I’m extremely lucky to work in a space that supports remote working, where demand is booming. COVID-19 has driven demand in the opposite direction for many, effecting their very existing. For the lucky few, it can also be something of a double edged sword. Supporting your customers the right way regardless, is crucial.Continue reading “Balance customer success at scale with high touch when new demand spikes”
Customer success teams were put in place in technology SaaS and subscription companies to ensure that customers are successful in their use of the technology they invested in. They have become a core part of ensuring the customer derives long-term value and ultimately stays with the vendor (in other words renews the subscription).
But has the vendor and customer become too reliant on them?
I am a customer success manager. Far be it for me to be talking myself out of a job. But actually that is the point. If I could get to it (that point) I would have done my job I think.
Especially with technology products you would think that the technology itself would play a major role in helping users use it and get value out of it. And with the advent of AI, machine learning and automation, even more so.
Enterprise technology is quite a different beast though. The complexity of organisations means that technology use and adoption is not straightforward. It’s dependent on many environmental factors. Like culture, organisational complexity and maturity, etc.
Factors that technology is not good at dealing with but humans are. These have to be factored in, so to speak, in terms of how you ensure use and value creation of a technology in an organisational context. So I don’t see human effort going away anytime soon.
Still, lets look at how technology can and should help to alleviate burdensome tasks best left to machines.
In my mind, a lot of the help technology provides is ultimately geared towards the user being able to self help or serve. And its not just about the end user but also those responsible for end user adoption – the people customer success managers typically work with. I’ll call them adoption managers for sake of clarity. They are typically the ones served by Customer Success Managers most directly but as you will see in the next section, I certainly am driven to make them as self sufficient as possible too.
By this I mean two things:
- What role the technology itself provides with things like built in help and support from onboarding guides to a help manual that can be contextualised with key features as well as be generally available to users.
- What role any other technology provides to support the end users and adoption managers. For example, as part of recent hackathon efforts at Microsoft where I currently work, the team and I all won first at a local UK level and then at a global level, for a solution intended to support customer success managers and adoption managers. We called the solution Journey because that is what adoption typically is. Here are a couple of slides from our pitch deck which hopefully explain:
The origins of the idea and also current manual efforts are documented in this post I shared on LinkedIn: Co-owning success with Office 365 customers
Validation has come from winning the hackathon awards (at the global level we won in a field of over 24 000 competitors and 5 000 entries). We also received solid validation from customers we are working with on the current manual efforts mentioned and all new customers we introduce it to.
So it seems there is appetite for this gap in the market. You can watch a very short demo of what we pitched and won with and answer 3 short questions in a follow up survey here if you like – it would help with further validation.
AI and Automation
The future of customer service is about giving customers more control and better access to operations, so they can build their own experiences in real time. To do this, in addition to investing and moving customer service to cloud-based operations, they focus in on how to work better with automation.
I am totally in agreement with this as I wrote in this post: The Future of Customer Success is Not Human. Even though the context of the study above covers customer service trends which is very different to customer success, it is still broadly applicable. The domain is the same.
I think these activities are going to continue to expand in use and value, especially to alleviate customer success manager efforts where they are overloaded and too much is expected of them and where bureaucracy has crept in.
Technology can help reduce bureaucracy
In the post where I wrote that the future of customer success is not human, I quoted a study on bureaucracy. It has customer service, in which again I would suggest customer success falls, at the top of the rankings of roles and fields where bureaucracy has crept in (list of rankings pasted again here). Being a practitioner I would concur with that and the point I made then and again now is that technology can help avoid this.
Of course a large portion of the problem stems from overzealous management ptractices which is not something technology can help with. But by and learge I see it as a valuable counterbalance.
What needs for human intervention will never go away?
Assuming that technology can take up a lot of slack and reduce bureaucracy, what does this leave the customer success manager and those responsible for adoption to do?
Well it will be to focus on those intractable problems that I mentioned earlier technology will not be able to help us with and will become increasingly needed. Thorny problems and challenges that can be overcome to improve the customer experience. Those that require and will take imagination, creativity and innovation and will focus on the challenging art of managing people.
I have two separate posts on these topics that elaborate on that if interested.
