For growing businesses, offering customer success at scale can pose a real challenge. At Intercom, we found ourselves in exactly this position and it started to cost us in terms of becoming outnumbered and dropping the ball with our customers.
In this article, I’ll explain our journey, how we came to the decision to start scaling our approach and why, and how we transitioned our CS org from ‘support on steroids’ to a strategic partner in the business using living resources, scalable content, and a targeted and proactive approach.
My name is Matt O'Boyle, I'm a Customer Success Manager here at Intercom in Dublin. I've been a customer success manager with Intercom for two years now.
Before I was working for Intercom I was a customer of Intercom in a business called Bizimply, another B2B SaaS product based in Dublin, where I was a customer success manager.
Before that, I was doing key account sales for Bizimply, and before Bizimply, I was in SAP doing commercial sales there as the only UK and Ireland rep for SuccessFactors.
Prior to getting into the world of B2B SaaS, I was in Student Union politics, I was a student union president at Maynooth University in Kildare.
Funny old journey to get to where I am, but I'm happy to be sharing this article about having customer success at scale.
Customer success at scale
This has been a really trendy topic over the last year in particular, especially with everything that went on in 2020.
People's resources were a bit more strapped, people wanted to make sure they were getting touchpoints on all of their accounts, and giving that personal level of customer success to all their customers at a scaled motion, maybe with smaller teams, maybe with more restricted assets.
When you're considering doing customer success at scale, these are the very typical things that come up.
- Who's going to run this in the business?
- Who's actually going to go out there, develop the content, develop the strategy and get all that done?
- What happens if we poke the bear?
For those who aren't familiar with this phrase, everyone has dormant customers, everyone has customers who have not been super engaged, maybe customers who don't even realize they're a customer of yours anymore.
If you reach out to them and try and engage them, does that get them to churn? Does that awaken the bear and get them to leave?
Other things like:
- Would our customers even want this?
- Do they want a scalable motion?
- Shouldn't we just focus on key accounts, taking care of the big fish in our book, as opposed to trying to take care of absolutely everybody?
- Is it counterproductive? And
- How does it affect the customer experience or improve the customer experience?
- How does it improve the bottom line at the end of the day?
Don't worry, I'll be covering all of that throughout this article.
First, I'm going to discuss how Intercom came to the decision last year that we need to start doing customer success at scale and the journey that we've gotten to until that point.
I'm going to talk about where we were, where we are now with scaling our approach, and where we're going to go this year in scaling our approach.
How we came to the decision to start scaling our approach
Where we were
Let's take it right back, a very familiar structure here I think for B2B SaaS companies.
Typically four pillars, we have R&D, marketing, support, and we have sales.
Where does success sit?
We used to sit in the support realm of things.
Where are we in the support team?
It kind of started off as the sales team looking for help, more tailored help their accounts, you've probably heard it before where there's a deal and someone needs some technical resources, someone needs some help, someone needs some strategy.
So let's called the support team, get someone on a call, and get a success manager there speaking with the customer. Which kind of led us to be ‘support on steroids’ more than anything else.
Support on steroids
What I mean by that is we were super transactional, you're jumping on calls from time to time, not really developing any relationship with the customer, we weren't really trusted by the customer.
There's also a lot to be said, as to were you trusted by the sales team as well when you're involved in this kind of thing.
Are you impactful? If you're just jumping on and off calls with customers, is it all that impactful at the end of the day? Are you maintaining a long relationship with them? Are these one and once-off calls going to lead to a long-term relationship with you and the customer, a long-term partnership between your business and that customer?
Is this how we want to work?
So our first dilemma was, is this really how we want to work in success at Intercom? The answer is no. We don't want to be transactional. We don't want to be low impact. We want to have a more strategic partnership with the sales team and with our customers.
That's exactly what we did. We became strategic partners with the sales team, we linked up our existing business relationship managers with customer success managers, so they share their book of accounts, they build strategies together, they jump on calls together, and they have long-term relationships with partners and customers together.
Our own org
While we still consider ourselves our own organization in the business, we are strategic partners with sales, we sit on the sales floor, and we support sales extremely heavily.
It basically meant we went from being on the left-hand side, super transactional, not very trustworthy, not very impactful to being a team that has a long term focus with customers, lots of trust of both customers and the sales team, and then having a massive impact as well on both our customers’ lives and our own.
Where are we in 2021?
We're a much bigger team, although we look a little bit more like this at the moment, which I think everyone's in the same boat.
This photo was taken before this dark time.
But we're now officially in the sales organization, we went from a small team of two to 10 CSMs. You can see we're growing out and we're really having that big motion now with customers.
