Don’t Run Behind the Wagon, Drive it!
6-Steps for Effective Customer Success
By Tal Tsfany
After spending long days and sleepless nights trying to figure out what the heck this role of Chief Customer Officer is all about, and after several years of trial, error and some nice successes, I thought it would make sense to put some of my learnings and principles on paper.
When I started my Customer Success journey 3 years ago, the online content was limited. It was a combination of high quality quantitative analysis (powered by VCs of course) explaining why churn and expansion management is critical in the subscription-based economy, and almost no best practices or thought leadership about how to go about doing it.
In the process of building the Success team here at Base I’ve gone through many iterations and learning experiences. My approach in writing this post was to distill those learnings that I would use if I had to do it all over again. It came down to 6-steps or guidelines that I found valuable.
Who knows? maybe some of it will even make sense to you and save you the time you’ve always needed to take that trip to Nepal (highly recommended).
Where do I come from?
I started my career in training. I was preparing students for SAT tests and I loved it.
I went on to manage a training company and back then in 98’ (a different century, I know…) when everything tech was booming, as an industrial engineer with a major in information systems, it wasn’t long before I was headhunted into the software world.
I spent 6 years running an implementation team that was responsible for what we called user-level-adoption. That is where I learned about the true nature of success and the value that software can bring to businesses through the different levels and types of users.
Why am I telling you this?
The reason is that as a Chief Customer Officer today, I find myself heavily leaning on my experiences from the implementation and rollout days while trying to figure out how to improve the experience of my customers and increase their perceived value. There is nothing like being around users using your product day in and day out, understanding what it takes to make success happen. I also apply my engineering background to build repeatable, visible and scalable processes that can be iteratively analyzed and improved.
So before you take on a success role, spend time actually working in an environment where your product is being used. Camp in customer sites, shadow users, be your customer for a month and develop a deep understanding of the environment that your customer is operating in.
And before I start. Please repeat after me:
Churn is not a problem. Churn is an effect.
Step 1 — Start with Definitions
Before you act, think.
(I know, I could have written this as the first principle for aspiring carpenters).
Seriously, if Customer Success was as easy as product people tend to think it is, would CEOs pay us so much? :)
So before you do anything success-related, you have to uncover the true meaning of your customer success.
Ask yourself questions such as:
- “What does it mean to be successful with our product?”
- “What does success look like?”
- “How could it be accurately measured?”
- “Is our success dependent on other products, services, internal or external processes?”
- “How can we ensure our customers have everything they need to succeed?”
Then, spend time to write the definitions, requirements, prerequisites, and components of your customer success and the experience you’re designing.
Only after you go through this exercise (and be as objective as possible about the value customers can derive from your product in different contexts), will you gain a full understanding of the scope and focus of the Success team you should be building.
For example, here at Base, early on we realized that the successful implementation of a sales tool had a lot to do with the sales management competency level of our customer. As a result we created an entire practice of sales process implementation in order to give our customers the knowledge and tools they need to leverage our technology.
This was a result of realizing the “success dependency” on sales management concepts that are required before leveraging a product like Base.
So — define and concretize success as the first step.
3 additional points about defining success:
- The Core Strategy Effect — When you truly nail the meaning of Customer Success, a wonderful thing happens. This realization should be affecting your company strategy at its core. It is an opportunity for your company to figure out not only the product-market fit, but also the customer-product fit. This means a deep understanding of the whole solution required to make a customer, a manager, a user, a stakeholder — successful.
- Invent — Don’t expect your customers to know the answers. It is you who spends most of your day thinking about this specific problem your product solves. You are the expert and most probably know and understand the scope of the problem better than your average customer. So don’t just run focus groups and hope to learn about success from other people — invent it.
- Success Metrics — Build external customer success metrics. You can easily get lost in the sea of insignificant, lagging, indirect indicators and metrics that don’t mean much to your customer. Develop metrics that touch the heart of the value you decided to deliver. At Base, we are focusing on our customers’ Lead Yield. Think about it. If I can increase a lead yield of a sales team using Base — what possible reason would a that customer have to stop using it? A little better than average daily logins, right?
To summarize, go back to this iterative stage by developing an increasingly intimate understanding of the challenge of success in the context of your product. Be the world expert within your domain. Read, digest, write and invent new ways to wrap the product with a sticky success layer that will make your customers coming back for more.
Step 2 — Design by Reverse Engineering Success
Once you have mastered step 1, you should have a pretty good blueprint of the scope and focus of your Success team. At this stage, the challenge is to reverse engineer the components of success that you’ve outlined in step 1.
It’s like making a grocery list of all the things your customers need to walk the path to success — the knowledge, the processes, the tools, the interoperability, integrations, data (and its interpretation), and most importantly, you and your team’s support. Knowing that there is a trustworthy guide and companion to the success journey makes a huge difference to customers.
