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Want to make Customer Success Management successful? Give it to Presales

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that the customer rules. It’s not enough to be customer-focused or customer-centric. You have to be customer-obsessed. 

So you would think that out of all the departments in a B2B software company, Customer Success Management (CSM) would set the standard for excellence. The word “‘customer”’ is in the name after all. And “‘customer success,”’ who could be against that?

The thing is, there’s a big difference between customer success and Customer Success Management. Customer success is everything. It’s the ballgame. The Customer Success Management department though — in fact the entire CSM role: I’m convinced it has to change. It needs to become part of Presales.

The Catch-22

I know. It’s a big statement. Hear me out. 

Consider the typical revenue team. Very roughly speaking, Sales is responsible for the presale customer relationship and negotiating the terms of the deal. Presales team members create pilots and demos that prove the product is a good fit. Services handle custom development needed to take the project into production. Then, and only then, do customer success managers (CSMs) step in. 

CSM is the newest member of the revenue team created to serve the needs of the SaaS business model. In traditional software licensing, the focus was (and is) on securing new customers. The SaaS model focused more on reupping existing customers and getting them to expand their business. SaaS companies reasoned that in addition to Sales, which brought in new customers, they needed a new department, Customer Success Management, to make existing customers smash the Renew button every year.

It sounds like a good idea. In a way it was a good idea. But the devil is in the details. The hard truth is, CSMs aren’t equipped to accomplish the mission they’ve been given. They don’t have the client-management savvy of good sales reps, nor the product knowledge and technical chops of the Presales and Services teams.  

All they can do—all they’re really hired to do—is spot problems and connect customers with other skilled teams. If they see the customer isn’t adopting the product, they’ll bring in Product Management. If the customer complains about a botched deployment, they call in Services. 

But no one on those teams wants to be involved with customers. Salespeople and Presales engineers are compensated for closing deals. Time they spend on existing customers is time taken away from the work they’re actually compensated for. 

The result? The unequipped (CSMs) leading the uncommitted (everyone else). It’s hardly a recipe for customer success. 

And it’s not the fault of the CSMs. They’re working with the most savvy and educated consumers the company sells to: their existing customers, people who know the software inside and out, and whose BS detectors are highly tuned. 

How do you influence a prospect like that? Not by acting as a message-taker. You have to be a trusted advisor. You have to really understand the technology. You have to have rolled up your sleeves and worked with the customer’s engineers side by side. In other words, you basically need the skill set of Presales. 

Presales people know the customer, and they know the technology. They can tell when a customer isn’t getting the best use from a product. They’ll notice if new features aren’t working as billed. Ideally they have a direct line back to the product team, so they can fix anything that isn’t working and develop new features customers need. They have what it takes to make customers successful over the long run.

The sales process without CSM

But getting the skills right is one part of the solution. The other part is making customer success part of the sales process. Right now, it’s anything but.

Long-term customer success is the CSMs job. No one on the sales team thinks they need to worry about it.  Salespeople are paid to sell. It’s always going to be their first priority. It’s not that they make things up. They’re just — optimistic. Maybe they make customization sound easier than it is. Or they put too much weight on a partnership that’s more hype than reality (“Sure, we integrate with SAP; haven’t you seen the press release?”). Or they sell the solution for a use case the product wasn’t designed for. Once Sales sniffs revenue in the water, things can get out of hand. And Presales isn’t so different. Like Sales they’re incentivized to close the deal, not think too far into the future.

The future

So how do you solve that problem? I think you do it by transforming CSM from a department into a discipline that informs the entire customer lifecycle and then putting Presales on point.   

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.  

At least one department at Google has essentially combined Sales, Presales and Customer Success into a single role, putting the same person in charge of sales, deployment and adoption. Compensation reflects that mix of responsibilities, with part tied to booking new business, another part to customer retention and adoption. The downside of this approach is that it requires employees with an unusual mix of skills. It seems to work well for Google, but might not be scalable for businesses that don’t have their pick of the Stanford graduating class.

Another approach is the one used at cloud data warehouse Snowflake, where they’ve aligned Presales, Sales, and Customer success in an innovative way: no one is comped when the deal closes. Rather, all teams get their money when the customer uses the product.

Because payouts depend on product usage rather than a signed contract, everyone on the team has an incentive to make sure the customer is successful—not just before the sale, but throughout onboarding and enablement. “We’re seeing a true evolution of the Presales role due to their ability to add value at every point in the process,” stated Eve Besant, Snowflake’s WW of Sales Enablement in a recent presentation at the Presales Collective Executive Summit.

Google and Snowflake are in the vanguard right now, but I would go even further. I would have Presales absorb CSM. I think it’s inevitable. As we’ve seen, Presales is the one department with the skillset to truly deliver customer success. I think some enterprising CRO is going to try it, become wildly successful, and be featured as a visionary in case studies for a decade.

That’s not to minimize the challenge of folding CSM into Presales at a company “in flight.” It might mean increased payroll costs. CSM leaders and CSMs themselves won’t be happy. No one likes losing a fiefdom. 

But from a CRO’s perspective, the trouble is more than worth the payoff in improved customer satisfaction, retention and renewal rates. I would argue that CSM has never been as effective as it could be because businesses never really restructured around the CSM function. They tried to keep Sales, Presales and Product more or less as they were in the traditional licensing model, without considering the effects of adding CSM to the mix.

You can understand why. Change is hard. And CSM is important. But the fact is, a business will never hit its CSM goals, and can’t consider itself truly customer obsessed, unless it puts Customer Success Management in the hands of the people who can do it best.

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