CS Management

Storytelling: How Customer Success Can Gain Influence Within Your Organization

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Guest blogger, Chad Horenfeldt, joins the Success League this week. Take a look at his post on how to demonstrate your CS team's credibility. Enjoy!

By Chad Horenfeldt

Losing a customer is one of the worst feelings for anyone in Customer Success (CS). You may feel numb or in a bit of shock depending on the circumstances and it can eat at you for days.  What’s worse is that you typically know why it happened and how it could have been avoided. You’ve explained the issues to your executive team or to your Sales team or to your Product team on several occasions. Your pleas for assistance, however, have fallen on deaf ears and your CS team’s spirits are in the gutter.

You may be be thinking: Why am I not able to get through to these people? What more do I need to do? How many more customers need to churn before there is some real action outside my team? Am I the problem?

Unfortunately, this is a reality for many Customer Success teams. You can bring data that clearly states why you are losing customers but still not get the resources and process changes you need to prevent customer churn. Does this situation or something similar sound familiar?

While you shouldn’t put all of the blame on your shoulders, you do need to look more closely at the approach you take in requesting assistance. While data and customer feedback can provide insight and justification for the changes you want to achieve, your message may not be getting through. When making requests at the executive level, you can’t just persuade the mind, you also have to also convince the heart. One way to do this is through the power of stories.

This post will detail how stories win people over and provide some practical tips on creating a culture of storytelling within your own organization.

Why are stories so impactful?

In the Heath brothers’ bestseller Made to Stick, we learn about a brave nurse who saved a baby’s life by ignoring what the instruments and those around her were telling her. The story begins with newborn suddenly turning a sickly black-blue color. The onsite medical team diagnoses the issue as a collapsed lung and prepares to operate. “It’s the heart” a desperate nurse cries out as she pushes away the other medical professionals and demands silence so she could check for a heartbeat with her stethoscope.

She immediately determines the baby’s heart had stopped even though the heart monitor reported no signs of trouble. The lungs were not the problem after all and the nurse provided the appropriate treatment. It was her experience and quick thinking that prevented a tragedy that day.

This true story was one of the many that psychologist Gary Klein collected as part of his research in this area. He demonstrated that stories like the one above are very persuasive as they illuminated a causal relationship that may have been ignored and highlighted people’s inventiveness in solving real problems.

This specific story teaches a few lessons. Besides the obvious approach to addressing a potential deadly condition for newborns, it provides a stern warning to medical professionals who may rely too heavily on machines and checklists. This nurse also serves as a reminder that hospitals need to have an adequate amount of trained and experienced professionals to make the right decisions when it matters. Finally, this story acts as a call to action that change is needed. As the Heath brothers point out, emotional stories like this one can provide the stimulation and inspiration to generate action. It’s a technique you can utilize for your own Customer Success teams.

From saving newborns to driving adoption

I experienced a similar situation to the story above although it was a little less dramatic. Ok, it was completely different but it’s still a good story so stay with me. Our Product team at Updater just launched a new feature but we were having difficulties in getting our largest customers to adopt it as it required a large number of customer administrators spread out across the US to make some configuration changes. Not an easy task - trust me - but not insurmountable.

One of our CSMs used our customer story Slack channel to document the approach she used to overcome this adoption challenge.  She described in detail how she coordinated with our client to launch educational email campaigns directly to the administrators who we needed to make these configurations and she specified how she creatively used one of our vendors, Intercom to do this. Another CSM who executed the campaign then provided the initial results. That’s when the magic happened.

The general manager of our division saw this amazing success story and shared it with our CEO and other relevant executive stakeholders including the Product, Engineering, Business Development and Data teams who all had a stake in making this feature a success. After several emoticons, virtual high fives and celebratory “reply alls” the message was clear: Customer Success was driving real outcomes for the organization. This specific example was going to impact our bottom line. Let’s now go into how you can easily replicate this at your organization.   

3 simple ways to create a culture of customer stories

We’ve proven that stories can make a difference and drive action. Now it comes down to creating habits within your Customer Success team to share these stories on a regular basis and to allow them to permeate throughout your organization. Let’s talk about a few ways that you can do this:

  • Customer story time. Do you remember when your parents read you bedtime stories growing up or reading stories to your kids? You can replicate this same type of situation in your own organization. Just schedule a monthly (recommended) or quarterly storytelling session where your CSMs can tell informal or formal stories about how they drove success with your product. Invite all the relevant departments: Sales, Marketing, Product, Engineering etc… They will eat these stories up.

