The Next Era of Customer Success and Why It Will Become the De Facto Operating Model for Every Enterprise

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Welcome to The Digital Experience Report, your source for news, analysis, and insights on the ExTech (Experience Technologies) market and all things related to the Digital Experience.

In this report, I explore the depths of an evolving view of customer success with Gainsight, GuideCX, Rocketlane, and Productboard. Also new studies from Observe.ai and Talkdesk take separate looks at AI in the contact center. Plus news from Konnecto, Salesforce, Mendix, Talkdesk, Medallia, Workato, Gtmhub, Happeo, and Workvivo.

The Next Era of Customer Success and Why It Will Become the De Facto Operating Model for Every Enterprise

I remember putting on my suit, checking in the mirror that everything was just so, and walking downstairs to open my store. Before I did, I made sure that everything was arranged perfectly and had the correct price. I was ready.

The customer stepped in, browsed for a few moments, and then purchased my most expensive item: a large, beautiful sea shell I found on a trip to the beach.

I rang up the sale and closed up the shop. My work was done.

Of course, I was seven, my customer was my grandmother, and I’m pretty sure she was the one that had taken me to the beach to collect the shells in the first place!

Mere moments after I had made my big sale, I had changed into my play clothes and was in the backyard throwing a baseball with my brother. The sale had been made. There was nothing more to do.

While not nearly as cute and endearing (if I do say so myself), this paradigm of the customer engagement ending once the sale has been made has been the norm for most organizations for as long as most of them have existed. Sure, there was always a customer support team or contact center, but their job was to minimize the cost and disruption to the company. It was the cost of doing business, but the business was done when the sale had been made.

Boy, have things changed.

As the experience economy has roared to life, many organizations are coming to terms with the fact that the sale is the beginning of the customer journey rather than the end of it. This fact is plainly true for software-as-a-service and other technology companies that use recurring revenue models, and for the wildly diverse new crop of subscription services that include everything from entertainment streaming services to razors (shout out to Harry’s!).

But surprisingly, it’s become just as crucial for more traditional enterprises as consumers now expect this sort of ongoing relationship and engagement with every organization with whom they spend money or time.

Unsurprisingly, this evolution of how organizations engage with their customers after the sale has led to a new discipline and several technology categories to go with it. It’s affectionately called customer success, because who doesn’t want their customers to be successful?

However, despite the fact that this entire sector is only a few years old, it’s already morphing and evolving. I believe we are ushering in a new era of customer success that will challenge its traditional boundaries.

My Accidental Exploration of the Customer Success Evolution

The irony of my writing this particular Digital Experience Report is that when I first sketched out what I’m calling the ExTech Market, Customer Success wasn’t even on my radar.

But as I was writing about the customer and employee experience, the importance of customer journeys, and why organizations needed to reimagine the role of the digital experience, the discipline and technology category of customer success kept popping up.

Part of the reason it wasn’t on my radar is that customer success — in all of its incarnations, as I’ll get to in a moment — has been focused almost exclusively on tech companies. Of course, this makes sense. While various subscription business models have long existed, digital software and services mainstreamed this approach, capturing billions in revenue almost overnight as they burst onto the scene.

And just as quickly, these tech companies realized that they had an all-new problem to worry about: customer churn.

Closing the shop and putting on your play clothes was no longer enough. They had to keep their customer happy. They had to make sure they stayed happy. And they needed to ensure their customers successfully used their solution to create business value.

Companies like Gainsight stepped into this space, arguably creating the category of customer success as they educated their new clients on how to continually, deliberately, and proactively engage with customers to reduce churn.

By all accounts, it’s been incredibly effective.

But as my accidental exploration continued, I found that while the traditional approach to customer success may be the foundation, several other players emerging in adjacent categories are reshaping how I’m looking at the entire sector.

Customer Success Begins with Onboarding

The first stop on my evolution tour was in the emerging category of customer onboarding platforms.

