How to prioritize & organize the work of your Customer Success program

Customer Success is quickly becoming the main source of activity and key driver of success in the Post-Sale world. In my opinion, it’s emerging as the most important (non-product) function in any software business today.

Unlike it’s Customer “Support” predecessors, Customer “Success” is not a REACTIVE function. Customer Success is NOT about sitting around waiting for a customer to complain or to have a problem.  Customer Success is very much a PROACTIVE practice. It’s about proactively helping customers be as successful as possible with a product - the outcome of which (at least in SaaS software terms) is user engagement, retention and, ultimately, growth. These represent the lifeblood of any SaaS business - making a strong Customer Success practice absolutely essential in today’s world. 

While the Customer Success function is still very early in its evolution, it is becoming very important to find ways to prioritize and organize the activities around this role in a way that is scaleable, effective and matches the proactive nature of the function. 

There have been some great models for this shared already. Nello Franco wrote a great post on his Customer Engagement model in which he goes into great detail on the different engagement activities that should be applied over the lifecycle of a customer 

Also, David Skok has a great, high-level breakdown of the different types of customer success models that you can use in your business. 

Both are definitely worth a read. I’m sure there are others that I’m missing. If you know of any, would love you to add them in the comments. 

I’ll offer another simple framework here that has worked for me in the past. While I hope you find this framework helpful, I don’t think you should be applying it - or any framework - exactly as it’s designed, to your business. Every business is unique and there is no plug & play model to anything. Models and frameworks from people in other organizations should, at best, serve as good starting points to help you think about a model that will work for your business, your product, your stage, your customers, as well as the makeup/skills of your internal team. 

The framework I’m showing here is best suited for a product with the opportunity to sell annual contracts into various groups at an enterprise. It’s also best suited for an organization with separate sales/customer success teams. 

WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THIS FRAMEWORK?

The goal of this framework is to offer:

  1. A way for your Customer Success team to prioritize their accounts; and

  2. An model for executing a Customer Success program for each prioritization levels

We’ll start with Prioritization and move on to Execution.

THE FRAMEWORK

I have so many accounts, how do I prioritize them??

Customer Success teams today are often too small for the work that they need to achieve. Accounts-per-rep ratios are generally very high and I don’t see that changing any time soon. This means that, as much as good Customer Success pros would like, giving full attention to every account is simply impossible - making prioritization…well…a priority. 

Here is my methodology for grading & prioritizing  accounts. 

STEP ONE: Grade your Accounts 

The first step in this framework is to grade your customers/users/accounts across two main axes -

  1. Potential Size of the opportunity with that account; and its

  2. Likelihood for Growth

Obviously both of these metrics are quite subjective, but that’s ok. This is in no way an exact science - nor can it be. This is a methodology that is supposed to give you direction. You shouldn’t spend time aiming for perfection - do the best you can and get to work.

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Potential size is pretty straight-forward. This is basically the answer to the question - "How big could this account be?" Don’t worry about how big it is NOW, just worry about how big it could potentially get if you were to “squeeze all its juice”.

Express the Potential Size of the Opportunity with letter grades (A, B, C). I also recommend putting a little more definition around these levels by applying some dollar amounts that fit for your business (an A-account should have a potential > $50k; B-accounts between $10-$50k; C-accounts below that - something along those lines).

Likelihood for Growth is a little harder. What you are looking for here is an assessment of how hard it will be to grow a particular account. Do you have a great internal champion that is going to sell this in across departments for you - making your job easy…or are there some major barriers (budgetary, political, legal, etc) which are going to really limit your ability to expand the account? Again, not an exact science, but you should be able to get a good sense for this from the initial sales process and early interactions with the customer.  

Express the Likelihood for Growth with numbers (1, 2, 3).

Then when you put the two measures together, you get a grade for an account. An A1 account is one with a lot of potential room for growth AND a strong willingness to grow. For example:

We just sold into one group at Viacom, but our buyer oversees three other groups that have already expressed interest. There is also the opportunity to sell across many other groups within the Viacom family and if we nail this first one, they’ll fall like dominos!

A1 account. Go f’ing get it. 

An A3 account has large potential, but carries some major barriers for exploiting that potential. For example:

We just sold into a small group at Viacom and got a Jr exec to put the monthly fee on her credit card. While there is huge opportunity here, in order to grow outside that group (or increase our billing  to Viacom), we’re going to have to jump through a bunch of legal hoops and unseat an internal tool that they built themselves. While no one likes to use that tool, the CTO has already told us that they have too much invested in it to switch.

