How to Authentically Engage Customers: 4 Core Competencies

…the North Star in customer success is advisory, we can’t always get there. Why can’t we get to strategy? There are several blockers: Not setting expectations with customers Customer not…

Luke Ferrel | March 15, 2022 | 7 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 30, 2023

How to Authentically Engage Customers: 4 Core Competencies

Providing advisory services is the holy grail of customer success.

No one in customer success wants to be in the break-fix business, or merely managing escalations.

While we know the North Star in customer success is advisory, we can’t always get there.

Why can’t we get to strategy? There are several blockers:

  • Not setting expectations with customers
  • Customer not trusting you
  • Poor fit for CS actions and customer needs (adaptability)
  • Customer doesn’t want to engage (Where – talk about meeting the customer where they are)

To overcome these problems we focus on four core competencies when we engage with customers:

  1. Value-Driven – A worthless engagement (email, check-in, webinar) is worse than no engagement. If you waste the customer’s time, you lose the privilege of advising them.
  2. Customer Need-Based – It can’t be about you or your goals. The minute a customer feels you are trying to meet a renewal goal or an upsell quota, you lose the privilege of advising them.
  3. Empathy – You have to understand the goals of not just the customer, but the individual with whom you interact. Are they trying to build a world class program, get promoted, or just get home to see their kids? If you don’t understand your stakeholder motivation, it will be hard to get your stakeholder where they want to be.
  4. Proactive – If we only deal with customers when there is a problem, how are we ever going to be seen as an advisor? Great advisors don’t engage after a problem has occurred, rather they prevent the problem in the first place.

I’ll share a story for each of these competencies to better demonstrate how we earn the right to advise a customer. I’m going to use generic company names for confidentiality reasons, but these stories are true and had real impact.


Situation: When I was at a previous company we routinely hit customers with all sorts of content. We had regularly scheduled check-ins with every client. Often those meetings didn’t provide the customer value, but rather were check-ins where we chatted for a few minutes and then moved on with our day. I had one specific client who asked to opt out of all check-ins. We were shocked since they had good usage and seemed pleased with our product.

Task: The client informed us that our engagements weren’t particularly helpful to them. They felt they could continue to get value without meeting with our team.

Action: Rather than simply stop meeting with the client (as they requested), we worked together on a value plan. We took a deep dive into where we had provided value to the customer in the past. One of the primary areas the client had appreciated was when we dove in to help them understand ways to solve some of their strategic problems.

Result: We checked in a LOT less, but were able to work on problems that actually mattered to the customer. The relationship changed from one of demo-ing features and managing escalations to one driving strategic value. Instead of being at the customer’s beck and call to solve issues we got above the line contacts that wanted to understand how we could solve real problems. In terms of business, we were able to expand the account into another product line, as well as sign the customer to a 3-year deal instead of the usual 1-year deal.

Need-Based, Maturity Model

Situation: A customer was struggling with how to use our platform to tie insights together for all of their subsidiary companies. Despite themselves being very familiar with the solution (experience management), they had just absorbed several sub-companies that were pushing back against the parent company’s process for experience management.

Task: The parent company needed a strategy for how to integrate all acquired companies into their current program.

Action: Because the stakeholders were diverse, and already agitated, we elected to visit the customer onsite (knowing when to visit a customer and when to stay digital is a skill that we can discuss later). In this onsite we presented a maturity model to the parent company, as well as all of the subsidiaries. The result was eye opening to both our team, as well as the company. The parent company and subsidiaries in many cases were aligned on their maturity and vision. In other cases there was a clear maturity gap.

Result: By uncovering where gaps were between subsidiary companies and parent company, we were able to build a roadmap together. The roadmap focused on what the parent company could do to align subsidiaries. We also focused on specific actions subsidiaries needed to take to reach larger company goals. Because we broke down the customer needs and met them where they were, we were able to engage authentically and provide value.

Empathy – Understanding Your Stakeholder

Situation: We had a customer come to us who had been acquired by another non-customer. He had been a strong champion of our platform, and built much of his reputation on building out solutions using our platform. He had run into some executive pressure to reduce the amount of resources spent on our platform, and the parent company was considering other platforms that could be less resource intensive.

Task: Our champion wanted to assuage the concerns of his executive team about the amount of resources spent on the program (they had dedicated 3 months of developer time to building out tools in our platform), while also keeping the platform and having the opportunity to grow. This engagement was important for the company, but at a visceral level, more important to our champions career.

Action: We wanted our champion to feel comfortable staying our champion. We worked with him to optimize our platform so he could spend less time doing work in the platform. We also decided to offer his team a credit of 3 months for the time they had spent on developer time in the platform. Normally I do not recommend this, but because we wanted our champion to feel willing to always advocate for us and we understood his position, we made it happen.

Result: This one has a happy ending. Because we put our champion in a position to be successful, when the opportunity came up several months later to add another team to our platform within his company he had no problem making a case for us. He was able to get executive buy in, and we more than tripled our ARR in this specific account.

Discounting can be a slippery slope, and I don’t usually recommend it as a tactic. In this case we felt comfortable making that decision because we understood on a very personal level what was important to the client. We knew it was important for him to get a win for his team so he could continue to evangelize the product within his company. It was a small loss to continue building a great relationship.


Situation: I work at a company where we have over 4,000 customers who we consider “low spend”. We don’t assign a single Customer Success Manager to each of these customers, as this would result in a high number of customers per rep. These books would also have an annual recurring revenue size that wouldn’t be able to provide margin to the business, or allow a CSM to have the appropriate contact with each of their customers.

Task: We need to engage these customers authentically without overwhelming them with spam.

Action: We developed data-driven cohorts. We look at customer behavior in application and trigger specific actions based on those customer behaviors. This program produced many wins. The most effective of these programs was an audit we built to assess the health of a customer instance. This audit scored the customer health in 4 different categories (Content, Organization, Tech set-up, and Governance). In addition to giving a customer a score, we also gave a playbook based on this score. For example, if a customer scored below average on organization, our team will give the customer recommendations on how to improve their organization and make it world-class.

Result: 2-3% lift in renewal rate across $50 million dollars. 2% may feel small, but it can quickly add up!


Engaging with clients in an authentic manner creates the best possible outcome. We can’t always be 100% on the authentic scale. There are times we will need to have ad hoc engagements with customers, or engagements that are more focused on our business than the customer.

As a customer success practitioner we do our best to limit engagements low on the authenticity scale, while driving up the authenticity score of all other engagements.

Don’t be shy.

Connect with Luke on LinkedIn here.

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