How to Build a Customer Success Process

No formal Customer Success process? No problem. 

Well, until your business shrinks. Or grows. Or stays the same. You know what, forget what we said — it is a problem to haphazardly go through your Customer Success motions.

If you’re an early-stage Customer Success leader who’s been “making it work,” this one's for you. The goal here is to offer you some mental fodder for identifying, defining, and implementing a unique Customer Success process for your team’s workflows.

Quick disclaimer: What you won’t find here is a step-by-step guide to building the perfect Customer Success process. Businesses — yours included — are solving nuanced challenges for different customers in dozens of industries; there’s no one-size-fits-all, prescriptive process out there. Take what you find here and make it your own. 

So, what will you find here? Time-tested Customer Success expertise from Tom Maxwell and Zack Joswiak.

how to build a customer success process

Beards aren’t the only thing these two have in common. Tom went from serving as a jack-of-all-trades for Ignition nine years ago (literally doing a mix of sales, marketing, support, and Customer Success for 200 customers), to leading Ignition’s 60-person Customer Success organization that serves 7,000 customers and counting. 

Zack manages the Solution Architects team at Vitally today, but he didn’t start out there. Vitally’s Customer Success process has evolved a ton since he joined a couple of years ago, and Zack was a big part of that. After a stint as a Senior Customer Success Manager (CSM), he transitioned into leading Implementation — and he’s since transitioned again into heading up the Solution Architects team that builds efficiency-driving solutions for our top logos. 

Read on to learn from Tom and Zack about:

  • The tell-tale signs that you need a more formal process
  • How to lay a solid foundation for a process and build strategically
  • A little bit of how Customer Success works at Ignition
  • Why you need to “get the keys to the office”  

A Few Tell-Tale Signs That It’s Time for a Formal Process

Here’s how you know it’s time for a more standardized approach to serving your customers.

Customers Are Churning

When customers voluntarily churn, they’re saying with their actions that either no solution — or a solution they can find somewhere else — would be better than the one they currently have. 

Thoughtful Customer Success Managers (CSMs) who act as product consultants and roadmap experts provide immense value to their subset of customers in a way that ad-hoc customer interactions never could. Often a Customer Success process with a few automated steps enables one-to-many customer relationships that feel healthy and stable again. This stops churn in its tracks.

Support Ticket Volume Is Way Up

This one’s big. If your customers are reaching out over and over with the same problems, questions, or recommendations, it’s a sign that it’s time to add some process: Do your customers need better training during onboarding? How do we capture their feedback and turn it into action on the product development side of the house? 

One final note on support: Before you think about standardizing your Customer Success team’s process, be sure you’ve got a great support engine running already. It’s vital to be there for your customers when they proactively reach out to you before you spend any time thinking through how to proactively reach them. 

Your Business Is Growing Quickly

If you’re winning new business each month and your team is stretched thin, it’s time for a Customer Success process (and maybe some new hires, too). 

Zack says it well: “You know it’s time for [a formalized CS process] when you need to specialize roles in the CS organization. The ‘catch-all’ generalists who’ve been handling onboarding, renewals, and chat support need to shift into segmented teams dedicated to new customer onboarding, technical support, and relationship managers.” 

This more organized, methodical approach to customer care that Zack’s suggesting leads to happier internal teammates, a better experience for customers, and more trust-building opportunities right off the bat for CSMs. It’s a true win, win, win.

Your Products and Pricing Structure Are Complex

Both your product and pricing complexity should play a role in determining how you allocate your Customer Success resources to provide maximum value for your company and your customers. 

The more complex and bespoke your product offerings (and the more complex your pricing tiers and add-ons are, too), the more thought you'll need to put into your customer success process and CS activities. We’d say more, but Parker Moore who leads our Customer Success team here at Vitally explains it best in this short video.

Related: The 5-Minute Customer Success Process Builder [interactive tool]

To Create a Process That Works (and Lasts), Do This

So now you know the signals. Let’s get into what worked well for Tom and Zack when they were rolling out more official Customer Success processes.

1. Get Stakeholder Buy-In ASAP

In Tom’s experience, getting this right made all of the following dominoes fall faster. Bring in the right people — a few trusted customers, executives, the board, and product leadership — and help everyone understand what you’re trying to achieve, the ROI behind it all, and why delivering incredible customer experiences matters in the first place. 

“It’s not enough to just be an expert in Customer Success. To have a lasting seat at the table, you need to be willing and able to talk about any part of the business,” Tom shares. “Customer Success really needs to be a philosophy in the business, not just a team or process.” 

Here’s a great place to start: Know your CAC (customer acquisition cost) and quantify how much time and money is being spent during manual adoption and activation moments in your product. From there, it’s pretty easy to make a case for a Customer Success Platform (CSP) because the ROI speaks for itself.

In Tom’s words: “If it requires a CSM to help, then you need a CSP to manage it all. The flip side is the opportunity cost and what you’ll need to pull away from other resources to make ad-hoc Customer Success work.”

2. Know Your Product(s) Better Than Anyone

To spin up a function that’ll help customers use your products to their full potential, you need to know their capabilities and even the future plans better than anyone else in the business, including the founders. 

