This article was taken from a Customer Success Festival presentation in June 2021 when Dan Farley occupied his current role of VP of Customer Success at Seenit.
My name's Dan Farley, and in this article, I'm going to be speaking about building a customer success toolset with a limited budget.
This is something I speak about a lot with a lot of different people in our profession and hopefully, this article will be super helpful for you and you can go away with some really practical guidance.
I don't just want to talk fluff and strategy in this, I've acquired some practical guidance you can go away with and apply in your day to day at your business with your customer success team.
I'm VP of Customer Success at a company called Seenit. We're a London-based tech company and we provide a user-generated video platform for large enterprise corporate businesses.
I've been working in customer success for roughly 11 years now. I've worked at a few different businesses across EMEA, North America, and different size startups and tech businesses as well.
Specifically, of those 11 years, I have roughly six years of experience in starting and running customer success teams in smaller stage businesses, which has been a great challenge. I'm sure there are people reading that are at smaller tech companies, with 50 to 60 to 90 employees. That's pretty much what I've been doing with myself for the last six years.
I actually used to be an engineer as strange as that may seem, a third-line engineer for just under two years. Started engineering, that's where I thought I was going, turns out I was pretty rubbish at it to be totally honest. It just wasn't for me.
One way or another, I ended up getting into customer success shortly after that.
Why this topic?
I think this has been one of the biggest challenges for me and I know lots of other people in the startup tech world because as you guys will probably know there are loads of CS tools out there, we're inundated with tools.
I've used some of these tools in the past, they're fantastic, they're great, they're absolutely brilliant. They allow you to deploy a really quite intricate customer success operation for your business.
The realism is when you work at a smaller business, you don't necessarily have the type of budget that you can apply to tools of that type. They can cost anything from £10,000 to 60, 80, 90 thousand a year.
Working at a smaller business, you don't have that sort of budget.
But one thing I did see and I do continuously see is when you go and work at a smaller SaaS business, the standards, metrics, and benchmarks you have to meet typically tend to be the same as bigger organizations that have the budgets for tools that enable them to do that, which is a huge, huge challenge.
So I have over the last couple of years developed a method of being able to build my own system of engagement that can allow me to do that. That's what I want to walk through in this article so you get a really good snapshot of what it looks like.
What this article isn’t
I also want to briefly cover what this article isn't. It is not about not bothering to buy a CS tool like Gainsight and instead, you can just use this. I want to be really clear about this.
As you mature as a CS department, as you mature as a SaaS business, you will absolutely need to invest in software like that. It is categorically not possible to work at a SaaS business that is in the subscription world, and not have a customer success technology tool in place.
If you do that further down the line it's just not sustainable, you'll have huge amounts of churn, and you'll have a really poor customer success operation. I want to be really clear, it's extremely important as you mature that you invest in tools like this.
However, what this is covering, is that stopgap between having absolutely nothing and having that tool. What is the best thing to get in place in that stopgap to enable you to perform to enable you to deliver a fantastic experience for your customers, and more importantly, build predictability around how you hit the bottom line of the business.
Before I go into it, I want to set the scene for you. This is a scenario that I've stepped into a few times, and maybe a lot of you have as well.
No customer success operation
You take on a role at a business, a small startup, that could be 20/50 people, you may be the first customer success hire, or you may be a VP of customer success coming in to scale out a small customer team.
One of the first things you will notice when you step through the door most of the time will be there is zero customer success operation in place at that company. What I mean by that is typically, all of the information about their customers will be in a spreadsheet somewhere; how much they pay, who the contacts are, will all be in a spreadsheet.
There will probably be no customer health scoring, there will certainly be no predictable reporting around your customer revenue stream, none of that will be in place. Literally, you're pretty much going to be stepping in with really nothing there. You're going from scratch trying to implement a starting point for the team.
Data and predictability
What happens next
What you'll probably do over the space of six to 12 months is:
- Be starting to put in some form of a system of engagement.
