Take Two: how the customer success landscape has evolved

LearningsMay 25, 2022

The customer success (CS) landscape is constantly changing. Last year we wrote about why we thought it was the next vertical to explode within the traditional B2B landscape. As new technologies and platforms are developed, we’ve seen the customer success role expand and deepen, which has brought some clarity to the space. Lots of people, founders and investors alike (including us), have talked extensively about retention or churn and the quest for a high net dollar retention (NDR) metric. The data exists to prove that net dollar retention strongly correlates to enterprise value. And net dollar retention is driven by keeping existing customers happy!

To shoot for a high net dollar retention, your customer success strategy must adapt to the changing landscape and the refined definitions of roles and categories in the space. But what does it take to have a high NDR and where should you start? Is it the beginning of the customer journey, near the point of renewal, or somewhere in between? In our previous post, we surfaced a few different categories but over the past year, we’ve consolidated our thinking to view the CS function as solving 3 key problems: onboarding new customers, engaging them, and finally renewing them. We believe these 3 categories ultimately address the issues that customer success, as a defined role within a company, set out to solve: helping companies identify and fix problems with product-market fit. Issues can range from product features and reliability, pricing, poor ideal customer profile (ICP), lack of alignment on product capabilities, plus many more.

Having reflected on the past year, and what we are seeing in companies who’ve seemingly cracked the net dollar retention metric, we will share what we’ve learned about where the best place to start is to address any issues. We’ll also explore why community-led growth is a great way to engage your customers along the way.


In the past, onboarding was primarily focused on getting new customers up and running on a product or platform. However, as the customer success landscape has evolved, it has become clear that onboarding is much more than that. Onboarding is now about developing a relationship with the customer at its earliest stage while also ensuring that they are successful in using your product or platform throughout their customer journey.

We’ve seen some companies take this approach and ensure a “handoff” between sales and CS exists with mutual action plans between the two groups. Ensuring alignment from the pre-sales process to the post-sales process is key to understanding the expectations of the customer, creating that relationship at the earliest juncture possible, and also, maybe, more importantly, making sure you have the right customer profile that fits your product. Maybe the question to ask is how early in the process do we actually need to implement an active customer success strategy? We’ve seen some companies take a more holistic approach, being prescriptive in building workflows and automations around CS playbooks and implementation strategy, where these workflows essentially act as the “cockpit” for where customer collaboration and tasks live. Companies like Accord, Arrows, Bento, Cast.app, Dock, GuideCX, OnRamp, Recapped, and Rocketlane are all attacking this space in their own specific ways.

We also believe onboarding will become more personalized and adaptive. As the software landscape becomes more complex, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for customers to onboard themselves, and as a result, we’ve seen a convergence of product-led motions and onboarding. In the future, we believe that customer success teams will need to provide more personalized and adaptive onboarding experiences in order to help customers get the most out of their investment quickly.

This more tailored onboarding experience can address the issue around solving personalization at scale, with many companies moving to self-serve or following product-led growth (see my colleague, Justin’s post on PLG/PLS). Most of the companies in the product-led growth/product-led sales(PLG/PLS) space are figuring out how to use data to help facilitate a purchase of the product. But we also see an opportunity on the CS side where companies can use similar data to help onboard a company on certain features. We particularly like where onboarding sits as a wedge into potentially larger use cases. The onboarding category allows you to have the earliest influence on making a customer successful based on relationship, understanding expectations, and applying the underlying data of successful customers. If you can do the above, we believe you’re on your way to accomplishing the most important part of the onboarding category: recording and measuring the value customers expect to receive from the product. We further believe this early understanding of customer expectations could support the engagement phase. engagement, where the onboarding companies displace the more known vendors in the CS landscape.


Post-onboarding, it makes sense to break the engagement phase into 3 different sub-categories: the platform, community, and traditional customer support. And to look at each in its own right.

