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PHOTO: Frank Romero

When the first software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions debuted in the late 1990s, the nature of technology businesses fundamentally changed. 

Before, software came with commitment. People paid dearly in time and money for on-premises systems that they could hardly imagine changing. With the rise of cloud-based solutions, all of this changed.

The proliferation of niche platforms, fanned by venture capital rounds, made customer retention a challenge. Although changing SaaS vendors was not without costs, companies gained flexibility to dabble in new technologies on a subscription basis. The concept of customer success, invented at the CRM company Vantive in 1996, heralded a new way to compete.

In the SaaS era, the best way to keep customers is to work for their success — however they define it. Generally, “success” has something to do with saving money, reducing costs, increasing revenues and any combination thereof. Sophisticated digital platforms often fail to achieve success without corresponding changes to organizational strategy, culture and day-to-day workflows. The people who use the software, not the software itself, achieve success.  

In my role as director of Customer Success at Widen, we baked customer success into our operations. It sounds abstract, which is why I’d like to give practical examples that your organization can adapt and implement to improve customer retention.

What's the Difference Between Customer Experience and Customer Success?

Customer success is frequently mixed up with customer experience, a related concept. Customer experience is borrowed from industries like hospitality, where success is some combination of sensory stimuli and wish fulfillment. Experience is qualitative.

In a business-to-business (B2B) relationship, customer success is concerned with experience and quantifiable outcomes. At the most basic level, a software product must fulfill the capabilities it advertises and meet the requirements the customer has been led to believe it can fulfill.

Success in outcomes is a step beyond. It’s about achieving long-term goals that are critical to the health and longevity of the business. It’s also about being useful in difficult, high-risk situations where not only the software but the team behind it must perform.

Related Article: Customer Success Isn't About Fixing Discomfort, It's About Preventing It

What Customer Success Looks Like

The core practice of customer success is to listen, to act upon feedback, and to bring all the departments and functions of a company into the process. That multidisciplinary approach is critical to understanding customers’ needs and addressing their pain points.

As such, our customer success department now includes multiple teams: Support, Account Management (in the form of Customer Success Managers), Implementation Team, Training Team, Managed Services and Consulting. Although they operate independently, we place these teams side-by-side in the same area of our open workspace so they talk frequently and share critical information.

In essence, customer success is a practice in empathy. At Widen and other organizations, you’ll find examples of it like these:

1. Quarterly Catchup

Once a quarter, we email a survey to our client contacts that asks three questions:

  1. How is Widen doing?
  2. How is your Customer Success Manager doing?
  3. Would you recommend Widen to your peers? [for a Net Promoter Score (NPS)]

If the feedback from customers warrants a conversation, I give them a call. They might, for instance, want a new feature we don't have and have no plans to create. I don’t want to ignore that. Rather, I want to acknowledge the problem and figure out a solution for the near-term.

Maybe there’s little I can do besides asking our product team to consider adding it to their roadmap. In the meantime, I reaffirm the importance of the relationship, talk about how we’re delivering value, and accept that situation as it is. Those clients, rather than getting angry, see that their feedback is not going into a black hole. Or as one client put it, “It’s just helpful to know I’m being heard.”

Related Article: Not All Customer Feedback Requires Change

2. Product Feedback Policy

A product feedback policy, or PFP, describes how we incorporate feedback from customers and how it influences the product roadmap. Importantly, it tells customers what we do with their insights and illustrates that we have a plan in motion.

There’s no guarantee that we implement every piece of feedback, but as patterns emerge, we take note. For instance, our analytics app, Widen Insights, hadn’t changed for several years. We noticed that multiple customers wanted us to update how we group data in it.

So, I took the feedback to our VP of Product to demonstrate the need for change. We compromised by adding several new charts and data points. It made a significant difference for client success without derailing long-term innovations.

3. Customer Advocacy Board

A future experiment is to build a Customer Advocacy Board composed of loyal customers from many industries and backgrounds. It will be a two-year commitment with all-expenses paid trips to Widen headquarters two to three times a year. During these trips, advocates can learn about upcoming products and services and then provide feedback that will shape their development.

I think this is a critical step because a culture of customers success values direct experience with the people it serves. It’s too easy to mis-imagine what customers want in the absence of a conversation about it.

Related Article: Why B2B Firms Should Build a Brand Community in Each Customer Organization

Is Customer Success Succeeding?

Companies may like the idea of customer success but question whether it works. I’d advise new customer success groups to track financial, relational and product-based metrics. These might include retention, net retention, upsells, cross-sells, NPS, product usage and general satisfaction surveys. Support tickets and customer ideas and insights, even if they’re critical, are also good signs. They signify that customers care about your product.

We use a customer success software solution to aggregate these data points into a score between 0 and 100. If a score dips, we know we’re neglecting some element of success and need to divert focus to that account.

Ultimately, success for customers is some combination of optimizing time, costs and revenue. It’s always more complex to translate those ambitions into practical objectives, processes and functionalities. And that failure to translate hurts retention. I hope that by integrating customer success into daily operations, you can better understand what customers want and address pains that too often are left unspoken.