Customer success: What it is and how it leads to business wins

The success of your business depends on the success of your customers. Here's why.

By Molly Murphy, Contributing Writer

Published June 5, 2017
Last updated June 9, 2021

What if we told you your company’s success depends on someone else’s success? does.

Your business’ success largely depends on whether or not your customers find success using your products or services. In today’s customer-centric market, the companies that excel all have one thing in common: They prioritize customer success more than their competitors do.

Investing in customer success is the best way to ensure your customers' long-term happiness and, in turn, your business’ longevity.

What is customer success?

Customer success is when a customer gets exactly what they want and need from your company. In other words, your customers are successful when they achieve their goals while using your product or service. This all comes from developing a true partnership with your customers, understanding their goals, and working to help them attain their desired outcome.

Customer success is focused on long-term buyer happiness and retention. Instead of solving problems as they crop up, customer success is about anticipating your customers’ needs and helping them become confident, knowledgeable experts who can wield your products or services to crush their goals.

With customer success, your buyers are happy because they have an ongoing partner within your company who’s championing their wants and needs.

Customer success vs. customer support

Customer success and customer support are very different but related concepts.

  • Customer support solves technical issues. The agents on your support team are focused on answering customers’ questions about product features and resolving short-term problems as fast as possible. They can provide guidance and information to clients who reach out about a technical issue, and their success is gauged by how quickly and effectively they resolve it.
  • Customer success provides strategic guidance. The success team’s focus isn’t on fixing technical issues but on ensuring success for each customer during their lifecycle as a client. Customer success is all about building long-lasting relationships with buyers in order to understand and help them achieve their goals. Unlike support agents, customer success managers often stick with the same customer, from onboarding throughout their time as a client. They constantly check in, provide best practices, and help their customers adjust their plan to best fit their needs.
  • Customer success and customer support serve two important but different functions. One helps resolve problems, and one works toward future business growth and continued satisfaction. These teams should work in concert with one another for the ultimate customer experience.

    Why does investing in customer success matter?

    invest in customer success

    Customer success is a newer concept, but it's already proving to be a worthwhile investment for businesses. Focusing on customer success boosts buyer satisfaction and retention—and retaining customers makes your company more stable and, ultimately, more profitable.

    By investing in customer success, organizations can:

    • Provide more personalized customer experiences

      One of the greatest benefits of customer success is the custom experience it offers your clients. Customer success teams provide a personal, human touch and strive to connect with customers on a deeper level and understand what success looks like to them—they treat buyers like VIPs who deserve a personalized strategy to achieve their goals. This makes each client feel valued, helping to boost customer loyalty.

      Positive, personalized customer experiences are even more important in the post-pandemic era. Fifty percent of customers say good CX is more important to them now than it was a year ago, and 75 percent will pay more for a great customer experience. So, the message is clear: Consumers demand a tailored and top-quality experience. And they’re willing to spend more to get it.

    • Improve retention

      Customer success also increases retention rates. Customers are less likely to leave if they have an ongoing personal connection to a customer success manager.

      The success team’s job is to build a lasting relationship with the customer and understand how the company can best meet their needs. Having staff dedicated to helping customers reach their long-term goals with your products or services keeps them invested and engaged—and minimizes the potential for negative interactions.

    • Find opportunities to cross-sell and upsell

      Customer success teams can also organically, genuinely cross-sell and upsell without coming across as pushy or aggressive.

      While a sales rep pushing a product upgrade can come across as someone just trying to make a quick buck, a recommendation from a trusted success representative can sound more like a solution to a problem.

      The basis of a great client–success manager relationship is trust. That means your customer success team should only push additional products when they can truly be positioned as solutions to a customer’s challenges or as ways for the buyer’s business to grow. Train your success team on how to understand the difference and approach their suggestions in a genuine way. Coach them on the strategic thinking skills needed to pinpoint the customer's actual needs, too.

      You can also consider creating a cross-selling/upselling “decision tree.” This format would give your customer success managers an “if/then” model to use for determining when a cross-sell or upsell may be beneficial to mention to a customer.

      For example, the tree may state: “If a customer is complaining about not having enough user licenses, then you should consider whether the customer's current setup is conducive to their needs or if it needs to be re-worked.” This approach allows agents to present the customer with options based on their needs—without overly pushing the additional expense.

    How to build and manage a customer success team

    customer success team

    The benefits of adding customer success managers to your business model are obvious. But developing a customer success strategy is critical for the best results. Keep these strategies in mind as you move forward with building a success team.

    Find the right people to champion the customer success process

    For customer success to be, well, a success, it needs to be a company-wide initiative. The most impactful way to do this is to focus on creating a customer-centric culture in your company, where everyone takes responsibility for the success of your customers. Then, it’s all about picking the right people for your customer success team.

