Everything related to the CSO role is aligned around the customer experience — customers are the ones who buy, utilize our software, and renew and expand — so the key metrics the CSO is responsible for influencing are all customer-focused:
- Annual recurring revenue (ARR): ARR is mission-critical to the wellbeing of all organizations. CSOs share this number in partnership with revenue leaders.
- Net revenue retention (NRR): Deploying solutions teams effectively will have a massive impact on NRR (in today’s economy, your install base is gold). Keeping and growing existing customers should be a top priority for solutions executives.
- Gross revenue retention (GRR): GRR provides better insights into the performance of customer success organizations since upgrades and expansions are not included in this number. GRR helps you understand if you're implementing what was sold and if the customer is realizing value.
- Time to launch: Time to launch is a great measure of value realization. If a customer has an expectation of a 60-day implementation timeline and it takes 120, there's an uphill battle to showcase value. And if a contract is for 12 months, it puts greater pressure on the post-sales team.
- Logo retention: Logo retention rate measures the number of customers that stop using your product. This is important for understanding the number of customers churning, which can be masked in NRR and GRR.
- Renewal rates: Calculating renewal rates allows a business to better understand the maximum amount of revenue that can be achieved. Combined with logo retention, renewal rates clarify how well a business delivers value.
- Solution adoption and usage rates: Monitoring and measuring product usage from time to value through renewal creates better predictibility within the business. These metrics are dependent upon the product, but daily active users (DAU), monthly active users (MAU), and specific feature usage statistics should be front and center.
- Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV): One of the best ways to measure the success of this organizational model is by owning CLTV because it showcases expectations coming to life in sales, implementation, and ongoing success.
While there are a number of other metrics that will be measured within this role, these are the core pillars for CSO responsibilities.
These KPIs highlight the necessity for the CSO to oversee both net new business and existing business. We want to see teams working on upsell and expansion while also ensuring there is alignment on why someone bought and the ultimate value realized from the product.
How can someone become a CSO?
Because solutions engineering has been the same for so long, the profession is ready for transformation.
The industry is also ready for it as a result of changing buying behaviors, poor sales experiences, a long history of missed opportunities to deploy and implement what customers were sold, and an abundance of technology to support our sales counterparts.
To set yourself up for a Chief Solutions Officer role, you need to take off your “this is in my job description” hat and think about the customer experience. The toss-over-the-fence approach from presales to post-sales is not a good customer experience.
In my research, I’ve spoken with nearly two dozen leaders who have taken over these functionalities within the last quarter. Having a bias for action and willingness to look at the solutions team as a business function with real business value is providing leaders with a seat at the table.
It all starts with taking on ownership of the pre- and post-sale handoff; this is where most organizations drop the ball. After building so much trust in the sales process, our sales organizations pass it over and say good luck.
Start by understanding your handoff process, identifying gaps in the communication handoff internally and externally, and quantifying the downstream effects on customer success (renewal and expansion). Start to build the bridge with the post-sale implementation team, and measure the impact on your customers' early successes.
Solutions engineering/consulting professionals want a seat at the table, but to get it, we're going to have to find ways to continue to deliver more value to our organizations.
This has typically been a challenge to measure since the role of an SE is really a Swiss Army Knife within an organization — something I have called “solutions at the center of influence.”
The main outcome of modern solutions consulting is taking that institutional knowledge and deploying it to ensure value is realized and maximized throughout the customer lifecycle.
Additionally, solutions teams play such a critical role in their partnership with customer success organizations (via value, expansion, and upsell) that the word “presales” is no longer the right term for the profession.
In a world where fumbled handoffs, rigid processes, and misaligned goals are far too common, the customer experience has suffered. The CSO role helps organizations set proper expectations in the sales process, deliver great handoffs, and provide immediate and ongoing value.