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Customer Success: What it Is, Why It’s Crucial and How to Achieve It

Today’s billion-dollar question: What is “customer success” and why is everybody talking about it?

We know it must be important because 72% of businesses say improving customer success is their top priority ( And we know that many businesses are taking action in this area, because when you search LinkedIn for “customer success manager” job openings, you get more than 50,000 results; and when you search LinkedIn for jobs seeking “customer success” skills/experience, you get more than 100,000 results.

And though the concept of customer success started with SaaS and B2C applications (see “The Evolution of Customer Success” below), it is now being prioritized by more and more forward-thinking B2B enterprises.

Many companies have responded to the ongoing trend toward total focus on the customer by building in new ways to achieve and measure such qualities as customer experience, customer satisfaction, customer happiness and more. Some are even prioritizing what is now referred to as “customer-centric culture.”

Related article: 14 Ways to Build a Customer-Centric Culture [and How it Can Boost Your Bottom Line]

So, back to our question: What is customer success?

It’s probably safe to say that customer success is one of the top goals of a customer-centric business culture. But, of course, there’s much more to it than that.

Here’s the definition offered by the Customer Success Association:
Customer success is a long-term, scientifically engineered, and professionally directed business strategy for maximizing sustainable proven profitability for both the customer and company.  

Customer success consultant Gainsight describes it this way:
Customer success is the business methodology of ensuring customers achieve their desired outcomes while using your product or service. Customer Success is relationship-focused client management that aligns client and vendor goals for mutually beneficial outcomes. Effective Customer Success strategy typically results in decreased customer churn and increased upsell opportunities.

Read on to learn about customer success goals, strategies, best practices, training opportunities and more for insight into the potential upside for your company’s bottom line.

Customer Success vs. Customer Support vs. Customer Satisfaction vs. Customer Happiness vs. Customer Experience vs. Customer Relationship Management

Another key indicator of the surging importance of customer success is the ever-expanding vocabulary of terms that we use to talk about the customer.

  • Customer Support focuses on technical support and help with utilizing products and services.
  • Customer Relationship Management is the process of organizing customer information and communication, typically through a CRM system.
  • Customer Satisfaction refers to how well companies are serving their customers; however, when customers check the “satisfied” box their actual experience is typically much more nuanced.
  • Customer Happiness is a term which recognizes that, as the Harvard Business Review suggests, establishing a positive “emotional connection” with customers is more important than so-called “customer satisfaction.”
  • Customer Experience is a broad concept that has inspired a range of definitions. Here’s how we define it: Customer experience is the overall relationship that a customer has with your organization, built upon the sum of all of your interactions with that customer and including an awareness by the customer that you are committed to understanding their most important business objectives and focused on contributing to their current and future success.
  • Customer Success is a proactive business strategy that incorporates all of the elements listed above and others.

What is a Customer Success Manager?

“A customer success manager works with customers to ensure they’re receiving the tools and support needed to achieve their goals,” according to HubSpot. “This includes advising them on buying decisions and onboarding new users after purchase. CSMs have an in-depth understanding of the customer’s needs and are responsible for communicating common customer behaviors to the sales, marketing and product teams.”

This important job also goes by other names and titles, including customer success analyst, customer success specialist, customer success/quality manager and more, and customer success responsibilities are now increasingly incorporated into such leadership roles as customer service director, VP of customer service, VP of customer experience, etc.

HubSpot says the responsibilities of a customer success manager include:

  1. Advocating for the company
  2. Onboarding new customers
  3. Encouraging upsells and cross-sells
  4. Building relationships between customers and the support team
  5. Being the voice of the customer

You may be thinking: That sounds like a pretty tall order for one person. And you are correct.

Customer success is at the heart of what we do here at GPT, and has been for several decades. Our experience has taught us that, in today’s business environment, it is essential to be focused on customer success at every touchpoint or interaction. That’s why we believe that nearly all B2B companies can benefit from adopting an organization-wide mindset that every employee has a role in customer success.

Spoiler alert: We also take the concept of customer success much further than the conventional definitions cited above, as you will see below.

The Evolution of Customer Success

Higher Logic, a community engagement consultancy based in Virginia, helps explain how the rise of the SaaS business model first helped put customer success in the spotlight: “Once upon a time, landing a software deal was a ‘won and done’ ordeal – that ship has sailed.”

