Customer success in sales

How to balance customer success and revenue in sales

Main illustration: Nusha Ashjaee

Customer success means wildly different things to different companies in the SaaS industry. Many organizations create customer success teams but there’s no clear definition as to how these teams develop long-term value for both the customer and the business.

At some companies, customer success managers create resources for thousands of self-serve customers, while at others they work with a select few. Sometimes they’re just account executives with a fancier title, or the two roles have simply been combined into one. Some sales teams consider a customer success manager as the post-sale counterpart of an account executive. The result is a customer success team more focused on upselling or hitting quota than creating customer value.

To build customer value, businesses need internal customer advocates who can prioritize long-term value to the customer over immediate revenue. They need customer success managers who can focus on the organization’s most valuable customers and ensure they’re using their product in the most effective way.

The role of customer success teams

At Intercom, our customer success team sits side by side our account executive and relationship management teams in sales. It’s the sales rep’s job to get customers on Intercom but after closing a deal, the work is just beginning. Our customer success managers, or CSMs, typically step in after a large deal has closed and provide tailored onboarding based on the customer’s specific goals. We believe onboarding a new customer successfully is just as important as closing the deal. The cost of doing either one poorly is very high.

Simply put, the long-term value of successful, sticky customers is far greater to your company than the short-term costs to develop them. That’s what customer success is all about, and it can’t always be measured by your most recent quarter’s revenue numbers.

“Customer success can’t always be measured by your most recent quarter’s revenue numbers”

This doesn’t mean CSMs aren’t focused on revenue. We believe our work is in fact revenue producing, just not in the near-term. Through increased retention and expansion, customer success teams help businesses find the path to predictable, recurring revenue, which is critical for any organization’s long-term growth. You also build more meaningful relationships with customers along the way.

Why onboarding is a part of sales

You might be wondering why we have sales managing onboarding instead of marketing or support. At many companies, sales teams direct customers to their company’s knowledge base or customer support team for onboarding help.

To successfully onboard your large customers, you need to be proactive and deliberate in your approach. You don’t wait for them to ask for help — that’s what customer support is for. You also don’t provide a cookie-cutter approach — your large customers most likely have unique needs.

Our product education team in marketing does an amazing job at onboarding our self-serve customers at scale. But to grow your relationships and establish trust with your larger customers, it’s best to offer a tailored approach that enhances existing customer education resources. Get involved before your customers have had a chance to develop any bad habits or become closed-minded. It’s much more difficult to retroactively fix a bad configuration of your product than to create a successful one from scratch. And more importantly, you’ll reassure them about their decision to buy from you.

“Selling and onboarding are fundamentally two different jobs”

Some sales teams recognize the need for onboarding and task their account managers to handle onboarding as well as selling. But in our experience, selling and onboarding are fundamentally two different jobs. In fact, we’ve seen that pilots with dedicated CSM support have a higher conversion rate.

By separating these two jobs, we allow account executives to do more selling. Relationship managers can focus more on upselling or cross-selling existing customers, which is easier now that their accounts are already in good health. This kind of teamwork allows our sales organization to put both company and customer goals at the forefront.

3 ways to cultivate customer success

So what does customer success work look like in practice? The most effective customer success teams do three things to help their customers find value.

1. Embed yourself in your customer’s business

Successful CSMs start with learning the ins and outs of the new customer’s business. We learn who our customer’s customers are; we find out what their internal processes look like. We essentially act as a consultant to define the problems our customers are trying to solve and help them apply the product or develop custom solutions.

For example, it’s not uncommon for an Intercom customer to have little idea what data they should be sending to the platform. Depending on what the customer is using Intercom for, our CSMs will investigate their lead qualification, messaging strategy or support workflows to identify potential events or custom attributes that they should be sending.

2. Become your product’s superuser

Customers have unique needs. To meet those needs, CSMs must be true product and subject matter experts. At Intercom, we spend several hours a week testing out new features, meeting with our product team and thinking of new ways the product can be applied. We study how sales, support, and marketing teams are evolving in different industries. The time it takes to stay on top of a constantly changing landscape is another reason to separate selling and onboarding work.

We’re also big proponents of sharing customer stories to help customers leverage past learnings. When working with a specific customer, CSMs should have an encyclopedic knowledge of what other customers with similar use cases have tried. By understanding previous wins and failures, our team helps customers avoid common mistakes and achieve quicker success.

3. Prioritize product activation metrics

Lastly, we use different metrics for CSM work to ensure we’re aligning ourselves with the customer’s goals. Compensation in sales is usually tied to revenue (qualifying more leads, closing more deals, etc.), which aligns sales work with company goals. But revenue indicators alone don’t reflect whether your customers are finding value.

For example, if a customer wants to use Intercom to generate more leads, I should be telling them about the power of Custom Bots or qualification data. If I’m not bringing up these product features, I’m not onboarding the customer very well and that customer will eventually churn. So in this scenario, the measure of success is our ability to drive usage of Custom Bots.

Other times we simply ask customers how they’d define success, and use their input as a benchmark. It’s helpful to know that a customer would be happy, for instance, if they could just increase their trial conversions by 10%. We’d focus on features that would enable them to hit that metric, and over time, look back to see if we helped them solve the job they hired Intercom to do, on their own terms.

At Intercom, we believe the job of sales is two-fold: drive revenue for the company and be the voice of our customers. But each part of the job requires its own skills and mindset. The best results come when organizations invest in teams centered around customer advocacy to complement other selling efforts. When unlocking more value for customers is met with the same aggression as closing more deals, long-term revenue growth will follow.

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