Customer Success — A Unifying Mission for CRM and CXM


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In the past two decades, I’ve seen quite a number of CxM terms used in the customer-centric realm, including Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Customer Experience Management (CXM), Customer Value Management (CVM), … and now Customer Success Management (CSM). Each has added value to the growing base of customer-centric thinking.

In this article, I’ll discuss how the “customer success” movement has developed, what it means, and why I believe it should be a unifying mission to help companies get value from both CRM and CXM, or whatever term you want to use for being customer-centric.

A brief history of CSM

Customer Success Management is not a new idea. Going back to my days at IBM 30-40 years ago, we had people focused on on-boarding, training, and account reviews to ensure that customers were happy and — this is the important part — continued to do business. In my view, this was part of the secret sauce of IBM’s success, accomplished with Marketing Reps (sales professionals) and Systems Engineers (tech support working with sales).

Let’s fast forward to, oh, about 20 years ago, when the Software as a Service (SaaS) industry really got going. and many others launched and disrupted the sell-and-run practices of installed software giants like Oracle, SAP, and Seibel. Power shifted to customers and so vendors, out of self-preservation, started to invest in resources to ensure customers would renew SaaS licenses.

Although was an early CSM practitioner, Vantive was actually the first company to formalize a “customer success” team, according to Mikael Blaisdell, Executive Director of The Customer Success Association. He says the firm decided to invest in a CS group because CRM failure rates were high, and they believed a focus on customer success would be a differentiator. And it was. Prospects were invited to call Vantive’s customers and it helped close a lot of deals.

As time went on, SaaS vendors realized that churn reduction was critical, because it could take one to two years to recoup customer acquisition costs. VCs started to pay attention, too, based in part on a study comparing two companies with 95% and 80% retention rates. Blaisdell says that over five years, the difference was $15M on the bottom line.

Blaisdell founded a LinkedIn group in 2009 to focus on SaaS and customer support, and since then it has expanded to nearly 35K members participating in The Customer Success Forum. The association followed three years later to help businesses understand and implement Customer Success, defined as:

“A long-term, scientifically engineered, and professionally directed strategy for maximizing customer and company sustainable proven value.”

Value, because “No one ever bought your product just to login”

There’s a lot packed into that definition, but for me, the phrase “proven value” is key. CSM could help bridge the CRM/CXM divide with a focus on something that matters to everyone — value. Help customers get value from what they buy, and the company will prosper, too!

Sounds easy, but unfortunately Blaisdell says many CS groups are making the same mistake that I’ve found in CX research. In one case a group of 65 CS people was laid off because they failed to show enough business value. Helping customers is all well and good, but it still has to be translated into benefits that senior leaders want.

Still, with a push from VCs and a dose of common sense, SaaS executives are investing in CS teams, big time. Nick Mehta, CEO of CS technology leader Gainsight (and owner of the “login” quote above) sees the increase of customer power — due to reduced switching costs — as the key driver of CS investments. He estimates there are about 60K CS professionals now, based on LinkedIn research.

Sure enough, a LinkedIn search on “customer success” yields 250K hits, although that’s a fraction of the 1.7 million hits for “customer experience.” Google Trends also shows an uptick in searches on “customer success” beginning about five years ago, lagging “customer experience” but on a similar growth track.

Source: Google Trends

What’s the difference between CS and CX? Mehta puts it this way:

Customer Success = Customer Outcomes + Customer Experiences
“Customer success is the combination of getting customer outcomes with the experiences they want.”

The push for customer outcomes is growing outside of B2B software, says Mehta. For example, he sees activity in healthcare with more attention to patient outcomes. We all appreciate good experiences in appointment setting, check-in, payments, and even the doctor’s “bedside manner.” But what we really want is a good outcome — getting healthy.

While this may not translate to all industries, it’s worth asking: Are you helping customers achieve their goals, in their business or personal lives? Or just delivering an enjoyable experience?

Don’t confuse customer success with customer support…

I reached out to a number of CS experts to try to understand what is involved in “doing” CS work and how it’s different from CX, account management, and customer service.

Let’s start with a great resource already mentioned. The Customer Success Association states that the mission of the Customer Success Team is:

“To increase sustainable proven value for both the Customers and your Company.” In a nutshell, this is what CSM teams promise to accomplish. Being able to prove your worth in both directions is the most crucial aspect.

Much like customer service is a common starting point for CX improvements, it seems that CS efforts often begin with churn reduction and renewals. For example, Damien Howley, currently VP of Client Success at Passport, recounts his earlier CS experience at Mindtouch during a transition to cloud-based solutions. He started with on-boarding as a “logical” first step to improve retention, then the CEO decided to create a new “customer success” team.

At Passport, which sells transportation-related solutions to municipalities, Howley says quarterly business review (QBR) meetings with clients always includes this mission statement:

“We built our Client Success team to help your business get the most out of Passport.  We’re your business partner and your industry expert. We’re proactive, in-person and at conferences.  We’re your internal advocate and your point of escalation.”

Clients are advised to use Passport’s customer support for help with user issues, while the CS team focuses on “strategic stakeholders” to discuss app usage (measured via Strikedeck) and whether revenue goals are being accomplished. One tip: “Stop talking about the product!”

… or account management

Many companies (mostly B2B) are approaching CS in a more tactical “churn fighting” role, at least at the beginning. A recent Deloitte study found that 61% of CS teams are spending their time on post-sales activities.

