Driving Change in Customer Success

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By Kristen Hayer

Facing up to a big challenge in customer success, like extreme churn or the need to restructure, can be tough. However, getting your team to adopt the plan you create to address the challenge is usually much tougher. Humans generally dislike change, and change management is one of the primary functions of a leader, especially in early and growth-stage organizations.

One of the best articles I’ve read on change management is called Leading Change by John Kotter. It is part of HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management, which I would highly recommend if your company or team is going through a period of substantial change. In it, Kotter talks about the 8 steps to take in order to produce significant, lasting change. Here are the steps with my take, looking through the lens of customer success.

Establish Urgency

It often seems that everything in customer success is urgent, so it can be a problem to make the need for a big change really stand out. Pulling your team out of their normal environment and focusing on just the one issue can help to make it clear that this is a larger than a normal challenge. In addition, this isn’t the time to protect your team from reality. They need to understand the business drivers behind the change, as well as how this problem is holding them back from success.

Create Powerful Leadership Groups

There are two groups you can leverage to create a leadership team that will guide your group through change. First, look to your managers. These folks have the power to change processes and demand change. If they aren’t part of the change leadership group, you run the risk of them undermining your efforts. The second, and often more important, group is your team influencers. CS people talk. Getting a grass roots change effort going will require that team influencers participate in the planning.

Create a Vision

You know the problem, and now you need to plan the solution. One mistake I see a lot of CS leaders make, is to create a solution that is too granular right from the start. Big challenges require vision, and that should be higher level. Think about why you have the problem, why it matters, and the big picture efforts that will be required to fix it. This will keep the vision simple enough that it will resonate with the team. It also leaves the solution open to a little bit of interpretation, so that your smart CS professionals can contribute.

Communicate the Vision

In customer success, we get in the habit of being communicated to (at least internally), instead of communicating to others. This is the time to put on your marketing and sales hat, and pitch your vision. Make no mistake, this is an exercise in persuasion. You need everyone on your success team to understand and get behind your vision and plan. Your leadership group is key to this effort: Influencers can use their grass roots connections to promote change, while your managers can demonstrate change through their actions.

Empower the Team

After communication, it’s time for action. You and your management team need to take steps to make it easy for your customer success group to change. First, take a look at any blockers like overly complicated processes, tools that don’t work anymore, or rocky internal relationships, and fix them. This might take some time, so do what you can right away, and keep working to remove these blockers over time. Also, encourage the team to try new ideas and processes, and don’t punish failure. This is a time to learn from mistakes and iterate.

Create Short-Term Wins

We all know that short-term wins are motivating. If you lose 5 pounds on the first 2 weeks of a new eating plan, you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Keep this in mind when you’re developing your change plan. Look for low-hanging fruit: goals that can be easily achieved, or small adjustments that produce big customer satisfaction. These wins will be motivating to the team, so be sure to celebrate and socialize them around the company. This will provide tangible proof of success that reinforces your vision.

Build on Wins

Once you have initial success, it enables you to do two things. First, you can use your team’s momentum to encourage them to take on more challenging projects. As their confidence builds, so can the difficulty of the issues they are tackling. Second, you can publicize customer success wins across the company, which gives you the credibility to command more resources like additional headcount and budget. That, in turn, allows you to increase the pace of your change initiatives.

Institutionalize Change

As I mentioned at the beginning, people don’t like to change. One way to keep your new vision going is to ensure that all of your new hires are brought on board with a clear understanding of what is expected, and are trained in the new approach. Successful new employees can drive change across the team by showing that the vision really works. On the flip side, you may need to retire or transfer some team members who just can’t get behind your approach, so that they don’t drag the rest of the team down.

If you want to dig deeper into any of these topics, read the Kotter article. While his examples revolve around large-scale, corporate strategy change, there are some good takeaways for teams as well. Tackling major issues with a little structure to back you up will help you to feel comfortable taking on one of leadership’s toughest challenges – driving lasting change.

Is your company due for some big changes but you're not sure where to start? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers customer success evaluations that are a great way to see what is working well and what needs improvement. For more information on our consulting services and training classes, please see TheSuccessLeague.io

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Kristen Hayer - Kristen believes that customer success is the key to driving revenue, client retention and exceptional customer experiences. Her areas of expertise include developing success goals and metrics, designing the optimal customer journey, selecting technology, training teams, and building playbooks. Prior to founding The Success League, Kristen built and led several award-winning customer success teams. Over the past 20 years she has been a success, sales, and marketing executive, primarily working with growth-stage tech companies. Kristen has her BA from Seattle Pacific University and her MBA from the University of Washington.