Behind the Scenes: Scaling a Customer Success Organization at CircleBlack

Sep 22, 2023 | Blog Posts

My name is Matt and I’m an Army veteran and the Head of Customer Success at CircleBlack. I have been helping build CircleBlack for nearly nine years; I was the fourth full-time employee and its first customer-facing employee.

Before CircleBlack, I served in two wars and in other conflict zones around the world, listening to local people in challenging circumstances, communicating our sincere expectation to address their needs, and then doing everything I could to deliver on those commitments. The work was incredibly challenging, often frustrating and yet deeply rewarding. The experience and perspective that I gained serving our country abroad gave me the foundation to join a fintech start-up and build a new career in customer success that is rooted in service, empathy, and always doing the right thing for customers.  

I was privileged to have served in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division in Iraq and then, as a civilian, worked alongside Marines in Afghanistan and partnered with diplomats and special operations teams in other far-flung corners around the world. Those missions were the formative experiences of my young professional life. I was part of something greater than myself, and I wanted to retain that sense of mission in the private sector. 

I was both fortunate and lucky to find CircleBlack as it was just starting out. It is rare to have an opportunity — and I mean a true opportunity — to help build something from the ground up. To have such an opportunity means that your contributions have to be real and substantial. You need to take the opportunity seriously and fully enlist in the mission of the company. Being part of a mission-oriented organization helps you get through difficult times and uncertain situations because there is clarity in the mission.

As I moved on from the national security world to start a family and pursue my budding interest in investing and fintech tools, I also thought about — like all veterans do when they transition out of the service — the functional skills I could take with me into a new career. Fundamentally, in my time overseas, I did three main things:

  • Listened to local Iraqis, Afghans, and a host of other communities in countries around the world about their issues, problems, and concerns
  • Communicated back about how we — the United States — could address those issues or solve their problems
  • Implemented the solutions and received feedback about how we could better

When I started at CircleBlack, I quickly found out that those same three functional tasks easily translated when engaging our early customers. I learned how critical providing basic customer service would be in helping build our product and helping advisors succeed with their clients. This would be, I determined, how I could make my real and substantial contributions to the mission of the company. It would also serve as the foundation for how we transformed from a customer service-oriented team to a customer success-focused organization. 

My Path to CircleBlack

I was a senior in high school on September 11, 2001. The war in Iraq started during the spring semester of freshman year of college. I was studying international politics and history. I loved to travel, having been to Europe in high school and then studied abroad in Barcelona. I played baseball and basketball in high school and generally loved sports and being part of a team. My grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne and jumped into Sicily during World War II. 

I was in my early twenties, contemplating what I was going to do after college. By my junior year, it became an obvious and easy choice I needed to serve. I wanted to be part of something larger than myself. I also knew that given my own personal history if I didn’t serve I would regret it later on in life.

When you enlist in the Army during wartime, you immediately realize you become part of an organization unlike anything else. There’s a sense of purpose and teamwork that is unmatched. I had decided to become an officer but because I didn’t do ROTC in college, I had to go through the Army’s Officer Candidate School (OCS) program. But before OCS, I had to go through Basic Training like every other enlisted soldier does. 

My basic training platoon was a true cross-section of America: young, old, parents, sons and daughters of veterans, college grads from fancy schools and state schools, immigrants from Algeria and Morocco and the Kurdish region of Iraq, a drill sergeant from Nigeria, every race and background, and on and on.

Coming out of the national security world, I wanted a chance to learn about technology and the financial markets. Fortunately, I had an incredible mentor in our late founder, John Michel — another Army veteran and a long-time industry leader. He said the best way to learn the business and how technology gets built was to talk to financial advisors, learn about how they run their businesses, and what technology they use everyday.

John understood my background, having lived it himself, and made the connection for me. He shared his vision for a technology platform that allowed advisors and clients to see their portfolio data alongside curated insights about the markets and the wider world. I was hooked, but then came the hard part.

Helping build a SaaS technology solution for financial advisors has not been an easy ride — back-end issues, data feed delays, unexpected bugs, and the daily client emails and phone calls. The work is not easy and it can be challenging, frustrating and sometimes overwhelming — but I remind myself that I’m not the first person doing this kind of work. 

When I enlisted, I told myself many other people have done this before. It can be done and there is a path forward. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time, one phone call after another. Today, our customer success operation has grown to a team of six.

Our Customer Success Team

Who we are

For CircleBlack’s early years, I was the lone customer service representative. As we grew and expanded our client base, we added incrementally to our team. Jon Owens, a Navy veteran, joined the team in October 2018. Together, Jon and I onboarded, trained, and supported our clients. Jon became our subject matter expert on advisor fee billing and also deeply knowledgeable about every other aspect of our product. He earned the trust and respect of many of our clients with his caring and thoughtful approach to customer service. 

