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What Is the Ideal Customer Success Team Setup for Startups?

What Is the Ideal Customer Success Team Setup for Startups?

For most startups, and particularly SaaS startups, having a strong Customer Success team is crucial for customer retention — and a prosperous future. 

But great Customer Success teams don’t happen by mistake. Startups must intentionally and diligently implement strategies for building and maintaining a first-class Customer Success team — one that will serve both customers and the business well. 

So, how do you get there? What is the ideal Customer Success team setup for startups? We’ll look at some of the key points your business should focus on when creating and managing a thriving Customer Success team.

Know your needs.

First things first: Make a plan. When creating your Customer Success plan, you will need to determine your needs and answer some critical questions. These include:

  • What does “success” mean for your customers?
  • What does a successful relationship between your company and a customer look like?
  • What metrics will help you identify when it’s time to grow your Customer Success team?
  • What can be automated, and what must be handled in person?

Once you understand your business’s specific needs and can answer these questions, you can create a plan that highlights your approach.

Start small and hire smart.

Once you have your roadmap for Customer Success, it’s time to put the team together.

According to Nick Mehta, the founder and CEO of Gainsight and an early champion of Customer Success, companies should hire Customer Success Managers (CSMs) when they have reached 15 to 25 employees. However, depending on your business, product, and customer demographic, this may need to happen sooner. 

When you determine the point at which your startup needs to take on dedicated Customer Success employees, it’s crucial to hire smart. You need team players who can communicate clearly — not only about your product, but also about your customers’ goals.

Mehta says he considers what qualities a CSM should have based on whether the product is a horizontal or vertical solution with a high or low average sales price. For example:

  • If you’re selling a horizontal solution with a high average sales price (ASP), you want a CSM who is adaptable to a broad range of customer types and needs. 
  • For a vertical solution with a high ASP, meanwhile, you’ll need a CSM with extensive domain expertise; you may even find this talent within your customer base. 
  • A horizontal solution with low ASP requires what Mehta defines as “hunger.” This person will quickly acquire the knowledge and skills they need to thrive and grow into a top performer.
  • For a vertical solution with low ASP, the best CSM is likely someone with a specialized technical background. 
A framework for identifying talent for your first CSM hires
  Horizontal Solution Vertical Solution
High ASP

Strategic

(often ex-consultant)

Domain expert

(often hired from domain)

Low ASP

Hungry

(often first position in tech)

Technical

(often from SE/IT)

Image source

Set up your system.

You’ve created your Customer Success plan and you know what qualities you want in Customer Success hires. Now is a prime time to consider what processes can be automated. This is key: It allows you to use simple tools to carry the weight of certain tasks, which in turn helps maintain your budget by not over-hiring and keeps your team focused on the areas in which their skills are best utilized.

What should you automate? The amount you automate should be determined by the nature of your customer base and the tools at your disposal. For example, HubSpot built its Customer Success model based on the buyer’s journey the company mapped to the target buyer personas identified in its planning phase. 

HubSpot suggests asking these questions to determine what can be automated:

  • What is the desired outcome at each step in the customer's journey?
  • What would benefit the customer most at each step?
  • At what step(s) is your product or service falling short?
  • At what point could your competitors influence your customers?
  • How will you track customers who are unhappy with their progress in the customer journey?

Scale when you must.

Before scaling Customer Success, be clear on how you want the organizational structure to function. There is no hard-and-fast rule for this: Growth Consultant and Customer Success specialist Lincoln Murphy says, “It doesn’t really matter where Customer Success reports … culture comes first, and then structure.” Scaling will be much easier if you have repeatable processes in place as part of the system you set up. 

A few core business metrics can determine what will trigger scaling. Dave Blake, a former Adobe executive and the CEO and founder of ClientSuccess, recommends the following as important considerations:

  • Product complexity: The more complex the product, the fewer accounts each CSM should manage.
  • Volume of customers per CSM: Each CSM can only manage so many accounts proactively. Blake says he prefers to keep each to 25 to 35 accounts, with a limit of 50, unless automation is in play.
  • Annual contract value (ACV) target per CSM: In addition to the volume of customer accounts per CSM, also consider distributing accounts based on the ACV that the accounts represent, with some allowances/exceptions for strategic or relationship-oriented accounts.

And don’t forget your budget: To keep scaling cost-effective, consider the benefits of remote teams and offshoring. For example, you can hire two offshore team members for the cost of one in your local market, allowing you to double your support while slowing your cash burn.

Honor your specific needs.

The makeup and structure of an ideal Customer Success team will vary between startups. Use the lessons and research of those who have had success to pave the way for your journey, but know that your path will be — and should be — uniquely yours to walk.

Bolton Remote is an experienced partner to startups at every level who need to streamline their customer success capabilities.

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