You wouldn't climb the highest mountain without a guide or take up parachuting without an instructor. So why expect your customers to succeed without some guidance?
Today, it's important to help your Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) customers to succeed by analyzing the way they use your product and step in when they need help. This approach, known as customer success, has grown rapidly over the past couple of years. It's a byproduct of the subscription economy that has turned the traditional sales model on its head.
They explained that customer success complements your sales, marketing and support efforts, but isn't the same as any of them. Sales depends on closing a deal. Marketing builds brand. Support solves customer problems. Customer success offers proactive guidance that helps your customers succeed on an ongoing basis -- long after the ink dries on the sales contract and before it comes up for renewal.
"What they do with your product matters more than what they say about it," said Harry Hirschman, director of customer success at Totango. "And in the SaaS world, we have the capacity for real time sensors to actually know. There's no need for anecdotal information or guessing or conversations with customers. You can actually see what they're doing."
That ability to monitor what the customer is doing offers insight into what they're doing right and what they may be doing wrong. And that, in turn, offers a framework for engagement where you can step in with helpful ideas, becoming a trusted advisor and building loyalty lasts through renewal time.
"When you engage with your customers at the right time, with the right content, with the right message, with the right intervention, it's a very powerful way of bonding them to you," said Hirschman.
Just as surely that the basic idea of customer success is the same in all companies, the way it is structured and applied will invariably vary. Some companies create a separate customer success department that reports to the CEO. Some make it part of sales or marketing. Some initiate one-on-one contact with customers. Some rely on email. Nobody is wrong, but the needs of one company are probably going to differ from those of another.
No matter how it's structured, Hirschman said it's important to build it as a cross-company effort. "When everyone contributes to adding value to the customer, then everybody wins," he said.
As Hirschman provided the big-picture view, Riley Gibson, vice president of customer success at Kapost, provided specific examples from his own company's CS program.
"We have it as its own department, so it's in line with sales, marketing and product," he said. "Actually the VPs of each of those departments ... all have variable compensation that plays into how well we're doing in renewal."
The two companies shared a common view of three critical CS processes: mapping the customer journey, monitoring the customer's health and acting on the earning warning signs that lead to churn.
"The approach to customer success is about managing the journey," said Hirshman. "It's about understanding, it's about measuring, driving customer value at every point across the journey."
Gibson said his company, which specializes in content marketing, varies the length of sales cycles depending on the size of clients. But he offered a common roadmap for how Kapost works with its customers over the life of their relationship. That journey starts in pre-sales and then includes onboarding, habit-building, value-building and renewals.
Along the way, a customer success team comprised of a CS manager and a sales consultant works to build trust, develop relationships, gauge the depth and breath of usage and measures how the customer is meeting its objectives.
The "tough part," according to Hirschman is measuring the value of your service to the customer. "How do you measure value? How do you really know if a customer is getting value," he asked. "The most common way to do this is through customer surveys, support tickets and other CRM-type metrics.
"Then, with the emergence of customer success as a field, and with products like ours to fill the need, I'd suggest there's another way, a better way," he added. "It can include all those previous metrics, but fundamentally what we're adding to this is what customers are doing -- and not doing -- in your product. That's the best gauge of value."
With CS tools like Totango, companies build dashboards that reflect exactly how their customers are doing against a set of predetermined metrics.
Gibson said that turned out to be a learning experience at Kapost, which initially took "a generic approach and looked for a few things that all customers should be doing." What was missing was the customization that could help Kapost "really get eyes on how customers were using the tool."
Kapost started over, identifying the one or two key tools that are critical to unlocking the value of its service. "We can monitor that usage, and if it starts to slip, that's the perfect time to come in and start coaching them with best practices, with content that can help them think about content marketing strategy," Gibson said. "We really push coaching at them to help build that usage."
Customer success is also critical as software companies scale-up in growth because it only leads to interaction when it is needed.
"Really, to scale, you need to be proactive and time things right," explained Hirschman. "And that means a data-driven approach so that you know what's going on in an account and whether you're driving or not driving value for your customers."
Without that approach, he said companies would just be adding another CS manager every time it adds a new cluster of customers. "That's linear scaling," he said. "And we want to get beyond that as best we can."