Welcome to Built to Serve: Your Customer Success Playbook.
We’re here to share what it takes to build, run and scale a world-class Customer Success team. If practical, actionable, experience-based Customer Success expertise is what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.
So, who are we and why should you trust us with your precious time?
Alex McClafferty is an entrepreneur who co-founded a 7-figure business with 35 team members, worldwide. He is an expert in people development, time management, and business-building.
His partner, Nils Vinje, has served in every Customer Success role. From CSM to VP, he quickly established a track record of orchestrating record-breaking renewals and up-sells by aligning Sales and Customer Success. Nils will reveal dozens of personal stories, learnings, and mistakes he made during his whirlwind journey as a Customer Success Professional.
Three final points before we get started:
Finally, congratulations to you! By reading this guide, you have invested in yourself, your team and your customers’ success.
Alex McClafferty and Nils Vinje
Table of Contents
Built to Serve is dedicated to my Mom, Karen Vinje (1943 – 2015) who always put the needs of others before her own and lived life with an open heart. Putting a voice to what it means to be Built to Serve is possible only because of you. I am the man I am today because of your ability to see the best in everyone no matter who they were or where they came from.
I love you Mom,
Catherine Blackmore is a Customer Success thought leader and innovator, with over 20 years of experience helping a diverse list of companies from small businesses to the Fortune 100. Catherine is also a Glide Consulting client and friend, so we asked her to contribute a foreword for this playbook. Take it away, Catherine!
In 2015, I joined Oracle Marketing Cloud as GVP, Customer Success. I took on the great challenge of bringing together five acquired companies with the goal of building a cohesive Customer Success organization. Each acquired company was at a different stage in their evolution and was governed by a different culture, identity and values. Aligning these five companies was going to be tough, but achieving Customer Success at scale was going to be even harder.
We had to transform. Our customers would not achieve ultimate value and success without an integrated team in place to serve them. Being organized by products meant that our customers needed to talk with 4 or even 5 CSMs to get their problems solved. For a company focused on helping our customers improve customer experience, we needed to drink our own champagne and make changes.
Hundreds of changes could be made, but instead of diving in headfirst, I took a step back. I worked closely with Nils and Alex from Glide Consulting to formulate a strategy and execute an action plan to drive this change across our entire organization. We followed the 4 P’s framework they share in this comprehensive playbook.
Here’s what we’ve achieved together so far:
Nils facilitated a one-day workshop for fifteen of our Global Customer Success leadership team members. During this workshop, we defined the purpose, core values and identity of Customer Success at Oracle Marketing Cloud.
Our brand: Members of the Customer Success organization at OMC are called Agents of Customer Excellence or A.C.E.
Our purpose statement: The purpose of Customer Success at OMC is to earn lifelong customers by orchestrating their marketing transformation.
Our core values: Guidevocate, Exemplary and Resullts Oriented Partner.
We brought our customers into the Purpose Summit, by testing each idea against whether or not our charter and promise would help us serve them. The Purpose Summit also helped us test our decisions around People. One burning question came to mind: have we identified all the roles needed to help us achieve and live our purpose? This question helped us change our operating model and think differently about the roles in the Customer Success team.
After the summit, the leadership team was reinvigorated. They relished the opportunity to create their own identity and define exactly what it means to be part of the Oracle Marketing Cloud Customer Success team. We used our A.C.E. brand to create an awards program to recognize the employees who model our purpose and values. A few of the leaders noted that the workshop was the most enjoyable day at work, ever!
Here’s a picture at the end of the full-day workshop – notice the smiles all round:
Global Leadership Summit
We carried our energy and momentum through to the next engagement with Glide Consulting. Nils and Alex helped 96 Oracle Marketing Cloud leaders build their coaching and leadership toolkits in a one and a half day workshop. Nils condensed 400+ hours of coaching expertise into an action-only workshop. We learned how to identify and work to our Strengths, ask powerful questions and apply the 3 levels of listening.
Thank you @NilsVinje & @alexmcclafferty for helping us learn to Ask Powerful Questions in #customersuccess! pic.twitter.com/ApYWfLMnpL
— Catherine Blackmore (@catherineblckmr) April 13, 2016
This workshop had no powerpoint presentations – the entire experience was hands-on, including role-plays, practical examples and hot-seats. Nils and Alex also worked closely with all of the leaders in smaller groups, providing practical guidance for real-world issues. The team’s feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the event served to strengthen our identity, connect the worldwide team and align everyone to our new, best practice approach. Here’s a picture at the end of the workshop – again, notice the smiles all round:
Today, we’re starting to roll out this program of change and improvement. Even though it’s early, we are getting very positive feedback around our Purpose, our customer promise and how we have aligned our roles and services to achieve it.
Thanks to the partnership and guidance of Nils and Alex, I’ve made remarkable progress towards the goal of making Oracle Marketing Cloud the destination for driven Customer Success professionals. The 4 P’s framework has helped me transform the Oracle Marketing Cloud Global Customer Success team in record time. The investment I’ve made by working with Glide Consulting has already paid for itself many times over and in this guide, they give you their entire framework.
This playbook is a must-read for any SaaS leader who wants to build a world-class Customer Success organization.
Catherine Blackmore, GVP Customer Success – Oracle Marketing Cloud.
“Clarity shall set you free.” – Nils Vinje. [Click to share on Linkedin]
For most leaders, working in Customer Success equals firefighting.
When you put one fire out, three more flare up. Instead of thriving in an enjoyable workplace, you end up surviving each day, living through a reactive and stressful existence. You’re at risk of burnout, prone to depression and health problems – but you can avoid this. We spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pulling this guide together, to help you thrive, not just survive.
It’s time to choose. You can let your environment control you, which is the default mode of operation or you can control your environment, which takes courage and effort, but pays enormous dividends. So, which path will you take?
I will control my environment …or… my environment will control me.
A straightforward way to escape firefighting mode and reduce your stress is to step back and see Customer Success from a 40,000-foot level. The first framework will help you avoid getting buried in a never-ending to-do list that every Customer Success leader has at one point in their career. We call it the ‘101 things I should fix… but will probably never get around to fixing in my Customer Success organization’ list.
Enter framework #1 – the 4 Ps of Customer Success.
The 4 P’s help you prioritize and sequence exactly where to focus as a Customer Success leader.
The first P is your People.
The second P is Purpose.
The third P is Process.
The final P is Platform.
The sequencing of these P’s runs against the grain of conventional and espoused wisdom. That’s because it’s dead easy to spin up new processes for your team, but incredibly hard to consistently invest in your people. It’s straightforward to sign up for a Customer Success platform but extremely hard to document the purpose of Customer Success at your organization.
To start, take this free self-assessment to see how you stack up.
After working with Customer Success leaders at all levels, we’ve noticed a consistent pattern. Leaders tend to bury themselves in process and platform, at the expense of their people and defining a clear purpose. Do you fit this model? Where can you do better? Use this quiz as a starting point and we’ll revisit your assessment at the end of the guide.
The next framework will show you where to start with the first and most significant P – your people.
Framework #2 is Built to Serve versus Built to Sell.
The best Customer Success Managers are Built to Serve.
They give without question and serve the needs of other people before serving their own. Nils fits this category, and when he does an exceptional job of serving other people, he feels incredible. This ‘rush’ is what makes Customer Success professionals tick. Salespeople are Built to Sell. They have the ability to put their needs and the needs of the company before anybody else’s. They can be found in sales or account management roles.
Dividing the Built to Serve and Built to Sell personality traits is the critical first step of building a sustainable Customer Success team. Throughout this guide, we’ll share war stories that expound on our claims. Over to Nils for an explanation of Built to Serve.
I had a friend who worked as a sales engineer. His job seemed like a lot of fun. It got me thinking “I know technology. I know how to build relationships. I can play both sides, why don’t I become a sales rep? I’d probably make a lot more money and have a lot more fun.” So, I went to work for Xerox as door-knocking sales rep.
Over five months, I learned what it meant to be a Built to Serve person in a Built to Sell world. When I started, I went through two weeks of training, and it was straightforward. I finished the course, and the reality of prospecting and selling hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to knock on 80 doors and make 80 cold calls every single week. I had to prove to my boss that I had been making my calls, by showing him the business cards I had collected. After three months of soul-crushing cold-calls and rejections, I closed my first deal. The truth is, I didn’t close anything. I got lucky because the contract was up for renewal and I was in the right place at the right time.
I hated the job but took it upon myself to improve. I told myself that if I worked harder, I might start to see results. I would wake up at 5:30 AM and read sales books like the Art of Selling. The books were helpful and useful, but my schedule started to take its toll. I would leave for work around 7 AM and start driving. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so I had to cover the west side, the Valley, Burbank and the Hollywood area. If you’ve driven through LA, you’ll know that the traffic is torturous. Oddly enough, I started to enjoy driving because the traffic gave me a reprieve from the reality and pressure of my job.
I wasn’t improving, so my manager sent me to Xerox University, just outside of Washington DC for three days. I loved it. The training environment was fun; I met some great people and had a chance to exhale and be myself for a few days. Then the weight hit me, again. I felt terrible. I despised my job, but I didn’t know exactly why. The five months of pushing, forcing and trying to fit the mold of a salesperson made me crack. I was depressed.
I came back from the training and quit Xerox. My manager was upset because they had invested a lot of money to send me to training, but I had to get out of there. I completely broke down. I felt like a failure. I didn’t know where or who I was. I felt lost. I was slumped over on the couch, sobbing. My wife came home from work to help me, and I didn’t know which way was up.
I got some professional help.
It took a few months for me to unpack what happened and it was very helpful. I emerged with a great perspective from the hardest five months of my life. My main learning is that I went so hard against the grain of who I was that it nearly drove me crazy. I was Built to Serve but was forcing myself to sell. This experience was painful, but I’m grateful for it. I learned that being aligned with my work, understanding my strengths and flexing them daily was the path to happiness, fulfillment and career success.
So, how does Nils’ story apply to you and your Customer Success team?
It all starts with structure. No matter your company stage, you need a clear division between Sales and Customer Success. Aligning the right people to the right role is a huge leverage point for your entire organization.
Here’s how we define the company stages:
Early: You’ve raised a seed round and are marching towards your Series A. Your priority is discovering how to serve the needs of your customers as they bear with your growing pains. You’re building your Customer Success organization.
Mid: You’ve raised a B round and are marching towards your Series C. You have formalized your Customer Success processes, training and have invested in a Customer Success platform. You’re scaling your Customer Success team.
Late: Your company is pre-IPO or publicly traded. You have a well-oiled Customer Success machine, operating at scale with the support of multiple departments, with executive level buy-in and support. You’re optimizing your established Customer Success team.
When you’re in the early stage, you can kick off Customer Success with a single CSM. They will be the first receiver of customers who come through your sales pipeline. They will be the conduit between customers, product and engineering teams. They will own the customer relationship. This ‘founding CSM’ role is an enormous responsibility.
To expedite hiring, look for someone who has more than 24 months of experience in Customer Success or a closely aligned field. They should have a track record of architecting their work environment. When you put someone in an early-stage role without the right experience, you face a major risk because there are so many different priorities to juggle. A new CSM will become overwhelmed and spread themselves too thin.
Even at the early stage, the commercial terms of a sale should be placed in the hands of someone who is Built to Sell, because they are naturally talented to do it. As the leader, the responsibility might fall on you, an account manager or the original salesperson who closed the deal.
If you put a person who is Built to Serve in a sales role, you will be forcing them to go against their natural instincts. They will need to put themselves before the client. There will be conflict, and your customer will recognize it. You will also set your CSM up for failure. They might renew a few contracts, but they’re not going to push for an upsell. They simply aren’t wired to ask for more money, and you will leave a lot of revenue on the table.
