How should you structure your customer success team as you scale?
You can’t pull out an instruction manual or consult an atlas for directions (remember those?).
Fortunately, there are plenty of companies that’ve successfully scaled their customer success organizations to drive business growth. And you can learn from their successes — and their mistakes.
While the shape of your customer success team will evolve as your business grows and matures, learning from others who’ve been in your seat is the quickest way to cut through the uncertainty and find a team structure that works.
These tips and examples from other customer success leaders who’ve done it successfully will help you get there.
Customer success roles and functions
When you’re just getting your customer success team off the ground, every team member wears a lot of hats. They’re typical generalists, adapting and flexing to accommodate the needs of any given customer.
But customer success team structures and roles become much more nuanced in larger organizations.
That’s because as companies grow, they tend to specialize to accommodate the diverse needs of their expanding customer base.
While you don’t necessarily need dedicated people to cover all of these functions (more on this below), it helps to pause and consider who on your team is currently covering each function.
That makes it easier to identify which areas you should focus on when trying to scale your customer success efforts.
- Customer Success Managers. CSMs are your frontline representatives, responsible for building strong relationships with customers. Their focus is ensuring customers get maximum value out of your product. Their success is usually measured with metrics like net revenue retention and churn rate.
- Technical support. Customer service is often part of the customer success organization’s role, because you can’t retain customers if they’re dealing with unresolved technical issues. Customer service success is usually measured by customer satisfaction and resolution rates.
- Implementation and customer onboarding. Your onboarding team guides customers through the first stages of using a product. They ensure successful adoption by helping new customers set up and configure the solution according to their needs. They aim to accelerate the customer's time to value.
- Professional services provide tailored solutions to customers. They often act as in-house consultants for customers. Many companies charge additionally for them, so these teams are also revenue-generating.
- Customer success enablement and operations. This team provides your CSMs with resources, training, and tooling that help each CSM be more effective—helping you have a more strategic approach to hiring and scaling.
- Renewal managers. This function focuses on retaining and expanding customer accounts. Their role is to understand a customer’s evolving needs, identify upsell opportunities, and ensure subscription renewals.
- Scaled customer success is a function that works to create the feel of high-touch experiences at scale—usually targeting the vital SMB segment. They use digital tools to improve self-service adoption, create one-to-many resources like webinars, or offer periodic calls to cater to a specific customer segment.
How to evolve customer success teams as your company grows
Here’s how you can adapt and evolve your customer success organization as your company grows.
- Early-stage startups are often laying the groundwork with generalists.
- Mid-stage companies start developing specializations, often starting with an onboarding or professional services function.
- Growth-stage companies start aligning their structure based on different parts of the customer journey, and need to invest more in renewals.
- Enterprise-stage companies focus on scaled customer success and on some of the lower-value (and higher volume) customer segments.
Early stage: laying the groundwork with generalists
Almost all early-stage startups have the same starting point for customer success: a few generalist CSMs (and/or a generalist CS lead).
At this point, CSMs should focus on adoption and value realization. Founders are often heavily involved in CS at this point–which is great because it means they can keep their fingers on the pulse of how customers feel about your product.
You don’t need to invest as much in customer renewals, because you probably don’t have many. And your success team probably shouldn’t worry too much about expansion, because you haven’t established a strong enough customer base just yet.
You may even still be hunting for product-market fit. That means a big focus of the role is in collecting product feedback.
Key takeaways for an early-stage company
- Focus on adoption and helping customers see value
- Empower CSMs to champion customer feedback
- Decide on whether high-touch or low-touch makes sense for your business
Therefore, you need a team structure that helps you make the most of limited resources while prioritizing the right customer needs.
This may take a few different shapes in a fledgling customer success team, depending on whether you have a high-touch or a low-touch model:
- High-touch: If your product is complex, expensive, or you’re targeting enterprise customers, your approach will be more one-to-one. You need to acquire high-value customers and convince them to become users and advocates of your product. That means you need someone great at building customer relationships, sometimes with multiple stakeholders across the same organization.
- Low-touch: For a simpler product or a non-enterprise segment, your main focus should be on adoption. With shorter sales cycles or maybe even a freemium model, your focus is on helping those new users learn to use and to find value from your product ASAP. You need CSMs that can work efficiently and leverage technology well, and you’ll also want to develop business metrics that display a strong market fit, like high retention or high activation rates.
Mid-stage: developing specializations
At this point, your customer success team is a little more established. You have a few generalists doing (mostly) the same things. That’s working, but you’re starting to see gaps and new opportunities you want to capitalize on. Your team members are also probably hungry for additional career growth opportunities.
This is when you can start thinking about introducing some specialization.
One way to plan for specialization is to think about customer segmentation or industry verticals. Are there specific segments for which your product is especially well-suited where it could provide more value? That signals big opportunities.
Specialization typically starts with some CSMs zeroing in on onboarding or implementation, particularly when your product has a learning curve or you’re seeing a lot of potential to improve activation rates.
