How to Build and Scale Customer Success From the Ground Up
The road to building a successful Customer Success team can be daunting, but also rewarding…
At first glance, how many people reading this knew what the initials CS meant when they first heard of it? Did you think it stood for customer support? Customer Service? Computer Science? Let me clear up that mystery right now – when I say CS, I’m talking about customer success.
I’ve been working in the CS world for nearly a decade. Though I started as a customer success manager, I ended up as Vice President of Customer Success for a large company. For most people in my line of work, that’s the top of the world- as good as it gets.
So why, you might wonder, did I leave that all behind a few months ago to join a small start-up whose CS department consisted of only two people? I made the leap for two reasons. The first is that, like any good artist, the prospect of a blank canvas offered limitless possibilities; I could build our CS department in any way I saw fit.
Second, I was motivated by what the company, as a business, had to offer. In the remarkably brief period since I joined the team, the total headcount has nearly quadrupled while my team has quintupled in size.
Given the position I’ve found myself in, I wanted to discuss the steps I took to build a CS team from scratch, the decisions I made, the direction I hope we go in, and the tips I have for those who find themselves in my shoes down the line.
Moments, essentially, after joining it, the start-up announced the finalization of its Series A & Seed funding rounds of $27 million. As I mentioned, the CS team consisted of two people at the time, and with that sort of funding, there was no room to dilly-dally; we needed to grow- and fast.
When someone like myself enters an organization at its early stages, the primary drive is to scale and organize the CS team. I couldn’t sit idly by and figure out how to make do with two CSMs and 60+ clients. Instead, I needed to think ahead a month, a year, or even more into the future. What framework could I put in place today that could efficiently and adequately assist a client list of tens of thousands of people with a CS team that could be hundreds strong?
First off, I had to consider staffing and which candidates were ideal for both the company’s short-term needs and long-term goals. Not only did they need to be dynamic individuals, but they needed to speak the language of the clients. They also needed to be able to compensate for the product’s shortcomings, given that our start-up platform is still maturing. In terms of the future, though, I needed to shift the CS team makeup from generalists to specialists who could inhabit dedicated roles within separate teams and sub-departments.
That’s what led me to reorganize the whole CS structure. As is typical for SaaS companies in similar positions, I adopted a strategy where the CS department underwent division into three distinct departments: customer success managers (CSMs), onboarding/implementation experts, and technical support agents.
Managing the Team
I’m not going to lie to you – managing a CS team whose scope and headcount changes by the minute is a truly unrivaled experience. But when you boil everything down, the experience comes down to a single question: How do you manage a customer success department that aims to scale, while presently operating as a smaller-size team?
Part of the answer is structural, which is solved by implementing the new department structure. The other part is cultural, in that there is still an atmosphere that feels as though everyone can do everything. This was acceptable when the team was still very young, but as the product matures, a time will come where not all tasks can be addressed in a one-size-fits-all manner. As the start-up grows it must make those changes now.
Beyond this cultural-structural dynamic, recruiting and staffing remains one of my top priorities, as each of the newly minted sub-departments requires seeds for the future. For instance, on the onboarding side, I had to give honest consideration as to what the ideal process should be like, from the customer’s perspective rather than from someone on my team. Since the platform operates together with many of our clients’ existing ERPs, this thought process led me to prioritize hires with backgrounds in ERP implementation.
I also had to consider the types of people that most often use our fin-tech platform – VPs of finance, CFOs, bookkeepers, and corporate controllers, to name a few. So, from where I sat, it made sense to focus on recruiting people with similar backgrounds as a matter of priority. It was much easier said than done, but the team and I were fortunate enough, ultimately, to find those kinds of candidates. They have since been able to develop and nurture relationships in ways that those without industry-centric backgrounds likely could not have.
Tips for the Uninitiated
When I began my tenure here, it was uncharted territory – filled with bumps and unforeseen obstacles. These days, I spend lots of time looking ahead to the company and the CS department’s future. After all, it’s exciting to be a part of a fast-growing company. But I often consider what advice I would give myself, or others, should an opportunity like this ever rear its head again. So, I’d offer the following tips:
- Don’t freak out. You’re not the first to be given this opportunity, and you won’t be the last. Just consult the experts and the people you trust, and don’t forget to breathe.
- Keep scale in mind. In the beginning, it can be easy to get bogged down with “how things are” rather than what they need to be. Ultimately, your job isn’t to preserve the present organization, but to prepare it for exponential growth. On the best of days, this is a daunting task and can seem downright impossible without proper planning. However, note that it’s much easier to make these changes initially rather than making them after the fact.
- Mistakes happen. You read that right. You’re probably going to make mistakes, or maybe a lot of them, and that’s fine. The important thing is to identify them when they happen and correct them as soon as possible.
- Understanding is key. Despite its name, CS development can be very high-level work. But it’s essential to understand from the get-go what success looks like in your organization and the questions you need to ask yourself to get there. What is the company’s expectation from CS? What are the KPIs, and how do we meet them? What kind of staffing will you require to meet the clients’ needs, and what experience will they need? What sub-departments will need formation?
- CS is not alone. In CS, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and feel responsible for everything. But it’s imperative to bear in mind that sales, product, marketing, and R&D are right there in the trenches with you. No CS team in the world can compensate, in the long run, for the shortcoming of the product, and every department bears responsibility for that. Conversely, successes belong to everyone in turn since everyone plays a role.
- Don’t operate in a silo. Within the framework of CS and in the context of the company at large, communication is essential. The CSM, onboarding, and technical support departments must interact with one another. More broadly, CS needs to stay on the same page as marketing, sales, and R&D, lest your team fall out of the loop.
Honestly, it’s been incredible to witness a company develop and grow so quickly. The company’s list of clients has doubled in a few months, and the CS team has more than met the task. On paper, I can see how it would be challenging to measure a customer’s happiness. But, in practice, the KPI for CS is very straightforward – net retention, which says customers don’t just like the product, but they also want to grow with it. So far, the net retention numbers have been incredible, which makes me very optimistic for what’s to come.
Advancing into the months and years initially charted, there are clear milestones I’d like to see the CS department hit. Of course, I’d like to see the numbers continue to grow, but more specifically, I want the reputation to exceed my wildest dreams. In that case, the boost in our market perception could shift how my CSMs are seen – from mere agents to trusted advisors- the value of which customers will eventually want to pay for. I’ve already begun to see this happen, and I’m confident the trend will continue.
Developing a fast-growing start-up customer success department has been an incredible, potentially career-defining experience. I can’t believe the progress over the past few months, and I’m excited to see what the future holds. I don’t know exactly where the organization will go, but it is ready to scale.
-Yael Haloutz, VP Customer Success, PayEm