In the early stage of a company, you might be shorthanded on salespeople. Your CSM might sheepishly volunteer to own the renewal, in fact, they might even try to convince you that they are a natural born closer. In our experience, this never works and is sub-optimal. When you don’t separate responsibilities, you end up with fuzzy internal expectations and a confused purpose of what Customer Success means to your organization.
Your CEO might say “Oh, you’re supposed to provide an incredible experience” while the VP of Sales might expect your team to own the CS org to own everything post-sale. As a Customer Success Manager on the front lines, fuzziness is a huge source of frustration. Without division between the Built to Serve and Built to Sell people, confusion will prevail. And when your team isn’t clear on their responsibility or aligned with their work, it’s impossible for them to excel.
If your company is at mid-stage, the value of the partnership between Built to Serve and Built to Sell is quantifiable. There are likely millions of renewal dollars on the table, every quarter.
Nils is going to share how partnering up with a sales rep helped him not only renew, but expand the value of a Fortune 500 contract by $100,000. Over to Nils.
Our customer was paying us $100,000 per year. They were a large organization and moved slowly, so it took us the entire first year to get the basics going. Our plan was to spread the knowledge, best practices and everything we learned in year two.
Seven months into the first year of the contract, I engaged with a sales rep to partner with me to drive the commercial terms of the account. I set up a call, and we brought in the ‘powers that be’, including my customer, his supervisor and my partner in sales.
Over the next four months, my sales partner ran his Built to Sell process while I ran my Built to Serve process. We secured the renewal, which was great – but the exciting part was the account expansion. We landed an extra $100,000 of expansion revenue on top of the existing contract. Had I owned the renewal process, I probably would have got the renewal across the line – but we would leave the $100,000 of extra revenue on the table. We were successful because we were able to balance the needs of the customer and the company, by bouncing off each other. Here’s how we made it happen.
I was the good cop. I could anticipate how the customer would react and provide the appropriate response to talk them off a ledge. My partner in sales was the bad cop. He would be comfortable saying things like “This is what we’re willing to do,” whereas I would never assume that role. I got to play to my strengths, which was helping to support my customer in the way I knew best. I would feed my customer’s concerns back to the sales rep, and he was well-equipped to push in a direction I never could.
A well-executed partnership between sales and Success will accelerate your company’s growth… but only if you hire the right Customer Success Manager for your stage.
The ideal fit for a mid-stage company is a Customer Success Manager with between 12 and 24 months experience. They will be comfortable building rapport, negotiating and working in a consultative capacity. They assume the role of a maestro by orchestrating the company’s resources to fulfill customers needs. When you build your Customer Success team at a mid-stage company, put the necessary groundwork in to welcome new recruits to your team. You can create a rock-solid onboarding program and a CSM training course, like a boot-camp.
The late-stage companies who get it right divide roles by lines of responsibility, including onboarding, renewals, and a relationship management team. You can remove the fuzziness of whom (e.g. Sales, Customer Success, customer support, etc.) owns what (e.g. bug fixes, upsells, renewals, etc.).
A CSM with up to 12 months experience is the best fit for a late-stage company. CSM roles at late-stage companies are typically more sales oriented, with the Customer Success team owning a revenue number. Their responsibility is driving expansion and upsell opportunities. Candidates with more of a sales background can hit the ground running in these roles. The Built to Serve / Built to Sell distinction is important here, as the position still needs to match the person’s natural talents.
By the way, if you don’t yet have this Built to Serve / Built to Sell division of labor in your company, you’re not alone. Early stage companies overlook it due to a lack of time and money. Mid-stage companies often over-invest in sales and under-invest in Success. Late stage companies deal with bureaucracy, unclear reporting lines and the belief that Customer Success Managers should be able to serve and sell. No matter what type of team you’re building, keep the Built to Serve framework in mind and you will gravitate towards an excellent candidate.
So, how do you identify who is Built to Serve and who is Built to Sell? Ask questions about your candidate’s motivation, career direction and what gets them excited about coming into work. Their answers will leave clues about whether they prefer to serve or close business. Another handy way to uncover your team’s talents is to use the framework we discuss in the next section.
“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” – Marilyn vos Savant. [Click to share on Linkedin]
Framework #3 for building a world-class Customer Success team is strengths.
The research institute Gallup conducted thousands of interviews over 40 years to understand what makes a high-performing team. This statement summarizes their research: “The highest performing teams have individuals in roles that maximize their strengths.” Simply put, people excel when they focus on their natural talents.
The challenge is explaining what you are naturally talented to do. For example, if you are asked, “What are you most naturally talented to do?”, you might hesitate or say “I don’t know.” You might be able to explain the things you like to do or the things you hope to do, or the things that are interesting to you. So, how can you explain what you are most talented to do?
Other assessments like DISC and Myers Briggs categorize people with a label, like ‘Conscientious’ or ‘ENTJ’. These profiles are useful, but strengths provide a language to describe your talents. There are 34 strengths, and this assessment gives you a personalized list of your most dominant to least dominant strengths.
Strengths give you an easy way to describe what you’ve always known but haven’t been able to communicate in the past. This new language becomes a powerful bonding agent and trust-builder between employees and leaders. Strengths bring awareness and recognition to the fact that every single person has unique strengths which present themselves in a different way.
If you know what someone’s natural strengths are, you can understand a little bit more about their behavior and worldview. To do this, you must accept that their intent is positive and not malicious. When you accept that, then you can appreciate somebody’s natural talents and say, “Well, their most dominant strength is X. I need to change the way I present this information to align better with what they want because they do not think the same way that I do.”
The first step to understanding strengths is taking the assessment. It will take you 25 minutes and requires your full attention.
You can access the assessment here.
You now have a language to explain your talents. As you read through your profile, take note of how well the description resonates with you. Congratulations for completing the strengths assessment!
Here are some of the benefits of using this framework within your Customer Success team:
It makes performance conversations easier. Strengths provide you another layer to frame your discussions about performance. You can dig deeper than the surface-level behavior and dive into your CSM’s motivation. When you do this in an authentic and thoughtful manner, your CSM will feel valued.
Project delivery will become more efficient and fun. As a leader, if you say “Oh, Joe CSM, you have time, take on this project,” without aligning the individual to the work, you will waste your time and theirs. Instead of assigning projects based on availability, assign them based on strengths. The work will be done 10X faster, and they will enjoy the experience. Here are a few Customer Success projects and the strengths that you can tap into within your team:
Process improvement project >>> Discipline, Achiever
Arranging a team dinner >>> Arranger, Responsibility
Leading a ‘Set the bar’ session >>> Learner, Significance
Writing customer-facing content >>> Communication, Input
Coaching and team development >>> Maximizer, Developer, Restorative
Welcoming new team members >>> Woo, Includer
Supporting a beta launch of a product >>> Adaptability, Activator
You’ll avoid personal conflicts by changing the conversation. Using people’s strengths as a talking point helps to remove the personal issues found in every workplace. Even in startups, when you are part of a “family”, there is constant tension. Some people think someone is out to get or spite them. Using strengths helps you to elevate the conversation to a new perspective. You can use new language and identify where people’s strengths are in conflict, instead of them feeling like there is a personal vendetta against another team member.
If you’ve read up to here, but haven’t taken the strengths assessment, stop and do it now. Strengths discussions illuminate the path to efficiency, engagement, and happiness for your CSMs. OK, now that you have your strengths, let’s walk through how to put them into action:
Reflect on your strengths profile. You can also work with your manager, a peer, a coach or someone outside of your organization. You will get a view on how you can best flex your strengths and deliver what your team needs.
Change the conversation from task-oriented to strengths-oriented. As your team begins taking ownership of their strengths, you’ll start to notice new words appearing in your meetings. To start, this will need a nudge from you. Carve out a ten-minute block to talk through strengths. You can ask questions like:
Some team members will be a little hesitant because this can feel like a very personal discussion. The key as a leader is to illustrate that sharing is the essence of learning. By explaining that there is no judgment, the environment will feel much safer. Encourage your team members to try something and if it works, it’s a bonus.
Run your strengths workshop. We can deliver a half-day strengths workshop for you. If you don’t have the budget for that, here’s a simple 7 step blueprint you can follow to run your own.
Step 1 – Announce: Block out a half day in the afternoon on a Wednesday or Thursday two weeks in advance, so your team members can clear their calendars and give the workshop their undivided attention. Note: Monday and Tuesday are usually too busy, and most people will fade out after lunchtime on Friday. Here’s an email script you can use:
Subject: Action required: Strengths workshop
Hi [team name]
On x date at x time, the entire CS team will attend a hands-on strengths workshop. You’re probably wondering – what are strengths? Here’s a brief summary:
The research institute Gallup conducted thousands of interviews over 40 years to understand what makes a high-performing team. Their research found that “the highest performing teams have individuals in roles that maximize their strengths.”
We’re going to spend the afternoon bringing awareness to each other’s strengths. The session will be a blast, and I promise – there won’t be any Powerpoint presentations.
If you have a calendar conflict or customer meeting at the time and date I’ve mentioned above, please let me know. It’s vital that every team member attends.
Step 2 – The nudge: Three days before your workshop, remind each team member to take the strengths assessment, print out their individual results and familiarize themselves with the theme descriptions. Some of them might have missed the email or forgotten the task.
Step 3 – Prepare: Print multiple copies of the 34 strengths theme descriptions. If you have ten people in the workshop, you’ll need five copies of the strengths descriptions. Print one copy of the strengths workbook per attendee. Print one copy of the strengths workshop facilitator guide.
Step 4 – Set expectations: When you start the workshop, set clear expectations with the team. No-one should be on their laptop or phone during the session. If there is an emergency, they can leave the room to deal with it, but otherwise, all participants are expected to give the other participants their undivided attention.
Step 5 – Set the tone: Kick off the workshop with a personal story about your experience with strengths, why they are important and how they will take on different meanings with different people. Further, share a personal example of the awareness that strengths have helped you bring to yourself and how you will or have made changes in your life because of this.
Step 6 – Run the workshop: This is where the magic happens! Pair your team members up and have them work through the questions below.
We will conduct the workshop in an interview style, where one member asks the other member questions and takes notes. If you have enough time to get through the top five strengths for each team member, that’s great. Otherwise, advise the team to take turns every 15 minutes. The questions they will ask each other are:
Q1: “What is your number X strength?”
Q2: “How true is this strength of me? How accurate is this?”
Q3: “How has this strength served me well in my role as a CSM?”
Q4: “How has this strength not served me well in my role as a CSM?”
Q5: “How can I flex this strength in my role as a CSM in the next month?”
Q6: “Do you have any other observations about this strength?”
It’s important to capture the ‘extras’ and have someone write them down, instead of just pushing through the process. These can be first-hand experiences or counterpoints to why the strength doesn’t perfectly fit.
Step 7 – Regroup: Once you’ve gone through the exercise, bring the team together for a group discussion. Specifically, call out each team member to share one thing they learned about their partner. The result will be a vibrant reflection, with each team member feeling recognized and heard.
Strengths are not a ‘one and done’ effort.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to steer the conversation and keep the discussion going among your team. Next up, we’ll share some risks of not following through with strengths.
“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” – Warren Buffett. [Click to share on Linkedin]
There are risks that come with the adoption of strengths:
Don’t put strengths on the shelf to expire. Despite your best intentions, other priorities will take precedence. Don’t waste your time. What is the point of learning if you’re not going to do anything with the knowledge? If you don’t follow through, you will lose your team’s trust because a flip-flopping leader does not inspire confidence. You can avoid this pain by dedicating ten minutes in each team meeting to talk through strengths. You can use strengths language into your one on one conversations, too.
The interrelationship between strengths is confusing. A dominant strength for CSMs is called ‘Strategic’. Strategic CSMs cut through the clutter, see patterns and get to an answer. This Strength can create a lot of frustration among the team because other team members can’t follow their logic. The easiest way to understand how Strengths inter-relate is to bring the awareness to the entire team and allow them to put strengths into their words.
