brian kaminski
Sonciary Honnoll

Sonciary Honnoll

The 2021 Outlook for Customer Success (It’s Good!)

We don’t need to tell you what 2020 was like for customer success leaders; it’s still fresh in our memories. But we do want to talk about how the events of last year will play out for CS leaders in 2021.

And (surprise!) the news is good.

We did extensive research and also talked with Brian Kaminski, Chief Customer Officer at Conversica, maker of Intelligent Virtual Assistants, to share insights and advice on the trends to watch for this year—and how these trends might benefit your brand, your team, and your customers.

SaaS Brands Will Go from Good Customer Success to Great Customer Success

How do you grow a business amid a chaotic world around you?

That question has sparked what Kaminski called a “tipping point” between the first wave and second wave of Customer Success for SaaS companies. The first wave was simply implementing Customer Success in the company; the second wave will be all about doing Customer Success well — as a key driver of revenue growth and valuation.

Businesses that are lacking in leads and sales will need to focus on expanding their current base by encouraging customer renewals and luring back old customer contacts who have moved on to new jobs in this uncertain economy.

This is no easy feat, but brands that value the “human touch” in Customer Success will have less of a challenge. “CX teams reported that customers valued empathetic service above all other customer service attributes during the pandemic,” reports Forbes. “Consumers want to be treated like a valued customer, with real thoughts, emotions, feedback, and values.”

Customers Will Keep Moving Toward the Edges

Many SaaS customers are gravitating in one of two directions: they either expect high-level, hands-on service or they’re using the company’s self-help content.

“We have doubled down on our white-glove, strategic service for big enterprise customers,” says Kaminski. “And then we have customers for whom we’ve ramped up our automated digital content. And the customers in the middle—in our business and at many other businesses—are starting to erode to either side.”

In a survey of 250 customer service and support leaders, Gartner confirmed that self-service has been growing; some of the most common technologies these leaders have invested in are web chat, chatbots/virtual customer assistants, and customer-facing channels like self-service.

And the telecom consulting firm Analysis Mason predicts that the pandemic will accelerate communications service providers’ investments into self-service functions. This will “both reduce the cost of operations and improve the customer experience by giving end-users greater control over their interactions,” the company reports. This prediction is likely to hold for many other industries as well.

brian kaminski quote

Customers Will Feel the Power

As more customers are asking for self-help options, customer success teams are answering the call through learning resources and tools such as online universities. “Learning and development used to live somewhere between Customer Success and Product,” says Kaminski. “But now I think it’s made a full evolution out of Product and into Customer Success.” Conversica has an enablement team that’s building out an online university for both its employees and its customers.

Advanced communities are another way customer success teams are encouraging and enabling self-learning. In fact, 40% of online communities surveyed by the member engagement firm Higher Logic said that due to COVID their community plans have “accelerated” or “significantly accelerated.”

If you’re interested in putting these ideas to work, check out our article How to Build a Community Around Your SaaS Brand, where we go into detail on the benefits of creating a community, how to get started—from defining your audience to choosing a platform—and how to grow your community when you’re ready. (You may also want to check out Quala’s Humans of Customer Success community!)

Customer Success Leaders Will Face a Shifting Landscape

The business environment isn’t the only thing changing: 2020 was a big year for job changes due to COVID-related layoffs. And Kaminski says he saw many customer success leaders who had succeeded at one company fail when they moved to another one because they weren’t able to adapt to the recent shifts in CS.

Some Customer Success leaders are used to pegging their practices and milestones to what they see happening with other companies, but many SaaS companies are realizing that new hires using old ways might struggle on this new playing field.

For example, “I had somebody the other day who asked why we don’t offer 24/7/365 customer support,” Kaminski says. “I told them it’s because I look at my ticket data…and my ticket data doesn’t show that I get tickets outside of these certain windows.” Around-the-clock support is just one older customer success philosophy that’s been changing, and new CSM hires need to stay on top of these shifts to thrive.

Kaminski adds, “The challenge that we’re going to face over the next couple of years is being comfortable with a lot of different POVs and understanding that while there’s a lot of common DNA to Customer Success if you overplay that common DNA your program is not going to land.”

If you or a team member is one of these CSMs who is struggling to adapt, you’ll get a lot out of our audio interview and article Justin Veri Encourages Leaders to “Always Be Gauging.” Justin recommends that you “always understand if the approach you’re taking at this moment, for this engagement, for this customer is the right one.”

Remote Working Will Expand the Customer Success Talent Pool

It’s a classic good news-bad news-good news scenario.

The good news: Supply & Demand Chain Executive magazine says that while COVID is impacting some industries, SaaS might come out as COVID-19’s greatest survivor. Since it doesn’t rely on a physical supply chain, logistics, or in-person customers, it hasn’t been as affected by the crisis. Not to mention, with so many people now working remotely, SaaS offerings have become even more essential.

The bad news: “There’s a real battle for talent at the CSM and professional service ranks,” says Kaminsky. Even in mid-2019, Forbes reported that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented skilled labor shortage—and CSM Practice reports that 30% of customer success organizations planned to hire additional CSMs during the pandemic.

More good news: Forrester predicts that remote work will triple from pre-COVID levels in 2021. More than 80% of office workers want to keep working remotely after the pandemic subsides, and over 70% of executives say remote working has been a success, according to PWC.

For SaaS companies looking to scale their customer success team, the remote working trend offers a much wider pool of potential hires. You can now expand your search beyond your local area to find the perfect talent.

Customer Success Will Help Struggling Customers Recover

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected different industries in different ways—so you may see some of your customers growing so quickly that they can’t hire new employees fast enough, while others are barely hanging on.

“We bucketed our customers and built different playbooks to engage with customers differently [depending on their situation],” says Kaminski.”We had to change our attitude; it’s hard to approach a customer whose world is collapsing around them and talk to them about adopting more product. We had to spend a lot of time being very empathetic and aware, and we’ll continue to do that.”

As for the future, says Kaminski, “A lot of 2021 and 2022 is going to be about understanding customers, where they are in various states of recovery, and where your solution can be helpful for them in that recovery.”

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