GTM and Sales

Your First SaaS Customer Success Hire

Olivia O’Sullivan
Mar 1, 2021
min read

By: Linda Lin, Director of CS at Gong

Hiring your first customer success person is challenging for any founder. This is the person who will be handling relationships with your earliest customers and taking existing revenue over directly from you.

To help you hire this role successfully, here is a framework I learned from my experience leading CS teams at Gong, Slack and Zendesk, and insights from Andrew Elliott, CRO at People Data Labs.

Hire customer success in tandem with sales 

While customer success (CS) is not your first go-to-market (GTM) hire, don’t delay once you start building your GTM team – sales, marketing, etc. Quickly after hiring AEs, they will start to bring in customers. Having CS in place ensures new customers can be onboarded properly and be delivered a fantastic experience throughout their customer journey. Your first CS hire will also be the person that develops initial CS processes that will scale with the CS team quickly as your customer base grows. 

If you wait too long to hire a customer success role, you run a few different risks. 

Onboarding flops: A customer’s initial experience is onboarding onto your product, and this time sets expectations for the partnership to come. A great experience leads to customer adoption, growth and advocacy and a sub-par experience seeds future churn. Leaving onboarding to AEs who are prioritizing bringing on new logos may dilute this experience or distract your sales team.

Limited customer insight: As CSMs build customer relationships, they share product best practices and roadmap and hear valuable feedback. CS is an incredible source of the voice of your customers, which helps strengthen your early product-market fit beyond purchase to what product drivers are needed to shape customer adoption, growth and value.

Lost upsell potential: Having a team dedicated to leading customers to value is a steady path towards uncovering opportunities for growth, expansion, and upsells. 

At People Data Labs (PDL), CRO Andrew Elliott hired in the order of marketing, sales, and CSMs. “Even though we hired CSMs, we didn’t do a good job early on setting up our initial team for success because there was a lot we didn’t know about CS at that time in our business with our earliest customers. We didn’t have clear objectives or desired outcomes identified, and it took a while for us to start developing the right structure and roles for the team.”

One thing that helped was bringing in myself as a CS advisor. Andrew shares “We were very fortunate to meet Linda at an ideal time. We had gone from a single person in CS, to a team of three. Linda came in as an advisor for us, and we were able to both address some minor issues that had developed, while developing some key areas of the program. This helped us bridge the gap while we found the right hire to lead that team. I’ve also had a lot of success building teams by having advisors step in, lay foundation, and transition to leadership hires and ensure adequate knowledge transfer takes place. So they can provide a lot of short and mid-term flexibility.”

The four kinds of CS hires

Andrew shared that “we had no idea what Customer Success was for us. This is common for most early teams that are still trying to figure things out. CS is such a new function compared to the others, very few founders or teams really understand what it is, especially for their business.” 

CS differs for each business. Here are a few considerations to think:

CS engagement models may range from scale, high touch to bespoke: 

  • Scaled engagements: Focused on providing customers proactive best practices in a scalable way. Best for low ACV/SMB B2B portfolios, B2C, often used for plug-and-play products. The CS engagement model will often be 1:many and programmatic through tech touch, campaigns, and webinars.  
  • High touch engagements: Most teams fall under this bucket, especially in B2B. The engagement model is 1:few where CSMs own a portfolio of customers to engage.
  • Bespoke engagements: Focused on highly tailored use cases, services, and integrations. Good for complex B2B tools, companies operating in highly regulated environments, and enterprise / high ACV customers. The engagement model is white glove, 1:few, can be CSM, professional services or 3rd party partners.

