Positioning the Customer Success
role in SaaS in 2023.

1. What's the role of a Customer Success Manager (CSM)?

I think the role of the customer success manager I think has evolved over the time, at least that I've been in customer success.

So I entered customer success in 2012, and it was a very fairly new role then, with a very undefined scope, and that made the, the role very fun and energetic, and it was very much a focus directly on building close relationships with the customer. To get the customer using  the product. So Adoption was a key metric and then also going through to renewal.

So, it was very much focused on making the product sticky and renewing. And I think over the last 12 years I've seen a lot of shift around the role of the customer success manager,  moving to more of a.. I think.. a lot more account management has come into the role. And domain expertise is also critical. So one of the things that a really good customer success manager does, is truly understand the needs of the business, through their own domain expertise.

And some of the best customer success managers are truly in the feet of the customers doing this. The second thing that I've seen change is more accountability over the role, where it's no longer just good enough to be creating adoption. It's more about the growth of the customer to achieve real outcomes, whether they're financial outcomes, they're employee engagement type outcomes, their acquisition of new business outcomes.

Whatever the outcome is, there's more of a focus around customer success generating real business in real businesses rather than just an advisor or the catchphrase that was used earlier on was "trusted advisor". We're now the generator of revenue, not just in our own company, but in our customers companies as well. And then the purpose of the customer success manager...uh...I kind of don't wanna answer this the wrong way, but we shouldn't really exist. My preferred state is not having customer success managers because if the product is truly doing what the goals of the product are, you won't need a customer success manager in the role. So I try when I work with customer success, lead customer success teams to never be empired building with customer success.

Always want to be decreasing the scale of, and the size and scope of the customer success team and enhancing the other services around the delivery of success of the customer. Whether that is better product delivery, it's professional services, or more partner led engagements. The more we can do without customer success managers, the more successful the company will be over the longer term, in my opinion, because customer success managers are...they're difficult to sometimes aligning to the right cost center.

So if they're not generating direct revenue, Then they become the same as a support team and sit as a cost to the organization. And this is where I think many organizations have been conflicted, particularly in the last two years, about whether to keep their customer success team or not. And the, what's the balance of headcount versus, I guess internal ROI on the role.

2. What are the tasks of the sales team vs. customer success team?

When you look at how the typical SaaS journey works and the roles of customer success in sales, I think every company is going to be different. There are gonna be some common things.

The most important thing is that it's well understood where the distinctions and handoffs are between the two teams, so it's less important how those distinctions are made, it's just that they are made. And everyone clearly understands their role. So one of the ways that's most commonly done is that you come to the final stages of deal closure and the customer success manager carries out a handover or some sort of transfer of knowledge between the sales team.

Or whether it's point-based selling as a digital handoff there to the customer success team where they take on the experience to bring the customer to value as fast as possible. And that obviously means very different things to different companies. Some products are very lucky that they can basically assign in and then that creates value instantly.

Others take much longer where implementations can take 3, 4, 5, up to two years months, sorry. And up to two years is the longest that I have seen a tech implementation take for the cloud. So it really does depend, but I thinkwhat's important is that the requirements of that handover are standardized.

That they're very clear, they're repeatable and  understood by everyone and executed a hundred percent. So for, so if you go down into the tasks, at that sort of broader level, the sales team are like, we talk about hunters and farmers, that's not new, but they are to go out to find the new business, to align with the stakeholders, to build the value case with the customer.

And for me, with sales teams I've worked with where the relationships been really highly effective. They have almost, they have brought to customer success, a very clear understanding of the goals of the customer, the overall vision for the customer, the overall goals, and also what the success metrics look like.

Because if those things aren't in place, it is very hard to...like...you are almost reselling the offering to the customer through the eyes of customer sucess. And that's tricky. So there is some responsibility for sales to sell in the way that customer success can deliver and the what the products underneath that are less important for me than the fact that everyone from sales to customer sucess, to the client are all clear around the objectives of the purchase.

And the other thing that's important, particularly with the larger customers that you're selling to, is that there's, there's significant, there's resourcing around the future implementation and use of the product. Because if you don't have the teams there to support the implementation, it's gonna be very difficult for customer success to get the right buy-in, the right engagement, the right people attached to making things happen at the customer end, even if your own customer success processes are fantastic.

