ABM and Customer Success, two ships passing in the night.

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At what point does a phrase or term become a cliché? Who decides? When I took creative writing classes a number of years ago, the professor critiqued our work by spotting cliches with the tenacity and ferocity of someone who perhaps had once been mortally wounded by one and was out for revenge.

The word cliché is defined as:

a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as: sadder but wiser, strong as an ox, happy as a clam, as old as the hills, every cloud has a silver liningour company is customer-centric

Of course I added that last example but let’s talk about it. It seems every company is either saying they are customer-centric or they are on their way to becoming customer-centric. Usually they can articulate a definition that approximates this…

We are working from the outside in. We are placing the customer at the center of everything we do. They fuel our processes and inspire our people. They are the reason we exist as a company.

Can’t argue with that passion. It’s actually the correct way for companies to strategically think in today’s business environment when disruption not only creeps up on you but given the right conditions it can swamp you in a matter of weeks. The customer must be the center of everything a company does. Anticipation of their needs, wants, hopes, and expectations must fuel your processes. The alternative is failure.

Still, if so many companies understand this and so many companies are seemingly headed in the right direction, then why does customer-centric sound so resoundingly empty? Can we call it yet? Can we say that customer-centric is a cliché? Not yet but we’re getting close. It doesn’t mean as much anymore when you read it or hear it. When a phrase is uttered and it doesn’t register a brain wave, it has become a cliché. Or when a phrase irritates and forces you to probe and dig deeper to really understand what the speaker meant, then it has become a cliché.

Words need to mean something so let’s all try to avoid clichés. Let’s agree that if we’re going to continue using the term customer-centric we will be prepared to describe how our companies have organized ourselves and our processes to encompass the entire experience of the customer, from their unknown buyer state all the way through purchase to their eventual state of organically-felt advocacy on your behalf.

Okay, Armaly, we need an example.

As both a marketing and a customer success professional I am accustomed to looking at enterprises and seeking opportunities where these two disciplines could be cross-leveraged, opportunities that might be overlooked by those with a more discipline-specific focus.

The classic (simplified) pre-sales portion of the sales process calls for Marketing to find and nurture leads and to pass the qualified ones off to sales who close the deal. Typically, the only post-sales involvement of marketing is leading the customer reference program.

The classic (yes, simplified) post-sales process calls for Customer Success to lead the effort of ensuring the customer gets properly on-boarded and that the path they need to take in achieving their desired outcomes is detailed, made smooth, and governed. Typically, there is close to zero customer success involvement in the pre-sales portion of the sales process.

Let’s move on to ABM (account-based marketing). ABM is the hot, new(ish) thing of marketing and ITSMA, which bills itself as “the leading source for insight, community, and hands-on help for B2B marketers in the connected economy”, explains it this way: “ABM is a strategic approach that combines targeted, insight-led marketing with sales to increase mindshare, strengthen relationships, and drive growth in specific new and existing accounts.” In essence, ABM is about focusing specific messaging on detailed personas in key accounts. There is a lot of increasing interest in applying Artificial Intelligence in this space. Nudge is one company keen to be a player here. See also, this post from Oracle Marketing Cloud for additional clarity on ABM. So rather than marketing to the masses of unknowns, ABM is about focusing your marketing on identified accounts, where the odds of success are greater, and tailoring your messaging so that the recipient feels it is meant just for them.

All good, right? Well, yes, except when it’s not enough. What do I mean? So far, ABM has been all about targeting accounts for new sales. While I have no argument with that, I do wonder why it doesn’t go further.

Where is Customer Success in the ABM play? With its rich knowledge of the customer’s experience with your solution and with intimate knowledge of the customer’s relationship with your company (good, bad, indifferent) along with knowledge of all the strengths, weaknesses, and quirks of the various stakeholders, the information collected and influenced by the Customer Success team should be seen as a perfect input into the ABM process. Wouldn’t ABM messaging be even more precisely tailored for the audience if Marketing knew that their audience (the customer) has been suffering trying to implement or adopt a certain feature? Or that they’ve been wildly successful with it and have been championing it on social media? If ABM factored that side of the equation in, then that would be how a customer-centric approach is demonstrated. Because it would be about the complete customer who is experiencing everything your company intended to do and didn’t intend to do in all your interactions with them.

A phrase is a cliché when it’s meaning is lost. Customer-centric is not a cliché when the customer feels they are at the center. It is a cliche when they don’t.

Oh, and yes, I realize the title of this post includes a blatant use of a cliché.

Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor

 

Renewal play? Not so fast.

