Leveraging Customer Support for Customer Success

John Kelly  |  March, 2017

Customer Support and Customer Success

Customer Success (CS) is enjoying a lot of attention, particularly in Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) where CS is a critical enabler of renewal subscriptions. Customer Support, by comparison, is perceived as a reactive (and less attractive) break-fix department. While organizationally, Support may be a separate team, it can also play a key role in customers' success. Organizations that are willing to lower the silo walls can enjoy significant opportunities for improved Customer Success.

Separate Teams

First, let’s examine the lifecycle of Customer Support and Customer Success in the context of company growth. Most startups look after their customers with one customer team, who onboard customers, deal with customer problems, and probably take care of renewals. As companies scale, there is a need to add more structure and process which leads to formalized teams.

Upon reaching a critical mass, SaaS organizations realize that they cannot keep in touch with every customer to manage risks or opportunities, so they form CS teams to ensure their customers receive value – thus protecting renewals proactively. Support teams are formed to manage reactive customer issues. Separate teams allow the kind of focus and specialization that enable scale. However, these siloed teams can lead to trade-offs in teamwork and collaboration. The biggest risks include a lack of leverage and the potential to lose sight of shared Customer Success goals that served the business well initially. This challenge of silos is exacerbated by separate leadership, metrics, process and ultimately subcultures.

Smart organizations are rediscovering opportunities to leverage Support departments for customer success, and even combining Support and Success in some cases. The prospect for the Success team is a good one: an army of Support Engineers talking to customers every day, spotting opportunities to reinforce the success toolkit, and helping further the success plan with every interaction. The prospect for Support is good as well: to reduce a recurring cycle of break-fix issues, have their voice and expertise heard, and possibly open up a new career path. Each team still needs to maintain their specific operational focus areas, but aligning on the objective of helping the customer be successful is a subtle but powerful enabler of leverage.

Why Does Support Exist?

"Why does an organization exist?" – asks Patrick Lencioni in his book The Advantage. This is a great question for any organization wishing to examine its mission and meaning. For many Support leaders, the answer has been “to solve customer problems quickly” with an emphasis on problem resolution in the shortest time possible. Metrics that typically follow this thinking are responsiveness, resolution time, first-time fix rate and overall CSAT or NPS scores. This is not a bad mission and it continues to serve many Support organizations well. But in the context of Customer Success, and retaining customers in a competitive industry – is it the best one?

Adding “helping customers be successful” or “ helping customers get their intended value from their product investment” extends that mission to include minimizing the business impact of downtime for the customer. This goes further than simply fixing a broken widget. It allows the Support Engineers to use their experience to prevent recurrence of the same issues through additional tools, knowledge or recommendations. In this way, Support’s role shifts slightly from fixing broken ‘issues’ to one of empowering customers with the right knowledge, preventing repeat issues from impacting their business, and being empowered to take appropriate action to help the customer.

Better for Support, better for Success, and better for the Customer.

Customer Success as a Linear Process?

From an internal perspective, a typical Customer Success process involves Onboarding, Adoption, Expansion and Renewal, almost assuming this linear process unfolds one step after the other. The reality is that a customer's journey will be on their terms, and they will engage in different ways with your product and with your Customer Success efforts. Challenges will present in various ways and the CS team needs to engage with and leverage several departments, including Support, to deliver a successful outcome.

"Smart organizations are rediscovering opportunities to leverage Support departments for Customer Success."

Let's look at some suggested ways to leverage Customer Support to optimize the Customer Success process:

1. Organizational Alignment

In the TSIA’s 2015 Services Organization Structure Survey, they learned that "customer success" is gaining ground as the descriptive term for the complete global services organization, and that support services report into customer success more than 40% of the time.

Organization alignment and consolidation are rarely enough on their own. There needs to be supporting process and behavior alignment to realize synergies. It doesn’t have to be large scale change to be effective. Pilot small process and role changes, fine tune with iterations to assess the impact on metrics, and do it again until measurable improvement is achieved.

2. Onboarding

Analysis of support tickets that are attributable to underutilized training can be impactful information to include as part of the onboarding process. It can provide an incentive for putting onboarding information into practice, as well as measure the effectiveness of the training itself.

You can go a step further by asking support engineers about what they see as the most frequent issues during a customer’s onboarding phase. You can share these anticipated issues with your customers so they understand what could cause them potential downtime. This makes the onboarding content more targeted and increases the likelihood that the training will be put into practice.

