As companies in every industry compete to stay relevant to their customers, whether consumers or businesses, many have focused on improving their customer journey and experience. A new department has cropped up in response - Customer Success - and with it, new frameworks, hiring needs, and products. Forbes has named the field the “new growth engine,” and it shows no signs of slowing.
As the Founder and CEO of The Success League, a consulting firm focused on helping companies implement and improve customer success teams, Kristen Hayer knows just how big of a difference a great success team can make. Previously the VP of Customer Success at JazzHR, she is no stranger to going the extra mile for customers and coaching others to do the same. Excited to learn from her experience, we dug in about all things customer success.
Customer success departments are a fairly recent development - what spurred the change?
There are a number of different trends that sparked the need for customer success. First, and the one that everyone loves to talk about, is the shift toward a subscription economy. When money comes in over time instead of just up front, you need to continually demonstrate a return on investment to your customers. That’s the biggest objective of customer success programs.
However, there are a couple of other important trends. There has been a shift in customer expectations driven by amazing consumer experiences. We’ve all had great experiences with different brands (Amazon and Mini Cooper come to mind for me) that have made using their products and services seamless. This is what buyers now compare your solution to, not just to your direct competitors. The bar is high. Additionally, the demographics of buyers, especially in B2B, have changed. Baby boomers and Gen Xers are retiring, and the people buying solutions are now largely Millennials. Again, this raises the expectations that customers have for your offering. These are tech natives, so what used to be a cool feature might just be table stakes for these new buyers.
All of this has created the need for programs that focus on both the customer experience and customer value. Customer success programs vary, but these needs have driven the rise of this discipline.
How has Customer Success changed as a result of COVID?
I think that there are a couple of interesting trends that have come out of this very tragic situation:
- Personal connections - Pre-COVID, most Customer Success Managers (CSMs) focused their communication on email, maybe phone calls. After a few months of working alone, at home, Zoom became the de facto communication tool for most people. This really opened things up. Everyone got to see each other’s workspaces, pets and children, and more personal relationships started to develop. I really hope this continues after COVID!
- Working from home - Along with that, a lot of companies realized that their teams can be just as effective working from home as working in an office. Some organizations are eliminating their offices altogether, or reducing their office footprint. This means that companies need to invest in the home office setups of their customer-facing teams. Companies need to consider lighting, sound, wifi bandwidth, and backgrounds, and help their employees who have less-than-professional setups.
- Stronger management practices - junior managers who used to manage by walking around found themselves in a tough spot when COVID took them away from the office. In order to be effective, they had to start following management best practices like conducting weekly one-on-one meetings, holding team members accountable to goals, regularly discussing performance, and delegating tasks effectively. This has created stronger management practices across the field of success, and in business at large.
You previously led CS at JazzHR - what were your first priorities when joining the team?
When I started working for JazzHR, there had never been a customer success or even account management function. Part of this was because the legacy customer base had mostly been brought in at a very low price point, and it didn’t make sense to invest in retention efforts. However, since the company’s start, they had moved up market and at the time I joined, there was a large segment of mid-sized enterprise customers. Churn had also become a problem for the organization, and they needed to get that under control.
I inherited a support team, along with a customer marketing staff member. The customer success team had to be built from scratch. My first priorities in joining the team were:
- Assessing the existing group. The team hadn’t been managed effectively, and there were morale issues in support. There were also a lot of inconsistent processes, and a few team members who weren’t a great fit for the role. I spent the first few months making sure that support was providing customers with a solid, baseline experience.
- Reviewing the customer base. I did a lot of analysis on the customer base in my first few months, trying to uncover what was causing churn, and what could be done to address it. This research eventually became the foundation of our customer health score, but in the early days I was just looking for trends. I also took one of the support team members on a listening tour of the East Coast. From New York to Atlanta in one week, we met with 12 customers to talk about their experiences and needs.
- Hiring CSM #1. I hired our first CSM in month 2. He was someone who had worked for me at a prior company, so I knew I could count on him to take the lead on proactive customer engagement without a lot of direction or coaching. We worked together to define and then refine the customer success program for a few months before hiring the rest of the team.
What prompted you to start The Success League?
