Digital-Led vs. Human-Led Customer Success

Digital-Led vs. Human-Led Customer Success

Digital Customer Success (DCS), also referred to as scaled customer success has been called out by many industry leaders as one of the hottest topics of 2023 (and beyond).

Yet for many, it is a buzzword they don’t understand.

Research shows that 97% of B2B technology companies have a Customer Success function but only 36% of them are already using a DCS approach.

This aligns with the feedback I heard from 100+ networking and mentoring conversations I’ve had in the last year. The lack of knowledge about DCS is apparent not only among aspiring CSMs but largely also among professionals already working in the industry, especially individual contributors. The higher up you go, the more understanding increases, however, the knowledge is often still surface level.

This lack of knowledge highlights the gap in education across the industry and I’m on a mission to change that.

This article will explain what DCS is, and how it differs from the traditional, human-led CS model.

I will share a real-life customer scenario and a cheat sheet to make it super easy for you to understand how the two approaches work individually and how they should work together.

Definition of Digital Customer Success

Digital Customer Success is a data-driven customer success approach focused on digital and scaled engagement. Throughout the customer journey, it deploys channels such as email, in-app, scaled sessions and community to distribute self-service content and drive positive customer outcomes at scale.

The most successful digital programs are personalized, delivered consistently, and at the right time.

If this definition just went over your head, don’t worry, I will now share a real-life customer scenario to help you understand this concept better.

Digital-led vs Human-Led: A Real-life Customer Scenario

Image a customer who is considering using a personal trainer or an exercise app to start their regular fitness routine.

I’ll describe using the services of a personal trainer as experience A and using an exercise app as experience B.

Experience A

Traditional, human-led customer success is like having a personal trainer. Personal trainers (CSMs) want you to continue using their services, and to get your business, they will help you achieve success. To do that, they will ask about your expected outcomes to provide exercise recommendations based on your needs and goals. But they won’t do the work for you (just like a CSM wouldn’t).

Experience B

DCS is like using an exercise app instead of one personal trainer to meet your fitness goals. Let’s take an example of a best-in-class subscription-based exercise app - Peloton.

The app gives you access to thousands of live and on-demand classes, 30+ instructors to encourage you along the way (imagine a pool of CSMs supporting many clients at the same time, no named CSM), and a Peloton community where you can share your progress, ask questions and interact with other members. What’s more, you’ll get proactive guidance and updates in-app and via email: fitness progress, new features and milestone achievements.

Despite leading the experience with digital channels, as a customer, you still get a highly personalized experience. But how?

When you sign up, there is a getting started checklist where you need to input your goals, preferences and information about yourself. The app then personalizes the experience for you to help you achieve your goals.

This is how DCS uses data to design a digital-led client experience and although this is a B2C example, the same methodology would apply to B2B. DCS is all about driving outcomes at scale and it relies on a variety of digital tools to achieve that.

Are you already getting an idea of how the two approaches work in customer success? Great, let me now dive deeper into the similarities and differences, starting with a cheat sheet for you to take away.

Similarities Between Digital-Led and Human-Led CS

The similarities between digital and human-led Customer Success

There are several key similarities between teams adopting the digital-led and human-led approaches.

Both teams are a part of the wider Customer Success department and share a goal of driving positive client outcomes and enabling clients to achieve their goals.

The key KPI for both teams is retention, and their client priorities include strategy recommendations, value demonstration, training and best practices guidance.

However, depending on the engagement model, there will be some differences between the KPIs and client priorities.

Differences Between Digital-Led and Human-Led CS

The Differences between digital and human-led Customer Success

Now let’s dive deeper into the differences.

Customer relationship owner

The customer relationship owner in the human-led approach is most commonly a Customer Success Manager reporting to a Manager of Customer Success. The team structure will of course depend on the wider organizational structure.

The customer relationship owner in the digital-led approach is a Digital/Scale Customer Success Manager, reporting to a Manager of Digital/Scale Customer Success. As DCS is still a newer department, there is typically less structure and Digital CSMs may report directly to the lead of the department (Head/Director).

