By Amin Akbarpour
I was chatting with a colleague who helps run partnerships in my current organization and we were sharing some recent anecdotes in our respective jobs. It’s easy to forget how much Customer Success revolves around forming strong partnerships with our clients. Those strong partnerships include great communication, building solid relationships, and always adding value. Nothing highlights the signs of a true partnership more than how things go when the going gets tough. Recently, I’ve come across many examples of situations where client needs went unresolved in both my current role and conversations with fellow success professionals. I was surprised to hear how often CS representatives were unable to come to terms on a sustainable path forward that met the needs of both sides.
Ultimately, we need to find sustainable solutions to the problems that arise in client relationships. When I mention sustainability, I’m referring to resolutions that are not resource intensive, can be deployed in a flexible and efficient fashion, and properly address the client’s concern or problem. It must check each of those three boxes.
As CS professionals, we’re pulled in two ways constantly: internally and externally. It’s our job to uncover the pain points on both sides and come up with creative solutions that meet the needs of both our company and our client. In addition, every solution needs to be deployed in a sustainable fashion. Two examples to illustrate my point:
Sustainable: A client suddenly becomes very under-staffed, and has to cut back on usage of your product during a critical time of year for your company. Internally, you discuss a plan to temporarily support them with an offering that would allow them to maintain their current level of usage, and build good faith with the client as a result.
It is very important that you set proper expectations both internally and externally in this type of situation. This is only sustainable when it is a true one-off situation where both the client and your colleagues know that it will not become a trend. There is always a fear that these types of responses will go from being one-off to occasional to often. That’s when it crosses into being…
Unsustainable: A client is constantly asking you to make significant changes to your product so as to support their unique set-up and requirements. You recommend constant internal attention on this item and require that immediate engineering resources be deployed to assist with each request.
A common mistake here is to interpret your engineer team’s ability to accommodate these requests as sustainable. They simply are not. Each time this happens, you’re pulling resources off of other projects and causing delays across the board. Not to mention the annoyance factor of getting pulled off of one project and put into a “put-out-the-fire” situation.
As you look to determine sustainable solutions for both your team and clients, do not forget that the solution must also adequately resolve the pain point too. Many a times I’ve encountered solutions that don’t truly resolve the client’s problem or simply “kick the can down the road.” You can avoid this by always asking about the impact of a solution or potential pitfalls of implementing the new process.
I have a quick checklist I go through in order to feel comfortable that a truly good resolution has been developed. I ask myself:
Does the the client’s stated pain point remain the same or get worse under this proposed solution?
Does the solution introduce new problems that the client must burden?
Does the solution cause any of our company’s internal resources to be moved off of other critical tasks?
Does the solution significantly increase my team’s service hours on a permanent basis for this client?
If I can get through the questions above with four straight “No’s”, then I know it’s a sustainable path forward.
Being a good partner does not mean doing everything you can to give a client what they want or protecting your internal team at all costs. Being a good partner means understanding concerns, creatively identifying potential solutions, and ensuring that those options are not only acceptable, but sustainable for both parties. As a customer success professional, you’re in the driver’s seat so ensure you put everyone in a position to be successful.
Need more help with your client partnerships? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers a CSM Certification Training Program which includes classes such as Customer Advocacy and Cross-Functional Leadership. For more information on these and our other classes and consulting services please visit our website at TheSuccessLeague.io
Amin Akbarpour - Amin is a customer success coach and architect. With relationship-building at the core of his practice, he molds teams by instilling the necessary principles to transform them into trusted advisors. Amin is one of the founding advisors to The Success League and currently serves as an account manager for Persado. Amin is a University of San Francisco alum who now calls New York City home.
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Tune in to our most recent Strikedeck Radio podcast featuring Karen Rhorer, Head of Customer Success and Sales Strategy at Atrium HQ. Kristen discusses with Karen her insights for both CS and Sales including operations, metrics, analytics, and KPIs. Enjoy!
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By Chad Horenfeldt
Not another meeting! You can typically judge how busy a CSM is by the number of customer meetings they have. Preparing for these meetings includes knowing the latest adoption data, product updates, renewal pricing, onboarding processes, what was discussed in the last meeting, the customer’s wedding plans - the list goes on and on.
It’s also critical to hit on key messages such as the value that the product provides, or a specific question that the team has been mandated to ask such as, “Is there any chance that you won’t renew?” CSMs need to set the right expectations - especially in onboarding - and need to master simple negotiation techniques such as bringing the conversation back to the customer’s ultimate outcome.
How do you ensure that your CSMs are bringing their best selves to these meetings and making time to improve their skills? The obvious answer is preparation time and practice, but let’s get real on this - how much time can anyone really allocate to practice? I’ll outline a three step process to up your CS team’s meeting game, and do it in a way that is conducive to a typical crazy CS schedule.
Step 1: Get On The Training Train
To prepare for typical CSM meetings (like onboarding, QBR, or renewals) you need to receive adequate training. This training may include how to speak to the revised pricing packages, new product changes, or different aspects of QBR metrics. You also need to document these processes and procedures. This will ensure that all of the CSMs on your team know how to deliver the key messages, and can handle themselves in the various situations they will find themselves in.
