Strengthening Relationships Through Customer Success
The history of the Customer Success profession dates back to 1996, when a CRM vendor, Vantive, realized that their system had a high failure rate, an issue that certainly didn’t help their quest to have 100% of their customers willing to serve as references. Marie Alexander created and led a department she called Customer Success. She introduced team members to prospects, letting them know that the Customer Success Managers were there to ensure the prospect would be successful using Vantive.
Others came along in subsequent years and realized that, while Sales teams were selling, there was no one responsible for growing and retaining customers, with that growth and retention rooted in successful implementations and engagements, however success was defined (by the customer).
We started with level-setting on what customer success is. She felt that the traditional way people define customer success is as a business method to ensure that customers achieve success with – or desired outcomes from – a product or service. Emilia defines it in a broader sense, though, as a company-wide approach to enabling customers. This is important because if they’re not receiving impact from your product, then there is no renewal, no expansion opportunity, no customer advocacy. She emphasized that it has to start at the top and be a company-wide initiative
Success seems like a subjective thing, so we talked about how to measure it; truly, it is different for different companies, depending not only on your product but also on your company’s maturity. Younger companies with immature products will likely have more Customer Success Managers touching customers than larger, more mature companies. The younger companies are hyper-focused on ensuring that all of their early customers renew. Success measures include advocacy (references, online reviews, NPS), customer satisfaction, case study readiness, product adoption (across the organization), and relationships. The latter point was interesting because it translates to: how many people in the organization do you have relationships with? Is it just your daily contact, or are you also talking to other departments and other individuals across the organization? That’s a sign of trust and relationship strength.
You can’t talk about customer success without talking about the Customer Success Manager (CSM) and her role. The role varies by company maturity, as well. Emilia’s been in this role and knows it well. The CSM is responsible for building relationships with customers and helping drive impact from the product, enabling customers to receive value – and to receive it early on. Her philosophy is that “the renewal starts at ‘Hello.’” It starts with the sales experience and then how that handoff between sales and customer success goes. The CSM’s job is to constantly be selling but in a way that that drives impact or value for the customer.
Diving into the CSM’s role a bit, we talked about pain points and productivity killers. Emilia’s view was that the greatest pain point, which is exacerbated by the pandemic, is time management, i.e., having the time to spend with your customers to build relationships while balancing that with other meetings, analysis, data gathering, CRM updates, etc. that need to get done. In other words, they’re not able to do the job they were hired to do, i.e., develop relationships with customers. Going hand in hand with that is the biggest productivity killer, not learning, not having the time to learn how to manage your time better.
Given the time management issue, I was curious about scaling Customer Success as the business grows and matures. Emilia made some great points. First, the most important thing to do is to be constantly planning for 12-18 months from now, not for today. It’s too late for today. The CSM you hire in Year 1 is not the same CSM you’ll need to help the company get acquired or go public. Those early CSMs serve a critical purpose in building the foundation of the business, but you need to be constantly hiring for what you need for the future and to build that playbook now that you can use in the future to bring on new people. That latter point is a good segue into the second mistake that executives make: not having the processes and systems in place to enable their CSMs. These are foundational for today and as you scale the business.
And how does digital customer success come into play with that? How can it simplify what CSMs are challenged with? Emilia defined digital customer success as enabling the customer where they want to engage with your product or your team, giving them different avenues, e.g., a knowledge base, self-service offerings, or a digital adoption platform like Cast, which scales customer success by humanizing digital customer success. (According to Cast, Customer Success teams can only serve a fraction of their account base, leaving revenue on the table!) These digital options allow customers to get real-time guidance at the moment they need it. Not having a tech touch strategy is a mistake that companies make because they don’t think about it until they’re at a certain size and losing money because of a poor customer experience. Then it’s too late for a digital process because you’re already losing customers. Instead, Emilia recommends starting with a digital approach first to enable all of your customers – and then build a white glove experience on top of that.
When we talk about digital and humanizing and scaling, a concern about automation and how it’s a job killer always drops into the conversation. I asked Emilia her thoughts on this. We were on the same page, that it’s laughable. No need to worry about it. Automation is about processes right now, not people. The human element is still so important to building and strengthening relationships. That’s not going away. Besides, we need people to identify the processes to be automated and then to teach the robots what needs to be done. Your job is safe! – Annette Franz