The Technology Stack for Customer Success Teams
Whereas Marketing and Sales teams have for some time had access to a plethora of solutions for every stage of the Sales funnel, Customer Success teams have largely had to make do with using different parts of various existing solutions to get their work done.
A lack of a dedicated technology stack for Customer Success can trace its origins back to the evolution of the Success profession itself. Around 20 years ago, when the notion of Software As A Service (SaaS) began to take hold, most early SaaS solutions tended to have limited functionality and (too often!) questionable reliability.
The nascent Success profession at the time was therefore much more akin to a reactive support escalation function, focusing on issue resolution and utilizing similar helpdesk tools to the ones that Customer Experience professionals use today.
Later, as delivering Software applications via the Cloud became better understood, software and infrastructure reliability began to improve and the Success profession evolved to being much more customer relationship-focused. The functionality of SaaS offerings at this stage was still not on par with on-premises offerings and the release cycles of SaaS tools were still a long way off the daily (or in some cases hourly!) Incremental updates being delivered today, so nurturing and strengthening existing customer relationships became a core CS focus.
It was at this point in time that widespread use of the Sales team’s Customer Relationship Management tools in the Success profession emerged, ultimately leading to the first (and one could argue currently only) purpose-built Customer Success technology category - the Customer Success CRM. Fast forward to today, and delivering applications via the Cloud has become the industry norm, with reliability, functionality, and rapid release cycles all part of every customer’s expectations.
Now that customers have access to reliable, feature-rich software solutions that are being continually updated with new capabilities, the role of the Success practitioner has become increasingly complex and evolved to where driving business value has become the core focus.
Yet, beyond Customer Success CRM tools, there still remains very little purpose-built software designed specifically to help Success practitioners get their work done efficiently and at scale. Logging in to multiple systems to do different parts of their work is not only inefficient and costly, but it also helps to reinforce internal “silos”, making the internal alignment and visibility needed in order to make customers successful increasingly challenging.
In this eBook we will take a detailed look at some of the technology in widespread use by Customer Success teams today, and share our learnings about which tools and combination of tools work best at the various stages of a Customer Success organization’s maturity. Finally, we’ll round off with a brief look at what we think a dedicated technology stack for Customer Success will look like in the (hopefully not too distant) future.
Our ultimate goal is to not only share our experience about how to make the best use of current (and future) tools but to also help CS leaders and practitioners understand that true customer engagement is about much more than having access to software to send messages or have calls and track tasks.
True customer engagement occurs when you are able to combine these tools in a way that allows for capturing the sum total of every interaction your customers have with your product, content, employees, and even with your other customers - as all of these combined ultimately determine how your customers perceive the value they are getting and if they are likely to remain as a growing customer forever.
Challenges of Success Teams
In order to fully understand how best to make use of available tooling, it’s important to first take a look at the common challenges most Customer Success teams face. Later on, we will l also look at how the combination of these tools needs to evolve as both your company scales and the Customer Success team matures.
When asking any Success professional or leader about their challenges, the common patterns that emerge can be summarised as follows:
Not having enough time
This is less about not having enough hours in the day (although that is almost always a challenge!), but it’s more about how to effectively juggle between the multiple disciplines every good Customer Success team needs to have. A good Success practitioner needs to be part consultant, part Project Manager, part Change Manager, part Escalation Manager, part Product Expert, part Account Manager and often part Industry expert! These disciplines all take time to develop and deliver throughout the various phases of the journey customers go on with you and especially in the early stages of a Customer Success team’s life -span can often result in a lot of manual effort.
Not having enough resource
We’d be able to add as many people and tools as we needed when we needed them to ensure we’re able to deliver a “white glove” service to every single customer (no matter how big or small). The truth of the matter is that this isn’t feasible, and as a result, Customer Success teams are regularly forced to find creative approaches to managing and engaging their customers. This almost always includes additional manual effort and having to make the best possible use of existing tooling in the company that has actually been purchased and configured for other use and different use cases.
Not having enough budget
While this isn’t a challenge that’s necessarily unique to Customer Success teams, it is one that is (still) increasingly common. With so much emphasis going towards landing new customers, it’s not uncommon for even the most senior leaders in a company to be unaware of what the Customer Success team does and the amount of work and ongoing effort that it takes to ensure customers not only see the value (quickly) from their initial purchase but that they are set up for long term value and become a regular and reliable ongoing source of new revenue. This lack of awareness coupled with the fact that most Success Team’s metrics are “lagging indicators” (meaning the effort they make today may not be realized for several quarters), can make justifying and securing a sufficient budget difficult. This in turn has a compounding effect on the previous two challenges, realized in increasing manual effort and more makeshift use of existing tools. And, sometimes Customer Success teams won’t even have a budget of their own to be spent on tooling in the first place.
