How to Start a Customer Success Program from Scratch

Now that businesses are gradually returning to a more normal state, offices are re-opening, and confidence is returning, companies that previously did not have customer success practices are now seriously considering starting one. During the pandemic, many companies made sizeable pivots in their businesses to avoid existential threats. Often these changes were derived from or verified through customer success programs that could uncover customer needs and concerns during the pandemic or opportunities to shift the business. Customer success proved a vital, strategic capability for these companies and boosted the understanding of what a well-developed customer success practice can bring.

Companies are now placing a priority on establishing a productive customer success practice. So where should companies without customer success experience or expertise begin? How does one start a customer success practice from scratch to make it abler to deliver strategic success sooner rather than later?

Certainly, there is no substitute for talented professionals to form, grow, and advance customer success practices. Sometimes hiring one or more professionals is the best starting point. For many companies, this might not be an option. First, finding a customer success professional with experience in mature practices that can also drive the formation and growth of a brand new practice could be quite difficult. Top-notch customer success professionals are in short supply, and the combination of experience in mature, advanced practices with the know-how to start from scratch might be a rarity.

Companies also might already have one or several employees in a customer success function, but they might only have rudimentary knowledge and experience of customer success practices and achieving strategic value from them. These people might know the company and its products or services as well as its various organizations, such as sales, service, support, training, etc. They might be experienced at scheduling and orchestrating review meetings with customers and administering Net Promotor Score (NPS) or customer satisfaction (CSAT) queries or surveys. They might have skill at being the intermediary between the customer and various company departments. They also might be versed in the renewals process for products and services. At the same time, they might lack the ability to turn customer success into a strategic function and provide maximum benefit from it.

Whether refocusing an existing group or starting with no group at all, four factors can be especially effective in starting a customer success program. These apply to a completely-from-scratch basis or for advancing a more administrative function into a strategic one.

First, establishing a more mature form of customer success as a corporate imperative and strategic contributor can be highly important. Having a C-level executive championing the potential value and importance of customer success can ensure that it gets the funding, resources, cooperation, and buy-in across the company. This could be a chief customer officer, but it could also be the CEO, chief revenue officer, chief operating officer, or even the chief financial officer. Giving the customer success team the necessary independence, establishing a proper reporting relationship, and creating important linkages to other teams can be done effectively at the C-level. In addition, reducing internal friction and boosting collaboration goes a long way toward the growth and maturity of a customer success practice.

Second is the idea that it takes a village. While it is important to have a customer success team with a laser focus on listening to customers and understanding success from their point of view, nearly every group in the company can contribute toward the achievement of that success. They can also benefit from the intelligence that can come from working closely with customers. Ensuring this kind of environment is best set from the top of the company, but then holding deliberate meetings with various internal departments and forming proper channels for information flow will significantly expand the impact and value of customer success. Such collaboration might not contribute to the initial start, but it can help fuel growth and maturity.

Third, having a dedicated system of record for customer success can help advance teams from initial creation through increasingly mature levels. A system is no replacement for capable, qualified individuals, but it can provide a framework and systematized best practices to both start and grow a customer success function. Ideally, a system will provide an easy, get-started-quickly mode that initially constrains options for easy set up and allows for an individual or team to jump right into the business of customer success. A good system can help guide or jumpstart a customer service team from day one. It should then be able to help teams mature through expanding their roles and responsibilities.

Fourth, numerous resources are available to help customer success individuals and teams learn and grow. There are industry events and webinars—mostly virtual these days—as well as templates, playbooks and cook books that can help drive best practices. Events as well as forums on LinkedIn and other places enable customer success practitioners to share insights and pose questions and issues. All of these help start and grow practices.

Now more than ever, companies need to use customer success to ensure viability and growth. These four considerations can go a long way toward starting a practice that can evolve for maturity and scale. It's not just about starting a practice but starting it the right way to gain strategic advantage. Proper conditions for starting now readily exist and can be used to establish customer success as a strategic function.

Shreesha Ramdas is senior vice president and general manager of Medallia-Strikedeck, a customer success automation company. Previously, he was vice president of corporate development and partnerships at CallidusCloud. Before that, he was co-founder and chief operating officer of LeadFormix, a marketing automation platform, and co-founder of OuterJoin, an online marketing services company, and a general manager at Yodlee. Contact him on Twitter: @Shreesha.