An A3 account. Feel free to spend a little bit of time trying to find a strategy to get around or over these hurdles, but it shouldn’t be your focus. Keep a close watch on it for any state changes that may present an opening (ie - the CTO gets fired).

C3 accounts would be small, SMB accounts with no real growth opportunity. These maybe good for your business because they are a quick sell and get value from the product, but they would get a C3 grade in this framework. 

When should you grade your accounts?

This is a great question the real answer is - constantly. The world is a dynamic place and there are many factors that can lead to an account’s score shifting over time. New information, job changes, product updates, market shifts, etc. So, it’s really important to stay flexible with your account scoring practice and don’t be afraid to change the scores over time. 

Each account should first be graded by the sales team upon close. Through the sales process, the sales rep will get a really good sense for both of these scoring criteria (size of opportunity as well as likelihood for growth). Make this a closing task in your CRM and make sure the sales rep completes it before handing the account off.

After that, each account grade should be re-evaluated once the Success team has a chance to interact with the customer. Generally within the first 30-days of the account. There probably won’t be a great deal of change at this point, but your Success team may be able to uncover some insights through those early interactions and usage.

Going forward, your team should be constantly thinking about how any state changes (people switching positions, new bosses, new strategies, success implementations, usage metrics, etc) might impact this grade. Tools like Totango or Gainsight (or Knowtify) provide metrics (and internal scoring) that should feed into this global account scoring. Make it a practice for everyone on the team to think about this grading with every interaction. This will help you ramp up or down your activity based on a solid framework.

STEP TWO: Create prioritization tiers

With a method for grading your accounts, you can then apply those grades across a prioritization grid like the one below. I like to keep it simple and organize these accounts across three tiers - which I have creatively entitled Tier 1, 2 & 3.

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Tier 1 accounts are top Customer Success priorities. They should deliver the biggest return on your efforts.

Tier 2 accounts are your bread and butter. The majority of your customers will fall in this tier. While their growth potential is more limited, they are very likely to be long-term, loyal customers. Treat them accordingly. 

Tier 3 customers are simply difficult to prioritize. They may be huge fans and could be great advocates, but you simply can’t spend a lot of your Customer Success efforts here. I would think of ways to bring the best Tier 3 customers into your community efforts so that your Success team can focus on growth opportunities.

As you can see, there are some grades that fall in between Tier 1 & Tier 2. Because this is not an exact science, this is going to happen. In these cases, I suggest just making a quick call - add them to one tier or the other and move on to execution. 

STEP THREE: Create execution plans for each priority level

With a methodology for prioritizing your accounts in place, the next step is to figure out how to map out your activities against those priorities. You simply can’t, nor should, have the same execution plan for a Tier 1 account that you do for a Tier 3 account.

Like Nello Franco, I like to lay out these plans on a timeline. This timeline is pretty specific for customers signing annual accounts, but you can customize your timeline to match your business. The important thing is to make it clear, simple…and flexible. Spending too much time on drilling down in incredible detail will make your framework both difficult to understand and execute on as well as very rigid. My suggestion is to keep it light weight - especially in your early versions.

An execution framework should do two things:

  1. Outline the activities that should occur over the first X months of the customer’s life; and

  2. Define who is going to deliver on those activities

In this framework, there are 3 ‘players’ that contribute in the execution of the Customer Success plans:


  • Sales - this is the sales rep that closes the deal. Many people disagree with me, but I am a believer that sales does have a role to play in the growth of (certain) accounts. More on this later.

  • Customer Success Managers (some still call this Customer Support or Account Managers, etc) - these are generally more junior folks who manage the day-to-day support of customers. Much of their work may be reactive, but when executed well, these folks can (and should) become key, proactive Success Managers. 

  • Customer Development - this is a more senior Customer Success person. A VP of Customer Success or a Customer Development rep. This person deals with more high-level success & growth activities. She is not managing accounts on a day-to-day basis, but instead managing a team of CSMs and getting involved in accounts where appropriate (see below).

Common model in old software businesses

In the past, most enterprise software companies worked like this:

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Sales closes a deal; tosses it over the proverbial ‘fence’ to Customer Support; Sales goes back to hunting and Customer Support plays a very reactive role in supporting that customer throughout the year; 11-months later, Sales revisits the account when it is time to convince them to renew. This is still very common practice because it’s easy to understand and very ‘scalable’. Unfortunately, it’s not very effective and isn’t consistent with the way business works in the Post-Sale world

Plan for Tier 3 Accounts

With all that said, this is probably the way you have to approach your Tier 3 accounts - from a Customer Success perspective. 