Key takeaways for a mid-stage company
- Begin to specialize — onboarding is often a great place to start
- Choose tools that make scaling easy
- Explore whether offering professional services makes sense
As you solidify your process, creating repeatable customer onboarding templates makes it far easier to move quickly.
If your product is complex and highly customizable, or if you’re targeting enterprise use cases, you may actually start specializing by building out a new professional services function.
When it’s just getting off the ground, professional services often looks like an implementation or onboarding team—although you may charge an additional fee or only offer those services for certain user tiers.
Joseph Schmitt, VP of Customer Success at UpKeep, developed a specialized professional services program. For his team, specialization enabled “CSMs to focus purely on proactive engagements around gross retention activities.”
Meanwhile, he also found that implementation managers could “guide customers through the implementation and fill in skill or resource gaps to ensure a successful deployment that leads to long-term retention.”
Joseph went through the process of getting one specific team member to pioneer a new function, prove its value, and then grow it from there. That’s a good model to follow as you start introducing specializations.
In low-touch models, you may also start thinking about customer success enablement at this stage.
Small teams (with fewer than seven team members) will sometimes have one enablement person—shared between Success and Tech Support or Sales—who has some operational responsibility.
Pulling off a low-touch model requires developing efficient processes that maximize the value of your teams’ time as early as possible.
Growth stage: customizing structure based on goals
The growth stage usually means—surprise—rapid growth and a lot of change.
At this stage, one of the most common challenges is ensuring customer feedback is fully integrated into your company and structure:
- Where are your customers getting stuck?
- At which points do they need more attention or support?
- How can your team provide that in the short term?
- How can your product reduce or eliminate those pain points in the long term?
Chances are you have at least a few folks focused on customer onboarding by this point. The growth stage is where you want to lean into scaling your customer onboarding program to deliver significant value, without requiring your customer success team to grow in headcount linearly with your customer count.
Key takeaways for a growth stage company
- Double down on sharing and actioning customer feedback
- Prioritize building scalable processes
- Restructure or specialize around customer journey stages
- Experiment with expansion
A useful framework for tailoring your approach at this stage is to use Average Contract Value (ACV). That means differentiating the time investment and experience you provide high-value customers from the lower-value segments.
At this point, many companies start aligning their organizational structure with customer journey stages and separating teams or team members between activation, adoption, recurring value realization, and renewal.
That means this is usually a good time to move renewals and upsells into Customer Success (if they’re still managed by the Sales team), or to break out your CSMs with the highest renewal rates into a dedicated contract renewal function.
If you’ve hit the Growth stage, it also means you’ve found some measure of product-market fit. This is often when your company may start looking at selling additional products or services, which means cross-selling and upselling will become more of a focus for your team. CSMs often own this function, but they may work in tandem with a renewal manager or a sales rep to close those deals.
Enterprise stage: aiming for strategic impact
How does Customer Success, as a unit, communicate and work with Sales, Marketing, and Product? How does each function within the customer success organization work with each other?
One of the risks of specialization is that it can create a fragmented customer experience, where no one has full visibility of the entire customer journey. This is one of the reasons why having a good reporting structure makes a huge difference in the long-term success of any customer success function.
Key takeaways for an enterprise stage company
- Remove barriers to collaboration
- Prioritize highest-value customers
- Build or expand your scaled customer success program for lower-value customers
One example that demonstrates the necessity of this increased collaboration is revenue enablement.
Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success all have a major impact on revenue. You’ll see more success and create a better experience for customers if you can get all of these teams working in sync, rather than having each function pursuing its own goals.
Many B2B enterprise companies start their CS strategy by focusing on their highest-value customers—which we recommended, too. But after you get that foundation laid, it’s a good time to start investing in customer segments with lower ACV, either by focusing on increasing retention or ACV.
One way to make this happen is to build out a scaled customer success program (if the Growth stage hasn’t already forced you to do so), which enables you to serve your long-tail of lower-ACV customers in a less resource-intensive way.
Who should Customer Success report to?
Reporting lines are one of the best ways to ensure awareness of the entire customer journey at the leadership level.
And how to do that best is quite controversial.
At early-stage startups, the most common structure is that the Customer Success lead (or founding CSM) reports directly to the CEO. This is very effective initially because it ensures the CEO is as close as possible to customers and their needs.
Chief Customer Officer / VP of Customer Success
When you start scaling your customer success organization, having a dedicated customer experience executive who reports to the CEO and owns all parts of the post-sales journey is usually the best option for most SaaS companies.
This ensures that:
- Customer Success is treated as a company priority and part of the business strategy.
- Customers have a voice and are represented in your leadership team.
- The holistic view of the customer journey is maintained at the leadership level.
Chief Revenue Officer
In some situations—particularly the Enterprise stage—it makes sense for Customer Success to sit under a central revenue leader, like a Chief Revenue Officer (CRO).
This is often a good option for product-led growth models where the lines between Customer Success and Sales are naturally more blurred. The Customer Success team handles smaller accounts. It grows these into enterprise ones, while Sales only works to acquire new enterprise customers directly.
