I can vividly remember an email chain from my early days as a customer success manager (CSM) that I wish I could forget. I had just concluded a meeting where I was repeatedly chastised by the customer for not delivering on a feature that they felt were promised during the sales process. I wasn’t happy, and I was going to do something about it.
I sent a curt email to the sales rep who sold this deal and cc’d my boss, and his boss. The message summarized the meeting and included something to the effect of: “I can’t believe we promised that feature to the customer.” I thought I was in the right.
Wasn’t I being customer obsessed? Wasn’t it my job to be an advocate for our customers? How could I be successful if our sales team was working against us? I hadn’t realized the colossal mistake I was making.
Yes, customer success professionals want to provide the best customer experience possible but before I threw the sales rep under the bus I should have tried to understand the situation from their perspective. There are always two sides to a story. Instead, I jumped to conclusions which led to burning my relationship with the sales rep and being reprimanded by my boss.
I learned an important lesson that day on how not to behave towards others and to not let my passions get the best of me. It’s challenging when customers take their frustrations out on us but we have to rise above this and assume the best of our colleagues. In this post I will elaborate more on this lesson and provide additional advice on things I wish I knew when I started as a customer success professional.
1. Learn the product. Learn the product. Learn the product
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you fully immerse yourself in how your product works when you start a customer success role. Knowing your product will secure the trust of your clients as you can devise solutions to their business needs. It will also earn you much needed respect from the product and engineering teams – especially when you come to them for assistance. When you’ve taken the time to become familiar with the intricacies of your product, others are more obliged to lend a helping hand.
But how do you achieve product mastery? Your company may provide you with live or recorded training but you need to take it a step further. In my most successful CS roles, I didn’t just watch training videos. I experimented with what I learned by trying out these features in my own demo environment. I would spend countless hours outside of normal business hours in the first ninety days of a new role so I could master various aspects of the product. You don’t need to do this but if you don’t, it will take much longer to hone the product skills needed to be successful in your role.
You can also take on a few support issues that clients throw your way when you first start out to accelerate your product expertise. You will put your new products skills to the test by investigating and then trying to recreate the issue and then finally determining the best solution needed. Just don’t make this a long term habit as it can distract you from the more important and strategic aspects of the CSM role.
Another recommendation is to help your customers execute something in your product. If it’s a marketing tool it could be helping them launch a campaign or creating workflows. You need to push yourself here. It’s what author Daniel Coyle calls “Deep Practice” in his book “The Talent Code”. It’s about “operating at the edges of your ability”. This may mean making the odd mistake. While you need to be mindful of making errors when working directly with customers it’s OK to fail at times when trying to push the envelope. Getting out of your comfort zone will speed up the learning process and make you more proficient with your product. It should also lead to better solutions for your customers. The long term benefits outweigh any short term pain.
In addition, it may make sense for you to take some SQL, programming or data analytics courses to better understand how your different systems and data work together. This will depend on how complex your product is and your role responsibilities. I would also encourage you to not just talk about newly released product features to your customers but to demonstrate them to your customers in your demo environment if it’s possible. This forces you to learn these features.
Are CS leaders still expected to learn the product? How much time should they invest and how deep should they go? There are many factors at play here including the size of your CS team, and your responsibilities based on your level but I would recommend that all CS leaders have a deep understanding of your product. It’s the only way that you will truly understand the pains that your team and customers are going through. It will improve your ability to negotiate where you feel your product team should prioritize their resources and it will help you earn the respect from your team. If you are too removed from the product, your team may doubt your decisions as they won’t feel you really understand the root issues.
2. Focus on the customer’s outcome and not your product
You can’t just focus on your product though when speaking with customers. If you do so, you are not seeing the full picture. Let’s put this another way: Did you ever have a customer that was fully adopting your product but still churn? If you have been a CSM for more than a few months you are likely to have experienced this. The main reason this happens is that while the client may be leveraging your product to the max, they aren’t achieving the desired value that will ensure they remain a long term customer. You need to focus on the customer’s business outcomes.
As a new CSM I used to concentrate on the areas of the product that my customer wasn’t using. I remember sending them useful product tips and updates. These were well received but my message would get lost at times. Instead of asking “are you aware of this feature?” I should have said: “Based on your priority of improving efficiency, you will be very interested in this new feature we are launching”.
But how do you know what their priorities are? You simply need to ask. Initiate a strategic discussion where you ask your customer what their companies’ top objective is for the next 6-12 months. You then dig into how that impacts their team. You also need to ensure you understand their challenges. Based on these goals, priorities and challenges, you can then tailor product recommendations that are tied to their business outcomes. Focus on what your customer perceives as value rather than just spraying product tidbits and praying that something resonates. These types of discussions typically take place as part of business review meetings and success plan discussions. Scheduling these types of meetings requires planning but it will be worth it and prevent needless churn. You will also be perceived as a strategic advisor and not just a product expert.
3. Develop closer relationships with your colleagues
This one is probably the one that has held me back the most in my career. Early on in my childhood it had been instilled in me that I had to solve my own problems. If I got myself into a mess, I had to dig myself out. This was a flawed approach to life and hurt my progress when I started out as a CSM.
It’s not that I never asked for help. If I was completely stuck I would reach out to my colleagues but my default was to ruminate on a problem until I had driven myself crazy. What I didn’t realize is that my colleagues really wanted to help me just as I want to help people that reach out to me. It’s a compliment when you ask someone for their assistance as long as you don’t do it too often. I had always perceived asking for help as a sign of weakness. It’s really a sign of strength. You are telling people that you value them and their knowledge. You are demonstrating your vulnerability. This leads to developing critical relationships that you will need to succeed in your role.
This collaborative spirit needs to extend beyond your immediate team. You need to take this same mindset to other teams and functions: this includes support, sales, HR, finance, marketing and product. Always try and view scenarios from their perspective and regularly seek out their advice. When they come to you for help, don’t see this as a burden but as an opportunity to deepen your relationship and learn more about the challenges they are facing.
As an added tip I recommend that you take advantage of company social events whether they are virtual or in person. Embrace opportunities to meet colleagues outside of the day to day and really get to know them as people.
Bonus Tip: Expand your horizons
Looking back on my career in customer success I feel very honoured and privileged. I had the opportunity to work with amazing people and I learned so much over this time. I hope that my advice can help those starting off in new CS roles. Double down on your product knowledge, focus on your customer’s outcomes and develop closer relationships with your peers.
My bonus advice for you is to seek out advice from the greater CS community. If you are reading this post you are already ahead of most of your peers. Zight (formerly CloudApp) has done a phenomenal job of pulling together CS tips and best practices. I also recommend checking CS Insider, the Gain Grow and Retain community and Nuffsaid for more great customer success content. Don’t reinvent the wheel when you face a new challenge. Leverage all of the great CS knowledge that is now available to you. Stand on the shoulders of others and help the customer success industry grow to further heights. I wish you the best in your CS journey.
Chad Horenfeldt is the Customer Success & Customer Experience Leader at Meta (formerly Kustomer, newly acquired by Meta). He is passionate about everything customer experience and customer success.
Don’t be shy. Connect with Chad on LinkedIn here.
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