Customer Success Platform Buying Guide

The Essential Guide to Choosing a Customer Success Platform

About buyer’s guide

Customer Success is a relatively new approach for growing SaaS business. We continue to come across people who are unsure of how they should go about customer success as a practice and how should they choose the best customer success platform from the plethora of options available in the market today.

We have tried to demystify the subject with an objective to help you choose the right customer success platform.

Table of contents

  1. Who is this guide for
  2. Background
  3. Think through what you really need
    1. Team working style
    2. Scale
    3. Integrations
    4. ARPU
    5. Accounts per CSM
    6. Success Strategy
    7. Success Goals
  4. Three Categories of Customer Success Platform
    1. Enterprise Grade Customer Success Platform
    2. Full Scale Specialized Customer Success Platform
    3. Basic Platform
  5. Key Factors before you pay for a Customer Success Platform
    1. Actionable vs Non Actionable
    2. Account Health
    3. Playbooks
    4. Automate where needed
    5. Integrations
    6. Segmentation
    7. Portfolio
    8. Reporting
    9. Net Promoter Score (NPS)
    10. Pricing Model

Who is this guide for?

This Guide to buying a Customer Success Platform is meant for SaaS companies, and can even extend to other subscription products or services. And within the company, this buyer’s guide is meant for the following stakeholders.

  • CEOs and founders
  • First time or an experienced Customer Success Leader, i.e., Chief Customer Officer (CCO), VP of Customer Success, Director of Customer Success, etc.
  • Customer Success Manager (CSM)

Disclaimer: We have tried our best to help you make the most informed decision and not every (some do) recommendation leads to CustomerSuccessBox as the recommended platform.

Background

Traditional Customer Success teams emerged out of Traditional Account Managers who were responsible for managing accounts with $100K+ or even multi million dollar value Annual Contract Value (ACV).

Traditional managers managed usually about a dozen accounts and thus were majorly field success teams. But there was a huge need to address churn and create upsell opportunities with Low ACV / Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) customers which has led to most of the modern success teams moving inside (remote) or hybrid (80% inside:: 20% field).

Think through what you really need

Before you select a customer success platform, let’s think through what you actually need. Often, we search for “best customer success software”. However, what might be best for someone else might not be best for you. So let’s look at the factors you need to consider before selecting the best customer success platform for your company.

1. Team working style (Inside vs Field vs Hybrid Success team)

Although being the most important, this factor is often ignored.

Is your team a field success team? Do you have account managers who have to fly out to engage with customers in one on one meetings?

95% of the time the team is Inside the office and 5-10% of the time it ventures out on the field

Or do you have traditional Inside success teams where success managers are inside the office, communicating via email and phone calls, and also conducting remote trainings and meetings via Gotomeetings and Zooms of the world?

Also, more and more success teams are now hybrid teams where almost 95% of the time the team is Inside the office and 5-10% of the time it ventures out on the field.

2. Scale

We usually fancy enterprise grade solutions without realizing why they are expensive. It’s not based on the number of features they provide, or their service or their dependability but it largely depends on the scale of operations.

For example, an Adobe has hundreds of thousands of customers. It obviously needs a platform which can scale at that level.

However, for anybody else who has say few hundred or even tens of thousands of customers, you don’t need an enterprise grade level. It’d be an overkill. You have the option of going for new solutions which are likely not scale ready but have some thought leading features which even the enterprise solutions might lack.

3. Integrations

A customer success platform without integrations is like fish without water. Now, an early stage SaaS startup usually does not have good data inside the CRM. Mostly that data is available in the billing system. Be it an excel sheet or invoicing system such as Quickbooks or a full scale SaaS subscription platform such as Chargebee, Zuora, Chargify, etc. The billing system is where the accurate data resides. This data, such as renewal timelines, amount, license plan, is the primary source of truth. Hence, billing is the most important integration for any SaaS company.

Overall, a company will need a CRM integration, billing integration, NPS / feedback score integration, and support/communication integration such as Freshdesk, Zendesk, Intercom.

If you have a separate success and support team, then you do not need a support integration.

An important question raised here is, do you need one way or two way integrations? For 99% of use cases, you do not. For 1% there can be a play, e.g., you may want to create an opportunity in the CRM. But you need to consider how many opportunities will a CSM create in a day or in a week. Not more than 2-3 in most cases. So, you do not really need a two way integration with a CRM. No need to spend thousands of dollars extra for that two way integration.

