Customer Success: What It Means, Why It Matters, and More

Kiera AbbamonteKiera Abbamonte

Over the last decade, cultural trends, customer expectations, and business realities have combined to compel more and more businesses to prioritize customer success.

With the growth in emphasis on success, a lot of confusion has sprung up around how to ensure customers are successful, how customer success differs from other functions (like customer support), and more. Below, we share an overview of everything you need to know about customer success.

What is customer success?

Customer success is any effort a business undertakes that’s aimed at helping their customers be more successful, both with their product and more generally.

Customer success teams take a proactive, data-led approach to helping customers more effectively use a product. That approach helps businesses reach a number of top-level goals, including:

By ensuring customers are successful with a product, customer success increases the likelihood that customers will stick around. For SaaS and other subscription-based businesses, that’s a vital component of growing monthly recurring revenue (MRR).

Customer success vs. customer support

In some ways, customer success is best defined in relation to what it isn’t. Customer success is not the same as customer support or service. While there are a number of differences between the two, the biggest distinction comes down to this:

  • Customer support is reactive.
  • Customer success is proactive.

Whereas customer support and customer service teams react to inbound customer communication, customer success works to proactively eliminate customer problems before they rise to the level of a customer support touchpoint.

Here’s an example Ryan Engley, VP of Customer Success for Unbounce, shared that exemplifies the difference between customer success and customer support in practice:

“A customer may email the support team about their landing pages and say, ‘Hey, I need help implementing a sticky navigation bar. How do I do that?’ They’ll jump in and help them figure out the code to set up. A conversation with the customer success team, on the other hand, might start with, ‘Why is that something that you think you need? Let’s talk about your bigger strategy.’”

Customer success vs. account management

Similar to customer support and customer service, Account Management teams offer reactive help to customers who reach out and ask for it. They handle customer problems after they arise — they just do it for a particular set of dedicated customers.

Account managers also tend to focus more on just what their name implies: managing accounts. They work to grow accounts and the revenue they bring into the business — not necessarily to help those customers be as successful as possible.

Customer success vs. customer experience

Customer experience is another function that’s grown over the last decade or so, and it’s easy to confuse with customer success.

Here’s the chief difference: Customer experience teams focus more on how customers use a product, and they do it from the business’ perspective. Customer experience thinks a lot about the user experience and how it can be simplified or streamlined to encourage customers to use the product more.

Customer success teams may also focus on those aspects of the customer experience, but they do it from both the company and the customer perspective. Success teams seek to understand the why behind how customers use a product, and they use data to proactively help customers be more successful.

Why is customer success important?

One of the biggest driving factors in the rise of customer success is the growth of SaaS and subscription-based business models.

Instead of selling big, one-time deals to customers, companies sell monthly subscriptions. They need to be able to justify renewal every month, and doing so requires an emphasis on helping customers to see value and success with their product.

But customer success is universally beneficial for every company — not just SaaS businesses.

Data shows that for every customer who contacts customer support, 26 customers with a problem don’t reach out. Those are all customers a business stands to lose if their problem isn’t fixed. And research also shows that 91% of those who don’t complain simply churn instead.

By proactively eliminating potential customer problems and proactively fixing those that arise, customer success gives your business a better chance at retaining those other 26 customers.

When done effectively, customer success can:

  • Reduce churn.
  • Improve retention and renewals.
  • Drive revenue.

For today’s businesses, those are all vital goals.

How to build a customer success team

Like any new role, a lot goes into building a customer success team from the ground up. It can take a fair amount of time and budget to make it work. However, that doesn’t mean customer success is out of reach for smaller businesses.

  • If your scarcest resources are time or expertise (or both), you can opt to hire an experienced customer success manager and fill out a full customer success team to support them.
  • If your scarcest resource is finances, you can start by bringing together members of your product, sales, and support teams to collaborate, with a focus on improving customer success.

Either way, building a customer success team starts and ends with a commitment to putting customers first and doing everything you can to ensure they find success with your product.

Intercom shared their experience building out a customer success team. You can read the full post on Intercom’s blog, but here are the three key lessons they shared:

  • Define your team’s mission early.
  • Maximize impact by embracing what doesn’t scale.
  • Build trust by prioritizing people then process.

7 customer success best practices

Regardless of the size or scope of your customer success operation, there are a handful of best practices that can help ensure you reap the benefits of customer success.

1. Make customer success an organization-wide goal and priority

Whether you have a dedicated customer success team or not, it’s important to instill an emphasis on helping customers succeed across the organization. From sales and marketing to product, from senior leadership on down, customer success should be a goal and a priority for every member of your extended team.

2. Emphasize customer success early on

Customer success is an organization-wide effort, meaning prioritization of customers and their needs has to be baked into the culture of your company. The easiest way to make that happen is to start early, from the very outset of your business.

As the saying goes, the best time to start was yesterday — the second best time is now.

3. Understand what success means to your customers

We’ve talked a lot about “success,” but what does it really mean? Effective customer success teams let the customers tell them what success looks like. Success with your product will look like different things to different customers, so it’s important to let their definition lead.

Success, as defined by the customer, should be the goal of the customer success team — not success as defined by your company.

4. Set customers up for success with proactive, high-touch onboarding

The role of customer success starts from the moment someone becomes a customer. Proactive, high-touch customer onboarding ensures those new customers get started on the right foot.

That includes setting up the product to best suit their needs, learning how to use the features they need, and getting comfortable with using the product more generally. A little extra hand-holding during the onboarding process can help eliminate a lot of potential issues from ever reaching the customer support team down the road.

5. Track key customer metrics and share data across teams

As we mentioned above, customer success is a data-driven goal. That’s true within dedicated customer success teams and across other teams in the organization.

Effectively prioritizing and sponsoring customers’ success comes down to tracking the right customer metrics and sharing that data across teams. Here are a few key customer success metrics worth tracking:

6. Build a customer feedback loop

Customer success isn’t a one-time project that carries over from one customer to the next. It’s an endeavor that requires constant updating and refining to better serve customers and keep up with a changing product.

Creating a loop that continuously brings in real customer feedback is the best way to keep up with those changes and ensure you can remain proactive for the long-term.

7. Define and identify customer red flags

When you look into your customer data, there are typically early warning signs that indicate a customer is struggling with your product. It’s the customer success team’s job to identify these red flags and find a way to proactively set struggling customers back on the path to success.

Set up a system that flags these indicators for customer success managers to address. From there, they can work with the customer directly to rectify any issues, provide any needed education or help, etc.

Help your customers succeed

Today’s most successful businesses prioritize helping their customers succeed.

With the rise of subscription-based business models and a broader cultural emphasis on putting customers first coming together, every company in business today can benefit from implementing a customer success program.

Be it large or small, a customer success team can have a big impact on customer loyalty, churn, revenue, and so much more.

Kiera Abbamonte
Kiera Abbamonte

Kiera is a a content writer who works with SaaS and ecommerce companies. Located in Boston, MA, she loves cinnamon coffee and a good baseball game. Catch up with her on Twitter or KieraAbbamonte.com

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