Success Planning

Success plans are key for expansion, adoption & fixing churn since it has a direct effect on NRR. In this article, you will learn more about how to succeed and what to avoid. You will also learn about signals from the customer that may hold important information for your business, and concrete tools and frameworks to help you get started right away.


NRR and Success Planning

The median NRR was found to be 102% in a survey consisting of 350 SaaS companies. Companies above that level will keep growing on existing customers, while the companies below - some as low as 60% - will have a tough time keeping customers.  The drivers of NRR are churn and expansion. If you have an 8% churn, your average customer stays for more than 12 years, so onboarding is just a small part of the journey with the customer. At an even lower churn, success planning becomes even more important.This is where the Success plan comes in.


What Happens after Onboarding?

Very few companies can answer this question. Typically, onboarding is a clearly defined process, and surely it’s an important one. But the customer’s journey with us doesn’t end there. In fact, onboarding is just a small part of our journey together (hopefully). What I often see are companies who onboard customers and then leave them because there’s a lack of success planning. Then, there is a churn. If you have real success planning, you will see expansion and you can plan for it.


Lack of Expansion = Bad Sign

Oftentimes, organizations tell themselves that customer success merely is keeping the customer. “We avoid churn and we do our job”, but that’s not enough. If we don't see expansion on a customer that's been with us for a while, it’s a bad sign. Things must move forward - a fact that sometimes is overlooked and missed. How do we drive this then? Well, if we haven't worked with success planning before it can be hard. But I’ll help you in this article.


Common Issues with Success Plans 

Some common issues that people struggle with in their success plans are the following:

  • Too high level: The plans are big and ambitious but don’t really help you in the day-to-day work
  • Too complex: You got a big powerpoint or an old document that hasn’t been updated in a long while. A complex plan on a drive somewhere that’s not being used.
  • Not the customer’s plan: This is an issue when we build plans around ourselves instead of around the customer. We see how the customer can grow, expand etc. but we fail to include them in the planning.

Moreover, there are so many buzzwords out there when talking about success plans. What’s the difference between them? How do they fit together, and how does the success plan fit into them? Let's address other, common concepts you might have heard of or worked with to get a contextual understanding of how they are interconnected.

  1. Value proposition: What you offer to the market. As an example, let’s look at a CRM-system. Their value proposition is to make it easier for business-owners to grow. That’s their reason for being. It’s a general level and often used in for example marketing efforts.
  2. Desired outcome: Comes down to one specific customer, for example, a customer to the CRM-system may have the desired outcome to grow sales by 25%. You can elaborate more on a specific customer level.
  3. Goals: One level deeper and more concrete. For example, a customer bought the CRM-system with the desired outcome to grow 25%, and now they have a goal to get all their sales reps to complete 2 more appointments per week by the end of Q2. 
  4. Milestones: Actions that support the goal. For example, continuing with the CRM-system example, it could be that all users should add calendar functionality, or that all users add new leads into the product. Milestones are steps on our way to the goal.
  5. Actions: What we do to get the milestones happening. For example: “Workshop training with users on how to add calendar and prospecting functionality”, or: “set up and go through a report showing appointments.” This is important because people can keep track of if we’re on the way to hit our goal.

Success planning mainly revolves around desired outcome and goals - these are key to great success planning. In order to set goals, we must remember that goals = objective + time frame. In order to achieve something concrete, it has to be measurable with a time frame.


When Customers Don’t Respond

A problem linked to not having success plans and not working with goals is that we sometimes try to do things with the customers but we don’t get any response. That’s a clear sign that we’re not working with goals or success planning in a proper way. 

Reasons for the customer not responding:

  • We’re not seen as a priority to them
  • We mean more work for them
  • There are changes on their side we’re not aware of

If we've tried to reach a customer without any response, I would assume it’s one of these reasons behind it (or that we’re simply not working properly with success plans and goals). I know some people work with business review-meetings, and it’s a reason for us calling the customer, but what’s in it for them? Why should they have a business review with us?My belief is that it’s a reason we make up in order to talk to the customer, but a business review has no real value in itself. We need a success plan and goal to get traction. We can call the meeting whatever, but the fundamentals are a plan and goal.

When we try to reach a customer without response, something may have happened on their side. We have to deepdive into the context of the customer to understand what this goal should be. If everyone in an organization has tried to get a goal going with a customer, but failed, then we need to ask ourselves why. Usually, it’s something that we’ve missed in the context.


