This post is neither a sales pitch for my services, nor a rant about the gaps in customer success – but it is a wake up call to many business who are currently facing a customer success gap.
I’ve had many conversations with businesses big and small, across a number of countries in Europe and North America over the past few months, and Ive reviewed the trends, patterns and plans that they had for their customer success functions. Because customer success is still a nascent function, because business leaders are not always sure on how to manage, drive forward and reward customer success and because the expectation of a quick return on investment (land and expand) is a widely-held view, an ever-growing gap between what customer success should deliver and the reality of what customer success value is actually achieved. The most pressing areas can be summarised in these four points.
Scope: In a number of businesses I’ve spoken with, whilst senior manager acknowledge that their customer success expectations and aspirations are far greater than the reality of their current functions, there seemed to be an acceptance that since it’s a pretty new concept for many, it would be unreasonable to expect more. This idea seems crazy to me – no boss would accept a finance department who failed to deliver monthly billing simply because the people in the team didn’t like doing billing. In the same way, customer success isn’t just a function for retention, up-sell / cross-sell function, customer feedback or account management. Customer success is responsible for protecting the customers and revenue you’ve got, then growing them profitably. Those of us who lead and work within customer success need to build goals and action plans to own these critical tasks in their entirety.
Ambition: Customer success was born out of a need to do more than just sell to customer, then fix things when they went wrong. The old customer service and sales model dropped the ball in a number of areas. Customer success’s ambition to not just oversee, but manage the customer through the customer journey aimed to resolve this. I
n practice, many businesses create a customer success function early on in their life to bridge the gaps with new and unstable products, build a human relationship to reduce the impact of competitive threats or address high churn. The real challenge is how the customer success team pivots away from reacting to customer issues to a place where they proactively manage the customer, and address the needs BEFORE they arise. In both large and small businesses, I’m witnessing customer success team that have got comfortable in reactive mode, even shifting measurement to focus on these “customer service” elements. Make sure your customer success function focuses on proactive measures to drive them to manage the customer through the customer journey. The wise businesses invest in skills and knowledge to reduce or eradicate the early-life support issues, so that customer success moves on to revenue and growth, not just fire-fighting.
Timing: I’ve never heard a CEO say that it’s “not the right time” to introduce a top-notch sales person who can drive a strong sales pipeline. And yet it’s something that is often said about customer success. Whilst other functions need to deliver to their full potential, businesses seem to accept that customer success might only deliver part of what they can and should be doing. Marketing markets, sales sell, customer service supports – so customer success needs to deliver customer success. Of course, budgets are a real consideration – but if you want a fully-functional customer success function, you have to invest to grow that function. With the right people, knowledge and experience level, customer success will be delivering the same or more (financial) value than sales and marketing. Be bolder, set ambitious goals to be executed in the short to medium, not long term.
Skill: Probably the most interesting area of discussion in customer success is around skill – both the tangible and measurable skills of the team, and the level of competency and experience within the teams. The “normal” path followed is to bring in relatively junior (even grad level or interns) team members, let them learn and grow into the role requirements, then promote from within. At a certain point, as the product, business and team mature, there is a need to go externally to get a more experienced level of customer success into the business (international expansion, competitive threat, weak product performance.)
Quite often, the sales or marketing leads are expected to “baby-sit” the customer success function, meaning that for the early life of the team, there is little specific focus on customer success. Internally promoted customer success managers can struggle to set direction because they lack previous experience, and as a result, falling into the reactive customer support behaviour is inevitable. Customer success should not be limited by the team and manager ability – strike a correct balance to avoid standing still.
So having outlined the challenge you may be facing, what should you do next? My best advice is to define the value you want to achieve (for the team, the business and the customer). Using my description of what customer success should be earlier in the post:
i) Retain what you’ve got – know the actual value and own it!
ii) Grow it profitably – churn what is not!
iii) Provide actionable insight to the business – remove the emotion, report the facts
iv) Represent the customer within the business – measurement of what customers do and why
In your 2020 plan, as one customer success professional to another, I’d ask you to reflect on what value your customer success team is delivering, and how aligned is it with a true definition of customer success. There are plenty of groups, forums and people like me who are willing to share experience and brain storm new ways forward, so as you start your 2020 planning and deliverables, think about what you might do differently and how you might achieve it. Drop me a line if you need a hand to get the ball rolling!