Customer Success is a rapidly changing discipline, yet at its core it remains one of the best ways to help existing customers achieve their business goals.
To help our customers within the context of our product, we need to be specific about the value our product delivers, and how we can help them derive even more value from our relationship for years to come.
It is useful to envision the complete Customer Lifecycle for each of our products and identify key events and milestones at different points on our Customer's Journey.
In this article, I will discuss how Customer Success professionals can address these seven categories of Customer Lifecycle events to maximize the value of their solution:
- Product Usage Milestones
- Expansion Milestones
- Advocacy Events
- Quarterly Business Reviews
- Ongoing Research and Collaboration
Our Customer’s Lifecycle begins before they even become a Customer.
Both Marketing and Sales can have a huge impact on Customer Success, and I highly recommend articles here and here to gain a better understanding of these relationships. Onboarding begins long before the deal is closed. Savvy Customer Success Professionals understand this, and do all they can to collaborate with Marketing and Sales.
Up until the moment that formal Onboarding begins, our Customer-to-be has only ever spoken with one member of our team: the Sales Representative.
As the Customer moves closer to an agreement, we introduce many additional team members, not only a Customer Success Manager but also Implementation Specialists, Support Representatives and perhaps even members of our Professional Services Team.
And at the very same time, our Sales Representative, the individual responsible for initiating a legacy of trust with our new Client, gets ready to leave the picture.
Onboarding begins long before the deal is closed. Savvy Customer Success Professionals understand this, and do all they can to collaborate with Marketing and Sales.
We cannot simply assume that trust is automatically transferred from Sales to Customer Success during Onboarding.
While all seven categories of Customer Lifecycle Events are important, if you don’t get Onboarding right it’s incredibly hard to regain that lost momentum. If you falter in Onboarding, you falter in delivering your value proposition right from the very beginning. The entire reason why your customer reached an agreement with you is shown to be false.
Faulty Onboarding is one of the main sources of churn, whereas effective Onboarding can set the stage for retention, renewal, and upsell.
The great irony is that even though Onboarding is perhaps the most important event in the Customer Lifecycle, the better we do it, the less often we need to do it.
On the other hand, if you mess up this step you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice getting it right!
Product Usage Milestones
We’ve successfully onboarded our Customer and implemented our product within their existing system. Now we turn our attention to the next major set of events in our Customer’s Lifecycle: how they use our product.
When our Customer first signed an agreement with our Sales Representative, it encompassed one or several of our products. Let’s address the former case first, since the latter is merely an extension of the former where the Customer attaches a different priority to each product.
Acknowledge and celebrate every product usage milestone, since these are close proxies for trust.
Every time one of our users engages with a new feature in our solution, that’s a lifecycle event.
Every time one of our users employs the solution to address a business need within our original value proposition, that’s also a lifecycle event.
They key here is that we are trying to encourage our Customers to use all the product features that will fulfill our original value proposition, especially advanced features. At the same time, we want to acknowledge and celebrate every product usage milestone, since these are close proxies for trust: the more our Customer trusts the product, the more they will use it.
Why is this important for Customer Success?
Suppose your company has developed advanced software for Collaboration and Project Management, and one of your Sales Representatives closes a six-figure deal with a Customer interested in using it for detailed financial analysis. If that Customer only ever uses the product in ways that could be done less expensively with Excel, it’s unlikely that Customer will realize the full value of the product, and even more unlikely that they will renew.
Let’s take it a step further.
Every time one of our users stretches the solution to address a business need outside of our original value proposition, that is not only a lifecycle event but also a bridge to expansion, which is part of the next category of Lifecycle Events.
From our example with Excel above, we can see why Customer Success Managers need to focus on helping Customers use as much of the product as possible, as often as possible.
But this is only part of the story.
Let’s assume our Sales Representative reaches an agreement with our Customer for 100 of their team members to begin using our product. Looks great on paper, but progressing from 100 users to 100 product champions doesn’t happen automatically.
Enter Customer Success.