    I was first exposed to this at Eloqua and then carried on the tradition at my subsequent start-ups. At Influitive we bribed other groups to come by serving beer. It was so popular there that the Sales team demanded us to record the sessions as they used the content in their sales conversations. CSMs learned from each other and improved their tactics. Marketing leveraged these stories to seek out full case studies. Product used the feedback to make changes to future features. We all had a better understanding of the needs of our customers.

    A variation of this is to present stories at your company offsites, internal churn reviews, new team member bootcamps and/or sales kick-offs. Keep this in mind: story time all the time.

  • Customer story Slack channel. I referenced this tip earlier. I wanted our team to share more of their stories so we can all learn from them. We started a Slack channel to capture customer stories - both good and bad. Our goal was to hear more of the challenges and successes that the CSMs were experiencing in their day to day and share those with each other and the rest of the company. Slack is a great mechanism for this as it’s easily accessible and the information is searchable for everyone (especially for team members that join later on) unlike email.

    To kick this off we set a team goal of 35 stories in one month. If we achieved this we would all go for a nice dinner and the top three submitters would be rewarded. The channel quickly grew in popularity as others became interested in the stories and the CSMs gained recognition and a sense of accomplishment for submitting them. Oh, and we did go for a nice Mexican dinner. This is win-win-win stuff (CSMs, your company, and your customers).

  • Customer awards. While the CSMs are typically the ones driving these stories, Eloqua devised a great way to extract these stories directly from clients by creating a more formal marketing award ceremony called “The Markies.” Even though Eloqua turned this into an Emmy-like production, the essence of this is very simple. Create award categories, have customers apply by providing a detailed justification on why they should win, hand out awards based on objective criteria, reap the rewards of some outstanding customer stories. Rinse and repeat on an annual basis (the Markies have been doled out to top marketers since 2007 and are going strong). I can tell you with 100% confidence that my finest moments as a CSM were when one of my customers got up to an accept a Markie award. There is nothing better than this. Nothing.

A major theme across these three examples is that shouldn’t wait for your budget discussions with your CFO and other executive stakeholders to gather customer stories. Proactively generate and share these stories on an ongoing basis so they naturally percolate throughout your organization. When other executives start citing them without you having said a word, you know you are making progress.

Customer stories = power: Where do you start?

Not having a strong voice at the executive level and not being able to get the resources you need can leave you and your Customer Success team demoralized. Particularly when you are doing everything you can to make your customers successful. You need to make the pain that you are experiencing come to life. You need others to feel the impact that your team is making. This is the power of a culture of storytelling.

When was the last time you had a CSM describe to your company how they helped one of your customers use a new feature in a way that no one expected? When was the last time that a CSM had a chance to outline the real reasons behind why you lost a customer beyond entering the reason code “not enough ROI?” It’s time to try some new approaches such as a Slack channel to tell the real stories behind the data.  Implementing these practices will change how your Customer Success team perceives itself but also how the company perceives you. You can hold your head up a little higher, get that resource that you desperately need and earn the respect that is rightfully yours. What are you waiting for?


If you’re looking for leadership guidance, The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers online training and workshops designed for success leaders. There are still spots open in our CS Leadership Training Program. 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.

Annual Planning for Customer Success

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By Kristen Hayer

It’s a little too early to start planning for 2019, right? Wrong. If you’re a customer success leader, now is the best time to get started. You have a lot of ground to cover before the end of the year. For most industries summer is slow, so you can get a bunch of the analysis and process redesign done in July and August. Here’s a 6-month plan that will have you and your team ready for the new year:


July: Review Customer Data

Find time this summer to review the data you’ve collected on your customers, and decide if you need to make any adjustments to your program going forward. Look for areas where customer behavior is changing. Are they purchasing more, on average? Are they taking longer to onboard? Are they giving you different reasons for churning? Use this information to determine whether you need to make any changes to your customer journey map, segmentation, or processes. You’ll need to watch for additional changes throughout the rest of 2018, but you’ll have done the heavy lifting in July.


