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Embrace the Rise of Customer Success

Women sitting across desk discussing work.

This month, we're featuring the contributions of the ICMI 2022 Top 25 Thought Leaders. These leaders in the contact center industry have been recognized by their peers for their contribution to the industry's knowledge base. Here, Nate Brown, a longtime friend of ICMI and everyone in the contact center industry, discusses his passion - customer success. 

The CX world has been rocked by several big things lately, including digital transformation, an assortment of CX technology mergers, and drastic changes in customer behaviors due to the pandemic. There is another change wave a ‘comin which I don’t believe is talked about enough: the dramatic rise of customer success.

Let's consider the following significant factors…all of which have been brewing for years:

  • Traditional marketing and sales efforts are falling flat. Brands realize it’s no longer about cold calling to try to get brand new customers in the door; instead it’s about leverage existing customer partnerships to retain, build reputation, and grow.
  • Customer service teams are shifting rapidly to a more proactive approach, given that AI and self-service capabilities are effectively handling a large percentage of historical volumes. What remains are the trickier, more personalized interactions that drive value.
  • Most customers have little patience for traditional “account managers.” People do not want their time to be wasted on an individual who is not a subject matter expert and is likely to not even be in the role a year later. What they want is a partner who understands them and can truly make their lives easier.

The customer success concept has come in fast and strong with a better way to work. In my favorite definition, customer success is about maximizing customer value. While it was born in the SaaS world as an approach to obtain increased renewal rates, the customer success pioneers have proven themselves, and are now coming for the B2B general industry. To quote Gainsight:

“Customer Success Management is the successor of account management. It’s evolutionarily superior. It pinpoints problems—and opportunities—by collecting and leveraging as many data points as possible about the customer. Furthermore, Customer Success informs strategy; it helps businesses better understand the customer experience and lifecycle so they can improve it. On top of all that, Customer Success team members truly focus on the customer and how that customer can succeed, as opposed to only focusing on how the company can succeed. It’s a mindset shift that reaps big rewards for everyone.”

This laser-focused approach on specific customers is where the magic resides. In Building a StoryBrand, author Donald Miller talks about the importance of understanding the customer's definition of success and acting as a competent guide to get them there. This role of trusted guide has been tremendously undervalued in organizations today, and it’s exactly what a customer success manager can bring to the table. Someone who says, “I know you. I care about you. I have the tools and skills required to help you navigate this journey with confidence.”

Who wouldn’t want someone like that in their corner? It creates a far stickier customer relationship, paving the way for enhanced loyalty and expansion possibilities.

But what does this all mean? Here is what I believe is coming for the customer support and contact center space, beginning with B2B:

A new customer success function will be established inside of many organizations. While the position will typically report into sales, customer service will be expected to partner and likely even train up the new customer success managers. These will not simply be rebranded account managers; these will be professionals that can go deep from both a relationship and product perspective.

Responsibilities of both sales and customer service will start to be cannibalized into the new function. It will happen over time, limited by customer validation. The more the customer begins to depend on the customer success manager, the less they will depend on sales and, to varying degrees, customer service.

Eventually, as the success function grows, other customer facing departments will be morphed into one client-facing department with success at the helm.

There likely still will be a need for a smaller customer service unit to handle highly specialized capabilities, such as advanced technical support, but the real heart will become customer success and that idea of maximizing customer value across every touchpoint.

So where does customer experience fit in?

Thus far, the customer experience world sadly seems to have failed to embrace customer success. We may not really have had the option, seeing as how the success community seems to be very intent on creating a wide separation. It’s probably a smart play on their part, considering how many customer experience initiatives fail to gain any meaningful traction. Even Gainsight in the article referenced above suggests that customer success is a separate (and superior) methodology for managing customer relationships:

“…Customer Success helps companies better understand the customer experience, which is the way customers use your product and/or services from their perspective. In short, customer experience focuses on the how. Alternatively, Customer Success focuses on the ways in which customers use a business’s products and/or services from both the customer’s and the company’s perspectives."

Of course those that have been in the CX space for any length of time know this view is flawed. It places far too narrow of a lens on customer experience. It’s not just the how; it’s the why, the what, the who, and so much more to actually improve the lives of the customer. To quote the brilliant Erica Mancuso, VP of CX at Rx Redefined:

“It's easy to cost-justify a success org because there's a tangible measurement: retention and upsell dollars. The impact of CX is harder to quantify but perhaps even more valuable. Customer Success is not a substitute for a poor customer experience. In fact, when you can deliver a great customer experience, you have less need for a customer success department. Instead, customer success truly becomes a methodology embraced by the entire company, instead of a single role/department within a company.”

It should be CX who is bringing the overarching strategy and coordinating the various customer-facing pieces to enhance relationships. Sadly, just as in the case with digital transformation, the opportunity with customer success seems to be slipping through our fingers.

And therein lies the challenge for us as CX and customer service leaders. We should not be trying to squash customer success. It is rising for a reason, after all. The principles are sound and we have a lot to learn from this movement.

What we do need to avoid is yet another faction that creates division and confusion around customer relationships. We can anticipate the movement towards customer success and even help to make it a critical part of our larger experience strategy, bringing balance and earning influence.

We prevent “just another new program” from taking hold and distracting everyone, instead staying true to our purpose and our customers and welcoming a much-needed modernization to our sales and marketing practices. It’s not about control. It’s about how we can best serve our customers long-term, as well as preparing our teams for the changes that are inevitably coming.

It’s wonderful how organizations are waking up to the realities of customer-driven growth. CX has been planting these seeds for years. Let’s reap the harvest together and help our customers to win!