Platform: This is probably the most familiar of the categories, and where the OGs really helped to create the CS landscape with the likes of Gainsight, Totango, and ChurnZero to name a few. We’ve heard from customers and prospects that implementation times for some platform products can take up to a year! So it’ll come as no surprise that there are a bunch of upstarts that are hoping to disrupt these platforms (the likes of Catalyst, ClientSucces, CustomerSuccessBox, Involve.ai, PlanHat, and Vitally) by providing an easier-to-use, and easier to integrate system to determine where you should focus your time and effort.

The question for us in this category is whether these companies are going deeper than simply offering a glorified dashboard on top of Salesforce. I always look for the analytic insights they can potentially drive to customer success managers to proactively renew clients and mitigate churn. What information can your technology give me that I can’t get anywhere else, to help me better understand my customer? Today, most mid-market companies we’ve talked to have either already made a decision to forgo an external platform or are building something custom on top of Salesforce. So the sale starts to get a little more complex in this space.

Community: the more I dig into this space, the more convinced I am that community is a fundamental part of CS. At the end of the day, it’s about tapping into those that use your product the most and ultimately making them advocates of your product. Your community can help with other customers, and prospects, or lift the product/category altogether by talking about the industry. All these actions, I believe, help reduce churn and that’s why I include them in the CS and the engagement bucket.

In the future, we believe that community will become a more integral part of the customer success experience. We also believe that customer success teams will use the community to build relationships with their customers, drive product adoption, and provide real-time feedback on new features and products. As a result, customer success professionals need to be focused on building strong communities that can provide valuable support to customers from a CRM-like perspective, an insights and intent perspective, or an events perspective to bring them together.

Some tools in this area are Common Room, Commsor, Higher Logic, Orbiit, Orbit, Peritus.ai, and Run the World. It’s important to think that while there have been other community tools that have launched in the past, companies like Lithium, Jive, and Insided never quite made it to scale. I’d love thoughts as to why. Today, we’re bullish on community and the effect a thriving one can have on the trajectory of a company.

Support: In the past, support was primarily focused on providing answers to customer questions. However, as the customer success landscape has evolved, it has become clear that support is much more than that. Today, the most effective support functions are becoming more proactive and preventative with AI agents, etc in the background trying to answer questions. We’ve seen some natural patterns of SMBs starting on Front or Intercom, potentially going to Zendesk, then to Salesforce Service Cloud or Hubspot Service Cloud. There are many startups taking this category on from our own portfolio Ultimate.ai to others like Chatdesk, Forethought, Gorgias, Help Scout, Replicant, and Solvvy, among others.


Paying attention to the renewal phase of a customer journey has always played a key role in customer success. In the future, we believe that renewals, as part of the engagement category, will become even more important. There are 2 elements to renewals that we’ve seen companies tackle: 1) forecasting and 2) health scores (some embed health scores into the platforms mentioned above).

For forecasting, it seems like taking simple math of your current contracts up for renewal and forecasting that out of Salesforce. But we all know that’s easier said than done, especially trying to extract and make Salesforce easier to digest. Sometimes it’s not just simple math as there are a lot of indirect factors that influence that forecast, such as relationship, product usage, etc.

When it comes to health scores, we have a love-hate relationship. We love the concept of them but for the most part, we don’t believe that they are as useful as they could be. If you are looking at a score to determine whether you should have active conversations with a customer, by that time you’re probably already too late. And what does the score really tell you? What are the inputs? Almost always, we’ve seen customers churning for the same reasons: no one uses the product, the champion leaves, or the company went out of business. As a result, product usage is a clear and useful indicator of health, but it is almost impossible to measure the other two signals. In order to be effective, we believe health scores will need to encompass more signal inputs to be effective.

These are just a few of the trends that we believe will significantly impact customer success in the future. We believe building the customer relationship as early as possible will help address customer churn and why we believe onboarding is the most interesting wedge into the broader CS landscape. By starting early, hopefully, you can ensure customers are using your product and you’ve built strong enough relationships with the broader team to mitigate the risk if your champion leaves. As for the company going out of business, let’s just hope for the best!

What do you think will be the most important trend for customer success in the future? Let us know!

And special thanks to Chris Hicken at Nuffsaid for his feedback!