It’s not clear how to put strengths into action. The good news is that new habits which are formed based on strengths are very sticky. When you’re naturally wired to behave in a certain way or have a natural talent, your typical reaction is to do more of what feels right. Brainstorm ways you and your team members can flex their strengths. You can align projects with strengths and help individuals spend more time in the parts of their role they enjoy.
Next up, we’ll share some case studies to show you the impact strengths can have on your Customer Success team.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen in a strengths workshop… and that’s fun for us!
Nils will share how he helped to unblock a communication barrier within a team who had worked together for years. Over to Nils.
In 2015, I ran an offsite leadership workshop with a VP of Customer Success and their three Directors. Before we started, the team had completed the StrengthsFinder assessment and reviewed their profiles, so everyone had a good understanding of their most dominant strengths.
Early on the first day of the workshop, I noticed something weird. There was palpable tension between the VP and one of the Directors. I pulled the Director aside after their exchange, and he told me “Every time the VP comes into my office, he starts jabbering a mile a minute. I tell him to stop, and I draw a square on my whiteboard, and I tell him to draw a picture in that box because I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.”
We dug in to find out what was going on. They were confused. Their interactions were awkward, and this problem had been festering for years. The VP didn’t understand why his Director was having so much trouble or what he was doing wrong. When we looked at this issue through a strengths-lens, we began to uncover where each of them was coming from and how they processed the world around them.
I posed a few questions, like:
Sure enough, the VP volunteered to answer first. His number one strength was Strategic. Remember that a dominant Strategic strength helps a person see patterns through the clutter. He was exceptional at analyzing a situation, identifying the issues, and coming up with solutions. He was a quick thinker and would leave other people in the room behind. When we got to the Director, we discovered their number one Strength was Futuristic. A dominant Futuristic Strength is captivated and inspired by what is possible in the future. Their Strategic and Futuristic strengths were in direct conflict.
I said, “Guys, remember the box on the whiteboard and why you can’t understand the VP? You have your reason right here! One of you comes up with answers before you even know how you got there while one of you is looking to the future, considering all of the permutations and possibilities. There is a massive clash of strengths!”
Instead of accepting the animosity between them, the strengths framework was the language we used to dig below the surface tension. The reason they couldn’t communicate was they had different dominant strengths and viewed the same problems in opposing ways. They agreed that whiteboarding every conversation was frustrating and accepted they had to work on their communication.
Through this reflection, the VP learned that going straight to the solution didn’t help his team buy in, and he needed to slow down and thoughtfully communicate with his team. A few weeks after the workshop, I checked in with the team. The exercise shined a light on their differences and provided the language to help them overcome their communication problem.
We all make assumptions about why people behave how they do and what their intentions are. The learning we shared in the session, which is reinforced every day for me, is that each person will take the best action they can come up with, based on their worldview.
When you understand your strengths, you can see how they work both for and against you. In this case study, Nils will share how a focus on strengths helped John get his performance back on track and avoid conflict with his manager.
John had received negative feedback from his manager about not replying to several requests for information promptly. He needed certain information by a particular time, and John didn’t deliver. It wasn’t because he didn’t have the information or didn’t want to provide it, he just wasn’t able to provide it.
John’s work day was crazy. His time was consumed with prospecting, cold-calling and presenting demos. After a wild day, he would get on the bus and be thinking about all of the unfinished business he’d left at the office, including the urgent emails from his boss. He kept putting this work off and eventually, the to-do list became too big to handle.
John’s second most dominant strength was ‘Discipline.’ People who have Discipline as a dominant Strength crave routine and structure. Order best describes their world and they thrive in an organized and orderly environment.
They like predictability and planning, so they instinctively find ways to organize their lives. They set up routines. They focus on timelines and deadlines. They break long-term projects into specific short-term steps and diligently follow their plan. John’s world of last-minute demos and volume-focused, rather than time-oriented tasks, ran counter to his Discipline Strength.
I shared this with John, and after he had digested the description of his Strength and his world, a lightbulb went off! He said “Wait a second. I know how to use Discipline to execute… and it will get me the results I need.” John realized that he was only tapping into his Discipline Strength for a few of his responsibilities, so he scheduled 30 minutes after lunch each day to action the unanswered emails.
This tiny change was a huge win for John. After a week of diligently following his schedule, his boss congratulated him on his rapid response time. When I asked him to explain what changed and what happened, he said, “You know, after I did this, I realized all I needed was ten minutes. Thirty minutes was way too much.”
John flexed his strength. He overcame the anxiety of not responding promptly to his boss. John could continue with his work in his organized world, without getting sucked into the vortex his job was creating for him. Later, he told me that he was able to be more present with his wife and young son, thanks to this newfound structure.
When Nils started working with Jackie, he sensed her frustration and distraction during team meetings. Read on to find out how they broke through this barrier by diving into her strengths.
To Jackie, meetings were frustrating and pointless. Internal meetings. Team meetings. Company meetings. Apart from talking to customers, she felt that all meeting sessions were a monumental waste of time. She would avoid scheduling or reply to meeting requests as much as she could.
When we dove into her strengths profile, we recognized that her number one strength was Activator. The activator strength description says, “people exceptionally talented in the activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They are often impatient.” Impatience was an accurate description of how Jackie behaved.
She liked to say, “When can we start?” and she knew that action equals results. As an activator, she would miss opportunities to bring others along with her. Her focus was on getting started and moving forward. She would leave people in the dust, and that hurt her personal and professional relationships. Her dominant strength was firing all the time.
Her second strength was Adaptability, which means she would go with the flow. There was a contrast between the top two strengths because the Activator says “Let’s get going now”, yet she was OK when a project went off the rails because she knew she could find a solution to whatever was going wrong.
She had another strength in her profile called Ideation. The description for this theme says “People who are exceptionally talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They’re able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.” For Jackie, this was 100% accurate. We talked through some scenarios for how her strengths could work for and against her.
If her Activator took over, then she would leave people behind. If Adaptability were to take over, she would become impatient. If Ideation went into overdrive, she would create a lot of ideas but feel stuck because she wouldn’t be making any progress. There is a delicate balance to strengths, so we explored the different ways she could flex them in various situations, in both her personal and professional life.
Jackie realized that Ideation would help her overcome her meeting-rage. She said “You know, I should write down my ideas. I think that would help a lot. If I spend time ideating and finding the patterns, finding the connections, then, when I use the Activator, I can get the project off the ground. If something goes wrong, I can use my Adaptability strength to take care of it.”
Jackie was clear on how to move forward. She created a regular, weekly one-on-one (a meeting!) to write, plan and check in. Jackie also dedicated a chunk of time to ideation. She knew that if she spent time on ideation, then her other strengths could be relied on when the time was right. By the end of this process, she understood the importance of allowing ideation to happen, for her as well as other people in meetings.
Nils was interviewing with a company who wore their Net Promoter Score as a badge of honor. The CEO was adamant they would hit the NPS target every quarter and Nils felt like it would be a great opportunity to join a customer-focused company, so he excitedly took the role. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Over to Nils.
I joined the company in February, and the Q4 NPS results came in. They had declined slightly from Q3, but it wasn’t a cause for concern. Then, in April, we received our Q1 NPS results. They were the lowest in the company’s history; the score had been cut in half! Improving the NPS score became an ‘all hands on deck’ project, with a project team that included the co-founders, the head of sales and the head of marketing.
We dove into an analysis project to dig deeper and uncover what was going on. NPS measures promoters, passives, and detractors using a numerical scale. Apart from the number, it was unclear what separated a passive from a detractor. We had an optional question field which asked the customer to share more to help us understand the explanation for their answer. The small amount of qualitative data collected was cryptic, at best.
I took the lead on the project and scheduled ten interviews with our customers. We offered an incentive for their time, which was a $100 gift card or a donation of the same amount to the charity of their choice. Most customers were happy to give us an hour of their time, but the added incentive of feeling good about a charitable donation was a helpful nudge. The co-founder and I would tag team on the interviews – one person captured notes while the other asked questions, then we would swap roles. Each new meeting had a new document, jam-packed with notes.
It took us eight weeks to finish the customer interviews. The documents were very detailed, so I attempted to pull the themes into a spreadsheet and then start deciphering the responses. We had finished the process, so the co-founder had to dive back into other priorities. I was left with a mountain of data to sift through, and there was one big problem – I didn’t have a clue where to start.
I was stuck.
A few more weeks passed and It was the end of Q2. The leadership team wanted to see action and results. They would check in on the project and ask how things were going. I deflected their questions, citing customer issues and ‘needing more time’ to dive into the details. I kept myself busy, putting out the typical fires that come with running a Customer Success team because there was always something going on. I was lying to myself. The truth was I didn’t know what to do next.
Around this time, one of my CSMs gave me the StrengthsFinder book, so I read it on the train as I traveled home. I explored the framework. It said “Acknowledge the areas you don’t have as dominant strengths and focus on what you’re naturally talented to do and you’ll be successful. When you focus on strengths, your chance of success grows exponentially.” It made a lot of sense and gave me a glimmer of hope, so I invested $15 in taking the strengths assessment.
I got my list of top five strengths, and my dominant strength was Maximizer. The description said, “People with the Maximizer strength see strengths in other people before they see it in themselves.” ‘Aha!’ moment number one. The maximizer Strength explained why I love being a leader and a coach. I would overinvest my time in the team to develop them because that’s where I felt the greatest alignment and passion.
I continued reading… “People exceptionally talented in the maximizer theme focus on strengths as a way to stimulate personal and group excellence. They seek to transform something strong into something superb.” 100% me. It continued, “Maximizers love to help others become excited about their potential.” Yes, yes, yes! After I had finished reading the description, I realized I was a natural Maximizer. Before learning this description, when people asked me what I was good at, I would tell them I liked being a manager and helping people. Now, I had a crystal-clear description of what I was most talented to do.
What a breakthrough!
A few days later, I had a one-on-one with the CSM, who gave me the book. She shared her strengths profile with me, and her number one dominant strength was strategic. We read through the description for the strategic strength together, “People exceptionally talented in the strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.” She was an expert at this. We kept reading… “People with dominant strategic talents have the ability to sort through the clutter and find the best route.” The mountain of customer feedback for the now overdue NPS project came to mind.
We continued reading, “This is not a learned skill. It is a distinct way of thinking, a particular perspective on the world as a whole. This outlook allows them to see patterns where others simply see complexity.” I saw complexity in this mountain of data and Joan could see patterns looking at the same thing. Continuing, “Mindful of these patterns they can envision alternative scenarios of asking, ‘What if this happened?’ This recurring question helps them see, plan, and prepare for future situations. They see a way when others assume there is no way. Armed with a strategy they strike forward. People with strategic talents bring creative anticipation, imagination, and persistence to the groups and projects they complete. They can quickly weigh alternative paths and determine the one that will work best and most efficiently. They find the best route moving forward.”
I was overwhelmed, swamped and beating myself up. As a leader of Customer Success, I should have been able to deliver the project. I loved being on the phone talking with customers, but after that I would think, “What am I supposed to do? I don’t get it.” The pressure of the project was mounting, and the co-founders wanted to see results. As I talked to the CSM, I told her, “I’m struggling. I don’t know what to do with all this data.” She looked at me with big eyes and said: “This is my favorite kind of project to work on.” I blurted out “What? Are you serious?” We teamed up to deliver the project. She drove the analysis, and we loved working together.
When I told the team what was happening, one of the co-founders didn’t understand why the CSM was going to run this project instead of me. I was the leader of the team. I took some time to explain it to him using the strengths theme descriptions, but he didn’t quite follow. I was comfortable with that – because, in hindsight, my responsibility was to deliver the project in the most efficient way possible. We delivered, my CSM had the opportunity to flex her strengths, and we turned around NPS by the next quarter, thanks to the initiatives she helped us put in place.
