How to build a customer success team from scratch
How to build a customer success team from scratch

When a new company hits the growth phase, there are a few logical team-building steps it normally takes to keep on growing at a steady pace. Usually, one of the first things the founding team will do is invest in building a marketing team to help it attract new leads. After demand is in place, they'll need to establish a sales team to turn those leads into customers. And, after that? The company will need a customer success team, which helps keep those customers.

Delivering on promises and helping customers get the most out of your product and services should be a part of any business's long-term strategy โ€” and building a customer success team is a key part of that. Read on to learn how to build a customer success team from scratch, and how to make sure your customers get the most possible benefits from that team.

What is customer success?

At its core, customer success means helping customers reach their desired outcomes โ€” not necessarily your own โ€” through your product or service. It requires working with your customers to develop a deep understanding of their needs, and then working proactively to meet them. Customer success strategies are meant to create the ideal customer experience, as well as help boost customer retention and loyalty, while lowering churn rates.

The idea of building a customer success team is only about 25 years old. In 1996, the CEO of Vantive discovered an individual customer named Marie Alexander who was using the company's CRM software in unexpected and innovative ways. He hired Marie to help the company discover all the other innovative ways that customers might use CRM software, and the customer success industry was born.

Customer success differs from customer support in a key way: while customer support tends to help customers with problems reactively, a good customer success team is proactive, attempting to anticipate problems and needs before they happen and working with customers to grow alongside them.

What does a customer success team do?

What does a customer success team do

Customer success teams are responsible for:

  • Managing day-to-day customer success. This is the work that's most often associated with customer success roles: building relationships with clients, helping boost retention (by checking on performance metrics and brainstorming ways to improve), and helping reduce customer churn (by working directly with customers to ensure they're maximizing the value of the product or service).
  • Onboarding new customers. Your customer success team is responsible for helping new customers implement your product or service, either one-on-one or at scale. They should also take the lead on creating, documenting, and standardizing your onboarding process to help more customers implement successfully.
  • Providing support throughout the customer life cycle. Most reactive support needs should be handled by a customer support team. But your customer success team will still need to support the customers they're managing from time-to-time, especially with more complex issues.
  • Training and educating customers. Customer success teams should be constantly engaging customers through ongoing education. This can include webinars, email campaigns, certifications โ€” whatever it takes to help customers use your product or service to the fullest.
  • Renewing customer memberships. When it's time for customers to renew their contract or membership, the customer success team should guide them through that process and secure their renewal.
  • Upselling and cross-selling customers on new products and services. A huge part of the customer success team's role is anticipating customer needs, which often means offering other products or services that might be a better fit. When this happens, the CS team should take the opportunity to cross-sell or upsell customers whenever appropriate.
  • Tracking metrics and insights about customers. Your customer success team should be the company experts on your customers. They should continuously develop insights about your product, feature set, ideal customer persona, and customer needs โ€” then share those insights across the company. They can help the product team identify which features to develop next, or help the marketing team use language that speaks to why customers need your product. Their work should help the entire company be more successful at knowing, anticipating, and meeting customers' needs with your product or service.

How do you know when to build a customer success team?

Most companies form a customer support team right off the bat. After all, customers are going to run into issues and need help resolving them. Does the same logic apply to a customer success team?

Not necessarily. For a bootstrapped startup with limited resources, a customer success team may not be necessary in the beginning. In fact, the team might be more successful if you hold off on forming it until you have a few customers โ€” and have collected some data about their wants and needs. This will allow your customer success team to really add value.

Of course, you want to build a customer success team before you start having problems with churn. But if you notice customers churning and you aren't entirely sure why they're leaving your product or service behind, it's a good time to start gathering data (say, by giving customers an exit survey) and employing a customer success team to help head off the problems that are causing the churn.

In short, companies at the earliest growth stages don't usually need a CS team. They should start thinking about it when they have high-value customers โ€” for example, when 30% of their customers comprise 60% of their revenue. At that point, a CS team will be key to continued growth and success.

Building your customer success team with the right people

Like any other team in your company, a customer success team is all about the people in it. By looking for excellent hires who have the right mix of skills and personality traits, you can set your team up for success.

Important skills to look for in your customer success team

Important skills to look for in your customer success team

Excelling in a customer success role requires a mix of relevant experience and crucial soft skills. Here's what to look for when hiring your CS team:

  • Comfort in a customer-facing role. This is vital. CS team members will be working with all customers, regardless of the size of the account. Members of your customer success team must be comfortable working one-on-one with small clients, managing high-value enterprise accounts, and everything in between.
  • Knowledge of customer success best practices. For most roles, especially management and above, it's important to look for experience and success in past CS roles. Candidates should understand what a CS team does and how to measure its impact, including important customer success KPIs.
  • Adaptability. Your customer success team will likely need to make changes to its strategy on the fly as new problems arise or they anticipate new customer needs.
  • Empathy. One of the most important things for a CS team member to be able to do is put themselves in the customer's shoes. CS roles require a deep and nuanced understanding of the company's customers and their wants, needs, pain points, and more. Empathy is a crucial piece of that puzzle.
  • Ability to stay calm and level-headed under pressure. Customer success team members will likely deal with some of the hardest problems your customers face. They must be able to do so calmly. This includes working with customers who may be frustrated or upset. It can also include educating customers, which can require the ability to skillfully and respectfully challenge what the customer wants, versus a possible better solution that comes with intimate product understanding.

