Published January 16, 2023
Authored by Marc Phillips
Scaled, digital customer success programs are all the rage and with good reason. Yet after investing in this transition some companies are seeing churn rates rise. What’s going wrong? As “the next big thing” traversing the infamous Gartner hype cycle, we are well into the exciting peak of inflated expectations. Already some organizations have passed the exciting slope of team enlightenment to reach the sought after plateau of increased productivity. Predictably though, several organizations have become mired in the tragic trough of disillusionment. Fortunately there are ways to create both the foundation and momentum needed to arrive safely on the other side. Before we highlight the key missteps on this journey - and how to avoid them, let’s take a quick look at why scaled programs are so promising and so necessary today.
It’s not me, it’s you
Plenty of customers love your company’s products and services. That doesn’t mean they always want to talk to a Customer Success Manager about how to “get more value”. Even the ones you have a great relationship with would probably usually rather be working on that thing that’s due in a few hours than attending your call. Other customers are less satisfied, or simply can’t figure out how to get what they need from them. Most of them don’t want to talk to you either. Here is our first challenge - whether or not they’re on the verge of churn, they need help. They’re frustrated. They’re under pressure. Yet they hesitate to reach out. They don’t know you. They assume you’ll try to sell them something. Worse, they fear you’ll waste their time. Think about your own experiences - how often have you been disappointed by the human on the other end of the phone, chat, or email in your daily life? How often have you been impressed and had your problems solved quickly? We may know that Customer Success Managers are best suited for strategic planning and outcome-focused guidance, but often customers assume the “S” is for either “Sales” or “Support” and aren’t sure which is more scary. Sadly, many Customer Success Managers bear the brunt of low expectations set by insufficiently trained “Customer Service” teams that consumers face in their personal lives. The math doesn’t look good, and humans tend to expect the most common scenario from the past to repeat itself in the future. The comparison and expectations may be unfair, but we must play the hand we’re dealt.
Enter the scaled digital program. What if you could help customers sidestep their fears entirely and empower them to help themselves without the pressure of unknown intent and talent? As the theory goes, scaled programs enable companies to provide easy-to-use, easy-to-find-what-you-need resources available to customers 24x7 without triggering dentist-level anxiety. The prevailing hype promises the separation of those SaaS providers with loyal fans from those facing retention apocalypse. Much of the data so far agrees with the premise. Scaled, digital, one-to-many Customer Success programs are wise investments, and are indeed driving gains in logo acquisition and revenue growth for many organizations with minimal additional headcount. So why are some SaaS providers not seeing the expected improvements, or worse, losing more customers after transitioning to scaled CS programs from more traditional approaches?
More does not mean better
The first reason that some scaled CS programs fail is simple outreach overload. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. While CSMs often curse the limitations of 1-to-1 customer engagements given the number of hours in a day they can split themselves across their book of business, we forget what a blessing this can be.
Creating hyper-individualized content for each stakeholder group and user type at each customer (even if templated) takes time. You’re just not going to be in their faces that often, regardless of whether they want you there. Usually it’s still often enough for growing the relationship and your business, assuming of course your content and recommendations are solid.
However, when CS teams are armed with the near-unlimited capacity of digital 1-to-many publishing and outreach programs without proper planning or constraints, customers can suddenly find themselves inundated with material that may not be pertinent to their goals or roles. Let’s assume they have access to a fantastic library of applicable content for their full customer base. Freed from the need to craft and personally target, some CS organizations embrace their new-found ability to scale their ‘digital touch’ by loading up their contact list into the automation hopper and unleashing unceasing barrages of messages. You’ve probably got several of these emails in your Inbox right now. They contain link after link to tutorials for scenarios you’ll never face, testimonials about how much other companies love some software your company happens to have a subscription to (that you may or may not even use), and maybe sometimes a hot tip that is actually helpful (if you haven’t already sent the full stream directly to spam). Personally I like a little mayonnaise on my hamburger bun, but a new machine or wider jar that cuts down mayo-application time by 10x should simply mean the restaurant can serve 10x more hamburgers in the same amount of time. If my next individual burger shows up with 10x more mayonnaise, I’m going elsewhere.
Lest we convince ourselves our team is ready to scale based on the checks and balances we’ve put in place to prevent outreach monsters and goopy buns, transitioning CS into a content generation and distribution machine poses another huge risk - creating impenetrable repositories of webinars, tutorials, and other digital assets that are equally unusable and off-putting to customers in need. Content is only king if your users can find their way into the castle. How will you guide customers to find what they are looking for quickly when you’re not around. This is a critical piece of any scaled program.
First the acorns, then the oaks
This leads to our second point. More important than *how* you scale your Customer Success programs is *what* Customer Success programs you scale. To paraphrase Seth Godin, if you’re not already nailing it with your current customers, then just doing more of the same thing in less time isn’t going to work. In fact it will likely hurt. Those 1-to-1 human relationships are likely papering over gaps in content and approach. You can’t have a human-intensive playbook with a high churn rate and “make it up in volume” by scaling the same steps. You need to get 1-to-1 right before shifting toward 1-to-many. Critically, you need to understand what specifically is driving retention and expansion today within your current programs. Do you have a good understanding of what’s working and what isn’t? Can you identify the commonalities of content and practices across sets of customers? This can cut across multiple customer dimensions, such as number of employees and annual company revenue, deal size, industry, and user personas. How much cross-pollination has there been across your team? How consistent is the messaging and methodology? The same things that make a great high touch Customer Success team are what will form the nucleus of your scaled digital program.
Wrapping it up
In conclusion, CS teams will need to build and scale digital programs to better serve their growing books of business in an increasingly competitive market and with flat budgets. But if your 1-to-1 isn’t strong or well understood, your 1-to-many will not help you achieve your goals. While this is not a guide to building scaled programs, it should serve as a bright red warning sign for how not to build them. Take the time to create a strong foundation first, and do it now. Even if your 1-to-1 approach is still serving you well with your current customer base, the inventory and audits necessary to prepare for 1-to-many in the future will serve your team well today. Enjoy the ride!
Marc Phillips is a software service delivery and business strategy leader committed to creating customer value and fostering high performing teams. Currently, Marc works with global enterprises as a Senior Customer Success Manager at Mezmo, a log management and observability data pipeline platform.