The Essential Guide to Product-Driven Customer Success

Everything you need to know about aligning customer success with your product.

"Imagine a world where CSMs aren't focused on filling gaps in the product. Instead they're free to build success plans, align stakeholders, accelerate expansion, and drive advocacy. Customers are getting more value and CSMs are driving growth. This world only exists when Customer Success and Product Management are aligned on how to scale."

Allison Pickens
COO, Gainsight
Introduction

One of the most common questions asked by customer success leaders is, "How do I scale?"

It makes sense. If your company is growing, your customer base is growing concurrently—both in accounts and users. It's inefficient to match that growth by simply hiring more people or (this is much more common) assigning each Customer Success Manager (CSM) more and more accounts.

In fact, the drive to scale, whether through increased head count, budget, or automation—all the usual suspects—is so (apparently) self-evident, most people in customer success tend to skip a much more foundational question: "Why do I need to scale?"

This isn't to say you don't need to scale, but it helps to really dig into this question, because scaling the right way for the right reasons might not involve that usual playbook of hiring more CSMs, automating more processes, or the "tried-and-true" method of overloading your current team with more accounts and more work.

So let's play this out. Why do you need to scale?

When you look at it from an investment perspective, your internal stakeholders are always going to want to know what they'll get back from extra money they put into your team. "If I give you another $100,000, what am I going to get back at the end of the year?" But if that money is being spent on upholding a status quo like meeting the run-rate needs of your customer base, it doesn't make sense to increase the rate of investment, or at least, it makes it difficult to say that money wouldn't be better invested in a growth center of the business.

And that's a problem, because ultimately, customer success should be a growth center! In a subscription model, retention, expansion, and advocacy are a compounding helix of revenue growth. Each current customer is a lead for a renewal event, an upsell or cross-sell, and a source of marketing collateral and sales proof—but it only works when customers are successful.

So why do you need to scale? It's probably because it's too hard to make customers successful.

If your CSMs are largely focused on providing training, responding to risk, answering customer emails, and driving feature adoption, they're probably less focused on driving growth. In other words, they're filling product gaps.

Why are you spending time on training? Because the product isn't intuitive enough to use. Why are you answering so many emails? Because the product can't answer them itself. Why are you driving feature adoption? Because the features aren't sticky enough on their own.

If that's the case, why invest in customer success? Why not invest in closing those gaps in the product?

This essential guide is NOT making the case that when customers aren't successful, it's the product's fault. It's NOT making the case that you shouldn't invest in customer success. It's NOT making the case that you don't need to scale.

This guide is here to provide you a blueprint on how to create deeply aligned Product and Customer Success teams to drive great experiences and outcomes and ultimately growth in your customer base. This guide is about scaling the right way, through Product and Customer Success uniting around the customer as a cohesive, customer-focused team.

Chapter 1

The Challenge: Customer Success Happens Inside the Product

Think about how your organization is constructed. If your company is like most modern-day Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) houses, you have several independent teams—including a Product team and a Customer Success team. Each team has their own strategic goals, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and workflows. But each team is at least nominally dependent for help reaching those goals on two or three or even all of the other teams. Sales relies on Marketing for leads, Marketing relies on Customer Success for social proof and advocates, Customer Success relies on Product for usage data, and so on. We all know that organizational silos—and, crucially, data silos—harm overall efficiency, effectiveness, and cross-functional strategy, but what are you supposed to actually do about it? Dramatically change the KPIs and goals each team is optimized to achieve? Instead of Product teams aligned to deliver sticky new features, they work towards renewal and expansion goals?

Breaking down silos is an operational challenge that demands operational solutions. So in this guide, we'll lay out the overall pain points modern SaaS businesses are facing from the perspective of three stakeholders: Customer Success, Product, and most importantly, the customer. Then we'll take an look at solutions encompassing the three aspects of any operational strategy: people, process, and technology.

Customer Success Pain Points

If there's one underlying assumption to this guide, it's that the overwhelming majority of interactions customers are having with your company are happening inside the product. There are all kinds of ways that your company can interact with customers, some within your control, some outside. Email channels, social channels, phone calls, events, and many more. They can even interact with your company's brand independently of any action you take! But day-to-day, where are the most consistent, most meaningful interactions taking place?

They're happening inside your product.

Every login, every load screen, every click of the mouse or swipe of a finger—each one is an opportunity for a great experience, a negative one, or a neutral one. Each interaction could help drive an outcome or detract. And each interaction is an opportunity for you to learn, collect feedback, improve, and report back what you did to the user.

But when we talk to many CSM teams, the feedback we get is often something like this:

"We have access to some customer data, but not usage data generated by the product."
"We conduct our training sessions over screenshare and video conferencing. We don't do in-product training."
"Most of our one-to-one communication happens over email. Most of our one-to-many communication has to go through Marketing."
"We have great relationships with stakeholders and champions, but end-users have negative or neutral sentiment towards our company."

