What’s better than quickly solving a problem for a customer? Making sure the problem never happens in the first place.
If that’s not the most obvious thing you’ve heard all day, you haven’t heard much.
But it’s obvious because it’s wise. It's a central tenet of customer success: Help customers achieve their goals with your product. Iron out any wrinkles before the customer encounters them.
It’s simple and effective. It boosts retention and, by extension, revenue. And that’s why leaders across industries have identified customer success as a key growth vehicle.
That’s worth diving into. Read on for more about customer success and how to do it right.
What is customer success?
Defining customer success isn’t easy. It’s a crucial function for all businesses with customers (whether they invest in it or not), but its definition varies from org to org.
Let’s begin with what customer success is not: customer support.
Customer support is about reacting to customer problems. When something goes wrong, someone from customer support fixes it or coordinates the fix. That’s crucial! But it’s completely different from customer success.
Instead, customer success is proactive. Customer Success Managers (CSMs) work to improve the user’s overall experience and help them more effectively use your product to solve their problems.
A big part of that involves preventing errors and technical issues. In theory, if you did customer success perfectly, you could nearly eliminate the need for customer support.
(Pssst, no one does it perfectly, but it’s worth trying.)
Preventing technical problems is important to customer success, but it’s only part of the picture. The top customer success pros focus on the customer experience (CX). That’s the bigger picture.
It’s software, so things fall apart. But more important than the inevitable bug, your product shouldn’t be difficult, clunky, counterintuitive, or any adjective that might make the user journey less appealing.
For businesses, customer success is about achieving objectives. Customers have to succeed with the products the business provides—or else they’ll leave.
Why is customer success important?
Here are 2 numbers to help you understand the importance of customer success:
- 73% of consumers say the customer experience is a critical factor in their buying behaviors.
- Businesses in the US alone lose more than $62 billion each year due to poor customer experiences.
If you need a guiding light to bring your business into the safe harbor of customer success, let it be your bottom line—if not the fact that it’s just the right way to treat your loyal customers.
When does a company need a customer success strategy?
Here’s the rule:
If you have customers, you need a customer success strategy.
Of course, we can get a little more granular than that.
It’s true that you need a customer success strategy if you have customers. It’s extra true if you’re in an industry in which new customers are expensive or difficult to acquire:
- If you’re draining your search advertising budget on a handful of clicks
- If your average contract value (ACV) is in the thousands or tens of thousands
- If you’re facing fierce competition from companies with more resources or experience
Those are all great reasons for a company to have a customer success strategy. But really, customer success operations can benefit pretty much any company.
Key responsibilities of customer success management
What does a customer success manager actually do?
In short: whatever it takes to improve the customer experience. And treating that like it’s the same task for every company and every product is a huge mistake, said Jessica Haas, VP of CX at Appcues.
“Customer success or CX at one company could be completely different than at another company,” Haas says. “It's not cookie-cutter. It's not a one-size-fits-all. It has to be tailored to the company and the customer.”
It’s true. But it’s not the most satisfying answer if you want to understand the key responsibilities of customer success professionals.
For that, we can speak generally. Here’s what most CSMs and similar employees find themselves doing at work:
1. Choosing a good customer success solution
CS and CX are fertile ground for B2B SaaS innovation. It seems like there’s a new contender every other week.
At some point, your company will have to choose one and roll with it.
While there are sure to be other stakeholders, that’s probably a decision best left to those with boots on the ground. If you’re a customer success manager, we’re talking about you.
2. Focus on onboarding
Onboarding is essential. (Yup, you can end that with a period.)
2 quick reasons why:
- Because it can make or break retention.
- Because it can make or break CX from day one to infinity.
Haas agrees with that wholeheartedly.
“A customer who is not onboarded well or correctly is a problem that the CSM has to deal with for weeks and months and years,” she says.
That’s motivation enough to focus on onboarding in a big way. Customer success managers (CSMs) obsess over getting it exactly right.
3. Monitor product usage
This is the part where you get into the data. Sometimes it’s also the part where you get your binoculars out and fire up Hotjar.
It’s not creepy. It’s important.
