How data hygiene leads to customer success

Before integrating ERP or CRM systems with other tools, Spear Education CEO Kaleim Manji advises reducing customization and cleaning up your dataset.

Dental education business recommends data hygiene for customer success
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It’s no surprise to hear someone in dental education say that good hygiene is the key to a perfect smile, but it turns out that’s true of your ERP and CRM tools as well as your teeth.

That’s been the experience of Kaleim Manji, CEO of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Spear Education, which provides online learning and other services to dental practices nationwide.

Manji is implementing a customer success management system at Spear, and data hygiene has been a pain point in providing his 90-strong customer success team with actionable information. Another is the layers of customization that have built up on Spear’s NetSuite installation like so much dental tartar.

Manji’s father Imtiaz, now company chairman, co-founded the business with Frank Spear in 2007, and his brother Rezwan is its president. The Manji family still has a stake in the business, although Chicago private equity firm Linden Capital Partners bought the majority share in 2014.

The founders started out training dentists face to face, but Manji and his brother have turned Spear into a technology business.

“We developed an online learning platform that gets sold into the dental practice for the whole team, so it can be the dentist and their entire staff, and then we bundled around that additional services,” Manji says. “Everything from a patient engagement solution to get patients to value comprehensive dentistry, all the way to practice analytics. We have a dashboard that sits on top of the practice management software like a Tableau but specifically for the dental practice.”

Change the culture first

Spear has grown organically at around 30 percent annually from the beginning, Manji says. Most of that growth has traditionally come from bringing in new customers, but these days the emphasis is on keeping current customers engaged and selling them additional products and services.

“A lot of our challenges were in moving our culture from ‘Let’s bring ’em in,’ to ‘Let’s spend more of the time teaching them to use our platform.’ We were just so focused on selling and driving revenue,” he says.

He gradually came to realize that customers, once on board, were becoming dissatisfied because they didn't have anyone they could call, and that he would have to respond if he wanted to keep them engaged.

“I stumbled upon this concept of customer success management without having any of it in our company,” he says. “I hear the term all the time now but four years ago it wasn't so common. I just wrote a job description, hired a recruiter and brought in the VP of customer success.”

Next came building up a team of customer success representatives and the processes they would follow.

“We did a lot of that stuff first, before we looked at a technology solution. If I had to do it 100 times over, I'd do that same thing again because just having a technology solution isn't going to change how a company runs and works: You have to start with the cultural DNA.,” says Manji.

As for the technology solution, that had to be built on Spear’s CRM and ERP system, NetSuite.

“That was and mostly is today our source of truth,” he says, but “it's really hard to get data out of NetSuite easily as a customer success rep. We need everything to be working in dashboards so that when that customer success rep comes to the office every day, they have a dashboard to see the health of their entire book of business.”

Customizing NetSuite to do a better job was quickly ruled out. “We have tried to customize NetSuite in the past and it's the thing that's slowing us down right now,” he says.

After looking around at the available options, Spear settled on Strikedeck.

“They had us excited because they had experience with NetSuite, whereas their competitors were building mostly on Salesforce, and a couple of the other ones were highly, highly customized, more enterprise,” he says.

While Strikedeck boasts a number of process automation tools for contacting and surveying customers, Manji was most interested in its dashboard features, helping employees prioritize their accounts by calculating a “customer health score.” This combines three factors: the Net Promoter Score that Spear determines from regular surveys sent to its customers, the customer success representative’s feeling about the customer’s likeliness to renew, and finally the customer’s level of usage of the training system.

The business value of data hygiene

After discussing which features to implement, teams on both sides set to work, but things took a lot longer than expected — six months before customer success reps started using the system, a full year before things were stable.

“We tried to connect Strikedeck right into NetSuite by building these back-and-forth custom APIs and that was really challenging. In fact, I still don't think we have all the kinks worked out,” says Manji. “There's uniqueness because of our customization in the past, and we didn't have the cleanest of databases.”

To clean up complexities in the database, Spear brought in third-party NetSuite expertise. Other factors worked against them as well, Manji says. For one, Spear’s technology team was growing fast at the time Strikedeck was hired, with insufficient resources devoted to back-end technology.

“If I would have had them in place, they would have said, we should delay this Strikedeck thing by four months, move all our resources over here to make sure our data is clean 100 percent of the time, so that when we do do business with Strikedeck it's a quick implementation and we're not doing data hygiene every week, which is what we're doing right now,” he says. 

Now, that data team is in place, and is one of the sharpest in the company, Manji says. They are busy removing customization from NetSuite and building an enterprise data warehouse to hold its data, as part of an overall strategy to make Spear’s technology infrastructure more like that of a technology-first company.

“If I had to do it all over again, we would start with the enterprise data warehouse so that there was no customization required, and then we would plug Strikedeck again, or the other vendors we use for various things, into that,” he says.

So is NetSuite the problem? Not at all, says Manji.

“I think NetSuite is a great platform — if it’s not customized. I just wish they had much better technology relationships with third parties,” he says.

Manji says his IT staff tell him they would rather be on Salesforce, but he’s not interested in changing.

“What our team is really saying is, ‘We'd love to start afresh and not over-customize something,” he says, adding that it would be better to provide better training on data entry for sales and customer success reps, as the same bad habits will make for a messy database, whichever ERP or CRM is used.

As for the software platform, he concludes: “My preference is, it's cheaper, it's more efficient to undo customization of the past and make NetSuite a clean build without having to migrate a bunch of data.”