From the Experts: Customer Success in the Era of Product-led Growth

By May 27, 2020Blog

Software companies are prone to trends just like every other industry, and lately, “product-led growth” has been a buzzword. At first glance, it may seem that customer success would fall to the wayside if a company wants to use the product itself as its sales tool. 

Experts believe the opposite, though. In our webinar Customer Success in the Era of Product-Led Growth, we talked to CS leaders about their perspective on this strategy. Erica Ayotte and Dan Bonnet weighed in on topics such as:

  • How customer success fits into a product-led growth organization
  • How product-led and customer-centric strategies work together
  • How customer data powers product-led initiatives

Here’s what we learned.

The power of product-led growth lies in shared accountability

Change is a constant in the tech and software world, and it seems that there’s often a new strategy to learn. Erica Ayotte, VP of Customer Success and Support at Privy, shared that she feels like “there’s a new acronym or new strategy rubric that comes out around tech every couple of years. I find that “product-led growth” is the one that people are talking about the most.” 

So what exactly does product-led growth mean? Erica noted that “from my perspective, I’m not sure it’s this huge change in strategy. We’ve seen in tech there’s a lot of freemium products. There’s been a  lot of talk about the consumerization of business applications. Add the very concept of SaaS, by definition, is product-led.” 

“But what I think is different is that there is responsibility and accountability of the product function in funnel metrics like driving free-to-paid subscriptions or customer retention.”

Getting everyone on board with shared metrics is something Erica is excited about. “When your product team shares in that accountability, you’re going to get different outcomes that are more aligned with your organizational goals.” 

Alignment is vital to product-led growth from early stages 

Questions about everyone’s role will arise when you undertake a new strategy, and for some, the impact of customer success in product-led growth is surprising. 

Dan Bonnet, CRO at UserIQ, shared that “in a lot of product-led companies, CS is usually set up before the sales team even comes into the business, which is a little bit of a flip from what some people are used to, like myself.”

Erica added that bringing in a customer-centric department like CS early in a company’s life, when they’re trying to perfect product-market fit, is helpful. 

“Alignment with your peers is super important. And that’s the case for any strategy, but especially in product-led growth where you’re co-owning segments and communication channels with other departments like product, marketing, and sales. So you really have to have clear agreement about where each team has ownership and when you need to consult with another before making a decision and taking action.” 

Are you trying to navigate a new product-led growth strategy? Erica suggests pulling all of the function heads together, especially product, customer success, and sales. She also advises against defining roles and metrics too quickly. 

“You’re in a discovery phase as a business. Whenever you join a company, you have to buckle up and expect a lot of change, but there’s good change and there’s bad change. From my perspective, it’s been much more effective to have steady, incremental change as opposed to wild swings in strategy.” 

Erica’s final piece of tactical advice is about recording customer calls. Not only does having records make call reviews or finding keywords easier, but she also adds that “I have found it’s been really helpful when trying to advocate for customers or the customer perspective internally because then it’s not just you saying it, but hearing the customer say it in their own words with their own voice makes it more visceral and real for teams who are not directly working with customers.”

There’s a learning curve for shared metrics and ownership, though

Dan noted that the metrics each team focuses on differs between product-led and non-PLG companies. 

“In [non-PLG] companies, it’s not as tightly aligned, or there are goals that the product team might have that are dramatically different than those of the CS team. People running in different directions, in the end, move the company nowhere.”

Erica added that “in some ways, a product-led company can put more pressure on a CS team, because if you have a portion of your audience who are self-qualifying, CS is essentially still doing some of the roles of sales.”

Dan echoed Erica’s sentiment by recognizing “you get to a weird situation where you have to figure out who owns a customer in the trial process? Who owns the freemium customer? I’ve seen a lot of different views on that, and not a clear landing place at the different companies that I’ve talked to.”

As more customers qualify themselves and embark on learning about the product on their own, you may also interact with support teams before conversion. 

“You could also say that if your support team is supporting free trial customers, does that actually make a portion of your support team a mini-function of sales in some way? It will be interesting to see where we land as an industry.” Erica added. 

While only time will tell how teams evolve, Erica suspects that “ in these types of organizations, at least a segment of the sales team might start to look very different than the traditional sales team that we have seen in the past. What I mean by that is a team that is much more customer-centric and service-led. It’s really a hybrid of success and sales.”

Customer success becomes more important as the product grows

While a product-led app may begin as a simple, self-service product, it’s likely to evolve.

Dan noted that “usually, a company that was product-led very early on has a small product with minimal features, but then it gets bigger and more complex. Then, they may still think they’re product-led, but it’s tough to be PL with a very complex product and expect somebody to figure it all out from your website.”

In fact, one of the most common misconceptions that Erica has observed around customer success in product-led organizations is that “customers will totally get how to do everything on their own through great product design and self serve resources, and that folks are really great at qualifying themselves.”

A dual approach can help alignment, but you can’t fake culture

The switch to align customer success across other departments and inspire customer-centricity in all teams doesn’t happen overnight. When asked how she would approach inspiring empathy in other departments, Erica had a two-point approach. 

“You need to take an approach that’s both qualitative and quantitative, so the head and the heart. On the one hand, data is usually your friend. You can go to your team and say ‘30% of our support issues are directly related to X,’ or ’25% of our churn in this segment is directly related to Y.’ Then you can make a business decision of ‘hey is this churn issue in a segment that is the best fit for us? If so, let’s work on addressing that issue holistically.’”

Erica once again mentioned sharing customer call recordings or getting product people on calls for the qualitative side of the alignment. 

Dan added that alignment between teams isn’t a one-and-done task. 

“There’s gotta be a lifecycle of expectations at the beginning, then interaction with customers, collecting data, then a calibration process of ‘what do customers actually care about and what’s correlated to retention and churn?’”

Erica also talked about the fact that “there’s a difference between an organization that has a truly customer-centric point of view and one that just says that they do. That sort of alignment around customers has to come from the very top.”

Product teams can help CS work more efficiently

Customer success departments can use their data and insights to help product teams prioritize changes and create relevant roadmaps from the beginning. Additionally, product teams in PLG companies can help CS teams. 

For starters, a great product frees up customer support and success resources for some segments. Erica expressed that “if the UX is so great that support and success aren’t dealing with a million ‘silly’ questions, that frees them up to be more responsive in general, and we can spend more time on strategic issues.”

Working together helps every team do their best work, with less “guess and check” time. 

“It’s all about a commitment to understanding customer pain and customer goals and coming up with ways to solve those issues collaboratively,” Erica said. 

At first glance, the term product-led growth implies that the product’s importance will be raised above all other functions, rendering teams such as customer success obsolete. The reality is quite different, though. A product-led growth organization can embrace cross-team alignment even more, with each department helping one another reach shared goals. 

If you want to learn more about how customer success and product teams can best work together, check out the full webinar Customer Success in the Era of Product-Led Growth here. 

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