When I wrapped up at JazzHR, I started looking for my next VP of Customer Success role. I interviewed with a bunch of startups here in San Francisco and found that all of them were facing similar challenges. They were trying to figure out the basics: reducing churn, developing a scalable program, hiring profiles, and reporting structure. These were all of the things I had already had to figure out in my prior 2 roles, and it would have only taken me a few months to get their programs pulled together. After 4 or 5 of these interviews I thought - wow, this is a business! If I could just come in and help companies build their programs, they wouldn’t need a VP right away, and could save a lot of money. That was the original vision behind The Success League. Of course, I’ve learned a lot about what customers want since those early days, and have expanded our offerings, but we still love working with early stage startups.
What do you usually see companies getting wrong with CS?
One of the biggest things is that people think of customer success as a team instead of a program. Customer Success needs input and support from product, marketing, sales, support, engineering. Of course in many companies, it is also a team of people who take care of customers, but that can’t be all it is. Customer success should be a company-wide program that consistently demonstrates value to customers.
Also, you need to consider your business model. If you have a high-volume, low-price solution, you can’t afford to throw a bunch of people at your customers. You’ll need to build an automated (digital) customer success program. This is a challenge, but important to scalability and success. On the other hand if you have a high cost, enterprise solution, your customers will be expecting some hand-holding. Companies need to make sure that they offer the right kind of customer success to their customers based on their solution, brand promise and price point.
Startups want to ‘move fast and break things,’ which often means CS bridges the gap between the vision of the product and what it can actually do - what is the right balance there?
When you’re in a startup with an MVP solution, there will naturally be gaps. At that stage, it is OK to bridge those gaps with people, and I would recommend that you do. You need to make sure you have someone listening to customers and documenting what the next steps should be in terms of product development. However, as you grow, that high-touch approach won’t work. As you transition from growth to scale, you need to be very clear about where you do and don’t fit into the market, and to have a clear product road map that includes customer-facing and internal tooling.
Where we see the biggest challenges when we start working with later-stage startups is when they haven’t considered the tooling required for customers to help themselves or for the internal teams to help customers. Often, support and CS teams have frankensteined a bunch of 3rd party tools together to try and help customers, none of which talk to the actual product and all of which require a lot of extra effort and context-shifting. At one point, it was probably just a quick fix for one customer, but it turned into the norm. The further a company goes down this road, the harder it is to fix. Product and engineering teams cannot be allowed to only focus on core functionality - they must consider tooling as well.
How do you think that customer success will continue to evolve?
Right now I’m seeing customer success evolve in 2 key areas:
- Digital CS - Customer success has for a long time been a team-focused effort. Organizations are now realizing that won’t scale for all products, and they are considering ways to drive the same value for customers through technology. One-to-many communication methods are being employed more and more, and many companies only offer digital customer success to smaller customers. That said, I don’t see the human touch ever going away. At a minimum, someone still needs to consider the customer experience and design the digital journey. In reality, it is really tough to perfect your product to the point where no people will be needed to support it.
- Focus on Value - The best CS programs have always focused on customer value, but many early CS teams were just support reps with a different title. A lot of customer success has been reactive, and organizations are waking up and realizing that won’t cut it. Customers expect proactive and predictive help, and they expect to see value for the lifetime of their use of your solution. Someone needs to draw the line between the product’s value and the customer’s expected outcomes, and CS teams are starting to realize that as their primary function.
What advice would you give for someone looking to make their first CS hire?
In a startup, you need a CS person who is senior enough to understand how to plan and grow the organization in the early stages, while also being personable enough to roll up their sleeves and actually talk to customers. I would look for someone who has led a CS program in a growth-stage organization, but isn’t so deep into their career that they are too expensive or hands-off. If you can find someone with this mix of experience who is willing to sacrifice some salary for equity, you have a winner. Luckily, right now is a good time to be looking because there are a lot of mid-career leaders on the market.
What resources do you recommend to CS teams looking to up their game?
Favorite Books on Customer Success and related topics
- Customer Success Professional’s Handbook
- Farm, Don’t Hunt
- What Customers Crave
- The Jobs To Be Done Playbook (Chapter 6)
- On Change Management - Harvard Business Review’s 10 Best Series
- Strikedeck Radio - Interviews with CS leaders on various ideas and topics
- Reading for Success - Books and Articles about customer success and leadership
- Helping Sells Radio - Interviews with authors and thought leaders on CS
- The Success League CSM Certification Program - 15 classes for CSMs
- The Success League CS Leadership Certification Program - 12 classes for CS Leaders
- Udemy: Customer Success: Build Cross-functional Relationships
To chat more with Kristen about CS and how The Success League could help, email her here.