In this article, I’m going to be discussing my favorite topic: customer success.

We’re going to talk about growth in customer success and how customer success can accelerate value realization and growth for you and your customers.

The aim of this article

Firstly, how do we move customer success from defense to offense? In the past, we always used to talk about customer success in terms of things that were wrong or had broken, right?  

Customer success was this reactive lever, something you did to fix when things went bad. We were the folks who took the phone calls that nobody else wanted to take.

Success was measured in metrics of failure. The good news is that this is changing. In the first part of this article, I’m going to explain how you transform customer success from reactive to proactive.

Next, though there’s no magic formula I can give you, I am going to outline three guiding principles to navigate this difficult terrain.  

In this article, I’m going to address key discussion points, including:

  • Customer success as a growth lever
  • Three guiding principles
  • Value realization
  • Customer obsessed culture
  • Data and insights

Customer success as a growth lever

Three boxes, each with the words, Growth, Alignment and Impact.

So, let’s start with the obvious question: Why should we think of customer success as a growth lever for this modern economy that we live in?

The age of the customer

Well, it all comes down to this modern economy we live in. When you think about the past year, it's the age of the customer. It's the age of all of you. You, now more than ever, have the power as a consumer to make brands to disrupt industries.

The impact of the pandemic

During the pandemic,many of us have spent more time than we ever wanted sitting at home on Zoom calls.

And what have we done? We've disrupted the way transportation works, we've disrupted the way hospitality works. Think about brands like DoorDash, Instacart and Deliveroo. These companies have become household names because of the pandemic and the disruption it’s caused.

Still don’t believe me? Well, just look at the financial sector. Just look at how Robinhood has been on the front pages of our newspapers because of the disruption to the traditional investment model.

The millennial disruption index

A few years ago, I started to look into what customer success looked like for scaling startups, I came across this article called ‘The Millennial Disruption Index’ it revealed some shocking facts.

The first one was that 73% of millennials would rather go to Amazon or Google than to a traditional bank. Makes sense, right? But it was the second fact that really made me laugh out loud: more than 70% of millennials would rather go to a dentist – yes, you heard right– to a dentist, rather than go to a bank.

The customer experience is the key to the future

How’s that relevant? Because it tells us everything we need to know about why we are seeing this disruption and why the customer experience is key as we evolve in this modern economy. The consumerization of businesses is becoming such an important force multiplier for us.

Consumers are looking to think about experiences and their own personal journey in everything they do. When you think about traditional banking, do you think about a highly personalized, spontaneous experience? No. You think this, right? 👇

Image of the exterior of an old, English Bank

Traditional. Uniform. Very formal.

That’s what we want to move away from. So, what do your customers actually want?

Customers want their own personal journey, and they're voting for it with their feet, because there are so many options out there.

Customers have options, and they will exercise them. They don’t have to put up with traditional options anymore. But what is critical to this growth is the customer experience? And what is it that makes our profession and our roles so critical in this modern economy?

Think about it as alignment

Even a few years ago, think about the way we would talk about teams and functions. You’d silo them out and create clear divisions between different teams.

Today, of course, the lines are blurring, and the traditional pre-sales and post sales motion, for example, are all converging. Everything is rapidly converging .

We’re entering into a more collaborative culture.

It’s all about adoption

Not just once and done adoption, but once every month adoption. I think this is especially true as our digital transformation accelerates, as our software businesses translate more and more to subscription based businesses. These businesses are moving away from a once and done model, to this monthly use-case adoption based model.

As B2B customers come to expect customer-focused experiences, organizations that have this at the center of their culture are going to excel. This is another reason why customer success as a profession is critical to success in the new economy.

There’s always impact

There’s a huge impact to all of this work as we grow, as we continue to put the customer at the center of our journey.

Looking at the latest numbers for 2020, I saw that customer experience has now overtaken price and brand and product as the brand differentiator. This is the impact of evolving CS.

