Learn Faster: Why You Should Combine Customer Success with Pre-sales

While working with one of our portfolio companies the other week, I was reminded of a really smart model to help enterprise software companies jumpstart their customer success team: start with a pre-sales engineer.

The Rise and Importance of Customer Success

As enterprise software moves away from the traditional perpetual license model — primarily because of SaaS — to a subscription model, customer support has evolved to customer success. Investing in customer success early helps ensure products stay aligned with customer needs. Customer success is more proactive, not reactive to issues as customer support was, and continuously ensures customers are highly engaged with the product and getting value out of it. This has profoundly increased customer satisfaction and alignment between companies and their customers. It’s a movement that has been underway for several years, has dedicated software platforms, and even supports an annual multi-day conference.

Why Build Customer Success from Pre-Sales

But customer success has also introduced additional complexity into the already complex job of building a startup team. Many of the companies we work with wonder when to hire the first customer success person, and what the profile should be. What we’ve seen work best is rather than hire outside, start with an existing employee who is involved in technical support of pre-sales and sales.

The benefit to this approach isn’t just that it makes hiring simpler — it’s that the customer success person can ensure that the company only sells what it can support. The temptation to over promise in the early days of a startup is almost irresistible for salespeople. Over time that creates huge organizational friction. Anyone reading this who had a similar experience on the product side of an enterprise startup may be rolling their eyes in recognition.

Combining these two roles is also elegant for the customer — they have one person, or one team, who bookends their journey. The person trying to assist in their setup won’t sell them one thing and then claim something else needs to happen after the fact. Customers feel like the person they’re interfacing with is equally invested and on the hook for their success with the product.

Battle Tested in Private and Public Companies

I was incredibly intrigued by this idea, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-off. So I bounced it off of Nick Mehta, the CEO of Gainsight and one of the world’s experts in customer success. He said:

“For sure — I’ve seen this a decent amount in technical cos — [big API company] sort of does this and [public big data company] does this 100%.¹”

There’s an important caveat in Nick’s statement. A startup that has to have pre-sales engineers naturally selects for more technical and higher-priced products. But even if your product isn’t super technical or high priced, any major business customer likes the continuity that combining this role provides. So any way you look at it, it’s a great way to get started with customer success that’s achievable for both the product and the customer.

¹ Names removed for confidentiality