This project was one of my greatest accomplishments as a manager, and I had a critical breakthrough learning from this experience: aligning people’s strengths to their work can yield incredible results. As leaders, we’re expected to have all the answers and ‘figure it out’. My ego told me “You’re the leader. You should be able to do this. Why can’t you do this?” I realize that I could never deliver the project to the same level without my CSM’s help. I am OK with that because I am not naturally talented to sift through a mountain of complex customer data.
You don’t have all the answers, but you do have a strengths framework to guide you to the right person for the job.
Here’s a personal account of the transformation Alex underwent, thanks to bringing awareness to his strengths. Over to Alex.
In mid-2013, I co-founded a company that rapidly grew to employ a global, remote team of 35 people. This company was my first startup and for the first twelve months, I had no time. Every day was mayhem. I was firefighter, architect, and coach. The experience was challenging, but as I freed up more time, I realized I was unfulfilled. There was something missing, but I couldn’t quite explain what it was. I was stressed. I couldn’t sleep. I gained forty pounds.
So, I started to build relationships. I serendipitously connected with Nils and he mentioned the StrengthsFinder assessment. I was a skeptic. In fact, I had always felt like the Myers-Briggs profile sounded like a newspaper horoscope column. The notes seemed generic and unrelated to my personality. Nils was adamant, so I shelled out $15 and reluctantly took the quiz in between sessions at a Customer Success conference.
Twenty minutes later, I received my profile, and my top five Strengths were: Relator, Competition, Focus, Command, and Discipline. After reading each Strength description, I had a life-changing realization. My day to day work was not tapping into my top 3 strengths! I was completely out of alignment because I couldn’t flex my Strengths. It was on me to change my reality, my environment and it was time to tap into my natural talents.
As I write this, I’m lovin’ life!
Today, I get the opportunity to flex all five of my Strengths in both businesses. I’ve lost the weight, I sleep like a baby every night and have boundless energy. I play basketball once a day, meditate twice a day and look after myself every day. I love the work that I do and pour my heart and soul into it. I aligned my Strengths with my work, and it changed my life.
The CFO asks the CEO “What if we invest in our people, and they leave?” The CEO snaps back “What if we don’t and they stay?” [Click to share on Linkedin]
Customer Success has the greatest amount of influence over the value of your SaaS business. So, when we ask leaders about how they develop their Customer Success team, we’re disappointed when they say:
“Oh, my CSMs? They are rockstars. They will figure it out.”
“We just don’t have the time.”
“We don’t have the budget for training.”
“We’re focused on dialing in our processes right now.”
“Let’s look at that next quarter…”
There is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to developing the most valuable asset in your company – your people. In the “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace” survey, PriceWaterhouseCoopers asked 4,364 respondents aged 31 or under to rank their most valued work benefits. The #1 most valued benefit is training and development.
Hmm… so that might explain why 70% of employees are demotivated and spend most of the day searching for their next role?
If you are ‘too busy’ to invest in your people, your people will become ‘too busy’ looking for somewhere else to work.
Let’s look at what established companies can teach us about people development. The enterprises that have stood the test of the time invest in their people. Here are a few examples:
Heinz (founded 1869) has an academy to help employees develop their leadership skills. Deloitte (founded 1845, $32.5B revenue in 2015) has an employee university which is dedicated to people development. Procter and Gamble (founded 1837, $72.4B revenue in 2014) has a leadership development model to coach people to success.
There are dozens more F1000 companies who invest in the development of their staff. CIGNA (founded in 1792), State Street (1792), Jim Beam (1795), DuPont (1802), Colgate (1806), Wiley (1807), Citigroup (1812), Remington (1816) and HarperCollins (1817).
The common thread among these companies is they have dedicated time, effort and resources to developing their people. As an employee at one of these companies, you always have access to a course, a coach or a classroom. Your employees are loyal when you give them a clear pathway to career growth, versus having them ‘figure it out’ for themselves.
A lot of companies “don’t have time” to invest in their people. Startups are juggling the launch of a new product while simultaneously driving sales and recruiting rock stars. Even though startups advertise team retreats, rocketship career paths, and an Amazon Kindle allowance, the reality is very different to what’s promised. Here’s what it sounds and feels like in Customer Success.
A new Customer Success Manager, Tegan, joins a fast-growing SaaS startup. Their Director doesn’t make the time to coach, train and develop Tegan because other things take priority. Tegan is left to ‘figure it out’ and self-manage. She struggles, working 70+ hours a week to stay on top of her ever-increasing workload.
Tegan becomes stressed out and starts to resent her Director. Her frustration overflows into her personal life, but she sticks it out. Tegan jumps through dozens of mental hoops to rationalize staying on board. She tells herself that this is startup life and that her equity value will be meaningful, someday. She becomes completely consumed with her work. Tegan’s health, friends, and family take a backseat as she gives the company everything she has.
A few months later, her Director moves into a VP role, and Tegan takes on the Director role. History repeats itself. Tegan misses one on ones, forgets important team milestones and deflects her team to go and ‘figure it out’ for themselves. Instead of celebrating success, she bludgeons her team with dozens of metrics and drives them into the ground. Finally, she realizes her CSMs are checked out. Apathy has replaced empathy. Frustration has renewed focus. Tegan knows she needs to ‘motivate the team’, but the damage is done, and it might just be too late.
How do you avoid this vicious cycle? Take a small step and develop your Customer Success team for free.
In this action step, Nils will explain the simple program he created as a Customer Success team lead. Over to Nils.
We built an internal training program called ‘Set the Bar,’ which reminded us that we controlled how we set our team standards. We had high expectations of each other, and we were all motivated to grow and learn. The intent of ongoing team development was to help us improve our relationships with customers, strengthen our identity and fortify our team brand.
‘Set the Bar’ was a program built by the CSMs for the CSMs. Every month, one team member would volunteer to prepare a lunchtime talk with hands-on experience in the form of role plays. We covered a particular topic, like building rapport, listening or asking powerful questions.
Other departments took notice of this program. A leader from the product team was amazed by the culture and camaraderie we’d built on the Customer Success team. When this leader ran their team meetings, they felt like the team members were disengaged and distracted. I explained that the reason why our meetings were so active was that we focused on developing ourselves, instead of going through the status quo of status updates and never-ending Powerpoint presentations.
So, how did we make this program work?
In week one, a team member would present a topic. In weeks 2, 3 and 4, we would apply the new concepts to our customer base and share the lessons learned in our regular team meetings. A team member would be prompted to share an example, then would the rest of the team would ask questions like:
Over time, this formed a predictable cycle of learning, sharing and personal growth. Our company was around 130 people, but our small yet mighty group of 10 were by far the most efficient, engaged and energetic. We were the only team in the organization driving our development. Other teams begged for training budget or prayed for some downtime… which never actually happens in a startup.
Our team still faced the typical challenges that go along with growth. Our product failed, we missed expectations and got things wrong. But that didn’t hold us back from learning, investing in ourselves and improving as a group.
If you would like to roll this out in your team, remember these three points:
You can also send your team to CSM Elite – our free five email course purpose-built for Customer Success Managers.
“Trust is built with consistency” – Lincoln Chafee. [Click to share on Linkedin]
The two most important skills in your leadership toolbox are your ability to:
Nils invested 120 hours in a coach training program and has over 200 hours of practical coaching experience. We’re going to condense 320 hours of experience into a single chapter. First, let’s dig into why listening is such an important skill:
Your team will trust you. When you only have ‘status update’ level conversations, expect your team to check out and disengage. When you listen deeply to what each person says and learn to uncover the meaning behind their message, you’ll discover what motivates and inspires them. Your people have hopes, fears, and dreams – and as a leader, you can only uncover them by genuinely listening.
You will change people’s lives. Think back to a time when someone listened to what you said and asked an important question that stopped you in your tracks. In life, these conversations are rare, and they can change the course of your life. You can have a life-changing influence on a person by thoughtfully applying these methods.
You will create a ripple effect. Your team members will mirror your behavior without realizing it. By working with us, our clients subconsciously learn how to rephrase, backtrack, mirror and ask compelling questions. One client even started to call this ‘doing the Nils.’
The concept of becoming a great listener might seem a bit easy. You sit down with a team member; they talk, and you pay attention, right? Wrong. Deep listening requires awareness, focus and practice. First, let’s look at the three rules of listening.
It’s not about you – it’s all about them. Have you ever played verbal ping-pong? You say something and the person you’re talking to is bursting to get their thoughts out. The conversation goes back and forward, but no-one listens. Neither of you enjoys the conversation, and you talk over each other.
There’s no connection and no trust. Compare this verbal ping-pong with a conversation where your partner gives you their undivided attention. You are locked in. They ask you thoughtful questions and prompt you to share more, without trying to solve anything or jump ahead. The conversation is energizing because they have given you the gift of their undivided attention.
You can never truly understand where someone else’s world is. In Customer Success, we’re Built to Serve, so we feel like we should ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ and we’re paid to solve people’s problems. Let’s look at how this rule works in practice. If you can’t understand where someone else is coming from, you have to listen at a very deep level just to get on the same page. This approach frees you from the judgments, expectations, and biases that cloud your focus.
You don’t have the answers. This rule is the most counterintuitive of all. As a leader, you feel like you should give the answers. Your team needs fast solutions to their problems. They need your guidance, help, and support. You were put in charge because you know how to do everything. Although experience is important for leaders, it works against you. By accepting that you don’t have the answers, you can only bring your open mind and powerful questions, even if you think you have the answers. When your team member finds their answer, your conversations are 10x more impactful.
Now we’ve been through the rules of listening, let’s dive into how to listen.
The three levels of listening is a simple framework to guide your coaching conversations.
Level 1 Listening: When you listen at Level 1, you focus your thoughts, energy and focus entirely on yourself while the other person is talking. Remember the verbal ping-pong match? That is Level 1 listening in practice: you’re far more focused on your next interjection than listening to your partner. There’s no real communication here – words are cast back and forth. Your inner dialog clouds your perception, and you’re not present.
Picture this conversation between a customer and a Customer Success Manager. The customer is struggling. They’re stressed. They need to get their problem solved because they have to deliver a showcase of the product to their manager. The issue is a major blocker. When a CSM listens at Level 1, their internal dialog takes over. There is an enormous gap between what the customer says and what the CSM hears.
Customer: “I have an issue…”
The CSM’s internal dialog: “… ah, another bug! It’s probably analytics again…”
Customer: “…isn’t working.”
The CSM’s internal dialog: “Yep, I know that bug. It’s in the backlog with the product team, but they’ve been prioritizing features over bug fixes forever. Maybe it’ll be ready in 6 months…”
Customer: “… and we have a demo soon, and I need it to work.”
At Level 1, you can see how internal dialog overpowers the message. You lose the context, the pain and the urgency of their request. In this situation, the CSM’s most likely solution is to suggest the customer logs a support ticket. Instead, the CSM should be rallying their resources to get the problem solved, fast. At Level 1, you miss the point and often try to solve the wrong problem.
Have you ever had to repeat yourself multiple times to an apathetic customer service representative? Remember that feeling, because that’s Level 1 listening in action.
Level 2 Listening: When you listen at Level 2, your focus is 100% on the other person. Your mind is blank. You don’t jump to solutions. Sometimes, you’ll hear the ‘message behind the message,’ which helps direct your intuition to dig deeper. Let’s rewind the conversation between our upset customer and CSM to see what else we missed the first time around:
Customer: “So, two-way messaging isn’t working in the product. We’ve run a lot of tests to see if it’s our production environment… but we can’t get it to work. I’ve got an important presentation for my manager, and they want to see it work in real-time. We need your help here – I don’t want to raise the alarm, but our manager has been on the fence about using the product since it launched and this demo needs to knock their socks off.”
