I’m David Collard and I work at LinkedIn, where I lead the customer success team for our global clients' program out of EMEA. I've been working in and around customer success for about six years now, and in that time, I've seen considerable growth and change in our industry.

Today, I'm going to talk you through where I see customer success going as a strategic function in the coming years.

Our main talking points include:

  • A potted history of CS
  • How far have we come?
  • The different flavors of customer success
  • Where we are at LinkedIn
  • Where do we go from here?

A potted history of CS

Before we look forward, as I often tell my CSMs when they're presenting to clients, it's worthwhile to have a little look in the rearview mirror.

Now, this might be because I studied history at university and it's a habit that just refuses to die, but I truly believe that when you're looking to the future and trying to figure out how to go forwards, it really helps to know where you're coming from.

It is fair to argue that customer success (or perhaps more accurately, the skills, the processes, and the imperatives that underpin it) is as old as business.

Certainly, when I speak to my father who worked in finance and banking for almost 50 years, he tells me that what I'm doing is nothing new. He’s been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. Well, the shirt and tie. He's kind of right. He's also kind of wrong.

Here's why: contrary to popular belief, it wasn't the software that changed everything – far from it. It was the subscription model. It was companies realizing you only started making a profit if your client renewed for multiple cycles that changed everything.

On top of this, the sudden and irreversible rise in the power of the customer made modern customer success imperative to the success of almost any business.

You see, back in the 60s, my father wanted to keep his clients. Of course he did! But the business models that were run then meant that clients in almost all industries were locked in. Even if something went wrong with a product, if it went to absolute pot, then the companies would still make money on the deal because everything was front-loaded.

It's not like that for us anymore. If we screw up (or, let's be honest, even if we don't screw up but the customer thinks we have) we can end up making a net loss on the entire deal.

That's why modern customer success was originally formed. It was to protect the base. It was to ensure that we never reached a critical mass of customers leaving us before we'd managed to turn a profit on the deal.

If that ever happens, we're going to have to start reselling to people who've already canceled. I don't even want to imagine how hard that is.

Two people shaking hands

I liken it to trying to convince somebody who's got food poisoning from a particular restaurant to go back and try it again because, well, it might be different this time.

It's an unnecessarily hard position to be in when you could mitigate that risk at the source. That's why customer success came into being.

As we'll see, CS has quickly become a business-critical function. But as we start to look ahead, I just want to put something to you: we are still so young as a discipline it’s crazy. CS is so young that if it was a person it wouldn't be allowed legally to buy a beer in the United States.

For contrast, I Googled this earlier, and I want to share it with you: the earliest records of accountants are 7000 years old, from ancient Mesopotamia. They carved their financial records into stone tablets. That's how far their discipline has come and developed.

If we look at sales, I'm pretty sure that the first salesperson came into being approximately half a second after the first person thought up the idea of bartering one good for another. Way before the invention of money, somebody started selling something. So many professions have systems, knowledge, and precedents.

In customer success, on the other hand, we're incredibly privileged to have the opportunity (and, let's be honest, the challenge) to shape the present and future of our discipline.

How far have we come?

For such a young discipline, there are an awful lot of people doing this job. I pulled some data from LinkedIn systems to give you some indication of where the industry is now. Just to clarify, this data set only shows those who have a customer success title in their LinkedIn profile.

Just under 200,000 people do customer success for a living. Given that 20 years ago, this discipline didn't really exist, and even 10 years ago, most people had never heard of a customer success manager, this is a seriously impressive number.

Last year on LinkedIn, we saw the number of people identifying as CSMs grow by over 20% year-on-year. That's incredible. That’s the kind of steep growth you normally only see in startups.

A group of people putting hands together

There's no sign of this stopping anytime soon. I don't see it stopping; I'm sure you don't either. That’s borne out by the fact that we saw, just on the LinkedIn platform,15,000 jobs for this talent pool last year.

If you look at how many people just a handful of companies are hiring in this area, and the levels of attrition, we can also read into this data that a highly mobile and diversely skilled population is taking these roles, shaping them, and leaving to do it again and again. It's an exciting time to be in CS.

We can also see that the companies employing the most CS talent globally – the likes of IBM, LinkedIn, and SAP – are growing their CS functions by up to 54% each year. That's massive growth.

It’s hyper-growth. If that doesn't demonstrate just how critical customer success is to the future of work, I don't know what does.

The final thing I'd like to call out here is rather pleasing. It's the gender diversity in our sector. In customer success, there is a much healthier gender diversity stat than I think I've seen in any other area.

52% of customer success professionals identify as female. I'm proud of the fact that this is a relatively equitable part of the business to be in.

Everyone is digital now

Now, the companies I’ve called out so far are the big players. They are big tech in all of its glory. However, I would like to immediately challenge any notion you have about CS being purely the preserve of tech giants.

When I dug deeper into this data set and looked into which industries have the largest growth in customer success hires, things started to look a little different.