We're working on over 90% of the top deals and renewals that happen in Intercom.
We're also strategic partners with the R&D team, because at the end of the day, who hears more product feedback than your customer success managers, and who was the closest relationship and trust with customers? It should be the customer success team.
Some of the great customers I've gotten to work with over the last two years at Intercom on the large side of things and the more enterprise side of the business.
Where are we going next?
Customer success at scale
I'm moving away from those enterprise accounts as in 2020, we realized we needed to go for customer success at scale for our smaller business segments.
Similarly, just in case you don't have the same structure, breaking up our total customer base into the enterprise, mid-market, and small business accounts.
We had a lot of small business accounts who weren't always small businesses, these were our bread and butter not so long ago, a couple of years ago at Intercom. These were very key customers for us and now as we move more up and to the right, these are falling into the small business section.
But how do we offer a really good experience for them? How do we really take care of them? The answer is to do customer success at scale.
The problems we were facing
Here are some of the problems we faced with customer success at scale.
Becoming outnumbered in the SB segment
We were outnumbered in the SB segments, we had 500 plus premium accounts, there were sales-owned annual accounts that should be receiving some degree of a CSM service.
Intercom’s customer base is only getting bigger
Intercom's customer base, like I said, is only getting bigger, we're growing as a company, which is absolutely fantastic, exactly what you want.
But at the same time, that small business segment is becoming quite hefty as well. They need to be taken care of.
Where do we focus our time?
Where do we focus our time is a big question and that's probably the most important question that you need to ask yourselves when doing customer success at scale.
How do we split up our time? How do we make sure that we're still making sense in where we divvy out our hours?
Some customers barely heard from us - churning without foresight
Some customers barely heard from us, which led to customers churning without any foresight.
This is one of the most heartbreaking emails to get for a salesperson, or for a CSM to see a customer say, "Hey, we need an X, Y, and Z functionality. We're leaving your tool to use a different tool for this because they had that functionality".
And you're sitting there thinking we can do that, we actually have that ability. You guys just didn't know about it. We haven't been in touch with you enough, we haven't been engaged with you enough, and we haven't been supporting you guys and giving you content proactively enough for you to have known that, and now you've left.
Then we've lost a customer. That's a massive issue that the scaled motion is meant to cover.
Customers weren’t using the product to the full extent - fewer avenues for help
Customers weren't using the product to the full extent of course, and customers had fewer avenues for help.
The smaller customers didn't have as much time with them one-to-one CSMs, they didn't have super quick support response times based on who they were in the business.
It gets very tricky, especially over 2020 when everyone's resources are strapped. Everyone has a high volume inbox so it's tricky to get back to everyone.
How do we offer support proactively and make sure people are taken care of in this instance? Of course, it's effective onboarding, adoption, and expansion opportunities for our salespeople.
The ideas were flying in
Some things we thought of were along the lines of:
- Webinars - a great way for reaching people, a great way for training people at scale
- Open office hours - the idea of having an hour a week, maybe where customers could come first come first serve book 10 minutes with a CSM, and speak about some issues they're having
- Online starter kits - the idea of having these resources where customers can keep and go forward with in the future, they can just bookmark that somewhere and say, "How do I do X, Y, and Z when starting in the Intercom?" And they can refer back to this as necessary
- Personalized training and product videos - using fantastic tools like Loom, etc, to record these and deliver these at the right time to customers and sending these maybe after onboarding, during onboarding, different processes, and behaviors when customers need them
- Newsletters - a very common one for everybody
- A customer forum - for customers to chat peer to peer about what they're doing in the system
- Tiers of service also link into that piece where we want to know where we spend our time
You need to create these different tiers to say we have our small business segment. Now let's break that up into three different segments. Let's have our enterprise small business, the large size of the small business piece, the middle customers in the small business piece, and the smaller customers in the small business piece.
And decide how much time you need to divvy out to those on an ongoing basis, at the initial onboarding phase, etc. and making sure that if our customers needed help at once, you would be able to facilitate, who makes sense to facilitate initially, and divvy out later on.
So it is a balance, and it is something you need to think of strategically, but don't worry, I'll be going through that as well.
We tried them all
I will say, in 2020, we tried all this, we tried every single thing listed and we figured out what works for us, what we want to do, and what we're going to do going forward.
Of course, I'm going to list those out here.
We realized what we needed
In 2021, we realized what we needed and what we needed to keep based on all the things we trialed last year and what we went through.
The way we came to that decision was I was chatting with my manager at the start of the year and we were saying how are we going to deliver this scaled motion effectively, and what do our customers really need?
