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What is a customer platform?

6 min read

When we talk to prospective candidates, new-joiners, family, and friends - many ask us: “what are you doing at Planhat?” When we answer “we are building a next-generation customer platform to help companies drive net revenue retention” we realize halfway how jargon-filled and ambiguous that sentence is.

We quickly understood that we need to articulate this easily enough - for everyone else, but even more so for ourselves.

As a product-led organization, it’s dangerously easy to start any description of what you do with the product. But in reality - as cliche as it might sound - no one buys anything because they like the product: they buy it because of what outcomes it enables. So let’s start there and work backward: what is a customer platform meant to solve?

KPI #1 of customer platforms: more efficient customer operations, to help drive NRR

Customer platforms help organizations to more efficiently manage and grow their customers. Ultimately, this should lead to improvements in Net Revenue Retention (“NRR”). If you don’t have time to read on, you can stop here - this is why a customer platform exists.

NRR is the #1 priority for company growth and valuation

Why does NRR matter? As the world is moving to subscription-based revenue models (across multiple industries), sales turns continuous, and NRR is becoming increasingly important for generating sustainable growth at scale. NRR, i.e., retaining and growing customers, comes from your ability to make customers successful with your product or service.

Driving NRR is hard - it depends on a large set of interconnected activities across departments

Making customers successful is a complex task: you first need to find the “right” customers, convert them to a customer while setting the right expectations, onboarding them with your product or service, deal with incoming support requests, study how they use your product, understand their business well enough to know how you can scale impact, build new features they need, collaborate on projects - the list goes on! All the time, you are generating more and more data that you need to make sense of. And these activities span across company departments, from marketing, sales, and customer success to support, product, operations, and finance.

A customer platform is a place where you run these NRR-driving activities

A customer platform is a software platform where companies perform these activities, e.g., where you actually run onboarding, or analyze usage. You wake up, log in to Planhat, and start working. With a customer platform, companies can manage these interconnected activities in a way that is orders of magnitude more efficient and data-driven than with any other type of software. Before, companies typically manage these activities across multiple systems and spreadsheets - making it inefficient and intransparent.

As a consequence, a customer platform is built on three main principles:

  • 1. It must be flexible and easy to use: since every company is unique, they will have their own version of those activities we mentioned above. Imagine the difference in success metrics, workflows, interaction models, and data when comparing an ice-cream subscription business, a data center operator, and a biotechnology software company. Customer platforms must be flexible enough to deal with every version of activities.

  • 2. It must make data actionable and accessible: every company is awash with customer data today - customer platforms help turn that data into action by centralizing data on one platform, making it usable to non-technical business users, and embedded into workflows like onboardings and product management

  • 3. It must be company-wide: customer platforms are a place for the entire company to collaborate on, not just another departmental software. If your product is poor, your CS team can’t prevent churn. If CS misses onboarding, support will drown in requests. If support isn’t helpful, NPS goes down, and marketing won’t get any good case studies. NRR requires cross-functional collaboration, which is what a customer platform should enable

What about other platforms, like CRMs?

As mentioned early in this post, a product should always start with “what it tries to solve”. There are a myriad of adjacent solutions that companies use to manage their customers, but each has a slightly different entry point because they try, or started by, solving a different problem version.

We advise you to go and read every company's story because they can tell it better than we do, but our crude assessment is that:

  • CRMs were built in the 2000s/2010s, mainly to help companies get new customers.

  • Work OS players are traditionally project management tools that expand into broader use cases - built very generically for any solution (plan a wedding or manage your customers)

  • Customer Success platforms are built to help customer success departments to drive NRR. The difference between CS platforms and customer platforms is the scope: CS platforms are built for the CS department to help them drive NRR, but customer platforms are built for the entire company to drive NRR

  • There are multiple other products similar to Customer Success platforms (e.g., onboarding, customer experience, product analytics, etc): they help manage and grow customers, but only for a subset of the activities

As such, customer platforms live inside and across this entire space. They integrate with all the other platforms, so data can flow freely and customers can choose their own technology stack.

Sounds good - what’s the catch?

The ambition of customer platforms is to become the place where companies build their post-sale business. The benefit of that unification is that companies can become truly customer-centric, cross-functional, and data-driven by collaborating on one platform. The risk of the approach is its reach - can one platform really solve all of this?

At Planhat, obviously, we believe customer platforms can. With a horizontal product strategy - i.e., building very general tools that can be applied to solve multiple customer problems, and a differentiating data platform approach - we believe the benefits to customers outweigh the risks.

The intent of this article is to share our perspective and invite discussion. There are a lot of smart people thinking about this exact problem and arriving at other conclusions than we do. So please reach out to share your thoughts and reflections - we’d love to discuss!

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