Every new individual who uses the product is further proof that the product is helping our Customer achieve their business goals. Every training session led by Customer Success that leads to an uptick in usage across more members of their team is an even stronger signal that our product is delivering on our initial value proposition.
These are significant Customer Lifecycle Events.
Complex products that can be deployed to multiple departments provide rich terrain for Customer Success Managers to thrive.
Remember in the last section on Product Usage Milestones, when we talked about users stretching the solution to address a novel business need?
Let’s examine this in the context of our hypothetical Collaboration and Project Management solution. Perhaps the solution was originally sold to our Customer’s Finance team, yet over time their Sales team recognizes how helpful it could be for CRM.
This is a major expansion milestone since now we can add an additional 100 users.
Looking beyond the number of users, this expansion represents a dramatic improvement in the value we can deliver, since now we are impacting two departments instead of just one.
Even from this simple example, you can see the benefit of complex solutions that can be deployed to multiple departments within a single organization. These types of products provide rich terrain for both increased product usage and expansion, and these types of environments are particularly suited for Customer Success Managers to thrive.
This Expansion example points to another reason why effective Onboarding is so important. Not only is it critical that our Customer realizes the full value of all product features, but also that every member of our Customer’s organization understands how their use of the product fits into their Company’s larger goals.
What happens when your Customer tells other Companies about our product? We now examine the fourth category of Customer Lifecycle Events.
Let’s pause for a moment to celebrate what we’ve accomplished: Onboarding was a success, and now we’ve reached a point where multiple departments within our Customer’s organization are using the full spectrum of features within our product.
While there will always be opportunities to improve product usage and train new team members, it’s time to set our sights even higher. It’s time to leverage our Customer’s Success and channel it back into Marketing and Sales with appropriate advocacy.
There are so many ways to demonstrate the value of your product to your customer, whether it’s smooth onboarding, matching their needs with a broad range of product features, or applying the product to a wide variety of business use cases.
When is the best time to ask for a testimonial or referral?
Perhaps the best answer is, “not right away.” This point will vary with each Customer relationship, yet once you demonstrate value, move forward quickly.
Testimonials and Product Reviews Fuel Your Marketing
Your customer may tell you every day how great you are as a Customer Success Manager, and how well the product fits with their goals... but are they willing to go on record and share it with the world?
Video and written testimonials can be some of the most powerful marketing tools for a SaaS company, yet these can only come from existing customers who are employing the product at its greatest potential.
This is a major Customer Lifecycle event, yet it’s just laying the groundwork for what’s next...
Referrals Reinvigorate Your Sales
Referrals are one of the most tangible ways to recognize the trust we have developed within a relationship. They believe our product is so valuable that they want their friends at other companies to start using it too.
Compared to the broad stroke of testimonials, which assert “This worked for me,” referrals represent a much bolder stance: “I think this will work for you.”
And referrals don’t just represent a source of potential new customers, but qualified potential new customers. Who wouldn’t want to duplicate a scenario in which our best customers basically clone themselves?
That’s why referrals, as part of our broader Advocacy Milestones, are such an important Customer Lifecycle Event.
Compared to testimonials, which assert "This worked for me," referrals represent a much bolder stance: "I think this will work for you."
The point at which Customer Success Managers first begin requesting testimonials and referrals may vary for every Customer, yet as an Executive, what incentives have you given your CSMs to reach this point more quickly?
Consider this a jumping-off point for further exploration into Customer Lifecycle Management: it's not merely about how we can help one specific Customer achieve their goals, but how we refine the process to help all our Customers achieve their goals more efficiently.
Quarterly Business Reviews
Throughout every stage of our Customer’s Lifecycle, we’ve seen indications that they are deriving value from our product.
They saw value when they reached an agreement with our Sales team and advanced through Onboarding.
They realized value through their use of the product, and they recognized even greater value as more of their team members logged in for the first time.
Finally, they told us how valuable it was by sharing testimonials and telling their friends at other companies.
The Quarterly Business Review (QBR) is our next major Customer Lifecycle Event, since it is here that we align all the other events with our Customer’s business goals.
Monitoring usage alone will not tell us whether our customers are closer to achieving their goals, nor will adding new users.
