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Discussion Point: Where Do Customer Success Teams Belong?

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Customer success (CS) is one of the hotter topics heard across the sprawling sales and marketing universe today. But does anyone know who those CS folks report to at the office?

You'd think so. Thousands of marketing, customer support and sales people have flocked to customer success conferences this year. There are about 250 CS jobs currently listed on Monster. There's a well established Customer Success Association. And there's a growing list of data, analytics and cloud vendors pitching their wares to flush Chief Customer Success Officers.

However, when it comes to structuring the CS staff within a company, it gets a little fuzzy. Everyone seems to agree CS is essential to generating — and potentially increasing — revenue from existing customers by helping to assure they succeed when using your product or service. Simple enough.

So does that make it a sales function? Marketing? Customer support? Or is it a new division that reports straight to the corner office? We asked the CEOs of four customer success companies what they think and, sure enough, there's nothing carved in stone about this.

The Question  

Should a customer success team be part of the sales team, a customer support function, a marketing effort or something different?

The Answers

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Guy Nirpaz, CEO, Totango

Nirpaz is the CEO and co founder of Totango. Before starting Totango he worked in the real time big data space as executive vice president of engineering at GigaSpaces and chief architect at Mercury. Tweet to Guy Nirpaz.

The customer success team should not be a sales, support or marketing function, but a separate unit that works across the company. In some (typically smaller) companies, it may fall under the sales or services group from a practical organizational standpoint, but the nature of the customer success role should not be seen as sales, support or marketing. 

In fact, customer success is really a cross functional role and should be seen as the internal champion for the customer across the organization. Customer success should partner and work closely with not only sales, support and marketing, but also products and other critical functions. 

Given the focus on renewals in subscription businesses, most people associate the customer success role with managing churn and renewals. But churn or renewal is really only the outcome. The customer success role should not be focused on managing the churn or renewal event (which I would argue is more of a sales function). Rather, it should be managing the ongoing customer journey and making sure the customer is seeing value and getting the business results they expected to achieve. They should be helping the customer with best practices and better ways to use the product, identifying red flags when a customer is stalled or not making adequate progress and making sure the customer is utilizing what they have bought so that when the renewal comes up, it is a non event.

To effectively help customers across their journey or lifecycle, customer success should also partner with other teams. Take marketing as an example. Ideally, customer marketing should be well grounded in facts and data, so that you are communicating with customers in a contextual, relevant and personalized way, versus sending generic updates. This is something that customer success is well positioned to partner with marketing on. The same when it comes to products. Customer success has a unique vantage point into understanding customer requirements and use cases. They should be able to use this to champion for their customers internally.

Overall, customer success should be a function that works cross functionally and truly makes an organization “customer centric.”

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Nick Mehta, CEO, Gainsight

Before joining Gainsight as CEO in February 2013, Mehta was executive in residence for Accel Partners. He was the CEO of LiveOffice before its acquisition by Symantec in 2012. He's also worked at Symantec, Veritas, XDegrees and Chipshot.com. Tweet to Nick Mehta

As expected with any new job area, a few things are happening:

  1. People are changing their org/job title to customer success, sometimes without changing what they do day to day. 
  2. As a result, the day to day activities of customer success teams are all over the place.
  3. Some cynicism will inevitably come up about the precision of the term itself. 

The common thread in customer success is pretty simple: driving proactive success for your clients, which results in success for your business. No matter what, customer success should not be considered a support function. Support teams are so critical but are fundamentally about responding to client needs. Customer success, by its definition, is proactive.

We find that average selling price (ASP) tends to determine where customer success reports:

 

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