• May 30, 2024
  • By Liz Miller, vice president and principal analyst, Constellation Research

When Did Customer Success Stop Being Successful?

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Success isn’t like beauty—it shouldn’t be measured solely in the eye of the beholder. Success should be successful in measurable results, specifically in mutually beneficial results that find both customer and vendor declaring success.

So why does customer success feel like a lopsided relationship where only one party wins?

Customer success is sometimes described by both vendor and buyer as costly and time-consuming, or an afterthought to the main event, added on as an incidental piece of the larger transaction. This is especially true in enterprise software, where customer success’s value can be defined by any number of parameters—from renewals and cross-selling to upselling and lifetime revenue. Some organizations have entire departments dedicated to customer success; others have eliminated expensive, bloated, and underperforming success teams that failed to move a needle that was never well established to begin with.

In mid-2023 a trio of partners at the famed venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz published a blog titled “Customer Success Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.” They noted that customer success failures occurred most often when problems originating outside of the team directly associated with the project took center stage. According to the blog’s authors, solving this issue lies in where the success teams focus and the context of the organization’s transformation project. Success, they argue, should be “laser-focused” on the customer’s “hierarchy of needs” to ensure that customers stay “on track to realize positive business outcomes.”

If we could re-architect customer success, while fully knowing where transformation projects lose focus and drive failures, how would we purpose-build success to be more mutually beneficial and profitable? Is there a way to turn success from a frustrating failure into a value driver?


Step 1: Determine What Success Program Is Right for You and Your Business

Not all customer success programs are alike. Some are free programs based on enhanced service and support, purpose-built to accelerate implementation and adoption. For some solutions, this extra layer of success support is more security blanket than added hands—but that may be all you and your team need. Not every nail requires a heavy-duty extra-large hammer!

However, for complex business- and mission-critical systems such as enterprise resource planning, service management, enterprise content management, and enterprise asset management, or across customer experience platforms, customer success (and perhaps even more importantly, customer success strategy and planning) can be critical to outcome optimization. These customer success programs are likely longer in scope and have dedicated resources assigned to accounts.

Because customer success programs can vary in scope and vision, don’t assume that a program will be proactive in addressing needs. If you need a dedicated resource or an executive leader focused on data about implementation, utilization, support, and experience, speak up and ensure that the customer success program you are working with is proactive in nature and entrenched in data. Others are more data-driven, looking for cues and signals that could indicate that a challenge or issue is on the horizon.

There are also premium customer success programs that operate as on-demand resources for program rollout or flexible, on-call resources. These premium programs also often include significant program, goal, and resource planning and strategy sessions that a more reactive success program may not be able to provide. Knowing what programs are available should be part of initial decision making and be a continuous dialogue as the vendor-customer relationship develops.

Step 2: Look Beyond the SLA

For CX and operations leaders—especially those who have stood up complex, holistic, and fully integrated platforms that power critical operations of their business—the service-level agreement (SLA) is both a requirement and a potential pitfall. Time and again, SLAs overfocus on operational implementation benchmarks, which are, in turn, assigned achievement incentives or missed-mark penalties. To be clear, the SLA and the ongoing customer success strategy should be two different, albeit connected, things.

Although SLAs are focused on benchmarks, they can often be templated with standardized goals for project management. There is often an under-focus on business outcomes or key indicators of value, lacking a shared understanding of how the customer defines value.

Success in a vacuum is simply not success. Outcomes evolve, especially those tied to ongoing business operations and growth. Technology in modern infrastructures aims to stay flexible, to have the ability to bend easily without breaking, to scale. When it comes to successful digital transformation initiatives, organizations need elasticity—the ability to stretch and shift under pressure yet return to their expected shape once the forces and pressures causing the shift are removed. Digital transformation has muscle memory that customer success and ongoing improvements and optimization should rely on to advance the key moments that matter.

Step 3: Be Realistic About Goals, Resources, and Priorities

It may sound obvious to say that a key to customer success for both the vendor and the customer is to set short-term goals with long-term visions. In reality, teams often do one or the other. This is where reality comes in: You need both and shouldn’t settle for choosing one over the other or be told that one will organically follow the other. It won’t.

Create a prioritized plan with near-term timelines and success markers and long-term outcomes and shared definitions that quantify success. By tracking priorities and goals, teams can quickly realize value in near-term priorities; report and even brag about those achievements; and instead of stalling or getting stuck in that afterglow of near-term wins, will be motivated to build on that success, even if priorities have shifted in response to business needs. With an outcomes mindset, stakeholders can focus on quick wins and track each win toward a more durable long-term transformation.

But reality also needs to be a constant partner in assessing everything from business goals to business resources. With any digital transformation effort, no matter how large or small, the reality may be that access to talent and resources is the primary challenge to moving forward effectively. Customer success programs where partnering organizations have ready access to on-call and on-demand talent help address this reality head-on without risking future success.


There is no last page of a customer success journey that reads “The End” and sends us on our merry way. Customer success is an ongoing process of proactive analysis and engagement that is more of a partnership than a contract. Customer success teams should—and can—be a vital part of digital transformation impact and outcomes. Regardless of what type or style of customer success your technology partners may offer, customer success should be focused on long-term business success and not just near-term application achievements. Milestones are nice, but meaningful value-based metrics are better.

In an age of frenetic change and more than a few transformation and technology implementation failures, customers are looking for consistency, scalability, and focus. By adopting a posture of intentional outcome-driven success, customer success teams can help their customers fix their eyes firmly on the future: future innovations, future transformation, and future-proofed technology investments that drive tangible business value. Customers, with a shared vision of value and a clearly articulated transformation plan, can rest assured that their business value is the first priority. 

Liz Miller is vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, covering the broad landscape of customer experience strategy and technologies.

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