Customer Success

Customer Success vs Professional Services - And How to Structure the Two Teams

Software as a Service has dramatically changed the B2B landscape over the past few years.  With software moving into the cloud, deployment can also be done remotely with customers without on-site consultant.  Service directors, who used to be account managers in a traditional software company, are now doing the same job as Customer Success Managers in a SaaS world - upselling and renewals.  While the shift is significant, the basic business model remains largely the same - we're only successful if our customers are successful.In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between the two roles, and how to setup your customer-facing organization for success.

What's the Difference?

Two words: Implementation and Integration.  While Customer Success teams are great resources for customers to work through minor issues, larger enterprise customers typically expect the software to be customized and integrated to their existing systems and workflows.   This means having a team of experienced consultants is required in order to implement a solution tailored for each business.An article by Mark Suster nicely describes the benefits of professional services teams.  What the article boils down to is that in order to make a customer successful and decrease churn, professional services need to be involved to successfully roll-out the software and integrate with existing systems within the customer's organization.  Not only are you building a moat to prevent your competitors from penetrating the account, you're making money doing it.

Organizational Structure

The complexity of your product will help define the organizational structure of your services and customer success teams.  According to David Skok's article on Building Customer Success Organization, there are five models: Firefighter CSM, Sales-oriented CSM, Service-oriented CSM, Integrated CSM, and Partnership CSM.customer_successThe more complex your product, the more service-oriented Customer Success team needs to be.  In my experience, Services and Customer Success have always been intertwined because of the lengthy time it takes to make a sale and deploy the products.  Onboarding and training the users are activities that are also part of the role of this "Implementation team" within a Customer Success or Services organization.Ultimately, there is no customer success without quality service. The goal of any software organization is to reduce the product friction, increase product adoption, and reduce churn, and none of them can be achieved without some kind of successful roll-out or implementation plan.  Your team needs to focus on achieving these goals at scale for every customer without becoming a cost center, and you should organize your team structure based on whether how Professional Services and Customer Success teams can be aligned to the same goals.

Good Consultants Are Also Good CSMs

During my tenure as a consultant and then head of CS, I noticed that good consultants are generally good at doing Customer Success Manager's job, but not vice versa.  The main reason is because a consultant from the Professional Services organization typically posses deeper technical skills that is very specific to certain parts of the software.  In addition, the hiring criteria for a consultant is usually a bit more technical than for a CSM.When I was head of CS at Comprehend Systems, my first few hires were technical implementation consultants because of the complex requirements during our software integrations with customer's data.  They can make sure the customer is taken care of, and also deep dive into troubleshooting customer issues.  However, as we grew as an organization, it became much harder to hire someone who's good technically, and at the same time spend hours on project management work that is not as interesting or good use of their time.  This was when we started breaking out roles for Implementation and Customer Success, where Implementation team are in charge of deployment and onboarding, while Customer Success is all about making customers happy throughout the lifecycle of the customers.  Both roles are incredibly important to customer's success, but the skillset and job description are very different.In conclusion, I encourage everyone to evaluate how complex your product is to deploy and how long it takes for customers to find value.  If it takes more than a month just to get the customers up and running, Professional Services team is required to offset the cost of customizing the software for each customer.  For low-touch customers, a Customer Success team is generally enough to make sure your customers are taken care of without investing insurmountable cost in each customer. 

Increasing Productivity of Your Customer Facing Teams

I came across an HBR article from 1988 about how to measure productivity of manufacturing plants, and the formula was exactly as expected:Productivity = Units of Output / Units of InputThe simple formula above can directly be translated into revenue, and it's easy to measure (and test) productivity of one plan against another.  Fast forward 30 years, the formula still applies (we track LTV as one of the  metrics for Customer Success, for example), except we need to account for a lot more "unmeasurable" factors, such as communication overhead, team morale, and customer feedback.  For customer-facing teams, it is even harder to measure exact productivity of each individual or teams.  After all, we invest money and time into our sales teams and customer service teams, we want to make sure the teams are as productive as possible.In this article, we're going to cover a few ways to increase productivity of customer-facing teams.

Effective Communication Skills

While there are many tools that help reduce communication overhead, such as Slack and ContextSmith, people generally neglect the skill set required to effectively communicate.  Think about the last time you had talk to your internet provider's customer support agent. Chances are, it was a frustrating experience because the agent was either confused or tried to upsell you another product, when the very reason you called was to cancel the service.Running effective meetings is a crucial communication skill to acquire as a customer manager.  Be able to set clear agendas and keep the team on track is something that even seasoned managers don't do well. Another way to improve communication is through training.  For example, learn how to eliminate back and forths by writing clear, concise and complete emails.  Learning from experienced sales or account management executives is also a great way to get some quick lessons about how to communicate effectively.

