Article | 12 min read

Customer success: A guide to what it is and why it matters

Customer success is all about ensuring buyers reach their goals. Create a customer success strategy to increase retention and help your business thrive.

Published June 5, 2017
Last updated September 29, 2022

What if we told you that your company’s success depends on someone else’s success? Well…it does. Your business can’t thrive if your products or services aren’t helping consumers reach their goals. In today’s customer-centric marketplace, the top-performing companies are those that prioritize customer success more than their competitors do.

Customer success is the best way to boost customer happiness. And happy customers, in turn, increase your company’s longevity. In this guide, learn why customer success is important, what a customer success strategy looks like, the responsibilities of a customer success team, and tips for success.

What is customer success?

Customer success is the initiative to make customers love your business so much that they want to continue purchasing your products or services in the long term. It’s all about building strong relationships and understanding customers’ goals. Customer success is where each customer interaction offers opportunities for deeper and more meaningful engagement.

To achieve customer success, your customer success managers and their teams should proactively connect with your customers throughout their lifecycle with your company.

Why is customer success important?

To put it simply: Customer success helps companies succeed. When customer success teams help buyers accomplish their goals, it’s clear that the product or service provides value for users. As a result, it:

  • Strengthens the relationship
  • Builds trust
  • Leads to higher satisfaction

Customer success interactions also allow companies to collect valuable information about their audience. The more teams learn about their clients and their needs, the better they’re able to deliver quality experiences and create a healthier customer lifecycle.

Your business success is tied to your customers—through sales, revenue, and retention. Happy, loyal buyers often become brand advocates and rave about your company through product reviews, social media posts, and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Who needs a customer success strategy?

If your company has a customer base, it’s important to have a built-out customer success strategy. A customer success strategy is a major growth driver for businesses, especially as competition increases and other businesses adopt these strategies.

It’s crucial to keep your current clients happy and retain them versus spending more to acquire new ones.

Customer success vs. customer service vs. customer experience

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While there are some similarities and overlaps, customer success shouldn’t be confused with other teams and groups that deal with customer service and experience.

All the roles within customer experience focus on making the customer happy, but each has specific responsibilities, whether it’s onboarding and education, addressing questions and requests, or developing new strategies based on feedback. Learn more about these differences below:

Customer success

Customer success centers on helping customers become confident, knowledgeable users who can then use a company’s products or services to crush their goals. It focuses solely on customer objectives, long-term growth, and satisfaction.

  • Key responsibilities: Onboarding, educating, customer support, retention, and churn management.
  • Why it’s essential: It helps businesses build a loyal customer base.

Customer service

Customer service is all about supporting customers in their discovery, use, optimization, and troubleshooting of a product or service. Support agents often answer questions about product features, resolve short-term problems, and provide information about technical issues.

Customer success teams aim to anticipate their clients’ needs and offer strategic guidance before they ever need to contact support.

  • Key responsibilities: Addressing customer needs and pain points, responding to customer questions, and resolving queries.
  • Why it’s essential: It helps businesses retain customers.

Customer experience

Customer experience (CX) teams focus on individual touchpoints along the customer journey. They evaluate where there may be issues and how to make every interaction the best it can be.

Customer success teams, meanwhile, hone in on the end result of that journey—they’re working to deliver the desired outcome and improve their client’s bottom line.

  • Key responsibilities: Developing processes and tools to understand customers, analyzing customer feedback, and creating new customer experiences.
  • Why it’s essential: It helps businesses learn more about their customers and meet their needs.

Customer success vs. account management

Similar to customer success and support teams, account managers strive to help customers who reach out for help on a case-by-case basis. But they are not the same roles.

Account managers’ main goal is to bring revenue in—they tend to focus on money rather than customer satisfaction. However, this can differ depending on whether a company is B2B or B2C; a lot of times, B2B “customers” are referred to as “accounts.”

Customer success teams also stress the importance of revenue, but it’s not their primary concern.

Key responsibilities of a customer success team

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The role of the customer success team is to ensure buyers achieve their goals with a company’s products or services. This results in better customer experiences and strong relationships—leading to business growth and additional recurring revenue. Below are several of the responsibilities that help customer success teams make an impact.

Provide personalized customer experiences

Customer success teams aim to connect with customers on a deeper level and provide personalized customer experiences. They treat buyers like VIPs and help them create a customized strategy to reach their goals, making each client feel valued and boosting customer loyalty.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022, more than 60 percent of consumers say they now have higher customer service standards after the past year, and 90 percent will spend more with companies that personalize the customer service they offer.

The message is loud and clear: Consumers demand a tailored, top-quality experience—and they’re willing to spend more to get it.

Improve retention

Customer success departments also strive to increase retention rates. Customers are less likely to leave if they have a dedicated partner helping them maximize value and meet their long-term goals with your products or services.

A Gartner study showed that “the average probability that [a] customer would stay [with a company] when presented with an opportunity to switch was 82 percent after a value-enhancing service interaction.”

Lingopie, a subscription-based language learning application, is a great example of how this plays out. By focusing on client success, listening to customers, and delivering value, Lingopie reached a retention rate of 79 percent after four months—which was higher than other subscription apps like Netflix and Disney+.

Find opportunities to cross-sell and upsell

Customer success teams focus on forging relationships, so they’re in an ideal position to cross-sell and upsell. While a pitch from your sales team can easily come across as pushy, a recommendation from your trusted success rep can sound like a solution.

Your team should only suggest products when they can truly solve a customer’s challenge or help them grow. So, coach your customer success managers (CSMs) on the strategic thinking skills needed to pinpoint the customer’s actual needs. Teach them how to approach their suggestions genuinely. You can also consider creating a cross-selling/upselling “decision tree.”

