When should a startup or small SaaS business switch from customer success generalists to more specialized customer success staff? When you started your customer success organization it was likely with one, or maybe two people. Starting out, customer success staff had to be generalists, there weren’t enough people to have specialists. Customer success at that point had to do support, on-boarding, keep tabs on the general health of the account and collect customer feedback among many other things. Even as you grew the organization to a couple of people, they were still probably all generalists.
As your customer success organization grows the question becomes should customer success managers continue to be generalists, or should you organize with some level of specialists? When should you make this change? What type of specialists are appropriate? The answers to these questions depend a lot on the type of customers you serve and the characteristics of your product(s).
Scaling a SaaS business usually requires some number of specialists or automation for an efficient organization. However, you will want to retain some generalists who have customer relationship skills, some product knowledge, some industry knowledge and an ability to successfully execute up-sell and renewal transactions since these are the core skills of customer success managers. Specialists are most likely to be on-boarding specialists, technical support specialists and detailed product/industry knowledge specialists.
To consider having on-boarding specialists there are several things to take into consideration but a good, simple way to look at this is from the perspective of B2C versus B2B markets and the complexity of on-boarding.
You can define the complexity of on-boarding by taking into consideration the kind of application, the quantity of data, the different kinds of data used, the number of integrations to other applications and whether existing data typically needs to be migrated into the application.
For a SaaS application in the B2C market requiring simple on-boarding, you are likely best served by staying with generalists. In addition, since it is a B2C application the customer relationship is not complicated so to scale this type of business you would likely automate as many of the customer success functions as possible. Any remaining work would be done by customer success generalists, without assigned accounts, working on a large portfolio of accounts.
If it is a B2C application, that is complex to onboard, you should consider whether specialists make sense. There aren’t a lot of applications that fall in this category but home automation and other B2C IOT applications are good examples. Often a good way to have on-boarding specialists for this type of market is to use partners. For example, for on-boarding for a home automation application using partners that are experienced in doing home installations such as alarm companies might be a good approach.
Even though on-boarding for a B2B application is not complex you should consider specialists, particularly if it is an enterprise application. Even though the on-boarding is not complex there may be enough required understanding of complex customer requirements that specialists are needed for future success.
For most B2B applications that are complex to onboard, specialists are the right approach. Typically, these are some level of enterprise applications with significant integrations, data migrations and large amounts of data. To address these issues there is usually a significant amount of technical and project expertise needed. In some cases, there will need to be multiple types of on-boarding specialists such as developers, project managers, analysts, etc.
Technical Support Specialists
Generally, when on-boarding is complex, technical support for customers is also complex. Integrations, data complexity and complicated product functionality all contribute substantially to complex technical support. However, occasionally when on-boarding is simple the technical support is complex. Some technical tools are an example because of what the tool is used for and the fact that the customers are very technical.
If the product is not technically complex, then technical support specialists are probably not necessary. Any technical issues with the product are likely across the product for all customers not just for one customer implementation. In those cases, the issues tend to be escalated to development engineering because the solution is actually a product change.
Product Functionality & Industry Knowledge Specialists
Industry and product specialists are appropriate for enterprise B2B applications in a complex industry and when your product has significant functional complexity. In almost all cases a customer support generalist will have some knowledge of both areas and this type of specialist would be involved when more complex issues come up.
Specialists in these areas are generally only worthwhile if there is a very measurable ROI with the customer or when use of the specialist is paid for in some type of professional services engagement. Examples might be where the price for a service for retailers is priced based on the retailer’s sales and the information the specialist provides allows the retailer to improve sales. Another example would be where the information the specialist provides allows the use of the service in another application area which increases the number of seats sold.
Some customer success organizations have specialists focused just on renewals. This is usually done once a customer success organization for enterprise B2B products gets to a significant size. Often the business will have multiple products and will have price negotiations as part of the renewal. Typically, a B2C organization will have some type of auto-renew capability which is a good way to scale renewals for simpler products.
How to Decide – Specialists Versus Generalists
There are pros and cons for having specialists. In thinking about specialists versus generalists it’s good to keep the following in mind.
- Communication is more complex when you have multiple people work on an account. Multiple people on an account is necessary when you have specialists.
- Having many senior generalists in customer success instead of a couple types of specialists may increase the difficulty of finding and compensating staff. At some point the number of people who have all the skills to be senior level generalists will be expensive and hard to find.
- Due to workload it can be difficult to have several types of specialists in a small organization.
- Having specialists usually provides better internal career opportunities. Product specialists can move to product management, technical support specialists to development engineering and on-boarding specialists to product management or development engineering.
Getting the right mix of customer success generalists and specialists is an important decision as you scale your SaaS business and customer success organization. Once you get 3-4 people in customer success it’s time to start thinking about whether generalists make sense for your company. Be sure to have the right metrics in place to measure the value of your customer success organization and be willing to adjust the generalist/specialist roles as the business grows and changes.