For any company, having a clear sense of purpose comes with several upsides. Brand positives associated with currently relevant societal themes, and employee engagement and loyalty, are just two of many.
But purpose can also cause confusion and have unintended negative effects in both those dimensions. Especially today, a company’s purpose is more publicly scrutinized – it needs to align with what it does – and since the public’s perception of companies can be ephemeral, a company’s purpose, therefore, requires leaders’ close attention and careful cultivation.
The March-April edition of the Harvard Business Review contains the monthly article from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. This month he commented on the word “purpose” (most of the articles are about the topic, including a must-read co-written by my friend, Jonathan Knowles). In his monthly communique, the editor-in-chief wrote that at HBR, they sometimes use shorthand to express the magazine’s purpose – “to rid the world of bad management.” I want to go on record as saying that’s a purpose that has staying power and is something I can get behind, regardless of who or what is saying it.
Bad management is too easy in Customer Success
Most CS management isn’t bad in the sense of being malevolent or ill-intentioned. But that doesn’t mean, conversely, that management is good simply because it acts with a pure heart. So, let’s call it weak management instead. I would argue that so much of weak management in Customer Success is, at its core, due to an inability to connect and communicate corporate goals with organizational execution at the process level.
For example, if a company says it will grow its market in the new fiscal year by 22%, how does that translate down to the process level of the Customer Success team? What changes are required to the way the people and teams operate? How will management know that the work is contributing to the corporate goals?
So, what do teams need in order to succeed?
Processes that make sense and produce outcomes that address real need
No one respects, or even willingly follows, a process that seems redundant, inefficient, or fails to address a clear need for positive action. People want to do work that they understand completes a portion of a larger objective. When I worked in an automotive factory for one summer between high school and university, I had a particular fascination for trying to understand how each task I carried out mattered to the final assembly of a vehicle. The same holds true for Customer Success Managers who are tasked with helping customers achieve their desired outcomes. How do they do that? What are the tried-and-true methods and procedures for doing so?
Consistent management communication and a performance management system that connects corporate objectives with individual contributor objectives
Nothing is more of a demoralizer, other than a raging and brooding boss, than misalignment with a vision for the company that the executives paint and the work that’s expected to take place by individual contributors for that vision to be realized.
When a proper performance management system is in place and is seriously utilized by organizations, it can act as a cultural, productivity, and employee success boost. By providing clarity of expectations, tracking progress, and leveraging the information for employee development conversations, a performance management system can be the best friend of management and individual contributors alike.
Ability to collaborate with strategy
If people are expected to deliver a business-impacting service like Customer Success, doesn’t it make sense to consult with them to programmatically gather their feedback about what they are seeing and experiencing as they deliver it? Wouldn’t frontline information help to make strategy more relevant? It seems to me that a strategy without an intimate knowledge of the actual work and how it plays out in front of customers is missing something critically important.
To illustrate how management/leadership in Customer Success could improve in these areas, let’s look at a small number of classic “problems” that, in my view, are symptoms of the type of weak leadership I described above. These are things that the Customer Success community is always concerned about and grappling with. In my mind, these are largely self-inflicted wounds of the typical Customer Success function.
- CSMs mired in escalations
- Products that don’t reflect the needs of customers
- Only a trickle of customer data flowing from Sales into Customer Success
- CSMs struggling to get their customers to advance their success plans
I can hear the catcalls already.
Self-inflicted?!? These are not the fault of Customer Success! Customer Success is the victim in each of these examples!!!
I disagree and I’ll tell you why.
Unless the escalation is due to the customer demanding an entirely new account team, an escalation is almost certainly the result of weak Customer Success leadership.
Let’s agree that almost all escalations are due to product technical challenges the customer is experiencing. So that should be for Support and Product teams to resolve, right?
Why don’t they?
Because Customer Success leadership let the mission and its narrative run off the rails early in the process of establishing the CS function and organization. They succumbed to pressure from other groups in the company that pointed at Customer Success and said, you should be the “single throat to choke.” Short-termism trumped long-termism and that is always a failing strategy. Every department needs to have a distinct mission that fits together with every other department’s mission to present a single, coherent, and productive strategy to customers.
Customer Success is no different. Support and Product have the expertise and the means to fix products. Customer Success doesn’t, and so accountability for product escalations should programmatically flow to those organizations. It’s the only way Customer Success can get out of firefighting because those other organizations are the only ones that can fix the systemic challenges of the way products are technically deployed and supported.
Customers wish for lots of things from your product. Some of it is achievable and makes sense for all parties, some is achievable but makes little business sense for the vendor, and some is pure fantasy. Too often the default Customer Success communication seems to be to advise the customer to log an enhancement request in a portal or to pitch it to the user community so it can be upvoted.
These are each best practices, sure, but it’s a better idea to not only have those channels available but to also have CSMs work closely with product management to improve their product knowledge and be comfortable talking with customers about the product’s capabilities and limitations. They should then be able to turn around and better-manage the customer’s expectations. Playing the honest broker with customers is far more powerful than pretending that all their suggestions are achievable or that they even make sense. Communicating truth is part of the CSM’s job. And the job of educating the CSM about how to do that and about why that matters belongs to management.
I’ve worked both in Sales and in many functions in the post-sales arena. I can tell you that there are no villains in the story about pre-sale and post-sale collaboration. It’s true that there is often a real problem of insufficient information (data) flowing from Sales to post-sales, but it’s not an insurmountable problem to overcome. CS management should make fixing this a very high priority and, in the end, it’s not that difficult.
As in so many other areas of Customer Success, the responsibility for educating other parts of the business about the mission of Customer Success, what it is meant to do for customers, and what it requires in order to deliver the service, falls mostly on the shoulders of CS management. They must excel at communication, diplomacy, and persuasion. They must be able to convince the Sales organization of why it matters to the customer that Customer Success is enabled with full account intel, and therefore why it matters to the prospect’s approaching subscription renewal and potential expansion.
If Sales doesn’t make the necessary mental connection between customer intel and ongoing business, then convince them, in part, by committing to providing them with reciprocal gifts of customer stories and references that they can leverage for future business. This is collaboration among peers in the modern economy. Welcome to the world of modern Customer Success leadership, a part of the business that finds itself on the edge of business transformation.
4. Success Plans
This is my favorite one because it’s often the place where the most excuses arise.
“The customer isn’t at the right stage. They’re only just implementing the product.”
“Sure, they’re in production but they’re telling me they aren’t ready to talk about KPIs.”
“The key business contact moved into another role.”
“It’s really, really, really difficult getting an audience with the senior executive.”
“We must get them through the remaining three escalations first (see #1 above).”
Success Plans are the number one deliverable of Customer Success. They’re the path to value for customers. Without them, the business function has no distinct value. Getting Success Plans introduced, established, and progressed needs to be the top priority of CSMs. And if none of that happens, who should be held accountable? Ultimately, it’s the Customer Success leaders because it’s their job to ensure the right delivery of service occurs so that the larger corporate objectives can be met.
Purpose needs to be something people identify with and can rally around. As leaders, you should want your people to be fully engaged in what they do. That energy will drive results. Ratcheting it up is easier when some reasonable facsimile of “ridding your world of bad management” is at the very least, your personal purpose.