The Superguide To Building a GREAT Customer Success Function

There has been a lot written about customer success (especially with the super acquisition of Gainsight by Vista). 

Everyone has a sense of what a good customer success function does. It keeps customers happy, churn low, and looks for expansion opportunities. But little has been written about what a GREAT customer success function does. That’s likely because customer success, as a function, is rarely great.  

Let’s work together to change that. Here’s what it takes to build a great customer success function. 

Great customer success teams massively increase NPS.

A good customer success team should increase your product’s NPS score by 10 points.  But a great one will increase NPS by 40 points.  

Yes, 40 points

That does not happen overnight. And it won’t happen by just giving customers good service. 

Ultimately, the only way to increase NPS is to make the product better for the customer. That doesn’t mean that the product gets better for every customer at once. It probably won’t. The goal of customer success should be to make the product better for groups of customers at a time.

The best customer success teams are secretly product managers.

Customer success members must consider themselves part of the core product team.  They are the front-line PMs that know the product inside and out. They can solicit feedback from customers and then work to turn that feedback into actionable features. 

And the best CS orgs actively help your product team better prioritize their resources by tying revenue commits to feature requests.

There are two ways to improve product: Step Functions and One-Percent Improvements.  While both are super important, the customer success team should manically focus on the one-percent improvements. It only takes 72 one-percent product improvements to make the product twice as good. That’s what customer success should focus on.

Of course, any improvement to the product doesn’t uniformly make the product 1% better for all customers. For the customers most affected by the upgrades, it could actually result in a 10% improvement, while the rest of customers see no improvement at all.

The customer success team needs to understand that and advocate for better incremental features. It’s critical that all customers see the product improving because the velocity of product improvements is key to keeping customers happy, excited, and engaged.

Internally, the customer success team needs to be LOUD and tirelessly advocate for improving the product for the customers. Then, when customer needs or suggestions do make their way into the product, the CS team should close the loop with the customer and let them know.

Customers love to feel like they’re a contributing member of the product roadmap. By showing that you listened and advocated for them, you’ll take one massive step towards building a loyal customer. 

Over time, the little things add up to be very big things.

Understanding the customer and the little things they care about is really important.

Let’s discuss:

  • Onboarding
  • Speed
  • Integrations
  • Documentation
  • Consulting
  • Quick feedback

Onboarding is about value creation.

It takes a long time for companies to get value from the products they buy.  Too long. Even at SafeGraph, sometimes our data sits on our customer’s shelf collecting dust.  

Companies should measure the time it takes for customers to go from sale to getting 90% of the value from the product. And the faster the better.  Customer success needs to make sure every customer uses the product to its fullest potential as quickly as possible.  

If customer success discovers that certain types of deals or buyers are slow to integrate, then they need to bring this feedback back to the sales and marketing teams to help them reevaluate their pipeline and targeting. Remember, onboarding is about value creation and it should happen as quickly as possible.

As a customer success leader, you must work closely with the sales org by participating at late sale stages and helping shape the sales process to ensure new signatures accelerate momentum (vs stalling out afterwards). By the time the customer has made the purchase, it should feel less like a “handoff” to CS and more like a “boost” towards value creation. 

Product speed is massively underrated.

Many products would benefit greatly from speed increases.  Most SaaS products like Salesforce (and even B2C products like LinkedIn) are unreasonably slow. While speed is rarely something customers talk about (unless it gets awful), it is a huge deal once customers realize it. One goal of a customer success team should be to never be the bottleneck for customers. 

Superhuman, for example, is much faster than the alternative. And they remind their customers about their speed advantages all the time. (Note: I am an investor in Superhuman — so yes, I am biased). 

Customer success can drive value from ‘speed’ by helping educate customers on the value of speed increases and setting high expectations for speed.  While customer success typically sees itself as working with customers one-on-one, you can get leverage by creating materials to educate many of your customers at once.

Integrations should prioritize the tools your customers already use.

Integrations are another area where customer success can provide value.  Customer success should know all the other tools your customers use so you can prioritize which products you should integrate with.

At SafeGraph, our customers’ common tools are AWS, Azure, GCP, Databricks, and Snowflake (to name a few).  So we need to prioritize building integrations into all these platforms.  

Most of your customers will not benefit from any one integration.  But ideally, at least five of your customers will significantly benefit from an integration. Do this enough times and customers will trip over themselves to thank you.  

So yes, customer success is not just product managers – they are also doing partnerships and managing product extensions through these integrations.

Documentation is actually part of the product. 

Some people think documentation is just a thing on the side. It’s not. Documentation is actually PART of the product – it’s a core feature. That means it’s also a differentiator. 

Great documentation can significantly increase customer satisfaction. Customer success teams should not only be super familiar with the documentation, but they should be actively writing it, editing it, and reformatting it. 

Not only that, a majority of SaaS buyers review documentation BEFORE making a purchase. At SafeGraph, our docs site makes up around 30% of our total website traffic across all of our domains.

If you can’t help your customer with the product, help them hire a consultant who can. 

In some cases, customers need help getting the most of your product.  Sometimes you have internal resources to help, but other times customers need outside help.  

For instance, SafeGraph just sells data (not a solution). Companies need experienced data scientists to get use of the data. Companies that don’t have strong internal data science teams will only get value from our data if they bring in outside resources. Customer success should realize this and help these companies bring in consultants to help.

