This article is taken from a talk given by Dan Pino and Corinne Goldberg at Customer Success Festival in June 2021. The whole presentation is available on demand.

Let’s start with a quick introduction: we’re Corinne Goldberg and Dan Pino, and we’re customer success managers at Slack.

We deliver a white-glove service to Slack’s mid-market and enterprise customers, and we're humbled to have the opportunity to serve as strategic advisors and enable our customers' success.

Alongside serving our customers, a key part of our roles is innovation. We want to challenge ourselves to be more strategic, impactful, and intentional with our customers in a way that adds value to their world and drives growth in our business.

We're super excited to be here today to tell you a bit about how we’ve driven innovation and scaled customer success at Slack. We're going to share some ideas and innovations that have helped us bring greater agility to the way that we work.

We hope these ideas will spark conversations and inspire you to think about how to innovate and elevate your customer success strategy.

Main talking points include:

Why is innovation important in customer success?

We operate in incredibly dynamic spaces. Our products change over time, and so do customer behaviors. Customers’ definitions of success change as their businesses evolve. On top of all that, new competitors are always popping up in the marketplace.

We need to be at the forefront of all that change if we want a seat at the table. We should be consistently adapting the way we serve our customers to stay relevant and strategic.

However, we all have finite resources to serve our customers effectively; as our businesses grow, our ability to serve our customers in the same way shrinks. The trick is to identify the low-effort high-value initiatives that will enable us to work smarter as we scale.

We believe that a good customer success professional understands where their customer is today, and a great customer success professional actively anticipates where their customer will be tomorrow.

good customer success

Prioritizing innovation, in both the way that you serve your customers and the way that you scale your business, will move you from good to great.

It will enable you to drive the agility of your business by streamlining your service model. It will also allow you to drive customer-centricity by meeting customers where they are as their needs evolve with your product or service.

Three key takeaways

There are three ideas we'd like you to take away from this article, which are all going to help you drive innovation to better serve customers as you scale.

Key takeaway #1: Reimagine your operating model

If you want to drive change, you need to reimagine your current operating model and allocate resources to increase value.

Consider how you serve customers today and whether that operating model is fit for the future. As your organization grows and evolves, you’ll naturally have some customers who require more care and attention than others.

You should be nimble in the way that you serve those customer segments according to their needs.

Key takeaway #2: Drive growth by doing more with less

Doing more with less, leveraging data, driving automation, and proper risk management are all keys to success in driving growth. We'll share with you how these key actions will help you scale your customer success model.

Key takeaway #3: Involve customers as partners

Last, you should involve customers as partners to ideate the best way to support their unique journey. As you learn and grow together, your customers will thank you for bringing them along the journey with you.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at each of these ideas.

Reimagine your current operating model

When we think about our operating model, it's important to consider what optimization levers we can pull to do more with less.

Something we’ve thought about here at Slack is how to define a new customer segmentation model that helps us drive growth while maintaining retention.

There are three factors we considered as we thought about this, and the first was: which customers would experience the least pain if we changed our operating model?

We decided to pilot this segmentation innovation with our happy and healthy customers. Those are the customers we can afford to trial new ideas on – they’re good partners, they're receptive to change, and therefore they present less risk to the business.

We selected customers with a green health and maturity score, those who realize high value from our product and who have deployed Slack across their entire organization.

The next factor we thought about is whether our risk appetite is such that our customer success organization is prepared to trial new ways of working that might fail.

Organizations at various stages of growth will each have their own tolerance to risk, so it's important to consider what the risk appetite is and how much pain and gain are at stake when we introduce new ways of working.

customer success impact

We know that customer success has a significant impact on both customer retention and upside, so if the new ideas that we trial are successful, we’ll reap the benefits in both retention and add-on to business.

We also know that customer success is a growth driver. The more we invest in building a model that's fit for the future – even if that means absorbing some pain – the more we’ll be able to make it scalable.

The third factor we thought about is how to measure success and make the new ideas that work part of our standard operating procedure.

A crucial step for us was defining success criteria so that we could effectively greenlight innovation at scale.

It's great to try out new ideas, but ultimately, we needed to feel comfortable that the changes we were introducing would realize value that we could measure over time.

success criteria

Here are some of the questions we ask to gauge the success of our innovations:

  • Can we drive this innovation and still protect revenue?
  • Will this innovation allow us to drive continued adoption of the product as it matures?
  • Is this innovation deepening customer advocacy?
  • Does the innovation drive meaningful change both internally and for our customers?

If you can answer these questions about any new practices you implement in your organization, you’ll have a clearer idea of whether they’re working and if they’re worth scaling.

Let’s move on to some of the nuts and bolts of driving customer success innovation in a growing company.

Driving growth by doing more with less: Three keys to success

Customer success is not just a way to retain customers at Slack – we look at it as more of a growth engine.

But to keep the focus on the growth of the business, you need to make sure that you've got the right resources allocated to the areas with the most opportunity. We found that there are three main keys to success that will allow you to do that.

First, you should be using data to drive every decision both at a portfolio level and for each individual customer. You want to proactively guide them on their journey, and data helps you do that.

Second, you've always got to keep an eye on risk, especially when you're first starting to pilot a new idea. And finally, the more you can standardize and automate, the more resources you'll be able to free up for those areas where there's greater opportunity.

Let’s zoom in on each of these keys to success and see how you can bring them into play in your organization.

🗝 Be data-driven

Here at Slack, data is key to everything that we do, and there are a bunch of great tools that allow us to gather and leverage it.