Customer engagement model

The customer engagement model for the human-led approach is either high-touch, meaning a heavy reliance on 1:1 CSM engagement, or low-touch which still involves 1:1 engagement but it’s less frequent. CSMs have their book of business and their regular activities for each account typically include business reviews (planning, research, running meetings and follow-up), success planning, and client support with training and sharing best practices.

DCS most commonly uses a hybrid approach – a mix of low-touch and tech-touch strategies. It primarily relies on digital channels to drive engagement but there is still a place for 1:1 interaction, typically reserved for the most strategic interventions e.g. a value readout for clients at risk of churning. Those strategic interventions vary depending on the goals of the CS department.

Primary communication channels

The key channels for the human-led approach are email, phone and face-to-face meetings. There is a big focus on 1:1 personalized interactions and CSMs should be familiar with the goals of clients in their book of business to provide the best strategic recommendations.

DCS prioritizes 1:many/scaled client engagement via digital channels such as email, scaled sessions (e.g. webinars and office hours), in-app and community.

As customers rely on multiple software platforms to drive business impact, they want to have the answers quickly and they’re increasingly expecting more digital experiences. By using digital communication channels, companies can provide the answers to customers quickly and in a scalable way. This approach works best in companies that have thousands of clients and need to find ways to be more efficient as adding high-touch CSMs to all accounts is expensive and not sustainable in the long-term.

As DCS relies so much on self-service resources (e.g. articles, videos, guides and on-demand webinars), companies use platforms such as Knowledge Base or Customer Portal to house and share the content from. That content can be repurposed and further distributed via different digital channels with clients across the client base.

Customer communication approach

Proactive client communication is very important in the human-led model and CSMs keep a close eye on the account health to identify and mitigate any risk churn and identify upsell/cross-sell opportunities. The larger and more strategic the account, the closer the relationship between the CSM and the client.

Due to a higher volume of clients supported by DCS, Digital CSMs don't have the same insight into the account health of individual clients as their high-touch counterparts. With that, their work is more of a mix of proactive and reactive engagements. Having said that, there are endless possibilities when it comes to creating playbooks to spread education, demonstrate value and identify risks and opportunities at scale, based on the data.

An example would be check-in surveys at key points in the client journey to get ahead of any unexpected churn risk such as a ‘Likely to renew’ survey sent 6 months prior to the renewal.

Types of clients supported

Most commonly, companies design their CS strategies based on the product package and ARR of their clients.

Traditional, high-touch CS teams typically support Mid-market and Enterprise clients (high ARR), while DCS teams support SMB clients (lower ARR). However, a lot of the digital tactics can also be expanded across all client segments.

For example, if the DCS team develops an onboarding playbook with a series of three automated welcome emails for SMB clients, this playbook can also be expanded to Mid-market and Enterprise clients with any necessary tweaks.

Automation use

The human-led approach relies on other teams such as DCS, CS Operations or Marketing to enable automated communications.

DCS relies heavily on automation in order to support hundreds if not thousands of customers. Putting automated playbooks and programs in place enables DCS teams to cope with this volume of clients and it’s a great way to grow in efficiency.

Examples of automated programs include regular performance summaries (e.g monthly or quarterly), check-in surveys at key moments in the customer journey or milestone achievement highlights.

Choosing Your Approach

Both approaches are personalized and focused on driving clients’ success throughout their journey, leading to retention.

Is one experience better than the other? Not necessarily. It depends on what the needs of your customers are.

Are both experiences exclusive? Certainly not. They should go hand in hand.

Traditional CS should benefit from digital CS initiatives – automated playbooks and email campaigns, 1:many ad hoc email campaigns, scaled sessions such as webinars and office hours, self-service resources such as videos and articles, community, and in-app guides. Companies investing in DCS should aim to build a digital infrastructure that supports clients across the whole client base.

And vice versa. Digital CS should benefit from traditional CS practices. In particular, insights on client needs, challenges and frustrations gathered from 1:1 interactions such as business reviews and discovery calls.

I hope you can now better see how those two approaches intersect.

I encourage you to continue learning about DCS, so you can make more informed decisions on when to apply a human-led vs digital-led CS approach and provide the best experience for your customers.


Interested in seeing more content about Digital Client Success or want to exchange insights? Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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