    • Have the focus on customer success start at the top. To secure customer success buy-in from your support, account management, and sales teams, the focus needs to start with company leadership championing the effort. Consider sharing the benefits of customer success with company leaders, and discuss the positive effects on retention and revenue. Once leadership is engaged, the rest of the team should follow.
    • Dedicate certain team members to the job. You need employees whose main job is maintaining the success of your customer lifecycles. In a small business, this may be a strategic hire of a single person or a specially trained support rep. But in a SaaS, large enterprise, or subscription-based business, customer success should become its own department with certain team members dedicated to specific accounts. You’ll also need customer success managers (CSMs), who are part account manager, part customer support agent, and part sales rep. They’re primarily responsible for your buyers’ long-term victories with your products or services.
    • Ensure your team is diverse. It’s important to have a diverse team—in all aspects. When team members come from varied backgrounds and experiences, they bring different skill sets and perspectives to the table. This enables your customer success managers to be more innovative and creative when helping clients. Diverse teams are often better at problem solving and decision-making, too.

    A successful strategy begins with putting the right people in the right place to affect the greatest positive change. This is especially important when those people are responsible for keeping your customers happy.

    Use technology for personalized experiences

    Once you have a rockstar team in place, you can leverage technology in a way that allows you to offer personalized experiences. There are two major ways technology fits into a good customer success strategy: to help you group customers by type and to use existing data to create a more positive lifecycle for future customers.

    Customer segmentation is the practice of grouping your buyers by certain characteristics—whether by business size, use case, or other defining features. Splitting up your customers based on commonality allows you to build personalized experiences for each group. In terms of customer success, this may mean creating an onboarding plan and lifecycle model specific to that segment, for example. A small mom-and-pop store will have different training and account management needs than a large enterprise client. Segmentation gives your success reps a tailored place to start that will resonate with that group type.

    While segmentation can help your success reps in the early stages of their customers’ lifecycles, support data can help them predict and avoid common stumbling blocks. Have your support agents keep a log of their most common customer complaints and frustrations (a CRM is extremely helpful here). Then, have your success team map ways to prevent these common pitfalls for future buyers.

    Think of your success team as experienced guides who help your customers safely navigate their way through a forest. The success agents map out the route—helping customers to avoid getting lost—but support reps can act as “forest rangers” in the event that they take a wrong turn.

    3 key metrics for measuring customer success

    customer success metrics

    After implementing these customer success measures, it’s important to use metrics to track what’s working and where your strategy could use some additional tweaks.

    1. Churn rate

      Churn rate is the number of customers who leave your business (“churn”) during a given period of time. While many factors affect churn rates—including changes in the business, pricing, and the shifting economy—customer satisfaction remains one of the biggest reasons for defection. So, if your customer success strategy is working to improve buyer satisfaction, your churn rate should decrease over time.

      It’s important to build systems that give you visibility into the major reasons for customer churn, and then to design programs around mitigating those known risks. For example, pay close attention to a lack of responsiveness during or right after onboarding periods. If you’re dealing with a non-responsive customer, that’s a strong indicator of where your success team could step in.

    2. Rate of account expansions

      If your customer success team is resonating with clients and effectively cross-selling and upselling your products, you should see a larger percentage of customers expanding their accounts over a period of time. This also speaks to your success reps’ abilities to become trusted advisors in your buyers’ relationship with your company.

      Other metrics to track in this same vein are Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) and Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR)—the amount of money you’re generating from subscription-based plans. MRR or ARR increases might indicate that customers are successfully making it through the onboarding process and settling in for a longer-term, committed relationship with your business.

    3. Net Promoter Score

      The Net Promoter Score (NPS) asks one simple but highly telling question: whether or not a customer would recommend you to a friend. If your customer success strategy is working, then customers feel supported—which means they’re more likely to go out of their way to promote you to friends and family. It shows a stronger level of loyalty and an emotional investment.

      If your customer success team is effectively connecting with your buyers, it’ll show in their ability to convert more clients into brand advocates. This should translate into a higher NPS.

      While many customer success metrics can be sourced individually without the use of a CRM, having technology that puts all your client data at your teams’ fingertips is the gold standard of metric management.

    Invest in a CRM to skyrocket customer success

    Customer success is a vital indicator of your company’s long-term growth. The most important first step is defining customer success for your business and making long-term customer happiness a company goal. But once you start, it’s important to track your changing customer statistics over time.

    The best way forward is to invest in a CRM to help your company use customer data to grow your offerings over time. Zendesk offers customer data management, sales pipeline management, customer support software, and more.