I was shooting out some ideas and my manager said, "Yeah, they're okay, it's pretty standard stuff", much of the stuff we saw on the last slide, and he said, "What you need to do is think, what's the ideal result you need for your customers? What is the ideal scenario that you want them to sit in? And how do you deliver that to them? Work backward from that statement, and help them get there".
The statement I came up with was this.
We need our customers to have the relevant resources at the right time in their specific product journey.
What I mean by that is take webinars, for example, webinars are a fantastic way of training people at scale. To entertain and to train that amount of people in one moment is a fantastic tool.
But it's not that effective if you work all across EMEA as I do, we've got customers in all different time zones, customers at different parts of their onboarding stage, or part of their customer lifecycle, inside Intercom.
And if I have a session at one o'clock on a Friday, it's not going to suit everybody, not everybody's free. So it's difficult to make sure that is super effective for people.
What I realized was we need to build this content, make sure it's efficient, and then deliver that to our customers when they need it at the right time in their product journey. I'm going to show you what that content looks like and how we deliver it.
These are the living resources I'm working out of at the moment.
I’ll describe these and what they do inside Intercom and for our customers.
Online starter kits
On the left-hand side, we have online starter kits. Basically what I wanted the online starter kit to be is typically customers come to your business for maybe one reason, or maybe multiple reasons.
For us, there are three key reasons that stand out; they want to implement Intercom for:
To kick those off, I've got it in all of my favorite articles, my favorite resources, because everyone knows, and I'm sure you're saying this to yourself, we've got amazing resources and knowledge, we've got fantastic knowledge in our business, I just don't know where it is, I just don't know how to find this.
I need someone to gather it all together and put it in one place and that's exactly what we did. So we put them all into one place, lined up in a nice storyline from the implementation of Intercom right through to the reporting to integrating with different tools, etc. all in one URL sheet.
The way I made this was through a tool called Canva. I can't recommend Canva enough, I've been using it since college to create things like presentations, PDFs, etc. But they also have the ability to convert your presentation into a website.
That means you can share that URL with your customers. If you update the presentation, it'll be updated on that URL for them as well. It means you can maintain these resources and that's what makes it a living resource and that's what makes it scalable.
Get these together, deliver them to the customer. What's very useful about that as well is if I'm speaking with a Support Manager, and I deliver this support starter kit and I show them the sales starter kit or I showed her the marketing starter kit they might say "Hey, let's show this to the marketing team and the sales team".
You never know you might have an expansion across the business then and more of their organization using your products, which is exactly what your salespeople want.
Online customer forum
On the right-hand side, we have our online customer forum, I did not build this, I will not take credit. But it is a fantastic resource for our customers and something I really recommend.
Because support times are tough these days, it is tough to catch support reps in a very immediate fashion with everything that's going on. Why not have a peer-to-peer service where customers across different industries can talk and discuss and say, "Hey, we need help with this. We've done this, what did you guys do, XYZ"?
That has been super, super valuable for us in Intercom and for our customers. The ability to speak with other customers is absolutely paramount.
Live chat support & help center
I don't need to explain what that is. I think that's pretty much Intercom's bread and butter is offering live chat support and having a good help center there. That's always there for the customers.
Our own e-learning courses
Then we have our online e-learning courses, aka the Intercom Academy. Again, not something I've built, but something that has been super, super useful in this scalable motion.
For customers who have a large support team and they need to train that support team, I'm not always going to be available to train support teams and have an hour-long session. But that's why we have these hour-long sessions available in these e-learnings.
You have a new agent joining, send them this course and in 60 minutes, they'll be as up to speed as they would have been if they had a CSM session training them up.
These have been super, super useful and have cut down hours and hours and hours of required CSM time. I can't recommend having an e-learning system enough.
Scalable content that feels personal
Now we get to the actual scalable content that feels personal and the stuff that I built on Canva that I recommend you guys try as well.
If you want to go down the newsletter route of things, what I built out was these monthly personalized newsletters that deliver premium content that otherwise the small business section may not have seen before.
Things like, for example, just getting to know me as a person as well so they know who their CSM is, they recognize me when the messages come in, they receive all of their content and education from one person, and they know that Matt is their CSM, Matt is the guy for this, Matt is the guy they can trust for this.
Give them the product roadmap walkthroughs, doing surveys as well, gathering what they need and what they want to see from these types of content.
Delivering things like how to use Zapier, for example, a tool that can connect one SaaS tool to a different SaaS tool in your tech stack. How to build custom apps inside Intercom.
This is knowledge that previously they may not have been privy to, and knowledge that would have been typically delivered by engineers at the enterprise level.
But these customers at the same time, they're enterprise to me, they're annual paying customers, they're paying a lot of money to them.
