Marlene Summers is Bridging Gaps Between Customers and Solutions at Zuora

By Erika Malzberg August 17, 2018

Originally published in Sync by Jenny Draper.
Photo: https://www.scottrklinephoto.com/

While Zuora empowers a revolutionary shift from products to subscription services in the business world, one of its leaders is accelerating change within the enterprise software company. Marlene Summers, vice president of customer support services and community, is making it easier than ever for evolving companies to adopt the SaaS tools needed to operate in the new subscription economy—a global market that MGI Research reports will reach roughly $9 billion by 2022.

“It’s an integrated ecosystem,” Summers says. “The companies we work with, our customers, have subscription-based models and need to understand how it redefines some of the traditional ways you measure the health and metrics of the business.”

Summers earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Colgate University, where she also started her career in IT as a web designer and a Microsoft software test engineer. She developed her expertise at high-tech companies, including IBM, VMware, Serena Software, and Marketbright, where she applied her technical skills to manage customer support teams.

In 2010, she brought that service mind-set and enterprise software knowledge with her to Zuora. She spent the first six months working on-site at customer locations and was later promoted from senior director of global support to vice president in 2016.

Similar to Summers’s own career path, the Zuora customer service experience is a progression. The strategy has evolved according to the company’s phase on the growth curve, according to Summers, who built out the 24/7 support function to earn a 96 percent customer satisfaction rating.

“A small startup with limited resources can know customers really well since there’s not many, but you also put out a lot of fires,” she explains. “A transitional company thinks more strategically about the real customer needs to determine where to focus its skills and resources.”

Today, Zuora is in a new phase: specialization. Summers is driving the diversification of its products and expertise among six customer service centers—San Mateo, California; San Jose, California; London; Paris; Chennai, India; and Beijing—in addition to building innovative online resources.

“Now, it’s a much more tailored experience,” says Summers, who’s employing next-generation features to personalize and automate solutions at Zuora’s headquarters in San Mateo. “People like easy access to find what they need that’s relevant to them.”

According to Summers, greater internet accessibility over the past decade has also heightened the need for increasingly speedier response times, which inspired her team to rethink the ways Zuora could create dialogue with customers beyond a one-to-many basis.

“Traditional email interactions have become too slow and too cluttered,” she says. “A 20 percent open rate is considered super high, but what about the other 80 percent? Most people don’t want to pick up a phone or even email and wait for answer. But we found that they will use online sources of knowledge repositories to get information as fast as possible.”

So Summers’s team invested in building an online hub for customer discussions, Zuora Community, which launched in 2016. The platform transforms the standard ticket approach into a knowledge-sharing forum that engages a broader range of customers and unifies resources. In 2017, views of customer-solution articles in the Zuora Community resulted in a support ticket deflection rate of more than 60 percent.

“Cultivating community content is more interesting in terms of getting a comprehensive answer to a business problem or use case,” she says. “You’ll find different ways to approach particular questions, and we’re seeing new ideas and best practices emerge in these spaces.”

That nonlinear communication strategy enables customers and Zuora experts to post and consume online information about products and services in real time. For Summers, it also means uncovering the wealth of Zuora’s in-house knowledge for the rest of the world to access.

Summers also moved the documentation team out of engineering and into her customer success department in another strategic pivot. Now, the Knowledge Center and Developer Center online portals aggregate concise information for optimal clarity.

“No one wants to read a manual,” she says. “Instead of regurgitating technical requirements and product specifications, we translate and repackage that information for customers. We map business processes to help them find and understand outcomes.”

Her customer-success team continued to dissect that concept further, which resulted in online training programs that are collectively known as Zuora University. Summers says the one-stop-shop educational platform marks Zuora’s entrance into a new level of the customer experience.

“Companies that offer training on their applications better enable their customers to adopt the new technology standard,” Summers says. “We do a lot of analysis of where customers are struggling to advance because when they succeed, we succeed.”

Zuora University offers six role-based courses for customers: billing and payment operations; accounting and finance; administration; sales and sales operations; IT developer; and product manager. Each thirty-
minute session in the program enables users to learn at their own pace in addition to twelve video conference sessions a month with a live instructor. Customers can also earn expert certification as a Zuora administration or Zuora product catalog manager.

The result of Summers’s innovative platforms manifested in a significant decrease in the year-over-year ticket growth rate even though the customer base increased by more than 30 percent.

After demonstrating that the new cost-savings model worked, Summers isn’t stopping there. She developed a support enablement team called Strategic Support Solutions, which built out an automation platform against the cloud-based tool Slack for her customer support agents. She funded the new team through cost-savings achieved from the Zuora Community.

“We’re transforming a human support agent into Robocop super agent,” she says. “They deal with the same type of requests but use smarter technologies.” These evolved agents have smart technology at their fingertips, which minimizes the need to perform repetitive tasks and accelerates their abilities to obtain resolution on requests, Summers adds.

The AI application deciphers metrics quickly to calculate a spreadsheet for customers that simply proves how the math for their quoted product adds up, Summers explains. She anticipates greater transparency will further decrease ticket growth rate.

Looking ahead, Summers intends to increasingly explore AI technologies to expedite delivery of technical solutions to her customers—a natural step forward in the specialization era of the digital customer experience.

“Smart automation will allow us to make sure the right people get the right type of content and company information,” she says. “There is no playbook, but our best chance is to connect with people.”

Learn more about how Zuora built customer success.