Whether your company is still in the early stages of building its growth engine, accelerating one that’s starting to work or refining a well-established engine that’s delivering predictable growth, technology can help overcome these challenges by acting as a “force multiplier”, allowing Customer Success teams to do more with less and helping them to work smarter and more proactive rather than manual and reactively.
As we’ll cover in more detail later, what Customer Success teams really need from technology in order to scale effectively and efficiently are tools for :
- Organizing, managing, measuring, and tracking customers and their feedback
- Minimizing time and effort on high volume yet lower impact tasks (like dealing with “how-to” questions and escalating support issues)
- Nurturing product adoption and usage proficiency efficiently (at scale)
Later on, we’ll see that even if we had purpose-built tools for all three of these areas, getting the complete context needed for “true customer engagement” is still challenging because the data and information needed is siloed across them.
If however, we could combine the tools our Customer Success teams use to log in with the tools our customers use to log in, then we would have everything we need to proactively manage, support, nurture and grow customers efficiently no matter how much or how quickly we scale.
The B2B software company journey
Scaling a business means much more than adding people and tooling. It’s actually about increasing the pace and volume at which you do things.
As your pace and the volume of activities increase, so do the challenges for Customer Success teams that we previously described. It’s therefore important to understand what part of the journey your customer success team is at so you not only make the best use of the available software tooling, but you also know when to use them.
Figure 1 represents the different phases that B2B software companies typically go through as the pace and volume of business begin to increase. More specifically the:
Building phase - you’re in this phase when you still don’t quite have product-market or the go-to-market fit and most of your sales comes from either inbound queries or deals led by your founder(s). Or founder-led selling. Usually, you don't have too many customers in this phase so Customer Success is typically delivering a “high touch” experience to most customers, with a particular focus on figuring out how to deliver the fastest “time to value” (TTV). During this phase it’s quite common for Customer Success to be very closely aligned to the product team as the major focus of the business is to get to product-market fit.
Accelerating phase - you’re in this phase when you have reached product-market fit and are rapidly closing the gap on go-to-market fit by scaling your sales, solutions engineering, marketing and Customer Success teams. As the number of customers has grown substantially, Customer Success is typically segmenting them into a “high”, “medium” and “tech touch”(or low touch) experiences and as delivering TTV is (hopefully!) better understood, much of the focus is on nurturing and increasing the customer's product usage and uncovering new use cases. As a result, alignment to the Sales team is usually more common at
Growth phase - you’re in this phase when you have closed the gap between product-market fit and go to market fit and now have multiple go-to-market sales channels in place (such as partners and resellers) as well as multiple Customer Success teams and programs. At this stage, the customers you’re managing might have increasingly complex use-cases and it might be harder to make them successful and keep them growing. Multiple skills and offerings are required such as professional services, deployment, development partners, and so on. As a result, a dedicated customer organization comprising multiple functions is usually where Customer Success finds itself.
As companies move through the phases, the volume and complexity of customers also tend to increase, meaning that Customer Success teams have to rapidly mature their offerings and operations whilst dealing with the ever-present challenges of lack of time, resources and budget.
As companies move through the phases, the volume and complexity of customers also tend to increase, meaning that the Customer Success teams have to rapidly mature their offerings and operations whilst dealing with the ever-present challenges of lack of time, resources and budget.
Coupled with the fact that there is a pressing need to move from reactive one on one support with a handful of early adopters to large scale programs and content that have to be delivered efficiently to thousands of customers (one to many), the use of technology becomes increasingly important.
Figure 2: Describes the kinds of tooling (or combination of tools) that are best suited to meet customer needs as you move through the building, accelerating and growing phases of the company and mature your Customer Success offerings. In the following section, we’ll take a closer look at the best ways to use these tools during the various phases of your company’s and Customer Success teams’ journey.
The Technology Stack
Now that we have taken a look at some of the challenges Customer Success teams are up against, we’ll take a deeper look at some practical solutions technology offers some of the most common problems as they go through the various phases of company and team growth.
As we described earlier, from our experience working with hundreds of different B2B software companies, we have grouped the existing software tools used by Customer Success teams into tools for:
- Organizing, managing, measuring and tracking customers and their feedback
- Minimizing time and effort on high volume yet lower impact tasks (like dealing with “how to” questions and escalating support issues)
- Nurturing product adoption and usage proficiency efficiently (at scale)
But what is the right combination of existing tools for the various stages your company and success team will go through and when is the best time to use them?
