Category Archives: customer success

Should Customer Success Report into the CRO or the CEO?

The CEO.  Thanks for reading.

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I was tempted to stop there because I’ve been writing a lot of long posts lately and because I do believe the answer is that simple.  First let me explain the controversy and then I’ll explain my view on it.

In days of yore, chief revenue officer (CRO) was just a gussied-up title for VP of Sales.  If someone was particularly good, particularly senior, or particularly hard to recruit you might call them CRO.  But the job was always the same:  go sell software.

Back in the pre-subscription era, basically all the revenue — save for a little bit of services and some maintenance that practically renewed itself — came from sales anyway.  Chief revenue officer meant chief sales officer meant VP of Sales.  All basically the same thing.  By the way, as the person responsible for effectively all of the company’s revenue, one heck of a powerful person in the organization.

Then the subscription era came along.  I remember the day at Salesforce when it really hit me.  Frank, the head of Sales, had a $1B number.  But Maria, the head of Customer Success [1], had a $2B number.  There’s a new sheriff in SaaS town, I realized, the person who owns renewals always has a bigger number than the person who runs sales [2], and the bigger you get the larger that difference.

Details of how things worked at Salesforce aside, I realized that the creation of Customer Success — particularly if it owned renewals — represented an opportunity to change the power structure within a software company. It meant Sales could be focused on customer acquisition and that Customer Success could be, definitionally, focused on customer success because it owned renewals.  It presented the opportunity to have an important check and balance in an industry where companies were typically sales-dominated to a fault.  Best of all, the check would be coming not just from a well-meaning person whose mission was to care about customer success, but from someone running a significantly larger amount of revenue than the head of Sales.

Then two complications came along.

The first complication was expansion ARR (annual recurring revenue).  Subscriptions are great, but they’re even better when they get bigger every year — and heck you need a certain amount of that just to offset the natural shrinkage (i.e., churn) that occurs when customers unsubscribe.  Expansion take two forms

  • Incidental:  price increases, extra seats, edition upsells, the kind of “fries with your burger” sales that are a step up from order-taking, but don’t require a lot of salespersonship.
  • Non-incidental:  cross-selling a complementary product, potentially to a different buyer within the account (e.g., selling Service Cloud to a VP of Service where the VP of Sales is using Sales Cloud) or an effectively new sale into different division of an existing account (e.g., selling GE Lighting when GE Aviation is already a customer).

While it was usually quite clear that Sales owned new customer acquisition and Customer Success owned renewals, expansion threw a monkey wrench in the machinery.  New sales models, and new metaphors to go with them, emerged. For example:

  • Hunter-only.  Sales does everything, new customer acquisition, both types of expansion, and even works on renewals.  Customer success is more focused on adoption and technical support.
  • Hunter/farmer.  Sales does new customer acquisition and non-incidental expansion and Customer Success does renewals and incidental expansion.
  • Hunter/hunter.  Where Sales itself is effectively split in two, with one team owning new customer acquisition after which accounts are quickly passed to a very sales-y customer success team whose primary job is to expand the account.
  • Farmers with shotguns.  A variation of hunter/hunter where an initial penetration Sales team focuses on “land” (e.g, with a $25K deal) and then passes the account to a high-end enterprise “expand” team chartered with major expansions (e.g., to $1M).

While different circumstances call for different models, expansion significantly complicated the picture.

The second complication was the rise of the chief revenue officer (CRO).  Generally speaking, sales leaders:

  • Didn’t like their diminished status, owning only a portion of company revenue
  • Were attracted to the buffer value in managing the ARR pool [3]
  • Witnessed too many incidents where Customer Success (who they often viewed as overgrown support people) bungled expansion opportunities and/or failed to maximize deals
  • Could exploit the fact that the check-and-balance between Sales and Customer Success resulted in the CEO getting sucked into a lot of messy operational issues

On this basis, Sales leaders increasingly (if not selflessly) argued that it was better for the CEO and the company if all revenue rolled up under a single person (i.e., me).  A lot of CEOs bought it.  While I’ve run it both ways, I was never one of them.

I think Customer Success should report into the CEO in early- and mid-stage startups.  Why?

