Best Approaches for the Presales-Customer Success Continuum - Great Demo

Best Approaches for the Presales-Customer Success Continuum

presales-customer success

Best Approaches for the Presales-Customer Success Continuum

A Never Stop Learning! Article


“After working as presales prior to the sale, then assisting with implementation, and then continuing in a CSM role, the customer said it was the most successful major project ROI they’d ever seen – and extended an offer to hire me!”
– Presales Practitioner

“Our objective is to maximize CLV (Customer Lifetime Value) for every customer.”
– Member, Board of Directors, SaaS Company


What’s in This Article for You?

  • A customer’s perspective
  • High-fidelity handoffs
  • The enormous value of relationships
  • What happens as companies grow?
  • How about a hybrid approach?
  • Another intriguing hybrid!


Nearly all vendors struggle to find the best approach to align staff for each of the various customer-facing roles from presales, through implementation, to customer success. Some organizations have an account-based approach, with one or more individuals assigned to handle the entire continuum. Others prefer a more specialized structure, where one set of players focuses entirely on presales, another on implementation, and yet another on customer success. Some organizations employ a hybrid approach, mixing and matching individuals’ skills and strengths to the various roles and combinations of roles.

Clearly, there are many options to explore! Let’s begin with the customer’s perspective.

A Customer’s Perspective

“I want, no, I need vendor representatives who are knowledgeable about their products, solutions, use cases, and typical environments, and who are responsive and, in the best cases, proactive with respect to problems, solutions, and guidance. I’m looking for the least friction in my buying, implementation, rollout, and user adoption processes.”

Let’s break this down! Our customer wants the vendor team to have:

  • Product and technical knowledge.
  • Solution and use case experience.
  • The ability to be proactive.
  • The ability to avoid or reduce friction associated with each stage.

Let’s examine this last item: Reducing or eliminating friction is one of the key objectives for vendor teams. What causes friction?

  • Inexperienced vendor team members
  • Non-optimal sales, implementation, and customer success processes
  • Handoffs

Creating teams that combine seasoned veterans with newer players can help address this first issue. Evaluating, improving, and tuning the associated processes is clearly the strategy to tackle the second one, and there are numerous books, blogs, and articles to draw from.

That leaves handoffs as an area for improvement…

High-Fidelity Handoffs

Managing handoffs is often relegated to each group as they come into contact with the customer. It is also generally assumed that each group can access all the relevant information needed for their work in their organization’s CRM system. Sadly, in most cases, far too little information is actually entered to be useful!

That’s where the trouble begins.

Salespeople, for example, typically enter the minimum info needed to satisfy management’s requirements for status updates and reporting. And whereas other groups may be more altruistic, the fundamentally important discovery information is often lacking. This should include the customer’s objectives, their needs, their desires for a solution, the value expected, and the timing for implementation and rollout (big bonus for including Value Realization Events!).

Unfortunately, much of this information is never even collected, and when it is captured, it is the rare organization that sees that data input into their CRM system. Much of customers’ CRM records consist of the sales steps taken to get the deal done, but dangerously little else!

Friction is generated when this key discovery information is lacking, leaving each subsequent vendor department at risk of poor assumptions, guesswork, or having to ask the customer, again, for guidance. The frustration mounts like a mound of wood dust from large grit sandpaper!

Creating structured handoff procedures, including documentation, reduces the friction generated when sales pass information to presales, presales to implementation, and onward to customer success. However, when you eliminate the handoffs themselves you are also eliminating many of the risks of incomplete or erroneous communication.

This is a major argument in favor of an account-based model, where an individual serves as presales, implementation, and customer success for their customer. At a minimum, that person has the direct experience and memory (hopefully!) of all the interactions across the continuum.

Does this approach relieve that individual of the need to document? Definitely not! Job changes, PTO, and other time away from their day-to-day tasks make an equally strong case for effective corporate capture of customer information. The ability of an organization to smoothly transition between customer-facing players relies on this ability to transfer information with high fidelity and high accuracy.

Minimizing handoffs is one valuable element of an account-based approach. What else can be gained with this model?

The Enormous Value of Relationships

How long does it take to really get to know a customer? Not just their organization chart, but the individual players’ personalities, interaction history, and culture. Months, in many cases. Years, for some!

Each new vendor player doesn’t automatically enjoy the same relationship status with the customer: They have to earn it!

