Expect the unexpected. It's an old saying I like to use when times get tough—but I, like many of you, did not expect 2020 to be quite that tough or unexpected. Nor did millions of companies around the world that were forced to go into perpetual “expect the unexpected” mode, with no chance to plan and prepare, but to adapt to the unprecedented change.  

At the same time, this constant change made companies more resilient. It drove innovation that ultimately helped them survive the crisis. I witnessed this myself working with my own customers during the pandemic, and it inspired me to look at the emerging trends in customer success.

To gain a clearer picture of these trends, I connected with CSMs both in and outside Microsoft. Then in February last month, I was able to validate my findings when I attended the Virtual Customer Success Summit hosted by Future of SaaS. There I had the opportunity to connect with a galaxy of CS leaders and experts and learn how they rapidly adapted to help their customers through the crisis.

From that Summit, and drawing on my own experience within and passion for this field, here are the Top 10 trends shaping the future of customer success:

1. CSMs are now business continuity advisors

The two biggest changes faced by companies have involved customer engagement and employee engagement: how to engage with customers virtually and enable employees to work remotely.

As a result, CSMs have become business continuity advisors, helping customers identify new opportunities, recalibrate processes, and optimize technology to meet new demands.

“During the pandemic, we saw an unprecedented need for customers to evolve and digitize at an accelerated pace, more than ever before. Our team of CSMs worked tirelessly with customers to introduce creative strategies, that delivered significant results and drove the customer's business forward.” - Hema Sandhu, Director of Customer Success at  Microsoft

2. Adopting agile engagements to move from survive to thrive mode

Agility emerged as every company’s most critical survival factor. So CSM engagements also became agile. Focus shifted to high-priority business needs, value-driven solutions, and rapid execution.

Our CSM teams at Microsoft practiced agile methodology and leveraged our innovative Microsoft Power Platform Solutions to build apps offering rapid delivery, easy adoption, and accelerated time to value.

3. Digital engagements are transforming the virtual world of work

Digital is now the default mode of engagement. Customer workshops that involved cross-functional teams and used to take place in boardrooms with whiteboards have now shifted to virtual rooms (Teams, Zoom) with interactive digital boards (Klaxoon, Miro).

CSMs must approach these activities with new standards for digital engagement that take into account empathy, intelligence, and reciprocity.

4. Data-driven CSMs will become even more data-driven

Data plays a pivotal role in customer retention and growth. This role will only continue to expand, with future strategies focusing on aggregating customer data and leveraging AI to provide actionable insights on usage trends, potential churn, and growth opportunities.

5. Greater focus on scaling CS efforts

The urgency to scale CS efforts has never been greater. To do that, companies need to:

  • Segment customers based on key factors such as revenue and potential growth.
  • Divide those segments into three categories: high, medium and low-touch.
  • Build distinct engagement models and leverage different strategies, channels, for each category. Empower customers with self-serve or DIY programs and tools to drive success.

6.  Automation needs to balance with personalization

One of the biggest challenges to scale CSM operations is finding the right balance of automation and personalization. Technology itself can support this by leveraging automated CS processes to support medium- and low-touch customers while CSM provides a more personalized experience to strategic and/or high-touch customers.

"Customer intimacy is at the heart of Personalization; it means you know your customer better than anyone else and provide amazing customer experiences with significant outcomes.” - Mary Poppen, Chief Customer Officer, Glint at LinkedIn

7. Sales and Customer Success alignment creates synergy

Like CS, the sales process has also evolved. The traditional sales cycle, with pre-sales and post-sales, is being replaced by a continuous process comprising two key phases: prospect and growth.

This new sales process requires that the customer success role be introduced early so that Sales and CS are working together in the prospect phase. Once this is complete, the customer moves into the growth phase where CSM works to realize business value and uncover further value. CSM hands the opportunity back to Sales, and the process continues.

"Rather than thinking in pre and post-sales terms, founders and leaders would be better served by aligning and incentivizing their teams around a continuous sales motion, where Sales and Customer Success teams work together on common territories and CS is focused on accelerating the speed at which customer's realize value from their initial purchase and work to identify more opportunities." - Rav Dhaliwal, Crane Ventures Partner

8. Customer success evolves as the new growth engine

Today’s customers have high expectations around achieving business value from their technology investments, which is why customer success has evolved as a growth engine for software companies. Thus CSMs are playing a more strategic game, drawing from their intimate knowledge of a customer’s business objectives and technology landscape to identify growth opportunities.

“The focus is now about using customer success to grow existing services and create new services to deliver even more value for customers, and help customers grow” -  Jason Noble, VP, Global Customer Success at Vinli Inc.

9. Success is expanding into strategy

As customers strive to reimagine their businesses and redesign their business models, CSMs will play a more strategic and advisory role—that of Customer Strategy Manager.

This new role is increasingly being relied on to provide strategic guidance, facilitate executive-level envisioning, and build a blueprint for growth by aligning goals with solutions and ensuring software delivers value.

10. Customer success is becoming a promising career discipline

Customer success is gaining traction as a promising career option among post-secondary graduates and experienced professionals alike. And as more companies invest in customer success, the demand for CS professionals will only continue to grow.

LinkedIn listed Customer Success Manager as the third most promising job for 2018. And the University of San Francisco recently launched an MBA Program: Customer Success Management.

“Currently there is not a huge pool of CSMs to take on the ever-increasing demand of CS. The future of CS will focus on attracting graduates and experienced professionals to this field, benefits like working remotely will play a key role in attracting new talent.” - Tanya Strauss, Director of Customer Success Strategy and Operations at ServiceNow

While companies now are looking to return to some form of normal 2.0, there is no doubt that our collective future will be forever different from here on in. Increasingly, future-proofing will become a priority for CSMs as they help organizations build permanent resilience into their business models.