Remember, onboarding is about value creation. You can’t add value if your customer doesn’t have the capability to use your product. Help them get the help they need.

Provide quick feedback through the channels your customers like to use.

Most customers love quick communication cycles. Some customers prefer face-to-face, others email, and others need a dedicated shared Slack channel.  

You want a cadence where customers are always asking you questions, and you can answer back. As Slack or MS Teams become more ubiquitous, you need to get into their regular communication channel. You should be doing that pre-sale so you have all the conversations with the customer in one place.

You likely have a large number of customers and clear evangelists who love your product. In that case, you could even empower those evangelists to help support other customers through the creation of a community or forum.

Building a revenue and sales machine.

Increasing the NPS is the number one job of customer success … but the close #2 is bringing in the dollars.  And that means more than renewals (which should take care of itself if you increase the customer’s NPS).

The customer success manager is a quarterback who directs all the assets of the rest of the company to help the customer.  This is something that can help the NPS, but it also can be used to uncover new and exciting opportunities within the account. 

The customer success manager needs to think of herself as someone who can direct others in the company (including the CEO) to help them really multi-thread the account. Ideally, your team should have strong relationships with at least three points of contact within each customer account: 

1) The Budget Owner

2) The Champion

3) The Power User

If you ever hear the excuse “our champion left the company,” this is a clear failure of customer success. You should always have multiple threads into the company to turn users into advocates.

Ultimately, it’s about revenue. Too many organizations falsely assume that revenue focus causes customer success teams not to operate in their customer’s best interests. This just isn’t true. 

GREAT customer success teams own revenue numbers (renewals / churn / upsells / etc.) as key KPIs. CS teams that lean into conversations around budget ensure the product / service is impactful as possible (and can help prioritize customers thinking correctly). 

Co-marketing is king: making heroes out of customers.

One job of customer success is to make all buyers into heroes in their organizations. You want to increase the visibility of your product’s champions both inside and outside their company.

Internally you need to do everything to make your champions look good.  Customer success teams need to know everything about their champions and look for every opportunity to help them shine.  

Externally, you always want your champions speaking.  You should have a program to actively get speaking gigs for your customers … and, of course, they should mention your product.  

One of the simplest ways to get your customers coverage is to do webinars with them and widely promote those webinars – especially to people in their own company to get more credibility with their peers.  

Another way to get more visibility of your champions is to get them to write guest-posts on blogs. You can even help write the articles for them and help get it published.  Of course, the easiest place to publish it is on your own blog.

Case studies are great, but most case studies are all about promoting your product and not about promoting your champion. Remember, you want to make heroes out of your customer

Another alternative to case studies is just to interview your customers (on video) about what they do with your product and then promote the video. You can do a simple video over Zoom. Great customer success teams should be bombarding their marketing team with customer co-marketing ideas to turn customers into champions.

All your champions should be writing reviews of your product on G2, providing quotes for your website, and talking about you on social media.  Take these and amplify your champions to make them famous.  

Upsell your customers.

One way you know if your customers love your product is if they buy more from you.  You need to truly know your customers to find opportunities for them to get more out of your product.  Often, that means getting them to introduce you to other divisions (or orgs) within their company.

As a customer success leader, you should own the budget and value conversations with customers. 

Remember, you are the quarterback of the deal.

If your customers aren’t exceeding their goals, pull out all the stops.

Assuming your customers are actively using your product, you need to find a way to determine how much business value your product is driving for your customer.  And if they are not actively using your product, you can simply assume they are not getting nearly enough value.  

Remember, you are the quarterback of an amazing team — you need to direct all your resources to ensuring your customers accomplish and exceed their goals for purchasing your product (which sometimes means helping them use the product to its full potential).  

Track when champions go to new companies.

You need to systematically track when employees of your customers switch jobs. First, that means that you likely need to build more relationships within your account (remember, you want at least three points of contact within each customer account).

But, even more importantly, when an employee goes to a new company, that likely means you have an opportunity to sell to the new organization that they are joining.

When I was at LiveRamp, we always tracked when our champions got a new job. Inevitably we’d have a new customer within five months. In our early days, most of our new business came from people getting new jobs. It became so successful that we started scheming if we could help our champions get hired into key potential accounts (we never did go through with that scheme).  

The customer success team should be generating qualified leads and help bring in new business. That might be when a champion goes to a new company but it also can be by getting referrals.  

Map out your champion’s contacts (from LinkedIn) and always ask your customer for intros to high-value accounts. Yes, this is the job of customer success. And referrals don’t just need to come from goodwill either. Think of interesting gifts or rewards for the individuals that refer you to new prospects…it will make them appreciate you even more. 

To summarize, if you want to take your customer success team from good to great, do the following:

Increase NPS by 40 points:

  • Onboard customers faster
  • Speed up your product
  • Build key integrations and partnerships
  • Improve your documentation
  • Bring in outside firms for consulting/service
  • Provide quick feedback

Bring in the bucks:

  • Make heroes of your champions
  • Co-market with your customers
  • Upsell your customers
  • Track when champions go to new companies
  • Get referrals to new customers

Reviewed, commented, and edited by: Jason Cook, Ryan Chang, Thomas Waschenfelder, and Evan Barry (thank you!!)

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