Customer Success: How to Scale Your Operations
As customer success continues to evolve, we’ve shared the foundational aspects to help you build a strong customer success organization through this five-part blog series:
Finally, to wrap up our series, here’s the fifth installment around scaling customer success.
“How do you grow outcomes faster than the rate of resources you expend to generate them?”
Whether you’re just growing an existing customer success operation as your business grows, or you’re expanding the offerings and capabilities your team provides to your clients, the question of how to scale the operation will inevitably come up. Scaling an operation is NOT the same as growing an organization:
- The big difference being that you can grow headcount, revenue, or any other metric you want, but it’s only scaling up when the cost or effort to add more revenue/headcount/other decreases for each incremental unit of growth achieved.
- Another way to think of scaling your operation is that as you scale up, you start to get “returns to scale,” meaning as you get larger, the cost per unit of output goes down.
- Lastly, scaling means that you get to leverage from past investments because operations or processes, in one form or another, are being reused to save time, money, or effort.
Here’s a set of common questions often facing growing companies about scaling Customer Success (CS) teams:
If I add new services, do I have the same team of CS managers manage the account or add separate dedicated CS managers?
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- If I expand geographically within a country, do I co-locate my CS managers or distribute them closer to the accounts?
- If I expand globally to other countries, how do I replicate and repeat the success and get going faster?
- As my accounts grow larger, how do I allocate CS managers to get the best coverage and results I need? Do I add more CS managers or do I redistribute accounts another way?
- If I use a high-touch model, what’s critical to scale?
- If I use a low-touch (tech-touch) model, what’s critical to scale?
First, these are all good problems to have when you have growth, and second, there’s no one right answer. Today I’ll share thoughts around scaling your operation and things to consider.
Key Principle: Know the difference between replication and leverage and when to choose which one.
Knowing the difference between replicating what works (duplicating the same process, approach, and structure as you grow) and leveraging what you’ve done is critical as you scale. In some situations, replication may be appropriate and yield significant scale benefits. Leverage is reusing parts of a process, structure, or platform to reduce “reinventing the wheel” and not starting from scratch when you expand a business. Leverage may be the better choice in other situations, and it will give scale benefits but perhaps not as much as replication. These concepts come into play whether you use a high-touch or low-touch/tech-touch model.
High Touch – Key factors in order of importance:
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- People skills (selection, training, fit)
- Platform (tech foundation)
When scaling a high-touch customer success model, the presumption is you’re adding more accounts to manage, and along with that, more resources (people) to manage those relationships. That’s why Relationship is first on this list—What are you replicating in the relationship? Do you know what key expectations, deliverables, and activities drive the value in the relationship?
Identifying what to scale, first, then picking the right people
to populate the expanding team with the right training
and onboarding is critical to bring the relationship to life.
Core processes that define the regular high-touch activities need to be replicated, ideally, as much as possible and if not, certainly leveraged with minor adaptation to meet unique customer requirements, culture, or needs.
The platform that tracks, manages, reports the activity is important yet listed last because it should, by definition, be scalable and secondly, won’t matter if the first three factors are underperforming. There’s no platform that’ll repair a broken relationship between two people/organizations that expect trust in a high-touch relationship.
Additionally, over time in high touch, you also want to consider adding low-/tech-touch capabilities to increase scale capacity
. Activities that you did manually when starting out may lend themselves to automation or simplification so you can reserve the truly high-touch actions for your expanding team, and relegate less critical items to automation or lower touch methods. Examples could include simple things like:
- lower-level notifications being done automatically
- moving some change management activities to self-service (requests, tracking, reporting)
- or having post-installation/post-service surveys automatically distributed that perhaps were done manually earlier on.
Finally, as the CS teams grow, things done as part of someone’s job on an ad hoc basis may be better centralized in a “SWAT” team or focused support team who does the work once (internal training, process documentation, playbook updates, renewal proposals) rather than having each CS manager do it themselves. Once you’re large enough, these costs can be spread across the entire organization and the specialization will drive more consistent results. With more dedicated skill sets, this frees up CS managers to focus on their customer account responsibilities.
