Customer success is the work organizations invest in making their customers as successful as possible using their products and services. The goal of customer success is to increase customer value. This is achieved by retaining customers’ loyalty and maximizing revenue. Other benefits include deeper customer relationships, greater insights into customer behavior and more instances of positive word of mouth. 

To summarize, customer success is about making customers successful so that, in turn, they remain customers and spend more. It’s really important to understand that this is ‘success’ enabled, in whole or in part, by the product you’ve sold or the service you’ve provided.

In this post we will cover:

What is customer success

Customer Success V. customer support

Why is customer success so important

Who needs a customer success strategy

How to measure customer success

What is a customer success manager

What does a customer success manager do?

5 tips for devising a customer succcess strategy

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What is customer success? 

Customer success is not simply a case of “helping customers succeed at using our products and services effectively.” This is not the same thing. For example, a customer of a broadband provider is not made successful because they’ve been helped to understand how all the features of the broadband service work. The issue lies in what the customer’s own definition of success is. In this example, Mrs Jones very much wants to set access policies for different family members based on what she believes is appropriate and necessary for entertainment, study and her own work needs.  

Therefore we can break customer success down as:

  • Related to achieving a customer’s desired outcomes
  • Affected by the supplier’s understanding of its customer’s desires and needs
  • Influenced by a customer’s perceived value of the purchased products/services
  • Shaped by customer interactions with a business
  • Supported by what the business does to assist them
  • Leading to aligned goals and mutually beneficial outcomes.

Customer success, also known as customer excellence, is a fundamentally importantly aspect of overall customer experience. Customer experience, from pre-sales to post-sales, needs to be designed for customer success, enabling them to achieve their desired goals with ease.

Customer success vs. customer support

Customer support and customer service are reactive. They are generally provided in response to customers’ requests.

By contrast, customer success is a proactive process. It involves interaction with the customer to determine their expected outcomes, what they aim to achieve with the purchased products or services and how this supports wider goals.

Customer support and customer success are related in that they are critical elements of the overall customer experience. But they are also distinct.

Customer support is traditionally focused upon specific product-related questions and issues arising from the customer. The customer is the catalyst, and often the initial starting point is a negative experience. Something must have gone wrong, or there is some obstacle to intended progress. Customers seldom contact support departments unless they really have to. 

NPS Survey Questions

Such issues will always arise, but there is a certain predictability about them. For example, persistent product faults, points of friction in service delivery or common misperceptions about what the product/service is for. 

This is where customer success comes in. Or rather, the upstream work committed to a customer success strategy will have lessened the need for such problems to arise in the first place. 

By strategically focusing on customer success, organizations can map the customer journey and proactively improve customer experience at every touch point. They can be better at recognising the success factors that are unique to each customer. They can improve how they market and position their wares, and who they target it to. All this, and more, enhances overall customer experience and promotes greater customer loyalty.

Why is customer success important?

There are lots of reasons why customer success is vitally important. Here are just 4:

Simply being reactive to customers restricts visibility and potential

Very few of the people who failed to achieve their desired outcomes with your product/service will tell you this fact. That’s a lot of learning you’re missing out on. 

One amazing statistic claims that 96% of unhappy customers won’t complain. Only a proportion of actual customer issues present to your customer support department. Many will either self-diagnose and remedy, make do with the shortcomings, or churn. 

The upshot is that relying exclusively on customers to present problems is a short-sighted way of bringing about change in your organization. Far better to use the customer success approach to take a proactive stance that benefits all of your customers, now and in the future. One way to do this is by asking customers for feedback.

Upsell opportunities arise when solving problems for customers

A focus on customer success brings you closer to what customers want to achieve when they purchase your products and services. This should generate new ways of positioning complementary solutions that address these common underlying goals. 

With customer success, you methodically research this with customers. In doing so, you may find you don’t currently offer the necessary adjacent solutions. They might not exist anywhere! In which case, what better opportunity to refresh your proposition portfolio and invest in developing brand-new offers?

Enhanced customer relevance drives revenue retention and growth

Customer success means success for you. Success that registers on your bottom line. By addressing the intent of your customers, you transcend mere ‘supplier’ status and become more valuable as a trusted partner. You stand out from competitors too. This leads to greater customer retention and revenue security, an easier customer renewal cycle and firmer foundations for growth.

