Customers are the foundation of a business. Without them, your organization is just a fancy hobby.
In a SaaS model, retaining your customers is just as important as acquiring new ones. It’s surprising, therefore, that organizations never take customer success seriously as soon as they should.
Building a customer success team is a challenge because the discipline is so new. Many organizations struggle to actually find talent with customer success experience. They end up pulling people from other disciplines and letting them learn on the job.
Nevertheless, you have to build a CS team if you ever hope to operate at scale and actually grow your revenue.
Your customer success team should have a clear purpose. Too often, I’ve seen leaders bury themselves in the process. They are continually doing things, but they lack clear objectives.
Are your CSMs focused on renewals? Upsells or cross-sells? Will they focus on customer satisfaction? Will they data mine to help the sales team? You need answers to these questions before you start scaling your customer success team.
Once you have a clear purpose, you’ll be able to hire the right people, utilize the right platform, and build the right process to make customer success work.
During an organization’s early days, the founders and first hires usually wear a number of hats. You should hire your first customer success manager when your process has become strained. This is around the time you’ll also hire heads of engineering, sales, marketing, accounts, etc.
The reason your CSM should be an early hire is because of the revenue compounding effects of retention. More early customers retained equates to stronger revenue growth of the company throughout its lifetime. An early hire CSM is also a fantastic way to lighten the burden of your executive leadership. This should be a C-suite position.
Contrary to popular belief, your first CSM doesn’t need to have an extensive sales background (although many CSMs come from sales environments). Your first CSM should be process-orientated and built to serve others. He/she needs to be able to solve unique problems and then turn those solutions into repeatable, scalable processes for future customers.
Because of the process nature of the work, it will take your CSM three to six months to begin comfortably solving the top customer issues and six to twelve months to demonstrate value to the organization (in terms of revenue). Complex products or products with large customer bases may take longer. This is another reason to hire that first CSM sooner rather than later.
When it comes to any customer-facing role in your organization, you can’t compromise on talent. Even if you need customer success managers right now, don’t settle on candidates that aren’t right. Because of the process-orientated nature of the job, hiring one exceptional CSM can be like hiring three or four mediocre CSMs.
SaaS venture capitalist Jason Lemkin recommends having one customer success manager for every $2 million in annual recurring revenue. However, you need to hire CSMs in advance of the new revenue, not after it’s already flowing, otherwise, you risk overextending your current CSMs.
Jason admits that will feel uncomfortable: “If you haven’t hired a customer (or client – same thing) success team before, it can be confusing to start. It will feel like a cost center.”
Compensating a customer success manager is a topic far bigger than this post, so I’ll just leave you a link to another article we wrote: The Definitive Customer Success Manager Salary Guide.
The type of people you hire will depend entirely on your product. If your product is technical and designed for developers, your customer success managers should be technical people. If your product deals with customers in highly regulated industries, your customer success managers should have experience working in those industries.
Before you start hiring, you need to create an environment that will allow a customer success team to flourish. Abide by these principles.
Your customer success team should be 100% positive, 100% of the time. Do not permit any “that’s not my job” language. Every interaction with the customer should be solution-driven, even if CSMs have to pass the inquiry to another CSM or another team.
Your team members need to be proactive and service-orientated. They should want to create solutions before the problems ever manifest. Adjusting the product or process so the customer never experiences the problem in the first place should be top priority.
New customer success teams that are still getting used to the organization, the product, and the customers can become distracted by internal conflicts, daily emergencies, and an unclear purpose. It’s critical that CSMs put the customer’s success as a top priority and address everything else later. That doesn’t mean you have to drop what you’re doing to respond to a customer in seconds, but you should never leave them hanging.
Don’t silo your customer success team. Encourage free communication with other teams and instruct those teams to work with the CSMs. For instance, sales and customer success must be closely aligned for maximum retention. CSMs will also have to work with marketing, account management, product development, etc.
The goal of the CS team is to help the customer find enough value in the product to keep paying for it (and upgrade to a higher priced service). That means that each CSM needs to be mindful of the quality of their work. Half-jobs don’t cut it. Your CSMs should be prepared to pack more value into the relationship than the customer expected.
You should be offering a Quarterly Business Review for each customer that reports on their success with your product (reminding them of the value you have provided) and recommending measurable goals for next quarter. Your team should care deeply about the customer’s growth.
Managing customer interactions at scale can be challenging, especially if you’re making 10-30 connections each day. You can start with a basic CRM like Zendesk; but eventually, you’ll need to adopt a dedicated customer success management tool. There are many, but I recommend one of these: Gainsight, Totango, Amity, Natero, Client Success, or Strikedeck.
People work best when they are given tasks that play to their strengths. Decide which skills your process requires and hire team members with complementary skills. For instance, if you have several people with exceptional communication skills, your next hire might be someone who is comfortable analyzing data.
Naturally, you need to know if your customer success team is making an impact on your business.
While customer retention is technically everyone’s problem (because of its dramatic effect on the organization’s success), it should be the primary metric of the customer success team. This only works, however, if you give the CS team the freedom to work with other teams within your organization and instruct those teams to cooperate.
Don’t get too hung up on the churn percentage, unless you’re measuring it accurately (many don’t). Instead, focus on revenue churn. After all, your ultimate goal is to increase revenue and profit, not the number of accounts on the books.
You could also measure your customer success team with an aggregate customer satisfaction score (like a Net Promoter Score), or a customer health score, which is an internal calculation of a customer’s likelihood of renewing based on a formula you create.
Like I said before, don’t settle on candidates. Even if you know you should have built a team six months ago, don’t push five people through the hiring process just to have “customer success” on a budget report. Keep in mind that these people will directly interface with your customers, so they have to be good at their jobs.