Customer experience is the key differentiator

Deep product knowledge is also highly valuable, obviously. As CSMs we might struggle with the technical aspects of the product. Being tech-savvy helps, but what really helps is a deep understanding of what our customers want.

The ability to communicate and engage with customers is critical. And CSMs are instrumental in bringing it all together and driving impact.

The rule of three for the modern economy

Slide outlining the rule of three.

I'm often asked, “do you have a formula for customer success? Do you have a playbook?”

I don't believe in formula. There’s no one-size-fits all, but I do know this, it's important to ask questions. A good rule of thumb is to start by asking what drives the customer and what they care about.

You can also start by asking some very pointy, intentional questions. Those are the questions in what I call the rule of three, the three guiding principles to get to what our customers need.

Value realization

The customer comes first, we are customer-obsessed, and we show that by keeping their interest top of mind. Then, we're gonna look internally, and think about how we take what we've heard from the customer and translate it into a customer-obsessed culture.

With value realization, we start with our customers, and we work backwards from there to help understand what they think of as success. That’s what we want to accomplish and or execute for them, helping our customers find the value and really get the outcomes that they want for their businesses.

There’s a set of questions I ask to help me understand what is really important to my customers.

Who are your customers, and what are their priorities?

Whether you’re a B2B model, or a B2C model, everybody has a customer, and that is what your customer is thinking about, right? Your customer cares about their customers.

If I'm a food delivery app, for example, what I care about in a competitive marketplace is how quickly my customer is able to navigate my menus, search my site, get options, etc.

But if you don't know what problem they are solving, you will not be able to deliver the value they need. So, start with your customers' customers, then understand who they are trying to serve.

How do they scale?

In the past year, we've seen a lot of uptake, a lot of disruption that's helped our companies grow. The question to ask is how do they sustain that growth and make it scalable? Are they looking to expand geographically? Are they looking to expand into adjacent use cases?

Are they looking to automate, so they can serve multiple different customers? All of those are other considerations to take into account.

Who are the influencers?

No, I’m not talking about social media influencers, I’m talking about your board of directors. Yes, it's your C-level leadership, I’m also talking about your investors - a lot of private equity firms have been investing in technology.

They are influencers because they have objectives and outcomes they want to accomplish, while you may not be engaging with them every day, understanding what their intentions and  motivations are is important. Without that, your path to success is going to be bumpier.

What does ‘good’ look like?

What does success look like? For that, I use another rule of three. It's called, ‘10,10,10.’

10 weeks - it's important to have quick wins, so think about what success would look like in 10 weeks, whether it's having a conversation with someone you don't know, whether it's starting a proof of concept, whether it's starting a workshop, it doesn’t have to be anything major.

10 months - What does ‘good’ look like in 10 months? What progress on a product roadmap would you want to make? What progress in an executive conversation would you want to make?

10 years - This is the long term horizon thinking, and that is where all of this intelligence really helps you as you think about their customers. Ask your customer the question, “where would you want to be? If you're a tech company, where do you want to be on the Gartner quadrant? Where do you want to be in X years?”

The important thing is that you set yourself long term and short term goals. Give yourself a horizon to strive for. 👇

Customer-obsessed culture

It's easier to do your job when everyone's supporting you, you're getting the sponsorship you need, and you're getting the resources you need. For that, you need a culture that is customer-obsessed.

It’s an overused term, right? And how do you know if you’re really customer obsessed? Here are the questions to get there.

Is customer success a company-wide responsibility?

If it is a company-wide responsibility, you’ll hear about it from the top down, You’ll see it in strategic documents.

You’ll see it in external public conversations, and you’ll see your CEO and leadership team talking about this.

But an even bigger indicator is how your leadership spends their time. To me, how people spend their time is the biggest indicator of how much someone cares about a priority. If you see your leadership team prioritizing customer conversations, making time for customer meetings and asking about customer stories to share, that's a good sign.

