I have been thinking a lot about the continuum of maturity in SaaS customer success organizations. It really boils down to degrees of a spectrum ranging from reactive to proactive. Here are the 11 areas I evaluate when assessing a customer success organization for strengths and weaknesses. How well they execute against these usually indicates how successful they are at engaging customers and guiding them to positive outcomes.
- The handoff from sales to customer success
- Is there a documented process, with best practices for the handoff of a customer from sales to customer success? Is it lean, agile and effective? Having a process isn’t enough to indicate maturity, because if the process is complicated, time-consuming or clunky then it’s just a burden on everyone. Whether your average contract value is $5,000 or $500,000, the handoff isn’t rocket science and doesn’t need to be complex. But it does need to be done well, in order to set the customer, and your team up for long-lasting success.
- Onboarding process
- You may need one onboarding process for all customers, or you may need slightly different versions for different types of customers and contracts. But either way, you have to have one. If you wing it or approach it as ‘unique to each customer’ you are going to drop balls, miss important steps and set your team up to constantly be scrambling. Don’t chalk chaos up to your high-growth. Customer onboarding is one thing that should be orderly, and efficient, no matter how fast you are growing and adding customers. Make onboarding a repeatable machine.
- Lightweight onboarding load on customer
- It’s one thing to have an onboarding process, it’s another for it to be designed to be lightweight for your customer. If your onboarding process just dumps a bunch of work on the customer, you are likely to find yourself with a lot of disengaged customers and extended onboarding periods that lack velocity. Design your onboarding to be less work for your customer, not more.
- Value-driven touches
- Customer success should add value to the customer journey. A playbook that is designed for CSRs to reach out every 45 days to “check in” is pointless. Customer success representatives should be adding value at every touch, finding ways to educate customers, support them and bring insights. It’s up to customer success leadership to create the infrastructure to enable this, and the standards to hold it to.
- Proactive intervention
- Customer success that simply reacts to problems isn’t really customer success. Many customer success teams simply go through the mechanics of processing requests, renewals and expansions, with little proactive work at all. In addition to proactive outreach on a regular cadence, excellent customer success teams proactively intervene based on a set of flags—when a customer disengages, when a stakeholder changes, when there is a significant business event, etc.
- Health scores
- A mature customer success organization keeps tabs on the health of their customer base, and intervenes (see above) when needed, well in advance of a potential crisis.
- Renewal process
- Renewal really starts on day one and isn’t about processing paperwork or reaching out 90-days in advance of the renewal. The #1 priority for a recurring revenue business is to get the revenue to renew, so renewal should be at the top of the strategic agenda and it should stay there in perpetuity.
- Retention & churn segmentation
- I expect a mature customer success organization to know who is most and least likely to churn and to score customers accordingly. Customer success leadership should be monitoring and communicating this to the company up, down and sideways, especially in a feedback loop to the sales, product and leadership teams.
- Churn post mortem
- Every renewal counts, and when a customer is lost, a post-mortem should be done. Not a cursory, ‘go through the motions’ type of post-mortem, but a true, introspective look at what could have been different, and what would have possibly retained the customer, going back to the beginning. This is how customer success teams improve and evolve.
- Minimal churn surprises
- There will always be customer churn. And there will always be some churn surprises when the customer you were certain was going to renew doesn’t. But if you are constantly being surprised by customer churn, something is wrong. Know your customer base and know when they are likely to churn, so there are few surprises. And also so you can get ahead of those potential churns well in advance.
- Customer success playbook
- You know I am a big fan of sales playbooks, but I haven’t written much yet about customer success playbooks. They are equally important. A central repository for how to execute customer success plays—from onboarding to at-risk, to renewals should be documented, updated and managed on an ongoing basis. It helps ramp customer success managers and ensures everyone is executing in the same way, learning from each other and adapting.
Notice what’s not on the list?
Do you see the glaring item not included on this list? Retention. I try to separate net and gross retention when evaluating customer success organizations. Churn mitigation should be a goal shared across the company equally, and to reinforce that culturally I just don’t consider it in this equation.