As an example, here at Base, we have figured out that we need to equip our customers with knowledge that revolves around marketing-sales processes, core sales and funnel management skills, sales terminology, training, change management, sales compensation models, integration services, etc.
And this is just to kick-off the process.
After a while, when our users become more sophisticated, we go to a higher level of equipment — things like sales data analysis skills, sales forecasting and process variance analysis. You get the idea?
Don’t underestimate the problem of success.
It might be as hard and challenging as building the product that started this mess in the first place…
We ended up making up a new Sales Competency Model and codifying sales to a level that brings tremendous value in and of itself on top of the Base technology.
Don’t shy away from developing competencies and skills that are required to ensure the success of your customers. Even if at first, it doesn’t seem to align with your company’s core business.
It eventually will. Hence the name of this post — be proactive in your Customer Success approach, lead the wagon, don’t run behind it trying to save customers from falling off. Make sure to steer it in the right direction and it’ll be a smooth ride for everyone.
Step 3 — Building a Success Team
Some people build products. Some people help the customers try it on, wrap it up for them, deliver it to their homes. The experience is the sum of it all.
So building the team that is responsible for the entire experience is not an easy task.
Here are the principles that I found to be helpful in this process:
- Start with values — Success is a value-driven practice (and yes, I know, I could say the same about carpentry). Delivering exceptional success experiences requires passion. Passion is a response to alignment of values. In order to deliver an “above-and-beyond” customer experience you need a reason and the drive to propel you to the “beyond” sphere. It starts with defining the values that your organization stands for. The experience vision, the cultural values and the environment that allows your team to thrive and do the best work of their lives. To bring everything they have to every customer engagement and make them their own. It requires you to dwell in the “why”, to start your presentations with a philosophical view of the things you and your team are dealing with and not move forward till your team is fully bought into the reason you do what you do.
- Own the complexity — or in other words, Respect the Success problem. It is a complex one and requires tons of process, measurements, technology, internal and external communications, hiring, motivating, and much much more. Own that complexity as a whole and treat it as a the CEO of your company’s customer experience. Don’t lean on product, don’t assume that marketing will figure it out, don’t take your eyes off the sales-success alignment situation. Own and facilitate inter-departmental initiatives that affect the customer experience and continuously feed your colleagues with customer feedback. Put an Executive Sponsor Customer program in place, plan a customer tour with your CEO, your Chief Product or Technology Officer and your VP Marketing. Own it.
- Specialize early — The structure of the Success team is usually a reflection of the customer lifecycle stages and their requirements. On-boarding, training, ongoing support, account management, consulting, etc. When you’re starting a team from scratch, everyone does everything and this is fine. I found that early specialization and division of labor accelerates the learning curve and streamlines the processes throughout the customer lifecycle faster. All the handoffs, interdependencies and the likes are uncovered earlier and mature your team in less time.
- Define measurable, repeatable (preferably visual) processes — When you’ve defined the processes that will yield the highest experience quality, spend even more time making sure that they are well understood, implemented and carefully monitored. Check and analyze variances in process performance and try to identify the root causes. Train and retrain as much as needed to generate consistency. The nice thing about this process, is that when you’ve done this a couple of times, you can easily change processes while still having the organizational discipline to implement those changes consistently over and over again. My experience shows that you can never be too creative when it comes to visualizing and concretizing business processes. Call things names — “blue customers”, “red customers”, the “pyramid process”, invent nicknames to systems and stick colorful charts on the walls.
- Automate stable processes — I’ve found that a business process needs to marinate and stabilize, then fine-tuned and optimized several times before it is time to automate anything. Building machinery can get expensive, so make sure you have the right specs before you spend time and money on success automation.
Step 4 — Measure like a Hawk-Eyed Falcon (Don’t ask — it’s an internal joke…)
When it comes to measurements in the Success organization, you have to sit down, drink a glass of water, then breath in and out slowly and calmly. The reason is that your analytical side of the brain needs to get into gear and unless you’ve majored in applied mathematics, this is not easy.
So, here is how I think about measurement in Customer Success (some of it is of course relevant to running a carpentry shop as well):
- No data, no reality — don’t be tempted to “feel”, “have a hunch” or fall in love with the trend you just saw with the last 5 customer visits. Measure only things that matter, most should be actionable, develop hypothesis and prove them right or wrong. Science, baby.
