CS Management

Leading Best With Zest (For Life)

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By Lauren Costella

If I’ve learned anything this quarter, it’s that keeping a positive attitude and building resilience is everything. I should know this by now, after all, I was an elite athlete for 17 years of my life. And, from my experience, if you can’t find optimism amidst the hard times, you’re in for a rough athletic career for sure. That said, and I suppose with anything in life, sometimes we lose faith; we lose perspective; and with it, we lose our positivity and optimism. The past month and a half has been that for me.

In our careers, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the pressure. You have metrics to hit, deadlines to meet, projects to deliver and customers, investors, your team, and other departments relying on your performance. And everyone has an opinion on how things should work. When I think about my biggest “fear” it’s disappointing others. I don’t want to be the person to let folks down: I want to kick butt!

This quarter, I lost a bit of that perspective. A few things occurred: my team was behind on our priorities and metrics; we needed to restructure to better serve customers; and then I had various changes occur in my personal life. At times, all of these “issues” can be overwhelming. All I saw, at the time, were the problems, and it was disheartening. And once that emotional cycle kicked off, it kept going. I would carry the negativity, sadness, and frustration back into the meeting room and that spilled over into all of my interactions (business and personal), and it became very destructive. But one person really helped keep things in perspective for me, and he’s my brother Sean.

To provide some context, exactly two years ago, my brother was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation. It’s a rare disease that causes a large blood clot. This blood clot was located in his brainstem, and it started bleeding. My brother was rushed into the ER because he had lost feeling in everything below his neck. They did a brain scan and found the bleed, but the Reno hospitals told him it was inoperable. They said this clot could bleed again, and next time, it would likely kill him. He, from their perspective, was a “ticking time bomb” and could go off any moment. He was only 28 years only, newly married (a little over a year) with a six month old daughter.

The news couldn’t have been more devastating to me and my family, but then Stanford Hospital reached out, and said they could do the surgery. He was flown to California for the procedure. There were many, many risks, and the least of which being paralysis and the inability to talk, but it was also his only chance to live. He had the surgery, and miraculously, he survived. Within 3 days, he was home, within 8 weeks he was working full time, and within 2 years, he’s learned to adapt to his new reality. He still has residual effects like double vision, numbness, and his arms feel like they weigh thirty pounds; however, if you speak with him (despite these new challenges and believe me, they are challenges), he is happy, smiling and thankful to be alive. He’s living every day and every moment with zest, and thankful for the journey.

I share this story because sometimes we forget to have perspective; we forget how lucky we are to just be living each and every day healthy and alive, and instead, we get lost in the minutiae of everyday small dramas and setbacks. As I was going through some of these rough patches this past quarter, Sean reminded me, not only how lucky I am, but also to be thankful for the journey, even the tough parts. He reminded me to keep my optimism and redirect negativity to other outlets; ones that wouldn’t keep this cycle of destruction going. And I thought I would share how I go about doing those things with you today, because I get it; the world can feel like it’s on your shoulders, but the trick is not to let it squash you.


Redirecting Energy & Embracing the Chance to Build Resilience

Life is made up of moments. Each moment is a chance to be present, to listen, to learn, to feel and/or to act and have impact. And more importantly, any moment can change the course of your life in an instant (just like my brother). I recently listened to a podcast by Sheryl Sandberg and she talked about her life changing in a split second, when her husband died. If there’s one thing really stuck out to me when I listened, it was her perspective on resilience. And it’s something all of us need to continuously learn and practice.

Going through hard moments is just that, hard. It’s really easy to get caught up and wrapped up in sadness, anger and the emotion. It’s understandable, and it’s okay to feel. But you have to feel and deal. And the dealing is what leads us to resilience. It’s the dealing that builds our strength, our perspective, and our ability to move forward.