It’s a pretty provocative statement, I know. To be clear, I’m not suggesting humans won’t be involved any longer or that there won’t be a need for them.
If anything, humans will be liberated to carry out the high-touch, heavy lifting work we are uniquely qualified to do and should be focusing on instead, like complex and creative problem solving, relationship building, strategy setting, and more.
The work that is repetitive can be automated and managed by AI, bots, etc. Things like onboarding new users, growth hacking (tracking use and suggesting amplifying or mitigating actions) and general product optimization, will be able to be programmed and managed by these advances.
This is particularly relevant when faced with the increasing burden that a growing rate of bureaucracy places on individuals in organizations, especially those like CSMs, who are most directly involved in creating customer value.
Based on this HBR study (see chart), you can see that customer-facing roles have the highest rates of increase in bureaucracy. Mitigating the increase in bureaucracy for these roles by implementing tools with automation and AI capabilities could be an ideal solution.
To provide some context, this research will be a part of my new eBook – I’m exploring this angle in a chapter (see point 8).
My heading is not so alarmist when you consider the claims that robots and AI are going to be the drivers of productivity in just about anything in the near future. Lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, and programmers are all going to be affected. In my opinion, Customer Success as an infant profession is not going to be immune either and it’s the way it should be.
To reiterate, I’m not saying humans won’t have a role. I’m saying they can and will, but it will be a smaller one and much more focused. I’m not sure to what degree – maybe the 80 / 20 rule will apply? If that is the case, there is still the potential that humans can play a disproportionately large role in daily CS operations.
The human’s role notwithstanding, in this post and indeed, in the chapter, I want to explore how AI and automation are already starting to play a role and how that will be enlarged over time. Another factor to keep in mind is the function of the product itself.
The product’s role in customer success
To explain my last point briefly, I am referring to the role an excellent product plays, one with superb usability, that delivers critical business benefits, etc. No amount of AI or automation is going to solve the issues that emerge when a product is convoluted to use, and creates mountains of arduous and unnecessary work for users. Metaphorically, it’s like pushing a proverbial boulder up a hill and this is made worse when there is no clear business benefit.
To take it one-step further, people have even anticipated “anti-active usage” products. From this excellent article, The Next Generation of SaaS Won’t Optimize for User Engagement:
“With anti-active usage products, you don’t necessarily need to use the product to get something done because the product (1) understands the problem, (2) works out a solution and (3) outputs a result. Anti-active usage products don’t need human interactions at any level of their value-chain.”
I mentor startups, and several of the ones I have worked with are already moving into this space. TIQ probably best illustrates this premise – their software facilitates time tracking by connecting to the tools you use to get your work done. TIQ automatically creates an overview of the time you have spent on separate documents, emails, meetings, and other activities, and all you do is confirm (tick off) what gets logged. The objective is to spend less time on the function AND using the tool, reducing the need for manual inputs entirely.
Current state of activities
My interest in this whole area was piqued when I listened to Derek Roberts, the Director of Services, Strategy, and Operations at HubSpot, speak at Pulse 2017 (the annual Customer Success conference) earlier this year. I documented my learnings from the event, including a summary of his talk, here: State of Customer Success – Learnings from Pulse 2017. (Here are his slides and audio, if you’d like to see more details).
I then, coincidentally, bumped into the folks at Strikedeck, who are in the Customer Success space as well, and are doing an excellent job in this area. I arranged for a few conversations, and a demo of their tool, so I could find out more.
There are two things Strikedeck focuses on, amongst many others, that I wanted to explore in detail, that are relevant to this whole area.
Integrations, Data, and Dashboards
Strikedeck seamlessly integrates with at least 50 connectors already, and is architected to easily be able to build out more, as long as the other systems have open APIs, web hooks, etc.
They integrate with marketing automation, CRM, event trackers, call centers, billing systems, and many other data applications so you can reach out to customers at just the right moment and see all their information in one place. Connecting to Salesforce, Marketo, Zendesk, Google Analytics and more is entirely self-service, and done in a few clicks. Each integration can be completed in less than 20 minutes.
This is fundamental to be able to start some of the necessary automation work, and because you need access to the data on product usage to be able to act on it.
