From Fighting Fires to Inspiring Customers: How to be Proactive in Customer Success

By Paul Teshima in Customer Success

It is incredible to see how far the role of customer success has come in tech companies.  I remember back in 2004 talking to Rob Lamb, who started the movement at salesforce.com, and thinking – wouldn’t it be great if there were more of us out there?

Now customer success (CS) is exploding. The Toronto CS Meetup alone has close to 1,000 members (crazy good!). And customer success platform Gainsight ranks 7th in the Deloitte Fast 500, growing at an astounding 12,730% over the past five years .

It’s not all good though. Customer success is still under-resourced, too reactive, and is tired of being the catch-all for the customer – this needs to change.

Here are three things as a CS leader you can do to get ahead of the curve and be proactive:

Customer Success Should Own a Quota

Yes, customer success managers (CSMs) drive customer satisfaction and renewals which is the lifeblood of any SaaS company. Yes, genuine customer advocacy and referrals can drive tremendous growth.  But as a CS leader you need to own an upsell quota.  Why?  Here are three reasons:

  1. Upsells in SaaS come more naturally from product adoption and engagement. So, it is a natural next step in the customer success journey – you want to own that step.
  2. You have a greater ability to compensate your top performers, and have a career path beyond just managing CSMs.
  3. It allows you to keep a seat at the executive table, especially as you scale the business.  This is a super important tactic to becoming more proactive in customer success.

“Pipeline saves lives.” – Alex Shootman, CEO, Workfront

The Hard Part: it is hard to hire CSMs that can both drive customer value AND sell.  However it greatly simplifies the experience for the customer, and the CSMs who can do both are rockstars you want in your company.   

The Takeaway: own an upsell quota, and for as long as you can, keep it with the CSM and not in a secondary account management role.  Once you have enough products to truly cross-sell or divisions to grow into, split the roles.  Selling will force you to build more senior relationships with your customers. Selling will also make you think more regularly about the account, not just at renewal period.

Let Your People Be Promoted To Other Teams

My first reaction when one of my top CSMs was being recruited to join another group was “Hell no, I need that person, and you can’t have them.  It has taken so long to get someone with that level of expertise – our product, our customers, and we can’t afford to lose them”.

You have all been there right?

But the truth is that having CSMs move to other areas of the business is incredibly helpful for your company and also for your customers.  In sales, they can help engineer solutions that will drive the most value.  In product they can shape the future roadmap, with a deep understanding of the customer needs.  What better way is there to become more proactive than having the right type of new customers? Not to mention, having a roadmap that reflects the key needs of your most important accounts.

Once I got over my own heartache, I realized that promoting CSMs from my team was better for the company, the customer and also the CSM if they truly wanted to move to another role.

“The biggest barrier to customer success is CEOs not making it an important part of the culture.” – Nick Mehta, CEO, Gainsight

The Hard Part: you will be short staffed continually until you can work out a plan with your CEO and CFO to hire ahead.

The Takeaway: make an agreement with your CEO that people can be promoted from CS to other areas of the organization regularly. Make two caveats: at minimum, they spend 1 year in the CS team, and you can hire 2-3 quarters ahead of the hiring plan.  Once you can hire ahead of plan, you now have a buffer to properly onboard new CSMs. You also have time to attack important process improvements that otherwise get left on the sidelines.

Include Relationships in Your Health Score

The idea of a customer health score is not new.  But contracts and a customer satisfaction measurement (like NPS) don’t cut it anymore.  Now – with new platforms like Intercom.io, Pendo.io, Gainsight and Amity – you also can have a deep understanding of product usage and value.

However, there is a fourth element that, in my opinion, is more important than all of the rest: customer relationships.

We all have seen customers renew due to a strong relationship – even with low adoption. We have also seen customers  who are generating value leave or diminish. This often happens because the champion leaves and the new hire brings in their favored vendor.  So, relationships matter.  You have to drive value, but without relationships you won’t keep your customers for life.

“Customers may come for your product, but they stay for your people.” – Me

The Hard Part: most CS teams experience the 80/20 effect.  They spend 80% of their time with only 20% of their customers: the high MRR or squeaky wheels.  You need to shift your mentality and prioritization to spend more time with the other 80%.

The Takeaway:  implement a solution that can track relationship strength (account engagement) between your company and your customers.  Measuring engagement between CSMs, support, service, sales, execs and your accounts lets you clearly see where you have very low engagement. It also lets them see how vulnerable they are with only a single point of contact at important accounts.

Hopefully some of these initiatives align with some of your 2017 plans.  The road to becoming proactive is a long one, so best to start now, even with some small steps.

I would love to hear from you on what you are doing to become more proactive as a CS organization.

Also, tune in for Part II, where I will take a deeper dive into measuring and managing customers by relationships.

Paul Teshima
CEO and Co-founder