Two years ago, I had no idea what Customer Success was. I realize that this is probably not the best statement to start this post with, but it’s true.
Despite having been coined in 1996, the term “Customer Success” is widely popular only in SaaS circles, even today. What was popularly known as “Fulfilment” or “Post Sales”, earlier, was reborn in 2010 or so as “Customer Success”. The boom of this industry has been heavily credited to the rise in popularity of SaaS companies, since many believe that customer loyalty lays the foundation for their success.
Findings suggest that it costs five times as much to earn a new customer as opposed to retaining an existing customer, and that reducing customer churn by 5% can increase profits by 25% – 125%. Studies that substantiated facts like these further popularized the need for having a Customer Success team in SaaS companies. Companies quickly realized that they needed to double down on their effort to:
- On-board the customer better
- Reduce customer churn and improve customer retention
- Upsell and cross-sell their products/services
Wait a minute. Aren’t these things that an agency can benefit from working on, too?
Agencies, being service companies, struggle with customer churn, and face difficulties with upselling/cross-selling their services just as much as SaaS companies do.
Agencies have spoken in the past about how several clients do not understand the value in continuing as a customer – and the way to fix this is by telling them about the value you offer up front, and onboarding them well.
As for upselling and cross-selling services, need we talk about how important it is for agencies to do this?
If you’re working in an agency, you can greatly benefit from building a customer success team, or even better, having your agency’s account managers double up as your customer success managers. And to help you set this up, I took the help of Senthilvel Prakash, Customer Success extrordinaire who’s worked in this industry for over seven years now. Together, we’ve come up with a model using which your agency can set up a customer success team, and improve its churn rate, customer experience, and onboarding.
But before we get into that, let’s cover some basics. (Feel free to skip a few paragraphs ahead if you have a pretty good idea of what customer success is!)
What is Customer Success, and what is the role of a customer success manager/associate?
While it differs from one organization to another, the responsibilities of someone working in customer success broadly includes:
- Ensuring that clients have the right expectations about your company, product, and service(s)
- Helping customers understand and realize the value that they are gaining from your company
- Sniffing out additional revenue for the business from an existing customer (Senthil describes this as, “Sales ‘hunts’ for business, while customer success ‘farms’”)
- Retaining revenue and working on reducing customer/revenue churn
While this is the general case, the role of a customer success associate differs from one industry to another – specifically based on the kind of clients that the company has. In most cases, it works like this:
For a company that has a lot of high value accounts and a high Average Revenue per User (ARPU):
The focus of a Customer Success Manager (CSM) is making sure that the client has a solid, satisfactory customer experience where their expectations are met. This helps bring churn down, and upsells are incorporated later into their relationship.
For a mid-level company that doesn’t have a very high ARPU:
The customer success manager works on everything mentioned above, but focuses on revenue retention more than anything else.
For newer/smaller companies:
The CSM needs to work on all of the above, with a primary focus on product adoption, and gathering market intelligence for the company’s product team by talking to customers. This helps the product team manage their product roadmap, etc. In budding companies, the customer success associates do not upsell or cross-sell as much, since the account managers/sales folk take care of that.
This classification of customer success teams based on the nature of the clients can work very well for an agency too – with a few modifications, of course. Since the Single Point of Contact (SPOC) in an agency is usually the account manager (also called as the brand manager, often), a decision about the existence of two teams (account management and customer success management) or just one needs to be made.
For small agencies – Your account managers double up as your customer success team. They’re going to take care of pretty much everything mentioned above, right from sales to gathering market intel, upselling, cross-selling, and revenue retention.
For mid-sized agencies – You’ll need to have a lead generation and sales team that takes care of closing customers. Your account/brand managers will the point-of-contact with the client thereon, and they double up as the customer success team as well.
For established agencies – The best way to go about this is to have three different full-fledged teams that operate in tandem with each other. You’ll need:
- A sales team to close down the leads
- A customer success team that acts as a point-of-contact for your clients, delivering a great customer experience and improving their “stickiness” with your agency
- Dedicated account fulfillment managers that will take care of coordinating between the specialists in the organization to tend to the needs of the customer
Now that you have a fair idea of how a customer success team can fit in your agency, and the value that it can provide, let’s talk about how you need to go about setting this up. The first question that pops in your mind is probably, “How do I go about hiring customer success associates and managers?”
How to hire for customer success
The best way you can approach this is to hire people who have had experience with both sales and client servicing, and understand the best of both worlds.
Look for all that you look for in an account manager, and also what you would in a customer support person, and that will probably get you the CSM hire that you want! (You have to admit, this sounds like a great hack for going about this conundrum).
Here’s another question that I had for Senthil – “How many customer success managers does a company need? What’s the ideal ratio of account managers:CSM, or the revenue number that every CSM should handle?”
The common practice in the industry is to assign one CSM for handling clients worth up to $2M revenue in ARR. However, popular CSM blog Sixteen Ventures argues that this doesn’t quite make the most sense, since the role of a customer success manager is varied from that of a traditional account manager. The responsibilities of the CSM are bound to change with the focus of the company, the segment your customers belong to, and the industry you are in. This makes for a compelling point, and we’re with them on this.
There are, however, different cases that you need to consider before settling on a model that works for you. Think about this – if you have a huge account that is worth $1M, which, for the sake of this example, say, contributes to 50% of the entire revenue – don’t you think you need to have a dedicated customer success associate (or) account manager working on such a high value client?