Some customer success platforms have been recommending the ability to respond to a support ticket from within the success platform. Let us make our stand very clear. We believe that is a wrong strategy, wrong practice because the moment you get into a ticket closing mentality, you are no longer proactive. You get into a reactive support mode and that my friend is a very slippery slope. As a customer success software company we don’t recommend it and we have no plans to build such an integration.

As a customer success team, all you want is visibility. Even if you are a small team now, in the near future you will require two different teams. Reactive support teams are SLA driven whereas customer success is value driven. Success is a long term strategy which drives value to the customer in the long run even if there is pain in the short term.

4. ARPU (per year)

ARPU or average revenue per user / per account is something you need to consider before buying a customer success platform. Say, you have a high ARPU of more than $100,000. You have the advantage of setting up a team which will fly to meet the customers, and one CSM would typically handle 10 or 20 accounts.

On the other hand, if you have an ARPU of $5,000 to $50,000, you will be restricted to serving them remotely. It will also force you as a company to have 50 to 100 accounts per success manager to justify a customer success team. Say ARPU of $10,000 x 100 accounts = a customer portfolio of $1million, which should be a bare minimum requirement for a success manager.

If you are lower than $1000 ARPU, you will be better off building automation within your platform

However, there are many of you who have an ARPU ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. In such cases, you will have to segment the customers into high paying (close to $10k ARPU) and low paying (less than $5000). The customers closer to $10,000 in ARPU would enjoy a customer success program. Whereas, the rest of the accounts could be treated with a self-serve platform with a lot of built-in automation.

And if you are lower than $1000 ARPU, you will be better off building automation within your platform.

5. Accounts per CSM

We have already covered accounts per CSM in ARPU. But this is a necessary criteria. A CSM with 20 accounts as compared to a CSM with 100 accounts will have different expectations from the technology.

6. Success Strategy (High touch vs Low touch vs Tech touch)

Look at your customer success strategy. What does your customer expect or what does the market expect?

Are you going to be a high touch success team where you will meet and greet your customers? Or are you going to be a low touch team and manage remotely? Or are you going to be a 100% tech touch success team?

What we have been noticing is an increase in the hybrid model of low touch / tech touch.

If you are a low touch / tech touch hybrid combination, CustomerSuccessBox is focused on this market.

7. Success Goals

Last but not the least, you need to look at your success goals, both short term and long term. What I feel is you do not need to look at goals beyond 3 years. It’d be an overkill. As you grow your success goals will change and mature. Some examples of success goals could be:

  • Churn or Retention
  • Expansion Revenue
  • User Engagement Score for your product
  • Customer Satisfaction Score / NPS (even though we believe this is a lagging indicator and not a leading one, as your customer might churn in the first 90 days itself)

Three Categories of Customer Success Platforms

1. Enterprise Grade Customer Success Platform

First let’s understand what defines an Enterprise Grade customer success platform. Does it mean it’s the oldest platform or does it mean it’s used by enterprises or does it refer to the capability of the platform from an engineering perspective?

What it means is that Enterprise Grade Platforms are supposed to have a scale no one else can deliver. For example, think of someone like Adobe with 100,000+ Customer base. This is a phenomenal scale and requires a platform which can handle data reliably, have all the features plus reporting, to deliver success at this scale. Enterprise platforms are expensive because of the scale they are built for.

If you are a SaaS business with less than 100,000 customers, with less than 100M revenue, you should not be looking at such platforms.

However, for companies doing $100M to multi-billion dollars in revenue, there are two (you know which ones) choices at maximum. Other platforms, including CustomerSuccessBox won’t be able to scale to more than 100,000 Customer &and Million of users. (not yet!)

But if you are not enterprise, why should you actually pay for Enterprise Grade platforms?

Enterprise platforms sell only to enterprise level customers. They create the marketing aura showcasing their thought leadership via large conferences, webinars, etc. Unfortunate but true, the thought leadership does not reflect in their innovation. They won’t give you new features regularly, not because they can’t but because of the scale in question. This might surprise a few of you, but enterprise platforms have limited number of features and are slow to upgrade (new feature release).