Low Touch – Key factors in order of importance:
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In a low-touch or tech-touch model, things change. Here, process consistency and ability to scale and having platform capacity
that supports an increased volume of accounts, activities, and users are first and foremost. A robust process running on a solid platform will be resilient and less dependent on who you put into place
to manage low-touch interactions and relationships, while important, comes next. That is because low-touch/tech touch presumes a level of consistency already exists so that people are not a gating factor or critical bottleneck in the business operation. You should be able to “plug and play” as people come and go.
Additionally, as you scale, some activities could be fully automated (onboarding, self-service training, etc.) and keep costs lower per account as you add accounts without adding headcount.
Back to Basics
Back to Basics: Scaling is easier with a strong foundation.
In Blog Post #2: Getting the Process Right
and Blog Post #3: How to Implement the Right Platform
, we described characteristics and considerations for setting up key processes and platforms as well as testing for scalability and flexibility. When you start to grow, this is where that early effort really pays off! Go back to your notes on process and flexibility as your starting point – decide what to replicate or leverage so you’re getting results faster without reinventing core processes. And, if you’ve documented things well, it’s easier sharing the information across geographies, new leadership in other locations, and moving quickly to get results you desire.
Metrics That Matter
Metrics that Matter: What’s been really delivering value?
If you’ve put good metrics in place for both activities (inputs) and results (outcomes) of your customer success team, those measurements play a big part in validating scaling strategies. In short, you want to double down on what’s been working, delivering measurable results, and avoiding replication or leveraging activities that haven’t yielded high value. This is when you “lean out” your processes as you grow, as well as use the growth stage activities as a way to pause, look, reflect, and adjust your core activities to truly scale the operation. Metrics to review before scaling include:
- Operational (number of accounts per rep, number of reviews per rep per quarter)
- Financial (revenue per account rep, revenue per account, etc.)
- Economic/margin (gross and net margin per account)
- Activity load (number of activities required per rep per account per month)
- Outcomes like increased revenue %
- Retention and renewal rates
Now decide which metrics trigger adding headcount or resources justified by economics, customer demand, or some combination of both.
Answers to Questions 1-4:
- Question #1: If I add new services, do I have the same team of CS managers manage the account or add separate dedicated CS managers?
- Answer #1: Depends on how similar or different the new services are and skills needed to manage. My bias is to minimize the number of contacts into an account, so I would first add services to the existing CS manager team before creating a separate team.
- Question #2: If I expand geographically within a country, do I co-locate my CS managers or distribute them closer to the accounts?
- Answer #2: Co-location creates great benefits, particularly in low-touch models. If people work in the same location (time zone at minimum, with COVID-19 this may still mean remote work), people can serve as back-ups to others, create resilience and/or career paths, and create a sense of teamwork supported by your culture. High-touch models likely require placing CS managers closer (same time zone and even city/locale) to drive the relationship higher, lower travel costs, etc.
- Question #3: If I expand globally, to other countries, how do I replicate and repeat the success and get going faster?
- Answer #3: Understand culture and local laws first, adapt/leverage where needed, and consider pilots using temporary workers, where allowed, to “shakedown” processes. Consider buddying up a multi-lingual existing manager with a local manager to drive consistency. You may need to be “on the ground” in the local country for a while to ensure compliance to process and motivate folks to adopt standard models.
- Question #4: As my accounts grow larger, how do I allocate CS managers to get the best coverage and results I need? Do I add more CS managers or do I redistribute accounts another way?
- Answer #4: Per the above section about metrics, this is where knowledge around loading and effectiveness really helps. As I mentioned before, in high-touch models, minimize “breaking” relationships and account churn, and consider traditional pyramid or segmentation models where your top reps are assigned to your top accounts (top of the pyramid) and work down the model with more accounts per rep as the revenue or margin per account (or activity load) goes down.
Case Study #1
Scaling from Pilot to Full Operation (High-touch) [Pre- SaaS Era]
At HP, when I started a value management office that included “customer success” roles, we began with a pilot to prove the concept of account-focused success management: Could we show that adding a platform that supported the customer experience conversation (in our case, called account delivery management) generate higher retention, renewal rates, or margin/revenue from the accounts using the platform? We set up the platform, identified two key accounts that were worth the effort (at-risk, large revenue, upcoming renewals) and ran the program for a year. At the end, we measured customer satisfaction, margin, and renewal rates, and the results were encouraging.
