5 signs of a customer at risk and what to do about it.

One of the key functions of a Customer Success professional is to monitor customer health across their portfolio. The basic form of this is to continuously identify customers who are at risk. For various SaaS companies, risk assessment would look different and mean different things depending on the nature of the actual product (for example, B2B, B2B2C) and the value and length of contract (annual vs quarterly or monthly). The shorter the contract, the more frequently the risk assessment would need to be performed.

However, irrespective of the product or contract, there are universal signs that things are not going to plan. I’ve tried to identify them based on my own experience as a Head of CS in a fast-growing start-up.

Whether you’re building your Risk Assessment process or want to explore criteria for your customer health score, here are some signs to look out for:

1. Product usage.

A sign: customer doesn’t use or log into your software as much as you expect them to.

This one is the most straightforward and possibly the most crucial risk indicator you can monitor. If a customer is not using or logging into your product, there is absolutely no way they are getting value from the relationship with your company. Period. Make no excuses with this one either (“they responded on email to say they are going to start using it soon”, “the customer is away on holiday” and so on).

No usage = no value = big RED risk.

In order to properly assess this metric, you should establish the benchmark for customers using your product fairly early on, together with an understanding of how critical your software is for their business. For some products, customers who log in once a month can be considered “healthy” (although extremely unlikely). For others, less than 1 every 3–4 days is not a good sign. The good news is that most Customer Success tools and software out there allow you to monitor this automatically. So if you decide to risk assess customers based on one criteria only, make it the usage of your product.

What to do: reach out the customer and offer help. I’d be cautious of letting them know that you are aware of their inactivity. I’d personally wouldn’t want an email saying, we’ve noticed you are not using our product recently — no one likes to be spied on! Unfortunately, this is a general SaaS practice and I would recommend avoiding this language and instead, offer something of a value. Share a case study to show how a similar customer is smashing it with your product. Teach them a cool trick they can do in your product or inform them of a new feature. Offer your service and don’t act like a teacher chasing homework.

2. NPS score.

A sign: Customer gives you 6 or less on the NPS question.

As old school as NPS is, a negative response to “Would you recommend us to your friend or colleague” validates a case to consider that customer being at risk. The customer is not happy and they are telling you this = this means a risk and needing to act fast. In some cases, your direct interaction with the customer may not reveal a true level of their satisfaction with the product. Customers may be less direct about issues they are having when speaking to their CSM. Or else, after onboarding has finished and the helpful implementation team is no longer available, NPS feedback can reveal a lot. Don’t ignore it. To include this criteria into your risk assessment or health score system, NPS score of 6 and lower should count towards a customer being at risk. Equally, a customer giving you a 9 or a 10 doesn’t automatically mean that they are risk-free but that’s a tale for another day.

What to do: reach out to say thank you for the recent feedback and offer to schedule a call to discuss it and see how it can be improved. Even in low-touch scenarios, there is a way to follow up on the low NPS score. For example, set up a CS playbook whereby a customer receives additional content to investigate their feedback.

3. Stalled communication.

A Sign: The customer doesn’t answer your emails, calls or postal pigeons and so on.

This one is easy to spot but difficult to fix. The flow of communication with your customers is first established during the Sales process, which then continues onto Onboarding and post-Implementation phases. Whether you have a customer-led approach (high-touch) or semi-automated journey, the pace of communication with the customer is established fairly early on into their interaction with your company. When a customer goes dark, the news usually isn’t good. If the customer doesn’t answer your email, or worse doesn’t even open them, chances are the customer isn’t finding the value in your product, therefore chooses to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Rarely, there are examples where things DO go back on track after a customer has sorted whatever issues / priorities that kept them away from your correspondence. I once had a customer whose onboarding has stalled for a mere 10 months! But eventually got back on track, not far from their annual renewal date. But these are far and few between. If the customer loves and sees value in your product, chances are they are always happy to talk to you!

What to do: reach out to the customer with content that would remind them of the value of your product and why they were interested in it in the first place. Whether it’s a new feature, or an interesting case study, or an example of how YOUR product will help THEIR business — make it worth opening an email for and give you the feedback you need.

Be helpful and don’t pest. Be available and don’t be desperate. Give them something that is worth coming back to you for, instead of sending “catch up” or “check in” requests.

If you manage to get customer communication back on track, inform your internal team on what happened there — was it a product issue? Was it a value issue? Whatever the outcome, learn and share so that it happens less and less in your company.

4. Ongoing technical issues.

A Sign: product performance is unstable and the support tickets are rising.

It’s not unusual to have a small level of friction, especially at the beginning of a customer’s cycle with your product after Onboarding has been completed. But it is less normal to have ongoing technical issues later on. No matter how brilliant a relationship you have with your customer as a CSM, issues around product performance will undermine it. The job of a CS professional gets really hard when the product performance is poor. It is so for 2 reasons:

  1. The customer becomes at risk and will need “saving”.
  2. There is a limit of what CSM can do to resolve technical issues. Usually, these problems are handled by a dedicated Support team, and the actual technical solution is in the hands of the developer or engineering team which are even further away from the CSM.

Technical issues disrupt Success plans and put the entire relationship at risk. To include this metric into a health score, set a benchmark of tech tickets volume per customer.

What to do: in addition to following up on technical issues internally, make sure the customer is updated at all stages of the process. Communication is your main tool here. Show empathy and understanding how this affects customer’s ability to get what they need out of your product. In addition, focus on building strong relationships with your technical teams and developing an ability to assert influence.

5. Lack of Desired Outcome despite the good intentions.

A Sign: a customer doesn’t quite know what to do with your product because the reality didn’t meet the expectation.

This one usually goes like this. The customer likes the Sales demo and sees the use-case of how they can get value / solve their problem and then he buys the product. Everyone is excited to get going. Onboarding team comes in, the customer gets into the details of things and some elements are proving to be a little more complicated than expected. If you use the word “workaround” early into the customer’s journey with you, the chances are it will be much harder to deliver on the Sales promise as everyone imagined at the start. However, everyone is still invested and you carry on. With efforts on both sides, the implementation is complete and the customer is free to get on with using the product. As time passes by, they use a fraction of it, or they try to “fashion” your technology to solve something that isn’t exactly what your product is built for. The writing is on the wall and this customer will require continuous risk assessment, paired with the CS support to ensure they get value.

What to do: Establish clarity and goals with the customer early on post-Sales, formulate the plan and monitor the progress of that plan.

Everyone in Customer Success loves talking about Outcomes. Customer achieving outcomes = good, not achieving Outcomes = bad. It’s a golden rule and it is so for a reason. Irrespective of what has happened during the Sales process, as a CS professional you should re-validate the outcomes the customer has in mind, you should understand them and map out a plan of how they can be achieved. Don’t assume that the customer has figured it all out with Sales — they rarely do.

The true success potential emerges after the contract is signed and the real work and commitment begin on all sides (not to de-value the work of your sales team — they also do work hard to bring everyone to this point). Educate your Sales colleagues on experiences you have with your customers — whether in anecdotal format or a more formal one.

Continue to share your knowledge so that the vision of your product’s purpose becomes more aligned across the various teams in your company.

Customer Success Executive, interested in all things Startup, SaaS and technology.