Do you remember the switch five or so years ago? When all of a sudden your customer support team was now called your customer, or client, success team? When service account managers were now called client success managers (CSM)? Lots of people jumped on the bandwagon to rename their customer support teams, but what they didn’t do was change the fundamentals of how each customer is cared for – the core of what it really means to be part of “customer success.”

Last week I sat down with Luke Smith, Act-On’s Regional Director of Mid Market Sales. We chatted about what client success truly means, how that is materialized in the sales cycle and beyond, and what it means for the different departments within an organization. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, with key takeaways that capture what Luke believes to be the crucial elements of building customer success.


What does “customer success” mean to you as a sales person?


Customer success is really what we’re all looking for. It’s our income, career advancement, daily attitude, credibility, and more. It’s what makes the time we spend – being the best we can be – worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s enabling the people that buy our products to be as successful as possible so we can retain them for a lifetime, and increase the total lifetime value of that customer. When we sell a new business deal, we want to make sure we’re capturing as much revenue as we can for as long as we can.

We all have the same goal in mind: to make sure the customer is as successful as possible. And in this environment, more companies must provide additional focus on the success of the customer.

This picture is a quote from Act-On’s Luke Smith speaking about the importance of customer success for sales teams.


When you say “this environment,” what do you mean?


I mean the nature of the business world. It’s more competitive than ever. Why don’t companies have a hyper focus on the success of their customers? A lot of organizations have a hyper focus on selling new business and making sure that they’re fixing and updating their product – which is really important. But, at the end of the day, what’s the most important is the success of the customer.

I recently participated on a panel about this topic; we discussed customer service vs. customer success.

What “customer service” means is that we’re going to wait until a customer has a problem and then we’re going to accept a call from that customer and we’re going to help fix the problem. That’s fine, but risky in terms of potentially losing the customer. What about the success measurement of that customer? Success should not be measured in how well we help the customer as soon as there’s a problem. Success should be measured based on the level of success a customer is experiencing right now versus their potential success.

This is the gap that a lot of companies are looking to fix – the companies that are aware of the gap and are proficient in customer success are the frontrunners, the top performers, the thought leaders. These companies are implementing ways to go from a reactive “customer service” model to a proactive “customer success” model. They are asking, how can we get people utilizing our solution the way that it’s intended to be used, proactively, in ways they don’t know how to use it yet?


If onboarding your customers is getting them from Point A to Point B, what would customer success be?


Let’s add some additional layers to the success journey, A to D. A to B is the implementation and training of the product, making sure that we’re satisfying the basic objectives of our customers.

B to C is saying, okay now that we’ve done that, what is the potential for this company? Let’s make sure that, proactively, we’re really making advances on the potential of how can you use the product.

Then the final layer, C to D, we’re asking, what about the people that are affected by the solution? How are we going to train them and enable them, based on of how other companies are performing utilizing the solution? This is about enabling our customers to utilize our solution in a manner to where they now become better at whatever they do.

We actually want to make the people better around the solution as well. That’s what customer success should be.


Is this whole idea of customer success changing the way you’re selling then, too? Does that start from the sales point and go all the way through to the customer success?


That’s a good question. And that’s the question we’re really trying to figure out.

My perspective on that is that sales people need to be involved all the way through, to a certain degree. Sales people originally are the ones that are establishing the relationship and rapport with the individuals that we’re selling to. We understand the goals and objectives set forth, have a vested interest (through commission) to maximize the value of that customer over time, and, ultimately, retaining that customer. So it’s worth considering setting up a compensation model that rewards your sales team for all of those things – not just bringing in customers, but making them successful and retaining them.

But it’s hard to know where (or whether) the sales person’s responsibility ends and the customer success person begins. In that sense, it’s important for the sales person to quarterback the entire relationship and the success of the customer. I feel that it’s a cumulative approach – the sales rep stays involved but you gain a customer success manager.


Are a lot of companies approaching sales and customer success in this way?


Some, but not as many as should be. Too many companies boast about selling a one-year or multi-year deal. These companies feel like they need to call these clients only during the renewal period or whenever an upsell is imminent. That’s the wrong approach.

In order to get more from that customer and to be able to retain that customer, we need to be sure they’re maximizing value from the solution, and their people are also becoming better because of it. You’re then creating a lifelong client, rather than a short-term client.


What’s the benefit of taking this kind of customer success approach? What does it bring back to you?


It brings back quite a lot. Every company wants more dollars, more revenue. A lot of companies have growth ambitions. A lot of companies work very hard to be able to sign a customer only to have those customers leave after an initial term. What’s the point of that? How can we retain that revenue and make sure that when we sign a new customer we’re keeping that revenue for the long term? The more you give, the more you get. I’m a firm believer in that.

How the brand plays


Your brand is another huge piece of this. What are people saying about you? Are people saying, yeah, they provided top-tier technology, but they didn’t call me until my renewal? Or are people saying, you know what, they provided me a top-tier technology product that I initially thought was good and it solved my issues, but then they started proactively engaging with me, and taught me all these things that I may have not known, and I wouldn’t have been as successful using it if not. And not only that, but they trained my sales team. They trained my marketing team. They were proactive with engaging with my executive leadership team so that now they support what I’m doing moving forward.

When these customers talk about you in their networks, your brand increases, then customer referrals start coming in. Ultimately, you don’t have to work as hard to be able to get leads and opportunities in the system because you literally have your customer base working on your behalf.


Luke, thanks for your time, and thanks for the enlightenment.


It was a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.


Customer success is a new attitude and approach; its key goal is to proactively help your customers get the most out of your partnership, in progressive stages.

But don’t scrap your customer support team just yet. Customer support is still a vital ingredient in the overall success of your customers. Instead, consider having a tiered system when your customers have access to a support team if they have issues, but they are also continuously connected with a customer success team for proactive training and progression.

To learn more about the changing dynamic of sales, marketing, and customer success, check out our eBook – Beyond Sales & Marketing Alignment: Add Customer Success for a Winning Team Trifecta.