They do have good focus on reporting, but they have limited reporting. Custom reports are usually a NO or have a huge services fee attached to them unlike Full Scale platforms which we will focus on in the next category. So, either you like it or you don’t as their scale restricts them to give free custom reporting. If you are enterprise grade, you will not mind paying the fee for the reports.

Enterprise platforms are usually tightly tied to a few handful of other enterprise grade platforms only for building integrations, considerably restricting the choice of your current and future ecosystem of platforms.

If you are enterprise grade, i.e., if you are at 100,000 customers or $100M+ revenue, then you have no choice but to buy an enterprise grade platform.

But if you are not, then it won’t make any sense for you to opt for an enterprise grade platform. And overpay for it, especially when you will get slower upgrades and less features.

2. Full Scale Specialized Customer Success Platform

This is a powerful and complete category, best suited for customer centric SaaS (or even non-SaaS) Startups, Small and Medium size business ($1M – $100M Annual Revenue).

At this scale, you are dealing with 10,000-100,000 customer base, doing $1M – $100M in revenue which is far less than enterprise grade but you require a lot more features. You are in a growth phase, surrounded by competition, not established at the enterprise level and need to differentiate in terms of customer experience which again ties back to customer success. This can be delivered by a full scale specialized customer success platform.

We will go feature by feature in the next section of this guide. Watch out for that!

CustomerSuccessBox belongs to exactly this category, for companies upto $100M in revenue.

Full scale platforms are usually lot less thought leading in comparison, i.e., less marketing aura, no big conferences, though the content they generate will be thought leading. But they are 10X more innovative. They lead with new groundbreaking innovative feature add-ons that reflect in their product. They are never afraid of trying new features.

For example, CustomerSuccessBox is a specialized platform for INSIDE Customer Success teams which require an actionable success platform. Hence we have built in capability to email, call, and manage tasks. This is the kind of example which differentiates a full scale and an enterprise platform.

Full scale platforms know exactly what value they can deliver but are restricted by scale.

Beware: If you come across a solution claiming to be full scale or appearing to full scale but they are a replica of a larger enterprise solution without the ability to scale or you don’t see innovation, then they are a me-too platform. We don’t want to waste an entire category on a me-too platform. You will know one when you see one. If a full scale claims to do everything an enterprise platform does at a cheaper cost and lower scale, that’s your me-too. Avoid them.

you can easily expect ½ to ¼ or even ⅙ th the price of an Enterprise Grade platform

Coming back, full scale offers a huge advantage over a typical enterprise grade platform because of the advanced and innovative feature set. They can usually deliver promised business impact. You will be handheld by the team, because you are a lot more important to them. In comparison, unless you are multi-billion dollar company, you will never get the attention from an enterprise platform.

In terms of pricing, you can easily expect ½ to ¼ or even ⅙ th the price of an Enterprise Grade platform. But do not let price reflect their capability. A lot of the times, the price could be the reflection of their scale, the number of leads they are getting every month, investor expectations, etc.

For example, we are a lot less priced than regular full-scale solutions. We are a young platform and do not have enough social proof. But if you doubt our categorization, sign up for a demo right away and let us prove you wrong.

Full scale solutions are usually a few years from being an enterprise grade offering unless they find their sweet spot and stick there. Their underlying technology goes through stabilization and optimization, and enables them to deliver at scale. Thus, disrupting the enterprise grade market.

They also offer highly personalized support. Not just the attention from the team, but as a customer you will enjoy influence over the direction of the product. You get to engage directly with the Senior Management, the CEO and founders of such companies and tend to gain from that relationship. You will also value both the knowledge and the network you will have access to. The world is smaller than you think or expect.. and only shrinking faster than ever.

3. Basic Platform

We don’t see a compelling case around basic platforms in the customer success world. We don’t need record keeping in 2018.

There are still a few basic platforms out there which might even call themselves customer success platforms. They have built some features like task management and added a bunch of email integrations but that’s all.

You can easily know if it’s a basic platform. The first five minutes will show you the exact same features as a full scale but sixth minute onwards, you will see they miss even basic health monitoring, alerts and milestones. They will be dirt cheap in comparison to full-scale and at best they are specialized record keeping systems.

Our recommendation here is that if you need a success platform but cannot afford a full scale platform, you are better off with excel sheets and Trellos of the world.