Nowadays, with the rise of B2B versions of the SaaS model (sometimes called XaaS), “many companies are thinking strategically and placing a greater emphasis on the value customers extract from their products and services.”

Quick history: The Customer Success Association credits a CRM (customer relationship management system) company called Vantive with being not just an influential early adopter, but perhaps the first to establish a Customer Success department.

Vantive made this move in response to high failure rates for CRM systems — a scenario in which failed implementations, under-utilization and other factors were endangering contract renewals, new sales and revenue from maintenance and support.

The company recognized that customer success would look different for each customer, and so began asking questions like:

  • How are you going to define your success?
  • How can we best help you achieve it?

You can see how asking such questions could enable B2B companies better understand how to help customers use their products and services to achieve key goals, and imagine how such enhanced customer success-focused relationships could add value for both parties.

Building a Customer Success Framework

One chief goal of creating a framework for customer success is the ability to shift from being reactive to proactive in anticipating and acting on the needs of your customers.

This begins with a thorough understanding of the customer journey, pain points, etc. It also requires committing to ongoing relationship-building in which your goal is to actively listen and learn about each customer’s most important business objectives. This enables you to be much more strategic about how you help customers use your products and/or services to achieve their most important goals.

Building a strong customer success program involves understanding that there is overlap between roles such as sales, marketing, account management, field service, service management and more.

The people in each of these roles possess knowledge that can help an organization go above and beyond for customers. One example is the field service technician who takes extra care to develop front-line knowledge of the customer’s big picture, equipping him or her to suggest unexpected ideas or solutions that truly add value on the customer side.

The goal is to build a customer success framework that helps you transform the customer’s perception of your business relationship from that of supplier/provider to trusted advisor.

Customer Success Metrics and Key Performance Indicators

One strategy for accomplishing this is by adopting an expanded view of key performance metrics (KPIs) that help you measure the effectiveness of your efforts.

Your company likely has a dashboard full of KPIs that you monitor on an ongoing basis, as well as a methodology for tracking customer satisfaction. But there is also a new approach being adopted by more and more forward-thinking companies — a paradigm shift that involves heightened focus on your customers’ most important KPIs.

This is because understanding your customers’ most important KPIs, and then focusing on how you can help each customer achieve them, positions you to add far more value over the long haul.

Doing so will have a profound impact on customer satisfaction and, yes, customer happiness, too. It will also help you move the needle on a very important metric you can use to help measure how well you are succeeding at customer success — Net Promoter Score.

NPS boils the traditional customer survey down to just one fundamental question (with a 0-10 scoring scale): “How likely is it that you would recommend [Company X] to a friend or colleague?”

In our ongoing efforts to innovate in the customer success/customer relationship space, we have drawn inspiration from the concept of Net Promoter Score to begin to formulate new questions that companies can ask customers to help gauge their customer success efforts. For example:

  • To what extent does the service supplier make an extra effort to understand your business objectives?
  • To what extent does the supplier help you to achieve your business goals?
  • To what extent does the supplier bring a “how can I help” mindset to each encounter?
  • How likely is it that you would recommend the supplier to a friend or colleague?

Related article: New Field Service KPI: How Well Are You Optimizing Your Customer Relationships?

Customer Success Strategies and Best Practices

Let’s look at some tangible customer success strategies, tips and takeaways.

  • Meet with customers to discuss how to best align your goals with theirs. We recommend doing this early in any new relationship and fine-tuning your approach along the way.
  • Schedule periodic check-ins with your customers. This is an increasingly common strategy among customer success managers.
  • Listen to your clients. We mean really listen, especially when they are offering information or responding to your questions about how you can contribute to their success.
  • Be proactive. Don’t wait for your customers to ask for help.
  • Get everyone in your company to speak with customers. Within reason, of course; but sometimes engaging, say, your production or logistics teams in the dialogue with customers can yield valuable, otherwise unseen insights.
  • Challenge your customers with a new way of thinking. Most customers will appreciate seeing that you are interested in more than just selling, maintaining, fixing, etc., but are truly focused on helping them achieve goals.
  • Provide specialized training for key team members. Making the transition to prioritizing customer success requires new skillsets and a change mindset throughout your organization.
  • Bottom line: Put in the effort to develop a deeper understanding of how you can help your customers get the most out of your products and services to achieve business success.