Get Context Around the Customer

What folds in nicely with "effective communication skills" is that having the right context can help the team better support the customers and have more productive conversations around customers' needs.  Taking your internet provider example again, the agent can help you more if s/he has information about your subscription plan, tickets, and past conversation with agents.  In a B2B setting, all of these apply as well, as your Sales team can upsell better when they know how the onboarding went, number of high-priority tickets, and last conversations with the customers.  This is where ContextSmith (and other Customer Success software) shine, because the tool aggregates all customer data, including your email communications with customers, into one place, automatically organized by your customers.

Good Record Keeping

Having your teams track their time and activities is a simple way to see who is optimizing their working hours and who is just putting in time. In professional services, this is standard practice to bill customers on the work done.  In sales, tracking the number of outreach, emails, and calls can determine how busy a rep is.   The best part about tracking these metrics is that you're able to compare historical vs now, and continuously improve your process to maximize productivity.

Use the Right Tools

Get more done with less.  Operational excellence.  To maximize output, employees need good tools.  They need the right software, the right programs, at the right time and size of the company. However, knowing what tools are necessary and which are just causing distractions can be challenging. My previous Customer Success team used Asana for task management, Evernote for note-taking, SmartSheets for project management, Box for document management, Google Docs for collaboration, Clarizen for timesheets, Zendesk for support tickets, Slack for communication, WebEx for conference calls, Salesforce to interact with sales team, and Target Process to interface internal engineering team.  11+ tools just to manage day-to-day work!  Those tool worked for us at early stages, but as the team started growing, people started using less tools and are more focused on a vertical, rather than one-person-does-everything model.

Positive Work Culture

I presented to the board once about a customer going live after 6 months of deployment and onboarding.  The board asked a great question: "What did you do to celebrate?"  If your answer is "nothing", you need to change it.It's extremely important to have good morale among your customer-facing teams. After all, how can they sell or make customers successful if they're not excited about their own product? A lot of things can effect company morale - bad leadership, layoffs, changes within the working routine, etc. Customer service reps can burn out quickly by working with toxic customers. Imagine dealing with customer complaints all day, oftentimes from people who are rude or even belligerent. This can really cause some havoc on the morale for the team.  HBR wrote a great article about how to create a positive work culture.These are some "unmeasurable" ways to increase productivity of your Customer Success, Professional Services and Sales teams.  Remember these teams are the fire-fighters and the face of the company, so it is increasingly important to make the best out of their time and move the company forward.  Let us know if you have other comments or ideas! 

How to Make Customers Your Priority Without Stalling Growth (Part 1)

As fifth employee and head of Customer Success in my previous startup, I learned a few tips about growing a company and making customers happy, while keeping everyone's sanity.  The story I'm sharing isn't about all the perfect things we did to grow the startup from seed stage to 60+ employee Series B (it was far from perfect); this article focuses on lessons learned from what brought our team to its knees, and how we adjusted our strategy to scale our growth.  I will share my experience in a two-part series on how to bend over backwards for customers without breaking your back.


Never work for free

While this seems like a no-brainer to grow business revenue, we were actually giving out free pilots left and right during our early days.  As a small startup focusing on growth, we thought about ways to get more customers using our product.  While giving out the software for free was great to get product feedback, it was terrible to get customers.  Hence, pricing had been something we always talked about even during later stages of the company: Should the pilots be free?  Are we charging too much? Can we raise our price during renewal?"Free pilot" seemed like a great idea to lower the barrier for our prospects to try our product risk-free; however, there were strings attached.  The obvious disadvantage of free is the fact that we were actually working for free - burning the hard-raised money from our investors.  We justified it as an investment and put in a ton of time to make the free pilots successful, in hopes they would convert to real customers.  Who doesn't love free product?  Assuming the chances of customers buying after the pilot is the same despite free or paid, we were willing make them free in order to lower their barrier of entry to try our product.  The result? Total disaster.Looking back and summing up all the free pilots we did, none of them converted.  On the contrary, our most successful pilots were all paid ones, and the chances of conversion was much higher as well.  The main reason why "free" was terrible for both us and the customer was that we blindly assumed all customers love free products.  "Free" basically meant that customers were actually not committed to spend the time and resources to make the pilot successful.  "Free" also meant that they didn't perceive our product as something valuable.  In fact, it almost felt like they were forced into trying our product, because it was "free anyway".  And for us, spending a lot of endless nights at work without much appreciation was a counter-productive effort.