Customer success team roles you need to know

It takes a number of different roles to build a customer success team. These are some of the most important โ€” and roles you should consider filling when building your first CS team from scratch. Note that not every company will start their CS team with all of these roles โ€” in some cases, a CS team lead makes more sense as a first hire than a CCO or VP.

Chief Customer Officer

The person in this role will likely oversee everything the customer success team does โ€” along with all other customer-facing functions in the company. As a C-level executive, this person will work alongside the rest of the C-suite to plan multi-year strategies at the highest level.

VP of Customer Success

The VP of Customer Success should report to the Chief Customer Officer, but instead of overseeing all customer-facing functions in the company, the VP should focus specifically on the functions of the customer success program. This person should direct the company's customer success roadmap at a high level, including working with the CCO to determine multi-year plans for the team.

The VP of customer success should also perform some crucial functions that help the rest of the customer success team meet their goals, including:

  • Managing customer success initiatives, like developing onboarding workflows.
  • Tracking KPIs that help determine customer success, and creating benchmarks for the team.
  • Creating a customer journey map and defining touchpoints, while documenting the customer success strategy for each stage of the customer life cycle.

Customer Success Team Lead

A Customer Success Team Lead should manage the day-to-day operations of the CS team. They should have a strong understanding of the team's long term strategy and goals, and be able to work toward implementing them. They are also responsible for training new members of the CS team.

Customer Success Managers (CSMs)

A customer success team will likely have more Customer Success Managers, or CSMs, than any other role. As reps who will work directly with customers, CSMs are the heart of the team โ€” they're responsible for carrying out the day-to-day operations that ensure ongoing customer success.

How to build a customer success team from scratch

Understanding the functions and roles of a customer success team lays the foundation for building one. The following steps can help growing companies build their CS teams from the ground up, ensuring that they can continue to meet their customers' most important needs as they scale up.

How to build a customer success team from scratch

Step 1: talk to customers

One of the hardest parts of building a customer success team is determining the right time to do so. You can keep a finger on the pulse of whether your organization needs a CS team by constantly talking directly to your customer base.

You should strive to create a detailed profile of what your best customer looks like. Listen for customers who are using your products or services in ways other than you intended. Find out why churning customers leave โ€” and why loyal customers stay.

Step 2: create an onboarding workflow

Onboarding new customers will be one of the biggest responsibilities handled by your customer success team. You can give the team a head start by already having an established, documented, and standardized onboarding process in place. That way, your customer success team can get to work immediately to refine and perfect the existing process, rather than starting from scratch while actively onboarding new customers.

Step 3: survey customers at every stage of their lifecycle

Another great tool to give to an early-stage customer success team is as much data as possible about your company's user experience. A great way to start is by gathering customer feedback at strategic points along their journey โ€” during onboarding, at renewal times, and even immediately following churn. Try to gauge customer satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) to identify where your customer success team should focus its initial efforts.

Step 4: hire your success team

For a new team, it's important to recruit experienced customer success professionals, who already have the know-how necessary to build a program from the ground up โ€” starting with leadership roles, like a VP of customer success. They will lay the foundation for your customer success efforts to grow with your company โ€” and your customers. Once leadership is in place, they can manage the hiring of team leads and CSMs to finish forming the team.

Step 5: scale your customer success program

Once the team is in place and has developed a customer success roadmap, it's time to scale CS operations. This involves giving the CS team all the tools they need to do the important work of anticipating customer needs โ€” often by making sure reactionary problems are taken care of without the CS team's involvement.

This means having an effective customer support team in place to take care of problems as they arise, as well as developing self-service resources for customers to find quick answers to common questions and issues. This is an area where technology can also help โ€” like automation tools to streamline help desk operations and free up the CS team to scale their work as your company grows.

Step 6: track success and iterate

At this point, your CS team is up and running. Congratulations! But the work isn't over yet.

Now it's time to track important customer success metrics to keep the team โ€” and its strategies and priorities โ€” on track. A few KPIs that can help customer success teams steer their course and iterate on successful strategies are:

  • Net promoter score (NPS). This measures how many of your customers are promoters (people who would encourage friends and family to use your products and services) versus detractors (people who would encourage others not to use your products and services). NPS is a great way to track customer satisfaction at a high level, and can be obtained by sending out a regular, one-question survey to existing customers.
  • Customer engagement. This is harder to measure, but important for customer success teams. They should stay in communication with customers very regularly, engaging them with educational materials, cross-sells, upsells, and more.
  • Customer retention. This is a measure of how many customers stay with your company โ€” either by making repeat purchases or renewing memberships.
  • Churn rate. This is a measure of how many customers leave your company. Knowing your churn rate (and having an idea of why customers churn) can help a CS team anticipate customers' needs.
  • Customer lifetime value. This is a measure of how much your company profits, on average, from each customer. Reducing churn and increasing retention can both increase your company's customer lifetime value.

Further Reading: 14 customer retention strategies from top brands.

Customer relationships are at the heart of building a customer success team

Building a customer success team is a challenge for any business. But it's a necessary part of providing a customer-centric experience that delights your users โ€” and maximizes your revenue in the process.

Determining the right time to invest in customer success, hiring the right team, creating a high-level strategy, and scaling your program are not easy steps to take, but the result is taking the best possible care of your customers, boosting their loyalty and retention, and going above and beyond just meeting their needs.

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