Customer success is ultimately about optimizing your customer relevance. This is especially important because the goals and aspirations of customers change over time. Remaining relevant is an ongoing process, and one that can only be achieved by always understanding what outcomes customers want. 

Successful customers share their stories and recommendations

Making customer success a goal for your business means you’re working hard to create successful customers. These customers not only stay longer and spend more, they also share their experiences with others.

Successful customers can be closely correlated with customers who class as ‘promoters’ when responding to NPS surveys. In other words, they have a high propensity to recommend you to friends and colleagues. They are more likely to proactively spread positive word of mouth, and more likely to consent to involvement in promotional activity e.g. a testimonial.

This is great for sales and marketing in general, and especially so because of the specific story of success they can communicate. By describing how you helped achieve their outcomes, you can more readily attract the ‘right’ kind of new customer for whom you can achieve the same outcome at low or zero marginal cost.

Who needs a customer success strategy?

It’s hard to think of an organization that wouldn’t benefit from a customer success strategy. Perhaps those providers of heavily commoditized, low-margin products or utilities. Even then, the good practice of understanding and adapting to the needs of customers and their big-picture aspirations is sensible and necessary.

So, in effect, anyone with customers needs a customer success strategy. However, there are certain groups of organizations for whom customer success is particularly vital.

The better question is, who benefits most from a customer success strategy? In determining this, it’s worth acknowledging the reality that all organizations have finite resources. Similarly, all organizations will have some kind of sales and marketing strategy focused on new customer acquisition. Customer success, therefore, must be balanced within this context. Who, given finite resources, should commit the most to customer success – potentially at the cost of investing entirely on new customer acquisition?   

Startups

Startups are in the business of losing money until they find a way of achieving revenue and raising it above their cost base. Customer success is closely aligned to customer retention, so following this path ensures that any early customer acquisition can be solidified into recurring income.

The other major attractions of customer success to startups are:

  • Rapidly acquiring knowledge about customer demands to inform product development and innovation
  • Generating advocate-led marketing content that resonates beyond the startup’s embryonic market presence
  • Steadily growing an installed customer base that is positive and open to upselling and renewals (existing customers being considerably cheaper to sell to than prospects).

Clearly, for startups, the use of a customer success approach needs to go alongside customer acquisition efforts. Failing to keep an appropriate focus on customer acquisition would choke-off the supply of customers to create success for!

Organizations with ‘circular’ subscription-based business models

The term ‘customer success’ had been widely used – and its practices applied – by the software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendor community. These are companies that charge per month for the provision of software and related support services. Hence, in exchange for a predictable revenue stream, the vendor must demonstrate persistent value or risk losing the customer to a competitor at any stage. From the outset of SaaS, customer success strategy has been a dominant theme in the industry. 

As more and more B2C and B2B offerings become consumption-based, increasing sectors of the economy are finding ‘customer success’ to be a business imperative. We now live in the era of ‘the subscription economy’, which increases the burden on supplier organizations to invest in understanding how to deliver customer success. 

One such example is MSPs (managed service providers). According to Kaseya research, MSP customers are nearly 20x more likely to switch because of service quality than price. Almost 60% reported ‘incomplete solution offering’ as a switch driver.

Find out more about MSP customer success in this comprehensive blog post. Or download the MSP Customer Success Playbook here.

How to measure customer success

There is no single measurement for customer success. However, there are numerous ways of measuring the signs of growing customer success. We suggest tracking a number of metrics and using them in combination.

First things first, let’s set out the primary reasons for measuring customer success:

  1. Identify areas for improvement (e.g. processes, customer journey touchpoints, marketing messages, knowledge-based content)
  2. Identify customers that need added focus
  3. Identify customers that can be used as examples of customer success (to capitalize upon)
  4. Evaluate the success of your customer success strategy

These should cover most objectives for customer success measurement. Whatever you decide, document them so that you can calibrate your measurement process to accomplish your goals.

The following metrics should serve as applicable customer success KPIs to use in combination.

Measuring customer churn with MRR

A rudimentary churn rate can be calculated as follows:

No. of customers lost during period / No. of customers held at the beginning of period

= Churn rate                       net mrr churn equation

This will be expressed as a decimal, so simply multiply by 100 to calculate the percentage.