- Looking at building probably a health score using usage data to plug into somewhere else so you get a better insight on your customer.
- Looking at putting stuff into a CRM system that you've already got to take people out of spreadsheets.
- You may even be looking at rolling out a customer journey for your customers so you have planned touchpoints throughout their subscription cycle with you so you can drive value and drive outcomes and get your customers to buy more and renew your software.
You'll probably also be looking to put more predictability around your renewal revenue stream. So of all the renewals you have in that year,
- What is the likelihood they will close?
- Where are the customers that are at risk? And
- How predictable is that revenue stream?
So it's something you can provide to your CEO and your board of directors. You'll chug away at this for six to 12 months, and you'll probably do a really good job of it.
Now I need a CS tool
All of a sudden, you'll hit a ceiling and it will become very apparent to you very quickly, "I need a tool like Gainsight", you'll hit that point.
You'll say "I'm duct-taping a load of stuff together here. It's worked for about six months, now we're getting more and more customers, the company is growing, the annual recurring revenue is growing, my team's growing, I need to get a software tool in place that's going to enable me to do this".
That will be your next step and you'll probably go to your leadership team and ask for a budget for this type of tool.
The assumption vs. the outcome
Likely what you will find from that is the assumption everyone will be completely on board. They'll be like "Yeah, absolutely" everyone will have a fantastic understanding of what a CS tool is and who Gainsight is and all this stuff.
The outcome is actually slightly different. What you'll probably find is actually it's quite painful to deploy a solution like that, at that moment in time in your business.
There are a few different reasons for that, I've bucketed them into two, there's probably more but these are the main ones I can see.
- Tons of pain
Lack of budget
Firstly, it will just simply be a lack of budget. Those tools, even though there are more cost-effective ones on the market, once you add your implementation services in, annual software licenses your team, you could be looking at anything up to £40-50,000 a year, for that piece of software.
As a small tech company, you'll probably find you simply don't have that type of money to spend on a commercial tool. Actually, if you look at the funds and the tools that are being budgeted at your business already, the majority of the spend is probably going into your CRM system.
So, Salesforce, HubSpot, also other sales tools, specifically as well, your server-side costs; AWS, Google, a huge amount of cost will be going in there from the business. You just simply won't have the budget to procure a tool like that, at that point.
Lack of understanding
You'll probably also find there's a general lack of understanding at the business in regards to what a customer success management tool is. People just won't get it, they just won't understand.
A big part of that is if you're at a smaller business, you'll probably find there's lots of expertise there but maybe people that haven't worked at a business with a really mature customer success setup that has all that stuff. They've never even seen it.
You'll probably find there will be a lack of understanding and you'll get questions like how is this different from our CRM system? Can't you just use that CRM system?
Third-party vendor changes
If you're a B2B SaaS company, you'll find you'll have contracts in place for your customers and a lot of the time there'll be a list of those contracts that have approved vendors you work with that you pass data to on behalf of the customer.
Now, if you want to implement any software tool like that, you will need to update all customer contracts nine times out of 10 with that new tool which can contribute to legal costs, it can contribute to security, cybersecurity getting involved on your customer side.
Again, that can be really painful as well, if it's something you don't foresee.
- Lack of engineering support
Small stretched engineering team
You might find at a smaller business, you just have a smaller engineering team who are already very stretched, they're working on a ton of different features, different builds and they just simply don't have anyone there to be able to support you to implement a solution like this. It's very difficult to do.
Lack of technical expertise
You may also find there's a lack of technical expertise at the business in regards to how you implement a solution like this. You might have a development team that has never had to implement anything like this.
Lack of activity tagging
You may also find you actually don't have some of the key data tools in place like Segment and other tools that actually these tools integrate into, you just don't have them yet at the company. Nobody's ever implemented something like that.
Basically, this is a roundabout way of saying there are a lot of complexities and challenges there that actually make this process very, very difficult.
What will come out of this is somebody will just say to you "Can't you just use our CRM now? Can you just use Salesforce or HubSpot to do this please and just figure it out?"
