Interview: Imran Gaffur (Civil – 2016)

Please state your current profile and explain your profile. If possible, also help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.

I currently spearhead the ‘Customer Success’ function at Playment. Just as I mention that, I’m sure a couple of questions would arise – What’s Playment and what is Customer Success? Sticking with the theme of this interview, I’ll answer that later.

As a CSM (Customer Success Manager), my role includes a mix of three elements: Account Management, Revenue Fulfillment and New Product GTM (Got-To-Market) execution. Historically speaking, this role was created by the company Salesforce who noticed that despite acquiring customers at a healthy rate, they were losing customers (churn) as well. CSMs act as the face of the company for a client and is responsible for maintaining healthy client relationships, increasing the value derived from a product and continually works towards tweaking or creating new features. What’s great about this career path is that as long as a person has the company’s DNA, i.e, stayed with the same company for over a year, anyone from Sales, Product or Operations can transition into this role. Long term progression in this function would steer you towards the profile of a VP Customer Success or COO (Chief Operating Officer).

I started my career in Technical Sales with Hilti which pushed me to appreciate and understand the intricacies of being in Sales (still a sales guy at heart). After a brief stint at Hilti and an early-stage startup, which helped me experiment with what I wanted to do in life, I joined Playment as the 3rd employee in their Business Team.

What skills should one develop to follow the career path you’ve chosen?

This is where I must proclaim – Do as I say and not as I’ve done. All of my internships were, somehow, core Civil Engineering. Nevertheless, CSMs are usually found in Product and SaaS companies. A good starting point would be to intern in Business Development (If you’re very eloquent) or Product roles (If you’ve got a tech mindset) in the aforementioned segments. More often than not, you’re going to end up in startups, but if you’re lucky, interning in Indian companies such as Capillary Tech, Freshworks, ZOHO and the like who have established Customer Success departments would account for a great amount of learning. For additional research, always keep a check on career pages to see what sort of requirements they may have. It’s great to map out common skill sets and build on them as your basics. Reading up on the best practices and white papers from websites such as Totango, Gainsight and Client Success would definitely help as well.

What skills did you pick up from college that turned out to be useful for your career?

Let’s approach this from the bottom – a CSM needs to be a super efficient communicator, needs to prioritise from about a hundred things happening at the same time, and anticipate positive/negative signals five steps in advance. These are the core, basic skills involved in the daily routine of a Customer Success guy. Evidently so, these can only be developed by practice – more so from going through tough, uncomfortable situations. I was lucky enough to be part of Festember ’15’s core team, where managing a 50 member team (still hasn’t happened in my career), peer group and interacting with sponsors happened on a daily basis throughout my term. If you, the person reading this, are a part of this team – then use this opportunity to the fullest. Learn from your seniors, don’t shy away from uncomfortable situations, and pick up as much work as you possibly can do. Festember and Pragyan are the easy options. But nothing prepares you better than taking your department symposium to the next level or starting something on your own.

What are the reasons most startups fail and how does a startup overcome these obstacles? Also, what obstacles/issues are specific to Indian startups?

I remember that there was an IBM Report which claimed that 90% of all Indian Startups fail within the first five years of their existence. One of the major reasons as to why is – not having the right people at the right time. Startups require highly motivated generalists at its inception and specialist folks towards the later stages (Series B and above) to stabilise their growth. The former are people who have the conviction to turn around tasks/features/deals at faster rates since a competitor might be springing up every other day. Another key pillar of success is having a team that can handle ambiguity, such as adapting to changing business models and markets. Playment was a crowdsourced company as it was formed and tried to fit into multiple categories. After observing success in the AI spectrum, we moved towards, and stuck to that domain. Pivoting, moving across functions, building a team out of scratch are all part of the game. The caveat here can be limited bandwidth for personal life.

On a broader level, some of the pressing challenges for startups can be having a culture of ignoring customer feedback, having a mistimed product, poor marketing and simply running out of cash. These may seem basic problems, but this echoes the reality of the failures mentioned in the above paragraph.

With advances in the field of AI, what are the changes expected in the job market? Could this lead to a rise in entrepreneurship?

This could be true across a lot of industries. Jobs keep evolving as technology finds ways to disrupt the market. When cars were getting more and more commercialised and available to the common man, other modes of public transportation evolved along with it, creating more jobs than it ever intended. AI is simply in its infancy, we’re barely scratching the surface. For all we know, everything could be automated one day.

As long as there are problems to solve, there will be entrepreneurship.

What is the extent one should go to find a balance between work satisfaction and monetary satisfaction?

The older one gets, the more you realise that every decision boils down to a transaction of some sort. You have to let go of one thing to achieve two more. Every five years, it’s possible that your priorities in life would change. For a regular 22-26 year old, there is usually fewer family dependencies – so go ahead and take the risk of doing something new. But question these decisions at least a couple of times – just be sure that the risks and transactions today can pay off in a year. If you’re not sure about it, stick to what’s keeping you satisfied for now.

Is there something the T&P cell can do which does not even come under its umbrella currently, but is important?

First, I must admit that T&P (and more so the students who run the day-to-day ops at T&P) have always done a stellar job. Their role is to bring in enterprises that provides high caliber work environments and quality of life after 4 years of hard work. They already are good at what they do. But then there’s a lot that they can do more. I would not want to say provide startup careers as there’s always a higher degree of risk. But students should be pushed towards entrepreneurship. Removing that initial stage of hesitation can do wonders for a budding entrepreneur. Try to find out the amount of successful entrepreneurs from IITs and compare that to NIT Trichy.

How do campus placements fare with respect to off-campus ones? What route to take for placements out of campus?

In hindsight, campus placements are as easy as it gets while you’re trying to find employment. I would suggest placing your bets on campus placements before taking the call of trying something else. You don’t need to move into your dream job to understand unspoken elements such as workplace fundamentals, getting things done on time and understanding organisational behaviour. These soft skills are probably some of the reasons why companies prefer at least a year of work experience. If you’re planning on the non-campus route, this is where having startup experience (as an intern) would help.

How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?

When you find yourself making more right decisions and having a burning desire to change/improve things in processes followed by a company, this is when you know you’re in the right place. Now how to get to that place is a matter of experimentation and risks.

Do you have plans to switch your career field?

For the next 10-15 years, maybe not. It’s probably a toss after that. I’ve been interested in the idea of a second career – a complete switch from what I do now. A second lease on life, perhaps.

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