This article was transcribed from a presentation at March 2022's Customer Success Festival. Catch up on presentations from the event using our OnDemand service.

I'm Vish Walia, and I'm excited to be here to share my framework for strategy and innovation in customer success. A bit about myself: I'm a customer success evangelist, and I joined the domain of customer success in 2017.

As a Customer Success Manager at Microsoft, my passion for customer success has grown. I’m passionate about developing strategies, programs, and tools for driving adoption usage and business value realization. Not too long ago I was lucky enough to get the fantastic job of building and scaling strategies for Microsoft’s millions of customers.

Besides that, I'm an active voice in the customer success community. In collaboration with the Customer Success Collective, I run a video series called CS Connect. In the series, we have customer success leaders share their key insights, practical tips, and tactical takeaways for customer success professionals like yourself to leverage and drive further customer success.

Without further ado, let's get into it.

Customer success strategy and innovation are lifelines for business

Challenging, difficult, overwhelming; if I had to describe the last two years, those three words would be an understatement. The pandemic impacted our lives, both professionally and personally.

Personally, it changed how we lived and how we interacted with our family and friends. Professionally, it changed how we work, and how we interact with our customers and our employees. It also led companies to pivot their long-term business strategies and focus more on customer experience and employee engagement.

The pandemic has forced companies to pivot their business strategies.
Source: McKinsey

Before the pandemic, I would have believed that strategy and innovation were two of the most overrated and overused words in the business community, but they gained relevance during the pandemic. Many companies re-strategized to adapt to uncertain times, and so their businesses were able to adapt, survive, and thrive.

Strategy and innovation are lifelines for today's businesses. In a survey by McKinsey, they interviewed executives from 200 organizations across different industries; the results showed that more than 90% of the executives believe that they would fundamentally change the way they do their business in the next five years.

That's exactly what reimagining or pivoting your business model means – fundamentally changing the way you do business and how you serve your customers.

A similar number of executives asserted that the pandemic would have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs, behavior, and customer expectations. Two-thirds of executives said that they see this crisis as an opportunity to grow, but only 21% felt they had the expertise, strategies, and resources to seize these opportunities, meaning almost 80% desperately need to strategize and innovate to pursue keep up.

That’s what we’ll be looking at today: strategy and innovation. Evolution is vital to improve customer experiences under the strategy of customer success, so we’ll also talk about how you can pivot your business and increase success with your product.

Pivot your business to enable innovation

Pivoting your business has three building blocks. The first and foremost is reimagining your business.

As I said, 90% of executives said that they would fundamentally change their business – that's exactly what reimagining your business means. How you serve your customers will be different; how you make a product will be different.

The second building block of pivoting your business is refining your processes. Old, obsolete, and manual processes restrict companies’ growth and can have damning effects on your customer relationships. That's why we need to eliminate bottlenecks, digitize processes, and make our business processes more effective and efficient.

Last, but not least, people are power: you want to empower your Customer Success Managers (CSMs) to drive this transformation.

Re-imagine business; strategy as plan' refine processes; digital as level; re-charge employees; people as enablers

Now, what are the levers to achieve this digital or business transformation? As you reimagine your business, you need to have a strategic plan laying out how you want to reimagine your business and the points that you want to focus on.

When it comes to refining your processes, you need to think of digital as your ally. Most companies today use a lot of digital platforms, assets, and processes to accelerate business growth and processes. Start looking at digital as a lever to get you that.

Finally, you need to view your people as enablers. This entire exercise is futile if your people have not adapted to the transformation. You want to make sure that your people have new skill sets and are provided with new digital assets and frameworks so that they can exploit this transformation and make this opportunity a success.

The evolution of customer success

It's important to see this transformation through the lens of customer success. In order to do that, I’ll take you on a journey through the evolution of our function.

It’s often believed that customer success came about due to the challenges of SaaS solutions. However, according to the Customer Success Association, we have an on-prem solution provider called Vantive to thank.

