At the Roundtable

A few months ago, Lincoln Murphy (@lincolnmurphy) and a group of Bay Area Customer Success (CS) executives met and explored some challenges around CS having a seat at the executive table. Everyone agreed that it is important for CS to have a seat at the table and that there are several good reasons why it can be a challenge to get that seat. So how does a CS Leader get a seat at the table and overcome those challenges?

Take Action

In order to earn a seat at the table, the first thing CS leaders need to do is take action. Only through your actions can you guarantee the company optimally leverages customers and improves business results. Getting a seat at the table means taking specific actions focused on how to ensure positive customer advocacy, contribute to growing revenue and profitability, and securing renewals and upsells. CS Leaders need to do things that improve company results like building and executing a strategy that ensures that customers get quantifiable value. Building a customer centric culture to accomplish this requires action, and it is the job of the CS Executive to lead that effort.

Be Strategic

When taking actions, leaders also need to be strategic. If you aren’t acting strategically, then you risk the CS function failing unintentionally. Ask the hard questions that will push your company to stand up for the customer. For example: Are we selling to the customers who will get value from our product/services? Have we invested enough in customer requested product enhancements to ensure minimal churn? Are we measuring our cost to retain a customer? Advocating for the customer in the overall company strategy is another way to ensure you add value, both to your customers and to the company. This is not the time to sit back, observe, and see what happens.

Build Relationships

Another key to getting a seat at the table is to build strong internal relationships. You need to work well with your peers in Sales, Marketing, Finance and Product. CS touches many other functions, and you are in the best position to influence decisions by conveying the customer voice. Figure out how to add value, and don’t fall into the trap of only raising issues. Of course, there are problems that can trace their root cause to other functions, but constantly raising them won’t win you friends or influence. You need the support of these other organizations to advance the CS function, and contribute to the company’s overall health. Focusing only on raising issues will only garner you the reputation of being negative.

Instead, focus your relationships on listening to other’s challenges, and identifying some things that work well or areas where CS can contribute and then reinforce these “wins”. Once the relationship is strong, introduce the problems in a form of constructive criticism – with suggestions for how to approach things differently. Provide regular data-driven report cards to the other departments so that you increase the visibility about how particular actions impact customers and how that results in impacts to revenue, renewals/churn, and upsell. Correlate the customer satisfaction data with the revenue. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it to keep communicating the customer voice and promote the value being added.

Find the Operational Balance

Sometime CS Executives can get in their own way. Ask yourself if you are properly focused on the things you need to do to ensure your company is adding the right value to your customers. It’s sometimes challenging to find the balance between tactical or operational tasks and strategic responsibilities. Are you being proactive or are you spending most of your time being reactive? Figuring out where to spend your time is required to create your desired business results.

With any leadership role, there are always operational responsibilities. If you don’t manage to spend enough time on strategy, operations will easily consume all of your time. Don’t fall into this comfort zone. Block out the time you need to spend on strategic activities or you risk not being effective. No one else is going to do this work, so you need to make it a priority. What are some of the strategic things to focus on? Put in place processes to collect the data you need for business decisions will that drive revenue and profitability. Define and track your metrics and measures and understand the data. Evaluate the best way to segment your customers. Align compensation to make sure the right behaviors are being emphasized. Don’t get entrenched in fighting the day to day battles and escalations at the cost of being a strategic contributor. Once you find the balance you will be on the path to getting your seat at the table.

Evangelize

Another way to ensure that CS thrives is to evangelize the amazing work done by CS and the outcomes that result from this work. Your data is key here. It’s important to make sure that this value is well understood both internally across functions and in the broader business community. As you are building your relationships internally, make sure you illustrate CS contributions with relevant data and examples. Use storytelling to promote how you and your team contribute to other staff throughout the organization. Part of a successful CS function is advocating the importance of a customer centric philosophy. It is up to you be the voice and cheerleader for the rest of the company and to draw the connections between the CS work and the valuable results.

You might also consider getting involved in the broader CS ecosystem. There are a number of meet-ups, conferences, web sites and communities to join, and it’s always helpful to your career to have a strong peer network. CS is an emerging function and it’s a great time to get involved. You can evangelize CS and the importance of a customer-centric philosophy outside your company. This is necessary to the long term sustainability of the CS Function. If you teach your team and your customers to advocate for the importance of CS, you will be ensuring that a customer centric CS function becomes a stable part of every business organization. If you are going to lead in this emerging field, it is your responsibility to get involved.

Show Up and Take Your Seat

In order to get a seat at the table, CS Leaders need to show up, take action, be strategic, build relationships, and balance strategy with operational responsibilities. CS Leaders also need to evangelize our emerging field. There is a lot to do. Is this what you are doing today?

During our event, Lincoln noted that more than half of the CS executives in the room were hanging out in the back of the audience, and only a few sat in the front row. Is this showing up as a leader? Or are many CS Leaders today taking a more passive wait and see approach? One of the strengths of a CS Leader is the ability to listen and accommodate another person’s needs. Empathy is important, but it needs to be balanced with assertiveness to push the CS agenda forward.

Are you sitting back or are you pushing forward? Evaluate your team and how things are going. Are they being proactive enough? If not, figure out a way to carve out some time for that. Also think about what it means if you are a first time CS leader or if you have limited executive experience. Ask for help, join a community, get a mentor, watch how other executives work and learn. It is up to you to figure out how to best step up to your executive leadership role. You can’t rely on sitting back. The future of CS depends on you and getting a seat at the table is only the first step in the journey.

Irene conveys the voice of the customer when setting strategy from go to market planning through maximizing customers for life. She creates effective post-sale teams in startups by hiring and mentoring customer focused staff and applying scalable processes that are dependent on business objectives and target markets. With 20+ years of experience, Irene has successfully built and operated multiple global services, support, and customer success teams in the US, Europe and Asia. Most recently she was VP of Customer Success for Cloud Cruiser, a global venture backed start-up providing consumption analytics across hybrid cloud environments. She is currently writing a book titled, Who Speaks for the Customer?

Irene Lefton

Board Member, PSVillage & the Customer Success Network