August: Evaluate Tools and Processes

The work you did in July leads right into an assessment of your processes and tools in August. Can you track all of the data you need? Are you maximizing your existing tools? Do you need to add processes to create a better customer experience? If you noticed a lot of customer behavior changes in your July analysis, you may need to completely revisit your customer journey map and team processes. If you suspect that you aren’t using your tools to the fullest, schedule demos with your vendors and have them review best practices. This is also the month to evaluate new tools.


September: Align Metrics and Goals

Once you have your program outlined you can think about what makes sense from a metrics standpoint. Consider metrics in 3 key areas of customer success: retention, expansion, and satisfaction. Think about the tools and measures you already have in place, and create a plan that leverages that data. If you need to add new measurement points, add those now so you have a 3-month baseline going into next year. Once your metrics are established, use those to draft department and team goals. Again, these may need to be adjusted over the next 3 months, but doing this work now gives you a solid starting point.


October: Build Hiring and Comp Plans

Use data from sales, combined with your own churn expectations, to determine how many customers you’ll be serving in each segment every month. This will indicate when you need to hire. Don’t forget about managers and operations staff. Think about compensation as well: most customer success roles now include variable comp. Create a compensation plan that is tied to the goals for each role on your team. Clear role descriptions will help you align the existing team members to their roles, and help you hire new CSMs who are top performers.


November: Develop a Budget

Some organizations are great about getting their annual budgets finalized early. Unfortunately, most end up pushing final approval well past the end of the year. This makes it tough for you to get the resources you need to hire, equip, and train your team in the early part of each year. You can get around this common issue by developing a working budget ahead of time. Talk with your finance team about the format they use, and develop a draft budget that includes headcount, variable comp, tools, training, and team events. Ask for approval to use this working budget until the official company budget is finalized.


December: Communicate and Train

At this point you will have done a ton of work on your program, but you probably haven’t included your team in every part of it. You need to clearly communicate any changes that you’ve made to the program, roles, goals, and compensation plans. You’ll also need to train the team on any new processes or tools that you’ve decided to add. December is also a good time of year to develop skills that the team will need for next year, so consider adding skill-building workshops to your training plans. Keep in mind that different people learn in different ways, so be sure to communicate both in meetings and in writing to cover your bases.

By following this plan you’ll be less overwhelmed with planning in the fall, and your team will be ready to hit the ground running in January. Of course, if your business doesn’t run on a calendar fiscal year, adjust this plan as needed to match your company’s operating schedule. Good luck as you begin planning for 2019 (now!)

Need some help? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that helps leaders build and develop top performing customer success teams. We offer short-term consulting engagements that can kick-start your planning efforts, as well as coaching for leaders who need some weekly advice. Check out TheSuccessLeague.io for details.

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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.

Supporting Success in an Early Stage Startup

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By Steve Schwartz

I’m often asked about my transition from technical, enterprise customer support into B2B SaaS customer success. I had the amazing opportunity to experience support, implementation, and account management, all at one company, and I came to see how disjointed these customer-facing teams can be. Customers struggle when there isn't alignment between teams. I thought, there has to be a better way, which led me to customer success. Here are three strategies early stage startups should consider when starting a customer-facing team.

 

START WITH GENERALISTS

When I hire my first Customer Success Manager, I’m looking for a teammate who can span the breadth of roles that I expect I’ll need on my team. In my last two companies, those roles included customer onboarding, training, documentation, support, and success. I also look for a high level of empathy, a natural curiosity, and someone who questions the status quo. Starting with a generalist gives your customers a single resource that they can turn to at any stage of their lifecycle, and gives your CSMs a deeper connection to their customers. Early focus on customer success ensures that you can learn quickly whether customers will be effective in using your solutions or not. As important as your first customers are as references and case studies, they can be equally detrimental if they receive no value from your company.

 

SPECIALIZE WHEN NEEDED

A customer success generalist who juggles all of these roles will ultimately get overwhelmed by one or more areas, which can make them less effective in the rest. As an example, if your number of customers doesn’t grow significantly, but your end user count does, it can lead to a significant increase in inbound support requests. If you’re in a business where responsiveness to these issues is critical to your success, then a CSM will need to be able to drop everything to address them in a timely fashion. While this may be possible when the CSM has two or three customers, it certainly gets harder when they have more. When you can no longer deliver the quality of support that you strive to, it’s time for your first customer support hire. Likewise, when implementations start to bog down your customer success team, considering splitting the roles of CSM and Implementation Manager apart.