Pass insights to product and engineering teams

A customer success team is responsible for providing customer feedback and insights to the product and engineering teams, too.

If a customer is unhappy with their experience or the product, they’re likely to pass that along to the customer success manager. Alternatively, they can send positive feedback that confirms a new product or update is useful, for example. It’s the responsibility of the customer success team to interpret customer feedback and requests and turn them into helpful insights for your business.

Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022

Good customer service can yield great results and boost a company’s success. Read our report to learn how to keep up and turn your customer service into an engine for growth.

How does customer success work?

Although your specific approach will depend on your company size, resources, and objectives, there are a few steps all businesses should take when implementing a customer success program.

Step 1: Craft a customer success strategy

Building out a strategy is crucial to customer success and forming lasting relationships with buyers. Ensure you also map out your customer success lifecycle, which can then help you construct the appropriate model for your business.

Not sure where to start when crafting your strategy? Use these questions as a guide:

  • Which communication channels do my customers prefer?
  • What type of content does my customer base enjoy?
  • What does the current customer experience look like?
  • How can customer success impact the experience of existing customers?

Step 2: Get customer success software that connects with your CRM

You must be able to monitor user activity and trends. Effective CRM software can generate data-driven reports and predict customer behavior, helping your team identify solutions to problems before they arise.

Step 3: Shift customer relationship-building tactics from reactive to proactive

When you quickly show users the value of your product or service, you keep them engaged. You can achieve this by walking new clients through the onboarding process and ensuring they implement your offerings effectively.

Step 4: Hire customer success specialists

Within a customer success team, you’ll want individuals who have experience in customer service. The number of specialists you need to hire depends on the size of your business.

Remember to grow your customer success team as your company expands so your customer base can remain well-served.

6 tips for building a customer success strategy

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Developing a customer success strategy is critical for the best results. Keep these six tips in mind as you move forward with creating and implementing your strategy.

1. Form a dedicated customer success team

Customer success starts by forming the right team of people who are all-in for your clients. This team should be separate from customer service, account management, and other similar customer-centric departments.

  • For a small business: A customer success team may be a strategic hire of just one specially trained customer support representative.
  • For software as a service (SaaS) companies, enterprises, or subscription-based businesses: Customer success should become a larger department with team members dedicated to specific accounts. You’ll also need CSMs who lead your team and are responsible for your buyers’ long-term victories with your products or services.

Keep in mind that it’s important to have a diverse team—in all aspects. When team members come from varied backgrounds and experiences, they bring different skill sets and perspectives to the table. This diversity enables your CSMs to be more innovative and creative when helping clients.

2. Diagnose problem areas and replicate wins for your customers

After your rock-star team is in place, you can leverage technology to pinpoint your customers’ big wins and stumbling blocks to success. When you identify the problem areas, you can offer personalized solutions.

Do the following to determine where you’re excelling and where you need to improve:

  • Review customer complaints: Ask support agents and other customer-facing departments to log client interactions and note common customer complaints and frustrations. A CRM is helpful here. It allows you to track interactions in real time, share information across teams, and more.
  • Dive into the data: Remember that a recurring issue may have nothing to do with your product or service. The problem could be relatively simple but incredibly annoying to your customers. (Think consistent billing issues.)
  • Get insights from successful customers: Figure out what’s going well with these customers. You can hone in on what they love so much and begin replicating that consistently.

Once you’re aware of the highs and lows, your team can use that information as the foundation for a strong customer success strategy.

3. Get everyone to buy into the customer success process

Customer success must be a company-wide initiative. The most impactful way to do this is to create a customer-centric culture that starts at the top and trickles down.

A key part of securing support from C-level executives and leadership is sharing the benefits of your customer-centric efforts with them regularly. It’ll be hard for execs to ignore your endeavors when they see the direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

Once leadership is engaged, it’s much easier to get the rest of the company on board. Team leaders can spearhead many things, such as:

  • Customer success initiatives
  • The approval of new policies
  • Product changes that improve the customer experience

This customer-centric mentality will naturally spread across the rest of the company.

4. Make sure the onboarding process is proactive

A comprehensive onboarding process with plenty of educational materials ensures that any new customer will start on the right foot and receive helpful information about your business, products, and services. With a strong onboarding process, the customer will quickly see how the product or service can benefit them or fit their needs, and they’ll learn how to use it effectively.

For example, you may want to offer:

  • Video kick-off calls for paying customers.
  • In-app, checklist-style onboarding for free trial customers.

Just make sure you don’t overload the customer with information—everything should be digestible yet informative.

5. Choose your customers selectively

In a customer success strategy, you shouldn’t try to target every potential customer—make sure you’re being selective. Look for the type of customers that have the highest likelihood of success, not just the ones that are ready to use your services or products.

Being selective with your customer base will help you tailor your messaging to them and better address their needs.

6. Start a referral program

If you’ve fostered successful relationships with your current customers, use them to your advantage to help attract new ones. Consider starting a referral program that rewards those who support your service or product—for example, giving an existing customer a free trial or a free month of service for every new customer they refer.

Customer success means business success

Customer success is vital to your organization’s long-term growth. The most important first step is defining customer success for your business and making customer happiness a company goal. With the right customer service solution, you can take the next step toward business success.

Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022

Good customer service can yield great results and boost a company’s success. Read our report to learn how to keep up and turn your customer service into an engine for growth.

Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022

Good customer service can yield great results and boost a company’s success. Read our report to learn how to keep up and turn your customer service into an engine for growth.

Get the free report