This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Until recently, digital-led customer success was generally regarded as a younger, less attractive sibling of human-led customer success (CS). Often, digital CS was adopted as either an afterthought or as a segmentation strategy targeting client groups too small to be cost-effectively served with higher-touch, human-driven CS models.
As a result, many CSMs tend to believe that digital-led and human-led CS are incompatible. How can digital CS—in which CSMs have no direct contact with customers—deliver personalized service? And isn’t self-service the polar opposite of the high-touch service traditionally used to achieve clients’ desired outcomes while providing a superior experience?
A myth is busted
If you’re used to having human beings cover every customer, the idea of surrendering that responsibility to technology can create anxiety—for both you and clients. But far from replacing human-led CS, digital CS is simply a more efficient and effective means of supporting, supplementing and scaling everything you’re already doing.
Digital-led CS is not at odds with human-led CS. Rather, these two models are mutually supportive. As CS teams incorporate digital technology into their systems and processes, they’ll be better positioned to give customers more of what they want: more personalized user journeys and more self-service options. Digital CS also enables CSMs to do more with less. People are freed to focus on higher-value activities instead of mundane and repetitive tasks, many of which can now be automated.
A “tailwind” emerges
Digital CS has emerged as a powerful tailwind that is disrupting CS. Although it has gathered force since the onset of Covid-19, even prior to the pandemic many companies had already begun to realize a few reasons for its appeal:
- Many customer groups are simply too small to serve economically with a high-touch, human-driven model.
- Some customers—and user personas—don’t want to engage in the quarterly business reviews and check-in calls that are the hallmarks of high-touch CS.
- As companies grow, they need to improve margins by growing revenues faster than the size of their CS teams.
Since 2020, as rising inflation and interest rates have fueled economic uncertainty, SaaS companies have been searching for new ways to achieve efficient growth with their CS teams—and many now see digital CS as the means to this end.
Digital CS is an optimization—not a replacement—of human efforts
As digital CS evolves from a segmentation strategy into a broader CS strategy, CS leaders should seek out areas in which automation can augment the good work of their teams. They should look for ways that digital tools and channels—from email, chat and portal to online communities, videos, webinars and in-app tutorials—can liberate CSMs to devote more time to customer outcomes and time-to-value realization.
It’s important to be clear and intentional about which activities are best performed by humans versus digital tools—and how this should be applied across segments.
Digital CS journeys often begin with the elimination of repetitive tasks via basic self-service programs. Automated self-service offerings often include:
- Customer onboarding (e.g., welcome emails, onboarding checklist, etc.).
- Regularly scheduled “office hours” sessions in which users can ask questions of other users and a CSM or product expert.
- User-support documentation and online training.
- Short videos that guide users to complete common tasks.
- Readily available in-app bots that offer relevant articles and ideas.
A next step might comprise more targeted, omnichannel user journeys based on persona, industry or desired business outcomes. These often emphasize in-app product communication that guides users via email, in-app as well as over human-led and community-based interactions.
From here, organizations often move on to scaled customer messaging, converting common customer communications into automated or semi-automated processes. These processes can include automated EBRs or monthly newsletters to customers that share adoption patterns, best practices and relevant resources, as well as providing a customer hub or portal through which users can access all of this personalized information in one place.
Consider pooling your CSM teams
Some organizations adopt a “pooled CSM” model. This is a cost-effective way of supporting smaller customers using a “pool” of CSMs who work across a large set of customers to provide a more personalized experience at scale. Often, this model is designed to supplement a robust digital-led strategy in which a digital program provides customers with a suite of resources and engagements and is further supported by a team of CSMs who can intervene and assist as needed.
These folks usually monitor customer health and data for early warning signals—such as low adoption, lack of realized value or heightened risk of churn—in order to stay ahead of risk in key accounts. For example, if early-warning data indicate a heightened risk of churn, someone from the pool might jump in and run one or more playbooks that they’ve keyed up, based on those signals.
Eventually, a pooled CSM team can create a circle of digital CS resources by becoming subject matter experts for specific features or best practices, which can then be turned into templated resources which are delivered automatically.
Start with low-risk situations
To ensure a smooth transition, I recommend that companies start with pilot programs targeting low-risk situations and customers, then expand their digital CS program as they gain confidence. To limit exposure even more, some companies launch pilots with only their new clients in order to set expectations from day one.
Alternatively, you might begin with more technical user personas (e.g., system administrators) who are more open to a digital experience. Over time, some companies find that high-value personas (e.g., executives) can only be reached digitally. They also learn that their largest clients want some parts of the customer journey to be self-service.
However you choose to start and whichever customer segments you target, keep in mind that the goal of digital CS is not to replace human interactions with self-service—or inflict a chatbot-driven “spiral of misery” (subscription required) on customers—but to leverage digital technology which can enable you to provide even more personalized and high-value engagements as your company grows.