What, exactly, is customer success? You are certain to find conflicting answers to this question. While some write it off as SaaS jargon, the latest buzzword, or another Bay Area euphemism, others are quietly seeing the power and effectiveness of a sound customer experience strategy. Why should an SDR care? Customer success can provide a great leadership track for a developing career. Happy on the sales floor? Understanding the customer success mindset will make the phone feel even lighter. I intend to illustrate the essence of customer success as it relates to SDRs, hoping to deepen the reader’s understanding along the way. To do this, I will define customer success, exemplify some of the unique customer experience challenges I face in my role, and highlight key traits of effective customer success.
Customer success, though the fundamental concepts have existed since the beginning of commerce, has become an increasingly hot topic as the SaaS industry grows. Novel and dynamic, there are many approaches and definitions out there. I like Lincoln Murphy’s best: “Customer success is when your customers achieve their desired outcome through their interactions with your company.” As an SDR, you did the work to book the first demo and begin the sales cycle. What’s next? It is the role of customer success to deeply understand the customer’s wants and needs, align with and develop practices/processes to support these needs, execute strategic changes, and liaise between the customer and the rest of your organization throughout the project’s lifetime.
Let’s solidify our definition by adding some real world context. For the record, I’m not the only person who knows customer success isn’t just a feel good name for account management. The internet has created a lot of visibility into how companies operate, and social media has given customers multiple forums to share their experiences with other potential/existing customers. Look no further than recent headlines for relevant customer experience stories:
- An oversimplified example: Have you updated (or avoided updating) your iPhone recently? Those alerts are a result of user feedback, software improvements, product updates, bug fixes, etc. These annoy a lot of people, but Apple offers a pretty easy solution: tap this push notification with your finger and we’ll fix the problems instantly. This entire process, from problem acknowledgement, to solution, to delivery, and the million little things that it entails, is a responsive customer success operation. Apple can buy most companies outright in cash. This is possible because they continually set the standard for customer experience.
- A nightmare example: United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz put it best, saying, “It was mistake of epic proportions.” We’ll save the PR lesson for another time and instead focus on the massive customer experience failures in this episode: inefficient communication, logistical/technology issues, archaic booking policies/procedures, and customer safety are just the first few issues that a customer success professional would evaluate. If your job is to fly customers safely from point A to point B, and you 1) kick customers off pre-flight, 2) physically harm customers, 3) upset and unnerve other customers, and then 4) deflect responsibility until a viral video surfaces, you missed the gate on a successful experience. Keep your eyes on coming changes from United. I’m interested to see how they respond. Pay attention to their competitors, too, as they highlight how much better (and safer) their customer experience is compared to United.
- A really cool example: Elon Musk fascinates me. Did you hear about the time he took a customer tweet from idea to execution in 6 days? For those of us who don’t own a Tesla yet, entrepreneur Loic Le Meur was frustrated by congestion at electric car charging stations. He tweeted Musk, “The San Mateo supercharger is always full with idiots who leave their Tesla for hours even if already charged.” Musk promised action, and delivered a solution by the next week, instituting a fee for idle time. This move accomplished three important things: 1) Provided a direct, timely response to a negative customer experience, 2) freed up space for additional Tesla customers to conveniently charge their vehicles, and 3) created a new source of revenue from users unwilling to change their charging habits. I suspect Musk’s choice to address this problem using a highly-visible, critical mass-attracting social media tool was no accident.
To further our understanding of customer success, let’s focus briefly on a tangible yet outside-of-the-box story: my current role. I am a customer success manager at an SDR-centric company in the best place you’ve never wanted to visit: Buffalo, NY. We provide demand generation and sales acceleration services, so our clients literally come to us for SDRs and our expertise in the space. As a department, we still track milestones. We still need to achieve certain success metrics. Luckily, we also answer to the chaos/excitement of the sales floor, the tears/cheers of the SDRs, and the fruitful/sometimes ugly sync discussions throughout our clients’ campaigns. Our challenges are shared and thus easier to overcome collaboratively. With a sales-focused organization like ours, whether you’re talking prospecting or you’re talking client experience, we’re all down with ICP!
Before I conclude, let’s explore some key traits shared by effective customer success teams. Though these represent five of many, they are the most prevalent in my experience. They are not specific to SaaS, and any SDR would do well to emulate these characteristics:
- Responsive – A reactionary customer success program will be doomed. You must be punctual, prompt, and timely, 100% of the time. Perfect timing is tough, but the best customer success managers deftly identify the best time for action. (You can do something too soon!) Responsiveness includes both having a plan, and being ready to determine and prioritize quick improvements if that plan goes awry. As an SDR, would you go into a call without your pre-call research, a talk track, or at least a script?
- Even-keeled – You must be calm. Staying level-headed will allow you to effectively manage expectations throughout the business relationship. From onboarding to customer support, and through to customer engagement and potential upsell, there is no room for unchecked emotions. Just like an SDR, you must stay confident when things are going poorly and grounded while things are going well.
- Data-driven – It’s all about the numbers. Decisions cannot be made without statistical basis or support. Don’t waste your customer’s time. Keep the hot air on the sales floor. As an SDR, did you make “a lot” of phone calls or did you make 75 dials? Did you do “a bunch of outreach” or did you send 25 emails and connect with 10 prospects on LinkedIn? Eliminate the grey area. What should you be measuring? Churn, or customer turnover, is the most common foundational metric for customer success. Relevant stats vary based on your business and the client’s needs. We can leave churn mitigation until the next blog. For a good place to start on important numbers, turn to the experts. Check here, here, here, or here.
- Empathetic – Learn to listen. Customer success professionals must be able to understand and appreciate a customer’s position. Compromise. At my company, simply being a friend is a strong part of our operation: we want our SDRs to know that they deserved to be listened to, and that they are the most valuable part of what we do for our clients. The way we treat our customers is an extension of how we treat our own people. I think Seth Godin said it best, “Empathy is the hard part. The rest is mechanics. We’re not wired to walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s not our first instinct. Showing up with empathy is difficult, hard to outsource and will wear you out. But it’s precisely what we need from you.”
- Deliberate – Be clear. Strive to be the best communicator in the room. This doesn’t mean you should talk the most, it means you should say the most in the fewest amount of words. I consider this trait to be a tactful culmination of #1-4. If you need to tell a client that the team endured a rough week, own it, stick to the point, and be ready to offer an action plan for improvement. This marks a huge departure for an SDR used to hearing the sales adage, “putting lipstick on a pig.” Keep customers engaged by delivering what they want and fixing what they don’t.
SDR or not, I hope to have at least piqued your interest in customer success. I suggest monitoring the prevalence of the profession in the near future. Its evolution is incredible – from its emergence as a role, to its acceptance as a strategy/mindset, customer success has grown into its own industry, with software products, summits and conferences, and even its first potential unicorn! If you’d like to learn more, I compiled a reading list from actual experts. (Each link in this article can also be found there.) Thank you to the hardest working guy in our corner of the office, Brian Vital, for letting me contribute.
Kevin is a Customer Success Manager for Inside Sales Team, an outsourced SDR firm based in Buffalo, NY. He enjoys playing guitar, reading, listening to music, working out, and watching hockey.