As anyone who has ever purchased and deployed a major piece of enterprise technology will know, the deployment is where everything is either going to go right or really, really, wrong.

When I first met with GuideCX, one of the two primary players in this space, I remember being shocked that no one had developed this software category until now.

Onboarding platforms are essentially purpose-built project management tools. What makes them unique, however, is that they begin with the premise that it is a project executed between two parties and, therefore, is built to allow intricate collaboration and communication, while enabling the provider to control access to sensitive elements during the deployment.

While GuideCX primarily focuses on the mechanics of this delivery and creating a pleasant experience during it, its primary competitor, Rocketlane, focuses heavily on the collaboration, customer-centricity, and repeatability aspects of onboarding.

The company puts a lot of emphasis on branding and customer interactions. For instance, it enables extensive interface customization, integrates with Salesforce to pull in deal-related data, and has innovative elements such as a native customer satisfaction measurement capability.

What is central to both of these players — and this category overall — is the direct and consequential relationship between a successful customer onboarding and the lifelong value of a customer and their experience as a result.

But Shouldn’t We Just Build Better Experiences into the Product Itself?

As I’ve continued my exploration, I found that this expansion of the customer success mindset goes even deeper.

Also embracing the ethos of design thinking, customer-centricity, and an outside-in perspective, the folks at Productboard are bringing this idea of customer success back to its roots. Its mission is to help product managers improve products based on customer feedback and usage intelligence.

Productboard is part of another new technology category focused on serving the product management function. And much like onboarding platforms, this new category has many of the trappings of project management software. What separates Productboard from simple project management tools is its focus on the relationship between product management and the customer’s needs, wants, and desires.

That sounds like it should be an obvious connection point, but according to Productboard, most product management teams had no tools to manage their work whatsoever — let alone a tool that was customer-centric at its core.

While product management is not usually considered part of the customer success lifecycle, Productboard’s approach essentially brings the customer success lifecycle full circle by ensuring that product issues identified during onboarding and customer success initiatives improve in the next product release.

Why Customer Success Will Permeate Every Enterprise

When I spoke to the team at GuideCX, the first thing that came to mind was that there was a much broader use case than just tech companies managing software deployments. As I saw it, any company that had to deliver a complex solution to a customer would benefit from this approach to onboarding.

I had similar aha moments when talking to the teams at Gainsight and Productboard. After all, shouldn’t all enterprises have teams dedicated to ensuring that their customers are successful? And shouldn’t all enterprises take a product-oriented approach to development and ensure that the customer is at the center of that process?

Of course, the answer is yes. And I think it’s only a matter of time until mainstream enterprises adopt these practices at scale. In fact, each company I spoke with for this report is already seeing non-tech use cases grow, with some already representing as much as 20% of their customer base.

All of this adds up to what I’m calling the next era of customer success.

It will be a time in which two things happen. First, we will see organizations adopt a more holistic and expansive view of the customer success lifecycle, encompassing everything from onboarding to product management, with all of the traditional customer success and support functions serving as the foundation in the middle.

Second, this expanded view of customer success will become the de facto operating model for every enterprise and across nearly all product and service use cases — digital and analog. Customers will simply accept no less.

And as far as I’m concerned, it cannot happen fast enough.

Are You a DXO?

If you’re an enterprise executive that understands the critical role that the digital experience plays in creating value in the modern enterprise, then you’re a Digital Experience Officer — or DXO — and you should be a part of our DXO Council. 

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Image credits: vectorjuice


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About the author 

Charles Araujo

Charles Araujo is a technology analyst and internationally recognized authority on the Digital Enterprise, the Digital Experience and the Future of Work. Researching Digital Transformation for over 10 years, he is now focused on helping leaders transform their organizations around the digital experience and to reimagine the future of work. Publisher and principal analyst of The Digital Experience Report, founder of The Institute for Digital Transformation, co-founder of The MAPS Institute, and author of three books, he is a sought-after keynote speaker and advisor to technology companies and enterprise leaders.

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