The Rise of Customer Success in the Channel with Allison Pickens
There has been so much talk in the SaaS industry about customer success and about the intersection of customer success and channel partners. Where do you think customer success can really meet the channel in today’s modern SaaS market?
Aligning with your partners around the success of your customer is one of the hottest topics in the customer success industry right now, everybody is talking about it. I don’t think anyone has figured it out quite yet. It’s probably one of these trends that will fully emerge, I think, a few years from now. There are a number of companies that are at the forefront, pushing on their vendor relationship, and the way that they describe their vision for partnering with their channel involves a few elements. So one of them is developing a shared sense of accountability for the outcomes of your client. Expecting partners to be accountable for customer success is a new thing, so that’s the first pillar. The second one is they’re realizing that in order to work more effectively with their channel partners they have to have a shared 360-degree view of data on their customers. And then, from there, the third element is they want to make sure that they have a shared definition of target for those metrics. What are the KPIs that matter, and what thresholds do we expect our channel partners to achieve with their clients? Finally, the fourth is having shared, prescribed playbooks for each stage in the customer journey. As a vendor, what do you expect your channel partners to do at each step?
Some of the leading companies out there that are thinking about this are actually training their partners on these playbooks and ensuring that there’s strong buy in. Again, some of the leading companies in this area are pushing on a few initiatives to try to get to that end stage. One of them involved is first defining the return on investment that your channel partners should expect from investing in customer success. For example, in the SaaS industry and increasingly in other industries, folks take it for granted that you should make your customers happy. If you’re a channel partner with a razor-thin reseller margin, it may not be obvious that this is an investment that you should make.
So customer success organizations are helping them put together that ROI model to justify that investment. Second, vendors are thinking about, “How do we make sure that we’re prioritizing which channel partners we work with to start?” Some channel partners are boutique firms that don’t have a ton of resources. Others are large with a robust executive team, and sometimes they have a customer success executive on staff. As you think about profiling your partners, it’s worth identifying what those major attributes are that would define a partner that would be most inclined to be successful working with you on this and piloting this customer success initiative so that eventually you can roll it out to a much larger percentage of your channel partners.
Vendors are also thinking about, “How can we develop that shared view of data on our customers? For example, how can we share the upcoming renewals that a channel partner should be focused on? How can we make sure that they’re aware of the Net Promoter Score ratings that the end customers have submitted?” So at Gainsight, one of our big focus areas this year is allowing that type of information sharing to take place.
On the KPI side, a lot of vendors are thinking about, “How can we actually encourage our partners to think about a customer health score as being a primary measure of customer outcomes that they should aim for?” And even some companies are pushing the envelope and starting to think about, “Should we have dynamic margins for paying partners that are contingent on different levels of health score?” So this is a provocative idea. I haven’t seen anyone roll it out yet. I think we’re going to see some major changes in these dimensions over the next couple of years.
You recently wrote a blog called “Aligning with Partners on Customer Success” and in it, you talk about the shared responsibility for positive customer outcomes between a partner and the vendor. For a CEO who might be listening to this podcast, or maybe a board member, or somebody who is really thinking about the overall success and health of an organization, can you share your thoughts about the value in aligning those vendor and partner relationships?
It’s hugely important. For so many organizations, they can only afford to hire customer success managers for a portion of their customers, that’s the reality. We’d all like to say we’ve got infinite budget to invest in customer success, but there are real pressures that we have from our executive team and our board. So, especially for large enterprises, we typically see them start to assign customer success managers to their largest customers or maybe the strategic ones mid-market. But often the SMB customers are covered by resellers. So if I’m thinking as a board member of one of these large companies, one of my questions might be, “How do we make sure that we drive up our retention rate in spite of not having people assigned to some segment of our customer base?” And for that reason, actually working with your channel to drive higher retention rates, higher expansion rates is a very powerful initiative. I expect that a lot of executives are going to be focused on this going forward.
One of our clients is a fast-growing SaaS company, and they’ve grown largely through working with channel partners. They have a pretty small sales team, so their partner organization internally is very critical. They have invested heavily in partner success managers, as well as the partner account manager team, which is focused on helping these partners drive more sales and deals. So, apart from that, they’re thinking,”How can we make sure that these end customers are achieving certain milestones along the customer journey?” And so the partner success managers are working closely with the channel partners.
Looking at channel as a whole, could you comment on some of the biggest challenges or mistakes that you’ve seen leaders make when they’re growing their channel and the impact that’s had on customer success?
I would say don’t underestimate how valuable customer success can be for the channel. I mentioned earlier a lot of resellers are struggling with razor-thin margins, but the reality is that many of them are also trying to build services businesses, which tend to have much higher margins, maybe in the 30% or 40% range. So what that means is, if they can develop a customer success program where they become more embedded with their account, the likelihood that they will be able to sell more services actually increases, because given that they’re really close to these accounts at this point, they’ll be able to identify new opportunities where they can add value and charge for it. Additionally, of course, there’s the other value prop which most vendor-based customer success teams tend to see, and you can drive up net retention by a meaningful amount. We see as vendor organizations rise in maturity from stage to stage as we track it at Gainsight, they will experience an 18% point increase in net retention. That’s super powerful, and I would imagine that, especially as we start to collect data on this, we will see a similar trend in partner organizations that start to adopt customer success best practices. So I think the key is for us to educate our channel partners on the real nature of this ROI and then start to collect the data afterward.
To learn more about customer success, aligning vendor and partner relationships and more tune in to episode 32 of The Allbound Podcast.
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Want to hear more? Subscribe on iTunes. Also available through Google Play. The Allbound Podcast explores the evolving fundamentals of partner-based selling in the SaaS and subscription economy. Featuring some of the industry’s brightest minds in channel sales and marketing, episodes of The Allbound Podcast delve into how and why indirect sales and marketing has long been, and continues to be, a proven medium for accelerating growth and success. And how traditional “channel” models are being transformed into efficient, connected ecosystems to supercharge sales and drive customer success while keeping costs low. Subscribe on iTunes