Key Factors before you pay for a Customer Success Platform

There are 10 key factors or features you should be looking at while considering the platform.

1. Actionable vs Non Actionable

The first feature you need to look at is actionability. Do you want the platform to be actionable or not? We’re assuming many of you are hearing this for the first time. Or maybe you have heard the term too many times.

You need to understand that actionability is a lot about your expectations from the success platform. Are your expectations limited to analytics, record keeping or just some data? Or do you expect to act on the data from within the platform? Will there be any action, engagement, communication or any activity on the platform which will deliver value and meaningful reports to your customers. This is the core difference between actionable and non-actionable.

And as we said earlier, more and more teams are moving INSIDE and the ARPU per success manager has reduced as well. So, do you need an actionable platform?

As the role and expectations are evolving, the expectations from a customer success platform are becoming more mature. People no longer look at a success platform purely from a data point of view. Keep in mind, that for customer success, data is a beautiful starting point but not the end solution. Data is mandatory but not sufficient. Data, at best, will define the problem space but it won’t be able to solve the problem.

What’s the solution?

The solution space resides in the actionability, the ability to communicate, to manage hundreds of accounts, the ability to locate the history of the account, the ability to go back in time and see how health scores changed or how a single action translated into a QBR. You should have a single timeline which gives the exact history of the account. And that’s why you need an actionable platform.

And considering how we preach, it should not come as a surprise that CustomerSuccessBox is focused on actionability first. This is not an afterthought. Actionability is our choice as a product company because we are focused on modern INSIDE success managers.

2. Account Health

One of the most important features of any customer success platform is to generate account health. Account health is not just account health per se but the ability to generate alerts, milestones, etc. But we want to talk about account health score.

The main question here is what type of scoring do you need. A lot of platforms have been claiming three types of account scores. One is a risk score, one is a usage score and the other is frequency based score. And the numbers vary. One might be 78/100 whereas the other may be 49/100. And a CSM would still be confused. If you want analytics, use a Mixpanel and let the product manager dive in.

We feel the account health score could be a simple green, red or amber indicator. But what defines the score has to be powerful. The presentation does not matter. For example, even if it is simplified to a single number, the action should be defined. As a CSM, you should know what to do about the number. So, the over detailing with account health numbers is not going to help.

At CustomerSuccessBox, we have milestones to tell you exactly which features of your product have been used. This immediately translates into action. The success manager knows exactly what to do and the goals are well-defined. This is what we call actionable information.

Don’t underestimate the value of account health. It orchestrates the attention of a CSM. So it has to better do the job. Thus, the red, amber, and green are good enough indicators. For example, if someone is green and the last call was 2 months back, the success manager knows that it’s still okay to not call. Whereas, if the indicator is red and the call was 3 days back, the CSM knows he has to call again to help the customer move from red to amber or green.

3. Playbooks

Playbooks are essentially simple processes which define a success manager’s workflow. There are three key things to keep in mind here.

  • The playbooks cannot be for the head of customer success. Playbooks have to be built for the success managers. They should be able to follow the playbooks and deliver success to the customers. The traditional hierarchy of having stages, tasks do not work in such a scenario. Let’s assume an onboarding playbook with 10 stages, 3 tasks per stage and 10 onboarding per month per success manager. Thus, we are talking about 10 x 3 x 10 = 300 tasks per month per manager just for onboarding. This is overwhelming for any CSM. We have talked to CSMs and anyone who is forced by their managers to use such playbooks hates it. And eventually people learn to game the system and just complete tasks without focusing on the end goal.

We don’t want playbooks to be overwhelming. Playbooks within CustomerSuccessBox are self explanatory but you don’t have to carve every task out of it. If you want the ability to carve tasks, there is a separate capability to create tasks for the success managers.

A playbook should not require 5 clicks to get to the task at hand for a particular account

  • You want the playbooks to very visual in nature. A playbook should not require 5 clicks to get to the task at hand for a particular account.

We have adopted a very agile, Trello style playbook. But it is not just a to-do list. It has the ability to see health scores, take action right there and you can measure if the playbook was successful or not.

  • How do you measure the success of a playbook? Most platforms measure the success by whether the task was completed within the specified timeline. This is like saying if the student has attended the class, he/she knows whatever was taught. That doesn’t mean they gained all the knowledge.

