3 Mind Hacks to Make Your CSMs More Effective

Are these cognitive biases impacting your team’s performance?

In customer success, we talk frequently about tips for onboarding customers and ideas for preventing churn, but as the field matures, I think it’s important to begin unpacking the underlying drivers of longterm success.

I believe that critical thinking is a core competency for successful CS teams, but that the cognitive bias stands in the way of one’s ability to think critically. Bias shades one’s own thinking while impacting a team’s ability to move ideas forward. The challenge is that while biases are frequently present, they’re usually hard to identify and mitigate. But here’s the good news:

Understanding bias is like unlocking mind hacks to make your team more effective and productive.

(To learn more about the basics of cognitive bias, checkout this quick cognitive bias reference guide I wrote.)

Let’s look at how 3 common cognitive biases have an outsized effect on the performance of a customer success team. For each, we’ll review the basic definition, explore examples of how it can impact a CS team, and unpack a few remedies to help your team overcome the challenges created by these biases.

Root Cause vs. Proximate Cause

Definition:

A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. This exists in contrast to a higher-level ultimate cause which is usually thought of as the “real” reason something occurred. (from Wikipedia)

Impact

CSMs deal frequently with complex systems. Our products, and the systems that run them, are inherently complex, but so are the human systems surrounding them.

Expanding an account, leading change within a customer organization, helping troubleshoot a product issue, and motivating and collaborating with internal teams are just a few complex systems a CSM must interact with daily.

When things fail in complex systems, it’s important to accurately diagnose the root cause of an issue in order to appropriately resource the solution. But CSMs are faced with limited information and the need to act quickly. All too often, these pressures lead to the identification and reporting of proximate causes.

As with a visit to the doctor, a misdiagnosis can lead to misapplied treatments, which ignore or even aggravate the underlying situation.

Remedy

First, creating awareness of the notion of proximate causes will give you the vocabulary to have deeper conversations with your team. For many of these biases, creating the mental space for the concept goes a long way towards influencing behavior.

Simply asking whether or not an explanation is root or proximate, coupled with a few Whys, will almost certainly drive your team to more critical thinking and accurate diagnosis. Consider a fictional discussion between two CSMs:

CSM A: “Why is Acme 3 weeks behind on their implementation?”

CSM B: “Well, they don’t have the necessary data on their end prepped and ready for next steps.”

CSM A: “Is that the root cause? Or a proximate cause? What about their situation has led them to not have the data ready?”

CSM B: “Well, the person driving the project missed a key training session a few weeks back, so we didn’t get her commitment to the timeline.”

You can imagine how, as the discussion unfolds, the team might uncover issues with your approach to customer training, expectation setting, or perhaps the abilities of this CSM to get buy-in from customer leadership.

All of which are much more influenceable than simply blaming the customer.

Confirmation Bias

Definition

The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. In addition, individuals may discredit information that does not support their views.

Impact

CSMs deal with lots of accounts, often across different customer industries and diffracted tiers of ARR. There’s a lot of information and too little time to process it all. I think that’s why our teams are so susceptible to this bias.

You might see this bias in churn retros, when certain accounts are glossed-over, because, well, everyone knows what happened there, right?

Or when reviewing account status, have you ever heard, “We’re doing everything we can,” only to discover that, after some probing questions, there are in fact lots of other things to try?

That sentiment is confirmation bias in action. With too little time and not enough meaning, our brains want to take the easy way out. Instead of critically thinking about options and applying creative problem solving to yet another complex customer situation, a taxed mind will gladly take a shortcut.

This often manifests itself in self-fulfilling prophecies. Customers whom everyone knows will churn do indeed churn. But how often could this be avoided with deliberate effort?

Remedy

There are two tactics for mitigating this bias and encouraging more critical thinking on your teams.

First, have your team argue the position opposite of the one they hold. When a person is pushing for a courting viewpoint, ask them to argue the reverse, and don’t let them wiggle their way out.

Second, you should seek out disconfirming evidence. This is true for yourself as well as for your team. When making a decision, ask, “What would this look like if these assumptions weren’t true?”

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

Definition

The tendency to attribute another’s actions to their character, while attributing our own behavior to external situational factors.

Impact

While the first two biases are useful in assessing bias in someone’s logic, understanding FAE helps untangle bias resulting from interpersonal tension. Since CSMs sit at the intersection of so many relationships, it’s crucial that they’re aware of FAEs influence on themselves, their customers, and internal stakeholders.

So how does FAE manifest?

Have you ever been in traffic, and, upon being cut-off by another driver, said something like, “What a complete jerk! They have no respect for the dignity of life!” When, after taking similar action yourself, chalked up the speedy maneuver to being late for a flight?

Have you ever called a coworker lazy while giving yourself a pass because you’re under lots of stress?

This trait has been summed up as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.

Within companies, this tendency leads to all sorts of cultural and operational tension, miscommunication, and resentment. With customers, it often leads to a misdiagnosis of a strategic challenge. For example, it’s much easier to simply write off a problem customer as a rude, toxic, jerk, rather than addressing the challenge head-on and uncovering the root cause.

Remedy

It’s totally human to be hard on others while giving ourselves a pass, but in the context of customer success, FAE threatens to undermine relationships and distort our thinking.

Fortunately, there are several practices that can help remedy FAE.

One tactic is to assume the most gracious intent. In other words, it’s possible to coach your team to avoid the knee-jerk (and natural) reaction to jump to conclusions about a person’s character, and instead interpret the situation through a gracious lens. Maybe they just received some tough feedback from their boss, or got some scary health news about a loved one.

Or, maybe they are a jerk! The point is for your team to first step back from the situation and assess the possibilities prior to ascribing a person’s action immediately to malice or ill character.

Another coachable technique is to help your team avoid character generalizations, such as “he’s always…” or “she’s never…” This framing is a strong clue that someone is committing the fundamental attribution error, and calling it out as such will help raise your team’s awareness of this bias in action.

In this way, you help your team reframe the discussion, and avoid the FAE pitfalls, which lead to misunderstanding and poor thinking.

Conclusion

Overcoming cognitive bias requires awareness and practice, but I believe that instilling these concepts into your team’s thinking will pay dividends.

The tactical aspects of customer success will become increasingly commoditized and/or automated, but the ability to think critically and creatively will prove useful regardless of the evolution of technology and products.

For this reason, customer success leaders must help their teams build the mental models that will drive productivity and value now while future-proofing ones capabilities for the future.


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