So I think that in the pre-sales area, it's really important that it's properly scoped. And there's a clear understanding of the vision, objectives and metrics for the client commonly between CS, sales and the customer. And then the second thing is that it's properly resourced. And I think those two things are reall the main factors moving forward for a good handover. I did make a point that it's less important what's being sold, so you'll hear from customers says, oh, it's not our fault, so sales sold this, or sales always selling something that's like not what we do, or they sold to the wrong product, the wrong fit customer.

That's always going to happen. And as customer success managers, we cannot change that salespeople are going to sell things, that's what their job is. Our job as customer success managers is to make sense of what they're selling, even if it's not a perfect fit by aligning the vision, those resources, and what we can possibly do in the timeframe and managing those customer expectations going forward, whether it's a longer timeframe or it's a slight descope on something, that's our responsibility to do and we can be just as successful doing that as if we have a perfect fit sale from sales every single time.

That's my belief. I think I've definitely changed my view of that over time and become more ambitious about what customer success can do with the right framework set up early by the sales team.

I haven't talked about the technical requirements alignment, but that also goes underneath, but it's been technically scoped and aligned underneath at the same time, cuz that that bit can be a little bit trickier.

3. Does it differ from early stage to enterprise?

So in terms of like how the relationship between sales and CS differs in the stage of the company...yes, absolutely. Smallest, the smaller you are, the more you do. So in many startups you're a generalist.

So you've been at Successeve for many years now, and I guess you might have been doing when you joined marketing and sales and support and maybe some like, outbound calling as well.

And as companies mature and they grow and they create structures and functional alignment roles become more specialized. So I think anyone who's going in at a very early stage startup, whether you are a salesperson or a support or cs, you expect to do everything and that, you have to like take a little bit that your role will become generalist before you get to become the specialist or where you envision your career to be at some point in the future. And so for a salesperson, this means they hang on to the customer journey longer, and they will be responsible for maybe the enablement of the customer and some training and some check-ins. And you generally find those mature, those processes are less mature in a early stage startup.

Whereas when you get to an enterprise, you're looking at generally, enormous account teams looking after global customers, and there's multiple layers of delivery going on at the same time. There's, many projects going on from different services within the same company at the client. And you, you have like 40 people working there under the structure of a single account manager and a customer success manager is yet, but a cog in that wheel, with a, probably a very tight remit about what their responsibilities are.

Whereas in the, in a less large organization, the role of the customer success manager will be more fluid and they will have more, I guess ability to move across silos of their customer, move across the functions of their customer to take initiative around how they're going to do and expand, how they're going to look for other value cases, how they're gonna grow their network within their customer that's less, constrained than it would be at a large enterprise.And then even more so, it's less structured at a startup.

So I guess like many organizations, as they grow, they become more hierarchical, they become more structured, and roles become more functionally and specifically aligned. So, I hope, I think that kind of answers the question.

4. At C-level, who usually owns CS and/or who should own it?

So customer success is an interesting question: who owns customer success? I've never really thought about customer success being owned by anyone.
It's a responsibility that needs to be executed for the overall success of the company. So, in my career, I have sat under sales, marketing... I currently sit under what's called a growth function, which is basically the end-to-end acquisition, to renewal focus, and plus operations.

So yeah, a really broad range of  ways these companies are structured. I think the next question would be like, how does this impact your role? I would take sort of, how does it impact your role?

I think what I learned very early on,  and it was through going through a rift process, which many people, familiar to many people now, but a rift process back in 2016 was that we were sitting under marketing.

And if a new marketing leader comes in and they looks at, they look at their budget and they look at what these resources are doing, and they have a vision for their function, how are these resources contributing to that vision? And what I learned, although we were doing an incredibly valuable role, we were doing great work with our customers.. - when a leader comes in with a particular lens, they ask different questions of the resources that make up that function. In our case, that was a headcount that didn't fit with the vision for marketing, and so the RIF came off the back of not fitting with the, the vision of that particular function.

And I think that's something that customer success continues to struggle with and it's a lesson now I try to take to all of my roles is that make customer says, deliver to the function that you sit in. So if you are sitting in a product function, make sure that every single action that you take and every input and output from the customer is collected as a data point because if you are under product, they care about product development, they care about,  improving customer experience, in getting ROI on the, that the customer journey faster.