The point is, your company should be able to clearly articulate how they are addressing customer success, from top to bottom.

Is there a 360 understanding of customer success?

Think about a good understanding of the customer experience as a 360 experience.

By this, I mean, are we thinking about an integrated perspective that considers the customer journey across the lifecycle and across all different functions? Are we thinking about it from their perspective, as a journey? Or are we thinking about it from our perspective, in terms of silos and function?

Are you integrated with your sales and engineering teams?

That translates into how we’re organized internally, especially with our sales and engineering teams.  

Companies that are early on in their journeys have often asked me, “where should I have my customer success person? Should I even have a customer success person?” My response is  “always”.

Where you embed your customer success resources is important, especially early on in the life of an organization, one connection that really helps is between your CS, your product service and your engineering team.

You're able to surface requests upstream quickly and close the loop on the feedback. I'm a big advocate of close connections with our services engineering teams - customer success is a team sport. In any organization that’s customer obsessed, you’ll see that different parts of the puzzle work consistently together.

Are you hiring for the future?

Hiring and talent is crucial, everyone understands customer experience, and skilled customer success professionals are hard to find, so, you need to make sure that you're bringing in the right resources and then setting them up for success.

Getting smart, talented people in but not putting them in an organization where different departments are aligned is a disservice both to the individual and to the company.

When you hire, know that your customers are going to evolve, and you're going to see massive disruptions continue to happen, so, hire for aptitude, hire for the non-tangible skill skills you cannot teach.

One of the things I look for is the ability to deal with ambiguity - we’re in a state of constant motion, constant flux, and you need CSMs who are unfazed by it. They need to be able to walk into a situation and deal with whatever comes their way, and have the intellectual curiosity and capability to translate it into insights/ action.

Data and insights

Data is never the problem, right? You have more data than you can use. We collect more data than we can use.  But it really comes down to using your data in the right way. Once again, here are five questions to ensure you're using it to solve customer problems.

How do you measure customer health?

Making sure that you have a comprehensive way to think about health that's not just reactive is important. And that is a mix of metrics that are leading indicators. It's a mix of lagging indicators.

Are you measuring metrics of failure or success?

As you measure individual performance or your organization, think about what you're measuring for. Are you focused only on metrics of failure? In that case, you’re reactive rather than proactive.

When we create POCs, when we do workshops, when we do innovation sessions, it is easy to start from a place of failure, because that's what creates the noise. I understand that as somebody who runs businesses, you absolutely have to address the noise.

You need to make sure to catch all the things that could catch us off guard. But make sure you're thinking about it proactively. Bake in your metrics of success, the growth aspects that let our CSMs innovate, grow and build relationships with our customers.

Do you pay attention to signals and anecdotes?

Sometimes your data doesn't tell you the whole story. Pay attention to signals and anecdotes. And know that they are often the signs of something coming. Pay attention to stories. Your customer might tell you everything is great, but pay attention to those very slight problems that come up in customer stories.

These are the things that may become bigger trends that you wish you had gotten ahead of.

Are you making the news or reporting the news?

This is one of the most important distinctions between a good CSM and a great CSM. Anyone can report the news. I can get on this presentation with you and walk through five slides. Have I done my job? Yes. Am I a good CSM? Likely, yes. But have I missed an opportunity? Absolutely.

I've missed an opportunity to connect the dots between your questions, between what is going on in the market, and between what you are looking for. Making the news is thinking proactively and then acting on what your organization needs, not just reeling off the various problems that have occurred.

How does data drive meaningful actions?

Data is only as useful if it drives meaningful actions. What is the action? What are the initiatives? What did you do differently as a result of this data? A great product is a start, it's not the end. The customer journey and the experience that comes with it is the reason we are here.

There is no substitute for paying attention. Life as a CSM is as much in the intangibles as it's in your dashboards. Pay attention to your customer and to your customer's customer. Finally, know that things are always changing. Once you have something that works, rinse, repeat, and then prepare to evolve it.