The Power of Team

INSEAD team

What do CEOs expect from their Customer Success (CS) organizations? There is fluidity around this topic but stripping it to its essence we can say they expect their CS orgs to take responsibility for these things:

  • higher retention of existing customers
  • higher revenue attainment from existing customers
  • movement towards building an organization that operates under its own P&L, with healthy margins, etc
  • customer satisfaction goals that can be demonstrably proven to result in higher retention rates

What’s missing from the list is any explicit mention of product adoption and that’s because CEOs would say that adoption is a fundamental expectation that should be covered off by the drive to retain and grow customers, and by the strategy CS deploys to increase customer satisfaction. Fair point.

How are these expectations acted upon at the CS organizational level? There have been countless blog posts and articles written about best practices for on-boarding, education, driving successful renewal programs, measuring NPS and customer effort scores, and in developing billable or fee-based services within Customer Success to drive adoption. This article though will not add to that body of work. Instead, it will address a fundamental behavior (and yet a particularly difficult one to master) of professional organizations that aspire to deliver on those CEO expectations, leadership. By leadership I mean senior management that consistently demonstrates its ability to clearly communicate, inspire, model, and coach.

So VPs of Customer Success, this article is for you.

The recent Harvard Business Review article on the mediocrity on teams lists four leadership practices that lead to performance excellence. Most pertinent for this article is leadership practice #3, Establish Peer Accountability, which I believe can help Customer Success reach the elusive goal of C-level legitimacy that it’s been striving to attain since its inception. A common refrain heard in Customer Success circles is that it’s difficult to get complete organization-wide buy-in for CS at that level. Why is that? I believe it’s because CS struggles to empirically prove it can hit its KPIs across the board, quarter after quarter and year after year.

There’s an emerging practice for people who manage a team of customer success managers and it starts by drawing on something that sales organizations have been doing for decades. Senior sales leaders have their account executives present an overview of their territory to their peers on a quarterly basis.

There are all kinds of ways to improve your Customer Success practice and getting the team together to triangulate on the business costs (comparatively) next to nothing.

The typical agenda for a quarterly sales meeting will look something like what you see immediately below. Each account executive would be required to prepare a presentation that covers all the points.

Quarterly Sales Meetings Agenda

  • Overview of territory
  • Revenue attainment to date
  • Top opportunities (or, how I’m going to make my number)
    • Hurdles
      • Product support cases in the critical path
      • Competition
      • Action items to close
  • Competitive wins/losses in last quarter

Marketing is represented in these meetings and will typically deliver a review of activities they led in the last quarter to support sales as well as provide a forecast of activities to be conducted in the upcoming quarter.

Benefits of these meetings:

  1. Transparency
  2. Opportunity for account executive to demonstrate full grasp of the business
  3. Peer review and assistance
  4. Leaders get to publicly lead

I’m not sure how prevalent it is for Customer Success organizations to have adopted these types of meetings for themselves (I rarely heard of it during my time as head of Customer Success research with TSIA) but even if there are some that do conduct them, it’s highly unlikely they would approach them as comprehensively as what I outline below. For these quarterly customer success meetings, each customer success manager (CSM) would be required to prepare a presentation that covers all the points.

Quarterly Customer Success Meetings Agenda

  • Deep dive of one account
    • their business and its challenges
    • why they bought from the vendor
    • their health (or, what’s going on?)
  • Top customer achievements this quarter
    • measurable progress towards business goals
    • explicit examples of adoption
    • innovation using the vendor’s products
  • Adoption challenges in territory
    • trends, patterns
    • plans to address
    • communication with critical parties
  • Revenue (renewals, growth)
    • Top opportunities
    • Action items to close

Benefits:

  1. Transparency
  2. Opportunity for CSM to demonstrate full grasp of the business
  3. Peer review and assistance
  4. Leaders get to publicly lead

Because I’m a believer in the elimination of barriers there should be representation from Product Management, Sales, and Marketing at these meetings. All those teams would add tremendous value to the meeting and it’s important that they learn from the CSMs and hear details, patterns, trends of the customers’ experience with the products and the company from the one organization that has the most intimacy with them, Customer Success. Those organizations could then leverage their specialized expertise to offer ideas, clarification, and education for how situations and processes could be improved.

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the detail that can potentially surface from and about the CSM during these Customer Success quarterly meetings.