What does it take and how long does it take to be perceived by your customer as a trusted advisor? Or a real partner? When your customer asks you for your recommendation on a topic that is not about your offering, then you’ve earned this status. That can take years!

The “Rule of 150” (or Dunbar’s Number) suggests that each of us understands how to interact with about 150 other people, and we also understand how each of those folks interacts with one another. Building relationships within and between the vendor and customer takes significant time but yields enormous advantages. This knowledge is an important lubricant in reducing friction but is difficult to transfer to new players.

The value of long-term relationships is another argument in favor of an account-based approach. But what if no one individual can amass and apply all the required knowledge and skills?

Growth and Specialization

“Hooray!” they announced, “We just hired our first presales person!”

A presales player joins the existing small team in a startup and finds themselves doing a wide range of customer-facing tasks, including presales demos and POCs, a bit of marketing content, implementation configuration and training, logging bugs and enhancement requests, plus working to ensure customers renew their subscriptions.

They have no choice: There’s no one else for any of these roles!

A year later the overall team has doubled in size, but the approach remains the same. Another year and they reorganize, creating separate departments for presales, implementation (or professional services), and customer success. Each of these departments brings in new hires with strengths in their respective functional areas.

They have just implemented a production-line approach to customer interactions, where each station in the production line works to optimize their portion of the process. There are several advantages to this approach, including:

  • It is typically easier to hire for each specific role than a range of roles.
  • Role specialization allows for deep skills development within those roles.
  • Objective-setting, measurement, and evaluation of player execution may be simplified.

Of course, this structure is at risk of the challenges of interdepartmental communication and the associated handoffs. Additionally, there are often deep (and sometimes sharp!) discussions of departmental responsibilities and boundaries, as well as battles for resources. (Have you ever heard a department manager say, “I have more folks than I need on the team. Why don’t you take some people for your group…?” Nope!)

In these cases, a vendor’s internal friction may spill over to impact customers and create bottlenecks or gaps in customers’ journeys. This would be like an auto assembly line discovering that the team responsible for installing engines is delayed by a lack of parts, impacting everyone downstream.

This happens with software vendors, for example, when the big sales push to close Q4 business results in a bulge in Q1 onboarding activity. In the specialization approach, individual department resources don’t typically adjust in accord with demand that varies periodically.

So, the specialization model enables departmental depth but suffers from compartmentalization and silos. It is strong vertically but weak horizontally.

Is there an approach that can offer strength across both dimensions? Perhaps!

Hybrid Approaches: A Happy Medium?

Some organizations have adopted models that leverage the advantages of individuals caretaking the entire sales-presales-implementation-customer-success continuum while simultaneously permitting specialists to support discrete roles. There are (at least) two approaches that apply these ideas.

In one strategy, an account manager is ultimately responsible for all activities that take place with the customer, including securing new licenses, renewals, and expansion. This model is frequently used for vendors’ “key” accounts that produce significant portions of a vendor’s overall revenues.

The account manager draws resources from individual departments as needed. Presales, sales specialists and product specialists, implementation and professional services, and customer success all contribute personnel and other resources when requested. In addition to the ability of the account manager to establish and maintain long-term relationships, organizations often enjoy an improved ability to track the expenses associated with each customer, providing a clearer picture of the cost of sales, implementation, and success on a customer-by-customer basis.

A variation on this model includes two cross-continuum roles: an account manager, focused on the “business” aspects of the relationship, and a technical resource dedicated to product, technology, and solution implementation tasks. Each of these players leverages department-specific specialists as needed.

Another intriguing approach is based on rotating roles over time. For example, a salesperson lands an order with a new-name customer to start the cycle, then oversees implementation and rollout, and then transitions to retain and grow the customer over several years. Continuity is maintained throughout the process and strong relationships can be developed over time. A similar process can be undertaken by a technical player. Again, both people can work with departmental specialists, as noted above.

I’ve seen some clever orchestrations of this model, where the sales/technical duo has responsibility for several prospects and customers across typical customer lifecycles. There’s a delightful positive feedback loop that is established when vendor personnel can experience all phases, beginning with selling and buying processes, moving to implementation and onboarding, and then continuing to initial ROI and long-term growth. These experiences yield rich firsthand success stories (as well as things to avoid!) for each stage of their customer’s journeys.

A twist on this strategy cycles the vendor personnel through each role over time across multiple customers. Salespeople, for example, might start as “farmers” to develop existing customers and then transition to “hunters.” As in the case above, their experiences with current customers can enable more effective and successful new-name sales.

