Get Out of Your Comfort Zone! (and Other Practical Advice on Building a Customer Success Team)

In my career, I’ve helped build 12 Customer Success teams, with the most recent being a Customer Success Engineering team. One consistency in each of these journeys has been that every team is different: different goals, different strategies, different requirements- all determined by the different companies being supported. Because there are many approaches and styles to building teams from independent parts into well-oiled machines, it is important to recognize the specific work streams to consider and manage as each program is built.

This is an overview of that explains how to build successful Customer Success teams. In my last blog, Buddah’s Brain, A Practical Guide to Customer Success, the important question of why a Customer Success team is an integral part of a solid Customer Experience strategy was answered. Now that “the why” has been established, this series will outline “the how” of building Customer Success teams. Eight work streams will have dedicated articles that go in depth on each topic to help businesses plan for their own teams’ successes. There are things that need to be considered outside of these work streams, but from a high-level, programmatic approach, the following eight components of team building have been the secret sauce for team building throughout my career.

Business Case

One of the most important starting points to building a Customer Success team is building a solid business case. Building a solid business case is key for getting any Customer Success organization off the ground. Customer Success cannot be run on a part-time basis. Funding and a commitment from the business will allow a team to be built, no matter the size of the team in the beginning, and this allows the opportunity to prove success of the strategy. In order to secure that commitment, a strong narrative is needed; a solid business case is essential. The business case should include creating a customer success charter or mission statement, determining the high level goals of the program, showing the anticipated ROI, and translating all of this into a narrative that highlights the value this team adds to other parts of the organization.

Resource Planning

Once a rock-solid business case has been created and a commitment for funding of at least one dedicated resource to Customer Success has been secured, the focus needs to move to resource planning. Resource planning includes all things aligned to the human capital that is needed for the team. The list includes things such as budget planning, TAM review, timelines, hiring processes, and identifying the right roles for the team.

Measuring Success

Armed with your charter and business case, the measures of success should be defined for this team. Set measurable goals that are achievable, but that will also push the team. This is the time to identify some quick wins to generate initial momentum for the group. Quick successes at the beginning of team building builds morale and buy-in which is needed for long-term success. These quick wins should not be the only wins, though; continue to use data to measure progress and correlate different variables to the success metrics. Ensure these metrics can prove the team’s ROI, and align the comp structure to driving towards these goals.

Communication Strategy

The problems this team will be solving have been identified and how the team will be staffed has been determined, so now the focus turns to communications. Share communication that explains the new team to the rest of the organization. For example, the business case can show colleagues why this team will be a great addition to the organization. Be clear on the charter and challenges the team will solve. When in doubt, over communicate. Change management is a controversial topic these days, but communication remains the number one reason most projects and change management efforts fail. An emphasis should always be on clear, direct communication.

Knowledge Management

Next on the agenda is Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management becomes more complicated the longer it is put off. The best plan of action is to hit the ground running with a knowledge management strategy identified and ready for execution before the first CS hire is made. Customer Success is a somewhat immature industry compared to their counterparts in sales and operations, and many companies struggle to get their first headcount; because a company is usually trying to secure funding, knowledge management is often the lowest thing on the list of priorities, but all the tribal knowledge the first CS hire contains will be gold for second, tenth, and even one hundredth hire. Plan to get that information from inside their minds and into a tool for future team use. Accomplishing this will be a high return reward later.

New Hire Training

Training new teams may be a no brainer from a requirements standpoint, but determining the right time to solidify that training strategy requires some thought. Determining what should be included in team training vs what should be left to the CSM alone takes a significant amount of deliberation. Every manager wants to prepare their collaborators for everything life will throw at them, but there’s an art in finding the balance between teaching and learning through experience. Identifying which situations fit into each designation will inform new hire training.

Relationship Building

When creating a new CSM practice, relationship building isn’t a priority for just the CSM and the customer. Internal relationship building with the stakeholders within the team’s company is equally important. Depending on the size of an organization, the funding for a team may only be possible by reducing funding from another team. Also, depending on the size of the company, various groups such as sales and product management may need to be contacted to build support in order to negotiate the possibility of their team funding your team directly. Ensuring strong relationships are maintained with cross-functional stakeholders is imperative to enabling the success of your new organization.

Engagement Strategy

Engagement Strategy is written about most when it comes to Customer Success. Most businesses want to know how to engage with customers. Also, businesses want to know how many customers should one CSM manage. Some other types of topics that are discusses are determining who owns the account relationship, who is responsible for the renewal or the expand metrics, the frequency in which the CSM should reach out to the customer, and how the customer base should be segmented. The answer to these concerns will always be, “It depends.” This entire topic cannot be covered in one post, but experiences from multiple CS teams can be shared to cover as much as possible.

To summarize, connecting people, ideas, and information on a range of topics is a focal point that comes naturally to me. Customer Success has been an passion of mine for a long time, and sharing thoughts and ideas is a byproduct of that passion. Posting thoughts and sharing this information in a public forum, like this blog, however, is a new, and sometimes uncomfortable challenge for me; but exposing experience and attaching an identity to an article or piece of work can be liberating, and it’s the best way for me to develop this passion of connecting people, ideas, and information. When I start to feel apprehensive or uneasy about posting, I have to remind myself that sharing knowledge and information with a much wider audience helps reach more people than in a traditional 1:1 setting… and helping more people is better than helping less people.

If you are currently building or considering building a new team from the ground up and struggling to find the best path forward, an awkward and unnatural feeling may occur at times for you as well. But, in the words of Brian Tracy, let’s “move out of our comfort zone. You can only grow if you’re willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.”

Let’s take this journey together.