  • I want the sales team focused on sales.  Not account management.  Not adoption.  Not renewals.  Not incidental expansion.  I want them focused on winning new deals either at new customers or different divisions of existing customers (non-incidental expansion).  Sales is hard.  They need to be focused on selling.  New ARR is their metric.
  • I want the check and balance.  Sales can be tempted in SaaS companies to book business that they know probably won’t renew.  A smart SaaS company does not want that business.  Since the VP of Customer Success is going to be measured, inter alia, on gross churn, they have a strong incentive call sales out and, if needed, put processes in place to prevent inception churnThe only thing worse than dealing with the problems caused by this check and balance is not hearing about those problems.  When one exec owns pouring water into the bucket and a different one owns stopping it from leaking out, you create a healthy tension within the organization.
  • They can work together without reporting to a single person.  Or, better put, they are always going to report to a single person (you or the CRO) so the question is who?  If you build compensation plans and operational models correctly, Customer Success will flip major expansions to Sales and Sales will flip incidental expansions back to Customer Success.  Remember the two rules in building a Customer Success model — never pair our farmer against the competitor’s hunter, and never use a hunter when a farmer will do.
  • I want the training ground for sales.  A lot of companies take fresh sales development reps (SDRs) and promote them directly to salesreps.  While it sometimes works, it’s risky.  Why not have two paths?  One where they can move directly into sales and one where they can move into Customer Success, close 12 deals per quarter instead of 3, hone their skills on incidental expansion, and, if you have the right model, close any non-incidental expansion the salesrep thinks they can handle?
  • I want the Customer Success team to be more sales-y than support-y.  Ironically, when Customer Success is in Sales you often end up with a more support-oriented Customer Success team.  Why?  The salesreps have all the power; they want to keep everything sales-y to themselves, and Customer Success gets relegated to a more support-like role.  It doesn’t have to be this way; it just often is.  In my generally preferred model, Customer Success is renewals- and expansion-focused, not support-focused, and that enables them to add more value to the business.  For example, when a customer is facing a non-support technical challenge (e.g., making a new set of reports), their first instinct will be to sell them professional services, not simply build it for the customer themselves.  To latter is to turn Customer Success into free consulting and support, starting a cycle that only spirals.  The former is keep Customer Success focused on leveraging the resources of the company and its partners to drive adoption, successful achievement of business objectives, renewals, and expansion.

Does this mean a SaaS company can’t have a CRO role if Customer Success does not report into them?  No.  You can call the person chartered with hitting new ARR goals whatever you want to — EVP of Sales, CRO, Santa Claus, Chief Sales Officer, or even President/CRO if you must.  You just shouldn’t have Customer Success report into them.

Personally, I’ve always preferred Sales leaders who like the word “sales” in their title.  That way, as one of my favorites always said, “they’re not surprised when I ask for money.”

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[1] At Salesforce then called Customers for Life.

[2] Corner cases aside and assuming either annual contracts or that ownership is ownership, even if every customer technically isn’t renewing every year.

[3] Ending ARR is usually a far less volatile metric than new ARR.

Stopping Inception Churn: The Prospective Customer Success Review

I think for many sales-aggressive enterprise SaaS startups, a fair amount of churn actually happens at inception.  For example, back in 2013, shortly after I joined Host Analytics, I discovered that there were a number of deals that sales had signed with customers that our professional services (PS) team had flat out refused to implement.  (Huh?)  Sales being sales, they found partners willing to do the implementations and simply rode over the objections of our quite qualified PS team.

When I asked our generally sales-supportive PS team why they refused to do these implementations, they said, “because there was a 0% chance that the customer could be successful.”  And they, of course, were right.  100% of those customers failed in implementation and 100% of them churned.

I call this “inception churn,” because it’s churn that’s effectively built-in from inception — the customer is sent, along with a partner, on a doomed journey to solve a problem that the system was never designed to solve.  Sales may be in optimistic denial.  Pre-sales consulting knows deep down that there’s a problem, but doesn’t want to admit it — after all, they usually work in the Sales team. Professional services can see the upcoming trainwreck but doesn’t know how to stop it so they are either forced to try and catch the falling anvil or, better yet, duck out and a let partner — particularly a new one who doesn’t know any better — try to do so themselves.