It's okay to ask dumb questions

Building a relationship with customers require open and frequent communication.  What may seem like "dumb" questions could potentially be eye-opening.  Below are some examples:

  • What do you want to get out of our product?
  • Can you clarify how you're currently doing [something painful that you're trying to solve]
  • Who is the solution for?

These questions may seem "dumb" at first because you know exactly the answers to them, which is why your customers bought your solution in the first place.  But no, do not assuming anything until you get clear answers from them.One mistake we made early on during our customer onboarding process was that we did everything for the customers without asking for clarifications or feedback; not that we assumed we knew what the customers wanted, but our thought was that taking up customer's time meant our product wasn't as easy to setup as we pitched it.   I remember there were a few occasions which the audience were executives from a specific department.  Even though we had a good idea what they'd like to see, the demo actually turned into a completely different conversation about an use case we had never thought of.  Lesson learned here was that it was okay to ask for clarification and frequent feedback.  Remember that customers want to be successful with their investment, and it goes without saying that delivering a targeted solution is much better than presenting something that the customers don't care about.This customer journey also has the IKEA effect, which states that "consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created."  From my experience, all of the customers who invested time and resources helping us help them had been successful.  The fact that the customers were willing to spend time and money on the pilot meant that they were serious about building a relationship together.Do these lined up with your experiences?  I'd love to hear other stories, and share more about my experience growing the Customer Success team in the previous startup.  Stay tuned for part 2!

Why Customer Collaboration and Technology are a Winning Combo

Every successful project requires a cohesive team effort; however, getting people to work as members of a team is often more difficult than it sounds. Customer-facing teams such as Customer Success and Sales face an even more arduous challenge of collaborating with customers and vendors outside their organization, resulting in miscommunication and huge loss in productivity. Fortunately, advances in technology now make it easier than ever for organizations to build teamwork and bridge inter-organization communications, encouraging people to strive toward a common goal. Here are some ways that modern technology is enhancing team collaboration in businesses both large and small.

Inter-Organization Communications

Communication that happens outside of your organization, unfortunately, is still mainly through emails.  The problems with email is that communications tend to be in silos and its inability to share information easily without spamming the audience.  Some smarter CRMs, such as SalesforceIQ, integrates directly with Gmail and shares them across the Sales teams, alleviating the pain of tracking communications with the customers and sharing them within the organization.  Some Professional Services Automation and Customer Success tools are also integrating directly with cloud email providers.  Accelo has out-of-the-box email integration as a PSA platform, and ContextSmith automatically tracks every email leaving and coming in from an outside organization.  As email systems migrates to the cloud, we'll start seeing enterprise software bridging the gap of inter-organizational communications.

Bridging Location Barriers

Getting everyone together to collaborate on a project can be challenging whenever team members are scattered. Thanks to advances in technology, individuals no longer have to meet face to face with customers in order to work together. Video and web conferencing software, such as Google Hangouts make it possible for employees to “meet” regardless of location. Internally, we're using Uber Conference, which is friendlier for customers because it doesn't require any downloads or a Gmail account.  The added bonus using a web conferencing software is whenever one person is unexpectedly called away from the office, as he or she can get together remotely with the rest of the group so that progress isn’t stifled. Groups are even free to meet with experts who might be across the country or across the globe in an effort to gather additional information.

File and Document Sharing

Some projects require individuals to perform certain tasks before getting together with the group. It can be difficult for everyone to do his or her part if there is only one set of documents for members to share. Cloud-based computing takes away this obstacle by allowing everyone in the group to access documents and make changes. File sharing software, such as Box, allows individuals (inside and outside your organization) to upload and share documents document and files.  The best part about Box is that it tracks every single versions, so if someone accidentally overwrites important documents, those can be recovered.  Google Docs is also one of our favorites that we use internally everyday, as it allows teams to edit the same document at the same time.

Enhanced Communications Through Shared Inbox

Good teamwork requires excellent communication between all the members, something that can be especially challenging when each person has a very busy schedule to juggle. Unfortunately, communicating with B2B customers still requires emails.  I've personally worked with customers using various different way to centralize all communications, such as Microsoft Sharepoint and SAP JAM, but those require customers to sign up into a new software, which can be challenging if you're working with a large organization.Fortunately, some technology makes it possible to communicate with external customers easily through "shared inbox" concept.  FrontApp is one of the newest kid on the block that uses everyone's inbox to build a shared communications platform to help customer support teams.  Zendesk Inbox is also a new product that embraces shared inbox, and is suitable for small businesses that doesn't require a full-blown heavyweight Zendesk platform.  All of these software claim to make teams more productive, but perhaps the biggest selling point is to be able to scale your customer-facing teams without important information falling through the cracks. 

