How to build a Customer Success team from Scratch

Episode 16

Right the secrets of building the Customer Success team. Where shall we begin?

Well, how about to build a CS team, first you gotta work in sales for about a decade. You don’t believe me? It worked for me didn’t it? did it? did it really? (Nervous smile)

Alright jokes apart. I’m been someone who worked in sales since the beginning of my career so my soiree into customer success came well in to my career around early 2021. I was VP Sales at Hubstaff and when I joined Hubstaff was growing really rapidly. As startups mature, and mature we did, coming off from the tailwinds of the success of the sales team, we quickly realized we needed a team that will need to help some of the larger customers that we have and, well, be the voice of the customer.

Easier said than done. We had always been a company that relied heavily on the customer support team and reach out to customers if and when they raised their hand, something that is called a “reactive approach” in the SaaS world.

What is the fundamental difference between customer support and customer success?

Customer success and customer support differ in their approaches: while customer support typically reacts to customer problems as they arise, customer success takes a proactive stance. Instead of merely resolving issues, a proficient customer success team anticipates potential challenges and requirements before they manifest, collaborating closely with customers to foster growth and development.

For the size of business we were, made total sense that we were only operating with the customer support team, but like I mentioned we were growing fast and that required a dedicated customer success team to manage the revenue coming from the larger orgs that increasingly required a more hands on approach than the traditional SMB customer.

So, considering that we were only maturing and hadn’t gotten to the fully matured part yet, the question was asked who has customer success experience? Yours truly had worked with a lot of good CS teams in the past so rightfully, I raised my hand and well, the rest is rock and roll history.

Needless to say, I learned on the job. No experience working with the customers, prospects yes, not a lot of knowledge in terms of how a CS team operates, what tools they use, what the processes look like, hell I reek of being a sales person but regardless looking at it from the lens of a great opportunity that will help me understand the right side of the bowtie. I got right down to business and started building things from scratch.

Was it easy? hell to the no! It certainly wasn’t pleasant. Did I regret it? At times, yes. Did it add a tremendous amount of stress in my life? Check. Did it felt like a stupid dumb decision? check check. Did it make me a better manager and a better student of how customers operate? Check check check.

If I could go back, will I do it all over again? Hell yes!

So, on a random Sunday after walking 18KM and doing 25,000+ steps, thought I would jot down a guide that can help other folks that are in my place, or perhaps are looking to start their own customer success team. Maybe you just need inspiration, guidance, or simply want to understand what the dynamics of starting a new team look like.

I hope you find enough value here to help you ease into building the success team, well, successfully (see what I did there?).

How do you know when to build a customer success team?

Well start off by asking this question, this I believe is the most important thing before we get in to the nitty gritty.

Not every startup needs a customer success team right from the start. While customer support is crucial for addressing immediate issues, forming a customer success team might be more strategic after gaining insights from a few customers and understanding their specific needs.

For bootstrapped startups with limited resources, delaying the formation of a customer success team until there’s a sufficient customer base and data can enable the team to provide more targeted and valuable support.

If churn becomes a concern and you’re unsure about the reasons behind it, it’s an opportune moment to gather data, perhaps through exit surveys, and consider establishing a customer success team to address underlying issues.

Typically, companies should start contemplating a customer success team when they have a significant portion of high-value customers, such as when a minority of customers contribute the majority of revenue. At this stage, a customer success team becomes instrumental in sustaining growth and fostering long-term success.

As a rule of thumb if 30% of all your customers comprise of 60% of all your revenue, it’s a good place and time to start thinking about building a customer success team.

Umm me I guess

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s discuss the next steps.

Start with a blank canvas

Look I get it, it’s tempting to start off with a template that someone else created (hello hello), however in my experience, a good starting point would be to start off with a blank canvas. I’m hoping you will be starting out with more experience than I did back when I started the CS team.

So a good rule of thumb is to create a Gdoc or a Notion page, whatever works for you and really jot everything that comes to your mind. To give you an idea of what that looked like for me was something along the lines of what you see below.

Yeah so there is a lot to unpack here but this is exactly how my team workspace started. I started off with writing the the why and how, which is critical. Look if you don’t understand full the reason behind starting the new team and cannot coherently put it on paper, it will be almost impossible for new hires to understand what exactly is it that you’re after or trying to achieve.

Building a strong foundation is everything. Without that, the chances for success drop significantly, which is why it’s imperative you get the first half of the equation perfect. Add in all the ideas, what you think and believe the new hires or anyone reading the doc could possibly need. Anything and everything should be in that doc, top to bottom.

The real skill here is to ensure that everything is dumbed down and understandable for everyone who might end up reading the doc. If you have things written down and don’t have the processes developed just yet to expand on those matters, that is fine. Just freeze those topics and come back to them when you are ready to fill the information in there.

The good thing about this wiki/doc is that you really don’t have to start from scratch when you are building documentation or helping new team members understand the objectives. So when you are putting your thoughts on paper, they help in educating the team members and frankly save you a ton of energy later on.

Imagine, having the same call with every new member you hire. And they will have follow-up Qs, and they will be somewhat similar to the ones you have already answered in the past, now times that by 10 and then 20, it starts to take too much time out of your day.

