You’ve tried CRMs and you’ve tried Excel, but you know customer success isn’t as simple as creating a red/yellow/green database of all of your customers. You need a tool that helps you dig deep into your customers and their goals to deliver the best customer experience possible.
A customer success solution (aka customer success software) can often feel like the Swiss Army knife of software tools. It can help you reach your unique customer success goals, whether they are reducing churn, increasing upsells, or selling expansions. It goes beyond traditional CRMs and spreadsheets by giving you a complete view of each of your customers. It can help you understand when and how to proactively offer solutions, recognize opportunities for expansion, and support customers in achieving their goals.
There are several factors to consider when choosing a customer success solution. But remember: Customer success is all about making your customers successful, so you want to look for software that directly facilitates that. Everything else—predicting churn, measuring product adoption, or calculating health scores—is secondary.
Factors related to your business and team
To help you meet your customer success goals, the ideal solution should work for your unique customer success team, your business's growth stage, and the size of your contracts.
1) Goals and capabilities of your team
Software tools have their own strengths and weaknesses. The key is choosing a good-fit solution for your unique team.
While researching customer success software, ask yourself these questions to get a clearer picture of your success team’s situation:
- How well-resourced is your team? The biggest mistake is to purchase a tool that your team can’t effectively use. For example, some products require the purchasing team to have an array of technical skills and can be overwhelming to get up and running.
- How large is your customer success team? Some solutions are designed for small-but-mighty teams, while others can accommodate larger organizations. Be sure to look for whichever can support your team’s size.
- What is your team unable to do well with their current solution? Identifying the pain points of your current tools is one of the best ways to come up with a list of must-have features for your next one.
- How many accounts does each team member manage at a given time? The number of accounts each team member manages dictates what help they’ll need in order to make their customers successful.
Answering these questions will give you a clearer picture of your CS team’s key goals, which can help point you toward the right solution.
2) Growth stage of your business
An enterprise with thousands of customers will have different customer success priorities than a startup that’s still building a customer base. Likewise, the customer success solutions they need will be different, too. Here’s what happens at each of the different growth stages:
- Startup: Customer success should drive the adoption and implementation of the product. At this stage, customer success is usually all over the place, sometimes even doing support, too. Customer success software for startups should help them stay organized and ensure they’re able to provide their customers with what they need.
- Growth: At this stage, the focus is on reducing churn, identifying retention risks, and taking appropriate actions, and your customer success software should be by your side at every step. When you’re in growth mode, you already know what works in one-off instances, but now it becomes about scaling. You now need to figure out how to get less-specialized team members up to speed. Handoffs from one internal team (or team member) to another also become important to make sure nothing gets lost.
- Mature: It’s time to upsell, cross-sell, and identify new product opportunities. Specialization is key for customer success at this stage, so your customer success software, too, should be specialized and empower you to scale. At a mature organization, you already have the processes in place and are somewhat scalable. Now, it becomes about making strategic decisions that will help both your customers and your team scale.
3) Size of customer contracts and expansion potential
Depending on the size of the customer contracts, your customer success team may need to use high-touch or low-touch engagement models. This will impact the features your team needs from customer success software.
- Annual contract value above $10k: These are your high-touch customers, and your solution should reflect that. Seek a software that facilitates maximum visibility and collaboration through all aspects of the customer relationship, including quarterly business reviews (QBRs), regular communication, and bespoke consultations. Since these are your most valuable customers (and those with high expansion potential), your team needs every crumb of information and every opportunity for proactive intervention possible. Tools like CRM, Excel, or PowerPoint simply aren’t sufficient for these contracts.
- Annual contract value between $5 and $10k: In the low-touch—aka tech-touch—range, customer service teams are generally only involved in the initial onboarding and occasional check-ins. The rest is self-service, meaning customer service managers can manage between 50 and 200 accounts. The right customer success software should help your team view customer information and data and monitor product usage. Tools that don’t help you augment your team at scale won’t be helpful here.
- Annual contract value less than $5k: The no-touch contracts are those that rely on automated messaging with little personal contact. The customer success solution is only needed to enable automated workflows and a red/yellow/green dashboard to find out which customer is about to churn. Customer service managers can manage up to 1,000 of these accounts with a basic customer success tool. These tools are only about scale, with minimal to no personalization.
Companies often simultaneously have all three of these types of customers. Because they require such different levels of engagement, it might not be a one-size-fits-all when it comes to customer success software.
