Building Your Customer Success Team: Knowing When to Specialize

In a fast growing start-ups, I’ve learned that these are the constants when leading a Customer Success team:

  • Change is the norm
  • Time is your enemy
  • Hesitation can be deadly

What does this mean and how does it relate to building out a Customer Success team? It means that you are always in a state of flux and you need to quickly adapt to an environment that is constantly changing around you. You need to make decisions and you need to make them quickly – even if they aren’t always the right ones. You don’t have a choice. You either evolve or die. You’re never catching your breath and you’re never letting down your guard. Your customers expectations are increasing and becoming more complex, your board and executive are scrutinizing any signs of churn and your Customer Success team is counting on you to keep a steady hand on the wheel as they tirelessly go over and above for customers and for you.

It’s in this environment that I recognized that a change in our CS team was needed and it was needed quickly in order for us to get to the next level.

Customer Success Managers Can’t Do Everything

Early on at Influitive, each Customer Success Manager (or Advocacy Coaches as we call them) performed multiple roles. Their primary role was to onboard new customers successfully, manage the ongoing customer relationship and own the renewal process. This structure had many advantages:

  • Simplicity for the customer. It’s simple for the customer as they have one person that they work with from the time that they sign their agreement until their renewal. Obviously this person may change over time but there’s less of a chance of information being lost when you’re working with the same person.
  • Simplicity for the sales team (and your entire company). Sales know that they are handing over the customer to a specific person who will take great care of a client that they worked hard to bring in. This simple hand-off is straightforward and easy for sales to explain to their prospective customers. The rest of your company from Development to Finance know who to go to when they need a representative for the customer.
  • Relationship building. The Customer Success Manager (CSM) really gets to know the customer on a personal level. Because they’ve been with the customer since they started, they’ve been able to see the transformation from before the customer started working with you and the state that they’ve ascended to. Typically, the customer success manager has played an instrumental role in this process and there is a solid relationship between the customer and their CSM.

In a perfect world, this seamless customer experience was ideal. We had a very successful onboarding program in place – why would we mess with it? Here’s the rub: Customer Success Managers can’t do everything. As your company grows, something is going to give if you maintain the same processes. Here are the problems with this model that we ran into:

  • Customer Success Managers were burning the candle at both ends. While the concept of being the customer’s single point of contact is ideal, when you have several deals that all close at the same time its puts tremendous pressure on the Customer Success Managers to onboard customers successfully as well as take the necessary time to provide adequate advice for customers on an ongoing basis and ensure that they renew. Something has to give and it typically meant that your veteran customers weren’t receiving enough attention. In addition, you’ll burn out your Customer Success Managers as they try and cope with the multiple responsibilities being thrown their way. Even when you have a strong company culture that will typically tackle anything that comes its way, there are limits.
  • We created unnecessary bottlenecks in the sales process. While it would be amazing if the sales team would evenly spread out the deals they close over the course of a year, most of their wins take place at the end of the quarter. At one point, we had to let the sales team know that we only had a few more slots open in the next few weeks for taking on new customers as the CSM team was over capacity. From Ben Horowitz’s book, The Hard Things About Hard Things, you don’t want to waste time trying to change a buying cycle that has existed for decades (possibly centuries) and will probably never change. You need to adapt and make it as easy as possible to take on new customers and get them rocking and rolling as fast as possible.

I knew that we needed to make a change and it was time to specialize the onboarding role.

Splitting out the Onboarding Function: Specialization

Change is always risky. The saying “if the wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may be playing over and over again in your head but you need to see beyond this. When we decided to start up an onboarding function we identified these potential issues:

  • Broken telephone and dropping the baton. We were worried that as the customer was handed off from sales to the onboarding team and then to the CSM, there was a chance that we wouldn’t accurately capture all that we knew about the customer. In addition, a customer had a chance to fall through the cracks. To mitigate these risks, we created processes to ensure that we updated the CRM with the customer-success-specializationappropriate information about the customer and created specific hand-off points in the customer lifecycle to ensure that no one dropped the baton.
  • Inflated customer expectations. There is a major difference between what takes place in onboarding and what takes place after a customer has “launched” and has started to use our product on a regular basis. There is much more handholding during onboarding to ensure a successful launch. This role changes post-launch. To mitigate the risk of missed expectations we clearly defined the different roles that each team member plays (onboarding vs CSM) on the kick-off call with a new customer.

Once we knew we could contain these risks, we decided to proceed with this change and hire a new Onboarding Specialist and build out this new onboarding function. We needed to specialize this role so that we could:

  • Deliver a consistent onboarding process with a unified set of materials.
  • Ensure that the person with the right skills for this specific role was in place.
  • Focus on increasing efficiency and scalability of the onboarding process while improving the customer experience.
  • Allow Customer Success Managers to increase their capacity to manage a higher number of customers while increasing customer satisfaction and retention rates.

While we’re still in early stages of this transformation, we’ve seen some positive signs. Our Support team has seen a  decrease in the number of tickets submitted by new customers due to the improvement in the onboarding process, we’ve seen an improvement in the preparedness when it comes to customer renewal cycles due to the freed up time that CSMs now have and we’ve been able to achieve +83 NPS in this current quarter.

As always, we’ll remain vigilant in our goal of providing the best customer experience while being skeptical at any positive trend. All that indicates is that another major change will be needed to help us adapt to the next wave of growth that is on the horizon. And to that I say: Bring it.

How has your customer facing teams specialized their functions to meet the demand of your company’s growth? What has worked? What hasn’t?

Chad H.

For more updates, follow me on Twitter: @ChadTev

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