The evolution of SaaS companies have caused software companies to re-think their strategies
Source: The Customer Success Association

In 1996, Vantive ran into a high failure rate in the implementation of its solution. They found an innovative approach to counter and address this challenge: they created a new department. Guess what it was called? Customer success. The focus of that group was to drive successful implementations, and they did it. By following certain rules and frameworks, they helped companies to implement their system successfully.

In the early 2000s, Siebel (another CRM company, now acquired by Oracle) and Salesforce, designed customer success as we know it today. They refined the scope and approach of customer success to address the challenges they were facing with customer churn, user adoption, and renewals.

How to accelerate product adoption and drive user confidence during onboarding
Much like making a batch of pancakes, your first attempt is never as good as the ones to follow. In fact, we’re big advocates of multiple drafts and taking time to perfect your work.

Today, more than 80% of companies worldwide use at least one SaaS product. Due to this explosive growth, customer success has evolved massively. Every 10 years, customer success goes through a major paradigm shift. We went from implementation success in the 1990s to customer retention in the 2000s, and today, we talk about customer success as a growth engine, a resource set that can help us drive revenue.

It’s also interesting to see how customer success strategies have evolved. The last two years have seen many new trends and strategies shaping the future of customer success.

I wrote an article on the top trends shaping the future of customer success. You can see the summarized version below. If you look at the trends, you’ll notice some themes emerging. The first two trends highlight that customer success is evolving as a growth engine with sales and customer success working together.

The seven trends shaping the future of customer success

The next set of trends focuses on scaling customer success operations and leveraging technology to achieve that. Scaling customer success is top of mind for all customer success leaders today, and technology is the most effective way to make it happen.

The next set of trends highlights that data-driven insights, automation, and AI will be key ingredients of our function’s future success and significance.

Last but not least, customer success now is seen as a great career destination for young people and experienced professionals.

Building new strategies to drive customer success

It’s also important to mention that companies are building strategies to drive customer success. Let's take a look at some of those strategies.

As we saw, the pandemic has had an impact on customer needs and accelerated their evolution. To respond to these changing needs, the customer health 360Ëš strategy has emerged.

We all know that to better manage our customers, we need to keep track of their health. However, historically, we’ve tended to manage our customers based on one-dimensional data points. This new strategy holistically manages and tracks the health of our customers. We’ll look at this in more depth shortly.

The second emerging strategy is revenue expansion. In a conversation on CS Connect, Michelle Wideman, Chief Customer Officer at Onna, told me how her organization has found the right rhythm for sales and customer success teams to work collaboratively during the sales cycle.

They introduce CS professionals during the sales cycle to provide insights about the customer success journey. This approach gives Onna a competitive edge and helps them to win more deals. One of Michelle’s customers confided that one of the reasons they selected Onna’s system was because of the presence of the customer success team. What a great example of customer success helping sales to drive more revenue.

Build new strategies to drive customer success

Another innovation that comes to mind is the monetization of customer success. Customer success is typically offered as a freebie or investment from a software vendor for its customers, but if we’re looking to monetize customer success, we have to find innovative solutions to do so.

I spoke with Swati Chopra, the Director of Customer Success at DocuSign. She shared that in her prior experience at an undisclosed company, they created a customer success package that included learning hours, professional services, an adoption kit, health checks, and many other such benefits. The aim was not just to sell a package; the aim was to help customers achieve business value.

The third aim of new strategies is to scale customer success coverage. Scale is top of mind for businesses today. We can’t hire a million Customer Success Managers to cover a million customers. The answer is scale.

At Microsoft, we're always finding new and innovative ways to scale our CS programs. I personally am responsible for building programs at scale. All I do is try to understand what the customer market will be looking for and provide scalable solutions. Those solutions could be based on digital platforms or digital assets, or they could come in the form of digital Customer Success Managers.

The last new strategy we’re going to look at involves data and AI. Our systems capture a lot of data from our customers. Now is the time to leverage that data set.

Mary Poppen is the Chief Customer and Strategy Officer at, an AI-based company, but when we conversed about data, she was CCO at a LinkedIn company called Glint. She mentioned how they were leveraging AI to scan data points and understand customer behaviors. Based on that, they're able to make more informed decisions and like customer recommendations. The key to this strategy is a customer data-centric mindset.