But dealing can be its own challenge. I personally need to talk about what I’m feeling. I try to direct that to people I trust, and I really try (though this is admittedly still a work in progress) to put a limit on the discussion. It’s easy for me to spin forever on a topic, but at some point, talking and reliving just breeds more emotion. So, I curb this by setting a time limit rule on myself. I let myself talk/grieve for a set time (sometimes it’s 30 min, sometimes a few hours, sometimes days), but I set a limit. I am not always perfect in meeting that limit, but saying to myself, “Okay, I’m done with that topic” empowers me to move forward.

I also channel my emotional energy into activity. I run, play tennis, do yoga, and get my blood moving. By doing these things, I find both my mind and body have the chance to “let go” and underneath the rocky spots is fresh soil. And with fresh soil, you can cultivate a new garden of life. It may not have the same plants as before, but it’s a new garden of opportunity. And that is exciting, which leads me to my next point.

Keeping My Optimism with Positive Affirmations, Smiles, and Laughter

Pity parties are just that, pity parties. Staying stuck in the negative is a real drag. And if I bring one superpower to the table it’s this: my energy and optimism is infectious. It can light up a room and breathe life into everyone. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I can also suck the life right back out. Optimism and positivity, then, is an essential ingredient for my person. Each and every day, I do two things: I give myself a positive affirmation, and I laugh and/or smile at least once.

I know it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s so important to remind yourself that you are doing great; you are powerful; you are worthy, and you are your own superhero. When I wake up in the morning, I read a daily positive affirmation, and I say it out loud. This starts me on the right track of reminding myself that I am me and that me is awesome! And today, not matter what it brings, will be the absolute best day of my life! It’s incredible how something so small can make such a big difference in your attitude and energy. I challenge you to do it right now! Give yourself a positive affirmation! Tell yourself you are incredible and amazing. Try writing it down! It works; I promise. And the more often you do it, the more you’ll believe it.

The other thing I do is smile. Even when I’m not feeling like it, I make a point to smile at one person each and every day. Just the act of smiling bring energy and life to me (and others). And when I have life and energy, I can solve problems. I can approach issues from a place of inspiration and hope, not helplessness and and despair.

We all can get caught up in the craziness that is our daily lives, but the attitude in which you approach the tough stuff matters. Ask yourself: how do you approach your own life? How do you approach your job? How do you approach your relationships? You can dwell in everything that went wrong or you can celebrate what went right! And you can look at every tough moment as a burden or you can view it as a journey. And each moment is one to be thankful for because whether it’s building resilience or creating joy, it can change in an instant. And given that, well, I don’t know about you, but I know I lead best with zest for life!


The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers both a Leadership Training Program and one-on-one coaching. Let us help you learn and grow as a success professional and leader. Please visit our website for more information. TheSuccessLeague.io

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor for The Success League, a board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active in the Bay Area.

Do Customer Success Leaders Need an MBA?

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By Kristen Hayer

One of the questions I frequently get from customer success professionals and leaders is whether they need an MBA to progress in our field. I don’t think that you need to have a master’s degree to become a leader or even join the executive ranks, but I do think that in certain situations it helps. I have an MBA from the University of Washington (go Huskies!), but I didn’t get it until I was almost 40. I waited until I was sure exactly how it would benefit my career. If you’re considering whether or not an MBA makes sense for you, here are some things to think about.

ARE YOU CURIOUS ABOUT HOW LEADERS MAKE DECISIONS?

Other factors aside, the best reason to pursue learning of any kind is curiosity. Do you wonder how and why the leaders in your organization arrive at the decisions they make? Are you interested in finance, investing or mergers? Are you a natural learner whose undergraduate degree was in something other than business? If your answer to these and other business-related questions is “Yes!” an MBA may be an interesting degree to add to your education.

HOW FAR DO YOU WANT TO CLIMB?

If your goal is to manage enterprise-level accounts, but stay on the front lines of customer success, don’t bother with the MBA. You need experience much more than you need education and you won’t get that from a degree. If, however, your goal is to move into the C-suite (or become a VP at a larger, public company) you’ll find an MBA incredibly helpful, if not a requirement, for those roles. Essentially, getting a master’s degree in business teaches you to speak CEO.