- Data-informed, not-data-driven (and sorry in advance for the off-topic intro) — I’m a true proponent of Licklider’s man-computer symbiosis rather than the “oh, AI is going to destroy the world” alarmists (yes, Elon Musk is wrong about that). In order to understand reality you need the human’s integrative, creative, non-linear thinking ability. To make it more powerful, you add the computational capacity of a machine and you get the most amazing results driven by the human-computer cooperation. No other entity other than humans can set goals, formulate contextual hypothesis and evaluate. This is why you need to be data-informed, get all your facts right, and then use your amazing mind to integrate it and derive meaningful insights.
- Start simple with high quality data — As you start building your metrics and dashboards, focus on cleaning your data and calculating simple, basic metrics. Then as your trust in the accuracy of the data increases, you can start adding more sources and increase the level of complexity. Don’t forget to always compare only comparable customer cohorts.
- Segment your customers by what matters — The segmentation of customers should be a result in an intrinsic difference of how those segments use your product. Generally speaking, using internal oriented segmentations like MRR/ARR buckets, sales regions and so on, is a bad idea. Segment by the criteria that changes the use case of your product in a meaningful way. For example, at Base, the number of salespeople in the customer’s sales team is the most important segmentation criteria that affects the complexity of the implementation and the use case of our product.
- Make metrics personal and visible — In order to make metrics impactful, they need to be personal. People need to care and own their numbers. Measure every employee with one meaningful number that reflects the quality of their work. The number can be a result of a ratio or a simple formula, but it should preferably still be one number that they own. Give access to numbers and metrics and expect your team to know where they are at any given point. For example, demand that every Customer Success Manager knows their ongoing portfolio net churn rate. Sounds more complex than it really is. As for data visualization — just hire a smart analyst.
Step 5 — Engaging Customers
This part took me some time to learn. I’m the kind of guy who gets excited with conceptual discussions, whiteboards and lively arguments. I easily forget that while I’m in my office, conceptualizing, real people are using my product, developing opinions on it, and making decisions if to continue using it or not.
Luckily, I also get a kick out of meeting people and exchanging ideas. This is why I found a great way to make sure I’m out and about meeting customers frequently enough to make real impact on their business and as a consequence, on my own metrics. The way is to have a goal of meeting 4 or more customers every month. Yes, that means one customer visit a week. So get out there and start collecting temp ID badges and stickers.
While in front of customers, use the opportunity not only to ask questions, learn more about them and how you can increase your product’s value, but use it to share and partner. Share your ideas, the hypothesis behind your next big project and recruit them for a short brainstorming session on how to make your team better and more productive. You’ll be amazed how willing customers can be to make you, as their vendor, more valuable to them (not mentioning the impact on the level of relationship and trust).
Before you meet a customer, set aside the time needed to fully prepare and “upload” their full context to your brain. Their history, implementation experience, stakeholders and relationships, personal things you and your team know about them, recent developments, open issues, risks, concerns, expansion opportunities. Be as ready as you can before walking into a customer conference room.
And then it happens.
You come back to the office with a notebook filled with product enhancement ideas, suggestions and yes… even demands and ultimatums. What now?
As a true Customer Advocate, I see this as the Customer Success Manager’s responsibility to digest, analyze, generalize, prioritize and in many cases push back on customer requirements, requests and demands, before writing the motivational, descriptive, heartfelt email to your product team about how important this customer is to the livelihood of the company. The long term, sustainable, responsible and honest way to manage customer expectations is to apply rigorous qualification procedures that are internal to the Customer Success organization before they are negotiated with the product team.
On the other hand, clear SLAs should be in place with the product team to make sure that no gaps are opening between what we say we will do and what we can actually deliver on.
We should be mindful of the fact that no legendary company became legendary by meeting every customer’s request.
Moreover, as the owner of the customer voice within the company, you should make sure that every promise, deadline and project commitment is delivered on time and at the highest quality. I put myself in my customer’s shoes in every internal status meeting to make sure that the following external status meeting goes according to the expectations of the real person walking in the customer shoes.
Just as a side note, our CEO came up with a brilliant idea about “walking in our customer shoes”. It was to ask our implemented customers for a pair of their old shoes in return to a gift card to buy a new one. Then we would put the shoes in a frame, write a brief summary of the customer experience and hang it on our wall…
brilliant, isn’t it?
Step 6 — Ride the wagon and please, don’t do WEED!
We have many mantras at Base. Things like “we’d rather tame raging bulls than kicking lazy donkeys”, “it’s null till you ship it” and many more. One of which is a principle that works every time.
In everything that you do, in every process or engagement, be different. Don’t do WEED (what everybody else does).
This principle allows you to create your own success voice, your own success culture and ultimately, your own success customer experience.
Another one that I found to be very helpful in the context of Customer Success is: “don’t run behind the wagon trying to prevent people from falling off, drive it!” — pretty self-explanatory.
So go ahead, build your success and don’t forget to stay foolish, stay hungry and have good premises.
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