You’re having the same conversation in High Definition. Now the CSM has more than enough context to solve the problem, talk the customer off a cliff and demonstrate huge value to the decision-maker. Level 2 listening is especially powerful when applied to important conversations, like a kick-off call or a Quarterly Business Review.
Finally, we graduate to Level 3 Listening. Also known as ‘whole-body’ listening, this is a level of communication you can only achieve in an environment of absolute trust. This level is reached in a close personal relationship or by an expert coach in a safe environment.
So, how do you listen at Level 2? Create your pre-conversation ritual to get in the zone.
According to this Time article, the human attention span has dwindled to just 8 seconds. When you combine a short attention span with the distractions of your work environment, clearing your mind to focus on a conversation seems impossible. It’s not. You need a routine, method or ritual to help you shift into the Level 2 listening mode. We’ll share our personal routines to inspire your creativity. We suggest that you create a routine that makes sense to you.
Ritual example #1 – The blinkers: Alex’s Level 2 method is to picture black shutters sliding down next to his cheekbones. These imaginary shutters deflect noise and movement. Once the shutters are down, he has nowhere else to focus but his conversation partner.
Ritual example #2 – The raft: Nils’ Level 2 ritual is to imagine getting into a raft on a river where he is sitting up front and his conversation partner in the back. The conversation partner is steering the raft. Their direction will take them where they need to go, and Nils is along for the ride. No matter where the river (the conversation) takes him, he trusts that he will end up at the right place.
Over time, building a deliberate practice of listening will get you to Level 2.
Now, it’s your turn. Think of a metaphor you can use to you set yourself up to listen at Level 2.
“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” – Lou Holtz. [Click to share on Linkedin]
A powerful question is a pattern breaker. Here is a simple example.
When someone asks you “How’s it going today?”, how do you respond? 99% of the time, you’ll answer with something canned, like “Good!” Your answer is automatic. But, when you get a follow-up question like “What is it about today that makes it good?” you don’t have an automatic response. You need to think about what to say. You take a pause. Your pattern is interrupted. You might even say “I don’t know…”
Our brains are wired to replay patterns, like a computer program running the same script, over and over again. These patterns come from our beliefs, experiences, the people we spend time with and our employers. These patterns influence the way we do things and how we communicate. In the example above, your pattern is to say ‘good,’ conserve energy and move on.
We have patterned responses to just about everything in life. For example, if I ask you what you think about money, your reply will likely be the same today as it was six months or three years ago. Whether you think money is scarce or plentiful, it doesn’t matter. Your pattern drives your response. The key is that your customers and Customer Success Managers also have patterns. When you find the pattern and break it, you start to build a more authentic relationship. People will remember you when you help them think differently.
If you’ve ever experienced therapy or put yourself through a self-improvement program for even an hour or two, you’ll have experienced the fatigue that comes with breaking patterns. Analyzing what you’ve been doing and where you’re going is exhausting work that creates new connections. You could be sitting in a therapist’s chair for an hour and feel completely wiped out, ready to take a nap.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a master negotiator to ask powerful questions. We’ll provide specific examples at the end of this chapter so you can start asking powerful questions today.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” – Voltaire. [Click to share on Linkedin]
A powerful question is open-ended and starts with either “what” or “how”.
When you ask an open-ended question like this, it’s impossible to answer with a yes or no response. A pattern cannot respond to this question because there’s no canned response to call on. These questions work incredibly well with both customers and Customer Success Managers because they allow you to dig into what’s going on.
When you’re in a one-on-one with a Customer Success Manager, a standard question to ask is “How is everything going?” which virtually guarantees the response of “Good”. That’s not an insightful question or a useful answer, so take it a level deeper. Then ask, “What’s going on that makes things good?” This simple tweak will start an actual conversation.
Here are ten more questions to ask your Customer Success Managers:
Have fun with these questions – you’ll be surprised how far they will take you.
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway. [Click to share on Linkedin]
The #1 response to a powerful question is “I don’t know.”
This reaction is a pattern. It’s the brain trying to conserve energy. When people don’t know what to say, because they don’t have something at the ready, or they’ve never been asked the question before, their first response is, “I don’t know.” Their brain says “Ha! I’m finished. Problem solved. I don’t need to worry about this anymore, and I can go back to replaying my answers like I did before.” As a leader, accepting “I don’t know” as a reply is taking an easy way out.
A simple method to overcome the inevitable “I don’t know” is to use silence. Here’s how it plays out in a conversation:
Leader: “How is it going today?”
Leader: “What makes today a good day?”
CSM: “I don’t know.”
Leader: [Sitting in silence, being completely present. Five seconds tick by.]
CSM: “Well … come to think of it; today has been a bit of a trainwreck…”
Leader: “Tell me more about that.”
When you let your question hang in the air, your CSM’s brain will frantically search for an answer. Let your patience and presence work for you. If silence doesn’t help you prompt a response, you can also use another question like “Well, if you did know the answer, what do you think it might be?” Give your Customer Success Manager the time and space they need to find a reply.
“The greatest obstacle to international understanding is the barrier of language.” – Christopher Dawson. [Click to share on Linkedin]
A single word has a world of meanings.
So, when you’re coaching a team member, pay very close attention to the specific words they use and how they use them. Take this conversation for example:
CSM: “Doing this activity is important to me.”
Leader: “Oh, so this task is at the top of your list.”
CSM: […thinking “Why are you talking to me about the top of my list? I said the activity was a high priority. What list is that? What task? Should I have a list?”]
Don’t substitute your words or meaning to what your team member is telling you. Instead, use backtracking to listen actively to your CSM. This technique is simple – you repeat what they say during a conversation. For example:
CSM: “How do we measure our monthly churn rate?”
You: “Well, let me make sure I understand. You would like to know how we measure our monthly churn rate?”
CSM: “Yes. That’s correct…”
This repetition should not feel condescending. It shows that you are paying very close attention, and when you use the words they use, you’re paying attention to what these words mean to them.
If your CSM says “What are you saying? I don’t follow?”, Your judgment and biases are interrupting the conversation. Relate to them with their words, which will take you to a neutral position. You’re showing them a mirror, which will make them feel listened to and understood. For some people, it might be the first time in their life anyone has tried to listen to them.
When you speak your CSM’s language, you can discover more about where they are coming from and start to understand what they are motivated to do.
Case study: How to solve time management problems with powerful questions
In this case study, we’ll share how the ‘presenting’ problem that a CSM identifies is typically not the underlying or real problem. It takes listening and asking powerful questions to uncover the real problem. Over to Nils.
During a one-on-one, a CSM, who we’ll call Jim had a lot of problems. He was struggling, frustrated and unable to focus. He felt like his customers wouldn’t respond to him, no matter how much he tried. His presenting problem was: “I’m so frustrated with my role as a CSM. I don’t like this. I don’t feel good about what I’m doing.”
This frustration was consuming him day and night. He was taking his stress and frustration home with him. He was distant with his family because he was constantly worrying about work. Here’s the start of our conversation:
Nils: “What’s going on, Jim?”
Jim: “I’m SO frustrated and pissed off.”
Nils: “What are you frustrated with?”
Jim: “I’m frustrated with customers.”
Nils: “Okay, let’s dig a little deeper. Specifically, what about the customers is frustrating you?”
Jim: “They never respond to me.”
Nils: “Okay, help me understand more.”
Jim: “I reach out to them. I go to bat for them, and I do everything I said I was going to do, and sometimes they just flat out do not respond. I give and give and give, and I don’t get anything. Not even a thank you.”
This problem was impacting him beyond his work. That’s an enormous strain and a terrible experience, for him and his family. We dug deeper and looked at his problem from a few perspectives.
I heard “My customers are not responding to me” but chose not to take that at face value because it wasn’t the underlying problem. If I acted on that information, I would completely miss the mark. I needed more context, so I asked powerful questions like “Which customers aren’t responding to you?” and “What were you expecting, compared to what they did or didn’t do?”
I did not have the answer. I was simply trying to listen and understand his world. If I could understand his world, then I could help him figure out a solution. I could not hand him the solution, but I could help him find his solution. We continued the discussion and started to get specific about where he was spending his time and how big this issue was.
One of my favorite exercises with struggling CSMs is a simple whiteboard exercise. We all get carried away with our day to day roles, and this exercise brings clarity to our reality. I drew a giant blank circle on the whiteboard. I handed him a marker and said “I want you to split up into however many categories you like.
Show me how you spend your time.” He thought about the activity for 10 seconds and asked: “How much time do I have to do it?” I replied “Take as much as you need. When you are ready, go up there and for each category just list the percentage even if it’s not to scale, that’s fine.” I sat in silence, and I was 100% focused on him.
He listed items including team meetings, customer onboarding and dealing with technical issues via the support team. A tiny slice of his time, maybe 4% of the circle, was for “Customers not responding and dealing with difficult customers.” It was such a small part of the circle; he had to draw a tiny line out to label it. When he finished, he took a step back to review the drawing. I said: “OK. Tell me, what’s jumps out at you when you look at this chart?”
He said “Customers not responding to me is the smallest part of my work. It’s only a couple percent. It’s like nothing, yet it’s completely consuming my thoughts all day and all night. It’s driving me nuts.” After this had clicked, he had a big smile on his face, and he said, “Wow! I’ve lifted a weight off my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about it. It’s only like 3% or 4% of the time. That is nothing. It just does not matter.”
He realized this himself. He had the answer. He just needed to see the problem from a different perspective. I was patient but did not accept the presenting problem as the real issue. I dug deeper, found out the specific customers and the specific situations that were causing frustration and then we looked at his reality.
He realized this big ugly issue was tiny. He now had a grasp of the real problem, because he took the time to break it down and experience his aha moment, without me serving it up to him. When you combine Level 2 listening with asking powerful questions, you’ll be amazed at the results.
For part two of the exercise, I drew another blank circle right next to the first one. I asked Jim to take the marker and do another breakdown of his time. This time around, I asked him to show me where he would invest his time to be successful in his role. He knew the exact breakdown. I didn’t tell him how to manage his time; he had already known. He also realized that if he did the right things with his available time, then a few unresponsive customers wouldn’t be able to derail him.
He realized that while he couldn’t control these customers, he could control his frustration and how he handled himself. Because he identified and solved his problems, he was 10x more committed to focusing on what he could control and changing his behavior.
If I had told him what to do, it wouldn’t help him. Why? Because I can never see the world from his eyes. If I said, “Well, back in my day as a CSM, I used this tactic to get a response,” it would be irrelevant to Jim.
After this conversation, Jim knew he could always come to me with a problem and that I would help him look at things from different perspectives to help him find a solution. Without the exercise, Jim would have been unheard, felt unsupported and would have quit. Jim is a close friend long after we stopped working together.
Remember – the presenting problem is never the real issue!
A CSM never has complete control of their resources.
They might need to call in a favor from the support team or escalate an issue for quick resolution through the product team, but they don’t have influence or veto power. So, how do you make magic happen? The secret is to build strong internal relationships. Nils realized this early on as a CSM, so let’s learn from his approach.
Every relationship I have built as a Customer Success Manager started with a casual conversation. My focus was on getting to know the people who were doing the work. I was genuinely interested in what they were working on, what was important to them, where they thought the company was going and the opportunities they had in front of them. These conversations helped me keep my finger on the pulse of the people in the company, stay informed and overcome the silos that pop up in any organization.
All I did was ask questions and listen. Sometimes it was over lunch; sometimes it was an informal invite to grab a coffee. I showed a genuine interest in each person and they showed a real interest in me. I would always get the opportunity to talk to them about Customer Success. I would share what we were doing, how we were building the organization and what was especially important to our team. When we launched projects or needed help from other teams, I relied on my relationships.