It is all presented in easy to view and modify dashboards – screenshot below:
In my mind, the three steps I outlined in the sub header are the critical setup to follow sequentially and have available as features to carry out the necessary work.
In the demo, I also noticed that customer experience can be tracked in terms of progress across predetermined paths. It can be taken from other systems (renewal data from CRM), but can also be included manually from input into the tool upfront.
This last area above fits nicely into the role I see Customer Success Managers playing in determining the optimal customer experience that I cover in my eBook. After all, to properly affect optimal customer experiences, you need to be able to map them and track progress on the path.
Detailed segmentation is also possible in Strikedeck, with relevant slicing and dicing of views. This then leads naturally into the next important area in which automations are activated and set up.
Workflow, Tasks, and Playbooks
An automation workflow allows you to activate email campaigns, survey series, slack & text messages, schedule meetings and calls, activate in-app notifications for your customers, create tasks for your Customer Success teams, update customer data objects in any of the target sources (CRM, Help Desk etc.) based on the trigger criteria set (support ticket, product usage, stakeholder role change, billing information, and more). This functionality can be customized to display the triggers that are critical in your business use cases. Some screenshots below:
Playbooks are another area that support CSMs in how they automate their activities. Playbooks are essentially an execution script of tasks, notifications, and escalations with relative dates and dependencies. Playbooks ensure consistency and standardization of best practices across the organization.
The best way to think of a playbook is to see it as a set of automated workflow actions that are launched as soon as the first trigger is activated. You can specify if the workflow is a task or action, set priorities, determine dependencies, and create timelines for completion.
Playbooks can be used in situations like:
- Dissatisfied Customer – Triggered by a low NPS or support ticket
- Product Usage Drop
- Account Renewal
- New Customer Onboarding
AI, Bots, and Beyond
I asked Strikedeck about these areas of functionality in their product, and they have some really exciting features coming up:
Coach: A Bot that lives inside the product and is a coach to the users of the product, helping them get more ROI from the product. Based on how a user is utilizing the product, the Strikedeck ‘Coach’ will automatically suggest what the user can do to improve usage. This can be activated through a ‘Coach Me’ button inside the product. The ‘Coach’ is rule-based initially, and over time learns to give better suggestions.
Zen: A Bot (initially on Slack and Gmail) that provides information on a customer. Anyone in the organization can ask a question, like – what’s the revenue for Customer A? or When’s the renewal due for Customer B? or Which customer could be a good reference advocate for telecom industry? – and the bot will search the database for the correct answer so CSMs don’t have to do the research themselves.
I can see a combination of trends coming together to facilitate how a user will get value from a product and how this will allow Customer Success Managers to expedite help for the user.
What do you think – future or fantasy?
I mentor startups that go through Microsoft Accelerator’s London program. Because of recent experience I focus on customer success management practices and enterprise software startups, but not exclusively. I recently joined a startup (again) and here too I’m helping with building out a customer success practice.
In all cases what often comes up is the importance of an online presence to deal with various elements of customer success. So I thought I would capture what I have recently been communicating as important and that is the purpose of this post. If you are not sure about what customer success is, I’ve written a simple primer on SlideShare.
To clarify what I mean by online presence, this doesn’t just mean a website with some documentation. This could be a basic starting point but there are many more considerations. I’ve broken these out into sections in this post, explained each and tried to give examples from companies who I know do it well.
The purpose of a good online presence would be to educate, support and add value to the way the customer uses products and services. As an extension of a company’s support, service and customer success department it’s intended to scale those efforts. If done really well it will enhance the customer experience, build an army of customer advocates and ultimately drive loyalty.
This goes a step beyond basic product information that would be well served by a good document library. Incorporating rich media like a video series and even going as far as incorporating a certification program could really enhance a learning program. Pixelmator does an awesome video tutorial series.
Education doesn’t just have to be delivered on the site itself. Offer a webinar series where customers can sign up and attend predetermined sessions with other customers. These would be delivered using screensharing, chat and audio/video software. This could be added to a formal training program as a way to top up and refresh learning.
