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4 ways to align your customer success & sales teams

By Jeff Breunsbach

What are two departments that seem to always be at odds with one another in #b2bsaas companies with less than $50MM ARR?

This was the basis of a post on LinkedIn that generated a ton of engagement with leaders In both customer success and sales.

Andrew Paine has spent his career in various Sales, Strategy and GTM leadership roles across multiple industries, ranging from publicly traded companies to early-stage startups. We asked him to provide his perspective on 4 ways to align customer success and sales teams.

Take it over Andrew... 

Interestingly, I find myself writing on a CS blog, having spent pretty much my entire career on the other side of the business.  And it’s because of how important this topic really is. 

In your first year, net new sales will be ~100% of your revenue.  But if you are lucky enough to make it to your 15th year, that simply won’t be the case.  The vast majority of your dollars will come from customer renewal, expansion, and cross-selling.  The only way for a subscription-based business to be valuable (which should be everyone’s goal at a SaaS company) is to not just acquire but to retain and expand customers.  And that won’t happen if sales and CS are at odds.

I’m going to share 4 ways that I’ve seen organizations effectively break down the proverbial wall between sales and CS. But before I do, there are two prerequisites that I’ve found.

  1. You have to have Product/Market Fit.  Said another way, your product genuinely has to provide some benefit that the market values.  If you don’t have this, nothing else really matters, you are going to have friction and churn. You can’t ask your CS team to renew and expand a product that doesn't provide value to your customer.
  2. You have to have some sort of unifying narrative/mission for the company.  People need to realize that they are all a critical cog in a larger machine with a goal to create a successful company by helping your customers do things better than they had been.  Seems simple, and some people might roll their eyes, but everyone needs to realize they should all be rowing in the same direction.

So without further adieu, here are 4 tactical ways I’ve seen successfully implemented to better align Sales and CS.

Incentivize acquiring the right customers, not just any customers.

This is really important for sales to buy into, and needs to be reflected in comp plans. 

A simple way I’ve seen this done: build an Ideal Client Profile (ICP), with this project led by CS, but including product marketing, marketing and sales, with a scoring system for customer attributes.  It’s essentially the “Demographic” half of a lead score (it doesn’t consider behavior/engagement). 

Company characteristics (size, industry, geography, etc.) and stakeholder characteristics (department, seniority) are all counted, and this scoring mechanism is applied to all prospects. 

Then sales leadership can either take the carrot or the stick approach.  Rep with highest average prospect score gets a bonus, for example. 

Or you can simply draw a line and say that no one is allowed to sell to prospects below a certain score. The long and short of it is, figure out what a good customer profile looks like and try to make sure your sales team is only talking to those people.

Incentivize customer renewals for sales, potentially via a bonus.

Situations where AEs sign a new customer, throw it over the fence to CS and get paid whether the customer sticks around or not scare me.  Comp should drive behavior - after all, you get what you incent.  So figuring a way to include customer renewal in the rep’s comp is a great approach.  A few ways this can work, and there are pros and cons of each:

  • Incorporate a residual payment to the AE every time the customer renews.
  • Withhold a portion of the AE’s payout until some later event has happened (they’ve onboarded, they don’t churn in the first 6 months, etc.)
  • Pay out a % of their commission upon the signature of the deal, and tie the remaining % to the first-year renewal (90% upon close, 10% on renewal)
  • Pay a bonus to the salespeople whose customers have the highest renewal rates.
  • Tier commission rates based on their customer renewal rate.  90%+ renewal rate, you are at a 10% payout. 70%-90%, you are at 7% payout, for example.
  • Plenty more examples, but here are a few ideas to get the brain jogging.

Bring in CS prior to signature. Trust me, this will actually lead to a higher close rate for sales.

Try bringing the CS team member into the process prior to closing. 

Painting a vision of service is an invaluable sales skill, so why not let the customer hear it from the horse’s mouth? Let the CS team ask a few questions of the prospect and then lay out a 90-day plan.

Close rates will probably improve, and you will start to break down the wall that has existed between sales and CS.

If economics allow it, keep the AE assigned to the account for upsell/cross-sell, so you aren't just throwing it over the proverbial fence.

This is likely more enterprise-focused, but if your numbers allow it, keeping the sales rep tied to the account is great for a few reasons. 

  • The customer gets to keep a continuous relationship with your business
  • The salesperson inevitably has knowledge of the account that could be useful for the CS team but didn’t make it into Salesforce, 
  • The AE knows that bringing on good customers and working tightly with the CS team could actually financially benefit him/her. 
  • The two teams working together get both teams to realize their counterpart is an actual person, not a faceless department put there to ruin your workday experience. Collaboration across teams is a great recipe for breaking down walls.

These aren’t the only four and I am certain teams out there have figured out other tactics. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches. Just remember that data and collaboration are both your friends here. 

Lastly, make sure to tie leading metrics and lagging indicators to these 4 tactics to ensure you can properly measure results. 

Published May 19, 2020
About the Author

Jeff serves as the Director of Accounts, overseeing business operations and ensuring the delivery and quality of all client engagements with numerous B2B SaaS clients to drive revenue growth through customer success strategy and execution. See full bio ›

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