In startups that are largely driven by short-term, sales-oriented metrics, there will always be the temptation to take a high-risk deal today, live to fight another day, and hope that someone can make it work before it renews.  This problem is compounded when customers sign two- or three-year deals [1] because the eventual day of reckoning is pushed into the distant future, perhaps beyond the mean survival expectation of the chief revenue officer (CRO) [2].

Quality startups simply cannot allow these deals to happen:

  • They burn money because you don’t earn back your CAC.  If your customer acquisition cost ratio is 1.5 and your gross margins are 75%, it takes you two years simply to breakeven on the cost of sale.  When a 100-unit customer fails to renew after one year, you spent 175 units [3], receive 100 units, and thus have lost 75 units on the transaction — not even looking at G&A costs.
  • They burn money in professional services.  Let’s say your PS can’t refuse to the implementation.  You take a 100-unit customer, sell them 75 units of PS to do the implementation, probably spend 150 units of PS trying to get the doomed project to succeed, eventually fail, and lose another 75 units in PS.  (And that’s only if they actually pay you for the first 75.)  So on a 100-unit sale, you are now down 150 to 225 units.
  • They destroy your reputation in the market. SaaS startup markets are small.  Even if the eventual TAM is large, the early market is small in the sense that you are probably selling to a close-knit group of professionals, all in the same geography, all doing the same job.  They read the same blogs.  They talk to the same analysts and consultants.  They meet each other at periodic conferences and cocktail parties.  You burn one of these people and they’re going to tell their friends — either via these old-school methods over drinks or via more modern methods such as social media platforms (e.g., Twitter) or software review sites (e.g., G2).
  • They burn out your professional services and customer success teams. Your PS consultants get burned out trying to make the system do something they know it wasn’t designed to do.  Your customer success managers (CSMs) get tired of being handed customers who are DOA (dead on arrival) where there’s virtually zero chance of avoiding churn.
  • They wreck your SaaS metrics and put future financings in danger. These deals drive up your churn rate, reduce your expansion rate, and reduce your customer lifetime value.  If you mix enough of them into an otherwise-healthy SaaS business, it starts looking sick real fast.

So what can we do about all this?  Clearly, some sort of check-and-balance is needed, but what?

  • Pay salespeople on the renewal, so they care if the customer is successful?  Maybe this could work, but most companies want to keep salespeople focused on new sales.
  • Pay the CRO on renewal, so he/she keeps an honest eye on sales and sales management?  This might help, but again, if a CRO is missing new sales targets, he/she is probably in a lot more trouble than missing renewals — especially if he/she can pin the renewal failures on the product, professional services, or partners.
  • Separate the CRO and CCO (Chief Customer Officer) jobs as two independent direct reports to the CEO.  I am a big believer in this because now you have a powerful, independent voice representing customer success and renewals outside of the sales team.  This is a great structure, but it only tells you about the problems after, sometimes quarters or years after, they occur.  You need a process that tells you about them before they occur.

The Prospective Customer Success Review Committee
Detecting and stopping inception churn is hard, because there is so much pressure on new sales in startups and I’m proposing to literally create the normally fictitious “sales prevention team” — which is how sales sometimes refers to corporate in general, making corporate the butt of many jokes.  More precisely, however, I’m saying to create the bad sales prevention team.

To do so, I’m taking an idea from Japanese manufacturing, the Andon Cord, and attaching a committee to it [4].  The Andon Cord is a cord that runs the length of an assembly line that gives the power to anyone working along the line to stop it in order to address problems.  If you see a car where the dashboard is not properly installed, rather than letting it just move down the line, you can pull the cord, stop the line, and get the problem fixed upstream, rather than hoping QA finds it later or shipping a defective product to a customer.

To prevent inception churn, we need two things:

  • A group of people who can look holistically at a high-risk deal and decide if it’s worth taking.  I call that group the Prospective Customer Success Review Committee (the PCSRC).  It should have high-level members from sales, presales, professional services, customer success, and finance.
  • And a means of flagging a deal for review by that committee — that’s the Andon Cord idea.  You need to let everyone who works on deals know that there is a mechanism (e.g., an email list, a field in SFDC) by which they can flag a deal for PCSRC review.  Your typical flaggers will be in either pre-sales or post-sales consulting.

