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Starting the Year in Customer Success: What Most Teams Forget | Webinar

Updated on October 4, 2023 30 minutes read

Summary points:

The new year comes with challenges, plans, and changes. In this webinar, we’ve discussed with Shawn Riedel, a well-known customer success coach, about:

  • how to stick to what you plan out
  • how to make customer success a priority
  • what you need to start 2023 on the right foot

webinar play


Irina 00:05
Good morning, good afternoon, and happy Wednesday to everyone! Thank you for joining us for our first webinar of the year. For those of you joining for the first time, my name is Irina Cismas. And I’m head of marketing at Custify. Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Shawn Riedel, a seasoned customer success coach and consultant to discuss how to kick off the year on the right foot in customer success. Shawn, thank you for accepting my invitation and being here with us today!

Shawn 00:37
Yeah, excited to be here. This is gonna be fun.

Irina 00:40
Of course. Before we begin, I want to cover a few housekeeping items. The webinar will be recorded and all the registered attendees will receive a link to the recording. Feel free to post any questions you have using the question section at the bottom right of your display device. I suggest we wait for a few minutes for the later joiners. I want to take those minutes to ask you something, Shawn, because you’ve been working in this industry for a very long time, from the moment when customer success wasn’t a thing.

Can you share with us one thing that remained the same for all those years? And one thing that fundamentally changed and had a positive impact on it on its evolution.

Shawn 01:49
Yeah, that are two great questions. I think that I forgot more than some people remember about customer success. Because there was a time when we did it across the entire company, we just didn’t know what it was called. And we didn’t have a common vernacular. But we were doing those things, just in a very disjointed way. So I would say, that something that has stayed the same, and everyone’s going to be able to relate to this is that customers make irrational decisions.

It does not matter how great your ROI is, how great the business case is how much value you provide, they will still make irrational decisions. And the way to get past that is to just appreciate customers making irrational decisions. Then it becomes a matter of marketing mindset, of it’s time to nurture this customer, the time wasn’t right for the message that I was presenting. So let’s go back and nurture this some more.

Something that has changed was exactly the concept of we pulled customer success into a vernacular, we created a nomenclature, we created a data set. You know, we’ve got a schema of all of these terms and processes and customer lifecycle. Now we will continue to debate those as the industry evolves, and as we grow up. But that has been very helpful for us to, at least on the post-sale side of the conversation, all speak the same language.

Now the challenge as we move into 2023 and forward is pushing that message further up the chain. It’s getting into the pre-sales conversation. It’s getting into the product fit conversation, the early marketing conversation, and then of course, getting customer success as a philosophy in the C-suite versus just a departmental function. So by us coming up with this thing that we labeled customer success, that was a big improvement. And now we can all talk to each other.

Customer success planning for 2023

Irina 03:59
Thank you for sharing, and I think it’s a very nice way to start today’s topic. I remember back in December when we decided on the angle and the theme, you mentioned one thing you are right about. You told me that it is too late to discuss at the end of January about the plans, the priorities. We are already married at that party and you’re right. But on the other hand, I want to share a statistic that I found from PricewaterhouseCoopers which said that 14% of companies successfully execute their strategic plans.

If you flip it, that means 86% of the companies fail to execute their strategic plans one way or another. So I want to ask you guys to vote in a poll that I’m going to display. And I want to ask you, how have your customer success plans for January evolved so far? Did they completely change, slightly adjusted, or remained unchanged? And let’s take a few moments to vote. I’m curious if the plans in Q4 remain the same.

We are seeing the distribution:

  • 48% slightly adjusted;
  • 30% completely changed;
  • 22% remain unchanged.

Irina 06:29
Does it surprise you, Shawn, that things change along the way? And Q4 plans are the things that we discussed last year, they are in some cases, already no longer available.

Shawn 06:46
A famous person once said that culture eats strategy for lunch every day. So a lot of plans probably change because of culture. Either the culture is not good at change, or they are saturated by change. Or there is almost a disdain for the leadership when an edict comes down, and it’s contrary to the direction that we want to go.

So culturally, we keep doing our own thing, and not necessarily paying attention to this thing that we’ve been directed as an organization to go do. So that’s one element of not making the plan that you’ve agreed to and this probably leads into the rest of our chat today.

2023 is going to be a very different year, it’s going to be new to a lot of people. Those plans that we made at the end of Q4, maybe it started in September, October, the labor market, the economy was very different.

Now we’re heading into an economic headwind, that probably changed a lot of plans. So that is another indicator that things are going to be different this year. I would say that one of the questions that I saw in the lead up to this was “how do you stick to your plan?”.

Well, I think the key to sticking to your plan is to limit the things that you’re going to do to three to five things well. Don’t try to do 10 things not so well. And make sure that those three to five things align with what the C-suite is trying to do for the organization. That way, your plans are always going to be in alignment with what they’re doing. Now, if they have the old corporate ADHD and change directions frequently, then the onus is to create a culture that can absorb that change that can move quickly. So yeah, I think those are the two things that are going to lead to people not being able to execute the plans they laid out in Q4 and 2023.

Irina 09:04
We already have a comment from Gartner Stewart who said “we started with the goal of only focusing on customer success and not revenue what my manager said is we are being viewed as a cost center and need to prove our value through dollars as a budget cuts loom from with the economy.

I think this is a thing now: How does customer success fight for proving that it’s not the cost center it’s a revenue-generating unit?

What to expect in 2023

Shawn 09:42
Yeah, someone must have previewed my notes for this session if they asked that question. So that’ll feed into something that we’re going to share a little bit later on. The first thing that I want to do is I want to level set a little bit about why 2023 is going to be different. There’s bad news. And there’s good news, right?

The bad news is that there are a lot of surveys out there that will tell us on average, about 50% of CEOs say that they are considering cuts in the next year. Another survey that I saw says that about 20% of companies say they’re going to reduce staff in the next year. The good news is that these aren’t all high-tech companies, these are all tech space companies. And the echo chamber that is LinkedIn. And the algorithm that we are all subjected to on LinkedIn is just like Facebook, right?

If you watch videos of cute kittens, you’re going to get videos of cute kittens in your feed. If you are constantly reading posts about the person at Google, who is no longer at Google, you are going to get fed posts about people who’ve lost their jobs. You are going to get this bias that the entire world is falling down around us. And it isn’t true. What I’m not saying is don’t have empathy for our fellow Customer Success people and not read their posts, just realize that you are being fed their posts, because those are the posts that you’re reading.

The news isn’t all bad. You know, their customer success roles are among the least affected by layoffs. When you look across all of tech, the highest proportion of people who are being laid off is in sales and marketing. Followed by the R&D and HR. So CS is probably one of the least affected. CEOs are cutting costs, but they’re cutting costs on travel and leases of software.

Well, wow, that’s the one that affects us. Right? That’s the one we have to keep in mind. CEOs are cutting leases of software, and that’s going to come back to us here in a little bit. I would say looking forward, what they are anticipating is mixed growth, and an increased EBITDA now if you don’t know what EBITDA is the earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. It’s kind of wonky, but it’s what CEOs are looking at. They want to control costs, and they hope that it will offset the lack of a new logo that they’re not going to be seeing.

Now if you look across the “help wanted” ads on LinkedIn, you’re going to see overwhelmingly 5-6-7 to 1 sales to customer success. So there is still a predominant thought out there that if I hire more salespeople, I’m going to get more growth. And that’s where we come in. That’s how we have to now start to show that growth is the way that we grow the company. And we do that through customer success. And we’ll talk more about that.

Ultimately, the Customer Success headcount is growing, there is about 48% of companies out there are maintaining headcount, and about 44% are growing headcount. So there’s good news as we head into 2023. Okay, so I don’t want this to be a, my LinkedIn feed, wrecks my day, every day because I’m just seeing all this doom and gloom, it’s just the algorithm is feeding you what you read. So know that it’s not the case, there is good news out there.

Making customer success a priority

What’s the main thing that we need to do differently in 2023? We have been taught over our customer success, life cycle, that value value value, we’ve got to go promote value, we’ve got to go promote value.

I would contend that in 2023, you have to put value aside. Value is not going to make a lot of difference to the person who’s making the decisions in 2023. That person is the CFO. And in a lot of our customer journeys, we don’t even put the CFO persona on there, because they’ve never been involved before.

Now it makes sense to go revisit our customer journeys and figure out where is the CFO involved in all of this. What we also have to appreciate is that CFOs are surrounded by a team of procurement people in larger companies. Sometimes even in smaller companies, the CFO is the procurement person. They’re looking at priority, “what software, what solutions are mission critical to me, keeping the doors open, keeping the business going?”. So what we have to pivot towards in customer success in 2023, is this idea of becoming a priority on the CFOs list, not value. It doesn’t matter how much time you saved, how much cost you reduced, or how much throughput you gained through a solution or service.

The CFO doesn’t care about that, they care about what is a priority. And those priorities, interestingly enough, typically start to align with what the CEO said that we need to go due in the next 3-6-12 months. So my advice to the customer success community is, let’s move away from value because we know how to do that, or we’re trying to know how to do that. But let’s start to focus on getting to that CFO, or that person who makes the actual economic decision, and show that our solutions are a priority. And we do that by aligning our solutions with the corporate goal that the CEO has.

So if the CEO’s goal is to go to IPO next year, how does my solution, even a departmental solution can impact a corporate goal? How does my solution impact my ability to go to IPO next year? That’s going to make you a priority. How do I craft that story and show that economic buyer that I am helping them move their company further down the line? Not just helping some department with some problem that they had. Does that make sense?

Irina 16:44
Yes, it makes sense. And I think it’s the first time when I hear that we should move away from value, and we should talk to the economic buyer. So that’s a very bold statement and an interesting piece of advice for today. Let’s get into details on more specific things. How do we do that? And for instance, for smaller companies, for companies that are not necessarily startups, but small to medium? How do they make sure that they’re becoming a priority for the customers of their customers?

Shawn 17:45
The key to that is making sure, and this takes homework, that it’s not a conversation that sometimes if we’re talking about layers, know that there are the organizations that we sell to that we service, that it’s the same persona, the owner is the buyer, is the user, is the tech support there, all those things. That’s, of course, an easier conversation to have.

But when we start to get into the matrixed organization, when we start to get into the layered organization, the person that we’re dealing with daily may or may not be the CFO, it may or may not be a director or a VP, we’ve got these personas that we’ve mapped out in our customer journey and ideally, we want to start asking questions about how is the person that we deal with on a day to day basis.

How are they going to defend us when someone comes back and says, “You know what, we need to get rid of that solution”? Now, the question that I take back to my contact is, “how can I help you defend me”? And I’m going to guide them, I’m going to lead them to the water by saying:

  • “How are you measured?”
  • “When you have a business review internally with your management what is it that they want to know?”
  • “What needle do you need to be moving for them and what needle do you need to be moving for your boss’s boss?”

You start to get those questions up the chain. The other way you help them with that messaging is that you go read their financial statements, if they’re a publicly traded company, they have annual reports, they have four Q’s, they have 10Ks, all of that is going to give you insights into what are the priorities for this organization. And then the hard part comes in “how do I tie my solution to those priorities?” That sometimes takes a bit of creativity and don’t give up on it if you’re a departmental solution that you think is only helping them shave off minutes or, you know, format invoices. There’s some way that you’re helping to move a corporate needle, so don’t give up on “how do I help this C-suite advance whatever their initiatives are”.

Another great place to look, of course, is our earnings calls, because, in the earnings calls, you’ll learn a lot about what’s going to happen in the near term. For instance, for those of you that follow Microsoft, it had an incredible quarter, except they gave guidance that 2023, the rest of the year isn’t going to be very good. So for 15 minutes, Microsoft stock was up $20. And then as soon as they got the guidance that they don’t expect 2023 to be very good, their stock took a nosedive. But that tells me a lot about how I’m gonna go talk to Microsoft, they appreciate that they don’t think things are going to be that great next year, how am I going to help them soften that landing? Right, that’s how I move into the priority column.

Irina 21:02
For the companies that are not publicly listed or for the companies that are not so transparent in terms of financials, which are the signs for the smaller companies, which you do have in our portfolio, which are the signs? How do you get a sense of their priorities?

Shawn 21:21
The main way you do that is you ask people questions that they can’t answer because they have to bring in somebody else to answer that question. And we’re all very busy, and we don’t want to be the go-between to go have questions answered by other people and then sprinkle it back to the CSM. So most of the time, your person will put you in contact with that other person. And now you can start to have a dialogue and ask the harder questions.

The other thing that I would recommend is to understand, in the organizations that you’re servicing with your product, who does your contact give data to? And who does your contact get data from? That way, you now have a linear view of how your product fits into the overall workflow and data flow of the organization. Because at the end of it, it is all about the data.

I may be an invoicing tool, but I’m getting data from somewhere and I’m providing data to somebody. So there are internal customers that I want to make sure I understand as well. When you understand those internal customers, you also get great insight into what the priorities are. My departmental function might have this priority, but it’s only because somebody upstream for me needs something else. So now I tie myself into another priority.

Irina 22:48
You mentioned something about moving the needle and having an impact. And it’s not a secret that customer success has a lot on its plate. So my question is, how do we make sure that we are working on the things that move the needle? How do we juggle and prioritize so that we have an impact? Because at the end of the day, it’s not about just keeping ourselves busy, because that’s an easy job. And I think it’s very hard for customer success to focus on the things that do have an impact because they have a lot. So how do we make sure?

Turning Customer Success inwards

Shawn 23:28
So the impact is measured in two ways we all know, first way is anecdotal, right, I saved this customer. We had a great turnout for the webinar. But those impact anecdotes do not get us any priority. In the earlier cost center versus profit center conversation, we’re still going to be viewed as a cost center because nobody sees the actual value right?

So how do we come a priority? We’re doing this internally as well. We as customer success need to be doing what we’re doing with our customers, to our internal customers, turn Customer Success inward, and use the same practices and philosophies with our own people. One of the things that I would recommend as we try to become an impact that is viewed as a profit center is ICP. That’s always a hot topic, right? The ideal customer profile.

One of the things that we need to do differently in 2023 is we need to appreciate that ICP is a noble cause, but in reality, especially in a year like this, it’s not the reality. No sales rep is going to walk away from an open wallet, regardless of what we tell them the best customer is. So given that reality, we need to open up our ICP and understand how can we make these customers successful. That, for me, screams revenue opportunity. Now I’ve got the makings of a business case to have a monetized option where I can offer customers a paid version to make them successful.

I realized that in all honesty, they may not have the technical wherewithal, and they may not have the organizational maturity, but I need to make them successful because we sold to them, I can’t just complain that we keep signing bad-fit customers, I have to figure out how to make the majority of those bad-fit customers, good customers. So as I mentioned, I see that as a revenue opportunity to come up with a paid offering, that brings these customers to be advocates, because quite honestly, the customers that you nurture the most will become your biggest fans.

Now, I remember when we were setting up for this, one of the questions was, you know, is there any customer that you would sell to? And yeah, of course, right there is the customer that is in financial trouble, going through bankruptcy, or you get the signs that they’re not paying their bills on time, I’m probably not going to sell to them. And the other customer I’m not going to sell to is the one whose use case makes my software do unnatural things. Right? It sounds good. And sure, theoretically, it could do that, but unless I have other customers doing it unless I can prove the use case, I’m not going to sell to them either. Because that is that’s doomed. Now, some folks might say, Well, you got to start somewhere, okay, well go start that one for free, right? Let somebody else go start that one. That’s probably a customer I’m not going to sell to.

But otherwise, I am looking to make those not necessarily ICP customers successful, because those sales reps aren’t going to stop selling to them, and my complaining about it isn’t going to make it any better. So let me turn it on its head, make it a positive, create a revenue-generating opportunity out of it, and create more advocates out of it. So that’s one thing that I think we can do to create more impact is to stop complaining about the ICP and let’s just get to work. How can we get these clients to be successful?

Irina 27:37
That was my “aha moment” when we discussed it because as a marketer, I was always focused on this on this ICP. And we were always having discussions as marketers, the classic discussion between marketing, sales, and customer success, and basically moving from one department to another, no, this was not ICP, why did you target those customers?

Okay, sales, of course, will close, because they are hunters, they will hunt and they will try to bring whatever and then everything falls on customer success. And it was always like, “Okay, who do we blame in the whole thing”, but I never thought that the discussion of the ICP is no longer available in the following year. So, okay, let’s see how we solve this issue. So definitely, as a marketer, for me, it was an aha moment.

Shawn 28:31
Let’s create a customer journey for those people. Of course, they’re going to need to be serviced a little bit differently, and it’s going to take more time, and it’s going to take more resources. and I’ve got to come up with more rudimentary educational videos and in-app messaging, but it’s a journey nonetheless, that, as I mentioned, those are the people who are going to become your greatest advocates.

Customer Success Qualified Leads

The other thing that we all know is that you know, the elephant in the room around customer success is that sales has a quota, therefore, their profit centers, and Customer Success doesn’t have a quota. Therefore, they are cost centers.

Some folks might not like this view of the world, but I am a firm believer that customer success needs to start taking responsibility for some revenue because that is the only way that we are going to be taken seriously in the C-suite. The anecdotes about all the customers we’re saving and all the great use cases and marketing assets that we’re developing, none of that is quantifiable. We have to be able to say we impacted X dollars of revenue, and here’s how we did it.

Ideally, you start to develop in a crawl-walk-run way, this concept of customer success qualified leads (CSQL). We in CS are the most positioned to have consultative conversations with our customers about what’s next. In our success planning, we should be coming up with business-driven roadmaps that lay out a path for several years with our solution to our customers.

If I’m only a one-module product right now, well, then the business-driven roadmap is pretty easy. If I’m at Oracle, and I have hundreds of products in the catalog, I have a lot more flexibility in creating that business-driven roadmap and helping lead them to where I want them to go. And every so often, if it’s bi-annually if it’s quarterly, I’m revisiting that roadmap. And I’m saying “Does this still make sense?” Because now we’ve got accountability on both sides as to how we’re going to proceed.

A success plan isn’t just “what are your goals?”. Did I help you meet those goals? No, no, no, I’m going to prescribe a roadmap that matches the things that your CEO is trying to do, right? Because my whole goal is to move the needle on a corporate initiative. And how does my solution help you get that? Here’s the success plan. That will help me drive conversations further down the road.

The CSQL is either a wrapped-in-a-bow lead, that I hand off to someone who is skilled at objection handling, negotiations, redlining, quoting, and deal desk, right? How much of that do we all know, as customer success managers? Very little. Will the day come when we probably need to be upskilled in that, yes? Yes! But for now, let’s give sales a wrapped-in-a-bow lead. If they can’t close it, we have a different conversation to have. Because we gave them everything. We positioned it, we roadmap it, and the sales rep knew we roadmap it because we’re doing joint account planning.

But let’s give them a wrapped-in-a-bow lead that they just need to close. And we need to keep track of that. So when that lead ends up in your CRM, every CRM has a lead source. And that lead source can be CS or CSQL. And we’re going to track that lead source. And we’re going to track the revenue associated with that lead source. And you know what else we’re going to track? Because we’re going to hold sales feet to the fire, we’re going to track lost closed on that lead source. Because we want to find out how much money did we lose off of leads that customer success provided? Cost avoidance is almost as powerful as cost attainment. So let’s go ahead and track what happened to those leads. So that would be one of the things I would add this year is the implementation of customer success, qualified leads.

That is helping us to document where we are contributing to revenue. And then my friend, Peter Armley, who I think you guys all saw last month, Peter and I talk all the time. And one of the things that Peter said: Hey, remember we used to do performance appraisals? What a pain in the behind it was when you get that email a few weeks before the meeting, and it would say, to go fill out this whole thing of all the things you did all year. And now we’re going to talk about it in our one-on-one. And it’s not going to get you a promotion. And it’s not going to get you a raise, but it is going to get you you know an appraisal that meets expectations. None of us like to do that. Well, the reason that we don’t like to do that is that we don’t journal throughout the year, what we did write a lot of us have, we don’t necessarily talk to our managers one on one every week or every other week about the things we’ve accomplished.

As a Customer Success organization, we have to start journaling. What it is that we’re doing to make an impact to revenue. Did we have a customer use case that closed the deal? Journal it! Did we provide X number of see SQL? Journal it! How many of those closed? Journal it! Start keeping a journal or a performance review of what we did in CS. It feels like extra work, but it’s no different than what sales has to do every single week on the Monday morning call when they’ve got to talk about their forecast. It’s just that extra layer of accountability.

Let’s also create a culture where sharing bad news isn’t bad. I’m a firm believer that you escalate early, you escalate without remorse. And in a lot of organizations, even ones that I’ve been a part of everyone held on to their bad news. And what happens when you hold onto your bad news is that leadership then gets surprised by the bad news. And there’s, I’m not sure which is worse, the chief customer officer being surprised by a churn or me just not telling them about the churn, right that those two things are equally bad.

So as leaders, we have to create a culture where it’s okay to escalate early on a red flag. If your executive sponsor leaves an account, escalate because that’s a red flag. if you notice that a customer who is not seasonal has a dip in usage. Red flag – escalate! Don’t try to solve the problem yourself, escalate it right away so that we can swarm it and we can try to help you fix it. If you try to fix it yourself, we get to the end, then you’ve incurred an incredible amount of stress, we now have a compressed runway to try and fix the problem and it never works out well.

Let’s escalate early. Let’s swarm a problem. And let’s go ahead and fix it as a group because we’ve all got better ideas. I may have done a lot of things in my customer success career, but I’m always looking for a way to shorten the time or increase efficiency. Somebody’s going to have a great idea. Let’s swarm these red accounts versus holding on to the bad news. This all plays into what impact can we have, right? When I solve problems early, I’m having an incredible impact because CS can now focus on proactive activities, instead of being reactive. And what is proactive? Proactive is becoming a priority. Proactive is driving the business-driven roadmap and the success plan. Those are the things that are priorities.

Irina 37:30
Gartner asked: At what cost do you support bad-fit customers? Do you change your product to align with an industry you are not in just to make them happy for the short term?

Shawn 37:45
So that question almost feels like some of the bad fit customers have use cases that are not natural fits, which would be the time that I would say we’re probably not the best solution for you. Or there is a huge maturity gap between my technology and what this customer can do. Right?

If it’s the one persona customer, we know right away, whether or not that customer is going to be a good fit. And that might be the case where I’m going to suggest this additional monetized Customer Success option that says, you know, I realized that this might be a little too technical for you, but I see where you’re gonna get value, I see where it’s going to help you.

And that efficiency that you’re gonna gain more than offsets this $75 an hour for this CS tech person to help you become successful. Then, of course, we all have to decide if we don’t have that monetized offering, or if we don’t have that additional bandwidth. Where do we cut them off? It depends. Just saying, is this a logo that you think will benefit you? Is this a customer who has a lot of whitespaces or a lot of upsides? You’ll make those determinations.

Irina 39:19
Another question is: How can we haste the onboarding process?

Shawn 39:28
So onboarding it’s an interesting place because it’s where churn starts. And I always like to say to folks, if you can’t onboard my mom, your product is too hard. So we want to go back into our onboarding methodologies and determine what is the lowest common denominator because nobody has ever complained about the instruction manual being too easy, right?

They always complain that the instruction manual was too hard. So let’s look at our onboarding and how can we redo it for the lowest common denominator, for our weakest-fit customers. And then it’s easy to skip ahead for those folks that get it or it’s even better for when you stick that onboarding material into a self-service portal because then it’s easier to do by yourself. So now I can even offload some of my onboarding to the digital channel.

Irina 40:40
I want to address one of the things that we said we were gonna talk about, about the things that you need to have at the beginning of the year, those things that are somehow mandatory for you to start on the right foot, let’s review them and if they are on the roadmap, good, let’s have an overview and make sure that we don’t forget those critical things that you need to have.

What you need to start 2023 on the right foot

Shawn 41:08
Lincoln Murphy reminded me of one this morning that I forgot about that has bitten me in the behind more times than I care to remember.

The number one thing that we should be thinking about as we go into a new year is, whether there is going to be a price increase. Because customer success is always the last to know, sometimes our customers know about the price increase before we do. We want to get as far ahead of that conversation as we can. And in this year of 2023, where companies are looking for ways to generate more revenue, there are going to be price increases, and it doesn’t seem to make sense, right?

Our customers are trying to cut back and we’re gonna try to raise prices. But those two things are going to have to coexist, and we’re going to have to get good at those conversations. One is the concession conversation, and two is let’s get ahead of the price increase. That means proactively, we go to finance, we go to product, we go to marketing, and we develop a communication plan. How are we going to do this? Because there’s nothing worse than product and finance saying: “You know what? We’re raising prices! 10%, you guys go figure it out.”

No, no, no, no, we need to understand all of the things, the permutations of negative that can happen from this. And how do we handle those objections? We need to have that price increase objection playbook already written if we see that there’s going to be a price change in this coming year.

I would encourage all CS leaders on this call to go ask that question. Do you foresee that we are going to have a price increase this year? Let’s get ahead of it. Along with that, I would say that the other thing we want to make sure we’re doing is communicating our change plan for the entire year. These are the changes that we are going to expect in the process, technology, procedure, maybe even people, and quarterly, let’s break them down.

I know the question was, earlier we talked about if we’ve got this extra budget, what do we spend it on? Yeah, we spend it on a CS ops person, we forego one or two CSMs to get a CS ops person because that CS operations person can make the difference in speed to these changes, they can make the difference in the speed to the adoption of technology. That is the role that the head of CS, the VP of CS, those are the things that they don’t have time to deal with, we often get pulled into escalations, and we all then become the face of support, implementation, and CS.

There’s no time to go manage the rollout of a platform or the workflow of hooking a database to a piece of technology. And that CS ops person can look across the organization and be the CSM. For customer success, their role is to create a business-driven roadmap. Showing where customer success is providing value helps us become a proactive organization.

I would venture to guess, and I haven’t surveyed this, I’m just going anecdotally that most organizations with a CS ops person are probably very proactive in their CS approach. And without a CS ops person, they’re probably very reactive. I just know the benefit of what I’ve done in my past and CS ops as being that CSM to the entire customer success organization. So let’s communicate our years’ worth of changes ahead of time, we gotta have the stakeholder maps figured out, and we have to understand the wisdom. And we also have to appreciate that this might be new for some folks, as we all know, that when humans grieve, there are seven stages.

When we change something that someone has a vested interest in, those stages of grieving actually kick in. So we have to appreciate that our CSMs are going to grieve the loss of something, even if it’s something we don’t like, because we’ve grown accustomed to it. So build into your change plan, the appreciation of those seven stages of grief. And let’s move our CSMs past that. What it all helps to do is create a culture where we expect change, and embrace change, versus a change-adverse, change-saturated culture. And then, of course, write what we mentioned earlier, and pick three to five things to do really well. And don’t try to do 10 things poorly. Because that will affect your change plan as well.

Irina 46:23
I want to ask you something, how do you strike a balance between being flexible and responsive to change, while still maintaining a consistent and effective strategy for your customer success work?

Shawn 46:37
Yeah, so changing the tires on a moving car is never a good idea. But it happens. And when it happens, the balance becomes understanding disruption. And for anybody who’s ever taken any change management coursework before, you understand that there’s this thing called the change curve. And we’ve got the status quo of “this is what the curve looks like if we just keep going the way we’re going”. And then we’ve got this change curve of here’s the change that we’re trying to implement. But we know that there’s going to be a drop off in efficiency, and productivity, whatever the case may be, the balance is mitigating that change curve, drawing that as close as possible to a lack of disruption. And the way that happens is by:

  1. over-communicating what it is we’re trying to do
  2. making sure that we understand all of our stakeholders

There’s nothing that will record change more than this obscure stakeholder up here in the upper left-hand corner that just wants to snipe at your change. So my advice to everyone is the balancing act becomes mitigating the disruption, don’t worry so much about what is the change, worry about how you can keep as little disruption as possible so that everybody can maintain their high level of performance.

Irina 48:22
How do you navigate competing priorities and demands from different stakeholders within your organization?

Victor 48:33
Yeah. Ideally, you always manage up. We have our direct managers, but everything we do, we’re managing up a couple more levels. Some competing priorities, you don’t necessarily get a choice in, right? My ultimate advice is, if the priority is the person whose name is on the bottom of your paycheck, they’re probably going to come first. Right? They’re gonna come first. Outside of that, then what you have to decide is the impact of that priority on your ability to deliver the customer experience that you’ve promised your customers, if changing your priority affects your ability to deliver that customer experience, that needs to be escalated. And you need to express why.

I like to look at everything as a business case. If somebody says this is now your priority, what I want to understand is the business case, show me or explain to me how this is going to benefit our customers. Show me, explain to me what’s in it for me right there. Because when I have a priority and all of a sudden I have another priority, there are stages of grief that I have to go through because I was prepared to execute flawlessly on the first priority. So I want to understand it from a business perspective, how is this helping the business?

After that, how is this helping my customer? And if I can’t get those two things to coincide, I probably want to raise my hand and present why I think that this isn’t a good idea. If I don’t have a choice, then I’ve got to either provide less of an experience to my other customers so that I can go manage this priority, or I’ve just got to burn the candle at both ends, which is how we get to this whole idea of quiet quitting.

Now, I’m trying to pacify all of these competing priorities. And I’m burning myself out because I’m not pushing back. And not everybody is built to push back. But if you step away from it and look at it from an analytical perspective, if you try to just put two columns on a piece of paper, fact, and emotion, and you start to write down, why is this affecting you? Why are these two competing priorities, giving me angst?

Scratch out the emotions, and go to the facts. And that’s now your case, to go back to management and say: “These are the reasons why I don’t think this is going to work.” As long as you have that open, right, that culture of sharing bad news isn’t bad. That’s a really easy conversation to have. If you live in a totalitarian organization where edicts come from on high, and you’re just told what to do, I’m sure that quiet quitting has crossed your mind a lot of times.

But remember, the earlier conversation today around ICP is that you are where you are. So how can you make a positive out of it? Right, almost the Sun Tzu art of competing priorities. Making the enemy of my priority, my priority.

I would say, in my past, I had a manager at one time with whom I didn’t get along, and it was not going to work. I was going to work every day, just dreading it. And I started to read Sun Tzu, The Art of War, and it occurred to me: “Wait, if I treat this person like they think I enjoy working with them, I wonder if that will make things any better.” And that person became easy to work with, but I still didn’t enjoy working for them. But that was, but that was the game of it. It was making them think that I enjoyed working for them.

So in a roundabout way that is a way that we can deal with competing priorities that just don’t talk to each other. But ideally, you want to start to foster that cross-pillar collaboration so that everybody appreciates Customer Success is not just a function, it’s a philosophy and we’re all responsible for it. Although I, the CSM, I’m going to be the quarterback. And I’m going to help you understand where it is that product, marketing, finance, and legal, and all those personas fit into our customer success organization. Remember, we talked earlier about turning Customer Success inward? And that is a great homework project for everyone to say, “how do I treat my company as a customer?”. “What of my customer success tactics and strategies can I use internally?”.

Irina 53:46
Before we wrap up the conversation, there are two more things that I want to address. Let’s discuss a bit about the mistakes that you saw in the planning exercises so that we make sure we avoid them. So let’s go a bit through this topic as well.

Shawn 54:17
I think one of the common mistakes that we make is that we overextend, and we create too big of a plan. And therefore it makes it hard to execute. The other mistake I think we make is that we don’t set advocacy goals at the beginning of the year.

And if you’ve ever followed me on LinkedIn or you read anything that I’ve written, I’m a big proponent that advocacy begets growth and retention. That equation doesn’t work any other way. Just because a customer renews with me doesn’t mean they like me and doesn’t mean they’ll buy anymore. And just because the customer buys more, doesn’t mean they’re going to renew or that they like me. But if they like me, I am almost guaranteed that they’re going to buy more stuff and they’re going to keep a relationship with me.

So it makes sense that we flip our thinking as customer success organizations from retention, retention, retention, growth, growth, growth, and how do we make all of our customers love us? How do we make them all advocates? And by not establishing advocacy goals for each CSM at the beginning of the year, we lose the opportunity, or we make the conversation awkward about becoming an advocate. I’ve always been a big proponent of introducing advocacy, even during the sales cycle with the customer success manager talking to the prospect, or even an early onboarding, just to set the expectation that we’re going to be having this conversation.

I believe that we all need to set those advocacy goals and make them part of management by objectives, or an OKR. Every CSM should strive for X percentage of their book of business to be an advocate. It’s a lot easier to work that goal than it is to X percentage of your book of business needs to buy something else, or X percentage of your book of business needs to renew. Those are two harder numbers to get. But for me to say 90% of my book of business needs to be referenceable, needs to provide a piece of marketing collateral, needs to do a video for me, and needs to have a positive CSAT or NPS score. That’s a pretty easy goal to go chase after. Now everything you do to get there is hard, but it’s an easier goal for us to all get our heads around, let’s make our customers love us.

Irina 57:04
I believe we should run an advocacy webinar. So this is an open invitation. Most probably be somewhere in the second half of this year. I want to officially invite you and run this type of webinar that focuses on how to make our customers love us. How do we go before retention and growth? And most probably, it will be an open talk and I’ll find some other guests to complement your discussion. So I think we can count on continue on this on this topic of advocacy and how can we make it work.

Shawn 57:54
And I love this. I love this conversational format because I despise nothing more than hundreds of slides and someone flipping through them.

Irina 58:05
Thank you for going through all the topics! I want to end up with one last thing. Two specific questions:

  1. How do you stick to your plans?
  2. What would you say to all the CSMs who are here with us to do this year to be successful?

Shawn 58:57
The key to sticking to your plan:
If any of you are scuba divers or have been certified by any of the dive agencies, they always say plan your dive, dive your plan. And that is a very good way to stick to your plans. First off, create a plan and then stick to that plan because you know that by sticking to that plan, you’re going to navigate the unforeseen because you’ve got a point out on the horizon that you’re moving towards.

2023 is going to be an interesting year, so we’ve got to be ready to pivot, we’ve got to be ready to go in different directions. But we want to make sure that the plans that we’re generating are aligning with what’s happening in the C-suite. If the C-suite is changing directions then our plans are going to change, and we need to make our organizations aware of that because we need to prove impact. We prove impact by aligning to those executive goals and making the customer success organization track against those executive goals.

We know what the basics of customer success are. We want to get to a certain retention level, we want to make sure that our NRR is at a certain point, and we want to make sure we have the CSAT and NPS. That’s all the basic stuff. The thing that takes us above and beyond in the eyes of the boardroom and the C-suite, is how are we as an organization are impacting those corporate goals, just like we’re trying to prove to our customers, how is our solution impacting what your CEO and your board are trying to do. We need to turn that inward and do it against our own organizations. So don’t have too many things, be nimble, and align yourself with your corporate goals.

As far as that piece of advice that I would have for all CSMs. Keep in mind every day, some days, you just dread coming to work because you know that there’s this escalation that’s going to happen or it’s happening, you’ve been on the phone all night in a call with support, or you’ve got this difficult customer, my biggest piece of advice is to appreciate that no churn ever happened because of the customer success manager.

Churn happens because of something else that’s breaking in the organization. And we’re responsible for quarterbacking the customer through our own mistakes. Now, granted, there are personality conflicts between CSMs and customers, and that can all be trained out, we can become better listeners, and we can become better objection handlers.

We can read and appreciate Crucial Conversations, there’s a little plug for a book everyone should read, to have highly hard conversations about highly charged emotional issues. But for the most part, those things that cause customers to churn weren’t because of CS. Do not take it personally. You are nothing more, and I say that tongue in cheek, than the facilitator of the promises that sales made.

Sales makes promises, Customer Success keeps those promises. If there is a mismatch between what sales promised and what the product can actually deliver, that is not your fault. You have to not internalize it, not take it home and not personalize it. I think one of the biggest causes of CSM burnout is that we care, and we take these problems home with us. And we need to appreciate that we are not the cause of them. We are only trying to help.

Irina 1:03:16
Thank you very much for this very inspirational power that you provided to us! I really love the CS community because it’s an open environment and everyone tries to help each other. I know that we can have an impact and can help you so please talk with us, engage, and we’ll make sure that we make ourselves available. Thank you, everyone! Thank you, Shawn!

Shawn 1:04:06
This has been a lot of fun and great questions. And you know if I can be a beacon of anything, it’s customer success.

Do you have any topic requests you’d like us to cover in future webinars? Reach out to us and let us know.

Nicoleta Niculescu

Written by Nicoleta Niculescu

Nicoleta Niculescu is the Content Marketing Specialist at Custify. With over 6 years of experience, she likes to write about innovative tech products and B2B marketing. Besides writing, Nicoleta enjoys painting and reading thrillers.


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