This approach has limitations in that it can be hard to define what is meant by a ‘customer’ for the purposes of counting them as being ‘held’ or ‘lost’. Imagine a car dealership for example, for whom once every 3 years would count as a regular customer purchase pattern. 

A more precise calculation would be to track differences in revenue according to whether through existing customers. For example, ‘Net MRR Churn’, where MRR stands for monthly recurring revenue.

The calculation for Net MRR Churn requires the following variables: 

  • MRR Churn
    • Revenue lost in the month due to cancellations or lost customers
  • Contraction
    • Revenue lost in the month from existing paying customers who have downgraded services or elicited discounts/service credits
  • Reactivation
    • Revenue from customers who had departed but have now been regained in the month
  • Expansion
    • Revenue from customers through upgrades or upsells in the month

Measuring brand reputation with NPS

We touched on NPS earlier in this guide, and how big NPS scores correlate with successful customers. This is because NPS – Net Promoter Score – is based on determining reputation and loyalty. 

NPS is a metric that must be collected by asking for customer feedback. This is done via NPS surveys. There is effectively just one question in the NPS survey, and this is largely the same in every industry and instance:

On a scale of 0–10, how likely are you to recommend XX to a friend or colleague?

Each customer self-identifies as one of 10 responses (on the sliding scale) before you collect them all and group into 3 sets:

  • Promoters (those rating you 9 or 10)
  • Passives (those rating you 7 or 8 )
  • Detractors (those rating you 6 or less)

Your totalized, running NPS score can then be calculated as follows:

  • First, set aside passives. They are not used in your calculations because they are ‘neutral’
  • Then calculate detractors and promoters as percentages of the total sample e.g.
    • Promoters = 27%
    • Detractors 7%
  • Subtract detractors from promoters 
    • 27% – 7% = 20%
  • Express the result as a plain number (not a percentage)
    • 20

All NPS scores will sit in the range between -100 and +100. Any positive number indicates there are more positive than negative customers. Generally speaking, anything above +50 is very good though this depends on the industry sector. There are various ways of targeting improvements in NPS score, not least by committing to a customer success strategy.

Check out Customer Thermometer’s Ultimate Guide to NPS for more details.

Measuring customer satisfaction with CSAT metrics

Customer satisfaction (CSAT) can be measured in a variety of ways, based upon the questions you ask for feedback on. The objective is to determine the satisfaction level of the customer. This could be a general measurement or in relation to a very specific aspect.

CSAT questions are very useful when applied to the various stages of the customer journey. This makes mapping the customer journey a critical prerequisite. Querying your customer base at each customer touchpoint should reveal insights about the performance of processes like onboarding. These are critical to customer retention and customer success. You can then work on improving CSAT scores by improving how these processes work.

Related CSAT metrics you can track include:

You can also think about calibrating your CSAT measurement with each customer’s individual journey to success.

Measuring speed of success with TTV

TTV, or time to value, is the speed in which value is realized. Specifically, how long it takes a customer to derive value from the products and services you’ve sold them. This may differ from case to case, but by aggregating results you can build a representative picture.

This measurement is again driven by the subjective feedback of customers. After all, value is in the eye of the beholder. What’s critical is identifying the precise moment customers perceive that the value they initially sought is being delivered. In essence, this is about measuring how well you are able to meet customer expectations

What is a customer success manager?

The customer success manager (or CSM) is an increasingly common fixture within organizations and emblematic of a commitment to customer success. As the name implies, their job is to create and manage customer success. 

It is crucial to acknowledge the difference between customers achieving success in their own right, and customers being ‘successful’ by any other measure. Some organizations tend to view customer success in narrower terms than others. Hence there are different schools of thought for precisely where customer success managers sit within organizations. These include:

  • Customer success managers as part of the sales team. In this model, CSMs are targeted to support sales activity with existing customers and may even have sales targets to achieve. The definition of customer success that applies here is closely related to how much revenue they generate. 
  • Customer success managers as part of the customer support function. In this model, CSMs are almost exclusively reactive – being used to ‘rescue’ customers in danger of churning. The customer success definition here is oriented toward retaining the customer as a primary objective.
  • Customer success managers as part of account management. In this model, CSMs support the ongoing account management process. Customer success here is more about adding value throughout the lifetime of the customer relationship.
  • Unaffiliated or ‘roving’ customer success managers. Here, CSMs have a far more dynamic brief. Customer success could be defined in any number of ways in this model.