Efficiency and Time Savings

One of the biggest advantages of technology is the fact that it saves time and allows people to work more efficiently. Documents can be edited and uploaded in a fraction of the time it used to take, and research efforts can also be streamlined. Every piece of software that you use everyday automates a small part of an otherwise mundane or error-prone task.  Not only do teams gain productivity through efficiency and time savings, I'd even go as far to argue that these tools actually also helps build team morale and team culture, something that is highly valued but unmeasurable.These are just a few of the ways that modern technology enhances teamwork, within and outside of your organization. Generally speaking, the more skilled people are at utilizing technology, the more cohesive they become and the better able they are to overcome obstacles in order to meet their collective goals.

Why Your Sales and Services Teams Need a System of Record

In a world where every information can be tracked as “Big Data”, we are becoming increasingly thirsty for data to make informed decisions to grow our businesses.  However, there are times that you feel like you are drowning in the sheer amount of information, especially information that is hard to keep track, such as customer communications via emails and phone. Mining these streams of conversations, however, allows you keep track of not only status of your customers, but also helps your team deliver the right service at the right time. Having clear and easily accessible records that both your sales and services teams helps you deepens your customer relationship, therefore, building a loyal customer base.665757_origIn many instances, services teams suffer because they have no background information about a customer. They don’t have quick access to customers’ information and history, therefore, services team are usually working with limited information that can deliver slow or inaccurate solution to the customers. This problem exacerbates when the sales team, who may try to do a follow up sale, discovers that the customer isn't satisfied with the quality of customer service they have received. Keeping records for both sales and services teams eliminates the confusion and discontent, making your sales and services teams work together more effectively, improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Why Your Sales and Services Teams Need Access to Each Other's Records

While your sales team is responsible for selling the product and your services or Customer Success team is responsible for keeping the customer happy, it's crucial that the two have access to each other's notes and history with the customers. To give a real world example, let's say you’re selling security software and your sales team just won a huge opportunity. The customer has pointed out to the sales team that IT team is hard to work with, so contact the security team instead if deployment becomes an issue. While this information can easily be forwarded to the consultant or CSM, the information actually gets lost when multiple members start joining on the project, or the project gets transitioned to another manager.  This type of miscommunication during sales hand-off happens over an over again in organizations.  Keeping a system of record can avoid this miscommunication, and empowers everyone in the organization to get context about the history of the customer.

Syncing Emails and Notes

With global customers and working across multiple time zones, communication becomes more and more difficult, especially keeping customers and your cross-functional teams on the same page.  Having access to relevant emails and notes between sales and services team eliminates significant communication overhead and productivity when it comes to giving your customers the best experience.Going back to our security software example – instead of a sales hand off, there’s now an opportunity to upsell the customer due to its recent acquisition.  The Account Executive goes back to the customer to try and upsell more licenses, only to find out that the acquisition was a hostile take-over, and the acquisition actually hurts the opportunity of the current business due to politics.  This is not the right time to upsell – in fact, it’s the best time to give customers more love by offering free services in order to maintain the relationship.  This information could have easily been shared with the sales team only if they had access to the email conversations that services teams, who were in the field with the customers everyday, were having with the customers. Furthermore, if there is a system that monitors the emails and pushes an alert to the sales team, such as ContextSmith, that will be the most ideal solution without going through all the noise within the conversations.Having these records that are organized in a relevant manner keeps your sales and services teams working together seamlessly. With records that are available to both teams, the communication overhead can be mostly eliminated. Everyone has the same information from the systems of record, therefore, they are able to make more informed decision in a unified way.

4 Tips to Get the Most Out of Customer Onboarding

Whether you’re new to Customer Success or a veteran CSM, one of the biggest challenge has always been able to onboard your customers effectively. The first few interactions with your customers are usually the building block of a long-term relationship, and it is important to have a success plan in place to get the customers up and running.In this article, we will highlight four important tips to ensure the continuous success and a healthy relationship between you and your customers.Image source: 

First (Positive) Impression Matters

Your customers are inclined to judge the book by its cover during your first call or kick-off meeting. Hence, rest of the project is oftentimes determined by the first one minute of your conversation.A positive attitude at the beginning would get you to make the best possible impression. Going into a deal with a positive attitude and passion to help will enable your customers to communicate more and build a special trust with you. Remember, your customers have 98 other things that they have to work on instead of listening to you talk.  Trust is one of the key aspects of customer success, as you’ll likely make them your champions and they'll influence others in their decisions during upsell opportunities.