Your answer more than likely will be "No, I cannot. Because it's a CRM system. It's not a customer success tool so I can't. I need a customer success tool".
I am here to tell you that actually, the answer to this is yes, not no. You can implement this in your CRM to an extent and you can use a range of different tools and integrations to emulate in part a CS tool to allow you to do this.
The different data points
In this image, I've highlighted the different data points you will currently have at your company more than likely. You may have more than this, but there'll be four fundamental data points. What I mean by that is your customer data points.
The first one is your CRM system. You'll probably have Salesforce, HubSpot, Pipe Drive, something like that setup. It'll have all your customer contact details in there. It will probably have your opportunities in there, any renewals you've got, growth, and all of your new business sales stuff will be in there as well.
User action data
This is all your platform usage data, so when a customer logs into your platform, what they do in your platform, what actions they click on, all of that sort of data will be sitting somewhere.
You may already have a customer health score or not, that spits out somewhere as well so you'll have that data point existing too.
Email tools are a bit of an obvious one, Gmail, Outlook, whatever that is your customer success team, your professional services team, your sales team, whoever it may be, they will be using this to email customers.
Again, all of that engagement will be going on inside this tool, and it may not necessarily show up in your CRM system.
Customer support tool
Finally, you'll probably have a customer support tool. This is all those reactive customer support tickets and issues that may come up, you may have a support team who are handling all of those.
You may use Zendesk, Intercom, there's a range of different tools for that. Again, there'll be lots of interaction going on inside that tool that will probably be siloed inside there as well, you won't have visibility somewhere other than logging in.
These are the core four I would say will probably exist at your business.
CRM needs to be the single source of truth
What you need to find a way to do is take each one of those data points, and feed all of them into your CRM system so that your CRM system is the single source of truth for customer data and the customer's voice.
That is ultimately what you need to do. Pretty much what a tool like Gainsight would do, you will need to emulate that inside your CRM system.
I want to give you a really basic, interesting diagram of how this looks at Seenit. There are a lot more intricacies behind this, but I just wanted to make it as simple as possible. On a high level, we specifically use HubSpot as our CRM system. Then we have four core areas where customer data of some sort is stored.
- Google Data Studio where all of our platform usage data is stored and all of our customer health data.
- As basic as it may seem Slack, conversations we are having internally regarding customers, whether that's resolving issues as a team, whether that's speaking about how we can make customers more successful, all of those interactions will go on in Slack.
- Gmail is quite obvious where we're actually emailing customers.
- Finally, a tool you may or may not have heard of - Zapier. Zapier is a tool that allows you to use open API for pretty much any platform out there and build your own custom integrations without coding anything at all.
(If you aren't very technical, Zapier is a fantastic way of building integrations across all of your platforms to talk to each other including HubSpot or Salesforce. It will mean you can create that customer cloud and that tech stack that talks to each other.)
I'm going to give you some examples of how that works at Seenit shortly but that's super important.
CRM can be the driving force
Firstly, I'm going to start with CRM. CRM can be the driving force behind all of this. This is basically what you will be using to emulate your customer success tool, you will run reporting in here, all of your operations will run in here.
Assigned customers and CSMs
Firstly, typically, what you would do is you'll have companies or accounts as they're called in Salesforce, and each one of those will be one of your customers.
You'll have a range of different information here:
- Who the CSM is on that customer,
- What their annual recurring revenue is,
- Their contract start date/end date,
- Where they are in the customer journey, etc.
You can basically put every single field into that account or company object, which will show you a 360 view of that customer information and detail.
Assign triggers and workflows
You can also assign triggers and workflows. What you can start to do is actually create automated tasks in your CRM.
This can do all sorts of things, it can assign the customer success manager for that customer, specific touchpoints if that's a quarterly business review, if it's touchpoints in the onboarding, it can actually automatically set up tasks and assign them for completion.
