Article | 8 min read

A startup’s guide to building a customer success team

If you don't invest in your customers' success, you can't expect them to invest in yours. Learn how to build an effective customer success team to nourish long-term customer relationships.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Last updated June 30, 2022

Customer success is key to business success, especially for startups that depend on retention for meeting revenue goals. For startups with a well-oiled customer success team, the opportunities for growth are immense. In fact, the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022 found that when companies focus on the needs of their customers, they can attract new business, boost retention, and increase sales.

If you’re a startup, you’re probably wondering when—and how—to formalize your customer success team. Read on for tips and strategies on how to start and scale customer success from Zendesk’s Director of Startup Success, Sam Chandler.

What is a customer success team?

Customer success team, multiple thumbs-up

A customer success team is a dedicated part of the organization that focuses on building and nurturing long-term customer relationships. Customer success interacts with customers directly to quickly solve their problems and ensure customer satisfaction. The role of a customer success team is to help customers get the most value out of your product or service by proactively connecting with them throughout their lifecycle, anticipating their needs, and providing support.

When to start your customer success team

When to start your customer success team, hourglass in hand

It’s never too early to start building your customer success team. If you’re a startup that doesn’t have a dedicated customer success team yet, retention can suffer, or worse, it can lead to customer churn.

“The earlier you build a customer success team, the less time you’ll spend playing catch-up.” Sam Chandler, Zendesk’s Director of Startup Success

“Retention and churn are lagging indicators of actions you should take well beyond a customer’s buying decision,” says Chandler. “The earlier you build a customer success team, the less time you’ll spend playing catch-up when retention becomes a critical component to hitting your revenue targets. Companies need a team whose sole focus is keeping customers. Otherwise, it’s everyone’s job, which means it’s no one’s job.”

Customer success team responsibilities

Customer success team responsibilities, writing in notepad

The responsibilities of your customer success team will depend on the unique needs of your customers and business. But here are a few common responsibilities of customer success professionals.

  • Drive customer onboarding, adoption, retention, and growth
  • Collaborate with peers in sales, product, and other parts of the organization to ensure customers get a return on investment from your product or service
  • Engage with customers in a way that thoughtfully changes their perception of what is possible, from both a business and strategic perspective
  • Perform issue identification, communication, and resolution
  • Maintain product expertise
  • Manage one-to-one customer engagements at different stages of the customer lifecycle
  • Conduct virtual and onsite meetings with customers

Leaning into structure

For more tips on building a customer success or service team, check out our free guide.

6 questions to ask as you build a customer success team

Ready to build a customer success team? Chandler shared a few critical questions you should ask as you develop a plan to get started.

1. Is senior leadership on board?

To promote a meaningful, company-wide shift in how the organization approaches customer success, you’ll need to get leadership buy-in and make strategic investments in both people and process. Instead of a siloed customer success team, leadership should take an active role in monitoring performance and impact.

And in many cases, the compensation of senior executives is directly tied to customer satisfaction. According to our CX Trends Report, high-performing teams are over four times more likely to report that senior leadership compensation is directly linked to Net Promoter Score® (NPS).

2. Who is your customer?

One of the first steps to building a customer success program is to identify who your core customer groups are and develop a deeper understanding of their needs. Customer personas, focus groups, and surveys are good tools for getting to know your target customers.

Customer segmentation analysis can also help you group customers based on certain characteristics. These factors can range from behavior and age to purchase histories and physical location. Customer segmentation allows you to tailor your success experiences to the needs of certain groups. This shows buyers that you care about them and understand them—leading to increased satisfaction and engagement.

3. Why do your customers choose you? Why do they leave you?

Companies looking to build a customer success team should ask themselves, “What job are our customers hiring us to do?”

Customer journey mapping can also help you take a walk in your buyers’ shoes. The journey mapping process lets you visualize the stages a consumer goes through during the duration of their relationship with your business to help you understand pain points. You experience everything customers feel and think along the way—plus the roadblocks they meet. A good map also highlights customer goals and how you can help them accomplish their objectives.