Set Success Criteria

Always propose a timeline and a list of success criteria for each client about when and how you would deliver value. Consider onboarding a service walk-through, which is a great way to get on the same page with your customers’ expectations and how they align with your solution. Mismanaging this expectation will definitely cause problems down the line.Setting success criteria doesn’t have to be agreeing to everything the customers ask for.  This is one of the best times to push back to customers or reset expectations (e.g. clarify miscommunications) promised by the Sales team.  Also keep in mind that your customers have already committed to work with you and your product, so they want you to succeed too to prove that their investment is worthwhile.

Strategize with Cross-Functional Teams

Managing customers is an art. While you can try your best to set proper expectations and work to satisfy requirements, things usually don’t come together as planned. Strategizing with Sales and Product teams is a great way get more perspectives and avoid potential pitfalls. Gather all your team members, perform SWOT analysis and strategize how you can make the best use of creative synergy to win the hearts of your customers.Strategizing with your team, on the other hand, also provides the handbook your team needs to be able to successfully deliver value and retain customers. You're essentially empowering other teams to help you make your customers successful. Furthermore, as a team leader during customer onboarding, involving the cross-functional teams throughout the process will improve internal collaboration and a path to make other customers successful.

Keep At It

Your positive attitude and dedication to make your customers successful should be maintained throughout the process of delivering value. Customer’s success doesn’t mean you have to burn out.  In addition, keep in mind that onboarding is just first step in your customer’s journey.  It is important to plan a manageable timeline for delivery, setup weekly calls, and write status updates.  Communication is the most important job in any customer-facing role, and success of your customers depends on how well-informed they are in terms of your decisions to take them towards certain path.The ultimate success of your customer is all within you control. The key is successful onboarding is effective communication while you set the expectations and success criteria with your customers.   Stay focused on your next success milestone to ensure that your customers derive the most out of the solutions that your company provides.

Capturing Customer's Journey, from Prospects to Loyal Followers

Your customers are the building blocks of your company. You're tracking their activities on your website, their engagement with your email campaigns, and also issues that they submit through your support portal.  Customers in different stages will prefer different ways to engage (as diagram above illustrates), and all of these information need to be captured somewhere.  In B2B settings, Customer Success teams will even occasionally check in with customers via phone or face-to-face meetings.  As customers become more sophisticated, interactions become more complex with numerous touchpoints from various channels. CRMs created in the 90s and early 2000s are insufficient to track all customer activities that's happening right now.

Customer Success Software

A new wave of CRMs, or as the new industry calls it, "Customer Success Platforms", have emerged over the past few years and building their presence on top of the dated CRMs.  The leader of the pack is Gainsight, which aggregates everything from user engagement data (such as Google Analytics) and support issues, (think Zendesk) to customer surveys, and determines the health of your customer based on signals from aggregated data.  Similarly, Intercom is making a dent in multi-channel communications, where customers can reach out via chat and SMS.  These are all great tools to track your customers, but there is one important missing piece of the puzzle that completes the picture of your customer's journey - emails.Business emails have been growing at a 13% rate year-over-year since 2012.  It is the most ubiquitous form of communication, and there is no signs of slowing.  Emails are already being captures for Customer Support tools like Zendesk.  But, imagine capturing email activities from the beginning of the journey (while prospecting), in addition to multi-channel interactions with customers - now you have a complete picture of your customer's journey, from prospects to loyal followers.

How are emails being captured today?

CRMs and Customer Success Software I mentioned above all capture emails, some by bcc'ing a system email address, and others sit directly inside your inbox as a plug-in.  These are great solutions, but it is impossible to search through them.Another way I've seen people hack this is using an email alias or group, and every email that needs to be tracked will be bcc'ed with the alias.  If you're using Gmail, this actually creates searchable archives.  But an additional action of bcc'ing is oftentimes tedious, and you lose the inbound communication if your customers take out those aliases.

Okay, now what?

For those of you who thinks that there has to be a better solution out there, now there is!  ContextSmith recently launched their product that intelligently aggregates all customer emails and turn them into customer insights.  Yes, yes, it is our product, but I feel the urge to mention it because it's free to try, and only takes 10 seconds to sign up.  In addition, we're constantly improving our product, so your features requests or feedback will help define our product roadmap.  You can now click on "Get Started for FREE" button on the top right.