They can be set on a range of different data points, but you can also set email workflows, email triggers to go out to customers for specific newsletters, and all sorts of things.
The great thing about the CRM system is that they've got marketing and sales in a lot of these workflows are already set up and ready to use, you just need to create your customer success-based workflows as well. A range of different stuff in there.
Assigned renewal deals/opps
All the financial reporting side, your assigned renewal deals, and opportunities. What you'll want to do inside here as well is set up all of your renewals reporting, your growth reporting, make it all as predictable as you possibly can, and create renewal opportunities against every single customer you have with the date of renewal.
Through that, what you can do is build reporting (which I'll show you shortly) which basically outlines all of that for you.
I want to be practical here and give some practical examples. Here are some examples of the type of things that you can do out of HubSpot from that data you've put in.
The top one is a very simple renewal report. You can have the top bar there, which is the total amount you have up for renewal, the bottom bar which is the expected amount which can be weighted on a probability metric against each renewal opportunity.
Then you can very simply, once you've got every renewal object set against all of our customers, build a very simple report like this which takes five minutes to do. You can make it very visual. This is a great way of you being able to see when things change.
Also if you want to report this type of thing to your leadership team and senior stakeholders you can do as well. HubSpot allows you to do all of this sort of stuff, very similar to how other tools like Gainsight have their revenue optimization, you can do a lot of this in HubSpot.
The bottom screenshot is an example of a workflow. Here you can see this is a workflow that is typically part of the workflow we've built at Seenit. As part of the onboarding process, there's a kickoff call, once that is set to ‘completed’, there's then a branch so if it has not been completed, it staggers for 11 days and then sends the CSM an email to remind them.
If it has, it then sets them a task, which basically is for them to go through a checklist to set up the customer and email details. Again, this is an example of how you can set a very linear workflow inside HubSpot, Salesforce, or your CRM system that enables you to automate tasks.
Automation and health scoring
Make use of spreadsheets
One thing I would say here is to make use of spreadsheets, this is probably the only time I will ever say this. Literally, get a spreadsheet, put every single customer down, and put the health score for your customers in each individual row.
That way in that spreadsheet, what you can see is the trend of those scores week on week, day-on-day.
Use automation tools to copy
What you can then do is use different automation tools to copy the scores from that spreadsheet into your CRM system automatically. There are lots of different plugins, API tools that you can use so you're not having to copy data from a spreadsheet individually manually to each account every single day, which is just unsustainable.
Actually, there are things that you can plug in that do all this automatically for you, which I'm going to show shortly.
Set up health scoring inside your CRM
Get your health scores this way into your CRM, and then you can start to run health reporting out of your CRM system as well.
This is an example of how you can do this.
On the left-hand side is a spreadsheet with a range of different customers who I've cut off so you can't see them with their health scores. What you can do is on the right-hand side, there are two different things you can use.
If you have Salesforce as your CRM, Salesforce actually has a plug-in called Data Connector, which plugs into a Google Sheet. It's free to download. What it does is connect to your Salesforce instance.
As long as you put corresponding IDs to the customers in that left-hand column, and those IDs correspond to the ID of the account in Salesforce, you can actually switch it on and it will automatically copy all of those values to the assigned customer held value for that customer in Salesforce.
Through doing this, even though it's manual in the spreadsheet, it's actually automating the copy into Salesforce, and that's going to be a lot easier to do than getting your engineering team to pass data from your database into Salesforce, which is a whole different thing.
If using HubSpot, I really recommend you use Zapier. Zapier very similarly, as you can see here, what you can do is assign a spreadsheet to it, assign the rows in a very similar way, and then set up an automatic company update field inside HubSpot, so it does exactly the same thing - copies it all over at once.
So you've constantly got your customer health scores, providing you're updating them in the spreadsheet, automatically copying over at a cadence that you wish them to copy over into your CRM system. I know part of it is manual, but that's a massive win. If you're updating things manually this will really help.
