I've had my fill of vendors tossing about the phrase "customer success" too casually - so I did something about it.
In my post, Attention vendors - please stop the customer success hype train, unless you have these six proof points, I created a high bar. I don't know of any vendor that's achieved them all, and that includes diginomica.
My hope? We'd quit talking about newly-created "customer success" (re)organizations as finished products. But I had another agenda: what about the inspiring examples? What happens when a vendor truly excels in one (or more) of these areas?
When I asked Where is your publicly-shared benefits maturity model? I already knew of a couple good ones, including the Sage Intacct subscription and SaaS vertical. What David Appel and his team have done here, guiding customers through a SaaS maturity model, is highly instructive - and much of it is in the public domain. When Appel writes about building the ideal tech finance stack, the do's and don'ts, he draws on extensive customer documentation.
It starts with the ability to document individual customer benefits, in an effective slide show format. I wrote about those in 2019: Fall event highlight - Sage Intacct's SaaS industry customers reveal subscription business lessons - and results. Take this example from customer Nasuni, as of 2019:
Let's face it: most slides of this kind are beyond dreary, but this one gets it done. You've got the issues, the before, the action, and the results, including:
- reduced order-to-invoice to 15 minutes - one percent as long as before
- analysis to increase gross margin by + 10 percent
- became ASC-606 compliant, reducing churn and increased ACV
From individual customer benefits to a SaaS maturity model
Individual customer benefits are crucial to document (The do's and don'ts of the customer use case - the bedrock of B2B content strategy). But to really change your customer success program, these individual gains must add up to something else: an aggregated maturity model. Appel's team has accomplished this, via publicly-shared graphics like this one:
During a recent Teams chat, I got more context from Appel. SaaS startups must tread carefully: there are a record number of fundings, and "the money supply has increased 39 percent in the last 18 months." But the danger of the bubble is real. Why does a SaaS maturity model matter? Because it keeps you grounded in reality, not in the trance of (over?) valuation. It keeps you competitive on fundamentals. Appel shared some areas they push customers on:
This whole concept of "data is the new oil," of how you get the reporting out of the back end, to have the analytics to win the space. There's always there's some luck in all this - that's life. But having information to make more educated decisions is far better.
Differentiate in business model and product? That's a must. But it's not necessarily enough anymore. Appel:
There's also a tremendous amount of differentiation in billing, and the customer experience... Most of the wood behind the arrow is enabling all those billing scenarios, because it's in one tech stack.
If we're going to talk maturity models, we must speak to results. So, Mr. Appel, give us your best pitch?
We handle over 300 different types of subscription billing scenarios. We produce investor metrics against that up to 80 percent faster, and 40 percent off what it would cost if you bought the FinOps tech stack parts separately... We had 26 IPOs of Sage Intacct SaaS customers last year.
Verticals and customer success - metrics and community
Hammering out success metrics is vital. Here, Appel credits the guidance of two accredited investment firms, Bessemer Venture Partners and KeyBanc Capital Markets ("They're telling us from all their investor road shows what to do, then we're productizing that.") But verticals are not just models and metrics. To succeed, they must also be energized communities. The Sage Intacct SaaS vertical team puts on plenty of regional (and virtual) events. But Appel says the best communities also self-organize:
Some person who's got the personality to be a maximizer gets it started - that snowball starts really small. But everybody wants help, particularly in this strange new virtual world that we live in. So all these Slack communities have formed up. We are enablers of those Slack communities, as well as having created our own, in which people are asking each other all kinds of questions. Essentially, it's 'How do I get better?'
A vendor can ruin the dialogue with an overly-branded tone:
Our involvement is not, 'Here's how Sage Intacct can help you get better,' because that's trite and lame. It's "Here's what we've learned from all of our customers on best practices. And by the way, here's some peers to talk to, and then contribute.'
I could devote an article to all the milestones and metrics in the SaaS maturity slide (see Appel's post, Managing SaaS Metrics Throughout the Company Lifecycle (Part 2), for more on that). Instead, I asked Appel for the biggest stumbling blocks companies run into:
The three biggest things come in as: you create technical debt in the process, that is not flexible enough to adjust it as acquisitions come in, or new products come in, or competitors come out with new billing models, and you need to react and adjust it.
Number two: it's not clear who owns any of these things, and so responsibility becomes diffuse on where is going to be the system of record for the data? And then how are you going to report against it?
The third obstacle? Managing the human side of change:
How are the executive teams ensuring the change is happening, and incenting it, so people aren't threatened by change, or feel like they lose power from change, but rather buy into enabling the change to happen, as maturation crosses all these processes?
In my challenge to vendors on customer success, I also asked: Where is your embedded benchmarking by industry and job role? Sage Intacct's SaaS vertical has something pretty close to that, via a "Digital Board Book" dashboard:
We can debate the precise value of dashboards, but: having those metrics appear as either green or red is, in my mind, a valuable addition. If that doesn't motivate teams into action, I'm not sure what would.
Some might argue that the SaaS industry has done well enough that this type of benchmarking isn't important. I'll push back on that. You should never fall prey to your own press clippings. Give me Appel's mentality instead: SaaS companies should bear down on process excellence, informed decision making with analytics, serving the heck out of their customers, and executing across their maturity model. Otherwise, when their niche shakes out, they might not be left standing.
Yes, the end goal of an IPO gives SaaS companies more direction than some industries. But I believe you can build this kind of maturity model in any industry, as long as you have the data - and the customer relationships. I asked Sage Intacct's Peter Olson, who was also on the call, for his take on our discussion:
I think David's done a great job of highlighting the value prop that we provide by being the facilitator. It's not about trying to cram a specific software down their throat - it's lead them to best practices, and show them that we're part - and can be a part of that - best practice approach.
Appel's closing comments hit on the same theme: there is a better way than the hard sell.
Everybody wants to be valid and relevant. What we're trying to do is give a voice to people on how they've been valid and relevant to their companies, and how they can be valid and relevant and show that competency to help out their peers.
Of course, we're a software company trying to sell software, but if you only make it about that, again, it becomes banal and trite. If you do it in a way in which you help people, other people see that, and want to be part of it.
There are many aspects to customer success; no one has it all figured out. But I believe this approach gives us plenty to apply.
End note: I've challenged vendors to provide their maturity models publicly. If you have another approach you'd like to share, contact me.