I was chatting with a customer success leader recently who was charged with increasing customer retention. He was trying to parse through what he could impact in his role, with his current resources, when so many aspects of customer retention seemed out of his control.
They seemed out of his control because they were. I see this all the time and it’s so frustrating.
I have a major issue with the idea that customer success teams are solely responsible for customer retention. Retention is the responsibility of every function inside a SaaS organization, and it should be a jointly held KPI. As I’ve written before:
It’s the product, duh.
It’s what marketing says and does to get & nurture a lead and create an informed customer.
It’s how sales transforms that lead into a viable prospect.
It’s how customer success onboards and manages the relationship.
It’s how support is quickly and accurately delivered (or not).
It’s operations and how they create customer-friendly processes, like simple, understandable billing.
It’s all of this and so much more.
But, back to my customer success leader who was trying to determine what aspects of retention were under his control so he could determine which levers he could pull. I’ve literally been in his exact shoes—tasked with increasing retention (lowering churn), without much control over the other aspects of the business. This is a playbook I know like the back of my hand.
While you may not be able to overcome fundamental problems with your product or your go-to-market, the good news is there are actually really effective things you can do to help increase customer retention.
Just so we are all on the same page, I believe that in order to retain a customer you need them to:
- Actually use the product (product adoption)
- Get business value out of your product (their desired outcomes met)
- Have multiple users, and ideally multiple departments, using the product (account expansion)
Here are some ideas—large and small—to get the ball rolling.
I’ve seen these work drastically well, both in my own organization as well as others I have worked with. Keep in mind, these are all framed from the perspective of not being able to change the fundamentals of the product itself.
1. Create a “product experience” function.
It might be a task force. It might be a new department. It might be a tiger team. It might be temporary to stop the churn bleeding, or it may be something you make permanent. I will warn you—a product experience task force really works, so it’s going to be hard to argue dissolving it once you create it. A product experience team should be comprised of your best product experts, gathered and borrowed from wherever they live inside of your company. Ask: Who in our company has the deepest, most relevant product information? I don’t mean your developers, I mean your sales engineers, support specialist, etc—your customer-facing staff.
Bring these people together and charge them with reducing product friction and increasing adoption. This team should be responsible for every interaction between the customer and the product, outside of the actual product design itself. That means giving sales demos, managing trial accounts, providing customer training, educational content, and support. Basically, if a customer is touching or interacting with the product, the product experience team is guiding, shaping, teaching and supporting those customers.
Why is this so transformative, and so much better than having sales engineers, support specialists and training experts all on separate teams as they traditionally are? This is just a case where 1+1 equals more than 2. When a group of your deepest product experts is banded together as a unified force with a common mission to make the experience of interacting with the product better from a demo, training and support perspective, you will be surprised how much of an impact they make.
2. Create a “voice of the customer” function.
I like to call this “customer engagement”, but it’s very similar to “voice of the customer” responsibilities. Customer success is typically tasked with managing the individual customer relationships. Marketing is typically tasked with managing customer communications. There’s a gap in between these two functions. Customer engagement sits squarely, and equally, in both worlds. Customer engagement feeds the marketing team content that customers actually need in order to use the product successfully, and cultivates customers who are willing to do case studies or be references. In my experience, customer marketing is not close enough to the customer to do this in a high impact manner.
The customer engagement function primarily focuses on programmatically increasing customer engagement with the product and the brand—creating passionate champions and fans through customer advocacy and content. Customer engagement, or a voice of the customer, is responsible for customer educational content to increase product adoption, surveys, content for webinars, email marketing and messaging around product experience, as well as customer advocacy inside your organization.
3. Create a customer sales function.
If your product is purchased by a champion, who then singularly deeply adopts it and uses it to its maximum capacity, who then leaves your customer’s company, you are in serious jeopardy of losing that account. No matter how successful they were with your product. You need broader and deeper adoption than one or two people. Task someone, or a team, with expansion “selling” to existing customers, whatever that means. Sometimes it could be just more user seats within the existing customer department. Other times it may mean branching out to get new departments using your software.
It’s wonderful (and fairly magically) when one person inside an organization buys, and then usage organically grows to new people, teams, and departments. But for most products, it takes a surprising amount of effort to plant deep roots inside your customer’s organization. It’s worth the effort, because the broader and deeper your product adoption is within a customer account, the less likely it will be that they will cancel. Many tentacles are important to retention.
4. Create a wide variety of on-demand training resources.
Revisit and revamp educational content and training resources to ensure you have content for all types of learners. Provide live “office hours” training, 1-on-1 spot training for trouble areas, on-demand recorded training courses, on-demand recorded training mini-modules, written content, and visual content. Sure this is a much bigger effort than only having content designed for one learning modality, but when you need customers to adopt your product in order to retain them, you have to make learning easy, simple and accessible. The only way to do that is to have a variety of types of content and learning presentations. Live training helps with acute issues, while recorded training can accelerate training duration and reduce customer time obligation for training. This approach also helps better serve diverse enterprise teams with a wide variety of training needs and objectives more effectively.
