Peter’s Perspective: How CS Can Weather the Approaching Storm

October 17, 2022

Peter Armaly

Category: Customer Success as a Service, Customer Success Maturity, Customer Success Strategy, Partner Success, Voice of the Team

Hurricanes have been prominent in the news recently here in North America. Overlapping over two weeks in September, we had Fiona and Ian. Two vast and destructive storms that caused an immense amount of physical, emotional, and financial pain over vast geographic areas. I came close to being in the bullseye of Hurricane Fiona during a vacation with my wife in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. As Canada’s smallest province, it is especially vulnerable due to being surrounded by the waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, adjacent to the North Atlantic Ocean.

I watched the media reports. I saw what was coming our way and was about to hit us, and with one day to spare before landfall, I canceled restaurant reservations, canceled a hotel reservation, made a new one elsewhere in another province before all the rooms could be snapped up. I then packed us up and hauled us off to decamp just a three hour drive due south, just outside the predicted western edge of Hurricane Fiona’s path.

The hotel in the very small town that we ran to reminded me, disconcertingly, of Hitchcock’s Bates Motel but the staff members were wonderful (and loved our dog and proved to him yet again that anyone behind a desk has a treat for him), no one’s grandmother was in the fruit cellar, and no shower curtains were sliced. The surrounding communities were interesting to explore, the range of choice in local craft beers was incredible, and we even found a couple of small restaurant gems that rivalled those we can find in large cities. But what mattered most was that we were safely ensconced at enough of a distance from the hurricane, having only to contend with extremely stiff winds for one day. Winds so stiff that I kept our small dog on a leash during walks for fear he’d end up being blown away, into the ocean.

Why the travelogue? Because the experience made me think about the Customer Success business function. I promise to explain, but first, one more important related concept.

Severe weather has been trying for a few millennia to communicate to societies all over the world about where to build and how to build. Humans being reliably irrational, though, our natural reflex when disaster struck was to rebuild in the same way things had always been built. Typically, we picked ourselves up, dried ourselves off or brushed off the dust, organized what needed organizing, and then set out to rebuild in the same place and in the very same way. Then, on another day some way off in the future, disaster revisited.

But slowly, and over long periods of time, we eventually realized that the earth is our best and most patient teacher. We evolved our thinking and our construction practices. We realized we had learned valuable lessons all along the way. And so, we experimented and learned about the multiplicative strengthening effects of steel embedded in concrete, we refined our joinery skills, we developed new bonding compounds, more water-resistant membranes, more flame-retardant material, and new anchoring methods and materials for securing roofs to walls, walls to floors, and floors to foundations. We still too often build in many of the wrong places but gradually, we understood that to live is to adapt to the weather.

There are parallels abound for Customer Success. Storms are presently blowing. We should be learning valuable lessons from the volatility we’ve been experiencing with these economic storms over the last few months. We should understand that while financial markets are contracting and monetary policies are tightening, the seemingly unstoppable pace of technological expansion continues towards even more flexibility and speed. Moreover, consumer tastes continue their march towards more and more hyper-personalization and a growing desire for shorter subscription periods (and therefore more churn for vendors almost no matter what they do), and education systems continue to produce new waves of savvy entrepreneurs, data scientists, medical professionals, and humanity graduates finding their callings in the unlikely world of business.

All of these factors combined have the potential to ratchet up the pace of change for our societies and for companies and yet I feel most Customer Success organizations are ill-prepared. The easiest illustration of this is that we should have learned as of late that the most vulnerable models to the severe economic forces buffeting us at this time are those that are too brittle and too challenging to change. More critically, they are models that are unable to prove positive revenue impact. When money gets tight, executives focus on protecting the parts of the company that can empirically demonstrate how they protect and impact revenue. This is just smart business.

In my view, many Customer Success organizations don’t meet that requirement that calls for proof. These vulnerable Customer Success organizations seem to have models that share the following traits and characteristics.

  • They aren’t measuring their engagement with customers to the extent that they are able to correlate multiple variables to produce proof of impact
  • If they aren’t measuring, they certainly aren’t benchmarking. So how can they educate their customers about what works when they haven’t even tracked it?
  • They are overly reliant on the one-to-one interpersonal customer relationship skills of individual Customer Success Managers (CSMs). For decades, IT has been fighting against the perpetuation of cultures grounded in tribal knowledge. It’s a shame that in the Internet age, we replaced that with cultures that reward the equivalent – “rockstars”
  • There is a weak culture of accountability
  • Their models aren’t built using a digital-first methodology or use only a minimal amount of automation
  • Their models struggle to produce content that customers would find meaningful and helpful at various points in their journey
  • Their models are not built on a foundation of customer knowledge (which begins with mapping their journeys)
  • Customer Success organizations that are most vulnerable have sparse – or worse, nonexistent – formal training and development programs for their Customer Success professionals
  • The models are not built to programmatically collect data about the customer (industry, market, profile, behaviors, contacts, product usage, business goals, propensity for change, etc.)
  • Their models cannot scale the ability to demonstrably drive successful outcomes for customers across a wide swath of segments

You get the idea. The house is shaky. The organizations with such models can’t stand up to the ferocious winds of scrutiny and are now facing serious trouble. Collectively, we in Customer Success should be moving faster towards building stronger capabilities that can better position us to be able to take advantage of the evolving economy. We shouldn’t simply expect that we can be successful tomorrow using yesterday’s methods. We should be honest about the past and that it, more often than not, saw us fail to produce the results we expected and that were expected of us. And perhaps most ironic of all, we failed at it while employing the most expensive strategies, like when many believed they were doing the safe thing by hiring more CSMs as a way to scale even though there was scarce empirical proof that such a strategy works.

As humans need to do in response to severe weather, Customer Success professionals need to make wise choices. We can’t go on denying that the economy is changing rapidly – and that the way business works won’t revert to some kind of past form – and that its effects will produce a heightening of consumer expectations and a quickening of business change. We can no more deny this any more than we can deny the science around the intensification of severe weather. The pace of business change over the next few years will be difficult for the human brain to absorb and process. We will only be able to weather it (pun accidental but acknowledged) if we build more robust systems that address customer needs with more immediacy and with more relevance in the moment when they most need it. Choosing not to do so will simply mean leaving ourselves exposed and vulnerable and it will be a failure of leadership.

To close, I spent a big part of the same vacation I mentioned earlier reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, and I am reminded now of something he said about leadership. I think it’s appropriate to mention it now.

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”