Customer success is an outcome, not a job function.
In early-stage companies, generalist CSM roles are acceptable.
Early employees wear many hats in order to help a company get off the ground, and at this stage, a CSM does whatever it takes to ensure her customers are successful.
In the generalist model, we find CSMs handling tasks ranging from support and onboarding to adoption and renewals.
Over time, it will become clear that no single person can handle all these tasks with proficiency and uniform quality.
But quality of work isn't the only factor at play; the nature of the customer engagement tasks dictates how they must be handled. Some tasks are urgent and important, while others are important but not urgent.
Consider customer support issues:
Trigger: The customer reports a problem.
Response: We gather information to reproduce the issue, identify a solution, or transition the case to engineering to resolve.
Measurement: Average Handle Time - we want to resolve each reported issue as fast as possible. Support cases are almost always urgent and important from the customer's perspective.
How about when it's time to onboard a new customer:
Trigger: New customer signs a contract.
Response: We reach out to the customer to begin facilitating the onboarding process.
Measurement: Time-to-Launch or Time-to-Value (TTV) - the clock is ticking. It's imperative that we get each new customer productive with the product as fast as possible.
There's no choice but to quickly react and complete these customer tasks. Doing so drives customer experience and value.
By contrast, consider a customer value intervention:
Trigger: Our product usage analytics indicate a customer is underperforming and underutilizing our product, i.e., they aren't getting positive results.
Response: We proactively connect with the customer to assess and consult on how to improve their results.
Measurement: Customer success metrics (unique to the product and use case) and percentage completion of triggered interventions.
This type of customer task, a proactive outreach, is the essence of customer success.
But "full stack” CSMs with end-to-end customer responsibility can easily wind up deferring important tasks for urgent ones.
Before you know it, the customer is adrift like a disabled ship at sea. And your renewal and reputation are vulnerable.
The Eisenhower matrix provides a perfect framework to describe this dilemma. Check out quadrant one, important and urgent, and quadrant two, important but not urgent below:
In my experience, the best way to handle the blend of customer tasks is to design specialist teams to handle the different types.
By the time a company reaches $5MM in annual recurring revenue (ARR), specialist roles should begin to emerge.
Per the examples above, support and onboarding are urgent and important, and typically come first.
As the company grows, additional specialist roles emerge. Here are some more examples:
- Account Managers - Sales representatives responsible for maintaining customer relationships and driving expansion opportunities.
- Renewal Specialists - Handle all renewal quotes and negotiation.
- Implementation Specialists/PMs - Handle new customer onboarding and add-on purchase implementations.
- Customer Care/Support Specialists - Support reps who handle inbound customer issues.
- Customer Enablement Specialists - Experts in the product who build knowledge bases, video libraries, training courses, etc.
- Customer Success Consultants / Outcome Managers - product and industry experts who work with customers on an engagement basis. Potentially on a paid basis for a one-to-one consultation.
- Technical Account Managers - Product and technology experts available for white-glove consultation and project work, often on a paid basis.
- Customer Engagement Marketers - drive outbound customer communications, including product updates, industry newsletters, best practices, and expansion campaigns.
- Customer Community Managers - oversee one-to-many customer engagement programs including managing the online customer community.
- Customer Operations Specialists - Set up workflows and systems to track and automate the customer journey (critical as more specialists interact with customers throughout the customer lifecycle).
- Customer Data Analysts - to analyze customer health, programs, and initiatives.
- And so on…
Your company may not have all these roles, even at scale, and that's okay. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer for every SaaS company. Product complexity, user needs, and even competitive forces will dictate what's suitable.
But it's clear that generalist roles of any sort quickly become insufficient as the customer base and business grow.
It's my belief that generalist CSMs should be phased out of startups and scale-ups as they mature.
Similarly, mature companies adopting customer success practices for the first time should avoid creating generalist CSM roles altogether.
The industry is waking up to this fact. A growing number of customer success teams are inheriting new business responsibilities (e.g., expansion selling) which increases cost efficiency and reduces the internal confusion that often accompanies generalist customer success team roles.
But the best part is this:
Moving away from generalist "customer success" departments gives everyone else in the business license to drive customer success, no matter what titles they claim.
Delivering customer success is, and always has been, a team sport.