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Lessons learnt (the hard way!) in building & scaling customer success teams

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Key learnings for building a solid foundation and scaling of customer success functions for almost any product - especially if it happens to have the happy problem of hyper-growth.

12th Aug 2022
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"It is not the beauty of a building you should look at; it's the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time" - David Allan Coe

One of the most common questions I get from founders and teams trying to build hyper-growth companies is about how to build great customer success teams, in security or otherwise. While the trajectory of the companies I have been involved in and how customer success (CS) evolved was very different in certain aspects depending on the product velocity and complexity of the product, growth, and overall evolution of the categories these products were in, certain common themes and lessons do stand out.

I have outlined some of the key learnings that I believe are applicable for building a solid foundation and scaling of customer success functions for almost any product, especially if it happens to have the happy problem of hyper-growth.

Start early

The right time to start formulating and executing a customer success strategy is from Day 1. Too many companies wait years before building out this function. The direction can change as the overall strategy changes, but in the absence of a coherent and deliberate strategy, companies tend to accumulate process debt which is almost impossible to get rid of even with a big bang change or an experienced leadership hire. 

If you are lucky enough to grow, the priorities will only multiply and details will be more difficult to focus on and figure out.

Build specialisation

One of the common approaches is combining some permutation of technical support, professional services and customer success for simplicity or to get more out of the limited headcount. My experience, admittedly with products with medium to high deployment and operationalisation complexity, indicates that it is better to split as soon as possible to allow specialisation. 

All three functions require a different mindset, and it’s very difficult to hire the right blend and then maintain the right mix of focus. If you can, split the functions as soon as possible and build specialisation. Professional services and customer success combinations may work for some categories.

Document details

Documentation and process are not the most exciting things in high-growth start-ups. However, it is impossible to iterate and scale in the absence of an agreed and detailed baseline. You need a documented detailed process for transition from sales, customer kick-off, value realisation methodology, key metrics, risk management playbooks, best practices, etc. even if the team is small and communicates often.

The level of communication can change very quickly with growing teams, and the number of locations and absence of a documented baseline can push things out of control very rapidly from both a quality and consistency perspective.

Measure end-to-end

If you can’t measure it, you are probably not understanding it, let alone improving it.  Most companies focus on lagging indicators like Net Promoter Score (NPS) , customer satisfaction (CSAT), net retention rate (NRR) , gross retention rate (GRR), etc.

In my experience, you need to have clear views, for every engagement, of business outcomes (Why did customers buy?), the efficacy of playbook execution (Have we executed the steps that we control?), adoption maturity (Are customers aligned with the best practices for specific features/use cases), go forward plan (What is the focus and ownership for next 6 months), and finally perceived business value (Did the customer meet their business objective?) This level of detail is required to be able to identify and address the right areas to reduce churn or drive upsells.

Plan for multipliers

Scaling doesn't happen automagically, even if you continue to hire some very smart people. Scaling happens when there are multipliers. Early on, these could be individuals who have the aptitude to identify something that works well and the passion to make it part of the general methodology, sometimes on top of their day jobs. At a certain size, it makes a lot of sense to invest in dedicated customer success operations teams to drive these improvements.

Pro-tip: Some of the best CS operations people I have seen transitioned to these roles internally from a customer success manager (CSM) role and had an understanding and empathy for challenges that come from being in a customer-facing role at a hyper-growth company. 

Establish structured inter-functional interfaces

The inter-functional engagement needs to be consistent and structured, with clear service level agreements (SLAs) and mutual accountability. If you ask your CS to do everything, they will end up doing nothing well.

It’s very important that customer success funnels back all learnings to professional services, support, product management, etc. and there are structured and auditable processes to ensure that learnings are understood and incorporated. Product issues, missing features, interoperability issues, lack of certain documentation won’t kill you. Failing to learn from these will.  

Hire the right leader

Finally, the big one - one of the key questions that face a growing company at a certain size is where to get the leader to lead their next level of growth. I have heard strong opinions about promoting internally or hiring an experienced hire from outside. Based on my experience of seeing successes and failures with both, I have come to the conclusion that both options have pros and cons that need to be understood and managed. It’s very unlikely that your current star performer is a natural manager or leader, so it makes a lot of sense to get them formal mentoring and coaching. The good news is that customer success as a community is extremely collaborative and there are multiple avenues to do that.

Alternately, if you choose to go with an external hire, it’s extremely important the leader understands the product, culture, and day-to-day reality of your customers and CSMs. Your leadership hire not being able to do a basic demo of the solution and not spending a lot of time with the team or customers are the warning signs of a leader who has inaccurate assumptions as they make high-impact decisions. Trust me, you don’t want to go there!

 

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