We added Mark Diese in October 2021 as a customer service analyst. Having worked at a winery and at an advisory firm, Mark intuitively understood the necessity of excellent customer service. We recently promoted Mark to Customer Success Manager as he has taken on the onboarding of our new RIA firms and leads the training of new RBC BLACK users. 

Brinn Hemingway joined in January as a technical operations analyst. She has a window into both the front and back ends of the customer experience, participating in client calls and troubleshooting data questions, running custom reports, and ensuring smooth partner integration experiences. 

And just recently we added two more team members: Edva Seferi as Customer Success Manager and Rhea Jagasia as Customer Success Analyst. Edva has nearly ten years of experience working in client operation roles at financial advisory firms, and Rhea joins us with hands-on customer success experience in two different industries.

Our approach to serving customers

For our team, the thing we value most is our customers’ experience using CircleBlack. Sometimes there are things that are out of our control. But what our team can control is how well and quickly we respond to and follow up. 

Answering emails, calling someone back, getting their issue resolved — these are all the basic, little things that add up to ensuring our Advisor customers have the best experience possible. We also do our best to collect and document the feedback and suggestions our Advisor customers provide. While we can’t implement everything asked of us, we do look across our user base and work closely with our product and engineering teams to build the features and functions that make the most sense for our users. The best part is when we publish our release notes and get that burst of positive feedback implementing something that our advisors asked for a few months back. 

We’ve cultivated an environment that encourages initiative from the bottom up. Just as our customer base of advisors serves their clients to give them financial peace of mind, it is our duty to listen to customers and understand the frustration that they experience.

What our days look like

The main thing I’ve learned over the last 8+ years is that while there are many things out of my control, what I can control is how and when we respond to and engage with our customers.

When I look across our customer base, I don’t just see firms, advisors, and their clients. I see a critically important business providing insight, wisdom, and peace of mind to a diverse cross-section of American society. The work advisors do helps businesses launch and grow, enables nonprofits to fulfill their missions, gives families the ability to make important life decisions, and ensures our children are educated and can have a more prosperous future. 

When my team interacts with our advisors and their clients, we engage them as they are right in the middle of all these activities. 

Furthermore, our team’s role within CircleBlack has put us at the center of the company, from interacting with product and engineering to building relationships with clients and onboarding new firms to getting into the weeds on how we process and calculate an enormous amount of data on a daily basis. We have to know how everything comes together in order to provide our clients with the best experience possible.

How we spend our time

Our customer success operations are actually pretty simple, revolving around day-in, day-out efforts making every customer feel like the most important customer. 

Our team on the East Coast starts the day well before the markets open by getting updates from CircleBlack-India, our team of data feed experts, and our Tech Ops teammates, making sure that the data feeds and overnight processes have been completed. We then have our team morning stand-up call where we review each of our top items to accomplish that day. It might be a new firm onboarding meeting or an important client follow-up or facilitating a client feedback call with our product team. 

By this time our support phone is ringing and our help inbox is tracking the latest client requests or questions. Throughout the day we’re either fielding phone calls, responding to help desk emails, or providing one-on-one client training.

We have a very detailed process to log and process all inbound tickets. Utilizing tools called Zendesk and Jira, we log any client request or question that requires support from our Operations and Data teams. We also log every piece of client feedback. This process has been in place for many years and has given our product and engineering teams a detailed look into how to improve our product.

With our recent growth over the last year, we have also spent a lot of time optimizing our new firm onboarding process. Our onboarding has two phases: data load and training. At the start of a client’s relationship, we have a kick-off call with the firm and discuss their data needs, the firm’s organization and user access, and their use cases for CircleBlack. This process provides both our team and the client a clear roadmap for getting up and running on the platform.

Transforming our team from customer service to customer success

At the heart of all the work I’ve described here is our team’s collective effort to deliver a product that delights our Advisor customers so much that they happily tell their peers and colleagues in the industry that they should sign up for CircleBlack.  We have put in a lot of hard work in the last year to engage our customers, ask them for their candid and honest feedback, and then work with our product and engineering teams to deliver on those commitments. 

Our platform offers a growing array of features and functionality for advisors but at its core is the ability for advisors to provide their clients an easy-to-understand review of their investment portfolio. Advisors can show clients their household view from the Advisor’s view in CircleBlack, they can create and generate a detailed and engaging PDF report, or they can give their clients hands-on access to their portfolio data via a branded web portal and mobile app. We have a robust roadmap — which you can check out on our Community site — that aims to build on these foundational features to make advisor-client engagement as seamless and productive as possible.

I’m thrilled to have spent the last nine years at CircleBlack carrying out a mission of service. It’s a different kind of service, with different challenges, problems, and solutions, but rewarding in its own way. I hope the way that we’ve implemented our customer success model becomes one that others can follow.  If you have any questions about how we set up our team and process, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d be happy to be of service to you too!

This material has been prepared for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment, accounting, legal, or tax advice.

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