I’m not someone who likes methodologies as I like to keep a clear perspective and be open to change. As someone who studied history, I preferred to use facts and evidence rather than theories and methodologies as the main guides in my decision-making process.
After spending over 15 years in customer success, I have however recognized some distinct patterns in how the best customer success teams are run. I’ve created a comprehensive yet simple approach that you can use to avoid many of the mistakes that I made and double down on the best strategies that the customer success community has implemented.
For this reason, I’ve documented what I’m calling 'the cycle of customer success'.
There are a number of great customer success (CS) frameworks already out there which outline the core building blocks that customer success teams need. The model I’ve created isn’t a major divergence from these approaches with the exception being the cyclical nature of this framework.
You really need to approach customer success with the mindset that your work is never done. I know I felt that way as a customer success Manager at Eloqua when I had my 30+ accounts and I felt like I was always online. It doesn’t change when you move into leadership. You need to continue to modify your strategy and hence the cyclical approach. It is important that as you round the corners along this journey that you do follow a certain path. For example, you shouldn’t start making massive technology investments until you have some of the other building blocks in place such as your customer journey and processes. That said, this model doesn’t mean that you don’t start hiring until you’ve fully defined your customer journey. This is a guide to help you visualize the steps you need to take.
The other area that I place a greater emphasis on in comparison to other CS models is the area of people. When you plan out the people component, you need to go beyond the structure of your team and how many customers are assigned to the CSMs. I place a great deal of time and effort on the recruiting, hiring, onboarding and ongoing enablement of my CS team members. It’s hands down the most critical element in this cycle. I think we all know this but there are ways to create a more sophisticated approach to the people component that will help you scale and address the challenges of career progression that impacts your customer success team.
This model is designed to be used at any stage of your company from start-up to a full blown enterprise. My goal in creating the cycle of customer success is to provide a starting point and blueprint that you can use as you tackle the major challenges that your customer success team is facing and will face. I will provide a general overview of the model in this post and then dive into the various components in subsequent posts.
The cycle of customer success
There are six main components of the cycle of customer success model:
- customer journey
- Measure and iterate
I will provide a brief summary of each:
When you are just joining, rebuilding or forming a customer success team, you need to create a common purpose and direction for the team. I recommend that you pull your team (or CS leadership team if you have a large team) and draft out a mission statement. Every CS team needs a purpose — it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can and should refine it over time.
Your mission should guide and empower your team on what to do if there were no processes or managers. It should also be a guide for the rest of the company in terms of what the customer success team stands for.
Your CS values should emanate from this mission which will influence the other areas of the cycle — primarily the customer journey and the people you hire. Your mission should guide and empower your team on what to do if there were no processes or managers. It should also be a guide for the rest of the company in terms of what the customer success team stands for. My customer success mission at Bluecore was to have our customers shout about us from the rooftops based on the value they were achieving and their experience. Everyone knew CS’s mission because I repeated it over and over again.
Defining and refining the customer journey has taken a greater prominence in recent years within customer success teams. It’s more than just improving the customer experience. It’s about determining the right customer interactions that will deliver the customer’s desired outcome and ultimately drive the right financial results for your company. A large component of the customer journey is clearly laying out the proactive measures that your organization is prepared to take.
You hear the saying 'customer success is not a department, it’s a philosophy'.
Your customer journey map will determine whether that is actually true as the events and actions along it should include more than just your CS team.
The customer journey will help determine the people you need and the processes you will roll out so it’s critical to invest in the proper resources for this initiative.
There are two major parts of this customer journey process: establishing the right customer segmentation model and mapping the customer journey. It will require you to involve the various functions that touch the customer across your organization to seek out their input and buy-in as well as gather input from your customers.
This isn’t an easy process and it may require some external help to get this initiative up and running. At the very least, start to define the stages and events of the journey and go from there. The customer journey will help determine the people you need and the processes you will roll out so it’s critical to invest in the proper resources for this initiative. It will impact so many aspects of what you will do including the type of skills you need for your team as well as your budget. It’s a part of the cycle that you will keep coming back to and refining over time.
This is by far my favorite area as it’s the most critical component of customer success. The ‘people’ section includes the following components:
- Determining the right CS team structure based on the customer journey. This may include customer success Managers to start but also may include support, onboarding, services and education as you scale your team and determine the need to specialize.
- Properly defining the roles and responsibilities of each CS team within your customer success function to support this structure. This also includes addressing the most asked CS question ever: ‘how many accounts should a CSM own?’.
- Creating a standardized hiring process for your customer success team. This isn’t an area that you want to mess around with.
- Creating a standardized onboarding process for new team members that is metrics driven.
- Ensuring your team receives ongoing training and enablement.
