How good is your Success Plan?

Success plans set out how a company guides the customer to the value/ROI they purchased your software for.  They are therefore at the core of customer success: the means by which SaaS Customer Success deliver on their purpose. 

Having built and reviewed success plans for a range of companies, I have developed a maturity model to help B2B SaaS companies assess their success plans and develop actions to improve them.  The model was originally developed as part of a project for the Customer Success Network – a European online group for CS really worth joining.  

Feel free to download the Success Plan Maturity Model.

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?

Download a PDF of this article.

Single customer view

This has been an interesting week for those, like me, who believe in the importance of a single, rich view of the customer as the foundation for delivering great customer experiences.  Interventions that match the goals and specific, current context of the customer are not possible without this foundation.

First, Adobe, Microsoft and SAP announced their Open Data Initiative designed to make it easier for products from the three companies to share data.  Hot on the heels of that  was Salesforce announcement of Customer360, an initiative built on its acquisition of Mulesoft, to bring together in real-time data from multiple systems.

I applaud these initiatives but a single customer view, however important, is of little value to customers without mutuality.  In this context mutuality means using every piece of data for the benefit of the customer as well as the company.  All too often, customer data is used just for the company’s benefit.  As has been said many times, we, the customer, are often the product.  Our data is used for one purpose; to sell more to us with little thought to our goals and needs.  The backlash has started, witness the growth of data protection rules.  These are only necessary to control companies that exploit not value customers.  As tools to help us control access to and use of our data grow we will take more control of our data.

When I first discussed this idea in 2008, I talked about the ability to decide who can access personal and transactional data.  Back then, I called it CMR – Customer Managed Relationships.  We will gain the ability to share it only with companies who can show how they use it of our benefit and that has to go beyond simple personalisation.  I want a real benefit, often financial from what is increasingly one of my most valuable assets: I want to deal only with companies that share my values.  Meet my criteria and I will tell you everything, including what I have done and purchased with/from other companies.  Don’t and I will lock you out of everything.

In his opening address at Dreamforce18 Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff, said technology is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s what you do with it that matters.  For those of us who truly believe in customer focus and the benefits it brings, that starts with mutuality.  Its a pity this did not feature more in the announcements.

Avoiding death by stovepipe

It’s often not long into the life of a SaaS business when marketing, sales and customer success spend time blaming each other for missed revenue and retention goals:  time that would be much better spent attracting, winning, retaining and growing customers.

It is a problem I faced as CEO of Clicktools, a SaaS company I founded in 2000.  The problem was one of my own making – I had failed to knock heads together and get the whole company  working together to maximise lifetime customer value and net revenue retention.  The solution involved getting marketing, sales and customer success to agree three things:

  • Targeting the issues, organisations, roles and trigger events that will enable the organisation to address the most valuable customers at the most appropriate time – captured in an Ideal Customer Profile
  • An end-to-end buyer/customer engagement journey that starts long before the sales cycle, extends throughout the life of the customer, advances the customers buying decision and delivers customers’ goals
  • Metrics and performance related pay that focuses on key outcomes over narrow activities.

This comprehensive paper describes each of the three elements in greater detail, provides an approach to implementation and the improvements we gained at Clicktools.


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

Product-led CS ebook

Anyone who follows my work will know how passionate I am about CS and particularly in placing the product front and centre of delivering customer success.  After getting some great feedback on the idea and many requests for more information, I have produced an e-book covering the main points.  Download your free copy.

I am particularly excited by the work of some companies (unfortunately yet to be disclosed) who are working on building products that deliver CS ‘out of the box’.  I am confident that they are the vanguard of many more to come.

I would love to hear your thoughts; just add  your comments below.

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CSM’s as project managers

Effective CSM’s take an active role in managing their customers’ projects.  In this guest article, Dave Duke of High Alpha explores the many projects CSM’s manage.  Do you build these skills in your CSM’s; if so, how?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

PS Managing customer projects involves managing customers’ challenges and egos.  Perhaps the topic for another article!




Building your consulting business

On three separate occasions, I have left paid employment and set up my own consulting business. As a result, I have been asked on many occasions how do you go about that task. Here’s what has worked for me. Many of the things discussed can be covered in much more detail but the purpose of this paper is to get you started.

1. Figure out your elevator pitch

The real key is to figure out what benefit you deliver for whom by doing what. I have shamelessly stolen and adapted the five question approach to identifying your life purpose by Adam Leipzeg in his excellent TED talk.

Q1: Who are you?
Q2: What do you love to do?
Q3: Who do you it for?
Q4: What do they want or need?
Q5: How do they change as a result of what you give them?

If you answer these five questions in the context of your emerging business you have a great elevator pitch: just add a bit of flesh to each question.

Who are you?

