In late February, after weeks of snow-bound hibernation, Customer Success leaders from around the greater Boston area emerged from their offices groundhog-like, didn’t see their shadows, and continued on out to Brainshark headquarters in Waltham. There, we had a lively Q&A with Pat Kelly of Brainshark and Jeremy King of InsightSquared about the challenges of and strategies for scaling CS operations to meet the needs of smaller customers. Here are key points of our discussion:
- Challenge 1: Helping SMB customers think about ROI. Enterprise customers typically have to justify any significant purchase and so think about SaaS applications as an investment for which there needs to be a return. Since SMBs frequently don’t apply the same rigorous discipline around procurement, they often jump into a purchase without thinking through the ROI case for the application or the value they hope it will deliver. Strategy: Provide training and tools for use in the onboarding process to guide customers in identifying their key measure of value. Ideally, some aspects of these tools and this effort would be extended forward into the sales process so that at least some insight into pain points and needs is captured prior to implementation.
- Challenge 2: Keeping momentum during implementation despite frequently rescheduled and canceled meetings. The reality is that SMB staff wear many hats and, as a result, are pulled in many directions and face changing priorities. This means that it’s hard to get them to commit time in their schedules for training and business reviews and even harder to get them to keep those meetings. Strategy: Make the time you do get with SMB customers as productive as possible by pushing them to accomplish more between meetings and by keeping the agendas of meetings very focused. When possible, shift relationship-building and value-added content delivery to non-meeting interactions (see Challenge 4 below).
- Challenge 3: Staffing effectively to meet customer needs without sacrificing profitability. As mentioned above, SMBs often require upfront help to define their objectives and present more challenges then Enterprise customers when it comes to making steady, managed progress towards those objectives. Partially as a consequence of these issues, SMBs frequently have more questions. All this would seem to lead to a CS burden equal to, if not greater than, that of Enterprise customers. Strategy: This challenge necessitates a different approach to staffing – and on larger CS teams often leads to the creation of a dedicated SMB team, with its members carrying a larger book of customers. The members of this team typically don’t have extensive experience at the Enterprise level, so they don’t have to unlearn habits that don’t translate well to SMB customers.
- Challenge 4: Providing value-added guidance outside of a 1:1 model. For almost all B2B applications, Customer Success is not only tasked with driving adoption, but also with providing best practices and advice on related strategies for maximizing impact (e.g., guidance on general marketing strategy for applications focused on specific aspects of marketing). Due to the much more limited time available for each customer, CSMs for SMBs can’t dedicate meeting time to providing this value-added content. Strategy: Move value-added content into more broadly distributable assets and deliver them via a strategic communications program. For example, related strategic advice can be presented via live and on-demand webcasts; best practices can be delivered via case studies and infographics promoted through emails.
If you listen to Customer Success Management professionals talk about what they do, you’ll get the message loud and clear. In order to be viewed as a growth engine rather than a cost center, the CSM must move beyond being firefighters, which relegates the CSM function to the world of support – helpful, but totally reactive. Just because it is part of the story of how many CSM teams got started doesn’t mean that it needs to be part of how the CSM team is positioned going forward.
I’d like to take things one step further. I believe that success for CSM can be defined as the day that Success managers and executives no longer talk at all about how many customer relationships they and their team have “saved.” I understand the motivation – it’s a tangible demonstration of the value of their function and one that explicitly and clearly relates to the activities of the CSM team. However, there are three problems with ”saved customer” refrain:
- It continues the focus on reactive impact, as saving implies that the customer was “at risk” until the successful intervention of the CSM team.
- It undervalues the total impact of CSM on the top line because it doesn’t account for up-sell or cross-sell revenue and on the bottom line because, among other things, it doesn’t account for the lowering of customer acquisition costs through advocacy and word-of-mouth.
- Finally, why should saving customers even be necessary? The strategic, pro-active approach of the CSM team should ensure that customers are kept on a path to value and rarely or never get diverted to end up at risk.
Not only does talk of saves do a poor job of positioning the CSM team within the organization, it has the potential to create or foster antagonism between CSM and other functions. The need to save results from some misstep, whether by marketing or sales in poorly setting expectations, product development in delivering an application with feature shortcomings or bugs, or support in failing to respond to requests quickly or thoroughly enough. Does the CSM team really want to be the nagging parent of the organization that always talks about cleaning up everyone else’s mess?
While we’re at it, maybe we should do away with the outward focus on “churn rate.” Talking about CSM in terms of churn still mires it in a framework of prevention rather than expansion and growth. Every customer relationship is an opportunity for growing revenue through renewal, upsell, cross-sell, and advocacy. So why not refer to the performance of the CSM team responsible for managing and nurturing those relationships in terms of conversion of that revenue opportunity? Sales isn’t measured by their loss rate (yes, win/loss is an element of sales performance analysis but it’s rarely the primary sales measure mentioned), but rather by their bookings against quota or their conversion rate. I’m not suggesting that churn should be ignored or even that it not be a/the primary measure used internally by the CSM team. Rather, I’m suggesting that perhaps CSM does itself a disservice and perpetuates the stale paradigms that it is trying to shift by highlighting “saves” to the non-CSM world.
In attendance recently at Zuora’s US Subscribed conference in San Francisco as an observer and enabler of–rather than a participant in–the subscription economy, I really focused on the strategy content: CEO growth advice, SaaS pricing and packaging approaches, customer experience/success best practices. What I found through these sessions was a recurring theme of a focus on value–value realized by the customer and value captured by the vendor.
While that may seem like something that could be a theme at almost any conference because it is the foundation of business, at Subscribed it stood out in two ways:
- Variety. It is the nature of the subscription business model generally and the SaaS version in particular that there is no unitary “product.” Offerings are a construction of features, services, and access and accrue value (revenue and profit) to the vendor through myriad of pricing structures and levels. Aligning your offering/s with customer value and capturing the appropriate value from the customer in revenue is an iterative process.
- Conviction. Many executives talk about focusing on the customer; at Subscribed, the people I heard and talked to really seemed to understand the implications of this and had built their operations and business with this mindset. This was the rare environment in which most people understood the concept of customer success in SaaS and why it was vital to the success of that business model.
The foundation of all of this, of course, is an understanding of what customer value means to the customer. Going further, the key to balancing the customer value equation (the value derived from the application equals the value you capture in revenue) is understanding what value means to different segments of customers. So while the SaaS industry needs to walk before it can’t run and so needs events like this and the people in attendance at Subscribed to be the evangelists for the new subscription economy and to spread the word of the importance of customer success, it’s important to mention that the ideal state should be one in which customer intelligence and customer behavior analytics play a central role in driving SaaS company success.