- Creating formal career paths in and outside of customer success and performance management.
This is the time to build out and standardize the processes that your team will use to execute on the customer journey. It will include how you coordinate the various transitions within the customer success team but also outlines how CS interlocks with the other functions such as sales on complex upsells or marketing on customer communications. As your organization matures, this is the area that tends to get the most attention — especially when you can build out a CS operations function. How you plan, create and execute on these processes will make or break your customer success department and your job.
How you plan, create and execute on these processes will make or break your customer success department and your job.
The following are just some of the key processes that you will need to define over time. The breadth and depth of these processes will depend on the stage that your company is at.
- Sales to CS transitions
- Customer onboarding
- Customer health scoring
- Executive business reviews
- Internal account reviews
- Customer success plans
- At-risk / customer health reviews
- Renewals and upsells
- Quarterly retrospectives
- Executive sponsor program
- Best practice webinars
- Identifying advocates
- Support escalations
- Product training
- Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys
- Cross-functional initiatives such as CS/Product collaboration on the product roadmap.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list. Keep in mind that how you execute on these processes will be determined by your customer journey and the quarterly goals that you’ve established.
Technology can sometimes appear to be that mirage on the horizon when you feel like you’ve been wandering in the desert for days. Don’t go drinking from that water before you pass go!
Technology can sometimes appear to be that mirage on the horizon when you feel like you’ve been wandering in the desert for days. Don’t go drinking from that water before you pass by! What I mean is that there are no quick fixes. Don’t invest your precious CS budget on any major technology solutions until you’ve gone through the components of the cycle for customer success.
At Bluecore, I had a plan on centralizing our CS technologies within our CRM so we would have full visibility across the customer journey and the customer-facing functions. Our support, project management, task management, and customer success tools all integrated with our CRM. We had previously used Google docs for some of these processes so we had a basic framework before we invested in some of these major tools. As an example, we had an idea of how we wanted to build out our customer health score based on the manual work we had already been doing. This was helpful when we implemented our customer health scoring and at-risk/customer health review process.
There are some technologies that were no-brainers like Komiko which we used to track customer communication engagement. That said, we had already defined a challenge in tracking engagement and had the customer journey, people and process components developed as well as our customer success platform. We had earned the right to skip a few steps.
Measure and iterate
Please don’t think that because I left this item to the end of the cycle that you should wait until you’ve gone through the other sections before defining your key metrics and then reviewing them at this point. You should have metrics established for each and every stage and be constantly reviewing them. For example, when we created the mission statement at Bluecore, I grounded ourselves on the Net Promoter Score (NPS) as I felt I could influence that metric within 6 months based on our direct actions while renewal rates may have longer cycles. We were able to increase NPS by 666% which had a dramatic impact on our team and our relationship with our customers.
Rather than listing out several metrics that you should be considering, the message I want to impart on you is to take a metrics-driven approach to everything you do.
As an example, let’s dig into the “people” section of this model. I recommend a standardized approach to how to measure the candidates you interview and hire. Then measure how they progressed through onboarding. For the enablement and training of your team, create quizzes where you can measure their uptake of information. You should then have a regular review process where you evaluate how your team has performed when you compare their performance review vs how they scored in the interview process. If you have some low performers, assess where the issues are: is it your recruiting process, the interview process, the onboarding process or the ongoing enablement process? Work with your team managers and the other functions such as HR to make the necessary improvements. This is one example of how you create a cycle of customer success and how you build a customer success function to scale.
Being the Star Wars fan that I am, I would have yelled back to Darth Vader: “the circle is never complete — it just keeps going”.
Summary: the circle is never complete
Being the Star Wars fan that I am, I would have yelled back to Darth Vader: “the circle is never complete — it just keeps going”. This model is not supposed to be a maturity model. It’s designed to help you plan, build and execute your customer success strategy. You should keep in mind that you will travel around the cycle of customer success many times as your company matures. At first, the cycles will be more rapid and then they will slow down as you grow as it’s harder to make large scale changes. You will focus more on processes and tweaking the technology and customer journey.
That’s ok if you have the right listening posts in place and are measuring against the right outcomes. You can then determine if you need to go back around the cycle and reframe the mission and customer journey based on what the data is telling you. At Eloqua, we had to make a fairly massive adjustment to the customer journey after we had a mature customer success process in place. The data clearly told us that we had problems that needed to be addressed. We had the right leaders and people to make the necessary changes and get us back on the right path which eventually led to a successful IPO and acquisition by Oracle (have a read through Kia Puhm’s post if you are interested in this story).
I look forward to diving into some more of the specifics of this model in the coming weeks and months. Please provide your feedback, input and thoughts on this approach. I hope you find it useful.