Change Management in Customer Success: A Step-By-Step ADKAR Example

August 9, 2022

Marley Wagner

Category: Change Management, Customer Success as a Service, Customer Success Maturity, Customer Success Operations, Customer Success Strategy

Customer Success is all about change. Changing processes. Changing systems. Changing the game. Yet, most CS professionals don’t take advantage of the benefits of extremely valuable change management principles. An entire philosophy dedicated to making change easier for people, and we’re not using it!?

Change management in Customer Success means taking a proactive, forward-thinking approach to implementing organizational shifts so that people are less resistant and more open to embracing a new dynamic. It’s an excellent system for executing big changes like establishing a whole new Customer Success program and smaller changes like modifying your CSM comp plan. Even if everyone agrees that a change is good and necessary, people still naturally struggle with the transition. That’s why change management is so helpful. And in Customer Success, we deal with change on two entirely unique fronts: internally, within our own organization and externally, helping our customers navigate the implementation and use of our products and services.

I could talk about change management all day long, but I think a step-by-step example would be more beneficial to drive home how useful practicing strong change management discipline can be. At ESG, we leverage the Prosci ADKAR model, which provides a solid framework for incorporating these principles into CS initiatives. ADKAR stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. Each represents a step towards successfully executing an organizational change that people will adopt and even welcome.

Executive sponsorship: The first step

Before we dig into ADKAR, there is one super crucial element that any initiative requires – strong, top-down executive sponsorship. Whether making plans for an internal organizational shift or assisting your customers through a change on their end, you need the key players’ buy-in. As a CS leader, this often means getting your executive leadership on board with your plan. But it can also look like asking your customers for permission and support as you test out a new product feature or method of communication. The important thing is to get agreement and advocacy from the top of the chain (wherever that lies in your specific scenario) before setting your plan into motion.

An ADKAR example: Rolling out a new Digital CS program

So, let’s look at an example of what the ADKAR process might look like from both an internal and external change management perspective. Say we’re rolling out our first set of automated, customer-facing digital communications in our shiny, new Customer Success platform.

Here’s what the internal change management process could entail:


We create a process document to help everyone on our team understand the new communication procedures. Our leadership team reviews it and signs off on it. Then, we share this document with the larger team so everyone is on the same page, can ask questions, and see exactly what our Digital CS initiative will look like moving forward.


To get the team’s buy-in, we look at how we’re currently communicating with customers and map out all the steps it typically takes to manually kick off the customer journey. We then consider how much time and effort automating this process will save our team. We create a desire for the new digital strategy by demonstrating to everyone how streamlining the process can positively impact their work.


During the roll-out, we meet with the team frequently to keep them in the loop, so they know exactly what’s being developed and where we are in the process at any given time. Being in sync with the team as we go also helps people feel more ownership of the project and continues to strengthen their personal buy-in. As they say, “people don’t typically break things they helped build.”


At this stage, we test our new digital assets with a small segment of our customers to ensure it’s working correctly and that customers are responding well. The team gets to see the asset in action, practice incorporating digital communication into their current approach, and relay any feedback to us for final improvements.


In this case, reinforcement means continuing our automation journey. We support our team as we look for more opportunities to streamline customer communications with our CS platform. We will plan out more digital assets, working hand in hand with our team the whole way.

Here’s what the external change management process could entail in the same scenario:


Now, our customers are going to experience a shift on their end as well. They will start receiving communication from CSMs in an entirely new format. Rather than CSMs reaching out to them individually, they’ll get an automated email. So, before we launch the digital asset, we’ll inform our customers about the coming change.

Note: many automated emails look nearly identical to an email manually sent by a CSM, so while it’s not necessarily required to explicitly tell your customers that the emails will be automated from now on, be sure to let them know that they may notice a change in the cadence and/or content of your team’s communication.


Let your customers know why you’re making the change. Answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” For example, explain that they’ll have more of the information they need right in their inbox when they need it.


As we test the new system and messaging on a segment of willing customers, we’ll be sure to let them know exactly what we are trying to accomplish, gathering feedback along the way. While it would obviously be silly to send customers an email to let them know that you’ll be sending them an email, certain digital communications can include language to keep customers in the loop. For example, adding “welcome to our new customer newsletter!” at the start of the first three issues, or even including survey questions about your new automated onboarding sequence in your post-implementation survey. CSMs can also reinforce the message with their customers during regularly scheduled calls, EBRs, etc., reminding them to check their inbox for key resources at each phase of their journey.


From an external perspective, Ability is about checking in with our test segment and seeing if the new digital communications elicit the desired behaviors. Do we see our customers getting comfortable with the new process? Can they help themselves more through clicking email links to access self-help resources, or do they reach out for help from a CSM more frequently? You want to know if you’re getting the expected results or if more tweaks are needed.


Show customers appreciation for their support and input as you launch the new system. If they were part of the test segment, offer them a small token like a gift card to say thank you. Make it easy for them to connect with a CSM if any issues arise. Collect their feedback via survey or an ongoing Voice of the Customer initiative. And keep the ball rolling, letting them know you’re continually advancing your digital capabilities to serve them better.

This process will look different for every CS initiative and every CS organization, but the takeaway here is that change management practices make things easier for us. And easier is always better!