How To Use Agile Principles to Deliver Success During the Onboarding Stage

This is a guest post by Laryssa D’Alama. Laryssa is the Director of Customer Services at RD Station. She leads the teams responsible for the customer onboarding process. Follow her on Twitter at @larydalama or connect with her on LinkedIn. You can find more great articles from Laryssa on Medium.

At first glance, it can seem strange to think about using Agile methodologies in a Customer Success team, but it actually makes a lot of sense — and all the difference. While Agile concepts are more commonly used within development teams, which iswhere Agile originated, they can be applied to other fields, and to different contexts. To deliver Customer Success, for example.

At Resultados Digitais, where we have a specific team responsible for the customer onboarding stage, applying Agile concepts to track and improve results is one of the main ways we deliver the First Value to new clients.

A little bit about our onboarding process. At RD the CS team is divided into two teams: 1.) Implementation Success, which is focused on the onboarding stage, and 2.) Customer Success, focused on the next steps of clients using our software RD Station (ongoing stage). In the IS team, our mission is to welcome customers and deliver the First Value using RD Station.

While the volume of new clients we handle monthly is quite high, the implementation process itself is not overly complex. This results in the onboarding projects typically having a 1 or 2 month of duration, depending on the maturity of the client and the complexity of the project.

At the end of each month, we measure how many clients have finished the project with all of the expected actions inside the software completed. When the customers complete a specific set of actions in our software, we say they are activated. Activation is the most important metric for our team because it is the translation of the First Value into data.

During the last year my team and I have learned many things about delivering success through the onboarding process and we are always working to improve our results. One of our biggest challenges is delivering the First Value to more customers in a shorter period of time. To help address this challenge, we decided to attempt to apply some Agile best practices to our reality. The Agile culture is related to a mindset and that’s why it be can applied to everything, including delivering of success.

A little bit about concept: Agile Methodologies

Just to get everyone on the same page, as project management concepts may not be part of your routine (yet!), when working with Customer Success, Agile is not a specific method, it is an “umbrella” term for different incremental and iterative methodologies. It’s more like an idea about how projects should be managed. Some of the most famous methodologies are Scrum, Kanban, Lean Development and many others. To understand this concept better you need to understand the principles on which Agile is based.

Agile divides the deliverable result into pre-cycles of deliveries. This way it is possible to break the project down into smaller parts, which you constantly evaluate and partially improve upon as you work towards your final deliverable, using an iterative and incremental approach in order to enrich your process and produce a better and faster result.

Agile: Delivering the project through different small deliveries

The objective is to reduce risks, increase team cooperation, respond more appropriately to project changes and guarantee customer satisfaction. Totally appropriate for a Customer Success team, don’t you think?

In our reality, what we did was apply a selection of practices from some of the methodologies, especially Kanban and Scrum, which allowed us to enrich our own onboarding process.

How to use Agile methodologies to deliver success: RD Case Study

The problem
The main challenge revolved around how to manage a large number of onboarding projects at the same time without losing quality, as behind each project there is a customer with a specific desired outcome and expectations.

Each Implementation Success Manager (ISM), our Onboarding managers, handles on average, 25 projects simultaneously. As all projects have a deadline, the challenge was how to track all projects in a manner which guaranteed that all the required steps were being taken simultaneously and that the customers were quickly achieving their First Value.

In short, the main issues are:

  • A large volume of projects
  • Difficulty of measuring the project progress
  • Lack of communication — ISMs were not working as a team
  • Different levels of maturity/complexity: how to identify accounts in which the ISM needs to be more dedicated or less to deliver the same First Value (Effort Management)

The solution: Applying Kanban and Scrum concepts to it.

How it works: The Red Hots process

Back in the middle of 2016, Bruno Vieira, the coordinator of Arriba, one of the IS teams, started to build a different project management structure he called the Red Hots process. The main goal was to track the onboarding projects in a way that would allow the team to be able to have an overall view of all projects in process so that the IS teams could collaborate with one another to ensure a more consistent and predictable First Value delivery throughout the month.

The Kanban Board

A Kanban board was built to track all projects, divided according to the onboarding processes main steps, so we could easily see which stage each customer was in and plan ahead.

Arriba’s Kanban model. The cards have different colors to identify the month of the deadline.

This way we could follow the status of each client and also see their progress (from down to up) towards becoming a “Red Hot”, which meant the clients were more likely to achieve the First Value in the current week.

Critical situations were also mapped so that the team could act on them, guaranteeing that all customers were making progress towards completion during the project period.

