Where Should Customer Success Reside?

The concept of Customer Success has really taken off over the last 5-7 years and has become a core business function for many companies. The emergence of subscription based products was an evolution-forcing event, which necessitated a new model of managing, engaging, and most importantly, retaining customers. Success evolved from various corners of the organization and has roots in account management, support, user experience, consulting, and sales. The specific practices and levels of engagement can vary widely across different markets, products types, B2B vs. B2C, subscription vs non-subscription-based models, enterprise vs SMB, and other aspects. With this varying and (continuously) evolving concept, the question of who owns Customer Success is always up for discussion.

The group which owns responsibility for Success tells you a lot about the organization and its focus. While the answer to this question may seem pretty straight forward, it is anything but! The evolution of Customer Success has seen Success move into areas that overlap with the responsibilities of many traditional departments which has made it one of the underlying factors in the questioning of where Success should reside.

You will hear people adamantly state where they believe Success should reside and it usually is not based on an objective viewpoint or deeper analysis, but on their own past experiences and specific backgrounds. Sales might say that they own the customer as renewals are a sales motion, while Support might say that they are the ones working with customers and solving their issues, thus making it a support-oriented role. You will even hear people say that Customer Success is everyone’s responsibility. While this is a great mindset, it is not sufficient on its own, to ensure your customers are obtaining the value they require to remain loyal to your company, or even become advocates.

Responsibilities of Success

To find the answer to this question, we must first define the scope of Customer Success as understanding the responsibilities and motions of Success will help us better understand where it sits within and touches other parts of the organization. The scope of responsibility for Customer Success is also another topic (to be discussed later) which is widely open for discussion. Customer Success usually encompasses most, if not all of the following areas:

  • Time to value
  • Implementation
  • Onboarding
  • Adoption and usage
  • User experience
  • Engagement
  • Account management
  • Health
  • Advocacy
  • Value realization
  • Renewal and upsell

Success touches on many different aspects of the customer, as evident from the potential scope listed above, so there are many groups which could potentially claim a stake to the ownership of Customer Success. Many of the metrics which drive success are the same metrics used by these other departments. These include NPS, customer satisfaction, win ratio (churn), adoption, advocacy rankings, health rankings, and many more. Therefore, not only do many of the functions overlap with Success, but various departments share similar metrics with it as well.

Let’s dive into each department to discuss how they align with Customer Success, and why they may or may not be the correct owner of Success.

Customer Support

Most people tend to get confused between Customer Success and customer support, usually considering them to be two peas in a pod. This misconception stems from the fact that both teams focus on enhancing the customer experience and making sure that customers are healthy and happy. The underlying ideology behind the two organizations differs greatly, which is why Support should not own Customer Success.

Traditional customer support models are reactive in nature (the customer comes to you with a problem) and focuses on troubleshooting and resolving those issues. There are certain parts of traditional support mechanisms that overlap with Customer Success, such as knowledge bases and resolving issues. Customer Success and customer support should co-own the customer knowledge base, with support focusing on providing content related to products, how-tos, and workarounds, while CS will typically focus on the customer journey with your products, best practices, and value realization.

Customer Success, on the other hand, is proactive (and preemptive when mature) in nature focusing on increasing value and adoption, as well as eliminating obstacles and issues before they negatively impact customers. Customer Success nurtures customers, keeping them healthy, proactively avoiding issues, and driving value realization activities through targeted engagements such as onboarding, success assessments, and QBRs – it is a constant state of monitoring and measuring.

Given the stark difference between the two, it would not be correct for customer support to own Customer Success.

Sales

When the question of ownership for Customer Success arises, Sales is usually quick to rise to the occasion and pitch to take CS under its umbrella. Traditionally, Sales has owned account management and sales revenue, to which it sometimes includes renewals. Whether or not Customer Success owns renewals is again another topic for discussion. Sales is structured and has expertise in generating a pipeline, while Customer Success involves much more than simply renewing customers. Sales needs to be focused on acquiring new customers (hunting), and not maintaining the existing customer base (farming).

One of the key aspects of Customer Success is to be the trusted advisor to the customer. They provide customers with specific and unbiased recommendations on how to increase value realization and align solutions to the customer’s needs/pain points. These recommendations can sometimes conflict with the responsibility of salespeople to increase revenue. This conflict of interest is a key reason why success should not reside within the Sales department. In order to be their trusted advisor, Customer Success must be able to provide objective recommendations to customers that don’t conflict with their other responsibilities.

Marketing

There is a viewpoint that marketing should own Customer Success, since Marketing has traditionally owned the messaging and user experience for customers. Moreover, some of the Customer Success activities cross into the traditional Marketing domain – there is a growing trend for Customer Success to automate the engagement of key stakeholders and individual users with marketing-oriented processes. This style of engagement is something that I embrace wholeheartedly, as it reaps many benefits.

Similarly, as we have seen sales and account management evolve with the advent of Customer Success, we too see Customer Success taking ownership (but not always) of some marketing-centered customer engagements, such as advocacy and reference programs. With the passage of time, advocacy programs are increasingly becoming a core aspect of CS programs – results are then monitored and measured against the progress generated by these programs. Success also leverages many of the same metrics (NPS, customer SAT, etc.) which marketing and support organizations have traditionally focused, so the overlap is in both motion and measure.

Typically, we are seeing these motions as a partnership between Customer Success and marketing. Customer Success has become the primary “customer engager” with the strongest relationships with the customer, and thus the best insight into the accounts that will make the case studies, the individuals that will have the best stage presence, and the customer stories that align the most to certain advocacy objectives.

Although Marketing has the expertise in the functions listed above, they do not, however, have the experience or ability to drive the other key aspects of success such as renewal, time to value, implementation, and account management. Therefore, Marketing should not be the one owning Customer Success.

Bottom Line

Companies that place Customer Success subordinate to one of the other major organizations are demonstrating by action that Success is not an integral part of the company’s DNA, and that Success is simply an extension of another function. For companies to be truly customer centric, Customer Success should be a separate identity and have a seat at the table reporting directly to the CEO. Success must be ingrained in a company’s DNA – the Success leader level (VP, director, etc) simply depends on the size and maturity of both the company as a whole, and the success organization itself.

Can companies perform well when Customer Success is placed within one of these other groups? Sure. As we discussed, there are many ways to organize and execute Customer Success. However, Customer Success needs to own the customer and have the proper position in the company in order to have the most effective organization which is not diluted with other organizational objectives and mindsets.

This focus and prioritization of Success as an integral function of the company sets the tone for the company as a whole and the company culture automatically gears more towards customer centricity, forcing metrics such as customer value, NPS, satisfaction, and loyalty to be deeply ingrained in the company philosophy. Success must be a top down driven culture integrated into the very fabric of the company. All roads lead to Success.

Garrett Reynolds

Head of Customer Success and Support, Yotascale