Meet Kara Holthaus, Vice President of Client Services at SmarterHQ
Job Title: Vice President, Client Services
Degree Path: Bachelor of the Arts, Integrated Communication, Butler University
Hometown: Bloomington, IL
Current City and State: Indianapolis, IN
What led you to your getting into tech and customer success? What was your first job in tech?
My first job out of college was helping a local company launch an e-commerce arm of their business. Through that experience, I got a lot of exposure with all things e-commerce and digital marketing — from an ATG e-commerce platform to using ExactTarget. It was fun learning all of these platforms and seeing everything I could accomplish with these products. This experience led me to several connections in the city, leading me to SmarterHQ as a client success director, my first “official” job in tech.
What has been your career path so far?
I started out at Weaver Popcorn Company, where I focused on driving the launch of an e-commerce arm for their Trail’s End brand. I came in, boots on the ground, and quickly grew into running the e-commerce business, customer support, and digital marketing (which at the time was primarily focused on email as a channel).
Through connections at Weaver, I then came upon an opportunity at SmarterHQ (Smarter Remarketer at the time). I started out as a client success director managing a portfolio of accounts, then grew into managing the client success team, and now I’m VP of client services overseeing client success and professional services.
When you think of a day in your life, what are the main work activities you do or responsibilities you have?
No one day is exactly the same as another, but the core of my work day is usually spent on interactions with clients and helping my team better serve our clients each day — whether that’s digging into how we can get clients implemented faster, determining where our next hire should be, or helping prep for a big strategy session. I am responsible for making sure our clients grow and renew, and a lot of parts and pieces play into the customer experience to make sure that happens.
Help us picture your work environment.
As I write this, I’m in New York City visiting clients, and then I’m off to San Francisco later in the week to visit more clients. Interacting with clients is a core piece of what I do. I often travel in spurts based on the seasonality of our client base. When I’m not traveling I’m typically working from the SmarterHQ Indianapolis office, interacting with several team members on a daily basis. We have a very collaborative team and office.
What do you love about the work you do?
I love the people I work with, our product is truly best in class, and I love seeing the value our clients see every single day. Our product delivers fantastic results and we’ve seen several clients get promoted because of it, which is the best feeling. There’s variety in each day, and I’ve been fortunate to get so much exposure across our business to continue to grow and learn.
Which personality traits, interests, and abilities are important or common for a person to succeed in and enjoy customer success jobs?
First and foremost I think you have to be curious by nature — you have to want to constantly learn. In tech, we’re all learning and adapting together and you have to be able to embrace that. Those who do can continuously learn, grow, and succeed in any role in tech.
In the client success profession specifically, the ability to communicate is key to a successful relationship with your customers as you’ll have really fun conversations, but some really tough expectation setting conversations as well.
I like to think that the customer service organization is the “heart of the organization,” and with that comes responsibility to communicate out internally the wants, needs and struggles of our customers. The ability to build relationships not only with your customers, but with other departments internally is key to truly be an advocate for your customers.
Which tools/technologies or technical skills are particularly important for a person to be proficient in for customer success jobs?
I’m a big believer in hiring smart people who can learn and pick up tools or new skills quickly, but prior use with Salesforce, ESPs (email service providers), e-commerce tools, or other digital marketing platforms are extremely helpful for a faster ramp-up time (specific to SmarterHQ).
Which soft skills (aka general business skills or employability skills) are particularly important for a person to be proficient in for customer success jobs?
Strong communication, active listening, and negotiation skills are crucial. Even if the role isn’t responsible for a retention or quota number, you’re always selling your customers on new ideas or uses of your product. Time management is important as you’ll be constantly jumping between customers, meetings, and emails — it’s definitely a juggling act for prioritization of work.
Problem-solving and an analytical mindset or skillset are also helpful as you’re consultative in nature with your customers, and especially in marketing technology, the ability to analyze campaign performance and communicate it back to the customer is a big need.
From your experience with new grads applying for and beginning jobs in this occupation, are they missing any particular knowledge, skills, or experiences that hold them back?
The biggest thing for going into client success specifically is getting experience with owning a portfolio of clients, running meetings with client executives in the room, etc. Experience over time helps with this, but start small in a supporting role for a larger client team, and you’ll get that experience quickly!
Which resources, people, books, websites, etc. would you recommend to those who want to learn more or advance their skills in customers success?
Several customer success platforms and blogs out there have good resource material — like Gainsight, SuccessHacker, and ClientSuccess. People to follow include Lincoln Murphy and Dan Steinman.
What encouragement or advice would you offer to others considering customer success jobs or wanting to stand out amongst others?
Highlight problems you’ve solved and your examples of collaboration and project management in your past roles or initiatives. Be curious, even in the interview process — ask questions about not only the role, but how the role interacts with other departments, how the product engages customers, etc.