The Customer Success Era


The world of enterprise software has had two epochs. In the beginning sales was king. Individual reps would chase new accounts for months, sell as much as possible, then move on to the next opportunity in their pipeline. Above them in the funnel was the marketing department, who made sure there were always enough qualified leads to hunt. Below them was an implementation or customer support team. Occasionally a sales rep might check in on her customer, hoping for the chance to sell an upgrade or into another department. But rarely did companies consider whether the software they sold was adding value — rarely did sales reps ask their customers if they were accomplishing their goals.

This was the “Before Cloud” (BC) era. In the years BC, customer relationship management (CRM) software guided reps from one opportunity to the next. A closed sale represented the end of the engagement with one customer and a trigger to move on to the next.

Today we live in the “After Benioff” (AB) era, where recurring revenue is king. Reps sell, and then they keep selling, pulling in resources from across support, product and engineering to keep their customers happy — they want their customers to be successful so they’ll continue to pay, renew and upsell. A superficial response to this transition suggests that we need some sort of quota-carrying function separate from new client sales to manage upsell and prevent churn. We need a different kind of rep who looks inward, instead of outward, for opportunities, and who maintains a healthy sense of paranoia around customer satisfaction. We might call them Customer Success reps. This new kind of rep will need some software to Manage Customer Relationships, but for some reason the best CRM software is not suitable. They’ll need Customer Success software.

All this is great, and a step-function improvement to the BC-era tactics of enterprise software sales. But what I just described is not customer success, because it is not focused 100% on the success of the customers. It is simply a different sales function with slightly different workflows to support it. Truly customer-centric SaaS organizations view customer success as their reason for being. Their product is the service delivered on an ongoing basis — the second S in SaaS. They win customers with software but they retain them with service. They think about the experience first, and then the back-end architecture to support it.

We’ve come a long way since the dawn of the BC era. In product design, customer support, even administration and security, enterprises are taking their cues from consumer experiences. Enterprise software is becoming more personalized, adaptive and engaging. In order to build these experiences, companies are digging deep to learn as much as possible about their individual users — the “consumer” who spends his day in their product, and succeeds or fails with their help. Companies want to know who they are and what they use their software to accomplish; how they engage, how often and with which features; what do they say, how do they feel and who are they telling? They interact with their customers at the right moment armed with systems of intelligence and actionability. Most importantly, they want to know if their customers are succeeding and creating value for themselves as a result of the software.

Much of this feedback comes from customer success. Far from sales reps, the best customer success agents are angels who flit effortlessly between providing support, collecting feedback, uncovering new opportunities and solving problems. They evangelize customer needs to product teams, and set expectations with customers when there’s misalignment, all while creating value for the business. It’s not enough to set an “upsell quota” or a “churn reduction target.” The best customer success teams are incented with both qualitative and quantitative goals, which together capture their innate desire to uncover opportunities and foster advocacy.

Building a responsive, influential and deeply integrated customer success team is the first step toward building a customer-centric SaaS company. The next step is to imbue the entire organization with this culture and feedback. In my opinion, customer success isn’t a new role or group within a company. It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about the product, company and customers.

Let’s get back to Benioff for a moment. If he were starting Salesforce.com today, and asked potential customers what kind of data to track and what to do with it, he’d hear much of what I outlined above. A great customer relationship management solution will truly Manage the Relationship with every Customer — individual and account, those prospective, onboarding, as well as long-time subscribers. It would enrich customer records with real-time data from their usage of your demo or product, predict issues and forecast revenue, understand what constitutes a high lifetime customer and nurture the trial customers to mimic that path. It would blur the line with marketing automation upstream and customer support downstream, with an explicit focus on engagement and customer health. In the end, next-generation CRM will be as much about lifetime value as initial lead score, the effects of which will seep into marketing, finance and engineering. Only when this is the window through which your entire team sees your customers will you have left limbo. Heaven is not customer success as a function, but customer success as a mission. It is the rebirth of customer relationship management, and the dawn of a new era. Convert, or be forsaken.