We use Gamesight to monitor and report on the health of our customers, both at an aggregate portfolio level and at an individual level, so customer success managers can log in and quickly tell where they should be allocating their time.

We also gather product usage data to help guide customers on their Slack journey, with recommended maturity playbooks based on a multifaceted maturity score.

We've even got a couple of data scientists on our customer success team who can help CSMs interpret more advanced insights.

The key here is that data is your best friend. It's so important to invest in proper tooling and resourcing as you grow so that data can be utilized to its fullest potential.

🗝 Manage risk

When you're experimenting with different ways of innovating, it's super important to keep an eye on risks, especially customer churn.

Here at Slack, when we're trying something new, whether that be releasing new features or scaling new ways of interacting with customers, we de-risk the pilots as much as possible from the start so that they have the best chance of success.

So, what does that mean in practice? Well, to start, we're very selective about which customers can participate in the experiments we run.

We look at the outcome that we're hoping to achieve, we find customers that meet that profile, and then we do whatever we can to de-risk the pilot before it even starts.

Often, this involves removing customers from the pilot experiences entirely if there's any sort of risk to the account.

De-risking a pilot early frees up the resources working on it so that they can focus on realizing value from the innovation. Managing risk and customer success are always going to be high-touch and they deserve to have a dedicated resource.

Managing risks is not just a one-time exercise though – it’s an ongoing process.

We run real-time alerts that give us early indicators of risks in an account, and when we get those alerts that maybe something isn't quite right, we reallocate resources to swarm the issue until it's resolved.

🗝 Standardize and automate

The final key to successful innovation is standardizing and automating as many of your processes as possible. This is something I'm really passionate about.

I think CSMs tend to say “yes, yes, yes” to everything that a customer asks. After all, it's our job to make sure that they're successful with our products. But as your business scales and CSMs support more and more customers, this “yes, yes, yes” model isn't sustainable.

It's important then to have some level of standardization and consistency in how you work with customers. As part of this, we're defining more clearly which activities CSMs can help customers with.

This has helped set the right expectations on exactly what customer success is and it gives CSMs greater freedom to politely say no to some requests and redirect them appropriately.

We’re also piloting new operating cadences for certain profiles of customers; for example, our happy and healthy customers get lighter, less frequent, and more meaningful touches, which is better for everyone.

Not every customer needs a standing bi-weekly checkpoint and a QBR every three months.

By consolidating more of these lighter-touch customers into just a couple of CSM’s books, each with a standard operating model and a defined set of activities, we’ve been able to free up other CSMs to focus on accounts where there's more opportunity for growth.

All of this standardization is supported by automation. We've templatized and automated a lot of our customer communications. From product and add-in updates to leadership content, there's always information for our CSMs to share with customers.

Previously, managing that load fell to each CSM, which reduced their bandwidth for more strategic personalized conversations, but thanks to our technical architect team, that work now falls to our new best friend: Success Bot.

Success Bot is a custom Slack app that lets the CSM team share updates with hundreds of customers at once and tracks the engagement of these messages.

It periodically posts enablement materials in Slack connect channels, which is the primary way that our CSMs communicate with customers.

So far we've had great results with Success Bot. It's helped us with our voice and tone consistency and making sure that the team is presenting information regularly.

Success Bot

But the biggest benefit has been time savings: Success Bot is saving our CSMs over 200 hours every month.

We're also getting great customer engagement – we see an average click-through rate of 22% on Success Bot’s messages, and it's great for sparking conversations and upsell opportunities.

We also want to highlight our favorite automation that we use here at Slack: Midas Touch. Before preparing for an executive business review, our CSMs used to have to sort through countless spreadsheets and dashboards to find meaningful data.

Then they'd have to use that data to craft a compelling story from scratch. Doing all of this work would take a full day or even more – just for one meeting.

And so our Slack-on-Slack team built Midas Touch, which now delivers data-informed presentations to our sales and success teams in seconds. We just press a button that says get started and search for an account.

When we enter the account, Midas Touch pulls data from multiple systems and compiles a customized data story directly into a Google Slides presentation.

All of that's done with one command. The data is presented alongside easy-to-understand narratives, which means that CSMs get templated talk tracks that provide additional context on how to interpret and frame the data.

Best of all, these slides are completely customizable, so our CSMs can edit the content for each of our customer's unique contexts, and they can also dig into the data behind the slides to further sharpen the story.

Really, what Midas Touch does is help our CS team work smarter so they have more time to focus on the important things, like helping our customers get the most out of Slack.

Involve customers as partners

This leads us to our third key takeaway for this article, which is that it's important to involve customers as partners and innovate together on their unique journey.

At the end of the day, we can optimize the way we work and serve our customers, but we need to make sure that we do it in a way that adds value.

With almost all of the processes and automations that we put in place, we start out small.

We pilot them with a subset of happy, healthy customers, and then we collect feedback to determine what's working and what's not and then we iterate accordingly. It's all about experimentation, agility, and listening to our customers.

The one thing we try to keep in mind is that we don’t want to innovate at the expense of delivering a ‘custom white glove’ experience.

In other words, it’s great to trial new approaches and ideas that enable you to optimize for growth, but you should do so without jeopardizing the strong relationships that you've built with your customers.

how are we doing

So what has all this innovation done for us? First and foremost, it has allowed us to focus on customer retention and advocacy.

It's also allowed us to be more efficient and allocate our CSM resources to areas of greater opportunity, and it's enabled us to scale our CS org as our business grows.

Most importantly, all this innovation has allowed customer success not just to help retain existing customers, but to reach its full potential as a growth engine.