People often confuse customer happiness with customer success. Here’s why that’s a mistake: Happiness is an emotion that we can’t control in other people. We may have customers who seem unhappy because they’re always asking for more, opening support tickets, or giving us a low Net Promoter Score (NPS). And yet they continue to do business with us. On the other hand, we may have customers who seem happy — and will even tell us they are happy — who cancel their accounts. Why this mismatch? Because focusing on happiness leads us astray. Instead, we need to help our customers solve their problems.

My course, Fundamentals of Real Customer Success, helps customer success managers hone their skills and pick up best practices. In this post, I’ll share four customer success fundamentals that will help your company deliver exactly what customers need.

Fundamentals of Real Customer Success

Last Updated May 2020

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Ensure your customers stay longer, buy more, and advocate for you by helping them achieve their desired outcome. | By Lincoln Murphy

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4 customer success fundamentals

1. Understand what we mean by customer success — and what we don’t

Customer success is when our customers achieve their desired outcome through their interactions with our company. Desired outcome means what they need to achieve, the way they need to achieve it, so it’s required outcome plus appropriate experience (which I sometimes abbreviate as AX). If we can get our customers what they need, the way they need it, through all their interactions with our company, then that’s customer success. 

To help illustrate this point, imagine a business traveler and a family going to Disneyland. They each have the same goal: to get from Point A to Point B safely and quickly. But their requirements and expectations for the experience will be different. A business traveler will need space to work during the flight, an outlet to plug their laptop in, and a relatively calm and quiet environment. If they have to sit in coach and they can’t get any of these things, they won’t have the appropriate experience. So it’s not just about helping people achieve a goal, but helping them get there in a way that’s appropriate for their needs and expectations.

I also mentioned earlier that a lot of people conflate customer happiness with success. This is problematic because we can’t solve for other people’s happiness. Some companies actually operationalize around customers that seem unhappy, investing resources and time to try to increase their happiness. Yet often those customers are fine. This is why having clarity on our definition of customer success is so important. 

Is the customer doing what they need to meet their goal? If they’re doing those things, we know they’re getting value. If we don’t start there, nothing else matters. Whether they seem happy, unhappy, they’re paying their bills, or opening support tickets — all of these things are ultimately meaningless unless we first look at whether they’re doing the things necessary to get value. Sooner or later, they’re going to cease being our customer if they’re not getting value. Start there and always go back to that.

2. Know why customer success is important

In my course, Fundamentals of Real Customer Success, I explain in detail why customer success matters to your company, your customers, and you. I’m a big believer in knowing why we do what we do, so I see this as a customer success fundamental.

To put it simply, we want our customers to stay longer, buy more, and advocate for us. And we get those three things by focusing on the customer’s desired outcome and making sure the customer is getting more value over time. 

We can tie customer success to some Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that directly impact our company such as Customer Lifetime Value, Net Revenue Retention, and Customer Acquisition Cost. We can also see how successful customers contribute to future sales by providing testimonials and references. When customers are so successful that they’re willing to spread the word about your company, this helps accelerate your sales cycle and can reduce Customer Acquisition Costs, too. To sum up, customer success directly impacts the value of your company.

3. Define the desired outcome for your customers

Once you’ve gained clarity on what customer success is and why it’s important, it’s time to dig in and get to know your customers and their desired outcomes. In fact, I believe you need to know your customer better than they know themselves.

Keep in mind that some of the terms I’m using, like “desired outcome” are behind-the-scenes terms. This is not something that we ask a customer directly. Instead, you can look at adjacent products, things they use that are similar. Try to find another product that’s similar to yours, purchased by the same people, and close to the same price. Ask your customers, “What has been your experience with X so far?” Their answers will tell you a lot about their desired outcome and appropriate experience. For example, if someone says, “They never get on the phone with me,” that tells you the appropriate experience for this customer would be more one-on-one time. You can then start to understand their expectations and take those learnings and validate them with a larger audience. 

This is a great opportunity to put on your detective hat and be creative. Ask your customers about their goals and what they’re trying to achieve this year. Learn about their priorities and challenges. And when it’s safe and feasible, I definitely recommend visiting customers, going onsite, and observing them. This is not for training or talking about your product — this is to get a sense of how they go about their job and to create context that helps you define appropriate experiences. 

4. Outline each of your roles in reaching that outcome

The next customer success fundamental is being able to define success milestones. We know where our customer needs to go based on our understanding of them and their explicit explanation of their goals. But we need to figure out where they are today so we can meet them there and take them where they need to go. 

In order to achieve this, we literally list out all the steps — things they’ll do in the product, out of the product, things we’ll do with them, things we’ll do for them. Explain to your customer that you’ll go through these milestones to help them achieve their goal. 

This also involves joint accountability. You’re both committing to a specific course of action with the understanding that if one party doesn’t do what they said they’d do, they won’t be able to achieve their goal. 

And I have to mention that this is not a “set it and forget it” situation. We need to go back regularly to reevaluate our customers’ goals and make sure they’re still on track. What we share with customers is the promise of becoming a better version of themselves. If we deliver on that promise, they will change and there will be a logical next step for them. We should try to get ahead of that as much as possible.

To learn more about these customer success fundamentals and develop the skills you’ll need to stay ahead of customers’ needs, check out my course, Fundamentals of Real Customer Success.

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Page Last Updated: May 2020