In fact, a great way to make a training webinar more engaging is to have a support engineer co-present support data with their own perspectives. The customer gets preventative solutions for issues they are likely to encounter, the CSM gets to host a winning webinar, and the support engineer gets a new dimension to their job while influencing a reduction in customer support tickets.

2.1 Sharing onboarding resources and customer best practices

Make the Support teams aware of the onboarding training schedule and where resources are archived for easy reference. Having CS present these details, perhaps with a short demo at the next Support team meeting, is a simple way to engage support engineers in this effort.

Support engineers can share best practices and can often convince customers to take action in the form of attending a webinar or putting the new knowledge into practice.

Support engineers can also introduce customers to the CS team to improve engagement or provide re-engagement where required.

3. Adoption

People are fundamentally reluctant to change, especially if things are working well. Getting customers to try out a feature takes a multipronged approach, benefits led, and often in small steps.

Just because you are about to launch a cool new feature doesn’t guarantee that your customers will adopt it. Customers are rarely as excited about your product’s new features as you are. In fact, they bought your product for a specific purpose that may be fulfilled without the new features, so why change? People are fundamentally reluctant to change, especially if things are working well. Getting customers to try out a feature takes a multipronged approach, benefits led, and often in small steps.

Support engineers are speaking with customers regularly, and senior Support engineers have a level of technical credibility that often puts them in a trusted advisor position. Having Support engineers take a few moments to inform the customer about new feature benefits and how other clients are using new features, could make the difference in getting a customer to take the next step.

4. Expansion

A customer will often share some subtle signs of expanding their business in the course of a problem-solving discussion with a Support engineer. Comments like "we are opening a new branch office, and we need this resolved soon," or more directly "does you platform allow for device management as well as network monitoring?" are potential signals that your Sales team can use to qualify new opportunities.

A lightweight process is sufficient for the Support team to capture the key information only, the Sales teams can do the qualification and selling. A word of caution here: it's important not to dilute the Support engineer's role from their core job. Careful consideration should be given to any form of incentive for lead generation. A recognition award at the next company meeting may be more appropriate than compensating for the number of leads or converted opportunities – which may drive the wrong behavior.

5. Renewal

Organizational silos between Support and Renewal departments can often result in missed opportunities to be more proactive when approaching a renewal event.

During this time, it is desirable not to have aging issues open, and that any high impact escalations are closed with robust corrective actions and thorough communications to all customer stakeholders.

"Organizational silos between Support and Renewal departments can often result in missed opportunities to be more proactive when approaching a renewal event."

When that is not possible, awareness of significant open issues will at least allow for a status update and resolution plan to be documented, which the renewal team can share proactively with the customer ahead of any renewal notice.

6. Customer Success Plan Reviews

Data showing customer support issues broken down by priority and by product can demonstrate the value of the Support department, e.g. the number of issues resolved and time to resolution.

Data showing contributing cause, which will likely include a percentage that is attributable to Customer behavior or knowledge, can further reinforce the value proposition of Customer Success resources.

7. Problem-Solving Process

While Customer Success may be relatively new in the SaaS context, some of the core Customer Success foundations have been in place for years. The Ford 8d quality problem-solving process and Intel’s 7-step are examples of structured problem-solving process including a step to provide a fix or workaround as an immediate containment step while root cause is being established. This serves to get the customer back up and running as quickly as possible to minimize the impact of downtime on their business. This containment step is a Customer Success focused action in a structured problem-solving process. It sends a strong message to the customer that you want to minimize their business impact as a result of a technical issue, regardless of root cause ownership. Ensuring this is part of your Support team’s problem-solving process is reinforcing the shared goal of Customer Success.

8. Leadership

Leadership has an opportunity to create an environment for Success and Support to work towards a common goal, and to provide on-the-ground encouragement and support for innovation. New ideas, breakthrough processes, problem-solving, and all forms of innovation need encouragement and support.

9. Metrics

The expression “what gets measured gets focus, and what gets focus gets fixed” is relevant in our context. If the desired outcome is to have an engaged Support department, who are tasked with resolving technical issues but also empowered to act in the interests of Customer Success, then the operational metrics need to be consistent with that goal. Metrics influence actions and behaviors. If all you are measuring are the number of issues closed, that’s what you are likely to get (whether they are actually closed from the customer's perspective is another matter).

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About the Author
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John Kelly is the Managing Director of CustomerLink, a technology and consulting services firm based in Europe that helps companies of all sizes to understand, measure and improve Customer Success. CustomerLink is the exclusive partner for Natero in EMEA.

You can get in touch with CustomerLink at www.thecustomerlink.com or connect with John on LinkedIn.