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When do You Hire a Customer Success Manager?

Matt Preuss - September 16, 2016

#Hiring & Talent

Especially in the early days—when you’re scrapping for revenue and closing last minute deals to hit quarterly goals—it’s easy for SaaS startups to overlook client success. Making a hire on the client success side doesn’t provide the immediate returns like a sales or marketing addition. It won’t improve your product like an engineering addition.  But a strong client success strategy offers enormous value and is every bit as important as sales, marketing and product. It’s a long-term investment in growth and also an indicator your company will grow faster than your competitors and do it with less capital.

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As Tomasz Tunguz wrote, in traditional enterprise sales it was the customer who paid for customer service. Once the product was sold, a yearly licensing fee was issued—often 15-25% of the software price—to finance client success. That doesn’t cut it in the SaaS world. You need to front the cost, but it’s more than worth the responsibility.

A client success manager centralizes communication efforts. In the early days, everyone from the head of IT or CEO might field questions, which sets up a potentially confusing system for solving client problems. Once a client success manager is in place, not only does it organize the customer service process but it also provides clients a regular contact. That adds a personal touch to the feedback loop and it will make your customers more comfortable using the product and reaching out when they have issues.

As a SaaS company, every renewal is a referendum on client success. Each time clients get a bill they have to decide if your software is worth the money. So your client success manager cannot adopt the onboard and release approach, where an account manager typically spends 90 days getting a customer comfortable and then fade away. Instead, your client success manager needs to commit to a multi-year process that involves getting your customers acclimated to your company, developing a rapport and quickly tending to any issues they encounter. That’s what helps keep the renewals coming and increase your customer’s lifetime value.

And your customers will be doing you a service as well. Through solving client’s problems and answering their questions, you’ll be acquiring essential product feedback that will help inform the next wave of iterative improvements.

When to make the first client success hire

Is there a simple revenue mark you need to hit to justify your first client success manager? Not really. Most large SaaS companies add one client success manager for about every $2 million in annual recurring revenue, but you can’t wait until you reach $2 million to make a client success hire. As Jason Lemkin wrote, “hire your first CSM as early as you can afford to, as soon as you have even 1 large customer, or even a handful of medium-sized customers.”

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Lemkin believes once SaaS companies gain initial traction they can plan to spend anticipate about 10% of existing revenue base on the client success efforts.  “At $2m in ARR, budget $200k in headcount for the CSM positions + support.  At $4m, $400k, and so on,” Lemkin wrote. “You may be able to pare this back a bit later, but probably not too much.” Using that benchmark is an easy way to keep your company from putting too much pressure on your client success team and keeping you accountable to growing the team. It’s also a simple way to justify your hiring plan.

As a SaaS company, so much of your success will not only rely on your ability to get clients to renew, but also upgrade and provide additional revenue to the deal. A good client success team could be responsible for handling as much as 75% of revenue. Don’t wait too long to make that first hire or risk losing quite a bit of that.  

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