I know there are lots of potential problems with this.  The committee might fail to do its job and yield to pressure to always say yes.  Worse, sales can start to punish those who flag deals such that suspect deals are never flagged and/or that people feel they need an anonymous way to flag them [5].  But these are manageable problems in a healthy culture.

Moreover, simply calling the group together to talk about high-risk deals has two, potentially non-obvious, benefits:

  • In some cases, lower risk alternatives can be proposed and presented back to the customer, to get the deal more into the known success envelope.
  • In other cases, sales will simply stop working on bad deals early, knowing that they’ll likely end up in the PCSRC.  In many ways, I think this the actual success metric — the number of deals that we not only didn’t sign, but where we stopped work early, because we knew the customer had little to no chance of success.

I don’t claim to have either fully deployed or been 100% successful with this concept.  I do know we made great strides in reducing inception churn at Host and I think this was part of it.  But I’m also happy to hear your ideas on either approaching the problem from scratch and/or improving on the basic framework I’ve started here.

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Notes

[1] Especially if they are prepaid.

[2] If CROs last on average only 19 to 26 months, then how much does a potentially struggling CRO actually care about a high-risk deal that’s going to renew in 24 months?

[3] 150 units in S&M to acquire them and 25 units in cost of goods sold to support their operations.

[4] I can’t claim to have gotten this idea working at more than 30-40% at Host.  For example, I’m pretty sure you could find people at the company who didn’t know about the PCSR committee or the Andon Cord idea; i.e., we never got it fully ingrained.  However, we did have success in reducing inception churn and I’m a believer that success in such matters is subtle.  We shouldn’t measure success by how many deals we reject at the meeting, but instead by how much we reduce inception churn by not signing deals that we never should have been signed.

[5] Anonymous can work if it needs to.  But I hope in your company it wouldn’t be required.

The Three Types of Customer Success Manager

Since we’re now officially in 2019 planning season, I’ve been thinking about — among other things — our Customer Success model for next year and talking with friends in my network about that.  Since Customer Success is (sadly, perhaps) still a relatively new discipline in enterprise software companies, I’d say the whole field is evolving quickly, so it’s important to keep up with the changes.

In this post, I won’t approach things from a Customer Success Model perspective and how Customer Success interfaces to Sales (e.g., hunter/farmer, hunter-in-zoo, farmer-with-shotgun, account manager) [1].  Instead, I’m going to look bottom-up at the three basic types of customer success manager (CSM).  While they may share a common job title, CSMs are often cut from very different cloth.  Regardless of which model you implement, I believe you’ll be working with individuals who fall into one of three basic types to staff it.

  • Product-oriented
  • Process-oriented
  • Sales-oriented

In order to characterize the three types clearly and concretely, I’m going to use a template — first, I’ll show how each type introduces themselves to a customer, then I’ll present fragments of typical conversations they like to have with customers.

Note here that I’m talking about people, not roles.  In defining Customer Success Models you map people to roles and roles to duties [3].  In this post I’m really writing about the nature of the CSMs themselves because — all other complexity aside — I think the people pretty naturally drift to one of three types.

The art of setting up the right Customer Success Model is to clearly map out the sales and CSM roles (who does what), define the appropriate frequencies (how often do they do it), and then put the right people in the right roles — both to maximize job satisfaction as well as performance [4] [5].

The Product-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Jane, and my job is to ensure you get best use of our products. I’ll be here to keep an eye on your implementation process and to answer any technical questions that go beyond normal technical support. I’ll also perform periodic, proactive ‘health checks’ to ensure that you are using the system properly and making best use of new features.  I’m an expert in our products and previously worked at a consulting shop helping people implement it.  I’m here if you need me.”

Conversations they like to have:

  • “How’s that report working that I helped you build?”
  • “Yes, there are two ways of solving that problem in the product, let me help you pick the right one.”
  • “So you’re having some issues with performance, let me get in a take a look.”