It’s how you find problems with CX before they become a customer support issue or bad review.
In other words, effective customer success teams have a solid handle on how users interact with their products.
That’s how they get insight into ways to grow user engagement, among other important functions.
4. Build an educational library
Who doesn’t love a good knowledge base?
A lot of people, sadly. Let’s rephrase:
The self-starters in your user cohorts will love a good knowledge base about your product.
Some people just prefer to learn on their own. A knowledge base codifies product best practices for them (and many others in your company, particularly new hires).
And if you’re in charge of customer success, it’s (probably) up to you to create that knowledge base and update it with product updates, new features and more.
5. Keep up with key success metrics
Customer success operations can have an impact on some key metrics your company is probably already tracking:
- Churn rate
- Customer lifetime value
- Activation rate
- Net promoter score
- Repeat purchase rate
- Product adoption score
There may be more or fewer in your unique seat.
The point is that you are in charge of tracking those metrics. They say something about the impact of your efforts.
Key challenges for CS professionals
Nobody ever said CS is easy. It’s necessary—but not necessarily pleasant all the time.
Of course, the more adept you become at overcoming the challenges you face as a CSM, the easier your days get.
“It’s not necessarily always about the biggest challenges, but where we can have the biggest impact, which can uncover those challenges.”
Know who you’re selling to
To understand where you can have the biggest impact, you have to really get who you’re selling to.
That, in itself, is a challenge: getting to know your customer like a close cousin or your every-morning barista.
Much of that happens in one-to-one customer conversations. It’s also evident in social media interactions, market research data, and online reviews.
Focus on implementation
Onboarding is huge, but it’s not the whole picture.
Just take implementation—a challenge CS professionals routinely struggle with.
“Implementation is the first impression,” Plaut said. “... That experience, I’ve found in our data, contributes to a longer and more successful relationship with a customer.”
So, what does that first impression consist of? Some examples:
- Pre-recorded training sessions
- Ongoing workshops, meant to address speed bumps for particular use cases
But for Plaut’s team, it’s also office hours.
“We have our support team available for one hour a week—open-door policy,” she said. “Anyone can come pop in, ask a question, connect with other people in the industry, connect with other users of our product.”
It’s a new-ish innovation for Plaut’s team, but, “We’ve found it’s a very informal way for people to kind of fill gaps from the implementation process in their own time,” she says.
Building flexible, scalable, repeatable processes
Creating a truly successful experience for a single customer is a lift. Now you have to do it for hundreds or thousands of customers.
To do that, CSMs need to build flexible, scalable, and repeatable processes.
That’s going to look different at every organization. But it should be your north star every time you re-examine your processes.
Churn in general is no good. But point-of-contact (POC) churn can really hurt.
“Losing your POC/champion is one of the biggest indicators of potential churn,” Plaut says.
It’s a common challenge in B2B SaaS: There’s a POC. They’re trained in your product. They’re the champion for your product at their organization.
But WHAM, something goes wrong and they leave—which usually isn’t a good sign for retention.
“Maybe they missed one of the steps and they didn’t get the team there,” Plaut said. “Maybe that wasn’t in their skill set. They didn’t get the buy-in, and they leave. And we’re basically left at ground zero.”
At the very beginning, it can be hard to get users really excited.
But once they realize the value of your product, the incentive to keep using it will never be as strong. As the CSM, you have to capitalize on that momentum.
Doing so is how you get implementations off the ground. It’s how you generate buy-in across companies. It’s how you boost onboarding completions, activations, and even retention.
In other words: starting strong is essential.
This is more of a logistics problem. But it can still wreak havoc.
What happens when accounts payable isn’t getting what it needs from those lovely users you’re working so hard to onboard?
“We can find ourselves in these very hairy situations where it’s like, ‘OK, a payment hasn’t been made, but we’ve got this very engaged team,’” Plaut said.
It’s helpful to make sure you have the right information about payment and when and how it will be processed right out of the gate, Plaut said.
3 tips for your customer success team
Whether you’re setting up a new CS team or currently in charge of one, you’ve got to nail it.
This is as important as it sounds: If your customers don’t succeed, what happens to them?
