This article is based on a presentation given by Doug at our Customer Success Festival in Austin, 2023.

Catch up on this presentation, and others, using our OnDemand service. For more exclusive content, visit your membership dashboard.

Scaling customer success is not just about expanding resources, but about strategically aligning every aspect of your approach. In my role as a leader in customer success, I've discovered that the key to thriving in this realm lies in a nuanced understanding of scale, collaboration, and innovation

I’m Doug Norton, Head of Scaled Customer Success at Bill, and I’ve navigated the intricacies of customer success, focusing on not just broadening our reach, but also deepening our impact. This journey has taught me that true scaling is a blend of art and science, requiring a fine balance between technology, team dynamics, and customer engagement. 

In this article, I’ll share my insights and experiences, offering a comprehensive guide on effectively scaling customer success, from building foundational partnerships to harnessing the power of technology and beyond.

Understanding the concept of scale

As someone deeply involved in customer success, I've often pondered the question: What does scaling really mean? 

This concept can be divided into two primary areas. The first revolves around customer segmentation. Here, we consider our most valuable customers and the broader range – what I like to call the “long tail” of our customer base. The challenge lies in providing an exceptional experience across this entire spectrum.

The second area focuses on the digital experience. Our journey in the long tail teaches us valuable lessons. We experiment, learn, and then apply these insights across all customer interactions, ensuring a cohesive and effective digital experience.

Leading in customer success

My career began before the formal concept of customer success existed. I started a small business, quickly learning the harsh realities of cost-plus pricing. Seeking to enhance my business acumen, I transitioned into consulting. This phase of my career brought me invaluable experiences with diverse clients, ranging from Fortune 100 companies to those with modest revenues.

My focus was always on technology. I spent substantial time in data centers, collaborating with both hardware and software vendors. The emergence of cloud computing marked a significant phase in my career.

My consulting experience, primarily in sales strategy and go-to-market approaches, eventually led me to explore roles beyond consulting, where I could be directly responsible for outcomes rather than merely advising.

Working with companies like Equinix and Dell, I learned that the concept of scaling in these environments was unique. We dealt with a limited number of high-value customers making significant investments in data center services. This background was crucial in my recent transition to Bill, where scaling assumes a different context.

I don't claim to have all the answers for your businesses. Instead, I focus on a process-driven approach to problem-solving, drawing on my diverse experiences and the challenges I've navigated, including the dot-com bubble, the 2008 recession, and the recent global pandemic.

Today's world demands agility and speed, especially in customer success. While we strive to build automation and digital technologies, we must also remain adaptable to rapidly changing circumstances.

Rethinking customer success: Lessons from Moneyball (2011)

In my journey through customer success, one key realization has stood out: we often place too much emphasis on Customer Success Managers (CSMs). 

This isn't a critique of CSMs themselves – they’re fantastic – but they are frequently burdened with an overwhelming array of tasks. Many CSMs feel like they're the catch-all solution for customer problems, plugging gaps wherever they appear. 

What have I observed in customer success? We're too focused on CSMs.

Using a baseball analogy, if your organization doesn't have a budget like the New York Yankees, you can't rely solely on hiring more CSMs. You need a diverse set of tools and strategies. This reminds me of the book and 2011 movie, Moneyball, which I recently discussed with my team to illustrate the concept of scaling in customer success.

The story of the Oakland Athletics in the summer of 2002 is a powerful lesson. Following a series of setbacks and the loss of top players, the team, lacking the substantial budget of teams like the Yankees, faced a daunting challenge. 

Traditional recruitment strategies focused on acquiring big hitters—the kind of players who sell tickets. But Billy Beane, the general manager, along with a Wall Street statistician, revolutionized their approach.

They argued that baseball was being misunderstood and mismanaged by focusing too much on home runs and not enough on getting players on base.

This story parallels our approach to customer success. Just like in baseball, it's not always about the big hitters or the home runs; it's about consistently getting on base.

We need to broaden our strategies beyond just relying on CSMs. It's about creating systems, processes, and tools that enable us to increase our “at-bats” - our opportunities to engage successfully with customers.

In essence, scaling in customer success is about rethinking our metrics and strategies. It's about understanding that success comes from consistent, smaller wins – getting on base – rather than always swinging for the fences. 

This perspective helps us develop more sustainable, scalable customer success models that don't overburden our CSMs and instead leverage a more holistic approach to achieving our goals.

The power of partnership in scaling customer success

As I reflect on my experiences and the lessons I've learned in scaling customer success, one aspect stands out prominently: the importance of partnership beyond the Customer Success Representative (CSR). 

The key to building a scaled program isn't just about hiring leaders or expanding the customer success team. It's fundamentally about forging effective partnerships.

How do you scale customer success? Partner beyond the customer success org.

At Bill, our approach to scaling customer success centers around partnerships, particularly with product marketing and support. 

I often liken our team dynamic to that of a rowing team. In rowing, synchronization and uniform motion are essential. If one member rows out of sync, the entire team's direction and speed are compromised. This metaphor perfectly encapsulates how we operate; each department must work in harmony, contributing equally and effectively.

Cross-functional partners play key roles in enabling scale for customer success.

Since joining Bill, a major focus has been understanding and integrating with these departments. It's not about directing them to assist in customer success; it's a mutual relationship. 

Customer success can significantly aid product teams by providing critical feedback, assisting marketing with customer stories and endorsements, and supporting the training needs, thereby reducing the demand on the support team.

Establishing these partnerships early has been crucial. It ensures that customer success doesn't become a catch-all department, shouldering all responsibilities. Instead, we share the load, enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of each department.

An anecdote comes to mind: upon joining, I interviewed team members involved in our scaled efforts and inquired about the time they spent handling issues typically managed by support. Surprisingly, about 80% of their time was dedicated to such tasks. This raised questions about productivity and the real value of these activities. 

While solving customer problems is important, it often doesn't translate immediately into opportunities for expansion, especially if the customer has just navigated a significant challenge.

The solution lies in establishing clear roles and responsibilities and fostering a collaborative environment where each department understands and appreciates the value and contribution of the others. This approach doesn't just prevent overlap and redundancy; it creates a well-oiled machine where each part supports the others, leading to a more robust and effective customer success strategy.

Through this collaborative model, we ensure that our customer success efforts are more strategic, targeted, and, most importantly, sustainable in the long term. It's about creating a balanced ecosystem within the organization where customer success is a shared responsibility and goal.