And wherever your customers are spending is a lot of money to them at the end of the day so they deserve this premium content, they deserve to at least have a recording of these sessions and understand how to use these premium options.
Targeted & proactive
This is where we start talking about that piece where I want to deliver content based on customer's behavior, based on where they are in the system, and based on who they are in the system.
That's when I start using Intercom. This may have started off as an advertisement for Canva and now we're getting into the Intercom piece. But at the end of the day, practice what you preach, use your own tool if your tool helps you.
Proactive customer success
With Intercom I can in-app message my customers, on the left-hand side here, this is the message I sent to my more enterprise segment in the small business area where I could say:
"Hi [first name], (it'll pull in their first name from the data we track) Matt your CSM here, and just a quick check-in to see if you and your company are okay".
What this offers is, over the last six months I've probably spent maybe eight of these to my enterprise segment and it just allows them to have me there if they need me.
Just to say, "Hey, we're actually looking to do XYZ, we're thinking about using a different tool for this, can Intercom help instead?" This is where we get ahead of churn. This is where we get ahead of people thinking about leaving or thinking about doing something else or exploring different tools, let them explore Intercom first, be a proactive problem seeker here, and get that sorted first.
I mean, at the end of the day, if you can't do it maybe they will go to someone else and that's fine. But if you could have changed something, you could have done something, this is how we'll find that out.
Proactive product education/upselling
As well as that we have proactive product education and upselling. What this looks like is if someone has a basic feature in Intercom and there are more premium features that we could upsell them, I want to deliver those notes to them anyway, just so they know what's available to them in the next package up.
If they do want to see some features that may suit them, let's talk about it, let them see them at least.
Register interest in a click
Then if they want to express interest, they can give me a thumbs up or they can zip the lips if they need to, totally customizable reactions.
It means if I'm sending this out to 1000s of users, and I'm sending this to tens or maybe hundreds of users, I can handle 10s or hundreds of people writing to me and asking me questions, I wouldn't be able to handle it at 1000 person level.
That's why I have these reactions just to gauge interest, but not necessarily start a forward and back conversation. That's been very, very useful as well.
Why have I done this?
Why did we bother doing the whole intercom CSM-scaled motion? Was it beneficial?
The core of this idea was I could spend all quarter with my relationship managers trying to expand our key 100k accounts to 120k. That's a big expansion, that's a great expansion, that's what you're looking for. That 20% on top is absolutely beautiful growth to see.
But at the end of the day, that effort is totally wasted if one of our smaller 20k accounts churn, or even a couple of our 5k accounts or a 10k accounts really down the scale, if they were to leave, it does really add up.
It makes all of the hours and hours of work we put into expansions, pointless.
At the end of the day, if you're more proactive and engaging with your smaller tail customers would they have stayed? The answer is probably.
At the end of the day, if you were engaging, if you were delivering good content to them, and if you were available for them when needed, they probably wouldn't have left.
You probably would have had the big expansion on the big customer, maybe some smaller expansions with the smaller tail customers and you would have seen a lot less churn. There would have been big benefits.
1. Build trust
Listen and become a problem solver
I think it's obvious CSMs know they need to listen and they need to become problem solvers. But not a lot of CSMs become proactive problem seekers.
That's where we can really curb churn. That's where we really see customers going from just being transactional customers to being long-term partners with you and your business.
Become a proactive problem seeker
See the problem before it happens, and try and seek it out before it gets to you first.
2. Build a strategy
Know the value of your time and how you spend it
This was probably something I struggled with the most when developing the CSM scaled motion last year, knowing I have these key customers I need to spend hours with during the week on the phone and actually deliver a good amount of CSM time to them as well.
But I'm a fiend for when a small customer asks for the same amount of help giving that same amount of help to them.
You need to understand what the difference between super strategic customers are and the smarter customers that you might not be able to facilitate the same amount of CSM hours on calls with them.
That's where the scale of the motion comes in and that's where things like targeted videos, videos created for them, and good content delivered at the right time will mean they won't come in looking for that support later on.
You're proactively supporting them throughout their journey and lowering that chance later on.
Find a balance
Finding that balance is tough. I will admit it is tough and you do need to figure out where it is, and how you offer these tiers. Each business is different but do focus on getting that balance right.
3. Be consistent
This is probably my most important thing personally is the consistency in which I do this.
Be reliable for your customers and for the teams you work with
Your customers need to know how much they can get from you, they need to know what to expect of you, and your sales team needs to know what your customers can expect from you as well.
There's no point in delivering and then under-delivering or overdelivering, later on, the sales team are telling their customers about you, the customers are talking about you, so they need to know what's happening when, where, and when they're going to get that.