“The spreadsheet and video calling phase”.
During the “building” phase there is typically a lower volume of customers to manage, so it’s usually possible to give them a more “high-touch” level of engagement. Also at this stage, the success team is still very much in a “learning” mode - working to understand how to best engage, onboard, nurture and mature product use amongst a variety of different customers.
A typical scenario during this phase is to re-purpose internal communications tooling to support both quick ad-hoc one to one communication and more formal one too many conversations with customers and any of the internal groups that impact their success.
The vast majority of work needed to onboard customers and nurture their product adoption and usage proficiency can therefore be done using instant messaging and video conferencing tools with screen sharing of (often bespoke) onboarding and education content that has been specifically created for individual customers. Tools like Slack and Zoom for example have gained immense popularity across B2B organizations to support this.
While this might be labor-intensive for a company and success team, in the “building” phase this level and depth of engagement can provide highly valuable learning around what works and doesn’t work, quickly pinpointing areas where the product may need improvement as well as what education content is effective or needs creating or refining.
Handling “how-to” or support type questions in this phase can also be done quickly by repurposing the company email system and creating a support inbox. Whilst the limitations of this are obvious (lack of
reporting, limited automation etc.) as the customer volume is relatively modest (and assuming the product is of sufficient quality) the volume of inbound queries should be manageable with this use of email as a
basic ticketing system. In some cases, a system like Front which adds the increased capability to your shared inbox can offer a lot of additional useful capabilities over basic email.
Recording, tracking and managing customer interactions and tasks along with general success account planning in this building phase can also be done quite effectively given the lower volume of customers by using spreadsheets. Despite the lack of organization-wide visibility and limitations on access control, spreadsheets are readily available, highly customizable and typically quick to get up and running.
“The online community, Sales CRM and ticketing system phase”
As companies and success teams progress into the “acceleration” phase, the number of customers typically increases significantly (as does the risk of customer churn), and the limitations of video calls, bespoke content creation and spreadsheet-based customer management on scaling and efficiency start to become readily apparent.
At this stage, it’s vitally important for success teams to improve their onboarding and project management practices so they can scale effectively and most importantly efficiently (especially as there is almost always a lag between growing the success team and the growing customer base).
Hopefully, much of the initial learning in the building phase has resulted in the success team having at least a first version of a repeatable playbook (or “success motion”) for onboarding, nurturing and growing their customers. The focus then becomes how best to use technology to deliver this playbook efficiently, consistently, repeatedly and at scale.
It’s at this stage that internal communication tools that offer external capabilities emerge. Tools like Slack (with it’s shared channels feature) and online community platforms help scale customer engagement beyond 1:1 video calls and screen sharing.
They also provide an easy way to share content and solicit customer feedback in a much more scalable way and introduce what is often the first real opportunity customers have at self-service and learning from their peers.
The likely increasing volume of “how-to” questions and support issues at this stage can also be managed outside of email by using one of these externally capable communications tools. (e.g. by posting into
a dedicated online support group). However as reporting is typically a key requirement during the acceleration phase, a dedicated ticketing system like Zendesk, Freshdesk or Service Now become a more obvious option, especially as a dedicated ticketing system will almost always provide a knowledge base for common (and often) high volume Q&A questions with the added ability to efficiently automate responses for common queries with links to the relevant content.
The limitations of recording, tracking, and managing customer interactions and tasks in spreadsheets also become apparent now that
the customer base is likely to be in the hundreds (and growing). It’s at this stage that utilizing the Sales team’s CRM system (such as Hubspot or Salesforce) makes a lot of operational sense.
When a company is in the accelerating phase, the Sales team have likely been using a CRM for a while so it’s often feasible to repurpose any CRM objects they may have created for the success team e.g. a Sales Account Plan object can be cloned and adjusted with some modified or additional fields to create a Success Account Plan object). Usually, at this stage, the onboarding process and associated tasks are better understood by the Customer Success team and so it should be easier to standardize them. This means that spreadsheets used for managing onboarding projects can also be eliminated in favor of one of a whole host of dedicated project management tools like Asana, Forecast, Trello or Basecamp.
These tools often allow for standard project templates to be created along with the ability to invite customers to specific projects and assign them tasks. This means onboarding projects can be standardized to a degree that makes them more efficient, repeatable, trackable and visible. They also help to drive greater accountability for task owners (as it is much harder to ignore an assigned task in a shared project tool than it is in your email inbox!)
Now that the volume of customers has grown significantly, it’s usually only possible to provide in-depth video and screen sharing engagements to nurture product adoption and usage proficiency to a subset of (usually the largest) customers. In order to drive greater efficiency, it is therefore quite common at this stage to either repurpose an existing online community, shared Slack channel or ticketing system knowledge base as a content library for learning materials.
