Partner Led Customer Success: Getting CS On Board

My second job in technology was in CS working a Tier 1 helpdesk for clients in the sub $50k annual contract range. Tickets came in from more than 150 different organizations for a range of issues that varied from basic login challenges to significant software bugs that needed escalation.

The SOP was straightforward with regard to case management, and at times it got a bit monotonous - check the queue, clear the queue, and do it all again the next day. I already knew this routine well from two and a half years of managing field claims as an adjuster.

Learning to value customer success

I learned that CS was viewed as a cost center for the organization because, technically, it didn’t generate revenue. Over time, I found myself reaching out to AEs, Product Managers, technical analysts, and Service team members to drive awareness of inbound issues for their customers. I liked being connected to the broader organization, and the effort was always appreciated because a lot of these issues can easily go unseen.

About ten months into the job something finally clicked – organizations that trained Customer Success to help identify risk and upsell potential would see reduced churn and increased revenues from existing customers. The CS Department could actually be leveraged for strategic value to help keep and expand business across the entire customer base. What I was doing was a play right out of my days adjusting claims when I would routinely report risk to the policy team.

The big difference is that I was trying to keep the customer on the books.

This new philosophy wasn’t based on data, research, or industry trends. It was a professional revelation after several years in and around Customer Success teams where everyone around us only saw a punitive cost center dedicated to ‘supporting’ the customer. It was the day that well-executed CS became a strategic play in my personal handbook for success.

I can hear your thoughts:

Aaron, I thought this was about Partner Led CS? Why the sob story about CS being undervalued?

It’s a completely fair question, and it points toward the underlying assumption we need to clarify first.

Partner Led CS teams cannot exist in an organization that does not first value CS as a function of revenue.

That’s the first expectation to set for a solid CS to partnership alignment - everyone in the org needs to view CS teams as part of the revenue lifecycle. The great news is that the shift to RevOps has done a lot to shine a light on this value, but it’s still important to get this on the table.

The ‘threat’ of partnerships

Big sigh.

Now that we all agree that CS is important, the next expectation to set is that Partnerships are not a threat. What does that mean? There are a couple of key ideas to consider.

  1. Outsourcing. Partners handling tier 1 support may appear to threaten CS team expansion or even present the idea that cuts will be made as partners are equipped, and support is then ‘outsourced.’ Outsourcing has a negative connotation that is historically justified within several industries, including SaaS.
  2. Operational headaches. Partners integrating into ticket systems, if not done well, can wreak havoc on support models. How do they know which partner is involved and how where the line for support is? Who do they contact at the partner? If a partner reaches out, which account does the ticket get assigned to and who ultimately pays for the time? Third-party involvement threatens support metrics and impacts performance ratings that can impact personal recognition and team performance bonuses if not properly accounted for. For many, these challenges feel better left untested.

Key expectations for CS

One of the main tools for combating these negative outlooks is simple recognition. The plan for partnership engagement should address these concerns outright within the vision-casting effort. Partners are not a threat - they are essential to long-term success. Expand on this by setting a few key expectations for the outcomes of working with partners.

  1. We will set the standard for excellence. Internal teams will represent the "best of the best" and adding partners for direct support allows them to focus less on routine case management and more on more complex issues. The only threat on the table is that internal teams get recruited to run CS at partner organizations!
  2. Expanding professional opportunities is a natural extension. Adding a partner layer opens the door for new, more strategic roles such as partner enablement, performance management, and customer advocacy. There are so many managers a CS org can have, and as a common landing place for brand new professionals exploring a career in software/technology, these new roles offer more internal growth.
  3. When partners win, we all win. SaaS companies are not service companies - expansive success teams do not improve the bottom dollar (the infamous C.A.C. ratio). Adding partners is the only way to scale in an ecosystem-driven world. Scalability supports growth; growth drives revenue; revenue drives valuation. The future success of the company thus depends on a deep understanding of how every department connects to and works with the Partnership rhythm.
  4. Partners will be there whether you like it or not. I got a great callout from the ParnterHacker OG Jared Fuller on this point when I wrote about Partner Led CS on LinkedIn recently. I was coming from the perspective of the CS roles of my past and had completely neglected my relatively newfound love of all things Ecosystem. I have recently adopted the mantra “everyone is in partnerships; they just don’t know it yet," as I advocate for Partner related projects. It’s just another way of recognizing that we are headed toward a world driven by ecosystems built on trusted relationships and less on sales gimmicks, demos, and marketing. Like it or not, those who do not adapt will struggle to survive.

Accountability: Driving it home

I would be remiss to walk away from this article without calling back to accountability for anyone trying to drive these expectations into their org. Clearly, these ideas need broad support and tactical execution, things beyond the scope of this write-up. Suffice it to say, and in the spirit of everything PartnerHacker stands for, trust is the new data.

If you manage to get the buy-in, build the model, set the expectation, and fail to deliver… you’ll have a hard time getting that trust back or bringing anyone else into the ecosystem mindset.

Leading within Partnerships means working just as hard to develop internal partnerships as we do external partnerships. We’re literally partnering with everyone, all the time, every day, in every department to realize our dreams and make a dent in the world.

We owe it to ourselves and our teams to set clear expectations and live up to the potential these ideas have to offer.

After all… everyone is in partnerships, they just don’t know it yet 😉.

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