They fail. Then, you fail.
To keep that from happening, try these tips:
Emphasize customer success early on
Not 2 weeks in. Not after the first monthly payment. Early.
The earlier, the better. If you have a free trial or freemium offer, that’s a great time to emphasize customer success.
That’s why onboarding is such an important part of the mix for CS. It’s a massive touchpoint for you and your users, and it happens early in the process.
The longer you wait, the more chances you have to let your users down.
Keep it consistent
Everyone on your customer success team is unique. And that’s great.
But their approaches to customer success processes need to be aligned.
There’s a subtle distinction here:
Your CS experiences should be adapted to fit the individual customer’s needs. But the processes used to adapt your CS offerings to those customers should always be the same.
To keep it consistent like that, you need to standardize and codify how CS does what it does, says Okello Carter, Director of Customer Success at Appcues.
“If different customers using the same product are having 2 wildly different experiences because people are not aligned on how things are standardized, that’s something that tends to happen more when there is less definition of how we go about things,” he said.
Promote customer loyalty
Customer success—and the retention, positive reviews, and other happy side effects that come with it—is the result of customer satisfaction.
That satisfaction can come from a lot of places: the product itself, customer support interactions, great onboarding, customer success touchpoints and more.
Here’s one more for you: a customer loyalty program.
Loyalty programs can look like a lot of different things:
- Insider content and tips
- Points and discounts
- Featuring star customers in your content
- An exclusive community for users of your product
Yours will likely be some combination of those. In any case, if you do it right, your customer loyalty program will contribute to users’ overall satisfaction with your product.
And that’s only going to make your CS efforts easier.
Don’t isolate your CS team
Who knows customers best? It’s not sales. It’s not dev. It’s not marketing.
It’s customer success. It has to be. You’re the closest to the customer.
That’s invaluable. But what do you do with it?
You definitely don’t keep it buried in the CS Slack channels. Instead, you broadcast it to the rest of the company.
“As much as we’re representing the business to the customer, we’re also representing the customer to the business,” Carter said.
In other words, you’re telling the rest of the company what the customer wants. What they feel. What they think.
You have to be able to get that message across. And that ability starts with being integrated with other teams.
That might mean regular cross-departmental meetings. It might mean shared Slack channels. But it has to mean something for how CS talks to the rest of the company.
Key attributes for CS professionals
What does a great CS professional look like? Carter and Haas—key players on Appcues’ CS team—said it comes down to a core set of attributes:
No cats will be harmed by the curiosity of a CS professional. And countless customers will be helped.
“The best CSMs that I love to work with are the ones that ask a lot of questions to better understand customers, better understand the product and think about how those things can intersect in positive ways,” Carter said.
Much of the role of CS is about finding solutions.
Those might be solutions to specific, existing problems. Or they might be solutions to problems you’re anticipating.
In any case, you’re often on your own. That’s why being a self-starter is so handy in this role.
“You’re typically dealing with stuff that’s not defined,” Haas said. “And you just have to figure it out. So being comfortable in that space is key.”
Persistent (and empathetic)
The technical bits—those are teachable. You can learn as you go.
What’s harder to learn is a core attribute that sits somewhere just south of your soul. Call it persistence, doggedness, heart—whatever you like. But you have to have it.
Why is persistence so critical?
“You’re going to fail a lot,” Haas said. “But if it’s the right person, it’s not a problem. It’s in your DNA.”
In other words, you keep going. That’s natural to you even if it means going toe to toe with someone you work with to advocate for your customer.
Just remember to temper that fire in your belly with empathy and professionalism. Passion is great, but we’re all on the same team.
The bottom line
The customer experience has always mattered. But it matters more now than ever.
Thank G2 and Capterra. Thank the explosion of SaaS tools and companies. And thank your lucky stars if you haven’t had to think about all of this until now.
If you’re just now getting around to thinking about CS, that’s OK. Many companies have overlooked it.
But here’s the truth: You have to get close to your customer to draw them in—and even closer to keep them. And a highly functioning customer success team is how you do that.
Looking for an on-ramp to user onboarding? Learn why CS is the natural choice.