Why Context Matters

Context is about understanding the customer (sometimes we talk about customer health here too). Context is about the commercial side of things: the customer contract, what plan are they on, how many users they have, when is the setup for renewal, what’s the potential. We may have started with one team or user, but we can do much more. It’s also about usage - how do they use our tool and platform? Are they using everything, parts of our service - or nothing at all? If they don’t use anything, there's no point in introducing new features. Then maybe the goal should be that they start using our service in the first place.

The customer experience is also part of this; maybe they use our product, but they're not happy with it. Issues, bugs or other parts of our delivery are not doing the work. The experience is poor for the customer.

We also need to know who we’re working with which is something we call joint accountability - we work together with the customer. We need to know who’s on the customer side. Who are they, and do we know all stakeholders? Are the stakeholders limited to one or more?

Another important part is progress. When was the last time we talked to them? When was the last time we had a conversation about goals? Are we driving any goals and development with them? What has happened on their side? Has the super user or decision maker changed? These are all important signals to pick up. We need to understand all these contextual matters from the customer’s point of view in order to enable a conversation about goals.

Once we have this, we can talk about desired outcomes and link goals to it, and you can put a structure around it. I want to emphasize the importance of having something you can share and work on internally to keep this unified. Put a structure in place; a framework everyone can work with.


Uncomfortable to Deal With

When you talk about goals and success plans, it can be a topic that is uncomfortable for CSM’s to talk about. It could be an area we haven't addressed before, something we haven't done before. We've focused on selling and onboarding, now we’re introducing something new. This could be an uncomfortable situation due to:

  • New behavior: typically, we’re used to focusing on configuration, data, setups… And now we need to change.
  • New territory: in the sales process, they talk about the customer’s business side, what they want to achieve etc., and this may have been lost in the handover during the onboarding. It’s a new territory to deepdive into the customer’s side of the business.
  • New stakeholders: There may be new key players to involve. Sometimes our main contact is a super user or admin person, and we lose the other people who are important in our success with the customer. Managers, C-level’s, executives who signed the agreement in the first place and who are responsible for the outcome we should achieve with our system. That's the person we lose track of, the one we forget to keep in the loop, and that also makes talking about goals and involving the right people uncomfortable.

We need to remind ourselves that there’s no point in being uncomfortable; if we want to develop something on the customer's side (for example turn things around if things aren't going well) or take the next step, we need to have a conversation around the customer's goal. Discuss their business outcome. Remember: they became customers in the first place, so we have to remind ourselves that they want to improve. 


Goal Setting

What happens when you ask the customer what their goal is? The response is commonly that they don't know. They don't know and can’t articulate what they want out of the deal. What do we do then? Impact Academy (our academy where we train in customer success together with Lincoln Murphy) we have several templates and I want to share one with you: The goal-setting framework. The framework is based around the following questions to help guide you:

  • What (what do they want to achieve - dig into this)
  • When (is this a priority? Is there anything else of higher priority?)
  • Why (priority depends on why. Are they raising money? Entering new markets? Adding parts to their platform? What’s going on in their business?)
  • How (how do we get this?)
  • Whom (who sits on the customer side?)


Part of the framework is also objections. People will try to avoid this topic, so how do we work with this? Getting used to talking about goals is about training yourself in this. Our template helps you figure out what the goal is for the customer. Then, you can enter a meeting with an idea and then put out questions that can help you arrive at a conclusion. We also try to foresee what objections will come up. “If we ask this question, what will they object with?” and then we have a plan for how to address it in a good way.

You need to work with this! I know it’s uncomfortable at first - you ask the customer, you don’t feel comfortable, you want to get back to working as you have done it before, but the only way forward is to work with it.

When you have agreed with the customer on a goal that they truly own and embrace, your mission is to work together with them to achieve it. We shouldn’t push a goal at them, but rather let it be a result from a conversation with them. They own the goal. Then you can share the goal in your shared workspace for example, to keep it visible.


Success Plan: How Efficiently Drive Next Steps with Customers

An additional benefit of getting started with success plans is that you can start to measure: measure the number of goals activated, number of goals achieved… Figure out what happens after onboarding. This helps you measure how good you are at developing the customer base after it. Goal achievement is a great way to track this. 

You can also put this into KPI for CSM: How many goals do you achieve within a specific time frame? How do you evaluate the CSM’s performance? Measure! Success plans are great tools to manage the team and create the right behavior in Customer Success Managers.


So, to wrap it up:

  • Success plans are key for expansion, adoption & fixing churn (direct effect on NRR)
  • Success plans are about achieving the customer’s goal - together with them. Find out what the goal is. Make the goals measurable with a timeframe and then work together.
  • Success planning never stops (hopefully). Always do something new with your customers!


Good luck and reach out to me if you'd like to discuss this further or if you have any questions.

// Johan Nilsson, Founder and CEO of Startdeliver