 

MEASURE, MEASURE, MEASURE

The best way to stay ahead of your need to specialize is to constantly measure your CSMs based on how they’re allocating their time each week. A quick way to do this is to periodically have them self report roughly the percentage of time they are spending in each area. Alternately, if you use a CRM or CS tool to track customer success activities, you can have the team bucket activities by category. If you trend this data against the increase in customers or end users, you can start to build a predictive model for when you’ll need to create the next specialist role within your team.

By starting with generalists, and using data to determine when to specialize, you'll be able to create a consistent customer experience from early through the growth stage of your company. I'd love to hear more about your startup journey, and I'm happy to share more about mine!
 

Need help planning your customer success team? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that offers online training and workshops designed for success leaders. Topics include Planning a Team Structure and Hiring Top Performers. For more information on these and our other classes and workshops, please visit TheSuccessleague.io
 

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Steve Schwartz - Steve is a customer success leader who enjoys starting and building high-performance teams at early-stage startups. He has worked in energy startups for the past 10+ years in a variety of customer-facing roles. By engaging with customers during the sales cycle, he ensures customer expectations are fully understood and can be exceeded. When not writing for The Success League, Steve is leading Customer Success at FreeWire Technologies. He holds a BS from Tufts University and an MS from Virginia Commonwealth University, and spends his free time with his wife and two kids exploring the Bay Area.

High Touch Customer Success + Automation = Focus

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By Kristen Hayer

Doesn’t high-touch customer success mean that the Customer Success Manager is running the show? Absolutely. Doesn’t that mean that there’s no room for tech-touch tactics? Absolutely not. Customer success automation and a high-touch program aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, incorporating technology into high-touch customer success can result in improved focus for your CSMs as well as a more engaging customer experience. Here are 5 things to consider as you think about adding automation to your high-touch customer success program.

Different People Prefer Different Approaches

First, let’s consider the customer: Different people prefer to have different kinds of connection with your organization. While many clients enjoy and respond to regular outreach from their assigned CSM, others will never respond. Some CSMs find it surprising and slightly offensive that non-responders will attend a webinar or engage with in-app messaging. The reality is that different people learn in different ways, and respond to different types of messages. If you vary the format of your messages, you’ll appeal to a broader audience.

CSMs Should Focus on High-Value Activities

Customer Success Managers are busy. They have to balance their valuable proactive work with inbound customer questions and scheduled meetings. This can create time-management issues, unless in-person work is supplemented with some automated communication. Automation can free up CSM time for personal touch-points that drive real value. If your CSMs are having a hard time getting to all of their customers, automation can help them expand their reach. If they are currently reaching everyone, automation can expand the number of customers they can effectively handle.

Repetitive Messages are Easily Automated

There are some parts of any job that are repetitive, and that includes some of the messaging that high-touch customer success teams deliver. Think about where this lives in your customer lifecycle. Is your introductory email the same for each client? Do your CSMs send out notifications about billing issues or reminders about executive business reviews? Look for every message that is consistent from customer-to-customer, and you’ll find places to automate. The messages can still look like they come from the CSM, but they don’t require your valuable resource to push a button.

Customers Like to Learn from Other Customers

Customer forums, advisory boards and events not only provide an efficient way of communicating with customers, they allow customers to learn from each other. An effective, high-touch CSM is seen a trusted advisor, but they are still an agent of your company. Other customers are seen as a neutral source of information about your solution, your company and best practices. Leverage your (happy) customers by inviting them to events that supplement your high-touch customer success efforts.

Some Customers Expect Technology

There’s technology, and then there is TECHNOLOGY. If you have a highly technical solution, you are probably engaging with very technical contacts. IT professionals, engineers, product managers and sometimes even C-level technologists will expect a lot of automation and in-app communication from you. In-person communication can be foreign or even unwelcome to them. This can be disconcerting for your high-touch CS team, so teach them patience and build up automated communications that echo your brand message.  

Does all of this mean that a high-touch program isn’t right for your company? No. Most organizations benefit from a high-touch program for their top customers, even if those customers don’t always resonate with it right away. By supplementing your high-touch program with automated communications, you’ll be addressing different communications styles, aligning with your brand promise, and freeing up your CSM team to focus on developing relationships that offer value to your customers.