Factors related to the customer success software
Apart from internal factors, there are some software-related factors you want to watch out for when considering customer success solutions, such as price, features, and ease of use.
4) Price and price structure
You want to make sure the customer success solution helps you save enough in customer revenue to justify its price. There are two considerations here:
- Trial periods: You don’t want to invest in a 12-month science project that may or may not work. Often, the promise of customer success solutions is never realized; for example, most red/yellow/green dashboards are inaccurate and never reach the accuracy point you want. They can take months or years to get up and running, only for you to later realize that they’re not helpful. Ideally, you should be able to try the software and see the value quickly versus investing a ton of time, money, and resources and hoping that it’ll eventually work.
- Base product pricing: You don’t want to overpay for a customer success software, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest option either. You want it to be able to scale with the different levels of customer success engagement, and as your company grows and the number of customers grows, it’s not unreasonable that the base product pricing would grow (reasonably).
- Professional services offering: As your business grows, you will likely be looping in additional members of your team. You will also need a professional services offering to interface with more internal and external stakeholders from time to time. With software that can also facilitate services and not just customer tracking, you are all set to handle the growth with ease.
5) Ease of use
Your solution’s ease of use is important because you don’t want customer success managers spending all their time figuring out how to use software instead of helping customers succeed. Here’s what you want to look for:
- Easy setup and maintenance: Some systems expect you to custom develop your data model or basically create and maintain a data warehouse. This is extremely difficult to do and risky for you and your team since it takes months or years to get up and running, and is rarely useful.
- User-friendly for all internal parties: The reality is that there are many teams in your company, including some that are customer-facing and some that aren’t. You can’t and shouldn’t dictate new processes for other teams; that often leads to major problems. Sales teams will keep using CRM. Internal engineering teams will keep using their own systems. As much as possible, your customer success tool should work in conjunction with other teams and their existing processes. Obviously, some things will change, but make sure you minimize these changes and that you’re deliberate when you make them.
- Easy for customers: Ultimately, the point of customer success is to help your customers. Many customer success solutions feature some customer-facing components, too. Some can go a long way in making you look more professional, organized, and helpful. Ideally, find a solution that brings the customer in as a true partner and delivers the value they want.
6) Integrations offered
There are a ton of moving parts in your company, with customer success being one (and, ultimately, one of the most important ones). Because so many different departments touch customers both directly and indirectly, you need a customer success solution that integrates with these other teams, minimizes duplicate work, and, most importantly, affects change.
Here are some of the most important aspects to consider when thinking through integrations:
- Prevents double work: Both for your team and others.
- Involves all relevant stakeholders: If your customer success solution doesn’t allow you to coordinate all of the relevant stakeholders, then it won’t be helpful. You want all stakeholders required for the success of the customer to be aligned and accountable.
- Easy to set up: If you need to embark on a six-month data warehouse integration in order to start using your customer success solution, odds are it’ll never be useful. You need something that has a quick time-to-value and won’t require restructuring your team and others in order to start using it.
- Realistic to maintain: Many systems require a lot of people to change behaviors, sometimes doing unnatural things, in order to be useful. Make sure that the integrations that are required are realistic for the long term, which will maximize the likeliness that your customer success solution is useful.
The key feature to look out for is intelligent integration. Your customer success solutions should fit intelligently into your business’s existing tech stack. Your customer success tool should be pulling and pushing data into other tools when and where it makes sense. This minimizes double data entry and friction for other teams, such as a sales team that uses a CMS.
7) Ability to align with customers on their goals
Many companies struggle to build a customer-centric culture because they get pulled in so many other directions. But remember, the focus of your customer success team and software should be your customers’ goals. Some success solutions attempt to keep track of customer goals with internal data in the form of Salesforce notes, emails, usage data, or support tickets. That’s valuable information, but it isn’t sufficient because it can’t proactively capture what the customer really thinks and wants. Here’s why:
- Some solutions rely on outdated data: Your customers’ usage data is usually a lagging indicator of success, and by the time it goes down, your customer has probably already switched to your competitor. Relying too heavily on lagging data leads to reactive, rather than proactive, customer success practices.
- Some solutions rely on your team’s inaccurate understanding: A lot of your teams’ internal notes are out of date and don’t capture what the customer currently thinks. Your customer success solution needs to show you red flags way before the customer churns. That means understanding what they actually think today, not what one salesperson or account manager thinks they heard on one call.