Think about it: As a Customer Success leader, no one knows better than you how customers actually use the product or how it fits into their strategy and larger stack. If you have that information and a crystal clear understanding of where the product is headed, you are suddenly a voice in the room who can say, “That’s the perfect direction for the roadmap, I love it,” or, “I’m not sure this is the best investment of our engineering team’s time because of X, Y, and Z.”  

As Tom says, “This step is critical. If you skip it, any process you build is moot.”

3. Understand Your Market and Customers

This goes hand-in-hand with the strategy above. Become a student of your book of business on a macro level. Clearly be able to answer:

  • Who are they?
  • How do they make money?
  • How do they purchase software?
  • How do they implement software? 
  • What other products do they use (even if they don't integrate with your product)? 
  • What do they struggle with as a collective market (even if your product doesn't solve it directly)? 

Become an expert in all things your customers' business in order to build a process that will resonate. 

4. Figure Out Which Metrics Matter Most 

Before you build, write down some ideal outcomes. At the highest level, your job is to make the business money. Here are four metrics and KPIs to focus on that keep that “make the business money” goal front and center:

  • LTV (Lifetime value): This is what Gartner defines as “the aggregate value of all your customers.”
  • LTV:CAC ratio: This is how much, on average, you make from customers versus how much you spend attracting and acquiring them. Hubspot cites 3:1 as a good benchmark.
  • Target CAC payback period: How much time does it take for your business to break even on what it costs to bring new customers in?
  • Churn type: This is a qualitative, not quantitative metric. Look closely at what kind of churn happens most and when it happens. (Lean on ChurnRX for a hand figuring this out.) 

In short, understanding how much you can afford to spend acquiring and retaining your customers is critical to building a sustainable process. Know. Your. Metrics.

5. Lean on Technology So Your Data and Operations Scale

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can bootstrap your Customer Success process as you grow; you’ll need some technology. As Zack says, “While building strong relationships is still a key tenet of CS, if you’re not incorporating technology into the process early on, you will experience some serious friction when it comes time to scale.” 

Without good Customer Success habits — like tracking notes, updating useful data points, creating documentation and video recordings, and collaborating with customers — your customer interactions will feel frazzled. A Customer Success Platform helps Customer Success professionals and leaders stay on top of their work instead of floundering in docs and notes and emails.

Tom elaborated on this idea a bit and shared that the best Customer Success leaders he knows “get super familiar with the definitions of key product events and attributes and speak about them with authority.” If you’re advocating for an investment in Customer Success technology, no one will want in if it doesn’t play nicely with your existing tech stack.

So, understand how your accounts are created and provisioned. Learn how an ID gets assigned to a new customer. Find out which integrations would simplify your Customer Success teammate’s lives. It's the little details that make a huge difference in being able to set up legitimately helpful processes. In case you’re wondering where to start here, here are Tom’s words, not ours: Vitally is actually the third CSP that we’ve been through, and now it’s our home. We’re not going anywhere.” 

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain: Ignition’s Secret Sauce

Like we said earlier, we can’t pretend to know what specific Customer Success phases and subsequent actions would work best for your business. But, we can share two things working really well for Ignition right now. Here’s what Tom told us.

“Onboarding is massive for Ignition. We lose some new customers early, but then the retention curve flattens out, and we keep the successful customers for a very long time. So, the first 90 days are critical.” Since 80% of Ignition’s customers are accountants or tax professionals, they often send proposals and collect payments. Tom’s team has found that the faster a customer does one of those two things with Ignition, the more likely they are to stay.

The second area of focus in Ignition’s process right now is the first tax season new customers go through with them. “Tax season is a big opportunity for our customers to get a ton of value from our product, so we want to be right there to support them through that stage.” New customers get above-and-beyond attention and support during these critical months.

By doubling down on the onboarding experience and first-tax-season experience, Tom’s improved retention, although that’s almost an afterthought. “We grow if our customers are growing,” Tom says. “So we focus on their growth, and then renewals just sort of follow.” 

One Last Thing: Try to “Get the Keys to the Office”

As a Customer Success leader who’s considering a new or revamped Customer Success process, you likely have lots of goals: make money for the business, retain clients, keep your CSMs happy, keep customers delighted, and hit your quota. It’s a lot. But if you can focus on one thing, Tom recommends showing up to work with this attitude: “Get the keys to the office.”

Here’s what he means: When you have a customer’s trust — like really have it — it should be a no-brainer for them to give you a key to their office. That’s when you know you’ve done something right. Build a process that’s centered on trust and the desire to consistently, excellently show up for your customers to earn it.

Zack adds, “Great Customer Success leaders go beyond asking, ‘How are others doing this?’ and instead ask, ‘What do our customers need from our team to be successful?’. Identify the major milestones, the obstacles and hurdles, and the common goals of your customers, and build process around those things. No two products are exactly the same, so why would your CS process be?”

Go forth with Tom and Zack’s wisdom and build a unique, thoughtful, data-backed Customer Success process. 

Think a Customer Success Platform could bring some order to your Customer Success chaos? We’d love to talk with you. If you’re not ready for that, head to the Success Network instead. It’s a community-focused content hub that features tips and innovative strategies from other thought leaders in CS like Tom and Zack.

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