As a CSM, you never have authority over product, but you have to build influence. Your influence comes from relationships, which come from trust, which starts with listening.
Carve out a 45-minute block on your calendar this Friday afternoon and ask a teammate if they would like to join you for a catch-up. If you feel a bit awkward asking someone on a ‘work date,’ you can use this simple script:
I’d love to learn more about what you’re working on. Would you be interested in telling me more? I’d love to grab a coffee with you this Friday.
PS – I’m buying!
Imagine if you could focus your team’s time, effort and energy on a single focal point.
This north star would guide how you do everything in Customer Success. It would help you prioritize the 101 different tasks in your Customer Success to-do list. Instead of getting stuck in a haphazard and shortsighted approach to solving whatever problem comes up, you would know exactly where to focus your energy. Your team would have an identity and be proud of it.
Every few days, you could pause to make sure that you were still driving towards this focal point. You would sleep soundly at night, know that if you were to deliver in line with this thing, victory would be guaranteed. So, where should you focus?
Purpose is non-existent in most Customer Success teams. Instead of focusing on a single thing, Customer Success leaders bounce around looking for problems to solve without a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. Instead of defining their purpose, someone else in their organization, typically an executive, defines it for them. If you aren’t clear on what you’re trying to achieve, it’s impossible for anyone else to know what it is you do and why you do it. Let’s dive into how to capture your purpose.
The first step to creating your purpose is writing down and committing to three core values with your team. These values represent what your Customer Success team is willing to spend more time, effort and energy on that any other Customer Success team. These core values represent how you work with your customers, internal teams and each other. In rare cases, you’ll adopt your company’s values if you align with them. Otherwise, write your own and ask forgiveness, instead of permission to do so. Nearly every company we’ve worked with has values that get lost in translation. This is because:
Jack and Jill are CSMs at a fast-growing software company in San Francisco. Their Customer Success leader has worked with them to create a list of values they can rally behind. The values are Customer Excellence, Empathy, and Be Thoughtful. A few months after they agree to the core values, Jack (a senior CSM) takes a customer call, and Jill is listening to learn how Jack approaches difficult conversations. As the call progresses, Jill notices Jack make an offhand remark that ‘bugs never get fixed around here’. If there were no core values in place, Jill would likely avoid asking Jack why he would say something so harmful to a customer. On the other hand, if she was to confront Jack with her opinion of what he should have done, he might feel like she’s making a personal attack on him.
Jill knows all of the team values, which means she is empowered to say “I noticed that there was one point where you sounded a little frustrated, and you said that bugs never get fixed around here. I didn’t feel like that held up to our core value of Customer Excellence. Can you help me understand what happened?” The values create a neutral jump-off point for a conversation, instead of putting team members in uncomfortable situations where they feel like they are attacking each other. This conversation starts with a clear intent of providing feedback and seeking to understand, instead of creating conflict.
Without purpose, Customer Success becomes a vacuum. We can wholeheartedly guarantee that if you don’t define the purpose of Customer Success, someone else will do it for you. On top of that, you will be fighting an uphill battle as every department pushes more and more responsibility your way, without consulting you first.
Your purpose statement will be the rallying cry for your team and will help them focus on the right thing. So, what does a purpose statement look like? Here’s an example from one of our clients:
“To partner with our clients and make them look like rockstars.”
When you define your purpose, you can use it as a litmus test for your entire Customer Success organization. For example:
You can answer each question with a yes or no. There are no maybes or ‘pretty close’ responses here. With the example above, we took a closer look at whether their kick-off call processes fulfilled the purpose of making their clients look like rock stars. The answer was a firm no. We reworked the onboarding process to ensure that the customer was the focal point of the discussion, rather than promoting themselves or talking too much.
Your purpose statement permeates everything you do in Customer Success. For most CSMs, a lack of purpose forces them to change hats between ‘making a customer happy’ and ‘getting the customer to spend more money.’ When they have a purpose, you know exactly where and how to spend your time. They will feel a great sense of pride and ownership. They will be able to understand how they are perceived, how they are performing, understand the impact their work has on the entire company and have fun! In short: where focus goes, energy flows.
When you start building your purpose statement – heed this rule: You can drive satisfaction, or you can drive revenue, but you can’t drive both. This statement does not mean you can’t have both revenue and satisfaction; it means you cannot drive both at the same time. When you try to drive both, you’ll end up with a team of Customer Success Managers who have no idea where to invest their time or how to prioritize their effort.
When you focus solely on driving satisfaction, revenue becomes a byproduct of your purpose. When you release a new feature, there’s a significant chance your customers will say “I already know the value I’m getting out of this product. I’m also going to use it for this. Sign me up!”
Here’s a question to prompt your purpose creation thought process:
“What do you want your Customer Success Managers to think about every single day?”
Do you want them to think about money on every single call with a client? The answer is usually no. Do you want them to think about providing an incredible experience and driving satisfaction through the roof? The answer is usually yes.
A client of ours was a sales-oriented Customer Success organization, led by a sales veteran with 20+ years of in the trenches sales experience. When we went through a workshop exercise of creating a purpose statement for this team, they landed on ‘The purpose of Customer Success at [redacted] is to build trust and loyalty with our clients’. Why did they land there? Because they came to the conclusion that the money will take care of itself and that everything will fall into place, if they focused on the right thing.
How do you define your core values? If you’re not in the position to bring us in, here’s a clear, step by step walkthrough of the process we use to get to these outcomes. Note that the engagement in these sessions is a function of having an expert facilitator in place to help you. These are the first three exercises we do with our consulting clients.
Step 1 – Announce – Block out a half day in the afternoon on a Wednesday or Thursday two weeks in advance, so your team members can unblock their calendars and give the workshop their undivided attention. Note: Monday and Tuesday are usually too busy, and most people will fade out after lunchtime on Friday. Here’s an email script you can use:
Subject: Action required: Values workshop
Hi [team name]
On x date at x time, the entire CS team will attend a hands-on Purpose definition workshop.
We’re going to spend the afternoon bringing awareness to each other’s Strengths. The session will be a blast, and I promise – there won’t be any Powerpoint presentations.
– Take some time to think about the three core values that our team will spend 99% more effort and energy on than anyone else.
If you have a calendar conflict or customer meeting at the time and date I’ve mentioned above, please let me know. It’s imperative that every team member attends.
Step 2 – Set expectations – When you start the workshop, set clear expectations with the team. No-one should be on their laptop or phone during the session. If there is an emergency, they can leave the room to deal with it, but otherwise, all participants are expected to give the other members their undivided attention.
Step 3 – Brain dump – Kick off the workshop by saying “We’re going to come up with a set of three core values. We’re going to do an exercise to get a lot of ideas up on the board. Then, we’re going to narrow it down to the best three.”
“First, I want you to share words that describe how you approach and work with your clients.” Expect to hear words like advocate, teacher, trainer, expert and guide. Write all of them – make a big mess of words on the board, with no structure or order. Once that list is exhausted, move on.
“Next, I want you to share words that describe how you work with internal teams.” Expect to hear words like helpful, partnership and willing to go the distance. Once they’ve run out of ideas, move on.
“Finally, tell me words that describe the approach you take with each other.” You’ll have anywhere between 30 – 50 words on the board.
Step 4 – Group the words: Ask the participants to group the words that are related to each other. Expect them to call the words out and circle them in one color.
Step 5 – Condense – Ask the participants to identify the uber-word that best describes the groups of words that have been circled. Remind the group that there might be a word that best identifies the group of words and that is OK… or it might be a different word. Write down the two or three words for each cluster, without steering to a single word.
Repeat Steps 4 and 5 three times, until you group and condense all the words.
Step 6 – Narrow down to a single word – Ask the group “As a team, what are you willing to spend more time, effort and energy on than any other Customer Success team?” At this point, the power of the words will shine through.
For example, if the group decides that ‘thoughtful’ is a word they like, ask them exactly what they will do to demonstrate this to their clients and differentiate themselves from 99% of other Customer Success teams.
Note that some words may have a hidden power within the team or company, outside the culture of the group. For example, the word ‘Guidevocate’, which combines guide and advocate, was a perfect fit for the personality of a team we worked with.
This process is iterative, which means that if people hesitate or react indifferently about a particular word, you should cross it off the list. Having an external facilitator is liberating because they have no organizational baggage or context.
Step 7 – Celebrate – Congratulate the team on a great job and ask them how the words feel to them.
Step 1 – Ask the question – Tell the team you’re going to answer the question: “The purpose of Customer at [company] is to X”.
Step 2 – Seed the question – Use examples of purpose statements to stir some inspiration within the team, including the following:
“The purpose of Customer Success at [company] is to partner with our clients and make them look like rockstars.”
“The purpose of Customer Success at [company] is to deliver feelings of magical power and joy.”
Step 3 – Fill in the blank – Ask one person to solve for X, then ask the rest of the team for their input on the idea. Facilitation skills are helpful, as you’ll get feedback from the group that says “I don’t think it addresses this aspect…” and so on. Key in on the energy of the group and refine the message until you reach agreement. This process can take an hour or more.
Tip: Keep the purpose statement concise and referenceable. We’ve worked with Customer Success leaders who want purpose statements that are very long because they want to capture all of the ‘things’ they do. Instead, distil the essence of the effort. Otherwise, no-one will remember it.
Step 1 – Set the tone – Explain to the team that you will live the team brand with guidance from your core values and purpose statement.
Step 2 – Ask the question – Ask the team to share ideas, images, names, animals and other words that represent the core values and the purpose. Typically, brands will jump out at you, as the team pattern-match the words.
Step 3 – Capture the ideas – Take note all of the suggestions. You will naturally reach a point where people run out of ideas, so it’s up to you to keep the conversation going with thoughtful questions.
Step 4 – Ask more questions – Because you already have core values agreed upon, ask the team “What’s the first image that comes to mind when I say [core value]?” You’ll end up with 15-20 names on the board.
Step 5 – Refine – Whittle down the names on the board by asking “Who’s 100% on board with [this name]?” and cross off the names that don’t fit. You’ll hear groans and see indifference in body language, so use your group’s feedback as a guide.
As the facilitator, it’s your role to dig into contention and disagreement, to make sure everyone is all in on the final name.
If your team purpose is not a regular topic of conversation, these workshops will be an absolute waste of time. Here are five ways to integrate your purpose into the day to day workings of your team:
Expect conflict, friction and pushback around your purpose statement and values. It’s common for team members and other leaders to challenge you and ask why you have your specific Customer Success values system.
To address this help your team to create their purpose stump speech, which articulates what the purpose means to them. This speech will help you pre-emptively reject initiatives that you’d normally face. If it doesn’t align with achieving your purpose, give your team and yourself permission to say no.
The workshops are fun and motivating, but they are not enough to drive change. It’s on you as the leader to maintain the momentum you create.
The path from team player to team leader can be difficult to navigate. When you are promoted as an internal candidate, you need to tread carefully. You might face tension, angst, and jealousy. There’s a simple method to avoiding an awkward transition and Nils will share exactly how he did it.
In one company, I was a CSM in a team of nine, with seven CSMs based in San Francisco. We were a very close group – we’d talk all day, have regular meetings and always help each other out. We all worked at the same level of Individual Contributor. I left the office as a CSM on a Friday afternoon, and when I arrived on Monday morning, I was the new Team Leader.
I was very excited to prove myself as a leader, but I knew that if I made this transition all about me, the trust I had worked so hard to build would be lost. So, I shifted the focus completely off me and onto the team. I facilitated a workshop where we agreed upon three core values and a team name that we had pride in. I listened more than I talked. After the workshop, we had our very own identity and brand – we became Team Solid!
