a neon sign showing a handshake
PHOTO: Charles Deluvio

SaaS giveth and SaaS taketh away. The subscription economy changed the game for software companies, smoothing out otherwise lumpy business models and powering bountiful booking backlogs. But shorter contract terms mean that customers can easily defect, which is why SaaS companies have built customer success functions as a backstop for churn.

I’d argue customer success, as it has been defined by most SaaS companies, is a half measure. It misses the fundamental point that customer success should be the company goal, not just a role — and it misses the point that customer success begins before a deal is closed.

Customer success should be integrated into the entire revenue cycle, beginning with the value propositions crafted by the product marketing team, to the deal crafted by the seller, to the implementation process and onboarding experience, to the quarterly business review (QBR) and renewal itself.

Is Your SaaS Value Proposition Real or Make Believe?

Product marketing teams often have outsized impact on the performance of a SaaS company by crafting value propositions that engage and convert. But what is so often overlooked is the insidious downstream side effect of a compelling value proposition that’s disconnected from reality. This happens when creative marketers dream up promised outcomes that haven’t been proven out in the wild — which begins a cycle of missed expectations before the deal is closed.

That’s not to say companies don’t make efforts to validate their claims. But the dirty little secret is that the process for deriving these outcomes is often, err, just short of rigorous, involving forceful questions, forceful will and charm, and best guesses by customers willing to play along.

A value proposition that isn’t tied to proven business outcomes, measured against meaningful metrics with real data, may be the first step en route to customer churn.

Related Article: The Dirty Secret of the SaaS World: Customer Churn

Which Proposition Is Your Sales Team Selling?

Once sellers are trained on these value propositions, they become as good as true. And they pitch them with vigor. They ask smart discovery questions to identify problems and pains and to create tight rhetorical linkages between the pains they unearth and the promised outcomes they’ve been trained on. If the pitch is persuasive enough, the deal gets done.

The seller is elated. A triumphant gong reverberates across the sales floor.

The Handoff Isn't Pretty

Days pass and the new customer thinks that perhaps there was some mistake. All the energy and urgency in the sales cycle — all that promise! — has dissipated to the faintest sign of life. The dissonance is deafening. Hope fades. Cynicism sets in. The new customer feels duped.

Finally, intros are made and the onboarding team shows up with almost no context. Maybe a few fragments the seller left in the CRM notes field. The customer is forced to start from the beginning, educating these perfectly pleasant but seemingly clueless folks on goals, timelines and dependencies — and the promises and assurances that were made during the sales process.

Related Article: SaaS Marketers: Tap Into the Value of Tech Partner Programs

The QBR and Renewal

If this is how the relationship begins, it should come as no great surprise that the customer has a bit of a chip on their shoulder come QBR time. A quarter into the relationship, the customer feels that everyone has forgotten what was promised. But the customer never forgets. This makes the first QBR an awkward one as the customer success manager tries to piece it all together. The meeting ends with assurances that it will improve. But will it?

At renewal, some progress has been made thanks to the customer success manager's (CSM) resourcefulness and diligence. But is it enough? Maybe the CSM gets to live to fight for another year. Maybe not. It’s been an uphill battle from the start — all because of missed expectations in the sales cycle and a botched handoff once the deal was closed. For the CSM, it’s an unfortunate inheritance.

Creating Customer Success From the Start

A better approach is to engineer customer success from the beginning, creating a connected customer experience that begins with a catalog of measured outcomes that sellers can promise. Unlike the value propositions dreamt up by product marketers and validated by cooperative customers, these outcomes are validated with real data. Once the seller has aligned with the prospect on a vision for a better future, they’re in a position to close the deal with the assurance that these aren’t empty promises but achievable outcomes. And they’re in a position to transition all of this knowledge to the onboarding, implementation and success teams.

The subsequent handoff is seamless, and the new customer feels confident and cared for. The success team can then measure impact against these promised outcomes. QBRs are no longer awkward, and renewals no longer involve a defensive scramble to retrospectively recreate just enough value to justify the save.

Thus, customer success becomes the shared company goal and a full lifecycle affair.