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How to hire, measure and scale your CS team

Hiring top talent and effectively measuring performance in CS are key strategic hurdles for any fast-growing SaaS company.

By Josh Lea, Customer Success Lead at Hook

The Three Universal Customer Success Pains

As the Customer Success Lead at Hook (a Customer Success SaaS company), there are 3 questions I always get asked. If you’re in CS, these will definitely look familiar:

Who should I hire for my CS team? (often with “help!” or “do you know anyone??”)

How do I set targets for my team?

How should I scale my CS team?

Before I joined Hook, I led a Customer Success team at AppDynamics made up of Customer Success Managers (CSMs), Engineers and Specialists. We developed internal systems and tools to tackle these problems because there was no ‘industry standard’ for what good looked like. We tracked and measured customer performance using an internally developed health score, and set our own performance metrics based on how customers used the product. Now I juggle everything customer related at Hook, meaning I face these problems day in and day out for our customers who all have different product usage patterns and benchmarks for successful CS. In this blog post I’ll be sharing the answers to the three key CS questions that I’ve learnt over the years.

What To Look For When Hiring

Sector Experience Over CS Expertise

We’ll start by taking a look at the first building block of any good team — how to recruit the best people. It may be tempting to look for candidates with strong performance in CS. However, I find that past experience in your company’s sector is far more important than previous experience in the CSM role. It’s much easier to train an industry expert in CS than it is to train someone on an entire industry in a short space of time during onboarding. The former is teachable, the latter requires time and experience which most companies can’t afford or provide.

Some of the best CS people that I’ve ever worked with didn’t come from CS backgrounds. Instead they had brilliant industry-related experience, and knew the customer problem inside out. For instance, at AppDynamics there were standout CSMs from DevOps or IT Service backgrounds — they knew the space and therefore had immediate credibility with our customers.

A good way to think of your CSM is as a subject matter expert for both your industry and your product. They can help your customers achieve great results and business outcomes, because they already know what good looks like and how to get there. They also have a deep understanding of the pain your customers are experiencing, because they’ve lived through it themselves. A good CSM needs this credibility more than anything else if customers are to trust and value their guidance.

Personal Traits Are Key

Industry experience alone isn’t enough to guarantee a successful hire, so the next thing to look at is character, the mix of personality, motivation and soft skills that indicate strong role and culture fit.

The Hook team

I’ve found that tenacity and resilience are the strongest character traits in a brilliant CSM. CS professionals need to be able to manage the ups and downs of a customer-facing role while juggling competing demands. Relatability is also important — as your customers’ main point of contact, your CS hires need to be able to build good relationships and win trust so that they can effectively guide your customers.

One of the most underestimated traits is someone with the ability (and motivation) to learn your product in its entirety. SaaS is a complex and evolving field of tech. Your CSMs need to be able to articulate difficult concepts clearly to customers and offer up comprehensible solutions. An in-depth understanding of your product, how it is built and how it works is therefore crucial. With this skill comes the ability to adapt and solve customer problems creatively.

You can try to prepare your CS team for the unexpected by writing playbooks until you’re blue in the face, but it’s time consuming and there will always be situations where the wheels come off — the customer has done something, the product has exploded, the numbers are all wrong. In those moments you need smart people who can work under pressure to figure out how to fix it, limit the fallout and make sure everyone is okay.

Find someone with this killer combination of industry experience, soft skills and intelligence, and you’ll be looking at a great candidate for the job.

Setting Targets For Your Team

So you’ve hired your new CSM, they’ve joined the team, they’re working hard and loving their new role. But how can you make sure they achieve what they are capable of and stay motivated? What should they be measured against?

Overall, the most important metrics in SaaS have shifted from Total Contract Value (the sales price) to Annual Recurring Revenue (how much a customer spends each year) and now to Net Retained Revenue (how much a customer spends more after each year). Of course, NRR is a crucial indicator for a SaaS company, and should be owned by CS leaders or CCOs. However, I’d argue that CSM targets shouldn’t be based solely on revenue, but on something different — what a healthy customer that leads to high NRR looks like.

Often companies will measure whether a customer is ‘healthy’ by first asking them if they are happy (NPS). As any therapist can tell you, people aren’t great at consistently relaying their thoughts and feelings (even if it’s to do with a piece of software) and this always biases the results. NPS is actually a great way to measure product feedback — it’s just not great for measuring Customer Success because it has no relation to value or retention.

If you use factual data on how customers are using your product and engaging with your teams, it takes away the bias that comes with filling out a survey. This means that you can provide a target that is measurable and actionable, and something that is truly owned by the CSM. It’s essential that you have these clear, data-driven targets so that CSMs are able to track progress, prove they are doing well and identify areas of improvement quickly. Everyone knows this in theory, but it can be a challenge to get it right in CS when so much of what they do is influenced by other functions (e.g. product and sales).

Give your CSMs clear targets and access to the data so that they can own their success. Vague and sentiment-driven targets can be frustrating for ambitious people — make sure you keep your great new hires on board by getting this right from day one.

Tip: Key metrics for CSMs to own should relate to customers actively using your product, such as feature usage, daily active users, license utilisation or number of checks/calls initiated. For example, at Hook we use daily active users and feature usage for newly released features.

Scaling Your Team

Making sure your team spends time with the right customers, at the right time means they can work most effectively. The key to this is data. Having an accurate method for renewal prediction means you can dedicate fewer hours to safe accounts and focus on the at-risk accounts. One comment I often hear from our customers is how easy it is to prep for a customer call or QBRs using Hook, as they have all the data at their fingertips. This means that they go into that meeting feeling well prepared, without needing to ask the dull question: “How have you been getting on since we last spoke?”

Our Engagement Score is purpose built for this — it is an automated, machine learnt health score based on facts and linked to revenue predictability. Good health scores are generally a nightmare to build, requiring a lot of time and often giving inaccurate results, so Hook is designed to save your CS team a lot of stress and to work efficiently and with maximum impact.

Conclusion

If you work in a fast-growing SaaS company, you’ll be familiar with at least one of these key issues surrounding Customer Success. As the importance of Customer Success continues to grow as it has been, getting this strategy right will become even more central to the growth and success of your company. The leaders who nail CS hiring, measuring and scaling from day one will set their business and themselves up for success.

So, to sum up: when you’re hiring, focus on industry experience, attributes and intelligence — this is far more important than previous CS experience. When you’re measuring your CS team, data-driven targets owned by your CSMs are crucial to equip your team to perform at their best. When you’re scaling, focus on the accounts that matter, automate where you can, and use tools like Hook to help.

To find out more about Hook and what we do, download our awesome report that looks at the metrics that matter in Customer Success and goes deeper into some of the topics I’ve discussed here.

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