Why Customer Success Will Fail

I’ve seen customer success transform businesses that bring it in as part of their culture. So when I saw a post titled “Customer Success is a Failure,” I was a bit horrified at what I was about to read.

But when I read it, it turns out Noreen Seebacher, the author of the post, is in many ways spot-on … though I do take issue with a couple of things she said.

This is my perspective from deep within the customer success world -- I work for a vendor in this space. That means you should take everything below with the appropriate serving of salt.

It Starts with Lower-Case 'customer success'

Customer success -- without focusing on making your customers successful -- is not customer success.

What customer success is, is building products and experiences that exist solely to help your customers achieve success, whatever "success" looks like in the context of your product.

It’s selling to customers who are likely to be successful with your product, avoiding selling to customers who aren’t a good fit, and working diligently to ensure they continue to achieve their evolving definition of success.

Your customers have a desired outcome. They want to achieve something, which is why they bought your product. Help them achieve that. That's "customer success" and that is the secret to your success.

OK, but what about customer experience?

Customer Experience Without Success is Failure

A great, wow-inducing experience means little if it doesn’t lead to success for your customer.

It’s our job to understand what the customer is trying to accomplish and deliver an experience that moves them toward that goal. If we seek to know our customers better than they know themselves, then we can not only deliver an experience that is congruent with expectations, it will also deliver on the desired results.

That said, I don’t take issue with Seebacher's use of “customer experience” as somehow being superior to customer success, I just happen to think that customer experience is part of customer success.

Customer success should (must!) be an advocate for the customer in all the areas of the organization. One of the key areas that customer success can -- and should -- have significant influence is with product development, or, where the customer experience is ultimately designed, built and iterated upon.

Since customer success orgs interact with the customers and understand what success looks like for them, product shouldn’t just agree to hear from customer success from time to time, but should regularly seek their counsel.

This requires re-education, especially in the technology space. Whether it’s about how to onboard your customers successfully (it’s about getting them to some type of early success as quickly as possible), orrethinking the “Wow!” moment that so many designers and product marketers talk about in technology products (making it about them, and not about your product).

Which is why ....

Customer Success Still Has a Long Way to Go

I’m not so blinded by customer success ideology to be oblivious to what’s going on in the real world. It’s my frequent experiences with -- and observations of -- terrible customer service, support and other customer experience interactions that keep me motivated to drive the customer success message home.

I want customer success to be the standard operating procedures everywhere. But it isn't yet. However, in this “age of the customer,” customer success -- real, demonstrated customer success -- will be a critical differentiation for the best companies.

But customer success is a long way from being mainstream, and as a business model, as a movement, as a craft, is still in its infancy. The buzzwordification of customer success -- including Salesforce’s repositioning as the "Customer Success Platform” -- certainly doesn’t add clarity, but it doesn’t render it pointless, either.

Seebacher mentioned a couple of things that seemed more reactionary than anything, though considering her bad experiences, I can see why she would react that way.

Bad Customer Experiences are Not a Technology Problem

Seebacher wrote, “[we] need technology that recognizes and encourages compassion, empathy and the novel idea of treating customers as human beings rather than strategic assets.”

No, we need humans who act that way. And they need to be the leaders of the organization who drive this way of thinking from the top down. This customer success ideology must not be confined to a department or installed as a piece of software, it must be part of the company.

For a company to benefit at scale from customer success, the underlying focus on helping your customer achieve success must permeate the organization at all levels and become part of the company’s DNA.

You could rename your customer service department “customer success,” or install a customer success management product, but if there isn’t a real focus on helping your customers achieve success, it’s not customer success. It is, in fact, a failure.

But if you do it right -- focus on making your customers successful (not delighting them or making them happy), it can be transformative for both the customer, and the company.

Which brings me to another point I want to address.

Profit Motive is Not All Bad

I’m not going to pretend that customer success is a completely altruistic endeavor, but I do believe that it’s an approach to business that is about long-term success for all parties involved.

One of the early catalysts for customer success was when Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and other subscription companies realized they needed to reduce customer churn. The not-so-secret secret is that to get top-level executives to pay attention to customer success, tying it to revenue, profit or valuation motives is key, so playing up churn mitigation did the trick.

As something akin to learning that you can cheat on a test by studying, companies realized that becoming proactive and helping their customers achieve success actually caused them to stay longer, buy more and tell their colleagues. It’s the proverbial win-win, only this time for real.

Now, when we create content for the customer success world to consume, we’re speaking to both on-the-ground practitioners and leaders, as well as high-level executives and investors.

And while we try to change the language we use for the appropriate audiences, so it’ll resonate with them, we certainly don’t hide the disparate narratives from the “other” party -- it’s all out there for the world to see. You can have a customer-centric mindset and be profit-driven. Customer success is the way to do that.

Make your customers successful, and not only will they stay longer, buy more from you and tell their colleagues to do the same … but if done correctly, your customers will do so willingly and with full knowledge that their lifetime value as your customer just went up. Win-Win.

Title image by MsSaraKelly (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license