The main benefits of the Kanban:

  • Better visualization of all the projects
  • Better Effort Management estimates
  • Identify bottlenecks
  • Focus

Seeing the whole process as Sprints

The Red Hot Kanban enabled us to get the benefits above, but in our reality it is crucial to have a stable, continuous project delivery to warrant the monthly Activation rate goal. Having this in mind, we introduced some practices from Scrum into the team’s meetings:

1) Planning Meeting: On the first Monday of the month the first and most important Planning Meeting happens. During this meeting an overview of all the projects the team has to work on in the current, and following month, is created. They then organize the projects the team can complete in each week of the month, that means the Sprints they will work on, normally choosing the ones that are in a more advanced stage to finish in the first 15 days and the others, that will probably need more attention and dedication, for the second half of the month. The following Mondays shorter meetings are scheduled to re-check the sprints.

2) Daily Meeting: A short stand-up meeting is held once a day, in which each team member answers these 3 questions from the Scrum methodology:

i) What did you accomplish since the last meeting?
ii) What are you working on until the next meeting?
iii) What is getting in your way or keeping you from doing your job?

The meeting is managed by a Head of meetings each team has. The Head of meetings manages the time and leads the conversation.

3) Review Meeting: Each month the team conducts a review of what happened during the month in order to improve processes for the next one.

Arriba Team in a Daily Meeting

It’s important to say: Although we focus mainly on the Red Hots, the Kanban is used to track all the projects, as all customers must be continuously progressing in their onboarding projects.

In addition, we organized a board in which all the sprints are mapped. This means, we break our monthly goal down into weekly goals:

Note that there are projects with deadlines in different months, distinguished by different colors. To avoid delays and ensure they will be finished on time, all sprints include projects from the current as well as the next month.

Furthermore, another thing we do to estimate better the sprints is using the spreadsheet below, in which we calculate how many projects we have for each month and the percentage we want to achieve weekly as a goal. By dividing the projects equally into weeks, we can foresee how many projects are supposed to get into the sprints to achieve the determined goal. It also permits us to do different simulations of number of weeks, accounts and goal achievements.

It’s possible to calculate the desired weekly Activation rate and the number of projects delivered to make it happen.

Important note: all these tools and practices allow us to better project our results and track the projects, but we know that sometimes the sprint may not be fully completed because behind every project there is a customer. If the customer needs more time and more orientation to comprehend our software and see the First Value, we understand it and the project continues for a little longer.

This is an important part of our process that makes it more complex: we depend on the client to do the actions of the project. That means we don’t have absolute control of the onboarding progress and that’s why the sprints can change sometimes. This is a challenge of our reality, but I can say even with this situation all the practices are helping us to have better results.

The results

The main benefits from applying the practices above are:

  • Greater speed in delivering projects: after using the Red Hots process the percentage of projects completed in what we consider an ideal period (with no delays) went up from 16% to 35% — and counting!
  • Team work: with the daily meetings and a weekly goal all members started to collaborate more with one another
  • 360 vision for everyone: before the Red Hots tracking, the forecast was the coordinator’s task, with little participation of the team. Now everybody knows what is happening with every single project of their teams and can help, if necessary
  • Managing risks before deadline: the number of critical situations decreased as we anticipated problems
  • Avoid overload: the more we anticipate the projects the fewer we’ll have accumulated in end of the month

As you can see, we have included various adaptations from several Agile methodologies into our reality and the outcomes have been amazing. Not only have our results improved, but also it has increased team engagement and enabled them to work more collaboratively. Many of the ISMs (including me) are getting more specialized, taking Agile courses to continue improving the onboarding processes to deliver even more success to our new clients.

Here are some further interesting points:

1) A new format of the Kanban board to be tested will put the onboarding steps in columns, side by side, and using red spots in the cards with some delay will make it easier to see the bottlenecks of each stage.

2) We are studying the possibility of having a specific position within the IS Team to work as a Project Manager/Agile coach for all teams, improving the processes and organizing the sprints. It would be someone who would compile best practices and follow all teams to guarantee standardization, constant improvement and make more analysis of bottlenecks and other important points of the process.

Finally, I want to share some important pre-conditions that were required to make it all possible. These points were fundamental for us. Here they are:

  • Patience: It takes time to change people’s habits. In Arriba it took 3 months to make all the team understand the steps, get into it and make the process well-structured
  • Autonomy: All the processes will only work with good, prepared contributors that are committed to the whole process and their own tasks to make it happen
  • Feedback: Sharing feedback about the process allowed it to improve — and it is the key for all the future changes we will make
  • Motivation: Everybody needs to buy into the idea and get engaged with the new process. Only because all the team believed and got committed was it possible to shift the processes — and build better ones.

Bruno and his team Arriba were the trailblazers using Agile principles in our operation. Nowadays, all ISM teams are using Agile in their processes. I know we will have still more improvements that I will surely share with you in the future.

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