How to manage customers after the sale: common founder questions about post-sales tactics
In sales, closing a deal is a celebratory moment with gong-ringing galore. To a salesperson, this is a pinnacle moment of the customer relationship. From an organizational point of view, a newly minted customer means the work is just getting started. What happens after a sale determines whether a customer becomes a valuable, long-time partner or a ball and chain that weighs down the organization with expensive, time-consuming support requests.
VVUS hosted a “Breakfast@Vertex” virtual roundtable between post-sales leaders from our portfolio and Dave Ginsburg, Chief Customer Officer at Forethought. Dave has built and managed post-sales teams at SaaS companies such as WorkBoard, UserTesting, MixPanel, and Box. During this discussion, we tackled a handful of questions about post-sales organizations. While Dave was the one to answer these questions, I weaved in my own learnings having worked at a couple of highly capable GTM organizations.
How do you define “post-sales”?
It varies, but it’s what it sounds like: the customer-facing activities that take place after the initial contract is signed. A budding post-sales organization typically includes customer success managers (CSMs) and a support function. In practice, you can think of CSMs as proactive and support reps as reactive to customers. Whereas CSMs might proactively help a customer discover and adopt a new feature or use case, support reps react to customer issues related to the product.
This distinction is important because different personality traits tend to thrive in either of these roles (i.e. curious vs. patient). Depending on what’s required to adopt a product, post-sales teams also include professional services (PS). Inside of PS, there can be subset teams focused on implementation, user onboarding, and customer education. To keep the wheels spinning, the post-sales org can also include an operations function.
Should customer success managers have quotas? And how do you structure those quotas?
It depends where you are on the maturity curve, but for me, the answer is yes. Job #1: Keep what you have. You should define a quota based on gross retention across a CSM’s book of business. Gross retention does not include revenue from customer expansions, while net retention does. Incentives based on gross retention motivate CSMs to prevent churn across their account list.
This leads to questions about who owns revenue expansion and whether CSMs should be compensated for net retention as well. It depends on what you’re selling. There are some products where customer expansions are in the customer’s best interest, in which case the interests of CSMs and their customers are aligned. Examples would be tools like Slack or Zoom: the value propositions improve as more people inside of an organization adopt the products. There are other categories like software infrastructure where technologies might be workable for some new use cases but are not the ideal solutions compared to other options. In this example, the incentives are misaligned: Expansion would not be in the customer’s best interest.
If you only incentivize CSMs to find new dollars, they’ll inevitably neglect existing, mature customers in favor of expansion opportunities. This design eventually becomes a recipe for churn. Remember: Job #1 is to keep what you have. To find this balance, I recommend a core incentive based on a gross retention target and complementing this with a SPIFF-like bonus program that rewards CSMs for identifying new opportunities and working with sales to close them. A good structure for on-target earnings (OTE) for CSMs is 80/20 salary/bonus based on gross retention, not including upsell bonuses (e.g., $100k OTE = $80k salary with $20k bonus for achieving gross retention targets + SPIFFs for identifying new opportunities).
How much revenue and how many accounts can a CSM realistically manage?
The rule of thumb in a SaaS business is somewhere around the $1.5 to $2 million mark per CSM. For younger companies, it’s closer to half that since customers tend to be higher touch. This design should consider the size of your contracts. For example, $10k average contract values would translate to a massive account load for a CS rep managing a $750k book of business. The solution isn’t to shrink the account list since doing so will hurt your unit economics. Instead, invest in tools that can help automate account management and surface customer health insights through data.
Either way, you should segment account lists according to account size. Big accounts need more strategic attention and require different skill sets compared to smaller accounts (i.e., consultative vs. organized), but don’t confuse effort with attention.
How much attention should be given to smaller, lower-revenue customers vs. enterprise-level whales?
It’s a classic dilemma. The smallest customer can be more demanding than one 100x their size — but you can’t ignore existing customers, or they won’t continue to be customers. As a business, it’s a necessary and binary decision: We will or will not support customers of a certain size. For example, anything over $20k annually gets personalized support or designated CSMs, and anything under gets access to a help desk.
