SaaS Customer Success Best Practices to Start Using Today
August 15, 2021
Customer success is one of the biggest buzzwords of today’s business world.
The principles of customer success are beneficial to any type of business, but when applied to the SaaS business model, they can do wonders.
Implementing a customer success strategy into your SaaS business can unlock exponential growth, annihilate churn, and usher in complete customer satisfaction.
Don’t ask what customer success can do for you; keep reading and find out what you can do for your customers to make them achieve their goals and keep using your service for years to come.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is Customer Success in SaaS?
Retaining customers has become more challenging than ever. Each new generation is more comfortable trying new things and has less trouble abandoning a product or service they don’t find value in immediately.
With low customer retention and churn rates constantly rising, businesses needed to find a way to retain their customers.
They found it in the concept of customer success.
It’s a pretty straightforward and logical principle, one that puts the customer experience above everything else. Here is how Lincoln Murphy, one of the leading experts on customer success, defines it:
“Customer success is simply ensuring that your customers achieve their Desired Outcome through their interactions with your company. That’s it.”
That’s an important point because it places focus on the customers’ goals. Customer success isn’t churn management. It’s much more than that.
A customer success strategy involves devoting staff and resources to following users on their journey to reach their goals and achieve their desired results using your product.
Right now, you might be thinking that sounds suspiciously like customer support. And the two are, in fact, quite similar.
However, the fundamental difference lies in the nature of each service.
Customer support is reactive. Its function is to help users once they encounter a problem, which means it depends on the customers getting in touch with you to lodge a complaint or ask for advice. The problem is that not every confused or disgruntled customer will contact your customer service. In fact, very few will.
As you can see in the image below, for each customer who complains, there are 26 customers who don’t say anything.
On the other hand, customer success is a proactive concept. It involves reaching out to customers to improve user experience and anticipate problems even before they arise.
Here are some examples of what a customer success strategy can include:
- Helping new customers complete signup procedures.
- Onboarding customers with tutorials and showcasing features.
- Making sure customers are finding value and having a great user experience.
- Identifying unsatisfied customers and reaching out before they churn.
- Collecting feedback that guides development.
This may seem like a lot of effort, but the return on investment is astonishing. The following section will explain the many benefits you can reap by implementing a customer success strategy.
Why Does Customer Success Matter so Much for SaaS Companies?
A fundamental truth that applies to all businesses is that it’s easier to sell to an existing customer than to a new client. Just look at the numbers in the graph below.
That means customer success is beneficial to any type of business.
However, for SaaS companies, customer success is much more than a benefit. It’s a necessity.
The SaaS business model is an innovation that relies on the concept of continuous service or, more accurately, subscription in its sales efforts, rather than completing the entire customer journey with a one-time purchase.
This means that SaaS companies always need to be on their toes and offer the best possible user experience month in and month out. Likewise, customers need to keep finding value and achieving their desired outcomes to stay motivated to keep using your service.
As long as your customers succeed, your company can grow and generate revenue.
In fact, another world-class SaaS expert, Jason Lemkin, ties SaaS business revenue very closely to the customer success strategy by saying that:
“Client Success manages as much as 75% of the revenue of a typical SaaS company.”
But it doesn’t end there. Here are some more benefits of implementing a customer success strategy.
- Managing churn. Paying close attention to customers enables you to get in front of problems and prevent them from abandoning your service.
- Maximizing lifetime customer value. A successful customer will keep renewing their subscription and expand their goals, giving you opportunities to upsell and cross-sell.
- Unlocking second-order revenue. Happy customers will keep using your services as they change roles within their organization or move on to a new one.
- Supplying feedback and data that will drive your development and direct future policies.
With so many benefits, it’s hardly surprising that customer success has become an integral part of the SaaS business model.
In fact, Oracle calls their innovative approach to business The Age of the Customer and claims the winners in today’s economy will be the companies who can:
“quickly anticipate customer needs and deliver measurable business outcomes.”
In conclusion, any business can reap the benefits of a good customer success strategy.
However, the service renewal business plan that characterizes SaaS companies makes customer success essential to survival and growth.
SaaS Customer Success: Best Practices
Now that we’ve established the meaning of customer success and the benefits it can unlock, let’s look at some of the best practices that make up a strong customer success strategy.
Remember, even if you’re a SaaS startup, a solid customer success strategy should be a feature of your business plan. You should start developing it as soon as you’re open for business, or even before that.
Understand What Success Means to Your Customers
You probably already have a good notion of what it takes for your customers to achieve success using your software.