In short, your customer success strategy is limited because customer success is largely happening (or not happening) inside the product, but you don't have sufficient access to the product.

Product Pain Points

But it's not just a customer success problem. Product teams we hear from find themselves limited by their operational silos as well. Despite having robust access to usage data, in-product communication channels, and the most direct influence on the day-to-day user experience, Product teams often tend to struggle with one or more of the following:

  • A lack of insight into customer's desired outcomes.
  • A lack of access to health scores and account-level views.
  • A lack of access to the customer community.
  • An incomplete understanding of the overall customer experience.
  • A lack of access to key stakeholders and decision makers perspectives.

So even with more direct access to the customers, there are still major blind spots for most Product teams. It's because of this the customer success movement began in SaaS. If Product teams were able to do this on their own, there would be no need for customer success.

Someone needs to capture customer outcomes, devise a plan to achieve them, and proactively deepen and broaden the relationship. Unfortunately, too often CSMs are forced to stray from that charter just to fill in for gaps in the product.

Customer Pain Points

But that's entirely an internal perspective. Customer Success, Product—from the customer's point of view, you're all one company. Most people who work with SaaS vendors tend to be SaaS vendors themselves, so they know how the game works. But still, you can't count on people to give you a pass just because they themselves might have misaligned teams. Furthermore, customers aren't monoliths—most of them are made up of people who have different goals and strategies. They have employees that come and go, users at varying levels of maturity, and human beings who care about your company or product and many more (probably) who don't.

We always stress "outside-in" customer success—that is customer success primarily looked at from the customer's own point of view. Usually we talk about this in the context of journey mapping, but it's worth mentioning more broadly as well. What your Product team thinks is a cool feature doesn't matter if the customer doesn't care. Your CSM team might think a lot about getting through implementation through onboarding to renewal and expansion, but your customer just wants to use the product to accomplish their goals—not your goals.

So let's take a minute and really get into the mindset of a customer.

It's not that hard! We're all customers of something. Here are some of our own experiences with vendors:

  • We're under pressure from multiple points of contact—our CSM, their Marketing team, an Account Manager or salesperson whenever the renewal is coming up, the Product team may send an in-product message when there's a new release or feature, an ongoing email chain with a Support rep, and potentially several others.
  • These communications sometimes contain mixed messages. Support has a workaround for a feature gap, but your CSM assures you what you want is on the next version release, but the Account Manager wants to upsell you on it.
  • You're all just one homogenous company to them. You were an admin at your last company, but they're trying to onboard you the same as a brand new user. Or maybe you just joined the company, but as you're already onboarded, you don't have access to the training you need.
  • You really need a specific new feature. Your CSM is telling you "soon," but you don't know whether that's this week, this quarter, or next year.
  • You don't know who to contact to solve your problem—it's not your job to know who at your vendor is responsible for what thing! Your primary point of contact is your CSM, so when you encounter a bug, you reach out to them. But your vendor processes bugs through Support (even though it's Product who's responsible for fixing them). You need help with a feature, so you self-serve through Support, but it's really training you need. Who's repsonsible for that, though? CSM? Services? A training team? You have a feature request, but how do you even get in touch with the Product team. You post it in the community instead.

Okay, that turned into a rant, but it's a pretty universal (and universally annoying) experience to get the runaround from a well-intentioned but fragmented vendor. And unfortunately for vendors, that kind of experience more often than not leads to churn.

Chapter 2

The Solution: The right people in the right organization

In the past, we've talked about five primary organizational models for CSM. These weren't necessarily prescriptive, more like what we've been seeing in practice around the customer success community.

  • Firefighter CSM: This is typical of early-stage companies where the CSM is responsible for support, renewals, and other post-sales activities. The good news here is that the CSM is the “one-stop shop” and can ensure a great client experience. The bad news is that this model is incredibly difficult to scale and places more pressure on the team to find a "rockstar" or "unicorn" or some other kind of mythological candidate for the role.
  • Sales-Oriented CSM: They're typically found in companies with a low level of product complexity and a competitive sales and renewals focus. In this model, CSM is aligned to revenue and is responsible for identifying (and potentially even closing) upsell. The challenge is that the focus is less on the customer, and there may be a negative “sales-y” perception among the customers.
  • Service-Oriented CSM: This is typically found in more mature companies with medium levels of product complexity. The pros are that CS is aligned to customer needs as well as the rest of the service organization. The cons are there's less revenue alignment and an increase in touch points with the client.
  • Integrated CSM: They're typically found in companies with moderate levels of product complexity that are in hyper-growth mode. In this model, the Chief Customer Officer (CCO) “owns” existing customers and keeps the Sales team focused on closing new business. It requires a very versatile CCO and success will depend on the maturity of the organization.
  • Partnership CSM: This one's typically found in companies with very complex products and a competitive sales and renewals organization. The good news is that CS can be very customer-focused while maintaining alignment with renewals and sales. The danger is that some levels of effort duplication are inevitable. Also, quantifying ROI becomes difficult in this model.