- Some solutions don’t help you be proactive: You need to figure out a way to be proactive and not reactive. If you just wait until the customer’s usage drops to reach out, you’re not going to have a meaningful impact on increasing customer success. You need to talk to customers to figure out their goals and the business value they expect. Only then can you help them actually achieve it.
8) Ability to create plans with the customer and hold each other accountable
Customer goals are mission-critical, as are your plans to help you organize tactical steps to achieve those goals. It’s important that the plan is collaborative and that you’re both able to hold each other accountable.
The best customer success solution has features to align with customers on their plans and hold each other accountable. For example:
- Milestones and processes: Customer plans include different milestones and processes for different phases of the customer relationship, like Kickoff, Implementation, and Making Changes, and different strategic processes you may run like QBRs or annual check-ins. The different playbooks or templated plans may be based on the customer’s geography, stage, segment, or product purchase, and your success solution should allow you to organize a plan based on these considerations and milestones.
- Record of commitments: It’s important to get the granularity of the plan right. You don’t want to micromanage the customer or your team. However, the plan should record commitments at the intersection of the relationship between your team and the customer. If somebody commits to something in the plan, it should be expected that they’ll follow through. Your customer success software should record a clear history of how the plans and expectations evolved, so your customer will be more likely to be successful, and it’ll be easy to resolve any issues or disputes in the future.
- Facilitating handoffs: The plans should be durable in case one of the stakeholders at your company or at the customer’s leaves. If the customer’s project manager or executive sponsor leaves, their replacement should be able to see the plan and get up to speed quickly. A collaborative customer success solution will offer the transparency and visibility needed in a central, easily accessible spot.
- Scalability: The plan should be scalable so that it’s easy for your team to repeat your best practices across customers. Your customer success solution will allow for this with its customizable playbooks.
9) Ability to evaluate customer health
The ability to evaluate customer health is a major selling point for most CS solutions, but few can do it accurately. A quick peek at software reviews will confirm this. Most customer health dashboards and software evaluate customer health based on product usage, adoption, support activity, billing information, survey feedback, and marketing interactions. But these are often lagging indicators of customer health. By the time product usage goes down or customers give you poor CSAT scores, they’ve already started replacing your product with another solution.
Here’s what to look for instead:
- Accurate alignment with the customer: Make sure your team understands what your customer’s real expectations and goals are. Only then can you assess whether or not you’re hitting them.
- Understanding changes: Look for software that allows you to evaluate customer health through proactive communication. Understand what the customer’s goals and expectations are with the help of goal tracking and success plans. And, if the customer’s expectations have changed since their purchase, you need to be able to figure out what their new expectations are (and potentially reset them).
- Clear accountability: Look for software that enables you to organize customers’ goals and plans in one place, confirm the goals and plans with the customers, and then touch base with stakeholders regularly.
10) Ability to collaborate and communicate with customers
Customer success is the result of a strong partnership between customers and vendors. You need a customer success solution that allows collaboration between your teams in order to stay aligned and hold one another accountable. It should also let you communicate directly with customers so important customer success conversations don’t get lost in emails, Slack threads, or Zoom calls.
Here are the benefits:
- Transparency: Both parties can access customer goals and plans and view any other relevant discussions or information at the intersection of your organizations. They are able to trust what they see in the customer record and know that it isn’t out of date. The problem with email or Slack messages is that it’s hard to find out which message reflects the current state of the world. Ideally, communication surrounding your solution is visible to everybody so that decisions are made collaboratively and with everyone in the know.
- Accountability: The best customer success solution assigns responsibilities to customer success managers and customers. You’re trying to help the customer reach their goals, and this requires commitments from both teams. Your customer success solution should make it easy to view commitments—historical, upcoming, and pending—so you can hold each other accountable.
- Continuity: A big problem for customer success teams is what happens when a stakeholder leaves, either internally or on the customer’s end. When a stakeholder leaves, you don’t want to have to dig through old emails or Slack messages, or worse yet, go to IT to have them reactivate a now-defunct email address. Instead, your customer success solution should be the go-to system of record for all plans and discussions, which will create durability when stakeholders change.
At the end of the day, go with the solution that keeps you aligned with customer goals
You’re successful when your customers are successful. The SaaS companies rising to the top with rocketing revenues are achieving this by investing more (and smarter) in customer success initiatives.
That’s something you can achieve by aligning with your customers’ goals, holding each other accountable, and proactively communicating with them to get ahead of any challenges or opportunities. That should be the modus operandi of any customer success solution.
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