Marketers would call this branding but keeping it simple, it’s just a short description of you and your experience. Don’t overly concern yourself with company names and logos – that can change. Do however secure your domain name if you want to build a website (see shop window below). Hone your personal profile so that it truthfully tells a great, short story about what you have achieved. If you haven’t got anything on that list you should think about another way to earn your money.

What you love to do?

Life’s too short to do things that suck – so don’t. Figure out what you really enjoy doing and look to build your business around that. This is also good business sense as there is often a relationship between what you like doing and what you are good at.

Who do you do it for?

List out the characteristics of your target customers. What sort of individuals or companies are they? What roles can you help most? Don’t just look at the basic stuff like age, industry sector and job title but think long and hard about the behaviours and attitudes of the people you want to spend time with. It’s also useful to think about the sort of people you don’t want to work with? Just as life is too short to do something that sucks; it is too short to waste your time with jerks. You don’t have tell them they’re jerks – just tell them you’re busy or they don’t fit your target customer profile.

What do they need or want?

This is the basis of the list of services you are going to offer. You need research the group you have identified in question three to find the questions they ask, the challenges they face and the aspirations they seek. Don’t skip this step: only by really understanding life from their perspective can you figure out how you can help.


How do they change as a result of what you give them?

The final and most important question. If you are going to be a successful consultant, success is measured in terms of what your customer does better as a result of you working with them. If you can’t articulate this succinctly in a way that resonates with your target customer, think again.

2. Create your product catalogue

You have already sketched out the basics of this in question four of the elevator pitch. Now you can add a bit more colour: think challenge, deliverables and benefits. You do not need massive detail here but without this, you risk getting stuck in the client:consultant chasm. Client says “What do you do?” and the consultant replies “Well it depends on what your problems are?”

Setting out a short description of what you offer, or better still, examples of projects you have done tell the customer how you can help. You can use projects you have done as part of a previous job as a starting point. The list, which should be less than five items, frames your potential contribution. You may not deliver exactly what is on your product list but it is a great way to kick start a conversation about what a project might look like.

3. Set your price

This is one of the most challenging aspects of becoming an independent consultant and there is no simple answer.

There are three basic models for pricing. Time based is just as it says; payment by the hour day or week. The simple rule here is to discount only where you have a fixed, long term commitment. Project based pricing is useful where you are confident about the work to be done to complete specific tasks. Clients like this as it gives them a fixed price but it places the risk on you. If you use this approach be sure to add in contingency; remember if something can go wrong, it probably will. Results based pricing is where you are paid for pre-agreed results. This is the most challenging and probably one to stay away from until you have a number of assignments under your belt as there are many factors to consider and issues that can make it problematic.

What to charge is dependant on a number of factors, notably:

• The going rate for the sort of service you offer. You need to ask around and find out what that is. Talk to people you know who may have bought such services.

• Your experience and reputation in your chosen field.• The value of the work to your client.

The biggest mistake most people make is to underestimate their value. I have done this in the past. If you have done your research and sold yourself well, be confident in your price. Remember, what you charge says a lot about the value of what you do. If you don’t value it, your customer is unlikely to.

4. Build your shop window

You need to let people you are open for business. There are two approaches.

The first is to create a website. You can use an off-the-shelf provider that doesn’t need any technical skills to get you started. There are two basic types. The first is a simple blog site: all it contains is blog posts and your contact details. The second is a more traditional website that has multiple sections, including a blog. These sections typically contain your elevator pitch, product/ project pages, blog and a contact page. Whichever approach you use, be sure to include the option to allow people to subscribe to your blog. That way all your new content will automatically sent to them.

The second is to use a platform like LinkedIn for B2B or Facebook for B2C. You can create a company page and publish your content, advertise your services to targeted groups, build learning programs and of course, stay in touch with what’s happening with your target market. There are probably groups that you can join to help you understand and reach like minded people. If not, create one. Analytics are provided to help you understand what content is working best. With no technical skills required, it is the easiest way to set up an online presence.

5. Get your content plan together

Whatever you use for your shop window, you need something to put in it. Ideas and opinions are the best way to reach your target audience and blogs or the video equivalent, vlogs are the vehicle.

A successful content plan is:

  • Relevant to your audience. Sounds obvious but putting yourself in your target customer’s mind is important.
  • Opinionated. Don’t be afraid of going against accepted wisdom. Don’t make wild claims but if you disagree with something and can make a reasoned argument, go for it. Don’t be obnoxious but certainly don’t be bland!
  • Sustained over time. Build a list of 20 topics and commit to deliver at least one piece per week. Use viewing figures and any comments to help shape your next batch of content. You are better producing 10 really good pieces than one blockbuster. Remember, your customer’s time is short is a scarce resource.