5. Launch in-product chat support.
This is my favorite thing to do, especially if you have software that has a steep learning curve or complex initial steps to get up & running. Launch a real-time chat interface right inside the admin area of your software in order to provide customer support “in the moment”. With in-product chat, your customer doesn’t have to context switch and disrupt their workflow when they get to something they don’t understand or something that isn’t working as they expect it to. You can drastically reduce product friction and shorten the learning curve, which should make a quick impact on retention.
6. Launch in-product contextual guidance.
Implement a “walk me” type of software that guides new users through their initial steps inside of the software, as well as provides contextual help and content for virtually all product functionality. Again, this is both contextually helpful but also ensures the customer’s workflow isn’t disrupted. This helps accelerate onboarding as well as improve product adoption, both of which helps retention.
7. Build a community of champions.
If you have a customer retention problem you probably also don’t have much of a customer community. This is a symptom, not a cause. Social proof is a powerful motivator—it’s just irrefutable human nature. No matter how small your customer base, or how dis-engaged they may seem, you can build a community if you stick with the effort it requires, and exercise patience while the seeds you plant grow.
Reach out to your best customers to ask them to review your product on 3rd party sites like GetApp and TrustRadius (and others like it). Ask your most active, knowledgeable users to post helpful tips and tricks in a user-generated content area of your support site. Enlist a handful of your best customers to do a webinar talking about their success and experience with your product. Reward your most active customers with badges, certificates, and other rewards. The goal is to get your best customers acting more publicly, so that other customers, who may be struggling to get inspired, and gain confidence in your product.
8. Create a retention playbook.
Does everyone, and I do mean everyone, in your company know what makes a healthy customer and what makes an at-risk customer? Do they know how to spot the signs? Do they understand what to do, and how to take action? I bet that you have knowledge gaps in this area. Document customer health indicators, how to spot them, and what to do about it in as much detail as possible, with supporting examples. Socialize the retention playbook across the organization so everyone is living and breathing retention together.
9. Hit the road.
Send your product experience team, and/or your customer success team, on the road to spend meaningful time with at-risk customers. You will be surprised how powerful this can be. Yes, customers will appreciate the grand gesture. But that’s not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is to uncover real problems, and stop them in their tracks. Literally hundreds of times, I have seen a customer who isn’t adopting the software due to reasons X, Y, and Z. Then, when someone is face-to-face with them, we uncover it’s actually reasons A, B, and C. Without that in-person connection, the customer success team would be solving for the wrong problems and the customer would likely churn.
Sometimes customers just don’t know how to articulate or present what’s really going on, or how to dig through the layers to get to the root of the issue. Your product experience team should be able to do that if it’s a product issue.
10. Create a company-wide “Swarm” mentality.
When you are dealing with a product you can’t really change and you need to increase retention, you have to empower everyone inside of your organization to drop everything they are doing and swarm to help a customer who is frustrated. Operations should bend processes however they need to reduce acute customer pain. Product experience should do whatever it takes to get a customer over a product problem (even, temporarily, if that means doing it for the customer). Customer experience should be able to rush in to soothe issues and provide whatever resources are needed. And these things should happen NOW, not later. Engineering should be willing—and want—to disrupt their workflow to investigate or solve an urgent product issue.
You have to stop pain, frustration, and friction in its tracks, and ask that everyone in your company work together collaboratively to do that. That’s what a swarm is—the entire company swarming to solve an acute issue until it’s fully resolved.
I know some of the above ideas sound big and complex to implement, but they don’t need to be. With an agile mindset, these things can be launched pretty quickly to reverse the churn and retain customers.
It takes a village to stem customer churn
Even taking into consideration all of the ideas listed above, it still has to be said: customer success can only be partially responsible for customer retention. It’s the product, it’s marketing, it’s sales, it’s operations. It’s everything that touches the customer. A perfect customer success organization will not retain a customer if the product doesn’t provide value, or is hard to use. And a perfect customer success organization will also not retain a customer if marketing and sales aren’t creating a ready buyer, with the right expectations set.
Regardless of this fundamental truth, the day to day responsibility of customer retention does indeed fall on the customer success shoulders, and therefore that function needs to PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS to get a customer engaged, onboard, adopted and realizing value.
Customer success should be empowered and given a budget, to do whatever it takes, across the entire organization to retain a customer, with no interference or friction. I know that sounds like a big deal, but that’s because it is. My mantra for increasing customer & revenue retention is and always has been: Whatever it takes.
And idea #11? Spot churn problems before they are problems. Start with the basics, and track the health of your customer base.