This Relay series aims to offer an insightful window into how founding/first operators help bring more structure and meaning to different SaaS functions that founders have already begun to shape.
In the following exchange, Claap’s Head of Customer Success (formerly Typeform’s 2nd CS hire and Head of Customer Engagement), Angela Guedes, expounds how a methodical customer success approach, when applied early in a startup’s journey, can help turn PMF into fertile ground for retentive and expansive future growth.
— Founder-led customer success and when to bring in the first hire
— How senior should that first CS position be
— The work of identifying what to focus on at first
— Why not to worry much about the early-stage CS stack
When should founders make the first customer success hire?
Within the first year or to be more precise, as soon as a startup has hit product-market fit.
Why not sooner?
Quite like sales, it’s always good for founders to be the first CS person. To get to know the users from a service end. To really understand how the product addresses the problems post sale. Not to mention, making sense of the first, new use cases that show up.
In terms of the actual CS work, what founders are primarily tending to are onboarding and activation. Whether that concerns demos, change management, iterating on adoption, and all the other activities that a user can leverage to understand the product and start getting value from it.
And they do this, mostly, on a very, hands-on, 1-to-1 scale.
It’s the first CS leader who would take these 1-to-1 learnings and turn them into 1-to-many approaches (documentation, help centers, recorded webinars etc.) and implement processes that enable far more efficient, 1-to-1/high-touch efforts.
When I joined Typeform, I had no experience in SaaS. No experience in CS roles either. But Typeform was so small at that moment they couldn’t really afford senior people for that position.
I was the second person on the support team. Stayed there for 7 years. When I left I was leading the Customer Engagement team that included CSM (1-1 for enterprise customers) and customer marketing (1-m for the long tail).
So, what are my views on seniority?
If money is not a problem, I would definitely invest in an experienced hire.
Because if you hire a very junior IC who has never built things from scratch, it can be very challenging for them to figure out what tools to implement and what processes to put in place. And, most critically, how to allocate their time between 1-to-1 and 1-to-many efforts.
Of course, this also depends on the type of product one’s dealing with. Whether you’re building an out-of-the-box, productivity solution that requires little documentation and no technical assistance for customers, or a very complex CRM that has long sales cycles.
Typeform and now Claap have been quite PLG-driven products, but before Claap I was at Belvo, which required much heavier documentation and a lot of technical help around their API implementation as well.
But each of these early roles equally cemented the fact that founders need to bring in someone who has the capacity for doing both systems-thinking and hands-on sort of work. Together. Talking to customers on a regular basis. Thinking through the stack, workflows, and everything else.
Someone who would not go to them with questions all the time. "Oh, what should I use? What’s a better way to?…” They instead want someone to pass the torch and lead from the front.
Which means someone whose experience goes not just beyond managing customers directly but also beyond managing teams. You need a person who, in some capacity, was responsible for setting up strategy for a team; someone who can think broadly about where CS fits the company’s current goals, structures, and the direction it should take.
What I’d take up first depends entirely on the stage of the company and the phase of the customer lifecycle that needs the most attention.
I joined Claap when the product was still in private beta. I was hired in March and we did our Product Hunt launch in May. Pretty early.
The very first thing I did at Claap was talking to the ICPs across segments and understanding their primary use cases, their challenges specific to our product and in general, and their overall journeys as users.
And then I began reviewing the existing user analyses and metrics to gauge the drop-offs between acquisition and activation and then retention and so forth.
Digging into all sorts of research to surface the gaps in our approach.
Which made us realize, the key at that stage had to be activation. Because what’s the point of bringing a bunch of people to the door if they don’t know how to activate.
Typeform, although still relatively early, was a different story. I joined a month after they released their paid plans. So we had an incredibly huge user base to serve but our core objective was to tackle churn.
We had a lot of users who would come through the door, use Typeform for that one use case, and then drop off. The data was telling us that we were really good at activating users. They’d come in and realize the product’s value fairly quickly. But once they had performed the job they had hired us for, they left.
Thus my focus was answering: What can we put in place to first understand and then tackle churn? We started with NPS surveys. Followed by targeted churn surveys to gather reasons people churned. Based on the feedback we launched 1-to-many customer education programs to let them explore and make them aware of the many use cases we could support.
So broadly, I’d begin with booking calls with as many customers as possible. Rigorously read through support tickets, feedback from surveys, sales conversations, reviews on app stores and on sites such as G2, and more.
And then use that qualitative knowledge to better grasp quantitative ways to address customer success questions such as:
- Does the rate of activation vary across segments and why?
- What sort of engagement do our first emails receive?
- How often do they get opened?
- Who clicks through the most?
- And when they do, how often do they visit the product as a result?
- If churn is a concern, do the reasons for it differ from segment to segment?
- What is it that our best, always-expanding customers do that we can replicate for the new ones?
That’s a start. And then prioritize what the CS team can impact directly, and what needs a cross-team effort with product/marketing/sales.
It’s certainly easier said than done.
But knowing what needs immediate fixing and what’s a long-term goal for the business is how you can prioritize everything — writing back-end documentation, talking to customers, creating deeper onboarding campaigns, and working on different content formats across the funnel, and more — that you’d have to own and run with.
Balancing everything is definitely the biggest challenge.
When it comes to tools, any experienced leader would know what tools they’re comfortable with. Ex: Zendesk for ticketing. Intercom for automating outreach. The CRM, in the early days, can be something as simple as a Notion database. No need to go overboard with Salesforce or HubSpot and other big tools.
I’m a big fan of starting manually. I’m in my third startup and I cannot apply the exact same processes from one company to the other. The internal motions are always different.
So start simple. Start with a Notion database or a spreadsheet, whatever works best for you. Get a handle on all the stages you need, the fields you require, the customer paths you need to map out, and then find a fitting, proper CRM.
One tool I would recommend getting early is something that solves for customer support. That gives users an easy way to reach out inside the product/through email and for your team to access all customer conversations in a structured form. Yes, even in the early days, Gmail just wouldn’t cut it.