I’ll admit that it’s probably partly because some of these industries are starting from a relatively low customer success base that they've seen such growth, but just look at the diversity of what these companies do!

They're not purely tech companies like LinkedIn, IBM, Cisco, or Microsoft. There are companies that deal in physical products, services, consulting, and law, to name but a few.

A network of laptops

So how is it that customer success spreads across all of these types of companies? Well, the answer is that everything is digital now. Everyone is working in a subscription model.

I even order my cat's food online on a subscription basis these days. We're living in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, and this is emblematic of that.

Now, I'm sure that my go-to cat food company, Katkin – a big shout out to them, by the way – does not class itself as a tech firm, but they have many of the hallmarks of one in how they go to market.

I think it's a pretty fair bet that if they continue to scale their burgeoning cat food empire, at some point, they're going to need CSMs, or certainly something very similar.

But what does this mean for you? You probably don’t work at a cat food company; it’s more likely that most of the folks reading this article work for some kind of SaaS company.

You might feel that you know what customer success is and what it should be doing for you, and I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong.

What I am going to do is challenge you. I'm going to challenge whether what your teams are doing is customer success, or whether you may want to think about realigning how your teams are structured, referred to, targeted, and compensated.

The different flavors of customer success

So what is CS? And at what point does CS cease to be CS? This is a big question for me and one that I'm quite passionate about.

Earlier, we saw just how massive the growth of customer success roles has been, and I love this. We're contributing hugely to the future success and prosperity of our businesses and our economies. I love that this is happening.

However, this has also led to customer success becoming something of a fashionable “must-have” in certain companies. I've seen a lot of roles advertised as CS, but once I’ve dug into them, I’ve found that they’re something else. I've also spoken to a number of people who were looking to join me at LinkedIn, and I don't feel that their experience covered what we would define as CS.

Here are the three areas that I feel most commonly overlap with customer success:

  1. Commercial roles, such as account execs, account managers, and relationship managers
  2. Technical roles, such as integration experts
  3. Customer support

I'd like you to picture a sliding scale. On one end, you have “not at all commercially, technically, or support-focused.” At the other, you have “commercially, technically, and support-obsessed.” Ask yourself where your CSMs fall on that sliding scale, and why.

I'm now going to give you my opinion on where I believe CS ends and some of these disciplines begin. I’ll share how I like to think about investigating that, and the questions that I'd be asking to determine the true role of customer success.

Customer support roles vs customer success roles

The easiest area to address is support. Customer success reps, it's fair to say, support their clients. They often help them to solve problems, and it's here that the overlap with customer support can often come in and you see the roles starting to get a bit blurred.

The question I would always ask is, are your CSMs primarily proactive or reactive in their interactions with customers? If most of the time they're being reactive, particularly if they work on a ticketing system and they don't have client ownership and embedded relationships with those clients, for me, that feels like a customer support team.

Customer support is a whole and distinct discipline, and I believe that people who are doing that job should be referred to and compensated as such and their targets should reflect the role of customer support.

'be the change'

If, however, your teams are proactively engaging with clients to spot risks ahead of time, and if they’re seeing how clients use the product and using that intel to aid product development, then they’re CSMs. That's where I would draw the line. It’s about proactivity versus reactivity.

Technical roles vs customer success roles

It can be a little trickier to draw a line between technical roles and CS roles. The distinction depends hugely on where your product sits in a client's tech stack. It also depends on who your main stakeholders in a client are and the amount of technical language and know-how you need to engage with them.

If you're feeling like there's an awful lot of overlap, the question I would ask is how essential is ongoing technical engagement to the success of your client?

If you feel that your product should run smoothly once it's set up and integrated, my feeling is that all the technical work is front-loaded into the start of the customer lifecycle and a CS title isn't necessarily all that appropriate here.

Think of it from the perspective we were looking at right at the beginning – a customer success manager is meant to defend the base.

If somebody is technically qualified and all of their work, knowledge, and expertise is front-loaded into the client engagement, we're asking them to be something that they're not. People like this are really valuable, but I don't necessarily feel that we should be calling them CSMs.

Commercial roles vs customer success roles

Now, onto the big one: commerciality. For me, and I'm sure for many of the people reading, this is the big schism in customer success right now. As I mentioned we have only 20 years of history to accountancy’s 7000.

We're right at the beginning of our journey, so it's going to work its way out, but for now, this is the big separation.

Some CS orgs, mine included, have commercial targets around mitigating churn. That's an absolutely key metric. It falls under the heading of protecting the base, so a typical traditional CSM should make this happen. For many CS teams, this is the only commercial target.

Other CS orgs like their CSMs to own renewals as well. Honestly, I'm kind of divided on how I feel about this. I see the benefit of having one point of contact who owns client engagement from onboarding through to renewal; I think it can lead to a great customer experience.

However, renewing clients is a specialized skill set, and I sometimes wonder if it might be better to take that off CSMs’ plates.

Some companies like their CSMs to go one step further and have growth or even upsell targets. Of course, you need to do what's right for your company, your people, your products, and most of all your clients.