The ‘pure’ definition of customer success dictates that customer success managers should be advocates on behalf of their customers. 

This concept is summed up by the well-known example of Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, as told by Entrepreneur magazine:

Bezos is famous for leaving an empty chair at the conference table and letting attendees know it’s occupied by the “the most important person in the room” – the customer.

In summary, if anyone in an organization is going to think first and foremost on behalf of customers – it’s customer success managers.

What does a customer success manager do?

A customer success manager’s core responsibility is to ensure customers are gaining maximum value from their purchases. This value can be defined as “achieving intended outcomes” that relate to the customer’s goals.

Customer success managers (CSMs) are typically used in B2B organizations to provide some level of one-to-one engagement. This could even mean being assigned to a single large customer. 

Customer success enablement

CSMs may also be deployed in overarching positions to advocate for the organization’s customers more generally. Here, they will typically be in charge of ‘customer success enablement’ – supporting other employees to deliver customer success. 

Day-to-day activities around customer success enablement might include some or all of the following:

  • Developing and refining customer onboarding programs 
  • Coordinating and analyzing customer feedback programs
  • Establishing product training and professional development programs for customer-facing teams
  • Promoting a customer success agenda internally through education, coaching and mentoring programs
  • Ensuring access to client relationship histories and appropriate use of internal tools and processes to maximize customer success
  • Identify operational inefficiencies and devise effective improvements
  • Collaborate with all stakeholders to define exactly what customer success enablement is required to deliver in your organisation.

Customer journey optimization

The typical customer journey features numerous micro-engagements and processes. It’s core elements can be defined as presales, onboarding, early usage, mature usage and support/upsell. 

In terms of customer journey, the role of the customer success manager is twofold:

  • Identifying and executing refinements to the customer journey
  • Handholding specific customers through key customer journey milestones

The primary milestone is onboarding because it is a key determinant of future customer success. Customers who are onboarded effectively have the appropriate expectations and are well equipped to maximize ROI of their purchase.

Churn avoidance

Ideally, CSMs will be involved in strategic planning activities that proactively counter the threat of customer churn. For example, by studying the reasons why historic customers have churned and adjusting processes accordingly.

In many instances, customer success managers are called upon to prevent dissatisfied or disillusioned customers from leaving. Such late-stage tactical deployments of CSMs are not ideal. It is a high risk policy that consumes valuable resources at unpredictable times. However, they can be a positive springboard to future success by virtue of the ‘service recovery paradox’. This is where customers are returned to a higher overall level of satisfaction following a service failure than before the service failure occurred.  

Cultivate new revenue opportunity

Where customer success managers are closely aligned to sales and marketing functions, their role is driven and performance-measured – at least in part – by sales metrics. This can be a contentious area if advocating for the customers’ best interests and extracting more revenue from them are seen as contradictory. Ideally the former will be permitted to override the latter in any potential conflict of interest. This then allows the CSM to upsell adjacent products if they lead the customer to be more successful in achieving their goals. 

Gain valuable insights

Customer success managers are very close to customer needs and wants. This lends them privileged access to up-to-date customer insights that may be of significant benefit to the organization’s various business functions. 

For example, by being in the vanguard of quantitative and qualitative customer feedback collection, CSMs can pass on intelligence that:

  • Helps product development teams iterate new features and services
  • Improves the responsiveness of customer support teams
  • Refines customer processes and touchpoints
  • Supplements the available self-service knowledge base available to customers
  • Fuels internal training programs
  • Enables marketing to better calibrate relevant messaging to the marketplace 

What’s more, being transparent about what you do with customer feedback is a very smart move. Customers will be gratified to know you’re listening to them, and bringing about changes that benefit customers as a whole. 

Promote advocacy

As we’ve reiterated extensively already, customer success is all about advocating for the best interests of the customer/s. This can place CSMs into opposition with colleagues and even corporate objectives. This may strike you as a bizarre state of affairs; that an organization which exists to serve a certain set of customers may choose to ignore or navigate around what they need to be successful. It’s unlikely to be intended at a strategic level, but such conflicts happen every day at an operational level. Organizations with senior-level representation in customer success (e.g. Chief Customer Officer, VP of Customer Success) are typically the best equipped to address these challenges and become more customer-centric.  