With a sales-led growth strategy, having a clearer separation between Sales and Success by having them report to different executives can be better.
This ensures that Sales needs (typically focused on winning deals and acquiring new customers) don’t always supersede the Customer Success perspective (more focused on adoption and long-term retention).
Examples of successful customer success organization structures
Having an overview of theoretical functions is helpful, but nothing beats real-life examples.
Here are three examples of customer success teams and how they’re structured.
1. Lattice’s split into customer success functions
Lattice is a people management platform that helps companies grow and develop their talent.
They grew very rapidly and, in response, split up their success organization into seven functions:
- Customer care who provide customer support.
- Knowledge programs that cover both QA and help center content.
- Tech support engineers who are responsible for more technical integrations.
- Onboarding focusing exclusively on the first 90-120 days after a customer joins.
- CSMs covering adoption and value realization.
- Account management which owns more of the relationship-building and commercial elements.
- Advisory services are a small group of strategists who establish and disseminate best practices to other customers.
Gillian Heltai, Chief Customer Officer at Lattice, knew as soon as she started at Lattice that customer segmentation was the first step: “There was virtually no segmentation. The biggest customer was coming in with the smallest customer. And in a CSM's book of business, that would mean the littler customer wasn't getting attention.”
The second priority was customer health. “We had a lot of customers at that point,” says Heltai. “We needed to figure out how to prioritize them, and we didn't have any measure of health.”
Here's a full explanation from Gillian's appearance on Grow & Tell.
From that starting point (with only two large teams, customer success and support), they developed a multi-layered structure.
And the impact of it was clear.
They responded successfully to the rapid new user growth by creating an amazing onboarding process. They also have teams that provide value to customers and generate revenue, and they can develop each function efficiently at scale.
While it’s worked great at Lattice, some of the challenges of this type of structure are:
- Ensuring strategic alignment across all functions.
- Avoiding the sense on a customer’s end that their experience is fragmented because they get passed from one team to the next.
- Managing the extra overhead and complexity required.
Building out an effective customer success enablement function and investing in building a tightly integrated leadership team are key ways to overcome these obstacles.
2. Deel’s customer success organization with sales and expansion
Deel is a payroll and compliance provider for global HR teams.
The customer success team at Deel reports to the CRO, who’s also one of the co-founders. The CRO also leads sales, revenue operations, and an expansion team responsible for go-to-market strategy and country managers.
Notably, the customer support team isn’t part of this unit and reports to their COO instead.
This type of team structure ensures very close and strong collaboration between customer success, sales, and revenue operations. It also gives the CRO oversight over the full customer lifecycle, from the time a lead hits the pipeline all the way until a customer churns.
The potential challenges in this structure are:
- Some parts of expansion are owned by the success team, which could result in prioritizing expansion efforts like cross-selling and upselling at the expense of proactive customer retention strategies that reduce churn.
- Enabling strong collaboration and a good internal feedback system with product teams can be challenging. Since the support team is totally separate, most customer feedback and insights may come from that part of the organization. This is common, but it overlooks the wealth of insights customer success teams have based on their customer relationships.
Every customer success organization has to find the right balance and pay sufficient attention to each stage of the customer journey.
3. Meister’s shift from generalists to specialists
Meister creates task management and collaboration tools for remote teams.
They’re a much smaller company than both Deel and Lattice and are quite early in developing their customer success team. In their current form:
- The department reports to the CRO (alongside Sales).
- They have a Director of Customer Success who’s responsible for their success team, their support team, and a team that manages a forum or community for Meister users.
- Their success team largely consists of generalists. The only specialized role is a customer success growth manager, who’s responsible for overall enablement and operations.
Meister is the perfect example of a company that needed to invest in scaled success before they could have the bandwidth to specialize in anything else:
- Communities foster customer advocacy and provide a platform for users to share insights and best practices, while also freeing up their CSMs to focus on higher-value customers.
- Having a human dedicated to operations and enablement means the entire team can stay lean and agile as they scale their user growth.
A simple structure like this comes with challenges. Because their CSMs are still largely generalists, there’s limited room for innovation. They’re more likely to have overloaded team members, which can lend to a low-touch experience (whether you want it or not). They’re also likely to see slower progress of potentially high-impact functions—for example, if many customers drop out during the onboarding, they won’t be able to respond as quickly.
That being said, this structure can work well for an early-stage company, as evidenced by Meister’s hundreds of millions of users and successful fundraising.
Developing customer success team structures that deliver value
As long as your customer success structure is serving the needs of your organization and enabling your team to do their best work, you’re on the right track. But it’s important to recognize that the structure you have today may only work for a season, and there’s nothing wrong with evolving your approach over time.
Finding the right team structure for a given stage usually involves some level of experimentation. That means you won’t get it right 100% of the time.
But some of those experiments will unlock significant revenue growth and increased customer satisfaction, and that makes it all worth it.