State of a category – customer success 2021

I’ve been in this space formally for almost 10 years now. I say formally because I’ve been doing the work a lot longer, just under another name. I’ve been passionate about it all these years and still am but after that long, you’ve got to question things. I’ve written on the state of customer success twice before, in 2017 and 2018. This is not such a post since they were in depth pieces based on the annual Pulse events run by the category builder Gainsight. This is just a simple temperature check, for my own sanity if nothing else.

First a word on the category in the title and the builder of it I mentioned, Gainsight. They may be the builder of the category (a good take here of that by their former CMO) but are not necessarily the company that established the practice. For that you would have to go back a little further, even to before the time I was involved: The History of Customer Success – Part 1.

Regardless, because I am not interested in the etiology, Gainsight are a good bellwether as to the state of customer success as a category. To the tune of $100M ARR as they recently announced they had reached that milestone: Gainsight Delivers Record-Breaking Year, Surpassing $100 Million ARR as Momentum for Customer Success Movement Accelerates Worldwide.

Delving into the movement they mention and looking at Google trends, there certainly seems to be a consistent and healthy rise in interest since I started out. I wouldn’t read too much into the current dip yet but could it be a portend?

Despite being an early proponent and longstanding practitioner, I’ve been questioning recent activities. I’m wondering, as with any movement I guess, if it has become a victim of its own success. Not that it has been overrun by charlatans, but there is a certain profit making about it, by a lot of people and companies just riding the coat tails, milking things.

I suppose that goes with the territory but I’m starting to question what is real and what is manufactured. I also question the application of the practice and its longevity. Maybe I’m just a grumpy old git that’s too long in the tooth, both in age and time in practice. But I can’t shake the feeling there is more to it than this.

I’ve been reading the tea leaves for some time and discovered others questioning things. Like this guy perhaps: Don’t Build a Customer Success Function. Regardless of his temperament, he does nail some really valid points. And then there is this interview over on DisruptTV which is run by Constellation Research. The video covers other topics but starts at the relevant point – an interview of someone in customer success who also makes some really valid points. If you don’t want to watch the video, here is a summary: Customer Success is an ethos, not a department.

That customer success is an ethos, not a department, is one of the very valid points they both make. The other is about ownership. Turf wars on owning the customer have existed long before customer success became a thing but its now reached a crescendo, especially with an incendiary title like customer success. What company wouldn’t want its customers to be successful with their products and hence how could it possibly be the remit of a single department or function.

I’m trendwatching a space that combines only just two areas with customer success (and one is derived from Customer Success). An indication I believe that it cannot exist alone. In that overview I haven’t even touched on other areas like sales and product development. I’ve written about this topic before, or rather doodled about it (see below): The new customer success partnerships.

In conclusion

I do think there is something to be said for someone being accountable for customer success. Whether it should be a function or role is debatable. In my view, the buck should stop at the CEO. And its a team sport – no one single discipline can be singularly accountable. There are too many touchpoints involved.

As for the category’s future and the genuine players in it, long may it continue to thrive and exemplify the purpose to help customers achieve their desired outcomes while using your product or service.

As for the often overwhelmed customer success manager (mostly because too much is expected of it currently), I think the role is going to evolve to become more enablement focused. Less selling and support, more education and evangelism. I also hope more focused, singularly on driving and measuring outcomes. I also think specialisations outside of the current role are going to evolve around operations and scale motions and demand generation as I am focusing on at the moment: Customer Success Marketing and Scale.

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