They care about reducing cost in the, the product flow.  They care about getting more products, people using the products, or clients using the products faster.If you're sitting under sales, they care about revenue. They want to know about expansion. They want to know about recognized revenue. They want to know about time to value headcount margins, cost to deliver. So, where you sit is going to make a difference about how you behave and what's required of you.

So, I don't think there's a single one fits all answer, and this is why I say it sort of depends because if the company's focusing very heavily on optimizing the product, it might make sense that customer success sits under product. If it's looking at growing sales and making more money through the current base, it probably makes sense that it sits under sales or some sort of revenue generating function.

And oh, I've also, I sat under operations as well, in fact, and in the op and when I was sitting under operations, that was more of a, like a structural nuance of the startup moving through its lifecycle. But  essentially when it sat under ops, they were caring about cost to serve and I was there to reduce cost to serve and that was the metric.

So it, it does depend where you sit. You need to deliver for the leadership team that you sit under. And it's not, that makes CS not cookie cutter in every single functional line. So if you're a CS leader, moving from sitting under sales to moving under product, you've gotta need to behave differently. You already need to create a different type of team, and you need to look at success differently.

5. What's the new emerging trend of 2023?

Okay, so I, I don't know if I can look into a crystal ball adequately and see the future, but some things that seem to be emerging in 2023. The first is the jobs market for customer success is definitely looking a different shape, but it's looked at least since any time in my career in customer success.

So I don't have the numbers to say it's contracting. But certainly there appear to be more people going for less jobs. The reason is is because there are more CSMs in the market or there are more people looking to see CS as a generalist type career they can move into. So I don't know which it is cuz I'm not looked at the data, but there's certainly, we are gonna see more customer success managers laid off in 2023.

And with that we're gonna see less people moving jobs where the, I think the average tenure of a custom success manager, I think regardless of level was around one and a half years. And even that might have been generous tenure. I think we're gonna start seeing custom success managers remain with organizations now two to three years, and that's good for everyone because it's starting to build more accountability into the organizations for customer success, where people have to truly justify their role and make their role, like we just talked about in the last questions, achieve the goals of the functional line that they're sitting in to contribute to the company. I think customer success will start to be taken seriously after we get through this period.
And people will, where people quite often go, I don't know what customers just do, what do you guys do?

I think by the time we get to end of 2023, 24,  we will have had to define our roles much more clearly because we've had to a stick in them longer and make them work rather than moving to the next better, big salary or fancy startup that we've seen.

And then the next thing is that we're gonna have to justify our roles a lot more to be able to keep our role in the organization and have a significant voice of the customer and of the goals of our company at the same time. And I think that's going to be trend number one. Trend number two is the role of AI in customer success.

And I think this is really exciting, it's seeing a lot of our, the base level of our job taken away,  by newer new growing services that are taking, including Chat GPT in them, and I think that's gonna be very exciting to basically take the repetition out of our roles, because that's one of the things that lots of CS managers still do, is they take off the easy work or the repetitious work, or the thing they can do in their sleep instead of getting to the hard nuts and bolts, you know, get into the customer, make that call, have that hard conversation.

Instead, we'd like tend to, you know, do a tweak on the platform on their behalf when support could have done it. So I'd love to see customer success start up-leveling themselves because Chat GPT exists , and not seeing it as a threat to our jobs. And so the third, if you boil those two things together is customer success has to become more strategic.

We have to become more focused on achieving the joint outcomes of the company that we're working for in a very data-led, concise and fairly efficient way than we ever have before. So in no longer is it going to be acceptable to be hiring headcount because you've got endless VC funding or an endless supply of clients that pay lots of money.

That world has gone away. We're gonna see our customers making more discretionary spend choices. We're going to see headcount that people that leave not being replaced, we're going to see headcount reduced in organizations. And the expectation is, and I think this is fair, that we achieve the same and we achieve more with the resources that are remaining. And that can only be good for the role of customers success managers, how seriously we are taken as a profession. And the future way that we are going to be built into all organizations, not just SaaS ones into the future.
Kate Forgione
Customer Success Leader
of Morressier
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