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A few weeks ago we each had the opportunity to attend and to speak at the Customer Success Summit 2017 (Totango’s annual conference) in San Francisco, CA. This year’s event again brought together customer success leaders brimming with thought-provoking ideas – some that we didn’t necessarily agree with and some that were affirmations of what we are already doing, or anticipate seeing and doing, in customer success (CS). Like many customer success management conferences this past year, the general themes were: how to scale the CS organization, the role artificial intelligence and bots should play in services; cross-organizational implications of customer success effort; and the need to focus more intently on designing processes and activities that accurately target and nurture the customer along their journey.

These are all extremely vital and relevant customer success topics and the industry’s collective energy around generating best practices for each will likely yield big business benefits in the years ahead. We caution though about the tendency to draw attention away from a topic that is even more fundamental and yet has been insufficiently addressed. We decided to collaborate on this post because we believe the industry is in a rush to get to the finish line before it has figured out the answer to “what is the primary role of customer success?” To answer that, we need to state this. We consider the customer’s ability to adopt a  solution the key building block to success and to the customer’s likelihood to continue their investment in the product.  Persistently high churn rates and persistently low retention rates offer the most obvious proof of that and that much work needs to be done to develop best practices for adoption.  Before you can even start talking about renewals and expansion opportunities we believe goal-based adoption must become the main focus of a customer success manager. Because before you can even think of talking to a customer about a renewal you need to have the answers to the following questions:

  • who are they?
  • how would you characterize the health of the relationship between your company and the customer?
  • what challenges did they overcome to derive business benefit from your solution?
  • where are they on the solution maturity scale?
  • when did they expect the solution would address their business goals?
  • why should they be excited about reinvesting in your company and your solution?

If they haven’t adopted your solution, what do you think the odds are of you having answers to these questions?

In its most recent customer success industry baseline survey, the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) reported in this publication that only 45% of those companies have their customer success organization focused primarily on driving adoption. Another 45% reported that their CS organization is focused primarily on driving retention. The remaining 10% of companies say that they have their CS org focused on driving growth. While acknowledging there are all kinds of companies at all levels of maturity and recognizing that companies are still looking at pulling as many revenue-generating levers as they can, we find it counter-intuitive to believe there can be any long-term success in achieving and maintaining high retention levels (let alone growth) without first achieving the hard part, successful adoption of the product/solution. We feel strongly about this especially when we read a blog like this from Kissmetrics in which they explain how customer analysis can significantly reduce churn rates. They argue, (and we agree with them), that [customer] “Research matters because it offers your team the opportunity to create the ultimate customer experience. To satisfy customers, you must understand their behaviors, needs, and wants. You need to know the why and how behind all their actions.”

Does customer experience factor into their propensity to renew? Does it factor into their propensity to invest more with your firm? We feel foolish for even asking those questions because the answer is so obviously YES to both.

We all know the success of a SaaS company hinges on many factors like showing your potential investors low customer acquisition costs (CAC) while amassing a recurring revenue customer base that is continually expanding and renewing over time. How do you build and expand your company in a way that is scalable and retain customers over time? It isn’t by forcing the latest feature on your customer or simply by getting them live on your platform, without having identified any real value just so you can recognize the revenue. The path to success is identifying what problem your customer is seeking to solve and delivering on a promise to solve it in a fairly seamless and effortless way.

Don’t just take our word for it. The highly regarded VC firm, Bessemer Venture Partners, included extensive evidence substantiating our claim  in this report, but we’ll call out just two: 

“Wall Street investors and your customers hate to see a large mix of services revenue in cloud businesses. You should focus your product development, sales, and client success teams on reducing the implementation friction, time, and cost as much as possible.”

“It’s very difficult and expensive to grow subscription businesses if you have moderate customer churn– and prohibitive if your churn is high.  As detailed financial models of CLTV (Customer Lifetime Value) and Free Cash Flow demonstrate, the single biggest driver of long-term profitability for your cloud business (and thus valuation) is the renewal rate of your customers.”

Still not convinced? Think about your own buying behavior. Would you renew a contract for your home Internet Service Provider(ISP) if it never delivered a consistently reliable performance? If it failed to provide the ease-of-use and speed that was advertised and promised by the vendor? Of course not. Now think of your customers. You shouldn’t really be surprised that they decided to not renew when you should have been aware that:

  • they aren’t using the product to the extent you had expected
  • the tickets they’ve opened with your contact center indicate a pattern of usage suggesting they are at a very immature stage of adoption
  • they aren’t responding to your communications
  • they aren’t even opening your communications

So how can you get out of this rut?

There is a plethora of publicly available written content that focuses on user adoption tactics, best practices for utilizing the various customer success tools that can help with this process, how to scale while improving your ability to factor in your customer’s behavior and anticipating their needs, and how you can prioritize adoption as the most powerful process you will ever have with your customer. It’s the one that matters most to them and should therefore matter most to you.