    6. Network

    Sitting there waiting for the phone to ring will leave you doing just that – sitting there. You have to get out and talk to people – join the conversation. There is a plethora of discussion forums – you just need to find the ones where your prospects hang out. LinkedIn, Facebook are the leaders in their fields but Meetup is increasingly helpful, combining online and face-to-face opportunities. Can’t find a group dedicated to your specialism? Start one. Whatever groups you join, be an active participant. Don’t comment just for the sake of it but equally don’t miss an opportunity to say your piece. Plan time to do this otherwise you will overlook it.

    7. Manage your time

    Here, I take my guidance from the founder of independent consulting – management guru Peter Drucker. I was fortunate to meet him and he talked about how he managed his time, advice I have followed and am pleased to pass on his three tenets:

  • Break your week into three chunks: 3 days fee earning; 1 day admin (book-keeping etc) and 1 day keeping up to date and networking. This does not have applied strictly to every week but don’t let the ratio slip too much.
  • Always take holidays
  • Each year, set aside two weeks (not holiday time) to do in-depth research and thinking. He said

    too many consultants peddle old solutions to new problems.

    And finally

    I do not claim that this is a comprehensive guide – it is not. I do however think that these baby steps will set you off on the right path. Remember, like learning to walk, it is the first steps that are the most difficult; you are just not confident you can let go. Just remember, if I can do it, so can you! Go for it!

How Linky Brains Work

Linky Brains is a new topic that has taken off on LinkedIn – #linkybrains kick-started by Doug Scott.  I think I am a linkybrain and this is a contribution to the discussion.  Is it relevant to customer success?  Yes, new ideas are needed everywhere.

I am not a doctor or a brain scientist but I have long been fascinated with the brain and what it means for how I live and work.  So, in true linky-style, here are a few disconnected ramblings on what I have learned and believe.  I don’t claim them to be 100% accurate but they are grounded in what people cleverer than I have discovered.

(Side note: Pages auto-corrected linky-style to kinky-style! Is there a hidden message there?)

Linky-brains are intuitive.  I have always believed that intuition is about spotting patterns earlier than others.  We fill in the gaps between the dots of information we receive.  When a linky gets this right, we are insightful or, even better, creative.  Of course, we don’t always get it right.  We make spurious connections but that’s ok; its about the process not just the outcome.  Linky’s aren’t afraid of failing – it’s just another hypothesis tested on the road to success.

This pattern spotting thing is key to me.  In my work, I often talk about single customer view and use the analogy of the kid’s ‘dot-to-dot’ puzzles.  The more dots you have, the richer the picture you can build and the more accurate the insights you can gain.  

Many people focus their reading and study.  I love to read about things unassociated with work and often find myself seeing links with work.  The insights into business and leadership are fascinating.  For example, the similarity between how values shape companies and the structure of a Mandelbrot set drove the choice of the cover of my book.  Self managing systems in nature led me to develop an organisation development workshop which asked questions like “Which fish in the shoal decides to change direction?” and “Which termite is the architect of the mound?”  Think about it.

I once saw a presentation from Mind Mapping inventor Tony Buzan where he showed a short video of a neurone reaching out and connecting with another.  An idea in the making captured on film – albeit in a petri dish.  I think Linkys have hyper-active neurones that enjoy reaching out.  I often get frustrated when I have an idea – many of them are truly great and then the next moment it’s gone.  Try as I might, I can’t get the same neurones to make the same connection again.  Very frustrating!  I think these hyper-active neurones, coupled with my broad interests are where many of my ideas come from.  By the way, it seems nature is a very good source of random connections.  I recall some research done in Germany about work-related ideas.  The greatest source of ideas at work was when bored in meetings!  That however was dwarfed by work-related ideas that came whilst walking in nature.  If that’s not Linky, I don’t know what is.  I suspect Linky’s are very good at being productive doing nothing.  

I am a great fan of an assessment called the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which measures your thinking preferences.  Remember of course there is a relationship between preference and competence: we tend to be good at things we like, or vice-versa.  Anyway, HBDI, which is based on the structure of the brain measures your preferences in four domains:

  • A: Logical, analytical, numerate
  • B: Plans, processes, certainty
  • C: Emotional, relationships, intuitive (people)
  • D: Originality, intuitive (ideas) risk-taking

The interesting thing that Ned Herrmann points out is that success needs whole brain thinking.  Those old enough to remember the core team of the original Star trek will recognise a whole brain team:

  • A: Spock
  • B: Scotty
  • C: Bones
  • D: Captain Kirk

I am off the scale D.  I have always been an ideas person and whilst I can execute, it’s not where my strength lies because it’s not what I enjoy. That’s why I always look for a doer of detail to work with – what people call a competer-finisher.  The problem is that we think so differently, we often fall out.  

I suspect there are Linky versions of other personal assessments.  I am ENTJ in Myers Briggs.  

There are many other areas that I think are worthy of exploring: the hive mind, Linkys relationship with dopamine, the value of procrastination to name just a few.  Unfortunately, I need to do some work!  Such is life.