“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Vince Lombardi

In my previous posts (see here and here), I wrote about what you need to be thinking about as you go about setting up your customer success operations – data, process and people. I concluded by stating that you should take an iterative approach and focus on the 1-2 things that will get you the maximum bang for your buck. Perfection is a worthy but unattainable goal, but just as surely, the pursuit of perfection brings about excellence.

As you design your customer success operation, you should be thinking about the skills that you will need to develop in your team. These skills are not static and will need to be matched to the needs of your organization as it evolves, the markets it operates in, and the customers it serves. Shortly after I published my last post, I came across this excellent post by Omid Razavi, about the four traits of customer success management.

Omid proposes that we use the following framework to design and build a customer success team.

It is a highly insightful piece that every customer success executive should read and consider carefully, so I will not repeat what he has said here. He wraps up by posing a very relevant question to the reader – “What traits/characteristics are you looking for in a CSM?” and that is the question I will venture to address here. In this post, I will outline an approach you can use to apply this framework to your specific needs.

The needs placed on the customer success professional are a function of four factors – two internal (company, product) and two external (business domain, marketplace/competition). Each of these factors has a distinct impact on the skills required in the customer success team. More importantly, this influence tends to evolve over time. Let me explain.

1. Company

The current state of the company has a very strong influence on the needs of customers, and by extension, the skills required in the customer success team. Lets consider three aspects of the impact of the company:

  • Stage in the company’s lifecycle
  • Budget
  • Organizational “velocity”

Stage in the company’s lifecycle: When a company is just getting off the ground, and has a small, but rapidly growing, customer base, it should invest in relationship skills. This is a function of customer needs – the early adopters will require a lot of handholding – and the risk profile – an early startup can ill afford churn of any sort.

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On the other end of the spectrum, a company with a large customer base cannot serve each of them equally. It will have to segment its customers, usually based on value, and assign resources appropriately. In order to do so effectively, it will need a strong data science capability – to identify the top customers that require personalized outreach, and to identify the needs and future behavior of the larger customer base so that it can have a more effective mass outreach program.

Budget: This is always an important factor that pervades everything else, but still merits a discussion on its own. Let’s consider two scenarios – a scenario in which the budget is severely constrained, and another in which it is “adequate”, as in the budget is not unlimited, but is not a constraining factor either.

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When budgets are constrained, the manager has no choice but to invest in efficiency at the cost of a personal touch. This will require a data science engine that brings in data from multiple sources and covers product usage trends to identify customer health and risks, and can proactively guide the team members to make the best of a limited resource pool.

On the other hand, when budgets are not as constrained, the manager should invest in building up business knowledge so that team members can become trusted advisors to their customers. Depending on the specific situation, it may also make sense to invest in technical expertise and relationship skills as well.

Organizational “velocity”: The third aspect of the Company’s impact is its “velocity.” In this context, I am trying to highlight the rate of change within the company and account for the impact of this velocity on customers. As the pace increases, the company will have a harder time keeping customers up-to-date with the latest developments. In this instance, the data science engine becomes very important because it will be the key to identifying how well customers are keeping pace, and to helping the company identify the best strategies to ensure that this happens on an ongoing basis.

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2. Product

The second factor, again an internal one, is the product. I will examine three aspects of the product in this post:

  • Stage in the product lifecycle
  • Product complexity
  • Barriers to entry/exit

Stage in the product lifecycle: The product lifecycle has a strong influence on the skills required in the customer success team, but this influence varies over the course of its lifecycle. In the early days, relationship skills are critical, as customers will very likely require lots of handholding. As the product matures, this aspect will recede, and business knowledge will become more important as customers master the product, and start looking to derive even more value from it. This stage also coincides with a larger number of customers, and will therefore bump up the importance of the data science skills in the team.

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Product complexity: This aspect is static in the sense that its influence does not vary over time. As the complexity of the product increases, managers will need to invest in developing technical expertise in their team members so that they can help customers deploy the product, and make full use of its capabilities. They will also need to invest in the acquisition of business skills so that the customer success professionals can become their customers’ trusted advisors, and expand the relationship in mutually beneficial ways over time.

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Barriers to Exit: This aspect enables (or precludes) a tactical approach to the design of the customer success team. As the barriers to exit become stronger, managers have an opportunity to focus more on business knowledge because the customer is already deriving significant value from the product (which raised the barrier to exit in the first place).

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I don’t mean to be cynical, and am not in any way advocating that a company exploit these barriers. The implicit assumption is that customers have gone past the point where they need handholding or extensive technical advice. The presence of a barrier merely enables a company to invest in developing solutions that allow them to become trusted advisors to their customers, thereby further increasing the barrier to exit.

To Be Concluded

I know this was a long post, but Omid’s insightful piece deserved at least that level of consideration. In the next post, I will conclude with the impact of the external factors – business domain and marketplace/competition – on the design of your customer success team. Please don’t wait to send in your comments; I would love to hear from you. Stay tuned…