Scaling Customer Success

scaling customer success

A different kind of scale

Limited bandwidth is a common complaint across all startup teams. Engineering teams are pressured to release new features faster while maintaining a high fidelity product, marketing is tasked with finding new lead sources without sacrificing existing streams, and so on. As these teams become spread ever thinner leadership teams should start to brainstorm how they can empower their team to work smarter, not harder. Customer Success teams are often on the frontline of this battle for stretched resources as a consequence of an (hopefully) ever expanding customer base.

In their 2017 Customer Success Trend Report UserIQ predicts that retention and expansion initiatives will be largely dependent on whether or not teams are effective in scaling Customer Success dynamically through technologies and process versus relying on increases in headcount. That means that even if you had the budget, adding new CSMs won’t necessarily solve all your growth problems. Scaling Customer Success requires you to determine how to best manage the customer experience efficiently and effectively, without sacrificing the 1:1 dynamic that is needed to build customer relationships.

So how can your Customer Success team drive meaningful value for customers when their workload continues to increase month over month? By understanding what kind of relationship your customers expect, staffing your team appropriately, and leveraging tools to improve efficiencies, you can ensure your team is offering an excellent and sustainable experience to your customers as you work on scaling your Customer Success team.

Get off to a strong start

As with any relationship, it’s important to start off by understanding what the other party expects to gain from your partnership. Determine what your customer’s goals and aspirations for your company’s products and services are. Then, create a project plan to help them hit these milestones. Double check that they have the necessary buy-in and resources on their side to build mutual accountability around hitting these goals. Taking the time during the onboarding process to establish mutual agreement around what your company can and will deliver on is a critical initial step in ensuring your customers are on the path to success.

Hyper-growth that doesn’t make you hyperventilate

It would be ideal if you could build your entire Customer Success structure around your customers’ expectations. However, I would argue that this isn’t realistic for most startups, especially ones struggling with lower ARR accounts. Every team I have worked on faced budget constraints of one kind or another. Some Customer Success teams are fortunate to have a massive amount of buy in from management. The majority operate under the auspicious of: we know a customer-centric focus is valuable but we can’t commit an obscene amount of resources towards it. When I managed a high volume of accounts in the past, I found it to be a balancing act between delivering a 1:1 white glove experience to customers who expect it, ensuring you’re giving every customer the level of service your team has come to pride itself on, and managing to leave work by 8pm.

The key metric most leadership teams use to determine their ideal CSM to account ratio is ARR per customer. ARR is ongoing revenue that your team can not only count on (but not take for granted) and these customers also represent potential expansion and evangelist opportunities. Jason Lemkin wrote an influential post on this topic a few years ago where he outlined the logic behind having one CSM for every $2MM in ARR. In the 3 years since this post went live, its age has started to show. Assuming your ACV is close to the industry median of $25k (as reported in Pacific Crest’s 2016 SaaS survey), each of your CSMs will be managing 80 accounts to get to that magic $2MM in ARR figure. If your CSMs were to speak to each of their accounts once a quarter, they would need to reach an average of 1.25 customers every day- that’s a lot of calls. How do you find the right balance between volume and quality to ensure your team is being effective without risking employee burnout?

Leveraging data to make customers feel like they’re not just a number

We’ve all received the equivalent of a “Dear valued customer [first_name]” email. It’s hugely discouraging to feel like you’re just a number to a company you view as one of your company’s critical systems (and probably pay for accordingly). So how you can avoid this type of impersonal messaging that creates distance between you and your customer base without sacrificing the scale 1: many communication provides? There are a whole host of new products marketed towards scaling Customer Success teams. The commonality between most if these tools is that they need to be tracking actionable, accurate, and up-to-date data. Data such as which pricing plan a customer is on, what features they’re using (or not), and how often they contact your support team are all examples of impactful and actionable insights you should be tracking.

Evaluating which actions and behaviors are more likely to make your customers successful allows your Customer Success team to move from being reactionary firefighters to proactively providing value.

Segmenting your user base

Using data to segment your user base is the next step. Being able to group your users into different segments allows your Customer Success team to scale their efforts by automating some of their communication with customers without sacrificing authenticity. Once you’ve identified the key actions that increase the likelihood that a user will be successful with your product, you can automate some of the low-hanging fruit of the signup and onboarding process to drive them towards taking those actions and creating productive new habits. The goal for each interaction should be to provide value and insights to the customer- never “just checking in” to see how things are going. Productivity tools such as Calendly can reduce the volume of simple back and forth conversations (in this example, trying to agree on a meeting time) where your CSMs are not adding value. Always have a compelling and personal reason for getting in touch. This blog post from the team at DocSend does a great job of outlining the specific strategy they took to institute a “push system” that helps them proactively monitor, engage, and expand the customers that are most important to the business at key milestones in their lifecycle.

CSMs should also prioritize their accounts to allow for the 1:1 interactions that are more likely to empower customers to achieve their goals. Are some of your customers heading into their busy holiday season? Maybe you should schedule your QBRs to coincide with when they’re most likely to have more than 5 minutes of downtime. Which customers are growing quickly and are going to need guidance in updating their workflows, use cases, and present an needs-based upsell opportunity? Have any customers approached your team about implementing a co-marketing initiative you can make the introductions for? CSMs can personally impact a large number of accounts in a given 12 month period if they create and manage an abbreviated list of the 20 or so accounts they’re focusing on initiatives with. Additionally, this strategy provides CSMs opportunities for continued professional growth (and avoids burnout) as they collaborate and brainstorm with these customers.

The final factor in account segmentation and prioritization is being able to identify which customers are at risk of churning. Your team should consider creating a customer health score to highlight which accounts have exhibited troubling behavior that would make them a good candidate for a personalized outreach campaign. A lot of great tools that can help with customer segmentation and outreach include a score on how healthy an overall account is. If your team has done a good job of focusing on partnering with (nearly) all customers on at least one key initiative every quarter, then they should have an ongoing pulse on which customers might be experiencing issues or not fully realizing the value of your products. Not every customer is a good fit, but creating an environment where you can keep your target customers is critical to driving real, ongoing, and scalable customer success.


How many accounts do your CSMs manage and how do they ensure a high quality customer experience – how are you scaling Customer Success?