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This blog was co-authored by:

Emilia D’Anzica is the Vice President of Customer Engagement at WalkMe. In the span of her career, Emilia has received several awards for being a top client service manager and leader while scaling global customer success teams. Emilia is a certified Scrum Master, active PMP certified Project Manager and a Trans-Global Executive MBA graduate from St. Mary’s College of California. She is based in San Francisco, CA.

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Peter Armaly is a Principal Transformation Advisor at Oracle Marketing Cloud. He is a senior-level customer success and digital marketing transformation professional with extensive experience working with wide-ranging clients of both SaaS and On-Premise engagement models. His career includes working for companies as varied as: Oracle, TSIA, BMC Software, Eloqua, CA Technologies, Rogers Telecommunications, Canadian Tire, and CP Rail. Peter is a visionary leader in the Customer Success industry and has made solid contributions of quality content (presentations, blogs, podcasts).  He is based in Toronto, Canada.

 

Yes, it’s about the customer but it can be about you too

In the first post of this series I mentioned I believe there is a need to bring digital transformation down a level or two, to make it practical. Now I’ll add the word actionable. First, let’s agree on a definition of digital transformation for today’s business. Many definitions are afloat and this McKinsey piece describes a particularly good executive level one but I think we can make it more actionable and relate-able to the front-line employee.

So let’s work with what McKinsey said but let’s do less skirting of the details and elaborate to the level of our target audience. Digital transformation means companies will re-imagine the way they work so their processes: a) are data-driven and automated; b) are focused on data that’s about customer behavior and experience; c) are administered by employees who are so absorbed with the mission that they attack their work each day with a sense of purpose and a belief that everything they do, even if it’s upstream, makes a difference to the customer’s experience. To borrow a phrase, now that’s transformation you can believe in.

If employees could start now and apply a digital mindset, what would that look like? Want an example? I have one that’s about 5 years old, ancient and almost quaint now in this digital age, but it’s illustrative of how employees can tackle a problem themselves and make a big, measurable impact on customers.  It happened during the time I was the head of Customer Success for the Americas for BMC Software.  A persistent problem for us was that the company offered no Spanish speaking support and for my Customer Success Managers in Mexico that created a huge productivity hit. During their onboarding phase new Spanish-speaking customers invariably called my CSMs seeking assistance to overcome problems, sucking up approximately 25% of the CSMs’ month. 25% is a lot when you’re expecting staff to develop and execute strategies to proactively support other clients. When we examined the problem a pattern emerged in the types of questions asked by the customers and we soon realized we could address it at scale by creating a video of the guys walking the typical customer through the product configuration steps. So that’s what they did. But to make it a digital process we did this:

  • we embedded a trigger in the CRM so when the welcome package was sent to Mexico-based customers of the products in question, it included a link to the video
  • we collected stats on the consumption of the video
  • we wrote a program that compared the video consumption statistics against support cases to see if there was a correlation between the two and produced a report
  • during our QBRs we shared information with the customer about what we observed about their adoption rate vs their consumption of education, including the video

How did we do? For those accounts we increased NPS by 10 points and we were able to transfer that 25% of CSM time that was previously spent on providing repeatable onboarding work over to a proactive adoption focus with other clients.

That’s digital transformation.

The peril of stasis

When considering how to infuse the customer’s experience into your business it’s important to recognize that the corporate culture is likely the biggest challenge you will face. To design and implement a process that digitally represents the end to end experience of the customer is the easy part. You begin by empathizing with the customer and mapping their journey through their engagement with your company. It’s a fun exercise and a humbling one. Everyone should do it for it focuses the mind and steels the resolve. It brings teams together and it raises their collective heart rate when the realization dawns of how far the company is falling short in ensuring the customer’s experience is as friction-less as it can be.

Addressing the inhibitors that are revealed by that journey mapping exercise is something else entirely. That’s when the corporate culture often presents formidable obstacles to significant change. I think this is because many corporations suffer from a condition known in evolutionary biology as punctuated equilibrium. Assuming that you need an assist with that one… punctuated equilibrium is a theory suggesting that once something appears in the fossil record it becomes stable and shows little evolutionary change thereafter. Doesn’t that sound like how Sales, Marketing, Service, and Support have worked side by side like well-oiled and independent machines, doing their own thing while barely casting a glance at each other for probably close to one hundred years now?

If we want to have processes that reflect the customer’s journey why don’t we design them so they cross organizational boundaries and are bound by timed steps? Why doesn’t the Marketing to Sales lead management process include a timer to ensure that Sales takes action against the Marketing qualified leads? When Sales closes a deal why do we allow the deal to be booked when they haven’t inputted all the critical details about the customer’s goals into the account record? Why doesn’t the action that formally closes the deal in the CRM also kick off an onboarding step, which too is timed so that Customer Success is held accountable for taking action? Finally, why aren’t all these steps linked together so that no one gets paid for success until the customer receives value?

Maybe the answer to all these questions is because corporations suffer from punctuated equilibrium.