We need to access data from across their business to see how our solution is helping. We need to point out where we’re coming up short and deliver strategies for how we can get back on track: this is the very nature of excellent Customer Success Managers.
Anytime we need to engage with our Customer’s Executive team members, we can apply the methods of a QBR.
One important point begs clarification: by no means am I suggesting that a QBR only happen once per Quarter. This timeline is arbitrary and we need to consider the needs of each specific client.
Anytime we need to engage with our Customer’s Executive team members, we can apply the methods of a QBR. Depending upon the size of the customer and the nature of the relationship, our next ‘QBR’ might be two months after the previous one, or in four months.
Do not get so hung up on labels that you forget the purpose of this Customer Lifecycle event.
Nothing can replace personal contact with our Customer. Nothing can replace a focused meeting with clear goals, and in a QBR our goal is to ensure the Customer has all the resources they need to achieve their goals.
Machine learning and AI continue to provide us with an incredible amount of data. Yet this data cannot replace the personal connection between a Customer Success Manager and their client, it must complement it.
We are the ones we have been waiting for, and we need to be the ones to ask the hard questions.
During our discussion of Onboarding we saw the irony of perfecting our approach to this Customer Lifecycle Event: the better we are, the less we’ll do it.
The Renewals process is characterized by a similar irony, one that has even greater long-term benefits: if we manage every other Customer Lifecycle event well, the Renewal is actually a non-event. If our Customer has experienced value from every aspect of our product, and it has helped them achieve their business goals, then of course they will want to renew.
Our goal as Customer Success Managers is to make churn impossible, which is just like saying we make our Customer’s Renewal inevitable.
If we manage every other Customer Lifecycle Event well, the Renewal is actually a non-event.
In the same way, we cannot simply monitor and manage our Customer’s health from afar for most of our contract, and then show up 90 days before renewal and expect them to sign on the dotted line.
Customer Success requires a continuous investment on behalf of every team member using our product, to ensure they are deriving its full value to achieve their business goals. And if our organization is large enough that we have a separate team that handles Renewals, then we need to focus just as much attention on the transition from Customer Success to Renewals as we did during Onboarding when we went from Sales to Customer Success.
Yet even though it’s our goal to make Renewals inevitable, we won’t know for sure unless we ask. Quit making assumptions about your Customer’s progress towards achieving their business goals.
Ask early and often, and their Renewal will be assured.
Ongoing Research and Collaboration
The six categories of Customer Lifecycle Events I have discussed up to this point have probably sounded quite familiar. We all talk about Onboarding, Product Usage, Expansion, Advocacy, QBRs, and Renewals every day: these are part of the Customer Success movement’s shared vocabulary.
The seventh category provides the context for the other six.
Ongoing Research and Collaboration encompasses every other touchpoint with our Customer: from tracking support tickets, to upsells and cross-sells, to one-on-one discussions with individual users.
Far from being a series of discrete events like Onboarding or QBRs, Ongoing Research and Collaboration is the environment within which all these other events take place. Think of this as a series of micro moments spanning your Customer’s every interaction not only with your product, but with everyone on your team.
Every time our Customer experiences friction while using our product is an opportunity for our team to demonstrate its value above and beyond a simple fix.
As Customer Success Managers, it’s not our goal to sell new products and services: it’s our goal to help Customers be more successful.
Note that I include upsells and cross-sells in this category, since they are not ‘events’ in and of themselves but simply byproducts of doing everything else right. As Customer Success Managers, it’s not our goal to sell new products and services: it’s our goal to help Customers be more successful.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this exploration of Customer Lifecycle events, and I hope you consider this an invitation to investigate the specific needs of your client base.
How are you addressing your Customers’ needs at each stage of their Lifecycle?
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About the Author
Andrew Rhodes has helped executives across the country realize the value of this dynamic discipline. Andrew draws upon years of strategic business consulting experience and is extremely passionate about Customer Success. Andrew is redefining the goal of Customer Success – it is not a matter of stopping churn, but of creating the business conditions in which churn becomes impossible.
Follow Andrew on Twitter or LinkedIn.