If however, the learning requirements for customers to drive value from your product are more complex, then utilizing a dedicated learning management system (LMS) such as Skilljar and LearnUpon might also make sense in this accelerating phase. LMS’ have the advantage of not only providing capabilities for managing and organizing learning materials, but they also make it easier to structure content into courses which can eventually be used to deliver customer certifications programs, especially when properly integrated into the rest of your companies’ technology stack.
“The multi-channel support, Success CRM and adoption tools phase”
As we saw earlier, the growth phase starts when the company and success team have grown and matured to the point where in addition to customer volume, the size and complexity of customers is at a point where the Customer Success team will typically have multiple specialized sub-teams and programs in place to ensure they are delivering value.
This is also the point where the success team is often dealing with a product that has grown significantly more capable and more complex They may even be dealing with onboarding and driving the adoption increasing usage of multiple products. At this stage, the complexity of customer needs and the specific
information and data that needs to be tracked and managed about customers have grown to the point that even using the Sales CRM has begun to show its limits in providing a full 360-degree overview of the customer.
Typically there’s now a need for the Customer Success team to have more automated workflows and the ability to aggregate multiple sources of usage data into a “health-score” that can be used for more efficient and proactive prioritization of customer engagement.
Whilst building this kind of capability might be possible in the existing Sales CRM, the time, effort and lack of resources to do so become a serious impediment to operational efficiency.
This is where the dedicated Customer Success CRM tools come in, with solutions such as Gainsight, Totango and Churnzero offering Customer Success teams greater automation and the flexibility to customize what is recorded and reported about customers. For example, building automated workflows for things like managing renewals & contracts management becomes much more straightforward as they are directly in the span of control of the Customer Success team.
Tools for multi-channel support are also typically required at this stage. The volume and complexity of customers is at a point that reducing any “barriers to engagement” with your company for common Q&A or support issues become increasingly important in order to maintain high levels of customer satisfaction and positive customer sentiment.
In addition to an online community platform or a ticketing system, additional support channels such as chat are common ways to provide multi-channel support at this stage. Deploying in-product Software Development Kits (SDKs) also greatly reduces barriers to engagement at this stage as they give customers the ability to review support content and raise tickets whilst they are actually using the product.
Multi-channel support tooling also makes it easier for companies at this stage to monetize support through advanced service-level offerings. For example, customers paying for “premier support” can gain access to support agents in real-time via chat as opposed to raising a ticket which may have a 4 hour response time SLA.
One of the side effects of a larger and more complex customer base is that the change management effort required to get customers to adopt your product(s) and use them to their fullest potential becomes especially challenging and increasingly time-consuming.
Digital Adoption Platforms like Pendo and WalkMe are especially useful at this stage as they can efficiently guide customers from basic to more complex workflows and use cases all whilst serving them the right content at the right time (contextually). As you continuously iterate on your product(s), Digital Adoption Platforms also make it much simpler to keep customers aware of and using any new capabilities you have on offer to them.
As success grows, so does technology
As your company and success team moves through the building, accelerating, and growth phases, we have seen that the challenges of a lack of time, resources and budget compound as the customer base becomes larger and more complex.
In this section, we hope we have been able to offer some practical guidance on how some existing tooling can be combined to help overcome some of these challenges, and when is the best time to deploy the right combination of tools so they are the most effective “force multiplier” of your existing
customer success efforts.
Figure 3 represents the combination of tools and when to deploy them that we’ve learned work best when your company and success team moves through the various stages of company growth.
Deploying a combination of these tools certainly goes a long way in overcoming some of the common challenges Customer Success teams face. However, even with these tools in place, achieving “true customer engagement” is still challenging. That’s because almost all of these tools are not purpose-built for Customer Success practitioners resulting in them being disconnected and disjointed and lacking the necessary integrations and a unified data layer that’s needed to provide a seamless user experience and complete context for every customer.
So, to round off this ebook we’ll take a look at what we believe are the missing pieces in a Customer Success technology stack to complete the puzzle of true customer engagement.
The path to true customer engagement
Customer Success is all about driving shared business value between companies and their customers. Staying in sync lies at the heart of this relationship, but true (and meaningful) customer engagement goes much deeper than a simple regular exchange of information between both parties. Working with hundreds of B2B Software companies, we have found that true customer engagement is actually the sum total of all the interactions your customers have with all of your:
- Employees: These interactions not only include your success team, but also any broader customer-facing roles like your support, services, product, and sales teams.