A similar cycle can take place with customer success team members moving into implementation and/or presales, rotating through these roles over time. Firsthand knowledge of how customers actually use the software can be surprising and offer important insights for selling to and guiding the onboarding of new-name accounts.

These rotating arrangements can take place in ways beyond the presales-customer-success continuum: Here’s an example!

The Copley Plan – A Hybrid Twist

One evening after a long day working a tradeshow in Boston, my colleague Dave and I felt a touch of malaria coming on and decided to head it off by imbibing a few gin and tonics at one of the hotel bars by Copley Square. We had been lamenting how our development team seemed to take forever to release critically needed new capabilities. So, we defined and executed a “Skunk Works” plan to do it ourselves.

It was a terrific success! Here’s the story…

We knew, generally speaking, what the deliverable needed to do, but the specific details were lacking. So, we enrolled a handful of presales folks, one from each region, to join the “product team” for our Skunk Works project. They were intensely knowledgeable about the precise customer needs for this product, and we were able to dramatically reduce the time to define the product specs in comparison to the then-current product management processes. We reduced what typically took months to a couple of days!

As the developers got rolling, the presales participants returned to the field, but remained in close contact, providing rapid feedback to the developers as the code emerged. Again, this condensed the development process. Testing and feedback often occurred overnight from our presales folks, providing the developers with the answers they needed even before starting their day (it helps when you have an international team spanning the globe’s time zones)!

The new product came together rapidly. When it was ready for release, we already had a team of people who were deeply conversant with prospect and customer needs and use cases, and who already knew how to align those needs with the capabilities in the new offering. Yes, they were those same presales folks!

This same presales team now brought the product to the field. They were charged to train their peers and were the tip of the spear in the initial sales. Who else could have done it better? (No one!)

The net of this “Copley Plan” was:

  1. A critically needed product was defined and delivered in record time.
  2. Prospect and customer “fit” and acceptance was extremely
  3. Sales, adoption, and ROI were blisteringly fast!

But wait: There’s more! The presales team involved in this project was delighted to have been utilized this way. So, what do you do when you encounter a new method that works really well? You repeat it (and improve it). And we did!

Customer Service vs Customer Success

I haven’t discussed customer service in this mix, so far, and that is intentional. Customer service is often perceived as a separate team, dedicated to reactive responses to customer inquiries, bug reports, and similar problems. It is tasked to handle and resolve short-term issues, typically.

The mindset of customer service is one of finding the fastest route to resolution. This is almost diametrically opposed to customer success whose proactive approach focuses on achieving the longer-term objectives of customer retention, renewal, and expansion. It can be difficult for an individual to operate with these mixed mindset concepts (perhaps generating friction inside of one’s brain!).

Notwithstanding this, some organizations combine these functions. This can work well with rock-solid offerings, but for others with complex products, it may be wiser to separate customer service from customer success.

Objectives and Compensation

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
– W. Edwards Deming

“Compensation drives performance.”
– Every senior manager everywhere!

Each of the models we’ve explored requires carefully defined and aligned objectives, and compensation strategies that support the models.

For approaches that span the entire continuum, objectives need to match the desired outcomes. One might want to track and compensate for low churn, for example, but also for total revenue generated from each account, as well as NPS scores or similar customer happiness metrics.

In models that mate more experienced team members with newer players, a “pod” approach may suggest an incentive plan that rewards all the players on the team for all the pod’s successes. This also encourages intra-team mentoring and support across all the team’s projects.

For models that rely on specialists, one way to encourage improved communication and effective handoffs is to reward upstream team members with bonuses when successes such as an expansion sale take place downstream. Similar incentives might be offered for downstream team members who harvest references and other customer success stories for use in new-name sales.

An important consideration is that these different approaches may require novel or at least different compensation structures than are typically employed in traditional “lone wolf” sales organizations. One organization established mechanisms to track and measure the success of the team’s buyer enablement practices, for example.

Finally, personality traits can and will impact compensation programs and objectives-setting. Highly successful lone-wolf salespeople may not be comfortable in an environment that requires a high degree of collaboration. Similarly, altruistic (or less monetarily motivated) folks may not be inspired by traditional commission structures.

Your Continuum

I’ve proposed a handful of approaches to organize, staff, and execute across the sales-presales-implementation-customer-success continuum, and I am certain there is no “right” answer. Experiment, iterate, and improve the model for your organization, and please let me know the results!


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