Another way to go about it is this – if your agency offers multiple services, perhaps you can split the CS team based on the department, like one team of 3 for web design, one team of 3 for social media management, one for local SEO, etc.
This is one for you to work on – try a couple of things out, and stick to the format that works best for your agency.
Now, you’ve made your hires – but what about the difficulties that they are going to face while handling agencies? The next part of this post is going to focus entirely on how your customer success team needs to function and the problems that they are likely to face, once they’ve been hired.
Problem #1: Handling difficult customers
Let’s face it – no company is immune to having customers that are difficult to deal with. How can your customer success team handle difficult customers?
The answer is simple, says Senthil. “Fall back on your basics!”. This is what you need to keep in mind when you want to deal with customers that are hard to manage:
- They want to be heard. Start by hearing them out patiently, even if they go ballistic when you touch base with them.
- Hearing’s not the same as listening! Remember, as a customer success associate, you need to make sure that you’re not only hearing them out, but also listening to them. Document everything that they’re telling you so you can work out some of their problems for them after the call is done.
- Set the right expectations. The way to handle customers who have problems with the way things have been handled is NOT to tell them that everything they’ve had a problem with is going to be solved right away – because let’s face it, that’s a lie. It’s nearly impossible to fix all the problems of a customer in one go, so plan it out. Ask them to prioritize their problems, and figure out the issues from them that you can instantly resolve. Once you fix the major impending issues, you can move on to everything else that they spoke about, one-by-one. This is one of the best ways to make an angry customer trust you and your agency.
- Be calm and assertive. Tell them that you cannot fix everything for them overnight, but that you will work with the other teams in your agency to sort it out for them over the next few days/weeks. Do not be submissive, but at the same time, make sure you come off as compassionate.
- Take complete ownership. After you’ve said what you need to say, take complete ownership of all the things that your agency should have done differently. Assure them that you will systematically resolve their problems, and work on fixing the critical, high-priority concerns.
- Keep communication open. Keep them in the loop when you’re working on fixing their issues. Let them know once you’re done tending to their needs. Build a relationship with them after you help them out. Make them realize that you are someone they can rely on.
- Quick turnaround time. Deliver ahead of due date to give them instant resolution for some problems that you can fix right away. Nothing makes a customer trust you more that seeing that you’re working hard to make things work for them.
Problem #2: Managing customer churn
Another major pain point of any agency is managing customer churn. A customer success team coming into the picture here can change the dynamic with which your agency approaches this problem. Here are some tips for how your agency and its customer success team can manage churn better.
- Onboard them with your agency properly, and give them a fantastic experience while you go about doing it. Introduce them to all the right people, tell them what they can expect out of you guys over the next few weeks, and set targets that you want to achieve, right away. Check out our onboarding email template that you can use, for starters.
- Identifying good fit and bad fit customers is one of the best ways your customer success team can work on keeping the good ones while letting go of the bad apples. In fact, your customer success team can help your agency figure out bad account managers as well. This is probably one of major ways in which customer success can help your agency – by understanding what your clients’ problems with your account managers are.
- Another great way to ensure that a customer doesn’t churn is to spend time learning about your customer’s business. Engage with your clients on a partner or business-level; in other words, talk to your customer as you would with a partner, and understand their pain points. Look at how your agency can solve these pain points and provide value to your clients.
- Make them understand how your agency can provide value to them. Keep their growth results handy, and talk about the impact that your agency has made to their business. Take it a notch higher and talk about how you can help their business grow even further, and make them understand how well your agency’s services are fitting in with their marketing goals.
- Understand that happy is not equal to successful – keep a wary eye out for things, and reiterate the value of your company to your clients. Similarly, an unhappy customer isn’t necessarily going to churn either, I’ve heard of several cases where (seemingly) happy customers left the company they were tied to, owing to budget constraints and the like.
- Gauge their opinion of your agency using surveys and journey reviews. Space it out and do it on a quarterly basis to make sure that you don’t come off as too pushy.
- Share monthly health-check reports that keep them reminded about how your agency is aiding the growth of their company.
- Run Net Promoter Score (NPS surveys) to understand what your customers think about your agency. While most companies conduct NPS surveys, not all of them foresee the problems that could arise owing to a poorly conducted NPS survey. For example, your SPOC from a company might enjoy working with you, but your client company’s CFO might be of the opinion that your agency is too expensive. Try and get a 360-degree view of this to gather deeper insights from these surveys for your business.
Problem #3: How does Customer Success fit into the hierarchy of my agency?
While Senthil and I would love to say that we know the perfect answer to this question, the fact of the matter is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here.
If you’re a bigger agency, it’s easier to say how your customer success team by itself needs to be structured – since it usually goes like this:
Director of Customer Success > Senior Customer Success Manager > Customer Success Associate
However, the person to whom your senior CSM or VP/Director of Customer Success should report and work under is a topic of much debate. In all honesty, it depends on the focus of your agency’s customer success team – if it’s focused on revenue retention, and finance numbers in general, the CS team can report to the CFO, while it makes more sense to report to the CEO in cases where you’re focused on building a plan for the way your agency delivers its customer experience.
In fact, there are even suggestions that customer success should perhaps report to the Head of Sales, in cases where that works best. There are a ton of suggestions about how you need to go about this from experts all around the world, so make sure you read them before you make a decision!
Assess the need for a customer success manager in your company, and talk to other agencies that might already be employing a customer success team. Talk to CSMs in SaaS companies of people you know and hear out their opinion on whether your agency needs to work on setting one up, right away. And let us know what you thought about this post in the comments below!