Build health reporting
At the bottom, as you can see, what you can then start doing in HubSpot or Salesforce is building health reporting. So you can see per customer segment where your health looks like, you can click in, look at customers that are low health, you can even start to put graphs in.
So customers where your CSM pulse is high, but have low health, you can start to plot those things and run a bit more analysis on health scoring. Again, there are some really easy wins for automation there.
This is more of a simple one.
Email directly from CRM
You can set up direct emailing through your CRM. If you've got HubSpot or Salesforce set up, you can instruct your customer success teams to email customers through the CRM system, which is great because they don't have to open Gmail to send emails because a lot of their work can be done in HubSpot, they can email out of HubSpot.
Then every single email that comes in from that customer will attach itself to HubSpot again, and it will notify the CSM. There are a lot of day-to-day manual email operations that can be run out of your CRM system.
Plugin SDR type email tools
You can also use a range of different plugins, they're built for SDRs, and BDRs, but these are things that log every single email that comes in, every single contact that comes into your Gmail, and puts it automatically into your CRM for you.
You can actually do things like see when they open your emails. So if you've sent an email, you can see if a customer opened that, you can also see if they forwarded it on. All of that stuff's really helpful.
Plugin team chat integrations
Also, you can plug in chat integrations as well. Things like Slack, Microsoft Teams.
So if you've got specific channels about specific customers where you might have five or six different people from the business, some from product, some from sales in there, and you're trying to work through a customer issue, you can actually hook your chat up to HubSpot or Salesforce and it will show against the account for that customer in the CRM system.
Again, it's just pulling everything into one place.
This is an example again, in HubSpot.
On the left-hand side is an example of an account view that has emails pulling into it all of the time.
So if I want to see how one of our biggest customers is doing, what's going on there, who's in touch with them, I can just go straight into the account, I don't have to get someone to forward me an email chain.
I go straight into the company, and I can have a look through, I can see what's going on, I can see what the customer is working on, maybe I can pick out some sort of issue that they're having. And actually, I can step in and help them proactively.
Plugin email tool
On the right-hand side, as you can see, this is a plugin you can directly put into your Gmail and it will source all sorts of things around contacts and performance on your emails.
Plugin chat integration
At the bottom again, like this is an example of where you can plug in Slack channels around specific customer discussions internally into your CRM system as well.
Use support based add ons
You may have a help desk somewhere or a support team or somebody doing customer support. Again, you can integrate this fully into your CRM system. You can actually view some of the actual plugins that these CRM systems have.
Salesforce has a service module, as does HubSpot, and you can run all of your support out of the CRM, out of their service module, which is great because it attaches everything automatically to that account and gives you full visibility.
Plugin support tool integrations
Also, if you're using tools like Zendesk, Intercom, or whatever, you can actually plug those into your CRM system and integrate them also.
This is an example of what this looks like in HubSpot.
We've got ticket lanes; new, waiting on contact, waiting on us, closed. You click into each ticket and view it, all these tickets are automatically added to the account at the CRM level as well. Everything is all in one place.
Like I said before, this isn't the perfect solution but it's something that will sit between that stopgap of having absolutely nothing to getting a tool like Gainsight or whatever it may be and it's really going to help.
A few quick things you need to take away.
Single source of data
Think about a single source of data. Where is it you're going to put every single piece of data that you have on a customer, an email, a score, whatever it is, where's it going to go?
Think about putting it all into your CRM.
Think about your integrations
Afterward, think about what are all the different integrations that I need to set up in order to do that?
Do I need to use tools like Zapier, which will probably be able to do 80% of those integrations for you very easily? How do I get all of those things to talk to each other and integrate?
Build your insights and automation
Finally, once you've got all the data in, you can build loads of comprehensive reporting in your CRM system. There's so much you can do, you can build insights, you can automate things.
I would definitely think about taking those three things away: a single source of data, getting everything in there, then think about the integration. So:
- Where's the data that you can't manually update all the time?
Once all of that's in:
- How do you build insights and automations to optimize how you work?