May 4, 2023

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Seven customer community building tips for SaaS CSMs

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This article is by Peter Adams, customer enablement team lead at ChurnZero, and Branden Maue, community manager at ChurnZero.

There’s a closely held growth secret among large B2B professional services firms, like consultants, accountants and law firms, that Customer Success Managers (CSMs) might appreciate: The more relationships a client has across a firm, the lower that client’s flight risk.

Multiple relationships benefit clients and service providers since they get to know each other on a deeper business level. Such knowledge contributes to efficacy for service providers—and a greater sense of appreciation on the client side. The quality and strength of more relationships contribute to the sense of a trusted community.

Companies operating in the SaaS space also stand to gain by borrowing a page from this playbook and striving to build a community online. Research suggests SaaS companies that foster online customer communities strengthen key metrics that are important to Customer Success.

According to Higher Logic, a customer community can improve engagement rates by up to 21%. Further, two-thirds of companies (66%) with an online community say it has a positive “impact on customer retention.” Finally, a whopping 90% of brands with online communities “say that suggestions from the community have been used to improve products or services.”

Tips for building an online customer community

At ChurnZero, we take pride in following our own CS advice. So, last fall, we made the decision to overhaul our online customer community.

It was an opportunity for us to learn from our previous efforts and to truly help our customers be more successful. An online community would cultivate relationships inside and outside our business, encourage customer-to-customer collaboration, improve product adoption, and, ultimately, help our customers expand their knowledge of Customer Success.

In the six months that’s elapsed since, we’ve seen this community take root and begin to flourish. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve diligently documented some of the lessons learned so that we can share these with other SaaS companies aiming to build a customer community.

1. Hire the right person for the position of community manager

In his seminal business book, “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins notes that people alone aren’t a company’s most valuable asset—rather the right people are. Similarly, when you’re launching a customer community, you need the right person. This means someone who understands community building, possesses a creative mind, and has both the experience and enthusiasm to facilitate relevant conversations.

A community manager can’t be successful if the role is merely an additional duty. Daily tasks, such as creating a content calendar, curating educational pieces, moderating engagement, collecting feedback and working across different functions is a full-time job.

2. Monitor customer feedback for common threads

Prior to the re-launch, we put together several customer feedback roundtables and fielded a survey to solicit customer input. We wanted to better understand our customers’ needs so that we could improve their community experience. Many people requested best practices for the CSM role and for using the ChurnZero platform. This information became the driving force behind our community’s mission statement and theme.

3. Create a community mission statement and theme

Our community’s mission statement is to create an environment that helps CSMs thrive. We strive to “collaborate, educate and elevate” the community to advance the profession of Customer Success.

We knew our community would grow and so we needed a theme that could scale as well. We partnered with Customer Success leaders and marketing teams inside and outside the company to solicit ideas, obtain feedback and gain buy-in. We landed on a theme that made sense: a neighborhood.

Conceptually the community site was organized into different neighborhood “locations” that represented community functions.

  • Welcome Center provides navigation and helps generate interest
  • Town Square is an open forum for community-led discussion topics
  • Champions Gym facilitates conversations around ChurnZero best practices
  • Garden Center features discussions for growing Customer Success industry best practices
  • Community Library acts as an on-demand resource center

ChurnZero Community map

Many other detailed elements of the neighborhood help tie the community together. For example, we added evocative, yet fun, visuals and featured characters called “Churn Monsters.” These monsters personify the factors of customer churn so CSMs can mitigate them.

4. Identify early adopters and customer influencers

Our product team receives requests from customers who want to help test new product features. This has been highly effective for product development, so we took a similar approach with the community. We engaged customers to help with the mission, theme and creation of the community. Many also enlisted to help us test the relaunch of the community.

We also added features that gave recognition to customers. For example, we have a “Community Spotlight” and leaderboard that acknowledges the most active members.

Further, we established a group from customer volunteers, which we call our “Ambassadors.” Ambassadors are ChurnZero champions and product enthusiasts, with diverse industry and global representation. Within the community, Ambassadors “take over” forums on a monthly basis, presenting topics of interest and supporting our content calendar initiatives. Ambassadors are recognized with a badge and custom profile picture.

5. Choose the right technology platform

Like talent, the right technology is crucial for an online community. We needed a software product that was easy to implement, easy-to-use and easy for our customers to adopt. After a careful evaluation, we selected Higher Logic Vanilla.

Vanilla offered new elements that we were looking for such as:

  • gamification to drive adoption and engagement;
  • customization; and
  • comprehensive analytics.

Vanilla also enabled us to link our knowledge base within our community. This is a great way to provide self-serve answers on-demand. If customers can’t find the answer, or the existing answers are unclear, they can immediately post a question, which the community is invited to answer. This scales the ability to answer questions and better serve customers.

6. A step-by-step approach

One trap some companies fall into with community-building is thinking everything needs to be perfect and polished before it goes live. It’ll never get done this way. A better approach is to take it step-by-step and rely on customer feedback to drive decision-making. We reminded ourselves that growth is an iterative process; we could always come back to ideas later and refine them.

7. Candid feedback is an opportunity

If you ask a customer for feedback, you’ve got to be receptive to it – the good, the bad and the indifferent. If an influential customer doesn’t “love” a product, try to view it as an opportunity, because not every customer will be as candid. SaaS companies will always have some critics, but an effective online community will provide the opportunity to channel that criticism into a positive outcome.

The demonstrative success of a customer community

Since we’ve re-launched the community, the metrics have been exceptional:

  • 41% growth in new users
  • 73% growth in contributors
  • 93% growth in comments

The community clearly complements our Customer Success platform and helps members connect and collaborate with peers, share their experiences, and access support from fellow customer advocates, and our Ambassadors. These are the building blocks of strong relationships, a better customer experience and a lower customer churn rate.

Looking to be a part of a new CS community?

If you are a ChurnZero customer, we’d welcome you to join our Customer Success online community.

You can also explore other CS communities in our blog “Top 5 Slack communities for Customer Success professionals.”

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