We then expanded to 17 accounts (top large accounts) and then finally to 30 major accounts. During the second year with the 17 accounts, we matured our processes for managing the team, the platform, the onboarding, and the measurement/management of outcomes. Only then did we really “scale”—we replicated the processes and approach for 30 accounts (i.e. the remaining 13). We had clear criteria on when to add clients to the platform, the account delivery teams were no longer unaware, and the managers knew what to expect. The expansion to more accounts went smoothly because we didn’t have to start from scratch, and with consistency in processes, we could do comparisons (apples to apples) on customer satisfaction, renewal rates, and revenue generation with limited manual work. This was an example of pure replication
: “lather, rinse, repeat.”
Case Study #2
Scaling “down” to smaller accounts (Low-touch)
As our success grew with the value management office, we had more account teams and sales managers wanting their accounts added onto the platform. In particular, smaller accounts wanted what the large accounts had, yet the economics didn’t warrant the same level of investment. At that time we had not monetized the incremental costs of platform onboarding, account management processes related to the value management office. We did charge for the labor component of account delivery (customer success management).
After careful review, we moved to a remote model to add smaller accounts to the platform. Here’s where we replicated
the platform and its processes and leveraged
the account delivery processes for client success. We were moving to a lower touch model. There was NO change to the platform or core onboarding, but we adapted the tools we used for remote conversations (not face-to-face) and we used loading measurements to make the economics work (more accounts per account delivery manager, semi-annual reviews vs. quarterly as contracted, etc.) Service levels and expectations were modified to the client, and these differences also allowed us to make it clear to clients what they could expect if they grew in size, comparable to major accounts, we could offer them a different experience (face-to-face quarterly reviews) with a consistent platform (no transition from one model to another) because we had replicated at the platform level.
What it looks like when scaling is working:
- New leaders/managers embrace the approach; there’s little questioning of why we do something the way it is, more energy and focus is put into getting it up and running to deliver results (people trust what’s been built before they came on board and support reuse)
- Employees embrace structure and consistency to help them succeed in their roles and support change
- Leadership can track and compare outcomes across sites/teams due to consistency
What it looks like when scaling is not working:
- New managers reject replication and/or leverage – wanting to do things their way to get credit for invention, innovation, or being the leader. Questions are more focused on why and less on how to do things, or people say “but we’re different, you don’t understand…”
- Extra effort beyond normal is expended to get things up and sustainable – either the original processes were not robust and worth scaling, or more likely, there is more change or difference than anticipated (local customs, personnel selection, etc.)
- The platform is inaccessible, slow, unavailable, or not well understood; either a technology issue unanticipated (e.g. broadband bandwidth offshore/remote locations) or a training/rollout breakdown.
- A lot of time is spent documenting and communicating results due to inconsistencies. People have to explain the results or why they are different.
The Bigger Picture
The Bigger Picture: Growing the business, not just a function
A note on scalability – the Five Conditions Research
If you appreciate the research and what really drives scaling a business, particularly for companies above $2M USD in revenue looking to grow from post-startup to a sustainable company, recent research by TrueSpace and Gallup identified five conditions for companies to scale
Their research identified five conditions necessary to drive scalable, sustainable, and profitable growth:
- Alignment: Is the business growth-capable?
- Discipline: Can the business scale?
- Predictability: Are the decision-makers continuously learning?
- Endurance: Can employees and other stakeholders endure the growth journey
- Value Creation: Is there growth in creating enterprise value?
I encourage you to explore the research; in particular, as it relates to discipline and predictability
which line up nicely with what we’ve discussed in this blog series about using metrics to drive performance, continuous learning, and an overall focus on performance.
As I hope you have come to appreciate in this series, there are some common themes that keep repeating themselves:
- Know your customer
- Know what value you deliver
- Map your processes and platforms to outcomes you desire
- Measure outcomes to use data to drive decisions
There’s no sure-fire “one size fits all” solution to managing customer success and scaling your operations, but if you keep those themes in mind, you’ll increase your chances of winning!
About the Author:
Morris Wallack is currently an active mentor, teacher and advisor with over 36 years in high technology executive roles. Skilled in business planning, marketing, sales and services operations he held executive roles at Hewlett Packard and 3D Systems, with experience with new business startups, global management, service (XaaS) management, remote team management, customer success management and sales operations. He currently serves as a mentor with SCORE, CED VMS (Venture Mentoring Service) and NC State (BUS501/Poole School of Mgmt). Morris holds a BSEE from Cornell University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.