Although it might be at best complementary (or at worst duplicative), we want to introduce a sixth type: the Growth-Oriented CSM, also known as a Product-Driven CSM. Outside of pureplay SaaS companies, this might not be as achievable, but in any stage SaaS company, it's highly scalable and a strong growth mechanism.

The Growth-Oriented CSM, aka the Product-Driven CSM

Like we talked about in the introduction, this model of CSM is the opposite of a "CSM of the Gaps." They are hyper-focused on empowering the product to drive successful outcomes for the customer at a user level and at an account level. They do this through deep alignment with Product teams using systematic processes (more on this later) to surface insights from the customer and pass them on to developers. They capture desired outcomes and map journeys from the outside in, which directly influence the product roadmap. They communicate with the right-time, right-channel message, whether that's inside the product or through one-to-one / one-to-many communication. They have robust access to user-level product data.

Obviously this is an aspirational label, but it's also a lot more than that. Lest you think this is just an abstract theoretical model, it's actually an ideal solution for a problem we established earlier in the introduction. And when you consider it from a budgetary point of view, it's pretty practical.

Cost of Goods Sold vs. Sales & Marketing

When CSM is responsible for the onboarding, ongoing training, support, and consultation necessary to deliver a minimally viable product—or rather, minimally acceptable outcomes to the client, they're really budgetable as a Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). The first word of that acronym sums it up: cost—as in a cost center. Businesses thrive by reducing costs, not increasing them! If you're filling product gaps, you'll never merit the investment you need to scale. The only path forward for a COGS CSM is reducing their own operating costs—scaling through incremental efficiency gains.

Obviously we mustn't lose sight of the mission. We know we need to deliver successful outcomes to customers in the subscription economy. The other option is failure as a business. But that's table stakes these days. It's not enough to draft a team and tell them to make successful customers without addressing the elephant in the room: why are our customers unsuccessful?

But if CSM is a growth-driver—if it's budgeted under Sales & Marketing spend, you can pour money into it and get commensurate revenue gains. In this model, the CSM may help identify gaps, but it's Product that fills them. They definitely capture desired outcomes, but the Product team is ultimately responsible for reducing the friction to achieve them. CSM devises a customer journey, but that journey takes place in the product.

Growth. Renewal, expansion, advocacy.

There are more tools than ever to enable this transition. But it starts with a top-down strategic push towards Customer Success and Product teams deeply aligned around delivering successful outcomes, and moving the CSM function away from COGS and into growth spend.

Chapter 3
“Both customer success and product teams are bound by similar goals: incentivize customers to use their new features so they continue to return and get value. Product teams can’t do this without a customer-facing counterpart, but they also shouldn’t rely solely on customer success teams to drive adoption.”
- Travis Kaufman, VP Product Growth, Gainsight”

The Solution: Synchronized Processes for Customer Success and Product Experience

Just talking about growth-oriented customer success or product-driven success is one thing. Actually doing it at scale requires more than just words—it requires process and it requires metrics.

Imagine a company-wide commitment to customer success and product experience. What teams "own" what processes and what are their core KPIs? It might look something like this:

  • Product: The Product team manages a development strategy and vision to create attractive, sticky go-to-market plays that drive feature adoption. Success is typically measured in Monthly Active Users (MAU), Daily Active Users (DAU), or Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV).
  • Customer Success: This team onboards, trains, upsells, and renews customers while developing workflows that constantly re-engage existing customers. Success is measured in renewal rate, Net Promoter Score (NPS), CLTV, or retention rate (paying special attention to Gross vs. Net Retention—read more about that here).
  • Sales: The Sales team runs demos and qualification calls that primarily guide prospects down the funnel, but, just as imporantly, set up future users to understand and adopt the product. Success is measured in CLTV or conversion rates (MQL to SQL, SQL to closed won, etc.).
  • Marketing: Creates content, campaigns, events, and other communications that drive awareness of product value and supports newsworthy feature releases. Success is measured in Cost of Acquiring a Customer (CAC), CLTV, and trial signups.

A Framework for Aligning Customer Success and Product

If your CS team is going to be a growth center, it needs a growth number. Tha's most likely NRR or GRR. At Gainsight, our Customer Success team is stratified into a Customer Account Management (CAM) team repsonsible for upsell and cross-sell activities and a Customer Outcomes Management (COM) team responsible for capturing and delivering the outcomes that are the basis for renewal, expansion, and advocacy.