The Process-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Joe, and my job is to make sure you are happy with our service and renewing your contract every year.  I’ll drive the renewal process (which, you should note, starts about 4-6 months before the subscription end date), monitor your adoption of the service, ask you to complete our ongoing customer satisfaction surveys, inform you about local user community events, and proactively call you about once a month to check-in.  Should we hit a rough patch, I’ll also serve as your escalation manager and pull together the right resources across the company to get you successfully through it.  I’m a very organized person — I was a project manager in my prior job — and I can manage 10,000 things at once, so don’t hesitate to call — I’m here if you need me.”

Conversations they like to have:

  • “Have you guys budgeted for next year’s renewal — and by the way don’t forget to leave room for the annual price increase?”
  • “I see you hired a new CFO, do you think that’s going to have an impact on our renewal process and can we setup a time to meet her?”
  • “We’re having a training class on new features in the November release and wanted to make sure you knew about it.”
  • “You’ve got two tickets stuck in technical support?  Let me swing over there and find out what’s going on.”

The Sales-Oriented CSM
Introduction: “Hi, I’m Kelly, and my job is to make sure your company gets maximum benefit from, and makes maximum use of, our software.  I’ll be managing your account from here forward, taking care of the renewal, and working to find other areas of your company that can benefit from our solutions [6].  Of course, I know you won’t be expanding usage if you’re not successful, so a big part of my job is to keep you happy as well — towards that end I’ll be keeping an eye on your implementation and your ongoing satisfaction surveys, and setting up periodic health checks with our ace technical team.  For routine technical or services questions, you should call those departments, but if you find yourself getting stuck do not hesitate to call me.  And, well, not to get ahead of myself, but I was wondering if you could introduce me to the CFO of the XYZ division, because I’d love to see if we could get in there and help them experience the same benefits that you’re going to be getting.  In my prior job, I worked as as sales development rep (SDR) and was promoted into this position 2 years ago.’

Conversations they like to have:

  • “Do you see any reason why you wouldn’t be renewing the subscription in February?”
  • “I’d love to come in next week and demonstrate our new Modeling product; I think it could help you with the inventory problem your CFO told me about.”
  • “I see you hired a new finance VP; can the three of us get together next week to discuss her goals for the team and our history working with you as a supplier?

Conclusion
I’ve exaggerated the types to make them clear.  What kind of CSM are you?  What other types have you seen? I’d love to hear.

In the end, it’s all about getting the right Sales and Customer Success Models working side by side, with the duties clearly mapped, and with the right people in the right roles.  I think the best way to do that is a mix of top-down planning and bottom-up assessment.  How do we want to break up these duties?  And who do we have on our team.

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Notes

[1] The way to define your Customer Success model is to define which duties (e.g., adoption, upsell, renewal) are mapped to which Customer Success and Sales roles in your company.  I won’t dive into Customer Success models in this post (because I can think of 3-5 pretty quickly) and each of those models will have a different duty mapping; so the post would get long fast.  Instead, I’m focusing on people because in many ways it’s simpler — I think CSMs come with different, built-in orientations and its important that you put the right CSM into the right role.

[2] I *love* characterizing jobs in this way.  It’s so much more concrete than long job descriptions or formal mission statements.  Think:  if a customer asks you what your job is, what do you say?

[3] As well as map duties to frequencies — e.g., a tier-one CSM may perform monthly outreach calls and setup quarterly health checks, whereas a tier-three CSM may perform quarterly outreach calls and setup annual health checks.

[4] You can make a product-oriented CSM responsible for renewals, but they probably won’t like it.  You could even make them responsible for upsell — but you won’t get much.

[5] To keep things simple here, I’m omitting the Customer Success Architect (CSA) role from the discussion.  Many companies, particularly as they grow, break product-oriented CSMs out of the CSM team, and move them into more of an advanced technical support and consulting role (CSA).  While I think this is generally a good idea, once broken out, they are no longer technically CSMs and out of scope for this post.

[6] One of my favorite quotes from a sales VP I know:  “I always put ‘sales’ on my business card — and not account executive or such — because I don’t want anyone to be surprised when I ask for money.”  This introduction preserves that spirit.