However, without devoting the time to do some customer research, your idea of what your clients would consider success while using your product is little more than an assumption.
Diligent customer research can help you improve your product, expand it to cover a broader audience, and eliminate roadblocks to customer success.
Here is a simple depiction of how the research process might go.
The first steps are to develop your objective (e.g., “I want to understand what constitutes success for the clients using my service”) and collect secondary data.
You can do that by getting in touch with professionals from your industry or reading the existing literature.
Next, you want to dive into the research and use quantitative and qualitative methods to gather data.
Interviews are a great qualitative research method you can use.
For instance, when Uber launched its service in India and Brazil, they interviewed local users to learn how the app can be adapted to customers’ needs in those parts of the world.
They found out that users in those countries had trouble using the app because they predominantly used older smartphones.
This led Uber to develop a “lite” version of the app so that users in those countries could also order rides quickly and easily.
On the other hand, quantitative methods involve using analytics to keep your finger on the pulse of your customers. This is where customer success software like Gainsight and ClientSuccess can help.
After you’ve collected as much data as possible, it’s time to analyze it and act on it.
Good customer research will help you understand your customer’s needs and show you what success means to them. Knowing that, you can make changes or expand your service as needed.
Create a Clear Customer Success Journey Map
Once you’ve developed an understanding of what it takes for your customers to achieve success, it’s time to map out the journey they’ll take to get there.
A customer success journey map is a visual tool that can help you establish the specific steps that your customers need to take to achieve success.
Mapping the journey to success can help you understand your customers and their needs. With a clear idea of what your customers need to go through and the problems they may face on the way, you know exactly when to get in touch, increase support or offer more value to guarantee success.
All of this will inevitably result in increased retention and reduced churn, leading to greater revenue.
The form of your success journey map depends on the features of your software and the target audience.
An example of a customer success journey map may look something like this one from Custify.
This map sets out the major steps of the customer’s journey, from interest to renewal. It also establishes the teams responsible for carrying the client through to the next milestone, as well as the tools needed for the job and the metrics to measure success.
Another feature you can add to your map is touchpoints.
They represent times when your customers require information or training that will allow them to find value in your software, app, or service. They also provide the most appropriate communication channel for the job.
Finally, think about what your customer hopes to achieve when they arrive at each milestone. This helps you adequately prepare your staff for touchpoint interactions.
By developing a customer success journey map, you’re leaving nothing to chance. Your customers are supported, receiving information and value in increments, without being overwhelmed.
Educate and Train Your Customers
Your product is a sophisticated piece of software. To use it well, your customers will need a bit of schooling.
Good training and education programs for your users will help you reduce churn rates and help you keep your customers happy for a long time.
That’s why good user onboarding is a mandatory first step to take after purchase. Your customer needs to feel like they’re getting value and taking steps to achieve their goals from the very start, or they become likely to churn.
That’s not the end of the story, though. User training is actually a process that goes on for as long as your customer stays with you.
Let’s look at some great opportunities for your customers to receive training spread out across the customer journey.
Automated email sequences are a tried and true marketing tool, so why not include them in your customer retention strategy as well?
For example, you can create emails offering educational tips for using your software and set them to trigger for new users. Here’s an example from Asana.
Secondly, use your blog to post educational content about the different features of your service that can help your customers achieve their goals.
You can even launch an academy and fill it with podcasts, video materials, and practice materials to give your users intensive training for using your software.
Take a look at Ahrefs’ academy. It contains a certification course for using the Ahrefs SEO software, but it also includes lessons on more general SEO topics, offering maximum value for users.
It’s also a good idea to include release notes with every software upgrade.
Good release notes outline the changes and new features. They give users an outline of what’s different. However, great release notes actually get users excited about those recently developed features.
Note Slack’s excellent copy and the in-depth explanation of what’s changed.
Keep in mind that user training doesn’t end with onboarding. Use every opportunity to showcase the unique features of your product and help your customers continually find new value in it.
Develop an Onboarding Process but Don’t Force it
Let’s take a step back and examine onboarding processes, arguably your most powerful weapon for maximizing customer success and minimizing churn.
Onboarding can include everything from the signup process, the welcome screen to the product tour, and the first interactions with your success and support teams. There are principles that can be applied to the process as a whole, though.
For one, your onboarding process should be as short and simple as possible. This will keep users interested and have them using your service soon after activation.
For many companies, an excellent place to start simplifying is the signup flow.
A good rule of thumb is to ask for the customer's name and email only. Almost anyone would be open to giving you that much information.
