Customer Success: The Lost Opportunity


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Like driving a high-performance powerboat at idle speed, many organizations only creep along when it comes to piloting customer success—limiting speed, minimizing power, and reducing the chance of feeling the breeze of the winning checkered flag in an offshore competition.

Tactical Customer Success

What do you think of when you hear the words “customer success?” Most people conjure a picture of a specialized group of frontline personnel tasked with trying to get new customers to use the product quickly and correctly with the hope of retaining the customer today and growing the customer tomorrow. Customer success is viewed tactically, it is categorized as one specialized function among many.

Don’t get me wrong…I am a big believer in suppliers focusing on getting customers to adopt and use their offerings. I think it is smart business to dedicate frontline individuals to track usage and non-usage, to coax and coach customers to use offerings, and nurture and nudge them toward expansion. I believe software can speed and smooth obtaining those results. Isn’t that what creating good customer experiences is all about? If the right offering was sold in the beginning with realistic expectations, the customer will benefit and so will the supplier.


However, like a governor on a motor, this tactical approach may be limiting your customer success potential:

    • Narrowly defining customer success is like choosing only the salad bar, but skipping the buffet—it meets some basic needs but gives up the joy of feasting.
    • Narrowly defining customer success is like finding the fountain of youth, but only watering your horses.
    • Narrowly defining customer success is like having the technology to explore the universe, yet concentrating on mining asteroids. Yes, there are some short-term benefits, but think of the lost adventure!
  • It is a shame that such a powerful, potentially game-changing concept as customer success is being accepted, restricted, and used in a limited, tactical way, ignoring the strategic opportunity.

    No Blame

    I am not knocking customer success personnel. You can read in their online groups the excitement and the pride they feel about their jobs as they add value to their accounts and value to their companies. It takes smart, highly skill personnel to do these demanding tasks.

    I am not knocking the chief customer officer. She rightly sees the customer success group as another arrow in her quiver for delivering great customer experiences and building loyalty.

    I am not knocking senior executives who acted quickly to get on board the customer success ship before it left the dock. They saw the rising tide and set sail.

    Executive Questions to Ponder

    However, was it the right customer success ship to board? A freighter can deliver the goods, but it pales in comparison to the capacity of a supertanker.

    How about the appropriate destination? Maybe in all the churning water, not enough due diligence was employed, and the potential cruise of a lifetime was missed for a weekend in Cancun.

    Strategic Customer Success

    Let’s consider for a moment elevating customer success in your organization from a “good to have” tactical performance improver to a “vital to have” strategic competitive differentiator.

    At its heart, strategic customer success embodies customer-centricity, the premise and the promise being that doing what is best for your best customers returns huge rewards. You gotta give to get. Data has shown that organizations with customer intimacy ingrained within their culture outperform all others significantly.[1]

    Figure 1 shows a robust strategic customer success model with customer-centricity ingrained at each step of the process. No matter what type of business you are in, this model is applicable for planning, building, implementing, monitoring, diagnosing, and enhancing strategic results.

    I will start our discussion on the far right side of the chain and work backward.

    Business Results

    Business results are your reward for doing strategic customer success right. Selfishly, your desired outcome as the supplier is business results. Yes, there can be a multitude of preferable outcomes, but for most organizations there are two vital business results that trump all others—new streams of profitable growth to fund the future of the business, plus brand dominance based upon a reputation superior to your rivals.

    But can’t tactical customer success deliver business results?

    Yes, it can certainly contribute, however, the impact pales in comparison to what a well-implemented customer success strategy can produce. A dinghy can take you to the shore, but a powerboat can take you out to sea.

    Customer Impact

    Customer loyalty drives business results. Loads of research over the last several years shows that the loyalty of your customers is a prime driver of the business results discussed above. There is a direct relationship. Loyal customers buy more and more, again and again, rarely quibbling over price. Emotionally loyal customers tout your attributes far and wide and gladly provide testimonials to woo your prospects for you. Loyal customers are the crown jewels of your resources and should be guarded as a miser would a strongbox. If we embrace the eminent management consultant Peter Drucker’s declaration that the purpose of a business is to get and grow customers, customer loyalty is the secret sauce of the recipe.[2]

    To earn that loyalty, you must deliver customer success as each key player in the customer account defines it—both the specific business outcome and the personal wins tailored for each key player. This is no small task, because you have lots of key players in your base of business.

    Doesn’t well-implemented tactical customer success develop customer loyalty?

    Of course it can. However, the narrow focus of many tactical customer success efforts limit the impact to a discreet number of power users and managers. In strategic customer success, the main targets are the senior decision makers, the players with the most control of business results. As naval officers know, cruisers play an important part within the task force, but the aircraft carrier performance is vital

    Categorize to prioritize. It is nice to proclaim that you are dedicated to delivering customer success to all customers. However, if your resources are limited (aren’t they always?), the reality is you can’t do it today, and you probably won’t be able to do it tomorrow. Maybe eventually, but not in the near to mid-future. For more information on the best way to categorize, click here.

    The promise of customer success requires brilliant customer experiences. Like the catalyst in a chemical reaction, a brilliant customer experience releases the full potential of a supplier-customer relationship. Customer experience is shaped at every touchpoint—every encounter or contact the customer has with your organization.

    In strategic customer success, marketing, sales, services, and support are all considered to be a part of the core customer success team, and everyone else in the supplier organization is tasked, measured, and rewarded on their contribution to brilliant customer experiences.

    Isn’t delivering great customer experiences a foundational part of tactical customer success?

    Yes, it is. Remember, though, organizations that focus on just one post-sales function (often called the customer success department), have minimal impact on the pre-sales functions of marketing and selling. Questions such as “who owns the customer” abound. Furthermore, there is often overlap and/or confusion as to the customer success group’s responsibilities related to other post-sales personnel. Not addressed appropriately, this confuses and complicates things for the customer, leading not to great customer experiences, but to poor ones.

    Touchpoint Management

    Brilliant employee performances drive brilliant customer experiences. The more closely your people give the customer what they need, want, and expect at each step in their decision-making process, the more powerful the moment of truth, and the more likely the customer will invite you to participate in their next decision step. Capable and loyal employees are required to deliver brilliant employee performances. Your frontline personnel must have the capabilities needed to interact with the customer the right way at the right time. My research has confirmed the five required capabilities of the entire frontline team, shown in Figure 2. These capabilities must be constantly deployed but with varying intensity, based upon the customer situation and where the customer is in the buying/implementing process. Of course, ongoing, high-quality training backed up by coaching is a must, whatever your business model.

    Doesn’t tactical customer success preach brilliant performance?

    Absolutely. Yet, strategic customer success involves all frontline personnel, touching all customer contacts with the supplier organization. Trying to optimize one group (such as customer success) often sub-optimizes others.

    Performance Systems

    Performance systems, especially those for marketing, sales, and services provide the information and tools required to help your capable and loyal employees in their moments of truth, aligning the six supplier business development steps to the six customer decision-making steps (Figure 3).

    We already have customer success software in place.

    Excellent! Enabling technology such as software can add both effectiveness and efficiency to the process across all frontline personnel. I am just recommending expanding monitoring, tracking, and predicting to begin way up front within marketing.


    In strategic customer success, the chief customer officer captains the vessel, and the rest of her C-suite peers are also on the bridge, helping plot, navigate, and stay the course.

    The leadership task is a big one—creating a culture of success, and building and implementing a compelling blueprint to guide implementation. As we all know, if the big dogs don’t get off the porch, the pack doesn’t hunt. Hence, establishing customer success objectives for each senior leader linked to executive compensation is required to keep the ship afloat and on the right course when high seas begin.

    But tactical customer success requires leadership as well.

    It certainly does, and leadership at all levels plays a big role throughout. However, for strategic customer success to work, and the customer success ship to stay the course, ownership must exist at the top—not just customer happy talk.


    Tactically implementing customer success as it is primarily practiced at present can certainly add value and may be the appropriate approach to customer success for your organization. However, if you yearn for maximum organization performance, and if you have the desire to dominate your competition, ponder what a strategy built around customer success might yield. You may decide that the proper action is, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

    What do you think? All comments are appreciated.


    1. One early example is Service America in the New Economy, by Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke, published in 1985, by Dow Jones-Irwin, McGraw Hill Companies.

    2. The rules of effective management have not changed. Drucker defined good management decades ago: Drucker, Peter F. 1974. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. New York: Harper & Row.


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