- Other customers: Beyond traditional customer interactions with your company, this also includes community peer-to-peer discussions and the sharing of broader best practices among your customers whether online or at in-person customer events.
- Content: This encompasses customer interactions with your success content. This goes beyond traditional ‘FAQ’ support content and includes all “post initial sales” materials such as thought leadership articles, product roadmap updates, best practices case studies from other customers on different use cases as well as your formal learning content.
Having this broader perspective is hugely advantageous as it allows for a much deeper, effective, and efficient level of proactive customer engagement, helping to streamline many of the key processes between companies and customers.
For example, organizing and prioritizing customer feedback or feature requests become much more effective when we understand whom the customer has engaged with internally (and about what), the content they have downloaded and read and the contributions they’ve made in your customer forum or online community.
The challenge however to gaining this true and meaningful customer engagement is that the necessary data and context that makes up the sum total of your customer’s interactions with you is either in tools that your success team does not currently have or it is stored and managed in various different existing but disconnected tools.
Figure 4: Shows the tools that Customer Success teams’ typically log in to today. As you can see, these tools are siloed and disconnected.
Figure 5: Represents what we believe to be the full suite of tools needed for true customer engagement. In addition to the tools where your Success team logs in, we have also included the tools where your customers log in such as online communities, product feedback tools and online user groups.
This suite of capabilities is however only partially connected but it does get us closer to true customer engagement.
The goal: a purpose-built engagement platform for Success teams
At inSided, we are firm believers in the power of technology to help drive true customer engagement.
We see countless examples every day of how facilitating peer-to-peer learning and centralizing content for customers not only speeds up a time to value but greatly reduces the product development cycle for vendors. What we also understand is that as companies move through the building, accelerating and growing phases they will have established some ways of working with their customers that are supported by their existing tooling.
Whilst this way of working may not be providing the complete picture needed for true customer engagement it would likely be disruptive (and potentially costly) to abandon them in favor of something else.
What if we could take this existing way of working and integrate them with the key missing elements like community and product ideation? In addition, what if we could layer on predictive and contextual
algorithms that serve up the right content to the right segment of customers at the right time all while analyzing the sentiment of customer posts and comments in the community to ensure that we are not missing any potential issues?
Such a platform could provide data and analytics combined from the systems of record your customer success team logs in to (like CRM and helpdesk ticketing) with the systems of engagement that your customers log in to like community and customer content.
Figure 6: The full suite of fully connected tools that give you true customer engagement.
At inSided we refer to this as a purpose-built “Customer Success Engagement Platform”. The benefits of such a platform would not only strengthen the investments made in existing tooling, but it would also provide significant internal benefits. The platform provides visibility on customers across the whole organization and is able to correlate the effectiveness of new product features or new content quickly, thus reducing the effort of product, support, and sales teams on high frequency but low-value reactive tasks.
Aside from helping to reduce internal silos and reducing costs, a platform like this would allow for existing tools to easily be integrated, thus increasing the benefit of existing software investments and lowering the burden or removing the need for other tools. It would also provide a unified and powerful set of customer analytics, combining business, usage, engagement, and sentiment data to help Success teams move from reactive to proactive engagement and ultimately allowing them to be predictive.
In order to scale efficiently, Customer Success teams continue to invest in customer programs for every segment of their customers, whether they are receiving a “white glove” level of engagement or a more technology-led self-service one. A platform like this makes efficient scaling across segments much easier by making it simpler to engage and communicate with customers at scale, increasing levels of self-service and peer to peer learning, maximizing the value of your success content as well as streamlining the process of product feedback, all whilst reducing the levels of support and “how-to” requests.
More importantly, for customers, a platform like this offers a centralized and highly personalized user experience, with predictive and contextual algorithms offering up the relevant people, community conversations and success content they need whenever and wherever they need it.
As we described in the introduction, the Customer Success profession has evolved way As we described in the introduction, the Success profession has evolved way beyond its early incarnation as a reactive support escalation function to one that is highly focused on delivering real and measurable business value.
Driving true customer engagement is at the core of delivering business value and at inSided our goal is to deliver true customer engagement by realizing our goal of a purpose-built “Customer Success Engagement Platform”.
Whether you are an early-stage company that’s running it’s customer success business on spreadsheets and video calling software or a more mature business that makes extensive use of CRM and learning management systems, we believe that an engagement platform such as this provides the ideal (and least disruptive way) to make the best use of your existing tools as well as providing any missing pieces of capability that are needed for true customer engagement.
Appendix - Product Categories used by Customer Success Teams
From our experience working with hundreds of different B2B software companies, we have grouped the existing software tools used by Customer Success teams into the following detailed product categories.