Another great tip is to segment your users, especially if your software has a lot of features.
For example, say you operate an image editing software. When a new user fires up your software for the first time, you could trigger a pop-up window to ask the user how they will be using the tool. For photo editing? Creating presentations? To spruce up their CV or portfolio?
Depending on their answer, you can segment your customers and onboard them for the features most useful to them.
Keep in mind that the onboarding process is all about getting to the coveted Aha! Moment as soon as possible. That’s when your customer discovers how your software benefits them and decides to use it regularly.
Here are some Aha! moments from notable companies that could give you ideas on what to look for.
Finally, a word of caution.
Onboarding should never be compulsory. You will always have customers impatient to start using your features. Don’t take away from their user experience.
Consider giving them the option to substitute onboarding for other educational tools, such as a handy chatbot.
Onboarding is where first impressions are made. It will determine how your customer uses your product and whether they can achieve their goals with it. That’s why it must go as smoothly as possible.
Build Outstanding Feedback Loops
To achieve customer success, you need to let your customers drive the changes and improvements to your product.
This approach is called the feedback loop. It’s an essential part of the customer success philosophy. It involves continually collecting feedback, analyzing it, acting on it, and presenting the results back to the customers.
Quality feedback loops will allow you to zone in on the problems in your software and the user experience. It will also help you understand your customers and their needs.
In fact, studies have shown that 86% of buyers don’t mind paying more for a great user experience. That means that outstanding feedback loops result in increased revenue.
As you’ve noticed in the image above, feedback loops have three stages.
The first is collecting feedback. To do that, you need to build channels where customers can lodge complaints, give praise and suggest improvements.
Let’s look at some effective instruments for collecting feedback.
- Customer interviews
- In-app surveys
- Customer reviews
With ample feedback available, you can analyze it. A good principle to follow is developing categories of feedback, called verbatims.
An example of a verbatim can be “Payment Problems” which contains feedback about complicated payment procedures, missing payment options, etc.
Once you notice that one of your categories is getting particularly heavy, that’s where you should make improvements.
If you want to learn more about improving your recurring revenue, read this article.
The final step is to take action and implement the changes your customers want to see. You can then get back to the customers by having your team reach out, or publishing release notes to present the changes.
Remember that your customers are the ones using your product, so they should be the ones who decide how your software grows and improves.
Be Proactively in Touch with Your Customers
As we’ve already established, the fundamental principle of customer success is proactivity. That’s what makes it different from traditional customer support.
Traditional Customer SupportCustomer SuccessReactiveProactiveTransactionalRelationalFor maintenanceFor realizing goalsFocus on quality and speedFocus on product adoption and valueCost centeredRevenue centered
Other than helping customers achieve their goals quickly and easily, proactive interaction has a significant psychological benefit.
The truth is, we all like attention. So, getting in touch with customers to see how they’re doing with your service and offering help can make your users feel important and safe. This goes a long way in securing customer loyalty and satisfaction.
Here are some of the principles you can follow to make your approach to customers more proactive.
Number one, know when and how often to get in touch. You should be especially attentive and proactive with new customers in the first three months of product use. This period will influence the client’s success in the next nine months.
Secondly, identify and stay attentive to customers who have trouble using your service even after the initial period. People have different learning styles, and it may take some of them longer to take up the software.
Further, remember that problems will happen on the way. When they do, be honest with your customers about what’s going on. This also falls into the category of proactive service.
Let’s examine the example from Netflix.
Their streaming service encountered a problem that impacted user experience. Instead of ignoring it, they contacted the relevant users with an apology and offered compensation.
Finally, nurture your customers by checking in and making sure they have everything they need. Send them valuable resources and best practices to ensure they keep finding value.
Being proactive in your interactions with customers is the essence of customer success. Use these principles and find new ones to take care of your users and make them feel important.
Have a Dedicated Customer Success Rep
Many SaaS companies think they can get by without forming a dedicated customer success team.
In reality, nothing can be riskier for a SaaS company. A dedicated customer success rep, or customer success manager (CSM) should be one of your earliest hires.
CSMs are important because they stay with customers for their entire lifecycle, sometimes years. This means they have the longest and closest relationship with the customer than anyone else in the company.
Remember how we said that customer success can account for up to 75% of a SaaS company’s revenue? That number doesn’t seem so surprising now, does it?
So the question isn’t whether you should hire customer success staff. The question is how many.
Your customer success department should grow in tandem with your company.