The transition was smooth because my sole focus was listening to the team. I could have said “I’m now a manager, and you report to me. Here is what we are going to do. We are going to optimize all this stuff.” Instead, I listened and learned what was important to them.
In this case study, Nils will share how he dealt with a regular team meeting that was a massive waste of time. This realization is common when you look at your business processes through your purpose lens. Over to Nils.
I started a new role at a startup with an inexperienced leadership team, comprised of a CEO and a Head of Product and Strategy. The CEO was people-oriented while the other leader was analytical. I spent my first few weeks listening, observing and paying attention to my new world.
My first realization was that every single conversation was happening at Level 1. A prime example was the weekly ‘all-hands’ meeting, which was an epic waste of time. Team members would wait their turn to share a status update, then tune out for the rest of the meeting.
This phenomenon prompted me to start a conversation with the leaders. I was trying to understand why we were going through the motions. I explained, “When you’re part of a high-performing team, this meeting will be a whole different experience.” One of the other leaders said, “Can you give me a sense like on a scale of one to ten, where are we on the scale of being a high-performance team?” I said, “A three, maybe a four. Max.” That blew him away.
He said, “I thought we were doing pretty good.” I replied “Oh, sure. We’re doing OK. But we’re only doing fundamental, tactical stuff. There’s a status update, a general discussion; we talk about what we’re going to focus on, and then we go straight back to work. From that standpoint, we’re not working as a team. There are no real relationships here.” Again, he was reeling.
I explained how to identify a high-performing team. “When you have a shared identity, you attract people who want to live up to the team identity. This breeds excellence, because everyone is responsible and is an owner. Nobody intends to let the team down. So when you’re wasting the team’s time, they will speak up. This responsibility doesn’t fall back on the leader. They don’t need to play bad cop, enforce rules or dictate terms. Every single team member will keep the group accountable. That is a high-performing team.”
Going out on this limb helped me to protect my team’s time. Instead of accepting what was served up to us, I chose to speak up and drive change within my business. When you build a purpose-driven team, this will become your default operating mode.
One common mistake we see from Customer Success leaders is that they only focus on the output of their processes. Instead, we challenge you to critically and repeatedly analyze whether your processes serve your purpose. If it doesn’t, adjust it or get rid of it.
Let’s say your Customer Success team is committed to driving satisfaction. Where is their time better spent during onboarding?
Understanding the needs of the customer, learning why they bought the software in the first place and knocking their #1 use case out of the park
Trying to understand the landscape of their business and hunting for expansion opportunities from the very first call.
Even though a) is the highest and best use of the team’s time when they are focused on satisfaction, it’s amazing how frequently we see processes completely out of alignment with purpose. Here are some of the reasons this happens:
1) Implementing new processes give you an illusion of control. As a leader, this puts you at risk of becoming a process-jockey who implements processes without a second thought. When you take on this role, your team will start to expect you to throw processes at problems instead of diving into why things aren’t working the way they should.
2) 95% of online Customer Success content focuses on processes and abstract minutiae. Therefore, it’s commonly accepted to ‘test out’ a new process, even though it’s usually a waste of your time because it has no alignment with your purpose.
3) There is always one more process to create. When you take an undisciplined approach with process, all you do is add more and more complexity to an already difficult working environment.
Now, how do you think your team will feel when you hit them over the head with new processes? Checked out, bored, disengaged, and distracted are some of the feelings we see from the frontline. It’s decision-time for you.
Would you prefer to operate in an environment with:
a) 20 half-baked processes that no-one on really understands or
b) 3 perfectly-tuned processes that your entire team executes like clockwork?
You can save yourself from endless headaches, frustration and firefighting by choosing the second option. Here are the three processes that will protect you from pain:
That’s it. Until these processes are bulletproof, you don’t need to go any further. In our experience, most Customer Success team fumbles dozen of processes instead of doing three well. Make the choice to be different!
Next up, we’ll show you how to create these processes.
This process tells you exactly what you will do on a yearly basis with your client.
Do not let your customer decide everything and steer you. A lot of SaaS companies fall into this pattern, and their teams are doomed to firefighting. Yes, your customer’s goals are important, but you set the target and the cadence. This advice runs counter to a lot of Customer Success literature, and there’s a reason we’re OK with being controversial here: you are the expert in your product, and you know how your best customers use your product.
So, let’s set up your annual lifecycle. The following process examples are best for a high-touch, B2B SaaS with a $30k+ annual contract value in mind. If you’re B2C, mid-touch or low-touch, that’s OK because these principles apply across the board.
Step 1 – Define the three key outcomes you want your customer to achieve in Year 1
What are the top 3 things your customer needs to have achieved by the end of the year for there to be a very high likelihood of renewal? If you don’t know, take a look at your most successful customers and see what they have in common. Then, write them down.
Step 2 – Define a plan on a timeline to achieve the three outcomes
In Q1, you’ll run your onboarding process, which we’ll get into shortly. You will spend a lot of time getting your customer up to speed, providing guidance and getting them to value quickly.
However, when Q2 and Q3 arrive, your Customer Success Managers might find themselves lost. This issue occurs when they ‘run out of stuff to talk about’ because your team does such a good job of getting the customer up to speed, that the customer becomes the expert. Then, you spend Q2 and Q3 trying to figure out how to add value, stay connected and keep up to date.
Don’t create a vacuum for firefighting because there’s nothing else to share or teach. Your CSMs will happily jump all over customer issues as soon as they pop up because it helps them stay connected to the customer. When you ask a CSM how things are going, they will say something along the lines of “Yeah, we’re in good shape. They’re having problems, but I talk to them all the time and am helping them work through it.”
This approach is haphazard and leaves way too much to chance. By doing this, you set your customer up to take the lead and control the cadence of your relationship. By the time Q4 comes around, it’s time to renew the contract. If you have any level of confidence in the renewal, you’re a brave person… because it’s much closer to a coin-toss at this stage.
To execute on Step 2 on the annual lifecycle, take the outcomes from Step 1 and then put them on a timeline. (Putting them on a schedule means that different parts of the year are focused on the different goals). There is a logical flow of attention and focus throughout a year as a customer becomes more familiar with your product. For example, It makes more sense to concentrate on expanding to other departments within the company after you have solved their initial use case, they are getting value, and you can tell a great story to make your client look like a champion.
You would be surprised by how many companies will sign up a customer, overwhelm them with a ton of information in Q1 and then spend the rest of the year trying to play catch up. It doesn’t need to be challenging and with an annual lifecycle, you know exactly where you are going and have a specific plan to get you there.
A challenge of being Built to Serve is that your good intentions often take over.
When you bring a new customer into your world, you might feel compelled to show off every single feature and function of your product to every possible stakeholder on the customer’s side. You’re doing your best to deliver value and get buy-in, but this nearly always backfires.
In most processes, but especially in onboarding: less is more. More stakeholders, more features, and more functions mean confusion, a diluted message and a lower likelihood of Customer Success.
Fight the urge to share the onboarding process with everyone in the company of the client and instead, focus your onboarding process solely on the use-case they bought your system to achieve. Then, partner with your customer and share more of what your product does throughout the course of the year. The distinction is that you meet your first commitment of helping the customer achieve what they paid you for in the first place. If you do overload them with information, they won’t care or remember what you walked them through.
Note that your onboarding process is the prime location for expectation-setting and demonstrating your expertise. Remember, you are the expert, because you have a field-tested, proven way to get them from zero to value as quickly as possible. A component of this expectation-setting is as follows:
Our favorite onboarding artifact is the Customer Roadmap to Success. It’s our proven, best practice process of getting our clients from zero to value as quickly as possible. If you’re interested in creating one of your own with our help, send us an email.
This simple document gives everyone a clear picture of what you will work on, plus it also a handy tool for your sales process. It will help you to prepare your customers for the resources and input they need to provide after they sign up. Customers feel more at ease when they understand what happens after the sale.
Each stage of the Customer Roadmap to Success has a particular set of objectives, processes, and sub-processes including timelines. You can measure each part of the process, then optimize it by introducing different resources and looking for opportunities to shorten timelines.
Remember the non-scripted and unstructured annual lifecycle that most companies use?
In practice, it looks like this: an intense onboarding process, where the CSM does a lot, builds a lot of relationships and feels close to the customer. Then, the onboarding window closes and the customer knows everything about the product. The CSM desperately searches for reasons to reach out to the customer, which sound something like this:
CSM: Hey, Customer… we haven’t talked in a while. Would you like to get on the phone and talk? I would love to hear how you’re doing…
Customer: No (or more likely, silence).
Most of the time, the Customer will act like they didn’t receive the multiple voicemails or emails because they are busy. What they are thinking is “I’m not going to give up my precious time to “talk to you.” You’ve offered me no prescription, nothing of value and I have no idea what you want to talk about…”
These ‘reach-outs’ are a terrible experience for the customer and make the CSM feel ignored. So, what should you do instead? Run a Quarterly Business Review to focus on achieving objectives and driving customer outcomes in a structured and repeatable manner.
Use each Quarterly Business Review to achieve four goals:
1. Reinforce the value your customer gets from your product.
This value comes from reviewing product usage and sharing stories. Let’s say you have an email marketing product, and you know exactly how many emails, campaigns, and workflows your customer has set up through your product. All you need to do is use your analytics to report back how much value they are getting.
When you open up your Quarterly Business Review by saying “You sent 200,000 emails with us last quarter… what was the impact of that to your business?” you will spark a conversation. That is 100x more potent than an ad-hoc outreach. Your customers are usually too busy to think about how many emails they’ve sent with your product, so when you play this back to them, they will realize how important it is to their business. Instead of being a pest in their inbox, you’ve turned yourself into the partner and expert who helps them with their mission-critical application.
Plus, their level of usage reinforces the value that they’re getting from your product. The metrics will vary, but every SaaS company will have insights on how their customers are using the product. Never assume they think about or know these numbers. They don’t think about your product anywhere near as much as you because they have 101 other things on their to-do list.
Define Goals – Things that both the CSM and customer agree to work towards over the next quarter. When you jointly plan and agree to goals with the customer, you are both taking ownership of moving things forward, and you will always have a reason to talk.
Think of goals in categories like:
The categories you choose will be specific to your business, but you have to pick 3 and stick with them. Ideally, these three categories fall in line with the three things you set as your end destination when defining the annual lifecycle. They aren’t an exact 1:1 but if you work towards goals with your clients in these categories throughout the year, you will be very likely to achieve the end destination and have a high likelihood of renewal.
For example, if your goal category is education a sample goal could be the number of education sessions completed on new product feature.
To put education goals into action, you can ask your customer for a preview of what they’ve got coming down the line in the next 6 to 9 months, so you are ready to provide them with what they need. Or you could set a goal to host a training session on a new product feature coming out in a month.
The key to successfully setting goals is structure. When you start the goals conversation – it’s shouldn’t be open-ended and you are asking what kind of goals they want. Instead, you should lead the conversation by explaining “Let’s talk about goals, here are the three categories we typically like to focus on and mention you like to have at least one goal in each of the categories. I would like to agree mutually upon this with you, how does that sound?”
2. Recap and review the goals from the previous quarter.
At the end of your onboarding, set goals with the client, so you have continuity between the end of onboarding and the next QBR. Now, you’re about three months into the contract, and you reinforce the value. It’s time to link your onboarding and QBR process.
When you run your first QBR, objectively look at the Customer Roadmap to Success and say – here’s what we did well, here’s what needs improvement, these are all joint actions we agreed to take, and this is how we performed. Use this structure from the start instead of letting it drift into an after-thought, because it is very easy to overlook your wins if you don’t make time to review them.
3. Set goals for the upcoming quarter.
Here’s where the annual lifecycle comes into play. You have a very good idea of what a successful customer looks like, so define the work that’s being done between the two organizations to achieve the goals on a quarterly basis which will, in turn, achieve the goals on an annual basis. Articulate who’s going to do what (either the CSM or customer) and by when. Having agreed upon goals will enable you always to have a reason to email/call your client during the quarter.