What you need to check is if the business impact has been delivered. Have they adopted the relevant features of the product during onboarding? Or identified the product champion? Or configured the system?

So a playbook should be non-overwhelming, simple, visual, and measured by real business impact at the customer end. And these are exactly the principles CustomerSuccessBox’s playbooks are built on.

4. Automate where needed

A lot of times what you see is customer success platforms automating in the IFTTT style. We don’t think this is sufficient. Driving product adoption and delivering customer success is not a one rule based step. This is where majority of the customer success platforms have got it wrong. Automation should be built in a much more complex campaign like style.

We will be talking about our automation in detail when we release it. In terms of principles, all the users we have spoken to are not happy with the single rule based automation. It only does 10% of the job.

We are working on something big here which we will reveal shortly. Subscribe to get regular updates.

5. Integrations

With regards to integrations, you want to factor in two key parameters

  • Quality of Integrations: Does the platform have the ability to bring in custom fields? What is the amount of flexibility the platform offers with respect to bringing in data? For example, can you bring in data based on rules, and certain fields within the CRM. You also need to check the amount of effort required. If it requires a lot of effort at your end, then the quality of integration is poor because integrating then becomes an additional project.

At CustomerSuccessBox, while we have enabled flexibility, we take care of everything at our end to deliver maximum flexibility at minimum cost.

  • Do you really need a 2-way integration? As discussed earlier, you don’t usually need a 2-way integration. But if you do and think it is worth the money, go ahead and spend the extra thousands of dollars. We have no current plan to build 2-way integrations.

6. Segmentation

We are not talking about record keeping or a CRUD-based system. The data should be automatically segmented as it comes in via integrations. Hence, accounts should move in and out of segments automatically.

For example, if a trial account is actively using product features, it should be automatically moved to the convert segment so that a CSM can act on it and close the deal.

7. Portfolio

Every CSM should be the CEO of their portfolio. Hence, there should be the ability for a one-on-one relationship between an account and a success manager.

8. Reporting

You need both Account & User level reporting but the ability to zoom into an account should be huge. A success manager’s job is not to know which feature is being used across all accounts. When a CSM is talking to an account, he/she should be able to drill down into details about that single account. You want to know the history, changes, health scores, milestones, activities and every little detail about that account. In short, you need micro level reporting when it comes to account level reports.

Also, don’t get lost in activity reporting. The number of tasks do not matter in the long run. We are a firm believer in not rewarding effort but rewarding results.

As a head of customer success, you might need the team management report to see who is doing what and if they are completing their tasks. But do not define health as a reflection of activity. Health has to be the leading indicator of product adoption and customer success.

9. Net Promoter Score (NPS)

NPS is a lagging indicator of customer success, don’t give over importance to it. The entire idea behind calculating Account health scores is to get a leading indicator of account health based on real product adoption and value being delivered via your SaaS application. Clearly this is not the same as NPS.In fact, a well defined customer success program leads to more promoters and increase in your NPS. Since NPS is not a leading indicator, any business depending on NPS for monitoring health, will probably end up only reacting to the poor NPS feedback, and won’t be able to act in a proactive manner. Again, there is no harm in using NPS as a well defined feedback mechanism, but just be fully aware of the fact that by nature since its a ‘feedback’ it fills the ‘reactive’ side of the dashboard.

10. Pricing Model

While evaluating success platforms, you will notice a lot of the platforms have seat-based pricing models. Customer success is not limited to the CSMs. It’s a mission for the entire organization. It has to be carried forward by the CEO all the way down to sales and CSMs. A lot of times, when customers churn out, it could be the reflection of product limitation or limitations of other strategies, and not the lack of a success manager’s abilities. Hence, we believe all stakeholders should have access to a customer success platform.

We highly encourage using customer success technology during a trial or a proof of concept (POC) as each trial during the acquisition phase is different. Your sales team could definitely use the platform to deliver value to the trial accounts and convert them to paying customers.

Now that you know how to choose the best customer success platform, find out if your SaaS business is ready for customer success technology.

Puneet leads CustomerSuccessBox. He is deeply passionate about the three product joys - the joy of producing, the joy of selling, and the joy of ownership. His inspirations come from family, friends, mentors, people he works with and from free thinkers like Eric Ries (The Lean Startup), Tim Brown (Change by Design: Design thinking) and many more.