The Customer Success Managers’ Role in a Product-Led Growth Business

December 16, 2021

The role of customer success (CS) hasn’t been around for long, but recently has undergone a transformation, especially within product-led growth (PLG) organizations. While the function doesn’t differ drastically from its counterpart at sales-led organizations, a few aspects change both the priorities and nature of the role. Given the product is the primary driver of initial customer acquisition at PLG organizations, I want to cover a few key differences that emerge with how traditional CS teams operate and why PLG is forcing it to change.

When should Customer Success Managers engage?⏰

With sales-led businesses, the hand-off between sales and customer success is usually well-defined. That’s not the case for PLG businesses or companies with a self-serve motion, because the product itself plays a key role in the customer acquisition process.

A PLG business should have a product that enables users to onboard themselves, and have some ability to expand naturally to other users within a specific team, department, or organization. In-app guides, intuitive UI, and easy implementation processes paired with inherent virality and a natural upsell motion provide a “tech touch” (I’ll talk about this later) that does the job of a traditional customer success manager (CSM), especially for self-serve users.

So why do we need CS in a product-led organization? Well, if you think about the typical PLG customer journey, the user doesn’t interact with a sales rep prior to signing up. As a result, a CSM is more often than not the first human they will speak to at the company after already becoming a paid customer.

Because of this dynamic, the CS rep plays the important role of customer champion and becomes responsible for determining the likelihood and approach to converting them to an enterprise deal. This won’t be applicable for all customers that sign up, only a certain segment of users require this high-touch human-to-human interaction, but given the importance of expansion/ upsell for product-led businesses, it can have a considerable impact on success. 

For these high-touch clients, to accelerate expansion, manage complex edge cases, or provide general help to important clients, a CS rep needs to be involved at various points in the process. But when should a CSM engage? Is it right after a user signs up? Is it only when certain usage metrics that indicate expansion potential are reached? 

It can get very complicated, especially when thinking about a growing company whose customer success team is likely pressed for time and resources.

But it is worth it, so here are some tips on how to run an effective Customer Success org in a product-led organization. 

Know which customers to prioritize ?  🙋‍♀️

Context captured during the traditional sales process is essential information for CS teams to understand expansion potential, use case, product familiarity, etc. When various users at a company adopt the product without speaking or interacting with a sales rep, such as in PLG businesses, that context is usually missing, making it difficult for CSMs to know who to prioritize when and why. 

Imagine you have two customers—one has one or two users and the other has 20. It seems obvious to prioritize the company with 20 users, but given the nature of expansion within organizations, what if the company with two users has the opportunity to grow to 100 while the company with 20 can only grow to 25? Or what if those two users have used the product every day while the company with 20 uses it once a week? 

This is where a 360-degree view of a customer is critical. Taking into account things such as product usage, firmographic, and customer level data to know not just where the customer is at a single point in time, but also their future.

Know who owns renewals (or doesn’t)?  🤷🏽

Traditional sales-led businesses sell subscriptions on an annual basis with a renewal process once a year – this usually means checking in one month or weeks before to ensure a renewal is likely in motion. 

Product-led businesses are more oriented towards month-to-month subscriptions, so the idea of checking in with all paid users the week before you renew is unscalable, especially when you think about the volume of customer accounts (users >0).

As a result, the mentality is less about renewals and more on making sure users are continuing to derive strong value from the product or at least enough to retain. The mindset of the CS team should shift from how can we drive revenue to how can we provide and create value?

Know what value they provide and what actions they should take 🤝🤝

A benefit of acquiring users through either sales reps or marketing is that it’s (usually) directly attributable to a channel and there’s almost always a clear reason(s) as to why the user / company became a customer. 

With self-serve users, a CS team can lack the information around why a user signed up and the value they’re looking to gain from the product. 

As a result, reps don’t necessarily know what actions to take because they don’t have the necessary information to orient around the optimal end result. Add in the additional complexity that there could be five paying users with the same domain name who all independently signed up for the product– all with different personas and at different points in their customer journey – making it nearly impossible to decide who is the representative “voice of the customer” at this company. 

Within PLG businesses, customer success can be responsible for a number of roles – renewals, expansion, and even conversion (!) – as the line between sales, marketing and CS becomes much more blurred and the context created through the sales process is non-existent.

“In essence, our sales approach isn’t that different from our customer success approach. In both cases, we’re helping people get the most out of our product.” Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia featured in OpenView’s BUILD Book 2019.

As a result, the traditional customer relationship model doesn’t necessarily work and requires not only a different scope, but also a new mentality to be successful within a PLG organization. Each company’s approach can be different and determined based on the Jobs to Be Done of their product, the customer/user profile, or what they’re optimizing for. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of tools emerging that address these evolving needs, many of which I’m excited to dive into in my next post. 

Stay Tuned!

Chris Gaertner head shot


Chris is a Vice President at OpenView. He is responsible for finding, evaluating, and executing B2B software investments, with a focus on PLG and the modern enterprise.