The top 3 playbooks for a product-led customer success strategy

From reactive to proactive, here are three major account management frameworks to scale your CS team’s revenue impact.

Alexa Grabell
March 13, 2023
The top 3 playbooks for a product-led customer success strategy

Customer success teams are a key component of SaaS companies’ success. Traditionally, CS teams have been focused on the post-sales stage of the customer lifecycle, employing tactics to achieve desired outcomes in renewals and reactive churn prevention.

With the surge of hybrid sales models that combine top-down and bottom-up motions, modern customer success teams have taken on wider ownership of revenue levers at earlier points of the user journey. For PLG companies in particular this shift is key.

So how does product-led impact customer success teams?

A product-led success team still requires a strong customer support component, but it’s filtered through a revenue optimization lens. This translates into a more complete set of goals for CS around:

  • Expansion and upsell
  • Sales cycle efficiency (optimizing automated touchpoints to reduce overhead costs)
  • Net Revenue Retention (NRR) and Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR)
  • Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)

While CS works to understand how their accounts use the product and find paths to unlock further product adoption, they’re also nurturing upsell across the entire customer journey. If this sounds like a lot for just one arm of the GTM team, and you’re noticing overlap with what sales should own — you’re not alone.

This is the biggest challenge when it comes to scaling customer success. Hybrid motions are a cross-functional effort — everyone is working towards the same goal — while GTM leaders define routing, hand-offs, and ensure alignment of team objectives.

In this blog we’ll go over how to scale your CS team to offer support during the complete revenue lifecycle:

  • Strengthening the relationship between sales and customer success
  • Expansion and upsell playbooks
  • Proactive churn prevention

The difference between sales-assist and customer success

In hybrid motions this line can get blurry, especially with the rise of sales-assist roles that act in many ways like pre-sales success teams. So, let’s solve this with a quick set of definitions

  • Sales-assist: The sales-assist team offers a human touchpoint for users who are potentially good sales opportunities and need help solving their problem, getting value out of the product, or making a purchase decision.

    Learn how to implement the sales-assist function in 7 weeks.

  • Customer success: The practice of ensuring your existing customers are achieving their desired outcome with your product and having a terrific experience along the way.

There are two big differences between sales-assist and CS. 

  1. Sales-assist is focused on pre-sales (before an enterprise contract is signed). Whereas, Customer Success would only get involved if an enterprise contract is signed or in some cases if it is a high value customer. 
  2. Sales-assist is often dealing with customers who have sales-related questions rather than strictly product related questions. You don’t want your sales-assist team to become your support function.

But things can get blurry in hybrid motions. Teams need to think about how to set thresholds and rules of engagement between their sales-assist and customer success teams. If your success team primarily focuses on large enterprise customers, this may not be an issue, but if you have a scaled customer success function and a sales-assist team, you’ll need to carefully draw lines.

Learn more about the division of sales-assist in customer success in this interview with Allison Pickens, Board director and scaling partner to product-oriented founders, former COO of $1B unicorn Gainsight.

Hand-off between customer success and sales

Customer success and sales should have a strong partnership, especially in a hybrid GTM motion. CSMs rely on AEs’ pre-existing relationships to understand customer expectations, their goals with product, and manage the account once the deal has been closed. This is the most straightforward hand-off: sales closes a deal, promises upon what the product can deliver, and CS comes in to ensure new customers become happy customers.

In a hybrid motion, this initial hand-off is usually followed up with more back and forth routing between customer success managers and account executives, along with regular syncs.

From CS back to sales: When CS spots possible upsell opportunities, they can approach the champion or decision maker to learn more about their use case, offer help, and point out additional product capabilities. If there is interest, the CSM should then route the account to the AE who gets into negotiation discussions, pricing, and usage limits.

CS and sales syncs: Reporting for each of these teams tends to live in different places (although, if you’re in the market for a centralized source of truth for your GTM motion, you can explore Pocus here.) Regardless of whether you have a shared spreadsheet, have siloed tooling between platforms like SalesForce and Catalyst, or have implemented a centralized solution like Pocus, CS and sales should be regularly aligning on:

  • Account prioritization triage
  • Expansion/upsell likelihood
  • Technical Business Review (TBR) timelines

Playbooks: GTM goals, ownership, and alignment

The best way to provide clarity around CS and sales ownership and prevent cannibalization is by creating specific playbooks for each team. Playbooks should be based on your company’s revenue goals or north star metric. Each goal should align to a set of actions taken by the team  each time a user (or an account as a whole) does something specific in your product like, reaching a certain usage threshold, inviting more team members than normal, meeting your ideal customer profile, or any combination of these..

Based on your product, goals, ICP, and historical product usage data, you’ll be able to pin-point what product signals indicate the likelihood of important revenue outcomes like: expansion opportunities, churn risk, and even champions you’d like to keep happy to maintain healthy customer retention.

These outcomes are your playbooks and how they shape customer interactions should define the team that owns them. Customer success needs to be looking closely at data related to the customer experience, as well as opportunities to build up the customer relationship.

But, before building out any CS playbooks an effective customer success strategy should have a detailed definition of customer health based on NPS and product activity. Create tight definitions around three main buckets to give each customer a health score:

🟢 Successful customer - engage to maintain, build loyalty, check for expansion opportunity

🟡 Regular - worth checking in, see where you can help unlock value

🔴 At-risk - Requiring immediate support

Now, let’s dive into the most successful scaled success playbooks we’ve seen at companies with hybrid motions.

