Simplifying customer success

Why CS should scrap on-boarding programs, QBR’s and customer journeys

Why does CS exist?

At its heart, customer success is simple: understand and repeatedly deliver the goal for which the customer bought your product and, as a result, deliver a positive return on the investment for both the customer and the supplier.  

Simple to understand but difficult to deliver.  It’s a challenge because doing it well requires a rich and deep knowledge of the customer’s goals, tasks and challenges. Suppliers then need to know the practices most likely to address their tasks and challenges in order to guide them to their goal.  Finally, the supplier has to work out how to deliver that guidance to different players in the customer at the time and in a format to suit each individual.  And do all of that profitably for all target customers.  

This is what success plans should deliver.  It’s worrying therefore how few CS organisations make this their focus.  When an active CS community was asked about their success plans, members reported that very few of their companies had them.  Of those that had, many were overly simplistic; focused on adoption and lacking meaningful measures of customer outcomes.  

Look at what most CS operations do.  We build on-boarding and adoption programs.  We design interventions based on a shallow understanding of customers, which we use to guide customers through a linear journey.  We plan quarterly business reviews (QBR’s) to discuss key issues with customers, whether customers want them or not.  We build health scores that track multiple data sources, although these rarely include the achievement of customer goals.  Many of these things are an improvement on what went before and should be commended.  But I think customers deserve better: they need better if we are to retain their trust and their business and that requires a laser-like focus on delivering their goals.  It requires a reliable and repeatable success planning process for every customer.  

Success planning 

In the desire to do right by the customer, I think we have complicated things and lost the essence of customer success.  We do things we think are right for customers but that make little or no contribution to their success.  We need to focus customer success around one process, the customer success process.  Everything should be subservient to implementing personalised customer success plans for every customer.  

This does not mean scrapping everything we currently do but we need to question what the work we do and align whatever remains to delivering a personalised success plan.  

Five-step success plan

I believe any customer success plan follows five stages:

Success Process

Discovery is a continuation of what we have learned during sales about the company’s organisation, processes and challenges as they relate to our product.  A key focus is how different players will measure success.  The discovery elements of on-boarding are included here. 

Benchmark and goals is about setting the customer’s goal and understanding the delta between that and their current performance.  There are often multiple goals to match the different roles in the customer.  We should advise customers on what is a reasonable initial goal based on our understanding of best practices.   

A Success plan is an agreed, personalised project plan that sets out what both supplier and customer do to achieve their goal.  It is specific and includes the responsibilities of different players.  On-boarding forms part of the early stages of a success plan.  

Collaboration is the process of guiding the customer through their success plan.  It requires an understanding of the context of the different players to drive specific guidance to suit.  Guidance is delivered though practical resources and advice based on a deep understanding of the best practices.  Wherever possible, this guidance is delivered in the product and is role and context specific.  

The success dashboard reports on two elements:  progress of the success plan and performance of the measures agreed.  The dashboard seen by a user is role specific.   

Once the first cycle is complete, the process starts again as we seek to guide the customer to ever greater levels of value.  At some point, the returns my be asymptotic but that should not stop us trying.  

CS’ red thread

Establishing a success plan process, following the five stages set out above, either removes the need for or at least provides a meaningful context for everything we do to guide customers to their goal. 

The success process replaces or subsumes anything associated with delivering value to customers.  

Customer journeys: The customer journeys and the associated playbooks I have seen tend to be linear interpretations of what a supplier thinks the customer needs to do.  I have long argued against these proposing data driven next best actions instead.  The success plan is the journey steps out the changes the customer needs to make to achieve their goal, so why have anything else?  

On-boarding: Starting new customers on the right footing early in the relationship is vital.  I am not suggesting scrapping the steps needed to do this.  I do however think the effort and concern put into the early stages needs to be reflected across the whole success delivery process. Getting off to a good start is important but so is getting to the finishing line.  I think we need to define on-boarding as a success plan milestone and measure it in terms of what the customer has achieved in delivering their responsibilities in it.

QBR’s: I am not a fan: Too many tell customers what they already know and are more about feeding our need for reassurance rather than a valuable event for customers’ decision makers.  A good success plan includes this important role and provides much of the information needed through role specific dashboards.  The planning process also drives interventions based on progress towards it in a timely way and not restricted to some arbitrary event.  Any reviews that are needed should be part of the flow of the plan process, typically the result of significant events or key milestones.  

Success plans also provide the focus for enabling processes, namely:

Health scores: Health scores have to include the factor that has the greatest impact on customer loyalty: the value customers get from using your product.  That value is why they bought and probably what sales sold them.  Health scores should include two elements of success: the actual results they are getting in their chosen outcome and progress towards completing the success plan.  Other data are important, particularly in understanding the causal relationships between activity and outcome but they are proxies of success not the real thing.  The success planning process provides both these elements.  

CS metrics: Very few CS dashboards include customer success.  The vast majority I have seen contain only measures of how well the company is doing: NRR, portfolio sizes, logo churn and the like.  These are critical and you should certainly continue to measure them but they are lagging indicators.  I advocate a two column CS leadership dashboard.  The first column reports on customer success with measures such as % customers achieving value, average $ value generated, time to value.  The second is what most companies already have, the financial and productivity measures generated by delivering successful customers.  

Product development: Anyone who has followed my work knows that I think the success process should be built into the product.  Having a primary process clarifies the work to be done by customers and thereby how the product can be used to guide them.  Data that describes an intervention to help the customer complete their key tasks and challenges can be identified with practical resources to assist. 

Staff development: The argument above equally applies when people are the source of support for the customer.  Each element of the success plan is translated into the tasks to be done by CSM’s and the competencies needed to deliver them.  

Voice of the Customer: Success plans provide a great framework for structuring elements of voice of the customer.  Key milestones in the success plan are candidates for event-based feedback/reviews.  This will help track customer sentiment in phases before measurable value has been delivered and identify strengths and weaknesses of the success plan.    

Placing the primary focus on the success plan process, the vehicle through which value to customers is delivered, creates clarity of the end-to-end process and the other essential enabling activities.  

Real benefits  

There are real benefits in building the CS operation around the success plan process:

  • It reinforces CS’ core purpose – to create successful, loyal customers that deliver profitable growth.
  • It focus the CS operation: if an activity doesn’t contribute to making customers successful, why have it?
  • It aligns measures with purpose.
  • It makes it easy for our people and customers to understand their role in delivering success. 

Complexity is an enemy to efficiency. Aligning around the success process removes duplication and provides greater clarity of role responsibilities. It increases the focus on what really matters to customers.  What is there not to commend about that?

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