The other dimension to advocacy is to encourage customers to become advocates for the business. Your most successful customers have a compelling story to tell other potential and existing customers about their journey with your organization. It also follows that many such customers will be highly predisposed to consent to doing so. Making this happen is a key function of the customer success manager. Not just creating customer success so that the customer enjoys the benefits, but so that the organization benefits too.

Skill profile for customer success managers

We’ve pulled together a suggested skills and experience profile for customer success managers. A more extensive list is provided by the Customer Success Association in relation to its CSM Competency Standard.

  • Background in customer-facing roles, ideally with customer account management experience and skills
  • Proactive, problem-solving skills
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Good understanding of customer research and metrics
  • Strong analytical skills
  • Ability to work closely with staff at all levels in an organisation
  • Proven collaborative skills
  • Change management skills
  • Planning skills (e.g. creating success plans with customers and customer groups)
  • Project and time management
  • Data management and technology skills
  • Opportunity management

5 tips for devising a Customer Success Strategy

Embarking on a formal customer success strategy is a very positive step. To make it stick, it has to be a properly resourced, budgeted and timebound strategy – just like any other. Don’t let it drift into ‘best endeavors’. Here are 5 top tips to getting off to the best start.

Get buy-in from the top

Customer success should align your corporate objectives with your customers’ goals. Get this off-course and your best bet is simply a customer retention strategy, not a customer success one. Aim for board-level sponsorship of your strategy so that some of the structural changes that customers might need can be addressed from the top.

Part of this should be a documented definition for what customer success looks like in your organization. Use this to govern how you evaluate your performance with individual customers, as well as the performance of the strategy itself.

Communicate on the customer’s terms

Customer success requires up-close customer collaboration. You need the right people communicating in the right way to understand customer expectations and goals.

  • Always be positive and constructive 
  • Personalize interactions
  • Reach out to multiple individuals within a customer organization
  • Respect the communications preferences of individuals (i.e. how, when and how often they like to communicate)
  • Generate personal rapport
  • Earn relationships based on trust
  • Apologize unreservedly as a first response to any negative issue
  • Gather feedback in context to specific parts of the customer journey

Assume nothing, learn everything

A customer success program is more than a vehicle for educating customers about what you sell and how to utilize products/services for maximum value. It’s a two-way street where both parties learn a lot.

Don’t patronize your customers by assuming anything about what they seek to achieve and what’s important to them. Don’t disregard their personal experiences interacting with your organization and using your products. And do not underestimate their capacity to surprise you!

Do your homework on the markets your customers operate in, and how their businesses are organized and operated. Most of all, back it up with a robust data toolset that allows you to get the best possible customer feedback. 

Baseline customer satisfaction metrics

You’ll need to narrow down your evaluation criteria for measuring the performance of your customer success strategy. In our section on “How to measure customer success” we covered a bunch of popular KPIs like NPS, CSAT, MRR and TTV. 

Your choice should be governed by the objectives of your customer success strategy. For example, if this is oriented toward revenue optimization then major on these indicators. Likewise, if you aspire to be known as trusted experts in your domain then consider steering toward something like NPS.

Benchmark these metrics before you begin customer success activities in earnest. That way you have a ground-zero to review your performance against over time.

Reward loyalty

Customer success is closely linked to customer retention. A happy and successful customer is gaining value from you and would be foolish to leave.

Recognizing loyalty is very important in this context. Often it’s the troublesome customers that get all the attention. Customers who threaten to churn are most likely to get extra support and special dispensation. That’s a fact of business, but one that can divert attention away from your loyal customers.

Consider making a loyalty program part of your customer success strategy. These don’t have to be expensive to administer. Build your business case for a customer loyalty program using a long lens to view ROI. A short-term view will show only the expense of giving up (a small amount of) margin, not the cumulative revenue gain of recurring revenue.

Loyalty programs don’t need to be solely focused on customer discounts and rebates either. Incentivizing customers with small rewards to post on social media, give reviews or contribute other user-generated content can help develop positive brand awareness.

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