Claw that time back by making sure that the canvas that you have created covers all the bases. If you’re looking for some inspiration, a good place to start would be Notion templates, sometimes just going through them and finding the ones that fit your style can be a great source of inspiration.

Start small

If I had to pick one place where folks make the biggest mistake is that they take on too much too quickly. Let me explain.

You don’t need to build the team wiki, buy a new CS tool, hire 10 people to make customer success a successful endeavor. Doing this more than likely will burn you out a lot faster than you think and lower the chances of success you will have starting this new team.

Instead, try and start small. First and foremost, try to make do with the resources you already have. Maybe you already have a robust tool that you are using currently that can be repurposed for the use by the CS team. Maybe you already have a person in the sales or the support team that is already proactively helping customers and they would like to venture into the world of customer success.

This will give you a foundation, a strong launching pad and the bonus is you don’t have to hire someone right away as you’re getting people that are already experienced in the product and they understand the customers that you work with. You cannot ask for anything better at this stage to be frank, this will be a stellar head start.

So always look within the company before venturing out.

Starting small means start with the least amount of resources needed to achieve the largest amount of results. This will help build confidence in not only you but also your manager/CEO that this indeed is the right strategy and the move.

If they are behind you 100%, it will take a lot of the initial stress off of you, stress you can do without from the get go. Not to mention that your runway to achieve success gets longer and longer with each small win. Saving money from starting with what you have will also give you enough time to research tools out there that you can really sink your teeth into and know if it’s the perfect fit for you, both short term and long term.

Another thing to add here is the fact that as the time is passing and you make do with what you have, you learn a lot about what is it that you exactly need. This will help you make a lot stronger decision when it comes to purchasing a tool for your CS team.

Last thing to remember here is to always make sure that you are optimizing the use of resources, be that be a tool or people, if you are optimizing those resources, you will never feel the need to over hire or spend extra dollars on a tool because you are getting all of the value you could from the resources at your disposal. Which makes the team more productive/valuable and gives you a chance to run a lean organization that adds more value to the bottom line.

Develop the processes

This arguably will be one the most difficult things in the process. There are a lot of moving parts here, so I will compile these in more concise manner.

Segment the customers

Are they a small or large customer MRR wise? Paying monthly or annually? High or low touch? depending on these answers you will want to segment your customers in a way that you have a good idea of the customer base. Based on that you can start to develop a book of business for each of your CSMs.

Customer health score

Tricky one. You will want to speak to your product team about his one to ascertain what entails a healthy vs poor customer. Reason it’s important to ask the product team is because they probably have more insights and data to work with and that could be your starting point.

Also, which tool will you use to track the customer health, what the cadence for reach out will look like etc? You’re going to want to make sure you perfect this before going deeper in to the weeds.

Collaboration with sales, support and product

How will the handovers from sales to success will look like? Ideally you want them to be asap, so from the point the prospect becomes a customer, speed really is key to make sure that the customer is handed over to the success team so they can start to offer onboarding help and help the customer scale and get value out of the purchase.

Product teams are often driven by the desire to create a product that resonates with customers, yet they may perceive much of the feedback from customer-facing teams as anecdotal. Conversely, CS teams engage with customers daily and have a solid grasp of their needs, but struggle to effectively communicate this to the product team.

This misalignment poses challenges in ensuring customer satisfaction and success, as both teams play integral roles in shaping the customer experience. Nonetheless, bridging this gap can be achieved through tactics such as aligning key goals across both teams, implementing shared toolsets, and fostering regular and transparent communication between them.

You cannot discount the customer support team here either. How will the tickets from support to success will be routed? How to involve product in to the conversations with the customer, how can the product roadmap be communicated to the customers and make sure that everything is always up to date.

Feature requests from customers, where will they need to be logged? How will the feature development process work. How do we ascertain which features carry how much weight etc.

There is a lot to unpack here before you move on with any of the next steps.

Another part of the process is to make sure that the onboarding for customers is as smooth as possible.

While you may possess an innate passion for your product and a deep understanding of its functionalities, it’s essential to acknowledge that your customers may encounter initial hurdles during their journey of adoption. As the product experts (CSMs), it’s incumbent upon the CS team to recognize the need for an effective onboarding process as an integral component of the customer success strategy.

By proactively guiding customers through the onboarding process, the CS team can offer invaluable assistance in navigating the product landscape. This proactive approach not only saves customers time but also enhances their overall user experience, empowering them to achieve their desired outcomes efficiently.

As you map out your buyer’s journey, leverage your newly onboarded team members to delve into the intricacies of user interaction with the product. Encourage them to identify common roadblocks and reasons for user attrition, fostering collaboration with sales and marketing counterparts to swiftly address any challenges that may arise.

The right tool and data

Alright so this one is pretty close to my heart because time and time again I have seen companies create new teams, hire people, but they don’t give them the right ammunition to do any good or make an impact.

I’m talking about the right data and tool of course. Look I get it, you love Hubspot and Salesforce, while they both are fantastic CRMs, they are not geared towards customer success. Trust me I have spent months trying to figure out how we can build out a component for CS in there and every time it has been nothing but a failure.