Earlier in a company’s journey, it’s more important to produce customer advocates — especially when they’re willing to look past missing features and bugs. In this case, the dollar threshold should be lower. Eventually, unit economics will matter more — VCs can only subsidize customer success for so long — at which point this dollar threshold should increase.
In any case, don’t employ a peanut butter strategy where you offer the same services to customers of all sizes. Tier your customers according to contract sizes and potential/existing strategic value. Once you’ve segmented customers, define the resources available to them (CSMs, support response times, etc.). You’ll likely find that many customers are willing to pay extra for improved support.
To minimize menial work for post-sales teams, invest in rich documentation, automated customer onboarding, user communities, and other tactics to help customers become more self-sufficient. Regardless, have the hard conversations with your customers early before it becomes an emotional exercise.
What’s a good renewal strategy? Any advice for increasing prices?
First, determine where your customer is on the customer journey, starting with value definition: What is their buying motivation? As a tangent, value is typically measured by increased revenue, improved profitability (costs avoided/reduced; increased efficiency), and risks avoided. More on that here. The stages of the customer journey after value definition are onboarding, adoption, engagement, and growth.
Depending on where they are on this journey, you can determine the right time to quantify the total value they’ve captured using your product. This can be a catalyst for growth during a renewal. Transparency is your friend: Here are the new features we’ve added; here are our costs to serve you; here are product usage and adoption; here is the value we’ve created for your company.
Leave the door open to a broader discussion if they see it differently. You want to avoid missed opportunities for growth, so implement organizational practices that reveal this information.
What about charging for professional services (PS) and turning post-sales into a profit center?
First, PS matters. If the technical lift to implement your product is medium-to-heavy, you will need PS sooner rather than later. Beyond implementation, PS also includes change management: Your users might have to adopt new processes or adapt existing ones to get the most out of your product.
As an early-stage company, you shouldn’t use partners simply because you’re too small for them to care. But eventually, you’ll want to leverage partners to assist with change management and implementing your product as part of a broader solution set. For example, if you’re selling a tool that integrates with Salesforce as part of your buyer’s “sales modernization initiative,” you don’t want to get stuck helping them figure out how Salesforce works. Partners are ideal for implementing your product as part of broader initiatives. If you’d like to double-click on these topics, check out one of my prior posts about partnership strategy.
Service should not be a profit center at any point pre-Series C. Full stop. That said, you should charge them something. Otherwise, the customer will not equate value to your time and inevitably miss deadlines, overlook emails, skip meetings, etc. If they push back, transparency is your friend [still]. The conversation might look like this:
Listen, you’re leveraging these types of technical skill sets, and the market will charge you Y dollars an hour for them. We pay our team X dollars an hour and would be willing to do it for you at our cost or even 10% below that cost. For our business to remain viable, you have to do your part.
If they continue to push back, your sales team isn’t done selling: Your customer should perceive the value of your product and be willing to invest in it accordingly. One common mistake is not compensating sales teams for selling professional services. While they shouldn’t earn the same recurring revenue rate, offering a SPIFF is reasonable to ensure they’re doing their part.
That said, it’s important to be honest about your model. Are you a product company, a services company, or somewhere in between? If you claim to be a product company but rely heavily on services throughout the journey, your strategy and execution are likely misaligned, which, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to extreme organizational fatigue.
What are good profiles for post-sales teams?
At a minimum, CSMs and PS teams should have some familiarity and, ideally, expertise within your industry. This familiarity ensures they speak the same language as your customer and have the appropriate amount of empathy for their customers’ responsibilities, jobs, and career paths. You are dealing with people — not accounts — after all.
Consultants make good CSMs. Consulting backgrounds typically translate to good communication skills: they know how to communicate the right level of detail and provide context about what matters. People who’ve previously worked in teaching roles tend to make for good support agents since they are patient and good at explaining things. For professional services teams, hire for skills.