Defining Customer Success

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FCR is pleased to welcome Jim Jones, founder and CEO of Voyant Consulting, as a guest author to our site. Voyant is a Chicago-based firm that helps clients improve customer loyalty by improving their Customer Service organizations.


Defining Customer Success is a hot topic these days for companies with subscription-based revenue models. Although the idea got its start in the technology world, Customer Success is rapidly spreading to non-technology businesses that rely on retaining and increasing revenue from long-term customers.

Although there are some defining characteristics of the customer success movement, there is not a “one size fits all” definition. According to a 2015 post from Insight Venture Partners, “Ask ten tech executives to define customer success and you will hear ten different definitions.” This post isn’t designed to completely answer the question “What is Customer Success?” but is designed to help you answer this question for your company.

Customer Success Is Not…

Many customer success teams grow organically out of other functions in the company. It’s very common for a start up to carve out some of their support, account management or even marketing teams and turn them all into Customer Success Managers. This is a good start, but Success also has to have its own distinct personality from each of these areas. As your CS team forms its own identity, there are some important distinctions to keep in mind:

Customer success is not technical support

Let me caveat this by saying that technical support is often combined with customer success, particularly in smaller companies. If that’s the case in your organization, your team needs to realize that CS and technical support require two different mindsets. I’ve often described technical support as the “How do I…?” team, and CS as the “Why do I…?” team.

The majority of tech support’s responsibility is to educate customers on how to use features in the product or to help confirm and escalate product defects through the product management or engineering teams. It’s certainly incumbent on customer success teams to know how your company’s products work, but it’s more important for them to know why particular products or features are valuable to the customer. Technical support might show a customer how to produce a report showing the number of logins or documents consumed in the last 12 months – but customer success can explain to customers why their adoption numbers are important, and can provide strategies to help get to optimal product usage.

CS is not sales

As with the point above, a caveat is in order. Many customer success teams roll up under a company’s sales organization, and most Customer Success Managers carry a quota or number for customer retention and (in some cases) upsells.

Most traditional sales or account executive teams are considered hunters – those who seek out new potential clients and new business for the company. Their compensation is largely based on achievement of new bookings quota. In many cases, the sales team also assists with (or takes care of) the cross-sell and upsell process, particularly in strategic or key accounts.

Customer success teams, on the other hand, ensure that customers are deriving maximum value from the solutions they’re using. Their concern is farming existing territory as opposed to hunting new business. As noted above, most CSMs carry a quota for retention in their existing customer base or book of business. But the primary focus of a customer success team should be to ensure a long-term relationship between their company and the client. A focus on customer loyalty naturally leads not only to maximal customer retention, but also to opportunities for upsells or cross sells with the client.

Customer Success Is…

Now that we’ve taken a look at what customer success is not, let’s turn our attention to their distinctive functions. What unique responsibilities does the ideal CS team have?

Customer Success is the primary driver of customer loyalty and retention

In most organizations, customer success engages with more customers, more often, than any other department (with the possible exception of technical support). As such, they are in an excellent position to determine and to improve the health of the relationship with their clients. Conventional wisdom holds that customers do not buy products, they buy outcomes. That is, they purchase a product or solution from a company to help them further their own business goals and objectives.

Customer success holds a crucial responsibility in this equation. It’s up to the CS team to inspire their customers to engage with the products and solutions they use, to uncover any roadblocks that are slowing the adoption process, and to inform customers of the new features and functions in a product that provide the customer with additional value. The ideal Customer Success Manager should have in-depth knowledge of not only the how of your product (what all the features and options do), but also the why of your product (how those features and options can unlock value and outcomes for the client).

While there’s a very high correlation between customer loyalty and retention, it does require deliberate planning and work to obtain renewals year over year. This work typically falls to the customer success team. To ensure the renewals, customer success teams need to not only demonstrate the value their solutions bring, but remind the customers of the positive outcomes for their business.

Customer success is a company mindset, not just a department

I’ll grant that this is more of an aspirational value, but it’s something that is becoming more of a reality as time goes on.

As customer success came to the forefront of the technology industry, CSMs were seen as the lone wolves who did everything possible to ensure renewals – while the rest of their company went on about its business of developing and selling software. But it’s become clear over time that customer success can’t operate in a vacuum, and that the philosophy of customer success needs to pervade the company.

Customer success has more quantitative and qualitative feedback on your company’s products and solutions than any other group in the company. That feedback should be used to drive meaningful change within not only the solutions your company offers, but within the company itself. Do customers feel that they get lost in chasms between departments? It’s up to CS to present the data that shows that customers feel abandoned. Are enterprise customers asking for specific new functionality within the product? CS needs to collect this data and present a business case to product marketing and executive management to help steer product direction.

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Jim Jones
Founder & CEO
Voyant Consulting
Jim Jones is the founder and CEO of Voyant Consulting, a Chicago-based firm that helps clients improve customer loyalty by improving their Customer Success organizations. In his previous roles with multiple international technology companies, Jim has a history of increasing customer loyalty, and improving customer retention by building world-class customer success and customer support groups. He has also been a featured speaker and blogger on the topics of customer success, voice of the customer programs and customer experience.

Be sure to visit Voyant Consulting on the web and to follow Jim on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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