Solution? Simple. Get the right tool in place. Now I have repeated this a few times already, but Vitally is my go to. It has (almost) everything a customer success team could need to do their job and that too well. You can segment the customers, look at revenue in real time, expansions, contractions, churn, renewals, discounts, NRR, you name it, it does it. And the goal behind all of this is to make sure that the success team has a place where to go in everyday and get an idea of how their book of business is performing without having to stitch data together.

They should be horses with the blinders on, meaning zero distractions and focus should be on that one tool where they get most of their information from. Simply put, that is the place they need to operate out of, day in and day out.

Which brings us to the second half of the equation here. You can have the best tool in the world, if it’s not piping in good quality or the right data, that tool will do no good. Period.

This is why you need to figure out which tool you will be using, what data needs to go in there, what are the sources of the data and get that spec created, so you can deliver on that before you start hiring a team, let alone onboard them.

If the data quality is not good, you won’t be able to set the right KPIs, you won’t be able to execute on them, or motivate the team in any shape or form to go after those KPIs, since they will know the system is flawed. Not to mention it will cause a nightmare for your tool and data hygiene and be a general morale killer.

So if you take one thing out of this blogpost, it would be to work with the right data, good quality data that can be trusted by your team and not give them the opportunity to play guess it whether or not it’s right.

Last thing on this, make sure that everything is set in a way that all the data is at the CSMs disposal, the less time they will have to spend finding and stitching together data from various sources, the more time they can spend with the customers where it really counts. It’s imperative to get that right and once you get it right, let’s move on to the next step of…

Hiring the right people

I think this one seems like the obvious one but I cannot stress how important it is to make sure that you get this right. I also want to put a disclaimer that it is very unlikely that you will get this right, the first time around.

Building new teams are hard, especially in the remote environment we live in where we barely get to meet each other, it becomes increasingly difficult to gauge the new team members and get the hiring right. Same can be said about the process.

The amount of times I have restarted things from scratch, built them again, created new processes, scraped the old ones. Lord, too many times. But that is OK, that is part of maturing and making sure that your processes withstand the test of time and are growing with you, with the new knowledge you are either absorbing or bringing to the table.

Hiring the right people, well that too won’t come in naturally. For instance for me, the biggest issue was that I was and am used to hiring sales people. I know what to look for, what to watch out for etc. So when it comes to customer success my skillset was just not a good fit in terms of signals I should be looking out for.

Only after doing 200+ interviews did I start to get a better understanding of everything. It took time, it will take you time as well. But the critical thing you need to be looking out for is:

  • Are they empathetic?
  • Are they collaborative and have a lot of high energy?
  • Understanding of the market in which you operate
  • Are they a team player? You don’t want anyone who is not a team player in the early days, it will mess up the team dynamics.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • The ability to understand customer needs and articulate them internally with other teams
  • Project management skills
  • Customer-first mindset
  • The ability to multitask without getting frazzled

Once you hire a team, offer ongoing training to help cultivate these skills. If I could go back in time and try to give my young self some advice, I would focus a lot more on the skills I shared above than anything else.

Empower the team and let them be the voice of the customer

I have a rule when it comes to hiring people. Hire talented people, build excellent processes, give the team all the tools they need to be successful and get the hell out of their way.

Why did you hire people, if you have to tell them how to do their jobs? Let their expertise be the deciding factor on how they decide to get a certain task accomplished.

To ensure the success of your customer success (CS) team, it’s crucial to empower every team member, granting them the autonomy to implement their ideas and strategies in nurturing customer relationships. By empowering the CSMs, you are teaching them to become adept at making efficient and effective decisions.

Each team member should have the liberty to make decisions aimed at enhancing the customer experience. This may encompass offering pricing flexibility, customizing the unique selling proposition, or providing complimentary upgrades or renewals. Don’t be the bottleneck for each of these things, it can get frustrating really fast for the CSMs.

Given that the CS team serves as the voice of the customers, directly engaging with them to understand their daily challenges, it’s imperative for CS to collaborate closely with other departments to enrich the user experience. Product, Sales and Customer support being the critical ones.

Any disconnect between departments can lead to delays in response times. Therefore, fostering alignment and buy-in across all teams ensures a seamless customer experience at every touchpoint.

Establishing a customer success team is an ongoing journey characterized by experimentation and adaptation. It’s not a one-time setup; rather, it requires continuous refinement and active engagement.

Regular training is essential for the entire team to hone their skills and stay updated with evolving practices. Additionally, as new challenges arise within the company, documenting and presenting solutions as case studies can provide valuable insights for the team.

This approach ensures a seamless resolution process, with team members equipped to address issues effectively, ultimately enhancing the overall customer experience. It’s been one hell of a journey for me to build this team, something that is completely out of my wheelhouse, skillset and my comfort zone, but I learned a lot and 3 years later still loving it.

It’s not easy, it never will be but ultimately extremely rewarding. Use all of these pointers or pick and choose the ones you like, the most important thing is that you build a strong foundation and mould all these learnings to what works for you and your company the best.

Happy hunting!


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