Understanding the customer success pyramid

Main illustration: Drew Shannon

Maslow’s famous pyramid shows a universal hierarchy of needs, and a similar framework can help us understand customers’ needs and how to meet them.

The best way to grow a loyal user base is to make sure your product meets their needs – that way lies longstanding loyalty and commitment. But to meet those needs, you first need to understand them.

That’s why Abraham Maslow’s famed “Hierarchy of Needs” has become such a cornerstone of business theory – nothing so elegantly describes the spectrum of human motivation from basic needs to complex aspirations.

With our mission to make business personal, we spend a lot of energy trying to determine our users’ needs, and in doing so, hope to ensure they come to rely on Intercom for their success. The path to that success, and the support we need to provide along the way, has many parallels to Maslow’s hierarchy. By paying attention to each level, you can lay the groundwork for your own Customer Success Pyramid.

Hierarchy of customer success
Customer success pyramid

1. Precise and accurate

At the base of the pyramid is the most fundamental aspect of the support you provide your customers – it must be precise and accurate. You must prioritise this above all else as you build a relationship based on trust with your customers – after all, they can’t be successful if you’re misinforming them.

While you will naturally put a lot of effort into getting this right at the start, it’s critical you keep attending to it as you grow. It’s too easy to think you have it sorted out and then neglect it. Your product will move on, the range of your customers’ needs will grow with your user base, and the challenge in keeping standards high will increase as your support team grows. Well-trained support representatives using the right software, which can drastically reduce or remove the need to go hunting for answers, will be the foundation on which your customer success strategy is built.

2. Prompt

Just above precision on the scale of customer success requirements is promptness – how fast can you offer support to your customers when they have questions or run into problems. However, the definition of prompt is different in different scenarios, and is different for different customers.

It’s up to you and your team to forge a personal relationship with your customers.

For us, we know that the first couple of days really are your most important time using Intercom. You’re going to have a ton of questions, you’re going to want to know how to integrate with all your systems, you’re going to want to know what data you should track and shouldn’t track and what best practices are. We apply real-time chat to that early period, so that people can get all the answers they need at exactly the time they most need it.

So promptness doesn’t just mean “faster is better”, it means “faster when it matters is better”. To achieve this, properly resourced teams are very important – you can’t be quick if you can’t keep up.

3. Personal

Roughly equating to a sense of belonging on Maslow’s hierarchy is the concept of being personal in your interactions with customers.

Ultimately, it’s up to you and your team to forge a personal relationship with your customers – while great software is designed to enable this, it’s the people using it who have to make the personal connection. Allowing customer support agents to be themselves helps them relate on a personal level to customers, building rapport and relationships along the way and further deepening the level of trust that our customers have in us.

While being personal is part of our mission, all businesses should strive to build real relationships with their customers. They make it easier for customers to ask you for things they want or for the help that they need. Good relationships also mean customers cut you a lot more slack when you inevitably screw something up.

4. Personalized

There is an important distinction between personal and personalized. The former is defined by the approach of you and your team when interacting with customers. The latter is about how you utilise the information you have gleaned about your customers and how you apply that information to improve the relationship. They are discrete parts of the business-customer relationship.

Crucially, having detailed data about the customer and their experiences with your brand enables you to actively deepen the relationship. Just like remembering your mom’s birthday or sending flowers to a friend who has lost a loved one.

This is the idea that Intercom was built on – that internet businesses should have easy, centralized access to information about their customers and that it shouldn’t be so hard for them to use that information to improve the relationship and increase engagement. When a customer interacts with you, they don’t want to feel like they have to introduce themselves and explain their situation from scratch every time, or hope they get the same support rep they were dealing with last time. There should be a similar sense of personal engagement with every interaction, and data is what enables this personalization.

But the accumulation of data about customers can also appear creepy. While it’s useful to be able to refer back to previous interactions and have important background on a customer’s situation, you have to be judicious in how you use it. Just as it’s creepy to Facebook stalk a person you’ve just met, businesses aren’t automatically granted an all-access pass just because someone bought something from you one time. There has to be a natural level of give and take, just as in real world relationships.

5. Preemptive

Towards the pinnacle of the customer success pyramid comes a more ambitious, and elusive, level – preemption. Advanced early-warning systems allow you to intervene before the customer knows they have a problem, meaning you’re being less reactive and more proactive. Successful preemption involves identifying patterns of behavior that trigger an alert when a user needs help. Most companies do this to varying degrees when they’re just getting started but few continue to be systematic about it as they grow and scale.

The difference between prescient and preemptive is that the latter requires a person to intervene

In any product, there are going to be multiple places that you could be reaching out to customers when they have errors and asking them to get in touch. The tricky part is identifying which ones to prioritize. You should begin by drafting a list of problematic patterns, stack ranking it and determining which ones you are going to preempt, and assessing what would offer the most value to your customers.

6. Prescient

At the very summit of the hierarchy, not quite yet in sight, is prescience – when cutting edge tech such as AI, machine learning or bots can take over the preemptive work and automatically guide customers to resolution or to better ways of doing things.

The difference between prescient and preemptive is that the latter requires a person to intervene at some point. Remove that person, but maintain the level of precision, promptness personality and personalization, and you start to see the power and scalability that AI and machine learning will one day enable.

The ability to automatically match customers with certain fundamental attributes to experiences tailored to their specific use case will be transformative. For example: “This customer looks like all these other customers we’ve had in the past who used auto messages to increase customer engagement. Because of that, we know they’re probably going to have this sort of trouble, they’re going to be using us in this certain way, they’re going to want to send these types of messages, they’re going to need these different features enabled, and so on.”

With extremely advanced pattern recognition you could automatically offer a totally customized experience for a customer based on the usage patterns of other customers (and even other customer’s customers). While this vision is still more sci-fi than reality, the power that targeted AI and machine learning algorithms represent is truly mind-boggling. It’s going to introduce a whole new way of thinking about how to enable customers to be successful with your product.

What does your pyramid look like?

Not every company’s success pyramid will look exactly the same. And not every customer will need exactly the same engagement to achieve success with your product. But the higher up the pyramid you manage to operate, the more likely you are to achieve a successful outcome for everyone.