CS motions across those engagement models range as well:

  • Commercial: CSM focuses on driving sales motions such as renewals and upsells. CSMs negotiate renewals, battle competitive risks, and secure the base. CSMs seed, demo, and pursue new lines of business, product SKUs, or plan types.  Best for high-volume portfolios with low initial ACV that rely on retention and growth to hit profitability. Often called account management.  
  • Implementation and onboarding: CSM focuses on driving onboarding onto the product and ensuring usage of seats or features purchased. Sometimes warrants an implementation team separate from CSMs.
  • Customer lifecycle management: Many teams have a broad remit with CSMs focusing on executing playbooks across the customer’s journey from onboarding to adoption, growth, and renewal. CSMs unlock usage of what’s purchased, drives additional users or use cases, mines ROI and value stories, and creates customer advocacy through case studies and references. CSMs manage partnerships and create exec-exec alignment, seed multi-threaded stakeholder relationships, and quarterback customer needs and insights internally.

For PDL, Andrew shares “the type of, and state of, the business is going to dictate the necessary early hires for CS – whether that’s an Implementation Specialist to provision and launch new customers, Support to field high volume of tickets, CSMs to manage key customer relationships and ensure renewals, or a “Head of” to help formulate the structure, build out the plan, and hire the team”. Andrew and I focused the CSMs on a high touch engagement model with implementation, QBRs, and renewals focused motions. Because it’s a technical product, we also created a Technical CSM team.

Choosing the right candidate

The recruiting process for customer success is three simple steps:

Step 1: Identify your own projections. That means identifying the 12-24 month scale of ARR, # of customers, average ACV, and # of CSMs, based on the CS engagement model that works best for your business. Find a candidate who has the experience to lead you through this projectionIf you’re going to be nearing $10M, 500 customers, and 4 CSMs, you don’t need someone who currently works at a $1B business. You want someone with earlier experience who has built and scaled at your upcoming stage. Often, this person will be a CS generalist who has experience in CS operations and process building, including setting up tools.

Step 2: Screen for CS motion match. Identify candidates from companies who follow a similar CS motion to what you predict yours will be. This often is more important than domain expertise, name brand companies, or other experience factors.  You’ll need someone who can drive the motions you need now and enhance gaps in your GTM team.

Step 3: Interview for demonstrated success. Your questions should be tailored to your specific CS challenges. Ensure you uncover candidates who have built CS motions, process, and programs and understand why things worked. What you want to avoid is someone who simply inherited an existing ecosystem and doesn’t know how to apply that to a new context and business. Ask how involved they were to build their team’s onboarding, adoption, growth, and/or renewal playbook. Ask 1 thing they would do to improve that specific playbook. Ask from what they know about your product, how they would think about building it for your business. 

Setting up for success

Once you have your amazing hire, the first 30 days are critical. Once this foundation is set, it serves as the base for every other CS hire in the near future. 

Here’s what they need to focus on: 

Defining success: The goal of CS is to get customers to success and value. The CS hire needs to quickly understand what outcomes customers seek when buying your product and how they measure outcomes and value. They should mine early success stories of where customers are already seeing value to try to replicate this with more customers.

Onboarding: This first playbook to create is setting your customers up to quickly start and implement the product. A standardized and thoughtful onboarding experience ensures customers have an early first win and are set up for long term success.

Create an early warning system: Equally to defining success, the new CS hire should get a grasp of what is or could be creating risk across the customer base. They should build a warning system so the company can get a sense of when issues might be coming down the pipeline, spot trends of common risk reasons, and create risk mitigation plans.

Internal relationships: Customer success isn’t a team. It’s a shared mindset across the business and all departments to ensure our customers achieve value. The best early CS people evangelize this customer-centric mindset across the organization and spend time with Sales, Marketing, Support and specifically the Product team to create a feedback loop.

A  great first CS hire will create a strong CS foundation to scale with your growth. Good luck!

Linda is a currently a CS leader at Gong, advisor, mentor, and EA to 18 month old CEO. She has 12+ years in post sales leadership and her superpowers are building and scaling world class CS teams and programs from $50M to $1B+ and building methodology for moving upmarket into the enterprise, including at Slack and Zendesk.

More hiring tips for startups:

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