4. Why are you looking to build a customer success team now?

The answer to this question is essential to kickstarting your customer success initiative, according to Chandler. If you can’t answer the “why,” you’ll be even less likely to answer the “how.”

Consider adding an official customer success program after your business reaches a significant turning point or milestone. For example:

  • You’re beyond the pre-sales phase.
  • You’re losing customers, especially after a period of prolonged growth.
  • You’re leaving the hyper-growth phase.
  • Customers aren’t adopting your full product line.
  • Customers aren’t renewing or stop ordering.
  • You’re getting disrupted by a competitor.
  • You hit a critical mass of customers required to keep going, make a profit, or neutralize customer acquisition cost.
  • You’re trying to raise money: “Gone are the days of growth at all costs,” says Chandler. “Companies getting funding as we move into this new economy can prove they’re operationally viable. A focus on lifetime value through customer success is a great way to prove this.”

5. How will you measure success?

You’ll want to determine your expectations for your customer success team upfront and ensure metrics match anticipated outcomes. “Telling someone to make sure a customer doesn’t contract is a different assignment than telling them to ensure the customer never wants to leave,” explains Chandler.

Ask the core success team to provide regular updates to leadership so they’re aware of evolving customer service plans and metrics. Customer success software makes it easy to analyze, monitor, and act based on what your customers need.

6. Who is responsible for your customer success program?

Hiring is a critical step in building a customer success team. Chandler provides some advice to make the process easier.

  • Consider whether you’ll need a dedicated person to build the program, hire people, and keep them moving forward with the strategy. If so, consider hiring at the director level or above.
  • Rather than hiring a customer success representative who will report directly to the CEO, it helps to have someone to manage the vision and day-to-day operations with the know-how to guide that person toward a viable customer success strategy.
  • Hire someone savvy enough to know how to build a program, not just maintain it. Otherwise, there will likely be a mismatch of skill sets and expectations.
  • Don’t shortchange yourself or the person you hire. If you hire an individual contributor to do a VP’s job, you’ll get a program built by an individual contributor trying to do a VP’s role. It’s unfair to the person you’re putting in over their head, your organization, and your investors.

Key roles in a customer success team structure

Key roles in a customer success team structure, three people

Although your success team may be small today, it’s a good idea to consider where it will be several years down the road and to define roles and an organizational structure that will help you scale.

Create an organizational and management structure that makes sense for your own company. Getting the functional teams in place is vital; determining who they report to is part of the ongoing management of the growth of your organization.

As complexity increases, everyone on the team can’t have in-depth knowledge about all the parts.

Here are a few key roles in a customer success team to help you start developing your own.

  • Customer Success Associate
  • Associate Customer Success Manager
  • Senior Customer Success Manager
  • Lead Customer Success Manager
  • Principal Customer Success Manager
  • Director of Customer Success
  • Vice President of Customer Success
  • Senior Vice President of Customer Success

As complexity increases, everyone on the team can’t have in-depth knowledge about all the parts. Some people become experts in some areas, but you can’t scale effectively with only one go-to person in those areas. For example, if you’re a global business, you’ll likely need a Regional Director of Customer Success.

Customer success associates might also focus on different product types–if you’re a multi-product business. Associates develop product expertise in those areas as members of specialized teams because they’re focused on them and aren’t pulled in too many other directions. Their expertise helps the organization handle complexity and resolve issues more quickly.

Defining functions, roles, and teams also provide the people on your team with well-defined career paths. Having these paths makes for happier and more satisfied employees because they clearly understand what they need to do to grow their careers.

Top skills to look for in a customer success team

We’ve identified some essential skills to interview and train for when building a customer success team.

  • Empathy
  • Collaboration
  • Product knowledge
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Outstanding ability to understand customer needs
  • Strong project management skills
  • Commitment to building an extraordinary customer experience
  • Proficiency in more than one language
  • Customer-focused mindset
  • Ability to multitask without getting frazzled

For more tips on building a customer success or service team, read our guide.

Leaning into structure

For more tips on building a customer success or service team, check out our free guide.

Leaning into structure

For more tips on building a customer success or service team, check out our free guide.

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