Need help segmenting your customers and aligning your success program to your client base? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that works with executives to develop top performing customer success teams. Let us help you design your program. Visit TheSuccessLeague.io for more information on our consulting services and training programs.

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Kristen believes that customer success is the key to driving revenue, client retention and exceptional customer experiences. Her areas of expertise include developing success 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. She currently resides in Silicon Valley with her family and an energetic German Shepherd puppy.

Developing a Scalable Success Team Structure

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By Kristen Hayer

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One of the questions we often get from our customers is how to build a customer success team that scales from a budget and business-model standpoint, while still providing a customer experience that is consistent with their brand. Many teams are either understaffed to provide the customer journey they want to deliver, or are being asked to cut costs or headcount.

To have a smart, data-focused conversation with your leadership team about these issues, I recommend performing both a top-down and bottom-up analysis on your customer success program. If you have your client base broken into segments, evaluate each segment separately. At this end of this article I’ll also cover a few other things to think about as you plan your team.

Consider Top-Down Budgeting Issues

Unfortunately, a number of industry benchmark numbers get thrown around, typically a specific amount of revenue per CSM. CEOs and CFOs love to refer to this, and often push for this number when budgeting for customer success. I won’t mention a number here because I don’t want to perpetuate this problem. As you’re figuring out the ratio of customers/CSM it is important to consider a variety of factors beyond budget, including price point, brand promise and segmentation.

If you’re being asked to plan your team with this revenue/CSM benchmark, go ahead and calculate the number of customers per CSM that benchmark recommends. Then look at the number. Does it make sense? Can you deliver the program you’ve promised your customers with that ratio? Do you have very different numbers across different segments? Ask yourself these questions and then…

Balance with Bottom-Up Activities

If your CSM program is well-structured, this should be an easy exercise. Figure out how much time it takes to serve one customer over the course of a month with your current program. Divide the number of hours a CSM is available to customers by the first number and, again, you’ll arrive at a number of customers per CSM. Compare this number to the number you got from your top-down analysis.

Do the numbers match? Fantastic! You’ve arrived at a ratio of customers/CSM your finance team can get on board with and you can use for budgeting. Is the top-down number substantially larger than the one from your bottom up analysis? You need to have a candid discussion with your finance and leadership team about what is realistic. Either the revenue/CSM will need to be reduced to match the existing customer success program, or the CS program will need to be scaled back so that it aligns with the budget. Doing this planning and analysis will prepare you to have a discussion about the trade-offs.

Don’t Forget…

As you’re planning your team you’ll want to consider a few other things. First there’s segmentation. Most customer success teams have several different models in place, from tech-touch through high-touch. Before you do this analysis be sure that you’ve broken your customer base into segments that represent groups you want to interact with in different ways.

Next, consider automation. Without tools to automate, you’ll need to keep your customer/CSM ratio fairly low. As you add automation you can decrease the amount of time it takes a CSM to serve their customers, and increase the ratio. Tools cost money, so you’ll need to make some budget decisions, but automation is critical to building a scalable team.

The bigger your team gets and the more tools you add, the closer you’ll get to needing a customer success operations person or team. This function can run your tech-touch program, serve as the administrator for your tool set, and perform analytics for your team. Just like the sales operations function, this role is critical to growth.

Customer marketing is also becoming an important, behind-the-scenes part of a customer success effort. With 75-90% of revenue coming post-sale, it is surprising that this is a relatively new role on most CS teams. Email campaigns and other one-to-many communication vehicles serve as the foundation for tech-touch programs, and can drive expansion opportunities as well.

Finally, don’t forget about leaders for your scaling CS organization. As you move up into Director and VP roles, you'll need to delegate some people management. When hiring and promoting, keep in mind that experienced leaders can typically handle 8-12 direct reports, and new managers shouldn’t have more than 6. As you build your headcount plan, be sure to add leaders when the time is right.

Need help developing a scalable customer success team structure? The Success League is a customer success consulting firm for executives who want to build and scale a top performing team. As a part of our Leadership Training Program we offer a class in Planning a Team Structure that includes tools, group discussions and best practices. For information on this and other programs for customer success leaders, please visit TheSuccessLeague.io