Getting more granular, does your CS team track leads sourced for expansion events through a funnel? What about leads for new logos through advocacy? Measuring and proving your team's impact on growth is just as important as doing it in the first place.

WIth that in mind, how do we synchronize our COM and Product teams from a process point of view?

How to align your Product and Customer Success teams

At Gainsight, they're both aligned to the KPI of increasing product adoption, but each from a different perspective. Product looks at the total percentage of adoption across the entire customer base, whereas COM looks at adoption within each respective customer account.

Product owns the initial introduction and activation of newly released capabilities in the form of a release experience. They use a variety of methods to drive awareness of new capabilities. This includes sending announcement emails, hosting webinars for upcoming and recent product releases, and establishing in-app messages and hotspots.

After this initial announcement is made, Product then sets up in-app guides. These are personalized by user segment based on product usage analytics. A sampling of real customer engagement with feature, analysis, and user feedback fuels future iterations of particular feature sets and guides where these new capabilities fit within the overall customer adoption journey.

COM owns overall product adoption. They’re in charge of creating tailored training plans and educational experiences to help their accounts become more proficient in our products. They’re very tuned into each individual account’s idea of success. Using this as their north star, they employ a number of in-person and in-product touches to guide customers from initial onboarding to activation of pertinent product capabilities.

How to figure out your operational process

Thist model is effective and scalable, but you likely won't arrive at an identical framework. What's important is to ask the right question as you develop yours:

  • What growth metric will CS "own"?
  • What KPIs will align Product and CS?
  • What sections of the customer journey will each team manage?
  • What systems and data sets will each team manage and have access to?
Chapter 4

The Solution: Scaling With Technology

When we talk about systems and data, we're necessarily talking about technology. Some of these alignment challenges might even be solvable by nothing but better access across functions to the customer data most relevant to the team. Some might take a much more robust infrastructural approach.

In order to figure out where your company might fall on that spectrum, it helps to take stock of what problems you need to solve before you start thinking about solutions.

With that in mind, what does your CSM team need from the product at the most basic level?

  1. A way to collect data on how the customer is achieving their outcomes in the product.
  2. A way to interact with customers to solicit feedback and close the loop in the product.
  3. A way to strengthen and deepen relationships through training and guides in the product.

And what does your Product team need out of Customer Success?

  1. A way to understand customers' desired outcomes across the customer base and at the account and user levels.
  2. A way to understand qualitatively and quantitatively what features are driving outcomes and what features need work.
  3. A way to track feature adoption that aligns to revenue growth metrics like retention and expansion.

If we look at the CSM team's needs from a Product team's perspective, those three needs look a lot like:

  1. Usage and adoption data (albeit filtered through a lens of not just features used but value delivered).
  2. An in-product engagement system—surveys, feedback, etc.
  3. In-product guides, tutorials, and training.

Does your Product team have a product experiene suite with those capabilities? And if so, do you have access (directly or indirectly) to those features and data?

And when you think about your Product team's technology needs from a CS perspective, we can think about those three bullet points like this:

  1. Lifecycle mapping and management.
  2. A global timeline of customer interactions, sentiments, and feedback.
  3. Granular, rules-based reports and dashboards—visible at an account level—that includes breadth and depth of feature adoption and correlates to renewal and expansion.

Gainsight has been building this functionality into our core customer success suite the beginning of the customer success movement. And with the release of Gainsight PX, the product experience platform, we now have a purpose-built solution that aligns CS teams with Product teams so they can scale like never before.

Click here to demo Gainsight PX

Conclusion

Conclusion

It's time to stop talking about customer focus and start taking action

If you've been to any SaaS-related event or read anything from thought leaders in SaaS, you've probably heard some combination of the words "customer" and either "centricity," "focus," "obsession," or some kind of synonym of one of those words.

You may have even heard something like that from Gainsight! We've been talking about orchestrating companies across all teams around the customer for a while now.

But how often do those thought leaders provide a practical methodology for accomplishing it? As customers ourselves, we can instantly spot the disjunct between the CEO of one of our vendors talking about customer centricity and the fragmented product experience that has become the status quo in much of SaaS.

It's time to stop talking about customer focus and start doing.

Gainsight has been the leader in both strategy and software since the beginning of the customer success movement. And now with the rollout of Gainsight PX, we have the strongest technology suite for Product teams in existence.

And as good as these platforms are on their own, they're even better together. Used in tandem, they provide the most actionable way to align CS and Product teams around the customer to drive scalable growth.

You can see for yourself by taking a test drive of Gainsight PX today.

Click here for a free trial of Gainsight PX

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