  • Assess the CSM’s business sophistication
    • Are there unique challenges inherent in the customer’s business that affect their ability to fully adopt our solution?
    • Is the industry or sector in decline? How is the customer addressing that reality?
    • What pressures is it facing from new technologies and new consumer behavior that are affecting the team that Customer Success works with?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to employ all available tools/methods 
    • What methods are you employing to increase your understanding of the customer’s challenges?
    • are you comparing or benchmarking the customer and using the resultant information to help educate them?
    • how are you utilizing social media to learn more about the customer?
  • Assess the CSM’s product knowledge and their ability to match product to business need
    • Tell us about some of the customer scenarios (use cases) you’ve observed that could help mature our product.
    • Tell us why the customer may be ready or not ready to invest further with us
  • Assess the CSM’s knowledge intimacy of the playbook and their ability to think creatively for how it might be improved
    • Talk to us about our customer success playbook. Based on your involvement with customers over the last quarter, what suggestions can you make for improving our customer success playbook?
  • Assess the CSM’s knowledge of how the work of other organizations integrate with or otherwise could be leveraged to help Customer Success deliver better service to customers
    • How can other organizations within our company help you do your job?
    • How is the CRM fulfilling its purpose as the repository of customer truth?
    • How does the content you produce, or repurpose from other organizations, and transmit to customers resonating with them? How do you gauge its efficacy?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to monitor and coach the customer and to discern from data what actions should next be taken
    • Have your customers always followed our script for on-boarding? If not, do you know why and how did they respond when you informed them that missing or skipping steps prevents them from moving forward on the adoption path?
    • What clues do you see in the dashboard and reporting data that support opinions you have about the customers’ odds of success?
  • Assess the CSM’s ability to speak to client experience
    • As the person most knowledgeable about the customer, based on your experiences and observations what can you tell us is the common perception customers have of working with our products and our company?

Senior Customer Success leaders should view these types of meetings as their Sales counterparts see theirs. The best ones see quarterly sales meetings as opportunities to build a pipeline of leaders, as creating an environment of collaboration that drives improvement, and as a crucible for vetting sales opportunities and refining plans to bring the deals to closure.

Senior Customer Success leaders should see CS quarterly meetings as opportunities to surface future leaders, to raise the bar of expectations about what it means to know your customer and to know their business, and to articulate a strategy for driving the customer towards their desired outcomes.  Finally, senior Customer Success leaders should honestly look at these meetings as opportunities to test their own ability to lead and to drive the organization further towards achieving those expectations of the CEO I laid out at the very beginning of this article.

For all kinds of practical and psychological reasons, coaching your Customer Success organization to improve is extremely difficult on a one-to-one basis. Those types of meetings are good for maintaining a communication flow and for very targeted and specific coaching. But some research from Stanford points to the fact that people learn better and improve faster in groups and in environments where they can present to and collaborate with their peers. INSEAD elaborates on this from the angle of compensation design in what it refers to as goal-framing theory in this article.

Coaching teams of Customer Success Managers is critically important because they, like Marketers, are on the forefront of technological innovation that revolves around the customer. The data onslaught will only grow and skills such as a person’s ability to think critically and in multi-dimensions and to communicate professionally and with precision will become even more valuable in the years ahead. Take a look at the table below from MIT Sloan extracted from this article. Artificial intelligence (which is coming on faster than most people realize) will be increasingly seen in the client experience space in the near future. Customer Success needs to prepare itself for how it will leverage and exploit new machine-led ways to touch and learn from customers. New roles will be required and current teams can adapt to them if the right environment exists now of looking at the customer from many dimensions and collaborating around strategies for improving their experience and their ability to succeed. Quarterly meetings as I described above will help stimulate and nurture the kind of culture that will be ready to assimilate and exploit AI to benefit Customer Success organizations and their customer engagement models. Senior leaders can prepare their organizations by creating now a mature culture that collaborates around the customer’s business.

MIT_newjobs

I’ll close by saying I realize there are many companies with dozens of CSMs in their organizations and that would find the prospect of having each CSM present in the meeting a daunting and near-impossible task. For large organizations like that I suggest that you map out the year and split up the presentations accordingly. The important thing to remember is that the benefit of having the CSM stand in front of peers and demonstrate a firm grasp of business is powerful and will dovetail nicely with what should be your company’s secret weapon, a strong, open, and outward-looking culture. That culture though also happens to be the trickiest thing to build, nurture, and sustain.

About Peter Armaly
I get jazzed by automation, big data, and blockchain tech. Business, technology, and fitness are things I understand. Scotch, wine, food, and fiction are things I appreciate.

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