Some SaaS owners rely on the Rule of 40 to guide their customer success staffing. This rule establishes that no customer success rep should manage more than 40 customers at a time. Any more than that will overwhelm the rep, frustrate the customer, and result in churn.
But that mainly depends on the type of customers you have. If you target enterprise customers, start with matching 15 accounts to one CSM, 40 accounts if they are mid-tier, and up to 100-200 accounts if you target smaller accounts.
Alternatively, you can use your annual recurring revenue to establish how many CSMs you need. A good rule of thumb is that you need one CSM for every $2 million in ARR if your accounts are not too small.
If it’s easier, you can use your annual contract value for much the same result.
The graph above introduces the third factor to consider—product complexity.
Obviously, if your software is very complex, more effort will need to be put into individual customers so they can achieve success, meaning more reps may have to be hired to handle the workload.
If you find yourself unable to expend more resources on hiring reps, you can enlist the help of customer service software. Tools like chatbots and AI can do wonders in streamlining your customer success efforts and make them more manageable.
Bear in mind that it’s your long-term customers who bring in the big bucks, so hire CSMs as early and as often as possible.
Make it Easy for Customers to Contact Your Customer Success Team
Even in customer success, communication is a two-way street. In addition to being proactive and taking the initiative, your customer success department should allow customers to get in touch whenever they need to.
Say your customer encounters an issue and decides to contact your team, but they struggle to find contact information on your page or app.
If they do manage to find a way to contact you eventually, your rep will be dealing with a very frustrated customer. And if they never figure out how to get in touch, you’ll have a disgruntled customer you don’t even know about.
You want to avoid both scenarios.
You can do that by making your contact information easy to find and by offering multiple communication channels.
The first channel should be a way for users to contact support directly from the app, the way Airtable does it.
They have a solid sidebar to help the users, covering everything from contacting support teams, onboarding tips, to keyboard shortcuts and webinars.
Another resource any customer wanting to get in touch with you will use is the contact page.
That’s why it’s important to make the contact page easy to find and load it up with ways your customers can reach you.
Let’s take a look at an example.
HubSpot’s contact page is a treasure trove of good practices. Finding it is easy, and it offers multiple channels you can use to get in touch, featuring buttons for easy access.
And that’s not all. Look at the copy they used. It includes calls to action and reassuring and motivational text to make users comfortable.
You can even go beyond the contact channels seen above. Here are some more platforms you can use:
- A dedicated support email address
- Chatbots and AI
- DM on social media
- Support forums
It’s worth repeating that your company deals with a complex product. Provide every possible opportunity for your customers to reach out and help them on their way to success.
Know Your Customer Data and Share it Across Teams
SaaS businesses are driven by data. Be conscious of that data, share it with your team, and use it to keep improving your product.
Armed with the right data, you and your entire team will know exactly which customers to reach out to and which product features to tweak.
The most important data types for customer success are tied to churn, expansion revenue, and customer satisfaction. Customer success software can supply all kinds of data, and here are the metrics you should be paying special attention to:
- Customer Churn %
- MRR Churn %
- Net MRR Churn %
- Expansion MRR %
- Net Promoter Score (NPS)
- Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT)
A good practice is to organize your raw data into neat dashboards and create regular reports, like the lovely example from Datapine below.
That being said, don’t limit yourself to just these metrics. All data can hold secrets to improving your software and making your customers successful.
Of course, no single person can read all types of data and reach the right conclusions. That’s why you need to make data understandable and available company-wide and share it with your entire team.
Different experts will look at different metrics and compile their own conclusions, which they can share, along with their suggestions on how to proceed.
Let’s support this with another example from Oracle.
Oracle approaches prospects, not by showcasing the features of their product, but by showing them how their service is a means to achieve success.
In other words, their marketing department relies heavily on the data collected and interpreted by the customer success department.
Of course, inter-departmental cooperation can be quite complex, especially in large SaaS companies. Luckily, there are software solutions that can help with that too.
Business Intelligence tools like Trevor.io enable your whole team to access, explore, and learn from your data without code, as well as build dashboards, set up data alerts, and even live-stream results to Excel or Google docs (for all those colleagues who can’t live without spreadsheets!).
Overall, data is your best friend when trying to improve your service and convert happy customers to successful customers. Use it to your advantage and share it so that your entire team can work together to guide your clients to success.
Hopefully, this article has convinced you of the highest law of modern business:
If your customer isn't successful, you’re not successful.
The best practices outlined above will help you transport your customers to success, making them happy and loyal clients for years to come. For your company, that means steady growth and constant improvement, the ultimate goal of any SaaS business.