Customer Success Principles
Customer Success 6 min read

Nathan Kryn’s playbook for early-stage CS-teams

Nathan Kryn • March 31, 2020

With Customer Success still in its infancy (or early-adulthood), founders and early-stage Customer Success leads are constantly iterating on best practice for building a world-class organization. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a few principles and guidelines can help you launch your first team. 

As uncertainty grips the world at this challenging time, it's important to remain focused where you can. We've caught up with Customer Success enthusiast, Nathan Kryn, who gives us his 4 key principles of true Customer Success—we hope you find them valuable. Having built low touch teams for early-stage companies backed by Accel, Google Ventures, Y Combinator, and 500 Startups, Nathan, founder of up_spring, has seen it all.

I’ve made every mistake in the book,” says Nate, “...and learned a few lessons. It shouldn’t be rocket science, and simple is better at first. With low touch, it’s very much about identifying next-best-action for your team, and making sure you capitalize on growth opportunities.

Without further ado, Nate has been kind enough to write his playbook for building a low-touch team on our blog. Here it is:

Principle 1: Focus on process

You and your customers generally want the same things in a low touch environment. Quickly get the product up and running, solve your initial use case, and make it easy to resolve support or technical issues. Basic customer journey mapping is helpful to create your post-sale playbook.

At later stages, your Customer Journey map is a big deal. More than helping your team understand internal and external expectations, it will provide alignment across marketing, sales and product, and is usually a 2-day event. 

Early on, it’s much simpler. Focus heavily on onboarding. Getting customers up and running quickly should be priority #1. This is by far the biggest lever to reduce churn, and start building engagement and advocacy.

Have a repeatable, trackable process for onboarding. A few metrics are really helpful to track improvement. Time-to-first value is essential. This is the first time a customer has an “aha!” moment, and realizes the promises of the sales process. For tech touch teams, this shouldn’t be subjective. Identify metrics in your product data that indicate value. Common examples are percentage of seats utilized, or some dimensional metric, like number of leads captured.

After onboarding is complete, define your customer cadence based on capacity in both a best-case, and real world scenario. Ideally for low touch, you can meet at least once per quarter for a proper business review. In reality, most teams are only at capacity to do this 2-3 times per year. These tasks should be automated to queue at a regular interval. In addition to keeping the relationship as strategic as possible, this will also help with future capacity planning, and identifying growth opportunities.

Principle 2: Make support convenient

Low touch teams don’t have all the luxuries of companies working high-ticket accounts.  Enterprise accounts have dedicated solutions teams, on-call support, and executive sponsors.

Low touch teams need to think of service model at scale. Increasing and facilitating effective customer self-service is a must. 

The most common mistake I see is thinking of support only as a cost center, and not recognizing the strategic importance. A big part of your customer experience is quickly resolving customer issues. These should be seen as micro-moments to build your brand. This means having rapid ticket response times, and a robust knowledge base

Think of this in the context of your core process. If your customer success managers only meet with customers a couple times a year, the majority of your customer experience will happen over support and knowledge base channels. Making a great impression on these channels allows your CSMs to focus on growth and strategy.

And it’s not just revenue, at early stages, CSMs should be responsible for roadmap ideation. After all, they are a big part of the voice-of-customer.

We don’t sleep on the data we’re collecting across chat and ticketing channels. This data is essential for understanding customer priorities, and can be the best source for ideating features, or identifying opportunities for UX improvements.

My last recommendation here is to start thinking about cost. Support costs can scale faster than revenue in early-stage organizations. Take the data from chat and ticket, and leverage that to build your knowledge base. Your first support hire should be splitting time between knowledge base development and support. As you scale, this needs to be a full time role, as early as $1m ARR. A solid knowledge base reduces support costs 40% or more. Invest now, save later.

Principle 3: Find the low hanging fruit

Early stage customer success compete with marketing, sales, and product for budget. While founders and investors are increasingly recognizing the importance of post-sale experience, the reality is most teams will be bootstrapped early on. 

You’re probably not going to have the resources to talk to customers as much as you’d like. If you do, I’d love to meet your founder and shake her hand. 

You can make a massive impact by identifying low-hanging fruit. This is usually based on segmentation for growth potential and churn risk. Growth accounts can be identified a few ways. First, is demographics. Understanding what industries and verticals typically grow with you is an easy one. Looking at other metrics, like employee count, funding, revenue, and Alexa rank can also serve as a proxy for upmarket potential.

Also look at your post-sale data. See who is adopting at the highest rates. Who is creating the most support tickets, or viewing the most knowledge base articles. While this may be seen as a churn risk, counter-intuitively, it can indicate clients who view your product as mission critical. Operationalizing this data allows you to schedule a call, resolve any outstanding issues, and see if there is an up-sell opportunity. 

Last, proactively identifying churn risk is a major lever in improving your net retention. Prioritizing these accounts for outreach can keep your overall base healthier, and identify opportunities to refine your process.

The first time you look into adoption can be scary. It’s not uncommon to see 33% of tech-touch accounts in some high-risk profile. Just take it slow, and treat it like a project. Have each CSM work with 10-20 of these accounts per week. Some will churn, some will upgrade.

Usually net retention for this cohort is above 90% if you get to them early. It’s important to talk to your executive team and align before these initiatives. Balancing short-term retention targets and long-term expansion is essential to keep everyone happy.

It’s also a great frame to discuss budget, and higher-order product and service questions.

Principle 4: Enablement to punch up

Customer Success organizations are investing earlier and more often in tooling.

Coming from the enablement space, we’re seeing more teams invest in tooling, sometimes before $1m ARR.

It’s not a need-to-have, but you’ll find yourself spending 50% of your time in spreadsheets and SQL reports. It’s a good exercise to identify what data you have, and how it can be leveraged, but you’ll always have a ‘through the looking glass’ level of optics and your looking glass is probably a bit foggy.

Remember, you’re going to see a reduction in headcount. Assuming team members are 25% more productive, your payback period happens within the first year.

It’s important to explore readiness and ROI before deploying any new software, but investors and executives are looking at post-sale data in more detail than ever before.

Retention used to be a vanity metric at early stages. If you were growing, NRR didn’t really matter, and it was assumed you’d just fix it later down the road. The environment has changed, and your board and institutional investors will be looking to you for a deep understanding of post-sale growth metrics. You can spend a few weeks a year building reports, or set up tools once. Your call.

There you have it, four key principles of Customer Success from Nathan Kryn. Is there anything he missed? What are your thoughts around the future of Customer Success? We'd love to hear from you—get in touch!

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By Nathan Kryn

Customer Success enthusiast and Founder of Upspring, first customer success Co-Op. Connect on Linkedin

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