Most customer-facing teams are pulled in many directions. They are often involved in support, sales, marketing, and growth activities. And now we have customer success maturing as a discipline and added to the mix.

The people interacting with customers every day can feel confused about where their work ends and someone else’s begins. With so many options, how can you best structure your success and support teams? Let’s talk about how to add clarity for small to medium-sized teams.

Defining SaaS customer support, success and service

Before we talk about possible ways to structure your team, let’s review a few terms used in the world of SaaS. It’s important because, although we all use these terms, we may define them in different ways.

Customer service: Wikipedia defines customer service as “the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase.” This is a holistic term that can refer to all the benefits a customer can gain from your product.

Customer support: The folks here at Help Scout define customer support as “timely, empathetic help that keeps the customer’s needs at the forefront of every interaction.” If we keep the idea of customer service as the overarching umbrella, customer support would be one aspect of that service. This involves reactive interactions where the customer is unable to achieve their goal and asks for help (or voices their displeasure).

Customer success: In his Definitive Guide to Customer Success, Lincoln Murphy defines customer success as the discipline focused on helping people “achieve their Desired Outcome through their interactions with your company.” He’s using his own terminology here, but the “desired outcome” relates well to the customer’s job to be done. Or, as Kathy Sierra puts it in Badass: Making Users Awesome:

“People aren’t using the app because they like the app or they like you. They’re doing it because they like themselves. What are you doing to enable more of that?”

That is customer success!

A key way to differentiate these terms is by the tasks that the people involved perform. As mentioned above, customer support helps customers who are having problems or are unsure of how to reach their desired outcome. Customer success takes steps to prevent customers from having problems and meet their needs before they’re even aware of them. And everyone in a company can have an impact on the customer’s experience.

Customer success, new kid on the block

As a discipline, customer success is fairly new to the scene. While most of the related activities are not new, it’s only been in the last decade that customer success has become a more formal discipline. Currently in 2017, there are websites, conferences, and even products dedicated to customer success.

However, the phrase “customer success” can mean something very different from one team to the next.

For some, customer success is a term that represents all customer-facing roles. The people on the success team perform all support, research, and proactive activities. For others, customer success takes a more traditional position under a sales team. The sales staff brings on new customers and the success team handles onboarding, implementations, and upsells and renewals. This is especially true for enterprise software and SaaS teams aimed at those markets. On still other teams, success involves only the proactive measures and may even specialize in a couple of activities.

The lines between marketing, sales, success, support, and even product management can be blurry

The important thing to remember is that there is often overlap between different teams, and different groups may share tasks and responsibilities.

And that’s OK, because …

One size does not fit all in SaaS

The beauty of working in the SaaS community is that there is no one right way of doing things. That’s true for marketing, developing a product, and how you structure your customer-facing teams. A career working for SaaS teams can look very different for each product you’re involved with.

But for small to medium-sized companies, the challenge can be how to best organize who does what. It’s common for a customer support or customer success team to be responsible for both sides of the coin. You have to support the customer reactively, but also put proactive initiatives in place.

Raise your hand if your team contributes in the following ways:

  • Putting out fires by responding to customers over email, live chat and Twitter
  • Helping new customers implement your product
  • Writing documentation that answers questions about your product
  • Measuring signs of churn and reaching out before it’s too late
  • Reporting on customer feedback and identified bugs to the rest of the team

How do you best structure your team so that all of these responsibilities are done well?

5 questions to ask to find your team’s ideal structure

One way to find the right structure for your team is to start asking some important questions. The answers to these questions can help point you in the direction that fits your own unique team best.

1. What is the size of your support team?

This may be a tad obvious, but it’s the first question to ask. If you are a support team of one, you’re not going to accomplish all of the above.

For those customer support teams of one, your focus is going to be on answering each and every question that comes your way. If there is any time for a more proactive focus, it may be best spent developing ways to help your customers find the answers to their questions on their own. Or it may be ensuring insights you’ve gleaned from supporting customers get back to the rest of your team, so your time may be spent on documentation or automation.

If you are a team of five to 10 people, you may have the flexibility to pursue more proactive success activities. You may even have people focus primarily on one side of the fence or the other (support/success).

And if you’re a team larger than 10, you can start to put a formal structure in place. You may also need to move from a flat structure to having team leaders and/or support specialists.

2. How many customers do you have?

This is the second question to ask, as the answers here will go hand in hand with the previous question. If you’re a team of one, but your product only has 50 customers, maybe you can handle more of the proactive activities listed above. Conversely, a team of 50 might struggle to get out of the support queue if they have 150,000 customers.

This is where analytics can allow you to put all those arithmetic skills from grade school to work. Consider some of the following stats to get a better sense of how much time will be required for support work:

  • Average support requests per customer per month
  • Customers per support team member
  • Average handle time for support requests

If you consider how many customers you currently have and what your support load looks like, you can begin to get a sense of how many people are needed to meet that load. From there, you can start to measure how much time team members have for proactive work.

Pro Tip: Change your Point of View

More mature products may want to view these measurements by active or paying customers, rather than total customers. Many of us have products where many user accounts are inactive and may not be pertinent to what we’re measuring.