Personally, though, I'm of the opinion that once you're asking somebody to upsell and grow an account, then they're not a CSM anymore. They’re a relationship manager or an account manager.

When growth and upsell targets define the CSM role, I think that hinders them in some of their core responsibilities.

Here’s why: as soon as you give somebody a growth target or an upsell target, they will inevitably find themselves in situations where they need to choose between what is most expedient for them and what is most expedient for the client.

When you don't have that upsell target, you're more able to focus on what the client needs.

As an example, if you have a whole bundle of licenses that are unused or underused, do you encourage the client to undergo training to get people upskilled, or do you say, “Well, look, you can just buy some more.” One is best for me as a CSM/seller; one is best for the client.

I come down on this side because one of the great privileges and joys that I have is seeing my team being treated as an insider by their clients. They're so trusted that they're invited to internal meetings and sales kickoff events.

One of the reasons for this is that the client knows that my team is targeted on making them successful, not on making more money.

I want to throw in one quick caveat here though. I am not for a moment suggesting CSM should not be commercially minded (in fact, I'm a big proponent of this). I'm saying that CSMs should not be commercially motivated.

Where we are at LinkedIn

Now that I’ve shared my opinions about what CS is, where it ends, and where other disciplines begin, I'm going to give you a high-level overview of LinkedIn’s CS function. We're a 19-year-old company; we're a similar age, therefore, to CS as a whole.

I've been hugely privileged to be part of that journey for about a third of the company's life. In that time, I've seen a dramatic change in how CS is viewed both as a strategic priority and in terms of how we operate.

Back when I joined LinkedIn, there were three very different CS orgs running across our three different lines of business.

They ranged from being very structured and delivery-orientated in one area to being relatively unregulated in another part of the business.

There was no standardization, and CSMs were essentially focused on delivering whatever the client wanted or said they needed to deliver value.

I'm pleased to say that since then, the business has recognized just how critical CS is to LinkedIn’s continued growth, success, and reputation. They've worked hard to consolidate the structures we work within, and these efforts have paid off massively.

We've aligned considerably. Now CS teams across all different business units and products have structures to work within so they can give clients a clearer idea of what is in scope and what's not in scope based on their investment.

We've also heavily invested in our CSMs being relationship builders who don't just anchor on a product but aim to deliver a wider and more holistic value to clients.

There are two things that have really freed up time for our CSMs to be more engaged with our customers. Firstly, there’s been a big investment in tools that either enable clients to self-serve or enable our CSMs to scale their impact.

I'm talking about things like integrations with popular learning management systems to allow CSMs not to have to deliver one-to-one training. We've also built automation into the creation of customized decks so that reporting is less painful.

The other thing, beyond systems, that has enabled our CSMs to deliver more value to clients has been the drive to create specialized teams.

When I joined LinkedIn, there was nobody specifically focused on client learning tools, onboarding large clients, or increasing the community of our clients.

CSMs were encouraged to undertake these activities because we knew they could add value, but there was no centralized methodology or ownership.

That meant we ended up with massive variance in tools and techniques, and logically, therefore, in the success of these engagements.

We now have specialized roles and teams dealing with all of this and more. There’s more to come too. This enables our customer success managers to focus on their core responsibilities and scale their impact.

This means that they're able to work with more clients or to go deeper with clients and spend more time getting to know their customers, their business, their priorities, and how therefore we can define and deliver value to them.

An empty road

Where do we go from here?

I'm going to close by being a little bit of a CS Nostradamus and giving you a couple of predictions and thoughts on trends for the years to come.

I believe that we're going to see the customer success function continue to split into more specialized roles. I just mentioned some of the ones we've seen grow at LinkedIn, and I think this is going to become more typical at smaller as well as larger companies.

When you're setting up a customer success team in the future, you won't just hire five CSMs; you’ll hire an onboarding specialist, a technical specialist, and three CSMs.

My personal hot tip for what I see as being the key split is twofold. First, there’s implementation. I think it’s becoming a discipline in its own right, and it's going to branch off from customer success and become its own thing.

I also believe that, in time, we're going to see an end to this fashion for calling people with growth targets CSMs and there'll be a new title within the next few years.

Finally, I predict that this diversification of role types is going to lead to greater standardization and codification across the industry of what it means to be a CSM, a technical specialist, or an implementation consultant. The plus side for CS leaders is that more clearly defined role titles are going to make it an awful lot easier to source and hire the right people.

If you're building out a CS function, I'd strongly encourage you to think about these three areas:

  1. Product: What is your product? How technical is it?
  2. Company size: How many different types of people can you fit in? If you're a startup, you might just need one CSM for now. If you’re a bit bigger, try and fit in some of the specialized areas we’ve looked at.
  3. Customer lifecycle: How often do your clients need proactive engagement from a CSM?

This is going to help you define what your CS team should look like and where on the sliding scale you put them. You’ll then have a much clearer vision of the targets your CSMs should be working towards, the compensation that fits their roles, and how best to advertise for them.