Customer success is often said to be going through a golden age. All you have to do is look at Vista's acquisition of Gainsight for $1bn back in December 2020 to see proof of that. While the industry’s growth accelerates in the West, in Southeast Asia (SEA), we’re on the cusp of witnessing this phenomenon as the cloud and software gain widespread adoption.
This poses a few unique challenges to customer success professionals in Southeast Asia.
- Benchmarks and resources available are primarily US-centric. As a market, the B2B SaaS space is a lot more mature, with consumers experienced in interacting with customer success.
- Higher variability in best practices. SEA is home to no less than nine different languages and cultures, which likely means a customer success organization needs a different playbook for every country it serves.
This survey came from my personal frustration over the lack of relevant resources for practicing customer success in SEA. When I stumbled upon JD and Alaina’s podcast, I immediately thought, “Where has this been all my life!”
Think of the outcome from this survey as what you can get from speaking to 33 customer success professionals in a room. More responses would be needed to achieve a more conclusive picture of the state of customer success in SEA.
This article is broadly divided into the following sections:
- Demographics and company context
- Key findings
- Interesting comments
Demographics and company context
Respondents from Singapore make up more than half of the responses (70%), followed by the Philippines (15%) and Indonesia (9%). The rest are equally from Malaysia and Vietnam.
This roughly corresponds with a simple LinkedIn search for customer success professionals, which returned the most hits when the location is set to Singapore with 33,000 results, followed by the Philippines with 32,000 results.
The set-up of satellite offices often explains the concentration in Singapore. Indeed, 45% of the respondents’ companies are founded in the US or Europe, with 33% of companies founded in Singapore.
76% of the surveyed CS practice a primarily high-touch engagement strategy, with the majority (73%) working with products of an annual contract value (ACV) of at least USD$5,000.
Key finding #1
Customer Success is a C-Level Priority
One of the benefits of having the shoulders of giants to stand on is accelerated learning. 64% of the CS organizations report to the C-level, signaling the importance of the function. Therefore, it appears that CS in this region has a little problem establishing a seat at the table even in the early stages. In fact, lack of internal buy-in to support CS goals ranked second-last in top challenges faced by SEA customer success.
For those not reporting to the C-Level, customer success professionals usually report to the revenue department such as Head of Revenue or Sales (18%), with some professionals reporting to Support & Services (9%), Head of Country (3%), and Head of Strategy (3%).
Key finding #2
Cross-industry hiring is not as prevalent
63% of customer success professionals come from either account management or customer success itself. Those who transitioned from customer support represent 6% of the respondents.
Of the remaining 30% of respondents, there is an equal representation of background from strategic planning, recruitment, product management, presales, marketing, and hotel guest services & supervision.
There are plenty of conversations around cross-industry hiring for customer success. Nonetheless, reality may paint a different picture.
A respondent’s advice may capture the preference for hiring those from account management or CS background:
“If as an organization, you decide that you want to implement CS for your customers and have a formal structure, I’d recommend getting someone who has that experience to drive that from the get-go, if possible. Because the unlearning process can be a pain…at a minimum get an advisor who can help set the processes for your product and organization. Different products will require different strategies.”
Key finding #3
Expansion is top of mind
70% of the respondents shared that expansion falls under the responsibility of the customer success department.
After driving adoption, driving renewals and expansions are the biggest areas of focus. In fact, for CS professionals who have a variable or bonus component to their comp, it is most commonly tied to renewals (42%) closely followed by expansion (39%), net retention (30%), and product adoption (24%).
It appears that customer success in SEA very quickly leaped into focusing on customer values and how those drive revenue beyond renewals.
There could be two reasons for this.
- CS in SEA has quickly adapted to the growing trend in the mature market, with CS owning more revenue responsibilities.
- It could relate to the top challenges faced by CS in the following key findings.
JD and Alaina hosted an excellent discussion on this topic on their SEA-focused customer success podcast. In this podcast, they discussed CS graduating towards revenue generation and the pros and cons of this.
Key finding #4
Top challenges faced by CS in SEA
Coming a little later to the party, we benefit from the education done on the importance of customer success. However, the biggest cause of sleepless nights for most CS professionals in SEA is workload. They're simply doing too much. As Rav Dhaliwal’s webinar title puts it, ‘Customer Success: The Everything Department.’
When we look at what falls under customer success — aside from the usual suspects of onboarding (87.9%), outcome management and renewals (75.8%), expansions (75.8%), and implementation (54.5%) — CS also look after support (51.5%), customer marketing (18.2%) and in some cases, payment collections (12%)!
As a respondent commented:
“CS in SEA is still very much in its infancy with many companies only just starting to enter the market or build out CS teams... the teams in APAC could be smaller as it’s a satellite office or earlier stage start-up. Thus, the CS team is also leaner, and team members may have less job specialization. They’re instead expected to cover multiple roles, sometimes including support or sales.”
This may explain why, so far, we see CS practitioners mostly coming from an Account Management background, and expansion is a big part of their performance expectation as specialization has yet to happen in SEA.
Other interesting comments
At the end of the survey, I asked the respondents if they’d like to say or share regarding the customer success discipline in SEA.
Here are a few that stood out:
“SEA is a place where customer relationships matter a lot, so I foresee the discipline of Customer Success will grow a lot (across many varied industries) in the near future as the need for high-touch B2B client services will continue.”
“Customer success in SEA is still largely mistaken as account management, with many companies still using the term interchangeably.”
“Talent in SEA is lacking, unfortunately. CSMs who understand how to drive value, setting the right expectations with customers but also internally with colleagues and have a proactive approach are lacking.”
“A baptism of fire which causes you to acutely understand the limitations of your company product.”
The last comment stood out to me the most. Every product comes with its strengths as well as limitations. Personal experience tells me you can have the best account management skills or technical knowledge but you will hit a ceiling as a CS if you are not willing to apply yourself to understand and take into account your product’s limitations when communicating with your customers.
What has been surprising is that only one respondent mentioned the complexity in managing different local languages and emerging markets but this may be because companies are primarily serving countries that speak English such as Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia.
When questioned further, the respondent who cited the challenges of localization explained that headquarters set up in a homogenous country often don’t understand the complexity of a diverse market. It, then, becomes a chicken and egg problem as Asia is still a small piece of the pie and diversity demands more resources for localization.
From this survey, it appears that customer success in SEA is an interesting situation. It’s in its early stages but carries hard targets like renewals and expansion from the get-go, which is typical of a mature CS organization.
All in all, there is a general sense of excitement for the growth of this discipline in SEA. Already we are seeing like-minded customer success practitioners in the region like JD from Customer Success Singapore, Jay from Customer Success Malaysia and Angeline from The Customer Success Network | Southeast Asia leading the way in building a community of Customer Success in our region.
I hope this sparks conversations and is the first of many studies on CS professionals in SEA. Whether you’re a CS practitioner in SEA or are based elsewhere in the world, I’d love to know if this has sparked any thoughts, questions, or areas you’d like to explore!
Thank you to all respondents who took part in the survey and your willingness to allow me to learn from your experience.