3. What does your product development workflow look like and who are the decision-makers?

Large teams usually have product managers, or some similar type of role. Those are the people who focus on the ideal customer and the target market and identifying the problem(s) you want to solve. They spend a lot of time mapping the user’s journey, writing user or job stories, and creating other strategies to match the problem to the business case.

In those scenarios, the development workflow is guided by the product manager. And while they themselves are not usually the sole decision maker, they heavily influence those decisions.

On smaller or even medium-sized teams, this may not be the case. This is where your team can shine, as there is a lot of overlap between product management and customer success. If your product has no dedicated product manager, here are a few success activities your team could handle:

  • Create a weekly report of priority bugs and feature requests to share with your developers
  • Work with leadership to form the product roadmap (always keeping the customer in perspective)
  • Own the entire onboarding process, from identifying your WOW moment to creating materials to help your customers achieve it
  • Conduct research calls with newly signed up customers or recent cancellations
  • Profile your ideal customer and work with your marketing team to find the right target audience

The possible activities are numerous and varied. What will be possible depends on the makeup of your overall team, but any of the above are great uses of your time.

4. What metrics are your customer team focused on?

In SaaS, there are so many things you can focus on. It’s easy to find yourself on any given day asking,“What should I be working on right now?” Decision fatigue is a real concern, and you want to minimize that as much as possible. That’s where having one key metric to focus on can help your team be as effective as possible.

In the Lean Analytics movement, this is called the “One Metric That Matters”. If you and your team can identify the metric that matters to you most right now, it can help guide what activities your success team should focus on.

If you’re focused on activation, onboarding might be where you put your energy. Where are people dropping off in the process? What is your WOW moment and what steps are in place to guide people there? Mapping out your user journey with your onboarding touch points included can help your team see the big picture and create a plan to improve this measure.

If your focus is reducing churn, your team may spend more time in research to identify why people are leaving. Conducting interviews with recent cancellations is one way to identify the push/pull forces that led to a customer leaving your product.

In the long run, all these metrics matter to you. But your team can have some peace of mind knowing that you’re going to focus on one at a time, and that focus can direct which activities your team engages in.

5. What resources will make your customers the most successful?

Finally, what types of things will your team do to help your customers achieve their goals? Writing is an obvious one, and one you should emphasize. Creating help docs, user guides, blog posts, and newsletters are all things you can do to help your customers.

But what else? Will your team create screencasts and onboarding campaigns, or conduct webinars and private demos? These all take a different set of skills, but they are skills that people in customer support often have. Spend some time thinking about which of these will help your customers best and who on your team is ready to contribute.

If your team decides that screencasts and videos will help your customers the most, you might have to invest in some tools or training. Research what kinds of content have worked best for your customers in the past, then compare this with the skills of your current team. This can guide where your team can put their success time to best use.

Embrace your uniqueness

Again, the right fit depends on a lot of different factors: the makeup of your team, your customers, and your product itself. Based on factors like team size and the source(s) of capital, each scenario can look a lot different from the next.

Here are a few current approaches to consider:

At Wildbit, we’re a bootstrapped team of 25 people running three products (soon to be four). Everyone wears a lot of hats and each day can look different from the next. Because of this, we do not have the resources of a large team, so we take a minimal approach to marketing and sales.

Our customer success team is five people and we handle both the proactive and reactive interactions with our customers. Because of this, we have a few measures in place.

Scheduled focus days

Switching between reactive and proactive work carries a lot of cognitive overload, so we try to minimize this as much as possible. We all love support, but once you get into the inbox, it’s really hard to switch from reacting to strategic thinking and planning. That’s why we schedule entire days for success work, so team members can focus for extended, committed periods.

Everyone on our team also takes at least two days per week to focus on success measures. As much as possible, we schedule those days back to back — that way, any residual support interactions are finished up by day two.

A distraction-free environment

At Wildbit, we’re firm believers in focus and deep work, so everyone is encouraged to stay out of group chat when they need long stretches without interruption. A lot of SaaS teams operate this way. But let’s face it: That often doesn’t apply to the support/success team.

That’s not the case here. Everyone at the company is able to close Slack completely when needed. For our customer success team, that is done on your success days. The expectation is that if you’re providing support, you’re monitoring Slack. But otherwise, it’s your responsibility to take any measures necessary to allow yourself to focus.

Plan Regular Get Togethers

Our customer success team gets together once a year in the company office. Although Wildbit also has a company-wide retreat each year, we like to get together in smaller groups for more focused discussion. Plus, it’s vital just to meet as a team and hang out.

We spend this time discussing how we provide support, but most of our time focuses on what we should be doing to ensure the success of our customers. When you’re down in the trenches, it can be harder to see the big picture. This specific meet-up allows everyone to take a deep breath, review what we’ve been doing, and plan for the next six to 12 months.

Good for you, good for your customers

By asking a few questions and creating the right environment, smaller customer-facing companies can do more for their SaaS team and, more importantly, for their customers.

Chris Bowler

Chris Bowler

After focusing on customer support at Campaign Monitor and customer success at InVision, Chris now gets to do both with the team at Wildbit, making life a little easier for developers. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.