My point is that there are many strategies that you can build, based on your customer requirements, to drive customer success.

A Customer Success Manager’s six building blocks for innovation

Innovation is a very broad term, so when I talk about innovation in customer success, I have to narrow it down to four key areas:

  1. The customer - What innovative experiences can we offer them?
  2. The product - What features and functions will make it innovative?
  3. The company -  How can I make it innovative?
  4. The processes - What innovative processes can I build or design?

I remember this with the acronym “CPCP” – customer, product, company, processes.

Once you’ve answered the questions above, it’s time to turn to the six building blocks of innovation.

Six building blocks for successful innovation in customer success
Source: M. Gabuio and M. Dressel, 6 Building Blocks for Successful Innovation (2019)

I came across some research by Massimo Gabuio and Moritz Dressel, in which they interviewed 15 global leaders who had done some amazing work in the innovation space. They asked the leaders what they had done to make their organizations so innovative, then they synthesized their learnings into a book called 6 Building Blocks for Successful Innovation (2019).

I'll give you a high-level overview, but if you're interested in learning more, read the book – it’s fascinating:

Make space for new ideas

The first building block is to make space for new ideas. What they mean is that to be innovative, you have to accept and trust different ideas and opinions. You have to build a culture where employees and key stakeholders are open to sharing their ideas.

Foster-guided vagueness

The second building block is an interesting one. Fostering guided vagueness means accepting that people work differently and allowing them the space to do so. Don't make strict regulations; give people broad guidelines, and welcome the ideas they bring to the table.

Build momentum

The third building block, and my favorite, is building momentum. Being innovative means trying something that hasn’t been done or validated before, so there’s no guarantee of success. The goal is to act fast, fail fast, and learn faster. Just keep going with that momentum.

Sense the world

To create a worthwhile innovation, it’s important to envision the future. It’s important to know what your customers want not just today but tomorrow. It’s important to understand the social, economic, and technological trends that are shaping our world. That way, you can help shape your industry and your company's aspirations.

Extract meanings

For the fifth building block, you need to research the reasons behind the trends you’ve observed and extract meanings you can apply to your innovations.

Generate consensus

It’s easy to fall in love with an idea; it’s harder to get others to rally behind it, so you need to work to generate consensus. Whatever your ideas are, present them to the key stakeholders and get their-buy in. This final step will smooth the journey to your innovation destination.

Innovation in customer success strategies

Let’s look at some examples of innovations based on the customer success strategies we've discussed.

Evolving customer needs; scale customer success; data and AI

The first deals with evolving customer needs. As I mentioned earlier, there are many factors that we want to capture to assess customer health. Health 360 allows us to capture all the different data points we need, including adoption, usage, and even financial health. This holistic view of how the customer’s doing empowers us to proactively make recommendations to boost usage.

Our second strategy is using a success bot for scale. The success bot helps our CSMs by taking on most of the admin work and automating customer success motions and engagements so that they can be more productive.

The last strategy is AI-powered CS. Data is king, and now we can exploit and leverage that data through AI-powered processes that scan thousands of data points. This allows us to understand a customer's past behavior so we can better provide the next best steps, and increase customer lifetime value.

Understanding how to best use AI in customer success
The thoughtful implementation of AI-enabled customer success platforms can greatly enhance Customer Success Managers’ (CSM) ability to maximize the value of customer data and ultimately help reduce churn and improve the overall health of client relationships.

Begin your customer success innovation now

As we wrap up, I’d like to share an innovation map that will guide you along your innovation journey.

Begin your customer success innovation

Remember those four areas for innovation, CPCP? Let's say you pick the company as your focal point. Now you need to work down the map to uncover your strategy. That could be a business strategy, a sales strategy, or a customer success strategy. Today, let’s focus on customer success strategy.

If you drill down deeper, you’ll uncover the three key areas for investment: customer growth, scale, and data and AI. Whichever area you choose, you need to start making space for new ideas, envisioning the future, and generating a consensus within your company.

But now, let's go forth and start innovating; let's see what we can bring to the customer success space.

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