Did we really do those things? I know hindsight is 20:20 vision but looking back at how we used to think about and practice customer success seems quaint and somewhat crude compared to how we now operate. I am old enough to remember the days when setting up a CS capability was focused on adding a team of people to work with customers to help them achieve their goals and generate a return on what they spent on our product. I’m embarrassed to say I did it myself and it worked – at a cost!
When I look back, it seems wrong that we didn’t get to the root of the issue sooner – a product that should deliver what customers buy it for out-of-the-box. Just like today, they only wanted, needed, to achieve their goals and deliver a positive ROI. The old people-led approach worked, sometimes, but at a significant cost to both margins and customer satisfaction. Customers thought they were buying a product that delivered what our sales folks had promised – a benefit, a desired outcome, a return on their investment. It seems odd now that the only way we thought that could be done was by constantly phoning and emailing the customer, not really thinking they just wanted to get on with their job. We all too often confused our need to contact the customer with what they really wanted. Just think of all the work we have saved, for the customer and us, by building the success process into the product.
Do you remember those playbooks everybody spent ages developing? How arrogant we were to think that we could guide customers based on sketchy or non-existent research into their challenges and needs. We even described customer journeys with phrases like ‘Land, Adopt, Expand, Renew’ – confusing what we wanted a customer to do with what they needed to do. The basic idea of expert guidance was sound it’s just that we were lazy in how we implemented it. Instead of putting the time and money into building a real 360, single view of the customer and researching in depth the work they do and the challenges they faced, we pushed customers down a path of our design. At least now we drive next best actions in context, using a very rich customer data set and the role of customer research means we know far more about them than we did back in the day. It might not be perfect but our advice is much closer to the customer’s current context. And we do most of it in the product.
Given the number of times it has happened, we again underestimated the impact technology would have, particularly AI. Building meaningful CS processes into the product gave us access to stacks of data on customers’ goals and how effective they have been in changing their processes and organisation. Without this, AI and machine learning, which is so central to what we do struggled to identify the patterns behind real success practices. No longer are we limited to looking just at product usage, although that is a still a very important piece of the jigsaw. The ideal of software that learns how to achieve outcomes and automatically corrects itself, without human intervention is getting closer.
Fewer still saw how technology developments would lead to Google and AWS becoming the dominant players in the customer success software market. We should have seen it coming; it had happened many times before. For example, the first AI applications were built from scratch by developers as part of a specific application before becoming libraries that anyone could use and then services embedded in hosting infrastructure. Customer success as an infrastructure service that you plug-in and configure is still in its infancy but I only see it growing.
It is strange that at the time that Google were introducing Edge TPU, AI on a chip, we were still thinking that the success process could only be delivered by people. Of course people still matter and play a vital role but the success coaches we now employ are a far cry from the product-centric CSM’s of old. We have developed the role into a high level, high-skill change coaches whose focus is often around the psychology of change. Whilst we have fewer of them, CS coaches are highly paid and highly valued by their employees and, more importantly, by customers.
What next? I’m the wrong person to ask: I’m a historian not a futurist but try this if you want to know what I think about product-led customer success