Benefits of Customer Success Training

As an organization whose mission includes partnering with companies to deliver highly effective customer relationship and customer success training, we have seen the benefits first-hand. Here’s one example:

When a hurricane struck the production site of an electronic sensor manufacturer, it damaged a piece of welding equipment that was critical to their operation. The resulting equipment downtime was causing the sensor manufacturer’s customers to consider moving their orders to competing manufacturers, which would mean significant lost business and the likelihood of losing some customers permanently.

The company that serviced the equipment was focused on their customer’s ultimate success, not just in repairing the damaged equipment. In this instance the service supplier proposed alternate configurations for production lines that, while not ideal, were sufficient to resume production and prevent the potential loss of business.

Consider the example of a service engineer who receives frequent text messages, requesting that he make a site visit to fix something. A common scenario would be to arrive onsite and ask some version of the question “What do you want me to do?”

What if instead, with at least one eye on the bigger picture, he arrived onsite and asked, “How can I help you?”

The shift in mindset and communication here is one small example of how to move from picking away at problems to establishing your team members as trusted advisers who possess the insight to propose more meaningful, high-value solutions.

When it comes to reaping the benefits of an effective, organization-wide approach to customer success, focused training is the key.

If the ideas discussed here sound intriguing and you would like to explore them in greater detail, we hope you’ll reach out to us here at Global Partners Training. We’d love to talk with you about customer success strategies that are attuned to your industry and inspired by the specific goals of your company — and, of course, those of your most important customers!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is customer success and how do you get it?
There are many definitions of customer success. At its core, customer success means systematically linking the measurable outcomes of a customer to a supplier’s products or services. Achieving customer success happens when the supplier can clearly demonstrate that by using their products and/or services the customer “moved the needle” in reaching targeted outcomes.

What are the goals of customer success?
Typical goals for a customer success initiative are to:

  • Differentiate and position the supplier as a trusted partner. This leads to expansion of business with the customer, increased revenue and higher margins as customers clearly see the value added by the supplier.
  • Align all customer-facing personnel around making the customer successful. Sales, service, product development, supply chain and other functions that routinely touch the customer directly or indirectly should understand how they impact the customer’s success and proactively take steps to maximize their impact.

What are the top three strategies for increasing customer success?

  • The starting point for a successful customer success strategy is to recognize that customer success requires a change in thinking and behaving throughout the organization. This involves creating cross-functional customer success teams to provide support in change management, measurement and customer journey mapping.
  • The second key strategy is around measurement and mapping. Customer success requires a clear understanding of those customer “touchpoints” where the supplier can have a positive impact. This is achieved through an analysis called outcome mapping and is essential for creating customer success goals, measures and actions.
  • The third key strategy deals with enabling new skills and behavior, starting with customer frontline employees who have traditionally been transaction-focused. To get your team to think and act as a partner to your customers, they need to embed new skills such as being proactive by anticipating customers’ needs based on an understanding of their big picture. It also requires putting in place agreements that balance the long-term interests of both the customer and the supplier.

What are the most common mistakes in implementing a customer success initiative?

  • Failing to achieve cross-functional alignment. Companies that treat customer success as mostly the responsibility of service or sales, for example, quickly encounter barriers from other departments that have different, sometimes conflicting priorities.
  • Failing to clearly demonstrate how you will impact the customer’s targeted outcomes. To do this, suppliers need to understand which of their customer’s business outcomes and metrics they impact sufficiently enough to move the needle and how they do it.
  • Failing to engage the customer as a partner in the customer success initiative. Making customer success work requires transparency and collaboration between suppliers and customers at all levels, frontline employees as well as senior managers. Unless the customer is committed to transparency and collaboration, customer success will be viewed more as a “premium service” than a high impact business partnership.

How long does it take for a customer success initiative to start showing results?
Getting a customer success initiative up and running requires thoughtful planning and implementation, which takes time. In addition, once customer success strategies and actions have been put in place, time is also needed to demonstrate progress and impact. Depending on the size of the organization, a minimum of 9-12 months would be required before a customer success initiative would demonstrate the proven impact needed to indicate success.

That said, there are a number of things that organizations can do to shorten time-to-success and enhance long-term success. These include piloting your initiatives with customers who are already open to the idea of customer success being a customer-supplier partnership rather than simply a premium service. For possible pilot candidates, companies can also look for customers with whom they already have an open and collaborative relationship at multiple levels.

Have questions? Feel free to get in touch with our team here.



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