Source: 2019 Enterprise Customer Success (CS) Study and Outlook, by Deloitte

Emilia D’Anzica, Partner, Customer Success & Account Management at consultancy Winning by Design, says CS teams focus on “proactive relationship building,” including activities like reviewing key metrics regularly, ensuring on-boarding goes well, and keeping customers up to date on new product information. Account managers may participate in some CS activities, but typically handle more customers and focus on selling renewals, in D’Anzica’s experience.

CX > CS or vice versa?

CX experts typically position CS as a part of the overall experience focused on ensuring customers are getting value from a solution after purchase. In other words, CS doesn’t include the prospect experience. D’Anzica shares this view: CX begins before the purchase, as prospects (for SaaS solutions) search G2Crowd or LinkedIn.

But Leslie Camacho, VP of Customer Success at VOGSY, argues that CS is a “bigger picture” because it’s focused on outcomes. CX, by contrast, is often concerned with customer satisfaction with processes and touchpoints. In the end, Camacho says it’s the value customers get from VOGSY’s professional service automation solution that matters most.

Tom Sweeney, Founder and CEO of ServiceXRG also see CS as more holistic, because it means focusing on tangible outcomes, not just pleasurable interactions. This aligns with my CX research findings. In a study of 200+ CX initiatives, I found most focused on improving touchpoints (customer service is the most popular) and cross-department processes.

Of course, you don’t have to choose one or the other! Top firms are adept at integrating the two concepts. In my view, CX would benefit from being more outcome-focused, and CS should grow to be a more strategic orientation or mindset, across the entire organization.

Harley Manning, the head CX honcho at Forrester Research, believes a “customer success mindset” could help improve the odds of CX success.

Originally our curiosity was spurred by the fact that CSM practices overlap considerably with B2B CX practices in terms of the tools and techniques they use. But we quickly found another layer of interesting stuff going on with CSM including, as you point out, a strong tie to measurable business results. CX professionals in both non-tech B2B companies and B2C companies could learn a lot by studying CSM.

I agree, and think CXM and CSM are likely to merge in the future, especially in B2B companies.

Measuring the success of Customer Success

OK, so how do you prove that Customer Success is itself successful?

Well, the most common way to prove something is with numbers. What are CSM teams using? A Strikedeck/Service XRG study of over 300 CS professionals found the following KPIs used:

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) – 85%
  • Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) or Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) – 56%
  • Retention/Churn – 53%
  • Revenue Growth – 46%

The report raises the concern that these metrics are trailing indicators and suggests that real-time customer comments would be a more predictive indicator of relationship health.

I found it interesting was not included — measures of solution usage. CSM vendors typically tout the ability to measure user behavior, the theory being that lack of logins or limited usage are signs that the solution won’t be able to deliver the expected value. Alarm bells go off, and CSM teams go into action to find out why!

The role of technology

Tech vendors are a big reason why CSM is a “thing” right now. Gainsight launched in 2009 (as JBara, renamed in 2013) and Totango entered the scene a year later. According to G2Crowd, they are among the top five in “market presence” now, but there are many other options as you can see in this chart.

Source: G2Crowd

One of the key functions of CSM software, according to G2Crowd, is to: “Predict future customer growth or red flags based on data related to interactions, payments, inquiries, and more.” The “more” part could include customer feedback, which puts CSM software on a collision course with survey-focused EFM providers.

Most practitioners see a strong role for specialized CSM software, especially in the SaaS industry because of the ability to track usage. But some caution not to lean on CSM tech too soon. In some cases, existing CRM or EFM software may offer enough capabilities to support CS activities. For a small number of high-value relationships, in-person review meetings and Excel-based tracking may suffice.

With complex customer journeys where tracking “usage” is not appropriate, journey analytics and orchestration solutions could be more effective. Mark Smith, President of Kitewheel, says as more interactions move online, it reduces opportunities for human-based engagement for at-risk relationships. One answer: use predictive analytics to trigger a digital “save” activity with web personalization, offers, and chat popups. The goal is the same: improve retention.

“Customer Success” requires a culture of caring

Sure, businesses run on numbers, but that’s not what motivates most people. They want to be part of a mission, to feel they’re making a difference. Is “customer success” a mission for employees at your company, or just another quota to meet?

And of course customers want to be successful, but they also want to work with suppliers that genuinely care. You can’t always tie the usage of a particular product or service to the customer’s success, but you can always show you care.

Brian Carroll, founder of Markempa, says marketers are getting lost in a sea of numbers and can’t truly understand the customer’s world. In a word, they lack empathy. But, good news! Empathy can be developed, by spending time with customers, double-jacking on service calls, and more. And more good news, empathetic messaging, even in digital processes, can improve the metrics that marketers care about.

Right brain, meet left brain.

So, CSM practitioners, don’t get so focused on proving the worth of your solution with numbers that you forget that customers are people. After your phone calls, emails, and BDRs, is the customer left feeling that you’re an advocate, or just looking to make your numbers? CX research by CustomerThink, Forrester Research, and others, finds emotion drives behavior better than effort and speed.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Antonio Damasio:

“We are not necessarily thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”

Build a culture of caring, and customers will feel you’re a part of their success, even when the numbers don’t add up.

Disclosure: This article was developed from discussions I’ve had with vendors, consultants, and practitioners. They are not necessarily representative of all the industry activity nor should companies mentioned be considered an endorsement. Some vendors have been sponsors of CustomerThink.


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