ARE YOU RUNNING INTO CAREER BARRIERS?

I hate to bring this one up, but unfortunately it is still a reality for many of us. If you are part of a minority in the workplace, you may be running into barriers as you try to progress your career. It is definitely worth first looking at whether personality traits or other weaknesses are holding you back. If the answer is no, an MBA may provide the pedigree you need to break through that glass ceiling. I would recommend talking with a trusted advisor to help you explore options.

CAN YOU AFFORD THE TIME AND MONEY?

Master’s degrees are expensive. You need to be sure that you will achieve a level of income that allows you to pay back student loans and still have money to live and retire on. If you’re not sure about your career goal and the associated income, hold off until you have the data to do that math. In addition, be certain that you can spare the time. This is a 2-3 year degree, depending on the school and program. That’s time away from your career and the associated income.

DO YOU HAVE SUPPORT?

Getting your MBA is a rewarding process, but it is also challenging, time-consuming and stressful. If you have a family, make sure they are ready for late nights, time away, difficult assignments and exam stress. Include them in the application process so they know what they are getting into, and talk through your game plan. If you’re single it’s easier to carve out the time to get an MBA, but you’ll still need the support of your friends and family to get through challenging days.

If you do decide to pursue your MBA, be sure to choose the best possible school and program that fits your time, location and budget. Unlike your bachelor’s degree, which eventually fades behind your experience, your MBA always stands out. In addition, a big benefit you get from your degree is a network of business professionals. Be sure to consider that as you select your program. Finally, make sure you know why you are getting your MBA, and what you need to learn. That will help you focus on the classes and learning experiences that will benefit you the most.

Do you need help progressing your career in customer success? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers both a Leadership Training Program and one-on-one coaching. Let us help you learn and grow as a success professional and leader. Please visit our website for more information. 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.

2 Quarterly Business Review Myths that Customer Success Needs to Abandon

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By Chad Horenfeldt

As you're checking your calendar to start the day, you see there is a two hour block for "QBR Prep" at 10:00 am. The room suddenly feels a lot warmer and beads of sweat appear on your forehead. You think to yourself "did someone mess with the thermostat?" You then remember that this the normal feeling you get when preparing a QBR. It's such a massive pain to put together. You have to pull data from 10 different places and then put all of the pieces together so it will make sense. You’re also praying that the attendees will actually show up. Beyond your scheduled QBR prep, you have an overflowing inbox of customer emails and a bunch of other flashing messages in Slack. You don't want to let any of your customers down but you have no idea how you are going to pull this all off.

That feeling of trepidation and despair when tackling a QBR is a common occurrence. While the practice of customer success has evolved, some of the strategies haven't changed that much for many organizations. QBRs definitely fit into that bucket. I see the purpose of a Quarterly Business Review as a way for CSMs to demonstrate and sell the value of your product to the customer. While many companies present these results on a quarterly cadence, I don’t believe that the timing is relevant. It should be based on the needs of your customers.

Unfortunately, many QBRs are still handled like they were in prehistoric days of customer success. They mimic the 1:1 account management relationship that CSMs had with their customers. Times have changed. I'll cover two common myths of QBRs and what you can do to modify your QBR strategy.  This should not only help you with your QBR prep but it should impact your overall approach to Customer Success.

Myth #1: QBRs need to be meetings

There is a misconception that ties a QBR to an actual customer meeting. That is completely outdated and an unrealistic expectation. Do you think you think your customers really want to meet with you or have the availability? A recent survey sheds some light on this.

According to OKTA’s latest Businesses @ Work survey the average company deployed 131 apps for their users last year. 131 apps! In addition, since 2015, the average number of apps per company has grown by 43%. The more apps that your customers are using, the lower the chance you have to schedule an actual customer QBR meeting. You have to face this reality and prepare for it.

Customer Success ≠ Account Management

Customer Success needs to break away from the traditional 1:1 high touch, account management mindset. We should be thinking about how we deliver a QBR in the same way that Amazon thinks about how it delivers your packages. The focus is always on the customer and improving the overall experience to meet the demands of the customer and the reality that exists.

The other problem is that CSMs don’t have time for these meetings either. Beyond your most strategic customers, it’s unrealistic to expect a CSM to have a QBR with all of their customers due to the growing CSM per customer ratios. To set these impossible goals can only demoralize CSMs and cause unnecessary burnout. We need to move beyond the traditional account management approach.

One size doesn’t fit all

Meeting with your most strategic customers to review the QBR makes total sense. These customers are the core of your business. What doesn’t make sense is treating all customers in the same way. You should differentiate the customer journey based on your segmentation strategy. For the smaller customers this means going beyond just reducing the cadence of QBR to say every 6 months from the normal quarterly format. You should focus on how you can deliver the right type of information in the right way based on the outcome that you are trying to achieve.

One of the best approaches I’ve seen here is to partner with your Operations/Data teams to automate the creation of your QBRs using a business intelligence platform or an Excel template. You need to take the QBR creation out of the hands of CSMs and simplify the process. CSMs will still need to do some slight customizations of the QBR messaging in some cases but  the majority of the work should be automated.

There also needs to be further innovation in the delivery of the QBR. As an example, I’ve seen QBRs delivered via email with the summary points clearly stated in the email and a Calendly link that invites the customer’s stakeholders to setup a meeting with the CSM if they want to further discuss the results. All of the email engagement data is tracked so if there is no email clicks or opens, a task is created for the CSM to follow up directly.  CSMs could even personalize a QBR by creating a standard video to go along with the email. This whole area of QBR delivery is ripe for even more innovation.

Myth #2 Substance is more important than style for QBRs

I admit it. I’ve delivered QBRs where I just barfed up a lot of content all over the customer and hoped that something stuck. It sounds disgusting doesn’t it? I gave myself a big pat on the back for just finishing all of those slides.  

Years later I realize that my approach was completely unacceptable. I was more concerned with creating the powerpoint then orchestrating the content to actually make sense. The style, design and the layout of the content can be just as important as the content.

Showing value isn’t enough. You have to sell it

Think of your QBR like a window display at your favorite store. It’s not enough to have a QBR that demonstrates the value of your product. You need to sell that value. The actual QBR document should be self-explanatory and you should expect it that it will be passed around within the customer’s organization. For this to occur, the value points in your QBR need to be optimized so that they jump off the page. It should be clear to anyone that picks up the document what progress has been made, what value has been provided, and where the opportunities lay.

As an example, the Updater QBR includes awards for the top properties that our customers manage. To our surprise, one of our customers took a screenshot of our QBR and posted it on LinkedIn along with an endorsement of our product.

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This customer was so proud of what they achieved that they wanted to share it with their social network. While we didn’t expect our customer to share this with the public, my team did spend many painstaking hours determining what would resonate most with our customers and they architected a template that would make the content stand out. They kept asking: “What would our customers perceive as value? How do we want our customers to feel after the QBR?” Their efforts paid off. We now can make other subtle design changes such as including a small banner in the QBR that would encourage our customers to share this on their LinkedIn or Instagram feeds.

Customer Success Operations isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

To improve the style of your QBR and to simplify the QBR creation process, you need to invest in customer success operations. As an example, at a former company we had our data team automatically export our QBR data to a professionally designed excel template. The charts were uniformly created with vivid colors and up to date industry benchmark data. The CSMs had to simply review the data, add in some customer specific information and create a PDF of the spreadsheet. While we had formal meetings with our strategic customers, we sent the spreadsheet via email to our smaller customers and measured their engagement. We had essentially created an assembly line for QBRs due to the operational rigor we instituted.

The challenge is that companies aren’t investing enough in CS operations. The recent Coastal Cloud Customer Success Industry Report specifies that only 12% of those they surveyed had a Customer Success Operations role. Customer Success must look for leverage. Tasking your already swamped CSMs to create professionally designed QBRs at scale is nearly an impossible ask once you get to a certain size. CSMs will always be a critical component in QBR prep but there needs to be a strong operational arm that can leverage the technology that exists.   

Pulling together a QBR can be overwhelming but you can reduce the anxiety associated with it. By changing the way that you deliver the QBR, leveraging CS operations, and making changes to how it’s created, you can drastically decrease the time needed to prepare for and deliver the QBR. You can now concentrate on the the message you want to deliver and provide the experience that is most appropriate based on the customer lifecycle that you created. You can focus on the outcome of the QBR and not on your powerpoint skills. You can focus on engaging your customers and selling the value of your product and not on your fierce powerpoint and excel abilities.

You have the confidence that your QBR will be so well received that your customer will probably share the document with others in their organization. Maybe they will demand an early renewal? Ok, let’s not get too carried away.

There are so many ways that we can improve the entire QBR process and we’ve barely scratched the surface. What are you going to do to improve your next QBR?

Need help streamlining your QBR process? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers a complete CSM Training Program which will provide you with practical tools to strengthen your professional skills. For more information on this program and our other classes and workshops, please visit TheSuccessLeague.io

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Chad Horenfeldt - Chad is a Customer Success executive with 15+ years experience building and developing high performing Customer Success teams. Currently, he is the Vice President of Client Success at Updater. Prior to Updater, Chad has held CS leadership positions at Bluecore, Influitive, and Oracle (Eloqua). Chad has been named to Mindtouch's top 25 Customer Success Influencer list in 2017 and 2018. He writes regularly on the topic of Customer Success on his blog The Enlightened Customer.

The Art of Sitting on Your Hands

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By Lauren Costella

Last month, I wrote an article about my job as a Vice President for Customer Success, which is really, sitting on my hands. I need to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. And while that may sound perfectly poetic, the challenge is very real. With regard to being hands on or off, it’s not always easy to know when too much is too much or whether you’re not doing enough as a leader. And walking this line is a constant struggle.

Personally, I don’t want to micromanage a team. I don’t find that interesting and quite frankly, it’s not something I’m good at doing. At the same time, when I hear about or see something not working, I want to jump in and fix it. And my passion around finding a fix is only heightened when there are customers or our business at risk. So the question is: how does one balance “sitting on your hands” but also take into consideration that a lack of action could lead to chaos?

I’ve pondered this a bit, and I realize there’s a very distinct “art” to walking this fine line, and I thought you may appreciate a few “artistic” tips as you navigate the line between sitting on your hands and jumping in to help.

The Art of Reframing an Issue

There are various ways to look at an issue or problem. Depending on the lens of how you present or approach an issue, the folks on the receiving side can either jump to the wrong conclusion or can become completely de-motivated to want to solve it. In some cases, they might not even want to recognize there’s even an issue. Reframing matters a lot when you’re walking that fine line of stepping back and jumping in.

I experienced a lack of reframing, literally, just the other day. My leadership team and I were all talking about technical training gaps with our CSMs. We agreed that there was an issue around CSMs needing to be more technical with our product. As we discussed the issue, my leaders said it had been a known problem for months, and then I said aloud, “Well, why haven’t we done anything then?” Immediately, the dynamic changed; the room had an air of defensiveness. Participants broke out in debate arguing points about the fact that we had done a lot of work around training, and then we proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what things we had done.

When I take a step back, that one, simple, musing aloud question had more impact than the entire conversation. Of course, I knew we had done a lot around improving CSM training. We had so much more in place than when I had first joined, and I am tremendously proud of what we’ve achieved! What I was really trying to dissect was “efficacy” of training. In other words, I know we are doing a lot of stuff, but it seems like this “stuff” isn’t having the intended impact. Should we refine our focus to be on efficacy instead of simply building more things? But this is not what came out, and what’s worse, was my “frame” around “nothing being done” was the exact opposite of the tone I wanted to set.

Imagine that I recognized the great work that had been done around training first and recognized the time and energy we invested. Imagine if I had said this is not just an issue for our team, but for the rest of the organization and solving for this would be a huge company impact? And furthermore, imagine, I had reframed the discussion to get agreement around efficacy, and then our discussed focused on solving for success? I went in with the problem already defined and the conclusion around what is or isn’t happening, but that was just it, I needed to get the team to buy into what was really going on, and just one simple question set us down the exact wrong path. Consider reframing the discussion around joint buy-in first, and focus on being solution oriented and positive. Then solving for it doesn’t need to come from you, it can come from the team who’s charged with leading it.

The Art of Lowering your Voice

My voice is a bullhorn. No, not literally, though I can think of a few people who may have a differing view on that given my passion, excitement and rather loud voice, when I talk about anything Customer Success. But the context to which I’m referring is that as a leader everything I say and do is amplified 100X. Case and point was the example of reframing I shared above. Whatever I say, even if it’s just thinking out loud, can completely disrupt a team, how they own and solve issues and their view on whether you’re being too hands on. Why? As a leader, everyone takes your word with more weight, as a command, as an order. Even if that’s not the intention, most people view it that way, and it can be hard to separate a command vs. a simple musing.

I used to think that the more passionate I am in front of the team, the more they would pick up my passion and urgency and see it as important. What I’ve come to find is that I produce the exact opposite effect. Everyone is scrambling to the “command” versus really being bought in that it’s critically important!

I am trying to build a team where we can all talk to each other and challenge each other. That my team can push back peer-to-peer, and we can all hold each other accountable. However, it takes time to build the kind of vulnerability based trust for that kind of dialogue and beyond that, it’s just really hard to delineate for anyone who has a boss, what is command versus what is top of mind.

So as a leader, it’s important to keep my bullhorn self in check. It’s important for me to ask more questions. This goes back to reframing. If you’re not sure if your team is viewing a particular issue or initiative in the same way, check in with them! Maybe the story you have in your head is different from theirs. Maybe there’s an underlying issue that can’t be uncovered because your “bullhorn” voice is overpowering. You can’t know until you lower your voice, listen, and ask questions.

The Art of not Accepting the “Monkey”

One thing that I have done, but I’ve also seen my team leaders do is taking on their direct reports’ “monkeys” or problems. Monkeys are a funny way for me to visualize taking on problems. I can take on one or two, but if I have my own, plus some from my reports, and more from my colleagues, then monkeys will literally be overrunning my office and wreaking havoc everywhere.

Too often, as leaders, we find ourselves trying to take on problems and manage the actions of others. The intentions behind doing this are the purest you can find. We want to help. And in many ways, it would seem like that’s the right answer to the problem. For example, maybe I am more experienced in doing X,Y, Z or have done that before, so theoretically I could do it and maybe am the most qualified.

Well, not so fast. There are a few issues with that reasoning. 1) You don’t have the bandwidth, but that’s probably pretty obvious. 2) There’s an underlying assumption that you would know better than the person who has more context that you do, and that’s probably not the case. 3) Given the person with the problem has more context, it’s probably in their best interest to critically think about the issue and come up with a plan that may involve you, but not for you to take on the entire problem.

It’s your job to hand those monkeys back. Make your team, your colleagues or anyone else handing you monkeys keep those monkeys. They need to keep the monkey and figure out the plan and use your talents in a structured way (with boundaries set by you) to solve the issue. In this way, they are learning, growing, maintaining ownership, and typically, they figure it out better than you could have.

Navigating stepping in and stepping back is never black and white. It’s this grey area that makes it difficult. So, if you find yourself, like me, trying to successfully navigate the Art of Sitting on Your Hands, I hope you find these “artistic” tips helpful in your journey.

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that works with leaders to drive positive team behavior and incredible results. Check out our leadership programs for more information on how you can build your customer success management skills. TheSuccessLeague.io

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.

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.