Peter’s Perspective: Run Around the Block First and Then We’ll Talk

February 9, 2023

Peter Armaly

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

I was on the varsity football team in high school and I not-so-secretly wanted to be seen as another #88 – Lynn Swann, the graceful and magic-handed wide receiver for the Pittsburg Steelers. Every other guy I knew wanted to be #58 – Jack Lambert, the quick on his feet and hard-hitting middle linebacker for the same team.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Photo credit: Wikipedia


Their playing was captivating, and it was all we talked about, besides the quirkiness of our physics teacher who seemed to have a predilection for making sure we fully appreciated his fascination and passion for magnetism, resistors, and capacitors. He failed, though, to crowd out from our brains our obsession with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And in my senior year, the team tryouts were attended by what seemed to be about a 10th of the 2000 kids in the entire school. So many candidates for a team is a nice problem to have if you’re the coach, right? Well, only if the first regular season game is more than two weeks away. Ours was not so lucky. He had to choose quickly and form a functioning team in only a few practices. So, he had to get creative. To determine in a hurry who should stay and who should go, he decided to settle on those who possessed or didn’t possess the very basic components that, in his mind, make a successful football team. What were those basic components? Above all else, he valued physical fitness and fortitude.

Being a former pro player himself and, coincidentally, our biology teacher, he understood the benefits of physical conditioning and he exalted the notion of hard and consistent practice. Or as he referred to it in class, testing. Of course, we found his speechifying exceedingly boring in biology class but weirdly the opposite out on the gridiron. On the first day of tryouts, he told the mob that “anyone who couldn’t run around the block in less than 20 minutes should just keep jogging home.” A little bit harsh but you know, that was back in the day when kids never told their parents about the mean things being said to them at school and besides, how big can one city block possibly be? As it turned out, one city block can be two miles in circumference. That’s how big. It probably pleased one of the assistant coaches, who moonlighted as our math teacher, that some of us budding Einsteins didn’t need a white board to know that two miles in twenty minutes equals two ten-minute miles. A calculation as true now as it was then.

So, we started running.

After that first day the number still vying for a spot on the team got down to fifty kids. A day later the numbers dropped to the requisite twenty-five after the coach put everyone through calisthenics for two hours with no football in sight. Most of the guys who dropped opted for self-selection rather than waiting to be cut. It’s amazing how exercise clarifies the mind.

I made the team again for the second time (as a wide receiver and a cornerback) and was re-absorbed into the coach’s system of three hard practices per week, followed by a lighter one the day before the Friday night game against another school. Not incredibly inventive or unique but I learned later that his strategy of focusing on building physical strength first and playmaking second was what separated him (and us) from other coaches and their teams. We ended the season with a 9 – 1 record and went on to win the city championship.

Practicing Customer Success leadership fundamentals is like managing a football team

Even though there have been thousands of layoffs in the last few months in the Customer Success profession, the business function is still a massive magnet for people. Like how Swann and Lambert influenced the appeal of being part of the high school football team, Customer Success has started to develop some of the same cachet that businesspeople have long associated with Sales and Marketing, as organizations near to the heartbeat of a company. People want to be on the field where and when it matters. Too bad about those unbalanced budget allocations, though, between S&M and CS.

Why is that? Why is Customer Success generally the recipient of a smaller fraction of what those other organizations receive?

The easy answer everyone knows is that corporate executives need to manage the investment that stakeholders made in the company. The money doesn’t belong to the executives and so they need to understand how the investment performs at the organizational level. Each organization within the company is therefore an investment and so the onus is on each unit executive to prove that the investment made in their part of the business is providing a good return. And that, in a nutshell, is why Customer Success often finds itself in trouble. Because it has always struggled to prove it.

You can’t prove ROI without building a solid foundation; you can’t leverage the solid foundation without practice

If you pay attention to social media, many of the most prominent SaaS voices try to communicate that the answer to all challenges of a Customer Success professional’s life lies in being able to improve GRR and NRR, and to ensure your model is completely about CLG. And, to do all that, you need to incorporate AI, ML, DL, and NLP.

If you’re a Customer Success leader hearing that steady cacophony, please answer this with honesty. Isn’t it becoming a bit too much? Isn’t the raining down of ordnance during the acronym wars beginning to wear you down? Isn’t it obscuring for you some elemental truth about what really needs to happen within your organization and how it relates to other organizations if it’s ever going to escape the doldrums as a second-tier organization?

My colleague, Sheik Ayube, recently wrote a whitepaper called, How long does it actually take to build a Customer Success organization? In it, he detailed a timeline that loosely follows the graphic we publish on our site and that’s shown below.

What immediately comes to your mind when you look at it?

  1. Hard work.
  2. A progression of capabilities that build on each other.
  3. A logical flow of starting first with what you know and then adding on layers as you learn more.
  4. To not expect greatness until a solid base of proof is there to support the claim.
  5. An inspirational vision with clear steps for making it come to life.
  6. All of the above.

If you answered 6, congratulations. You have the right mindset for proceeding to the next level of Customer Success leadership.

It’s important to point out that this maturity model wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was created by ESG in collaboration with a large number of Customer Success industry professionals. It’s also the result of our discussions with leaders from hundreds of companies, large and small, in different sectors of the economy, and in different stages of being a digital business. And when we peel away their layers of abstraction, we find that the successful ones are those that built their Customer Success business function in ways that approximate this maturity model. In structured ways, methodical, employing discipline and consistent practice (testing). One thing they avoid doing is allowing themselves to chase objects that they don’t understand and that they have no realistic way for explaining how strategies and methods could result in their capture.

Gross Revenue Retention, Net Revenue Retention. You do need to pursue improvement to these things. Take away their current shiny appeal, though, and you’re left with stark facts. To affect change to those things, you have to start at the beginning. You won’t be successful unless you build the function first (prove your fitness!) and then you build a culture for practicing how to make iterative improvements that incrementally move the ball forward.

If I was your CEO – the kind of CEO who thinks of themself as a coach too – I would ask you to drop the jargon, cut through all the noise that’s confusing you and everyone else. I’d ask you to just start with the basics and prove you can do that first. Because that maxim is as true now as it’s ever been. Finally, to make you sit up in your seat I would ask you this. Can your organization run two miles around the block in twenty minutes?