4. Know where you stand in the eyes of the customer.
Before you earn the right to know where you stand, you have to show your customer what they’re getting, review their goals and agree to new goals. You get the opportunity to ask this crucial question “I know your renewal is not for x months, but I am curious. What, if anything, would prevent you from renewing with us?” Ask this question in QBR’s 2 and 3 of year one, when the client is 3-6 months from renewal. After the first year, it can be asked during any QBR. We recommend the person asking the question is responsible for the commercial terms of a renewal and not the CSM. Typically, this is an Account Manager or a member of the sales team.
If you’ve held up your end of the bargain, you will have earned the right to ask the question and to receive an honest response. Your responses will range from “Yeah, we’re rock-solid” through to “We’ve still got some issues to work through to give you a firm answer or at least direction because it’s not my call. I’d need to see x y and z.”
No matter what the answer is, you’re opening up the conversation well in advance of the renewal, so you have time and control over the relationship.
A lot of the time, the line between Sales and Customer Success doesn’t exist in early stage companies. Nils will share the simple steps you can take to align Sales and Customer Success.
Early on in my role as VP of Customer Success, we didn’t even have renewals. We were that early. I had one CSM and eventually hired another CSM. My CSMs were Built to Serve, and our team worked very well together. The challenge that we faced, which all early stage Customer Success leaders will eventually face, was defining who owns the renewal. This happens under a lot of pressure when a significant amount of revenue is on the line, and the renewal is around the corner. Here’s how it played out for me.
I was adamant about having sales own the actual event of the renewal. My CEO was worried because he wanted the sales team 100% focused on new business sales. I brought his attention to the dollars and ‘sense’ of splitting the responsibility, by saying “It’s great to drive new business, however, our renewal stack of revenue is going to be larger than our new business stack of revenue, every quarter after the first year. That’s where we are today.”
After spending some time thinking it through, he said, “OK. The sales rep who sold the deal will be responsible for the renewal.” We sat down and sketched it out. We created a seven checkpoint renewal plan which helped us get crystal clear on exactly what needed to happen at each stage of the relationship. We weren’t leaving anything to chance.
We introduced the Account Executive and set expectations during the Quarterly Business Review. Then, we informed the customer why they were coming back into the conversation. The Account Executive would have a discussion about the commercial terms for the renewal in next year, including price changes and any other unresolved special conditions.
We would have an internal meeting to prepare for the third QBR, where the CSM would prepare everything and we would make sure everyone is completely aligned and agreed around the responsibilities in the meeting, as well as the key outcomes for both the AE and CSM. These were all checklist items, and we set up a report in Salesforce.
For every upcoming renewal, we could easily see where someone was, including the days until the renewal event and exactly what needed to happen on our side. When we ticked off all of those items, we were in great shape for the renewal. Here’s a sample of the questions we answered?
The coordination, relationship-building, execution and follow-through made this process work.
Even though we were a small organization, I discovered the sales team had already started pushing forward with their strategy and process for renewals, too! There were two teams in the same office having two separate conversations about the same customer. Talk about inefficiency at it’s worst!
Each business is different, but the relationship between Built to Serve and Built to Sell is critical. As a Customer Success leader, you should become the best friend with your Sales counterparts, by seeking to understand them and their world. Entice them into your world of Customer Success too, regardless of who owns the revenue number. Your Sales and Success efforts should compound, not run against each other.
There are hundreds of things you can measure in Customer Success.
Instead of diving into metrics, we’ll challenge you to keep this so simple that you’ll use binary questions to solve your metric problems before they happen. We won’t even dive into commonly used CS metrics like customer satisfaction score and Net Promoter Score. Instead, we’ll stick with measuring the three processes you need to get started
You only need to measure phases complete and the amount of time to complete each phase. Measuring the time will help you identify where you can improve your process. If a phase of your onboarding is taking four weeks, what is driving this? Perhaps you could offer guidance ahead of time with very specific instructions to overcome the longer parts or even break down the steps into their parts, to make sure everything is logically sequenced.
At the end of each quarter, you should be able to articulate if you have achieved the goal. You define what you’re going to do and then measure it. There is no room for debate or consternation. All of these metrics can be set up as a simple checkbox in Salesforce or a yes/no field in a spreadsheet.
Discipline will be your primary challenge because there are so many other things you will want to measure. For example, a customer health score is one metric that most leaders struggle with because it blends a variety (up to 7-10 different quantitative metrics) which makes it fuzzy and hard to drive performance behind.
Here are two final questions to ask yourself about your metrics:
– How can I best support my team to achieve this metric?
– Do our business processes help us achieve this metric? If not, what should we change?
Every Customer Success platforms are marketed to reduce churn, increase expansion and renewals, and they can do this, but only with the right downstream data.
A platform will not solve your churn problem. It is not a silver bullet. Your platform will only give you a representation of your data. If you are putting garbage data in, you will get garbage data out. In the early stage, it’s OK to use a spreadsheet or Salesforce. The most important thing is knowing where the information lives, how to capture it and how to access it.
For example, Nils ran a worldwide, ten person team using Salesforce to manage 130 accounts. It wasn’t perfect, but it served it’s purpose and got the job done. To put this into practice, Nils created a new section in Salesforce at the account level record called Customer Success and added fields to track the following:
He then used this information to create a simple reporting stack:
Taking this 80/20 mindset to your Customer Success platform will free you up. It’s very easy to get caught up in overengineering a solution when a very simple approach will work. Otherwise, you’ll end up drained and overwhelmed by wasting so much time on fields, labels and other tactical minutiae that you won’t bother following through.
Over time, you will outgrow your Customer Success platform and find a need for automation. If you have a Salesforce admin, and they have any spare time, you can enlist their help to build your automation. If you create custom code on top of Salesforce or your spreadsheet, it will require maintenance and probably break.
That’s why there’s a market for Customer Success platforms, including Gainsight, Totango, Natero, Client Success, Amity and so on. But before you get into discussions with a platform vendor, you should invest time to do the pre-work to get ready for implementation. We call this platform readiness, and it’s an often overlooked, but necessary process. It will help you highlight the exact use-cases that you want your new Customer Success platform to solve. It will make both your life and your vendor’s life a lot easier because you will mitigate the risk of a failed platform implementation.
To get started, create an accurate list of the actions and the outcomes you expect from your platform. Let’s say you want to send an automated email 90 days before renewal to the responsible CSM. First, you need to check your data. Run a report to check what’s already there – sometimes it will be inaccurate or completely missing.
We’ve seen instances where more than half of the data a use-case relies on does not exist. A new platform can’t fix this because your platform can’t make up a renewal date for you. Don’t leave this to chance, instead – check your use-cases and data are in good shape before you speak to a vendor. Otherwise, you’ll be putting yourself at risk. We’ve seen all sorts of implementations go sideways because these steps were missed.
Next, pick your top five use-cases and go through the process of creating reports to check your data for holes. We guarantee you will find holes, and we call this process ‘shining the light on your bad data’. When you take your specific use-cases to a vendor, you’ll be able to see exactly how their platform does or doesn’t achieve what you expect it to. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the bells and whistles of Customer Success platforms because they are powerful pieces of software, so keep it simple.
When you do this pre-work, your vendor will be amazed by how well-prepared and organized you are. These two simple steps will reduce the risk of a failed implementation and save you a lot of time, energy, effort and money.
To get the results you want from your platform, treat your platform implementation as a change management exercise. If you can’t answer the question “Why will this platform improve my CSM’s lives?” and your CSMs can’t explain why they need the platform, there is a high risk that they will not change and continue to use the incumbent system.
Your team might start from a position of “Why bother?” So you need to be able to explain why this change is an important and worthwhile endeavor. It doesn’t matter what you want from a new Customer Success platform – it’s not about you. Your job is to help get your Customer Success Managers excited about what will be possible with the new platform. You can do this by working to understand what’s in it for them.
For example, if you have ready-made reports, you won’t need to nag your team for data and information that should be readily available to you. They will have more time to talk to customers and focus on their work instead of feeling like they always have to keep you up to date. The team might get their valuable time back from you.
To get more mileage out of your change process, use an incremental approach instead of trying to solve all of your problems at once. Each time you roll out something new, you know exactly why you’re doing it. This covers rolling out automation, triggers, and a health score – think about it in your team’s terms, not yours.
Here are some questions you can ask your CS platform vendor to answer for you:
If they can’t authoritatively answer these questions, then you have a huge point of leverage because you can tell your vendor you need answers before you implement their solution.
The value of simplicity and discipline with your Customer Success platform
It’s OK to say no to overengineering your platform.
Overengineering is a common mistake people make because they are smart and have found some extra time to tinker with their platform. The reality is that if it works, it works. Don’t create a new question or new functionality just because, instead – dig in to understand why you need to do anything new or change anything at all.
At a late-stage company, a Customer Success platform is an entirely different beast.
The platform will take on a different role, solve various problems and be creaking under the weight of the number of different use-cases it supports. For example, it’s easy to build a convoluted Customer Health Score because you’ve run out of dials to turn… but beware! When you start to abstract metrics, blend them and try to share that with your team, it’s nearly impossible to rally them behind seven different elements of your shiny new health score. This progression is natural, because as you feel more comfortable with the platform, you’ll want to add more.
From experience, we’ve seen huge lists of equally weighted priorities for platform improvement… and they never get done. It also takes a significant amount of time, effort, and energy to build on top of your platform. You may want to do more integrations with your platform and this will probably require an operations person to help you get this done.
If you do not define Customer Success and how you will lead your team, expect this vacuum to suck up fires, issues, demands, and new projects. It is up to you, the leader, to define your objectives.
The 4 P’s framework will give you clarity about on where to focus. When you create a map of your 4 P’s and pick one or two things to focus on each month, then you will be in a position to tell your management team:
“This month, our #1 priority is People. The steps we are taking are x, y and z. We expect these actions to yield results of a, b and c.”
Delivering answers like this puts you in a prominent position as a leader because you’re not backpedaling with responses like “I’m just working on some… customer stuff.” Because of the vacuum, when you give an answer like that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
You’ll default to putting other people’s needs before your own, which is one of the main ways Built to Serve can work against you.
So, take control of your environment and remember the following frameworks:
Both Alex and Nils scaled global teams, mastered their time, aligned their people to their strengths and achieved absolute autonomy.
You can achieve the same results, but you need to make a choice. Are you going to define your purpose… or let someone else define it for you?
If you need help, email us at email@example.com and we’ll set up a time to chat.
Our purpose at Glide Consulting is to invest in the growth of our clients, and we’re glad we invested in you.
We’re faced with an abundance of problems to solve, and a scarcity of time. Unlike other organizations, Customer Success is not as standardized or codified, so we too often find ourselves struggling to define our roles.
We start to ask ourselves:
The answer to these questions might surprise you. Join Nils and Dan to get back to basics, and derive some action items from first principles in this 71 minute action-packed workshop.
“I feel like I spend too much time dealing with the noise, instead of working on the forward-thinking, strategic work I know we need to be doing.”
Does that sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. We’ve worked with hundreds of Customer Success Managers over the past five years, and “firefighting” comes up in every conversation.
Here are some of the things we’ve heard from CS professionals about what it feels like to be trapped in this vicious cycle:
If this resonates with you, there may be one fundamental flaw in how your daily work is structured that’s keeping you stuck in the weeds, and preventing you from spending time on the work you love.
Dive into job satisfaction, productivity, and delegating with Nils Vinje and Dan Gamito of Glide Consulting.
Join Natero and Glide Consulting for an online discussion about common management issues in Customer Success.
We’ll be covering four themes which plague CS teams, including: