How CS Fits In
Customer Success teams are rapidly becoming a standard sector in the ecosystem of any company, and as much a part of the backbone of an organization as departments like Sales or Engineering. However, how does Customer Success fit into the scope of business operations? The most important element to examine is how CS professionals manage their relationships with other functional groups. In order to be most productive and achieve the ends customers expect, they have to optimize their working relationships with the leaders of other teams so that there is a beneficial arrangement for all parties involved.
As an experienced CS Executive, I have learned much from my time leading Customer Success endeavors at established enterprises and scrappy startups. The advent of the subscription economy and SaaS allowed me to cut my teeth initially, and I found that it was vitally necessary to have a comprehensive view of a customer; we called it a 360 degree view. Out of necessity, I worked with the Sales and Product teams to figure out how we could transform into service organization because we had a product-based mentality, instead of customer-focused one. Eventually, this collaboration spread to all teams, and I found I needed to connect with the leaders from each sector.
People often forget that the second ‘S’ in SaaS stands for Service. If we are not meeting customers’ expectations for their service, they will find a better option. It doesn’t matter how great a product is, if the product experience is less than satisfactory. A company’s culture, mentality, and focus needs to revolve wholly around the customer such that it affects everybody and every function in the company. Scaling is the main focus of most companies, and CS has to be able to scale their level of in-depth service. The way you scale is to find productive ways for CS to work with other functional teams.
Challenges to Cross-Functional Partnership
The main challenge in implementing a cross-functional partnership in your company is the C-level executive view of Customer Success as a department. If they regard CS as a break-fix, reactive arm, then you’ll be performing the role of a Support team, just with a different title. Other departments will not understand why they need to cooperate with your customer-centric vision if it’s not emphasized in the company’s vision. Every advance, or ask will be examined, and granted or refused based on whether it will de-escalate customer issues, instead of proactively assure retention, expansion, and advocacy. In short, you need a company who has a vision for Customer Success, and understands the initial investment to get the practice established will yield incredible returns. If the view of CS is that it is simply a cost-center, instead of a revenue driver, then you’re probably not going to make much headway when it comes to getting support for your collaboration initiatives.
Keys to a Great Relationship
One of the best implementations of such a partnership occurred when I worked at company in which, as the Head of CS, I reported to the Chief Revenue Officer. He understood the goals of Customer Success, and knew how beneficial having CS and Sales working together could be. The first step I took when I joined the company was to meet all the Sales people across the country, and define strategy with the VP of Sales, who understood that we were all on the same team, and our collective goal was to help our customers succeed. It was a virtual workplace, but I made sure to set up regular meetings online to make sure we were all on the same page and could strategize about challenges. We shared the same financials, and we all had the collective goals of ensuring renewals, expansions, and advocacy. My CSMs were the farmers, while his Salespeople were the hunters, but we worked together extensively to land and expand every account. As a result, we were also able to help them target the right accounts that could be successful with our product because they were incentivized by commission, just like us, to find accounts whose value would be fully realized by expansion.
Building a Bridge Between Sales and CS
In most companies, there is always a little friction between Sales and Customer Success, despite the fact that it is possible to create a mutually beneficial relationship like the one described above. The first thing to do to get things on the right track is to establish the roles and responsibilities of each party. Every company, and their product or service is different and will require varying sub-functions to be completed, but it’s helpful to think of everyone in your company as on the same team. Even if Sales is offense, and Customer Success is defense, we are all still trying to get the same ball over the line. Things need to be standardized from the top down so everyone knows what they are accountable for.
If Customer Success is performing a nurturing function, and salespeople are on the transaction side, then make sure your transitions and handoffs are rock solid. Assumptions cause friction, so set strategy at the top. Internal briefings can be very helpful, as well as an internal system of record that has a history of previous interactions. Have one kick-off meeting that includes the salesperson handing over the reins to the CSM, and then proceed from there. For low-touch environments in which one CSM has to scale extensively, it can be useful to have a Customer Success platform serve as the system of record with the salespeople so that you can automate extensively, and have Sales get an inside look at how the accounts they closed are performing. Customer Success should be hand in hand with Sales, even if there are different executives leading each team, and different compliance rules.
Customer Success and Product
Product quality has a huge impact on customer satisfaction, and can make the lives of Customer Success representatives a challenge if it doesn’t function as it is intended or expected to. Once a new customer signs a contract, it is critical that the ease and speed of deployment, or velocity to value, is fast and seamlessly executed. The best way to ensure that this happens is for Customer Success to develop a tight relationship with the Product team. At a previous company, I had a seat at the table at the beginning of each quarter when the Product team was making future roadmap decisions. Of course, the visionaries at the company wanted to see their product dominate the mobile device ecosystem, but that’s not always what the customer needs, and it’s your job as the Head of CS to represent the customer base. Likewise, we would have Product team members sit in on customer calls so that they could hear feedback right from the horse’s mouth.
Ideally, this relationship functions flawlessly when the product is perfect, but how often does that happen? Instead, a more realistic expectation is having an empowered Support team that can handle the daily break-fix conversations with customers, freeing up the Product and Customer Success teams to do their real jobs. A great way to facilitate this to have a few engineers who are assigned respectively to the Customer Success and Support teams, and work primarily on ironing out bugs and urgent fixes. For high priority clients, I’ve had past success with pulling in the VP of Product, and making sure they’re part of the meetings with those customers to hear their issues in person and make the promises they know their team can accomplish. If you’ve accomplished the feat of having a seat at the Product team’s meetings, make sure you have a consolidated list of desired features, and don’t make it a race against other CSMs to get a particular request prioritized. A great way to implement this is to have a en masse tally system that prioritizes features based on necessity, popularity, and account importance. This allows the Product team to easily understand the business case utility, and balance it with their ambitious advances.
The Action Plan
It’s not enough to have banners on the office walls touting your customer centrism. You have to actually make moves to have a customer-first mentality permeate the entire organization. The first way to do this is encourage the other functional groups in your organization to partner with Customer Success, and understand their role in making customers successful with your product or service. Make a part of the annual performance review have a section for how they’ve helped customers. Getting everyone in that frame of mind will promote the understanding that they only have this role because there are customers who pay for the end product. Another strategy that I have used is to invite the customers into the organization to present their use-case. This allows teams in the company who work on a small section of the puzzle to see the big picture of how all their efforts come together. Witnessing the product in action, and hearing the customers’ feedback firsthand motivates and guides future collaboration, in addition to garnering appreciation for all that Customer Success accomplishes.
Tune in to next week to read more about how to make productive relationships with Finance, and how to structure working with Sales Operations, Marketing, and Support.