Nov 13 • 9M

Layoffs in customer success happen to all of us - myself included.

Here are some tips that helped me find my next role and kept my head in the game when my heart was crushed.

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Chad Horenfeldt
Sharing tips, experiences and insights that I've learned in 15+ years in customer success from large and small organizations. There is no BS. You can leverage what you learn from these podcasts right away.
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This has been a difficult week. I had to say goodbye to many amazing colleagues as part of a Meta layoff that impacted about 11,000 people. I’m thankful that I’m still employed but sad and concerned for those that have been let go. I’ve been trying to help those affected as best as I can.

Beyond trying to directly help those impacted, I thought it might be helpful to share more about my journey and provide some advice. Unfortunately, the tech sector and especially startups can take the brunt of economic downturns and the current recession we’re in is a good example of this. A company can be a unicorn one day and a “doomicorn” the next. Working in technology and especially tech startups is a gamble. Some bets pay off, but many don’t.

Customer Success seems to be a prime target for layoffs unfortunately. Although the role of CS is even more important in tough times as protecting revenue should take precedence, CS can often be the first to be chopped.

As someone who has been laid off, it’s a horrible experience. There is usually little to no notice and you are tossed to the curb like trash. Many people realize they are part of the riff when they find they can no longer access internal systems. There are no going away parties and no parting gifts. There are no thank you’s given and no opportunities to show your appreciation for your colleagues. Ba bye, so long and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. It really, truly stinks.

I have now been through a few economic downturns in the tech industry, so I have some experience here I can share. Let’s go waaaaay back. All the way back to 2001. I was a young sprout in school doing a post-grad engineering bootcamp and my school suddenly ceased operations and went into receivership. We’re coding one day and the next our systems are shut down. That was a horrible day and I was freaking out. I was on the brink of financial ruin as my $25K in tuition fees evaporated and I was now stuck paying off some massive student loans (on top of previous loans). Luckily, a white knight came along and bought out the school so we could graduate and eventually get jobs. I made it through the dot-bomb era relatively unscathed.

In 2008 I dodged another bullet. The tech industry was again hit hard as part of the mortgage crisis and my company at the time, Eloqua, laid off some outstanding people. Back then Eloqua was the clear leader in the marketing automation space and the layoff was a reminder that your job is never safe. Market conditions will dictate your fate - regardless of the impact or contributions you’ve made.

When I finally faced a layoff a decade later, it was due to my employer’s mediocre performance and the seniority of my role. My team was being cut in half and my role was deemed unnecessary, so I was let go. It wasn’t a surprise and the writing on the wall had been clear for a while, but it was still disappointing. My biggest challenge was having just 60 days to find a new job or face leaving the country due to my temporary H1B workers visa I had at the time. This layoff didn’t just impact me but also my wife and my three children.

I’m someone with a lot of pride and fully committed to the cause of the company I’m working for. Probably too committed :). While I took the layoff in stride, I did question my own abilities and if I had what it took to be a leader in Customer Success. This is natural and reflecting on your past is important. However, I decided very quickly that I couldn’t dwell on what happened - it was time to move forward. I also didn’t have a choice as my immigration clock was ticking.

For those that have been laid off - keep your head high

After taking a day to soak in the shock of my predicament, I knew I had to act quickly or face having to pull my kids out of school and moving back to Canada. Not that there is anything wrong with Canada, but I wasn’t ready to admit defeat and I wasn’t prepared to completely disrupt the life that we had made for ourselves in the US. What helped me in those first few days was my former colleagues reaching out and offering words of encouragement. In addition, I kept in mind that this was a bump in the road of a longer journey that I was on. I then got down to work.

Here are the steps that I took to find my next opportunity:

What role do you want?

Your first inclination may be to let your network know that you are looking for work. I recommend pausing on this temporarily as you want to maximize the assistance your friends and colleagues can provide to you. When they reach out to you, thank them, and then let them know that you will get back to them with specifics on the positions and organizations you would be interested in. You first need to spend time figuring out where you want to take your career next. You also may need a few days to decompress from what just happened. Take that time.

In my own situation, I took a step back to consider what I enjoyed most in my past and what I disliked. A good exercise that you can do by yourself or with a trusted colleague is to ask yourself two questions:

  • What do you love the most about your previous roles?

  • What do you like the least about your previous roles?

This is an exercise I run regularly with members of my team when I’m trying to help them narrow down areas of passion that they can focus on or find their next career moves. When I asked myself these questions, I recognized that I loved building teams, leveraging technology, coaching team members, and devising and executing strategies. My future roles had to provide me with these types of opportunities. I also realized that there were certain industries that just didn’t interest me and that I would avoid in the future.

Once you answer these questions on your own, you can decide if you want to remain in a similar position or need to seek out other roles. You may determine that you need to further specialize your role (for example: focus on onboarding or operations rather than CSM) or that you need to change your career path entirely.

What’s amazing about being in Customer Success is that you are usually qualified for many more roles once you’ve been with a company for a few years. As an example, many of my colleagues who were in Customer Success at Eloqua ended up going into marketing operations as Eloqua was a B2B marketing technology. Being laid off gives you some freedom to determine what you want to do next.

