Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Science behind Why Customers Success Works

Customer Success is all the rage these days. Do you ever stop and wonder why that is? Is it because, as CEB (now Gartner) has reported, customers are completing 57% of their buying journey before even speaking to your salespeople? Is it because, according to Harvard Business Review, attracting a new customer is 5–25% more costly than retaining an existing one? Is it because switching costs are compressed further and further every day with the growth of cloud products while more and more competition enters the market?

Yes, Yes, and Yes! However, just because these stats show why it’s now more important than ever to retain and grow your existing customers, that doesn’t explain why a Customer Success approach is so… successful, for lack of a better word. Why can’t a stellar product just stand on its own? Why can’t a traditional customer service team retain your customers? Why do businesses need an additional team to manage the customers’ lifecycle?

I’ve asked myself these questions a lot. I’ve intuitively known that a Customer Success strategy works just by virtue of being a CSM myself at one point and supporting multiple teams of CSMs over the course of my career. The proactive nature of Customer Success in combination with a stellar product is what wins the hearts and minds of customers, but I’ve struggled with the reasoning behind why up to this point. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a high verify, and just intuitively knowing things doesn’t always sit well without having the data or science behind the theory to support it. If I don’t understand why a strategy works, how could I ever explain the concept to a business leader exploring the idea of implementing a CS strategy?

I believe I’m getting closer to cracking the code on why CS drives better results than sales and support teams alone, though.

I did an internet search for “science” and “customer success,” and Google provided me with over 1.7M hits of suggested pages. Just by skimming the first page of results, I saw the popular Gainsight article, “You’re Doing It Wrong: Art vs Science in Customer Success,” along with a whole slew of articles on the topic of data science and why a CS team needs a data scientist. I struggled to find the science and reasoning supporting why customer success works, not the science of how to make it work. So I’ve gone on my own journey to figure out why this model is successful, why customers respond to it so well, and why sales and traditional customer service teams cannot accomplish the same level of success on their own.

Here’s what I’ve uncovered: Evolution, neurology, and emotional connections could be behind all of it. Stick with me, dear readers. I might get a little sciencey, but I’ll tie it all back Customer Success in the end.

Let’s talk about memory and negativity bias for a moment. Humans tend to think of memory as a record of experience, but the idea is not to just store information; it’s to store relevant information. According to Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres.” Negative emotions typically involve more cognitive activity, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. Humans tend to reflect more on unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them. Research has shown that negative events are also more easily recalled by the brain than positive ones. Not only are negative events more easily recalled, they are often remembered in more detail (Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998). Thanks to evolution, the need to remember negative experiences, often times being situations related to danger, has been prioritized in human memories in order to keep people alive and safe.

The need to remember negative experiences has been prioritized in human memories in order to keep people alive and safe

Tying this back to customer experience means that even if someone has had a positive experience with you or your product consistently up to this point, a negative event can override all the good that was done since the negative event is remembered more vividly and in more detail than positive events. All is not lost, though! Additional research has shown that a brain can be retrained towards a positive bias (Doidge, 2017). It takes work, but forcing the brain to recall and intentionally focus on positive events can create new neural pathways that are more easily accessed and traveled by the neurons in the brain.

It’s as if the negative memories are downhill from the customer. Customers can easily get to the negative memories due to gravity, pulling them down. The positive memories are smattered on the pathway downhill, but the customer is moving so fast, they blow right past the positive memories without taking stock. Help customers retrain their brain and carve out new paths to the positive memories rather than just blowing full speed downhill to the negative ones.

Having a dedicated, proactive team who reaches out to your customers to help them remember the progress through the good times will have an overall positive effect on their emotional connection with your brand. This cannot be left to a sales team or a reactive support team. A Customer Success Manager needs to be there, day in and day out, with customers, in the trenches of their business, helping them to remember all the good outcomes they’ve achieved with your brand; when there is a negative event, they help the customer push through it, and then focus back to the positive. A CSM helps customers retrain their brain to more easily remember the positive experiences they’ve had with you. In the words of Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, “The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences — and in particular, to take them in so they become a permanent part of you.

This is the role of a Customer Success Manager, and this is why they are an integral component to a business model.

Have feedback? Would love to hear from!

Additional References:

Doidge, N. (2017). The brain that changes itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Strawberry Hills, NSW: ReadHowYouWant.

Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,75(4), 887–900. doi:10.1037//0022–3514.75.4.887