How to Build Customer Success as a Change Agent from Status Quo

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By now, it’s difficult to find a modern company without some kind of customer success practice. Even back in 2016, Forrester Research claimed that 72% of businesses list improving customer success as a top priority. According to an article in Forbes, data from LinkedIn showed that the Customer Success Specialist job title is number six among the 15 fastest-growing white-collar jobs in the U.S. Although started by necessity for SaaS companies that were highly susceptible to churn, customer success has proven its value to other types of companies. Customer Success happens, and it is happening more and more.

Despite the growing importance and overall growth of customer success, most companies keep the function relatively constrained. Too many companies still think of customer success by their own definition rather than the way it is defined by each customer. Most companies still think in terms of customer retention and potential account and revenue growth rather than entertain the other strategic values potentially enabled by customer success. Customer success teams are generally smaller than they should be, and they are often muted by being captive or existing within another group, such as support. They report at a lower level, usually well below the C-suite.

Using customer success to further direct company goals and reduce churn while potentially increasing revenue is a good and perfectly valid use of customer success, but this is really just a starting point. Customer success can inform most aspects of the company by creating dialogue with and understanding of customers and how to more optimally serve them. Marketing, for instance, can have greater clarity for messaging and how to capture the attention of prospective customers. Product management can know what improvements would make a greater impact across most of the customer base, not just the test cases they sample or from hearing from only the most vocal ones. Financial terms and practices could better fit customer needs. And the list goes on.

Besides informing much of the company, customer success can also be an early indicator or detector of change and help the company make necessary pivots or modifications. Customer success can uncover new opportunities and directions for the company move for growth and competitive differentiation. All of these things are highly strategic and valuable at the highest levels.

So what prevents companies from realizing these gains and elevating the place of customer success? First, many companies—and indeed customer success professionals—do not know that such aspects are even achievable from their practice. Such a practice represents the upper end of the maturity curve and is a level few have obtained. Neither the majority of corporate executives nor customer success professionals have the knowledge or experience of this form of customer success. It is not a discontinuous leap for customer success, but it is also not a well known progression. It will become better known and more common in the times ahead.

Second, and somewhat related, customer success is constrained and more narrowly focused today. Many groups might be tightly oriented around renewals of services or product and minimizing churn. Some might be chartered with a focus of minimizing support tickets or getting customers proficient with a product. Many might report or be structured too low in the corporation. They may lack the proper conduit or even respect to convey information to appropriate parties within the company.

In addition, the ability to take the time to actively listen to customers and fully understand their goals and needs—particularly apart from specific transactional needs the company wants fulfilled—requires deliberate prioritizing. This sort of orientation likely requires a major shift and generally requires a larger customer success team.

Third, elevating customer success to this advanced position is both a top-down and bottoms-up movement. It requires not just C-level buy-in but firm vision, belief and insistence. Customer success leadership needs to know how to establish such an organization. New training, an advanced system of record, new procedures and cross-functional ties and interactions must exist.

Letting customer success lead to a reimagined state is vital. They need C-level and multi-department support and a host of new resources to succeed, but moreover they need to step forward and continue to evolve. Moving forward means an advancement of maturity, something most organizations value. The efforts and investment is worth it, as strategic use of customer success will bring strategic benefit that brings long-term health, growth and overall success.

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