Proactive churn prevention

This playbook is to spot leading and lagging signals that indicate a customer might be churning off your product and proactively reach out to mitigate the risk and do discovery.

When to run this playbook

This playbook should be always on because of its role in profitability metrics like NDR and LTV. However, it’s especially important to run when you’ve reached a solid volume of customers and need to create workflows to assure none of them slip through the cracks.

Signals to watch

Your CS team will need visibility into product data that allows them to:

  • Quantify churn, i.e. expected contraction vs. full churn
  • Determine what signals should trigger at-risk classification like: missing implementation, gaps in feature usage, drop-ff
  • Health scoring models to quickly prioritize based on risk 

They’ll also need to combine this data with information typically found in the CRM like renewal dates, ARR, and contraction projections.

Actions to take

When an account is surfaced as a churn risk, there are several things your CS team can do depending on the contract size and churn projection.

Run this play if… 

At risk/ Low expansion upside: if the account is small and isn’t a significant ARR driver, you might opt to enter it into an automated sequence with booking links to CSM.

At risk/ high expansion upside: On the other hand if the account is an important logo or is presenting a serious churn risk, it might be best to personally reach out to power users inviting them to a TBR, and loop in the AE.

Expansion

While sales also runs expansion playbooks, CS expansion should be focused on upsell, rather than cross-sell. While there’s potential for overlap, if CS dives into an expansion opportunity and discovers there’s room to bring in more teams to different product solutions, that’s a good time to bring the AE back in. Think of HubSpot’s marketing automation CSM bringing in AE to talk to sales leadership about Sales Hub.

When to run this playbook

Run this playbook to surface customers with potential for expansion — finding new revenue within your existing customer base.

Signals to watch

To successfully surface and action expansion opportunities your CS team will need product data to:

  • Signal increased usage: i.e. spend increases
  • New feature usage
  • Flag new use cases, i.e. when a function not usually associated with your product starts using a specific feature 
  • Projections on usage limits: i.e. recently hit or are close to hitting a paywall
  • Number of seats or sessions

Actions to take

We recommend keeping expansion playbooks as targeted and personal as possible with most actions involving a human touchpoint. A great way to prioritize expansion PQLs or PQAs is by renewal date.

Run this play if… 

You notice an account is about to hit a paywall: reach out via email to congratulate them on product adoption and start a conversation by asking questions on how their team is using the product. The goal is to understand why the recent surge. Based on their answers you can tailor your offering of a higher-tier plan highlighting the specific benefits and savings it can bring to their use case.

You surface an existing account that is using a previously unused feature: Reach out with a personalized message with helpful tips on how to get the most value out of the feature. Then, ask why they’re using it and try to get a full picture of who’s using it — are they bringing a new department into your product? Collect as much feedback as you can to find out if this is a cross-sell opportunity and hand off to sales. 

Dive into expansion playbooks with this guide to find product champions and drive expansion.

expansion playbook recommended actions

Champion engagement

Did we mention CS should be proactive yet? At the risk of sounding like a broken record... Scaled CS really hinges on being able to spot opportunities in advance — and that’s not just about the negative stuff like churn. It’s also about being proactive in building customer loyalty among the base that already loves you!

When to run this playbook

All the time! Champion engagement should be a core responsibility of your customer success team. They should always be nurturing relationships with power users, keeping that champion wherever they go.

Signals to watch

To run champion engagement plays CS should set triggers for happy signals (which will also help them uncover how to nurture more users to become champions) and as our Head of Sales, Julia Gilinets, often says — engage the happy. These triggers should be made up of:

  • Product usage signals you’ve uncovered are crucial on the path to value
  • Actions that indicate customer satisfaction
  • Potential growth indicators at the account level 

Actions to take

Check in, reward new value paths, and offer additional support. You can even loop in the marketing team for a case study, social media shout-outs, and other initiatives that make your customers feel valued.

Check out a real life example with OpenPhone’s scaled CS playbooks.

The future of product-led customer success 

CS has the potential to influence revenue at every stage in the customer lifecycle. We’re betting this trend will continue with CS having an important role to play in pre-sales. The best PLG companies already do this — often the first “sales hire” is actually a CSM.

In our view, customer success is already showing signs of major transformation. The benefits are impactful and the role shift is an organic evolution of what most teams are already doing. 

By having CS teams involved in pre-sales companies:

  • Can rely on CS expertise for better definitions of ICP
  • See higher conversions from free to paid
  • Alleviate siloed operations between sales and CS
  • Remove friction from the customer journey at each stage of the sales cycle
  • Increase revenue potential from prospects, new customers, and longtime accounts
“No matter exactly what you choose to call them or where exactly they exist in the customer journey, my advice is to add humans at the right points in the product workflow who know the product and are skilled in empathy, grit, active listening, expectation setting, and problem resolution.” — Allison Pickens, Former COO of Gainsight, current solo GP, and independent board director at dbt Labs


Read the full interview for Allison’s take on sales vs. customer success.

Unlock CS revenue impact with Pocus

One of the biggest challenges for scaled CS teams is sales collaboration. The other is data flexibility.

Solve both of these by giving your GTM teams a centralized platform that combines product usage and firmographic data for a 360 view of your customers your teams can quickly turn into action.

Request a demo to learn more, or explore Pocus on your own!

Alexa Grabell
Co-Founder & CEO at Pocus
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