To help CSMs learn and retain new and modified processes, you need to go well beyond crafting an email or sending a Slack message. Something I repeat often to my team: “A process isn’t a process unless it’s written down.” If you want CSMs to learn new processes, you need to fully document what the expectation is.
Here is an example of what a typical training plan may be for CSMs on delivering a QBR:
Training course: QBR Overview. This is for new CSMs and may be delivered by a third party (such as the Success League) to help CSMs get a basic understanding of how to prepare and deliver an effective QBR.
Training course: Creating the QBR materials. This shows the CSM how to pull together the necessary QBR materials. This can consist of a more experienced CSM mentoring a new CSM.
Quiz: Using a test to ensure that the CSM has retained the core concepts that they have been taught.
Certification: The CSM would need to prepare a QBR and deliver it either live or in a mock setting.
Supporting materials. This is a document, often called a playbook, that outlines what a QBR should consist of based on the type of client, the cadence it should be performed and the various steps involved.
A training plan will typically require cross-department involvement including Product, Sales or Marketing. Get them involved and bake this into your training plan. This will also ensure that other departments understand the importance of this process and the value of it for the company.
When revisions to processes are made, leaders must clearly communicate what the changes are. A typical way to introduce these changes is during a weekly CS meeting. This should be followed up via written communication, and if the changes are significant, a re-certification process. In addition, larger CS teams may need new roles to support these initiatives such as a CS Operations Manager or an Enablement Manager to help document and roll out processes.
Training is time intensive and can be perceived as taking people away from the real work but just like it’s important to onboard your clients successfully, it’s important to nail CSM training so your team is setup for success.
Step 2: Take An Unconventional Approach To Practice
There are many comparisons you can draw between CSMs and athletes. CSMs need to be mentally and physically prepared for their role, and they need to bring it each and every day. Unlike the typical athlete that has a season where games may be spread out over time, the CSM doesn’t have that luxury. They have multiple meetings each day that can be very different from each other. While it would be amazing if CSMs could practice for each situation, that becomes extremely difficult if you need to execute against your goals and also have a life after work.
My recommendation is that you practice what you’ve learned on live customer calls instead of having designated practice sessions. Once the CSM has gone through the training plan, designate a specific customer meeting, such as a QBR call, as a live practice session. On that call have a more senior team member evaluate how the CSM performed. Create a defined set of evaluation criteria and have the evaluator go over it with the CSM after the call. For example, the following questions are rated from 1-5:
Did the CSM properly greet the client at the beginning of the call?
Did the CSM deliver the key messages?
Did the CSM adjust well to the customer’s tone?
Even if the CSM makes a few mistakes it shouldn’t be anything too critical. If the CSM needs additional help, you can repeat this evaluation process on a future call or set up some additional role playing.
By baking the practice session into your day-to-day client calls, you can improve the meeting skill-building of CSMs in half the time. The critical part to this is to review the performance after the meeting and determine the overall process improvements that need to be made.
Step 3: Review And Reflect
So, you’ve done the training and received a positive evaluation during a live customer meeting. You’re done, right? Wrong. A critical piece, often skipped over in the fast pace of CS life, is collecting feedback and reviewing it. The CS Manager or Operations Manager should seek out feedback via a survey or feedback session, and review. For example, a new CSM may have some valuable insights from their past experience on how to make the QBR process even better. In addition, your veteran CSMs may have detected areas where the team is having issues.
You can have a simple feedback session where you ask two questions: “What’s working?” and “What isn’t?” Listen to the feedback, make the adjustments and roll out new processes as needed. Your team is made up of smart and exceptional people. Take the time to listen to them.
As an added bonus, I’ve heard only positive things about new meeting recording technology like Gong. It cuts down the need to have CSM evaluators in meetings, and can help CSMs self-evaluate. You can ensure that certain keywords or phrases are mentioned, and track the improvements that CSMs have made over time. There are many many possibilities here for CSM teams that have yet to be uncovered.
Your Team Will Thank You
There is no question that a CSM’s schedule can look extremely daunting. There is so much you need to know and the stakes are extremely high. A missed opportunity to discuss a new product can prevent your customers from achieving more value from your product. A data point that wasn’t highlighted properly can lead to a client not achieving their expected outcome. A failure to set the right expectations can lead to resentment and possible churn.
CSMs can’t be perfect, but can perform at the highest level with the right guidance. You can maximize the time you have in your busy work week by continuing to improve your customer meeting skills. Start somewhere - your team will thank you for it.
Looking for other ways to help your CSMs streamline their work? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers a CSM Certification Program. Our classes offer insights and tools that are designed to promote the long-term learning that drives top performing teams. For more information on this and our other programs and offerings, please see TheSuccessLeague.io
Chad Horenfeldt - Chad is a customer success executive with 15+ years of experience building and developing high performing teams. Currently, he is the Vice President of Client Success at Updater. Prior to Updater, Chad held CS leadership positions at Bluecore, Influitive, and Oracle (Eloqua). In addition to writing for The Success League, he also writes regularly on the topic of customer success on his blog The Enlightened Customer.