As I knew I wanted to stay in Customer Success, I then asked myself: “What title am I looking for?”. I had been a VP for several years so it would be natural to look for other VP roles. As I was in a time crunch, I asked myself how important a title was vs the actual opportunity. I decided that the title didn’t matter if I liked the company, the compensation was adequate, and the role was challenging enough. It’s important to think through this now so you are mentally prepared to start your job hunt as well as recognizing what you’re ok with. More on that below.

What type of company do you want to work for?

When I started my own job search, I didn’t want to find myself in the same predicament of being laid off again within a few months. I decided to create some specific criteria for my job search regarding the companies that I wanted to join. I wanted to work for a company that had a significant amount of cash in the bank so I wouldn’t be concerned about whether they could make their next fundraise.

I also wanted to work with a product that I really believed in. I realized that I preferred more complex and technical solutions. Rather than being an add-on to an existing tech stack I preferred a product that was a platform and mission critical for my client’s success. This would also contribute to how they could withstand an economic downturn. In addition, I desired to spend my working hours with executives that I related to and that I trusted. I looked for leaders that demonstrated humility and empathy. I tested for this by presenting ideas and seeing how receptive they were to what I was proposing.

While compensation is obviously important, you need to think through the type of company that you would be most interested in. This will increase the chances of landing your preferred role and the likeliness that you will maintain your role for the long term.

Leverage your network

Once you've clarified the roles and the types of companies you want to work for, it’s time to activate your network. Create a post on LinkedIn and let people know the various roles you prefer and the types of companies or industries that most interest you. Update your LinkedIn status to indicate you are looking and change your headline to include the roles that interest you. Reach out to your network directly and ask for help.

Some of you may be a bit bashful about letting the world know you lost your job. That’s ok and in fact I kept my employment status on the downlow when I was laid off. I reached out to a select few in my network who I knew were well connected and asked for assistance. All that said, I recommend that you let as many people know as you can that you are looking for a new role - the broader, the better. Now is not the time to worry if you haven’t spoken to someone in a few years. Who cares? Most people will want to help you - you just need to ask.

Keep yourself busy

One of the most torturous parts of finding a new role wasn’t the rejection from employers. It was waiting to hear back from companies where you were deep in the interview process. It can be extremely deflating to wait for several weeks for that next interview or for an offer that you believe is coming. You can start to get anxious when you only see one interview for the entire week. Try and occupy your time with work-like activities that will keep your mind sharp and prepare you for the future ahead. Here are a few suggestions based on my own experience:

  1. Read. I love reading as I see it as a way to 10X my knowledge on the cheap. I’ve become a better leader over the years simply by reading and leveraging what I’ve learned. You don’t get too many times in your life when you can devour several books at once - leverage this time.

  2. Have coffee dates. Don’t hide yourself away. This can lead to a downward spiral. Meet up with friends, family, and colleagues either in person or virtually. Reconnect with people you lost touch with and learn what you can from them. Your trusted colleagues can also help you work through any baggage you have. In addition, many opportunities may spring up that you never knew existed just by meeting up with other people and walking through your interests.

  3. Take courses. Besides reading, courses are another terrific way to occupy your time and uplevel your skills. I leveraged my time between jobs to uplevel my excel data analysis skills and I’ve found these to be instrumental in my day-to-day duties. Udemy and other courses can be $20-$30 a class for several hours of learning. There are many free trials of learning sites and other free courses out there. You can never go wrong when you invest in yourself. Your limiting factor is usually time, and you have a lot of that right now.

To stay motivated in my job hunt I would usually combine all these items into a single day in the city. I would act as if I were going to work and hold court at one of several Starbucks. I would read, take courses, and meet up with people. Getting out of my normal surroundings was important as I needed a change of scenery.

You may need to take a step down to take a step up

Many people view their career journey as a ladder. That’s a flawed perspective. It’s more like a climbing wall where you may take a sidestep or even go down to continue your climb. I’ve seen several people make the mistake of declining a great position at an up-and-coming company because they considered the title a demotion and felt they deserved better. As an example, some candidates refuse a senior CSM role as they have some management experience and don’t want to settle. Don’t let a phenomenal position at an amazing company slip away because your ego got in the way.

There have been several times in my career where I've taken new positions that either paid me less or were at a lower level. Was this stupid? Perhaps but I was playing the long game. I recognized that I would gain more through the experience I would attain and from the future success of this company. This would more than make up for a better title at a company that was going nowhere. I was taking a massive risk, but it was a calculated one. I was also confident in my own abilities.

Not everyone can take a pay cut though so you will need to evaluate your own situation. I determined with my wife that we could cut back our expenses in the short term which allowed me to take a lower title.

Bet on yourself

One of the people that inspire me the most is Toronto Raptor’s point guard, Fred VanVleet. Coming out of college he went undrafted. Nobody seemed to want him. His agent said three words to him on draft night that he carried with him as he struggled with his next steps in life: Bet on yourself. He eventually secured a starting role on the Toronto Raptors back court, has won a championship and been named an NBA all-star.

My advice to everyone going through this is to not give up - bet on yourself. You have the skills, and you have a lot to show the world that they have yet to see. Determine the roles and companies that you want to work for, leverage your network, keep yourself busy and be prepared to take a step down to take a step up. Stay positive - you got this.

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To those that have been laid off and need help, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll do what I can to assist you.

To those reading this that have had colleagues recently laid off, please reach out to them. It’s incredibly jarring to go through a layoff but it’s more unsettling when your former colleagues pretend you don’t exist. Reach out to them and be there for them.