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The reality is that in most organizations, it just isn’t realistic to dedicate a lot of human time to the lowest priority accounts. So you do the best you can. 

While it’s hard to dedicate a lot of human time to these Tier 3 accounts, you should definitely be looking for ways to automate activities that will drive engagement. For all accounts, you should be tearing down the “Ongoing Support” line in the above model into a series of activities that help keep users engaged. These are things that can be built into your product or things delivered through services that help drive engagement without a lot of human input. When designing these activities, use both ‘age’ of the customer (how long have they been using our product) as well as events (usage of certain features, etc) as drivers of the activities

Plan for Tier 2 Accounts

These are tough ones because (a) they are very important to your business, but (b) their potential isn’t perfectly clear and can change (one way or the other) pretty quickly. 

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Couple of differences when planning activities for Tier 2 accounts (vs Tier 3 accounts).

First, I think it’s a good idea for Sales to participate in the Kickoff call for these accounts. Huh? That’s crazy?!

I know, I know. Anyone from the old software world just stopped reading, but that’s ok. I stand by this. Having Sales involved in kickoff calls will help on a couple fronts.

First of all, it makes for a much smoother post-sale ‘handoff’. During the sales process, the sales person has gathered a lot of information about the customer - their pains/needs/wants/etc…not to mention a rapport that should not be discounted. At the time of sale, the customer is most happy. At this point, they are optimistic & love you. Bringing sales into the kickoff call helps insure that you don’t lose any of this momentum. It sets the post-sale relationship off on the right foot. It’s a pretty big deal. Nothing is worse, as a customer, then spending a lot of time explaining your situation, goals, etc to a sales person only to have them completely overlooked after the contract is signed and you are sent through some generic kickoff process.

Second, being a part of the kickoff call helps the sales person further assess the opportunity and lay the foundation for growth with the account. Not to mention gain actual customer experience that he can use to improve his own sales process.

The second difference for Tier 2 accounts is the introduction of the Customer Development rep. In this case, the Customer Development rep should be introduced fairly early on (within first 60-days - after the customer has had some experience with the product). During her first interaction with the customer, the Customer Development rep should get a good sense for whether or not this is an opportunity for growth, retention or if it looks like it’s going to be a churn prevention case. And then she should plan accordingly. 

In most cases, these will be retention cases, so the Customer Development rep should plan at least a Q2 check-in to go over success metrics and insure everything is going well with the account. She should remain visible with these account. I am also NOT OPPOSED to Sales reintroducing themselves at some point in Q2/3 to help secure renewal on these accounts. As mentioned before, many Tier 2 customers may not be big growth opportunities, but their ongoing renewals will likely make up the bulk of your revenue.

Plan for Tier 1 Accounts

Ahhh…we’ve arrived. The big growth opportunities. All hands on deck!

The majority of your human Customer Success efforts should be directed at Tier 1 accounts. 

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The main differences in the plan for Tier 1 accounts fall on the Customer Development rep. It is very likely, for these accounts, that she will or should get involved at a later stage of the initial sale. Her involvement may help to actually close many of these deals. Her involvement may be in the form of a pilot program or maybe just communicating some specific use cases/success stories that seal the deal. Having her involved at that stage will also greatly help the post-sale transition where she should really be running the kickoff call/program. 

After that, the Customer Development plan for these accounts revolves around growth. She should be developing a growth plan for each customer and helping lead the customer down that path. She should bring in sales where needed (for example, if there is a brand new group to pitch to) or choose to manage it on her own. What I’m showing here is just a high-level model. For Tier 1 accounts, I definitely recommend a custom plan of attack be built for each. It may sound like a lot of work…but these are your big fish. Put in the time.

WHO SHOULD BE MANAGING THIS PROCESS?

This simple framework I’m proposing leaves out an important piece - who will be managing the whole thing?

I think it’s very important to have someone organizing and managing all of these activities. To do it well takes great knowledge of your product/offering, a great understanding for customer needs, a strong nose for the nuances of customer relationships as well as a perfect understanding of the strengths/skills of the members both the sales & success teams.  She should be able to create smart strategic game plans, but also able to make game-time decisions in the heat of battle as situations change.

For this kind of Customer Success framework to be effective, it definitely needs a good head coach. Ideally this is a Chief Customer Officer or a VP of Customer Success or head of Customer Development. This person should be able to design an overall framework, but also create custom plans for each customer and adapt them over time. This ‘customer coach’ should be able to use any resource necessary to make sure that customers are successful and that the business is taking full advantage of its growth potential.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this framework. Any feedback is helpful as I’d like to continue to develop it over time.