A webinar series needs a team to run regular sessions that customers can get a calendar view of from a page on your site, sign up for and drop in to. If you have a global customer base, stagger the times to cover all time zones.
This is the dark horse of a well delivered customer success presence. Not easy to deliver well, it takes serious and authentic effort. If achieved it can deliver substantial benefits:
- Customer on customer support, scaling and reducing your own support efforts and costs
- Building an army of customer advocates they scale your marketing efforts
- Incorporating good collaborative and content features can really help drive the learning process for customers in the community.
Salesforce have done an amazing job with this incorporating their own community platform on the back of their success site.
On the risk side, you may have customers mounting an insurrection if things go wrong or they don’t quite appreciate a new product release. Having a good community management contingency plan in place is critical. The Community Roundtable has an excellent Community Manager Handbook if you want to develop this further.
This is a fairly obvious area and the cornerstone of any attempt to help customers. Mostly a case of helping them with problems they are experiencing with your product or service, it’s often a question of turning a negative situation into a positive one. But that is a golden opportunity to enhance the customers experience if done well.
In an enterprise environment with a complex product or service that’s especially tricky. Support for the enterprise may have to take many different user types into consideration like the end-user, someone who acts on their behalf, an IT help desk for instance, etc.
A means to log issues and track responses would be table stakes but even this is not done well by many, if at all. In my view this is best done on a site (main site and/or a support or success site and also “in app” ideally) and personalised to the individual so he or she can track progress and responses, rather than via email. Other things to think about (and check out Code School who does a great job with many of its activities):
- Do you offer a good FAQ (and good search) where users can find a solution without needing to raise a support ticket?
- Is there a way to contact a human immediately in the event of a pressing problem, either by phone or by chat?
- Can and should you go beyond problem resolution to feature requests, e.g. an area for users to submit and vote on ideas?
- With all that is possible these days with AI and chatbots, can you automate the process?
Again this is a really basic area that should be relatively easy to do well. Surprisingly many companies don’t.
You should at the very least have a well laid out and searchable or filterable document area on your site. The structure should be intuitive in relation to your product and service or offering. You could go further and structure the content for user type or proficiency level.
In addition to this there are some really basic things you can do to enhance the experience. For instance, you can incorporate rich media like video but if you want to keep that to a learning section, you could simply include gifs which are simple, animated images.
Percolate where I currently work does a really good job of this in my view.
If you have decided to expose your thinking about the future direction of your product (this is something more specific to product features than service elements) you can make this a compelling part of your efforts. This is also most often a consideration with complex enterprise software products where future enhancements might impact on a customers operations. It’s of special interest to those responsible for the platforms use.
There are risks to doing this. Customers holding you to ideas that are in essence just ideas, not commitments to develop something. The risk is you add something to the roadmap and then for some reason or another it has to be removed or changed. Expectations that this created then have to be managed. If done well this can be an incredibly powerful way of engaging and ultimately committing customers to the future of your product and company by making them co-creators.
If you were to offer a feature request and/or ideas section on your site, this could even be incorporated into the approach. Submitted ideas that are incorporated into the product roadmap is an incredibly tangible way of showing customers that they are co-creators of your product.
Microsoft does this really well for Office 365 features and they took this approach from Yammer where I used to work until we were acquired by Microsoft and we then perfected the approach.
Other things to think about:
- Positioning and branding
Showing customers how committed you are to their success seems a natural strategy. You could make your customer success efforts a substantial part of the selling proposition by emphasising them boldly. Salesforce is probably the best example of this (link shared further up). Like them you might do it separately or on your main website, with pro’s and con’s to either. You could give them a specific identity that employees who focus on this and in general, as well as customers, can align with.
- Customer success stories and use case library
Use cases are the currency of a good customer success program. Both to show customers how they can use your product or service as well as to capture good use of it (thereby inspiring further use). If you turn the latter into well told stories that resonate then even better. Some way of capturing and categorising them for easy reference would be useful.
- Customer success program
Have one in the first place (I cover this in my primer shared at the beginning) and then lay it bare for customers to see. The benefit of this is that customers are shown you are serious and have a well laid out approach to making them successful. It should also show what resources you are putting behind this but also the commitment required on their side – because you cannot always outsource customer success.