With the start of the New Year, the goals of customers are on my mind and the minds of many customer success managers. It’s no wonder. Goals help customers achieve success. They make it possible to align expectations. They focus efforts on what’s most important. Later, they will help to evaluate a customer’s progress and the value they’ve realized.
Across a customer base, I’ll usually see some customers with very strong, effective goals. They have clear goals for the outcomes they want to achieve, the milestones along the way and the near-term activities. Each of their goals are S.M.A.R.T.: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. They’re likely to be star performers.
At the same time, I’ll see other customers who have weak, ineffective goals. Amazingly, there are customers who don’t even have goals. These customers should be a red flag for customer success managers. Without effective goals, customers won’t be on top of the value they’re getting from your solutions, or the progress they’re making towards realizing value. Later, at a critical moment, they won’t be able to argue successfully for the continued purchase of your solutions. You’re likely to encounter a customer downsell or lose the customer.
The good news is this creates an opportunity for customer success managers to engage customers in setting more effective goals. While it can be challenging to get their engagement, there are various tactics that can be helpful.
Here are some tips that have helped me with goal-challenged customers:
1. Offer to give feedback.
Sometimes, a customer’s goals are unclear. For example, increase product sales and reduce lead generation expenses are too ambiguous to align expectations. When I recognize this, I’ll ask if they would like my perspectives and insights on their goals, based on my experience with other similar customers. I know the results others are getting and how they achieve them. I can tap into customer data to identify benchmarking metrics and benchmarks across similar customers, too. This knowledge gives me credibility and unique insights to share.
2. Ask insightful questions.
When a customer’s goals are too general and unclear, I try to move them from the abstract to the specific. I use a combination of questions (like those below) to help the customer think more critically about the outcomes they need to achieve. I want to help them frame their goals with business value in mind.
What are you trying to accomplish with our solution?
How do you see results changing with our solution?
How will you know you’re successful with our solution?
How does our solution help your business do what it does better?
How can our solution impact your company’s business goals and initiatives?
I want the customers to come away with goals that allow for effective expectation management, success planning and measurement of business value.
3. Confirm they have the right set of goals.
Some customers have goals that are incomplete. Often, I’ve found their goals are based on near-term actions to take such as “complete solution training for all sales development reps in Q1.” But, they’re missing goals for the business outcomes they need to achieve while using a solution. Other times, they have effective goals for these desired outcomes, but they’re missing goals for the actions to take to get there. I always look for goals for business outcomes, milestones along the way, and the near-term actions. If they’re missing any of these, or if they’re not connected, I know their path to value realization and success is at risk.
4. Let them know what’s realistic to achieve
On occasion, customers will share their ’dream’ or ‘wish list.’ I appreciate their value for driving innovation and excellence, but unless goals are achievable, people will become disenchanted. Then, they lose the motivation to even set goals. This is where benchmarking with your own customer data can help. Share what’s best, worst and average for customers like them during the applicable stage of their journey with your business. Offer benchmarks relevant to their desired outcomes, as well as leading indicators which could be product adoption, product usage, key feature usage, program engagement and so on. I’ve found that helping customers develop realistic goals in this way strengthens relationships.
5. Tackle resistance to goal setting
There’s always a cabal of customers that avoid setting goals. While many people credit their success to setting goals, there are others that don’t see the value or reason to do so. They’ll resist your efforts. Trying to engage these customers to discuss goals can feel like pouring gasoline on a fire. I remember a tech company CEO once told me “Jim, you’re not going to pin me down.” I knew then that neither he nor I would be successful. Several months later, the board replaced him.
I don’t back away from these resistors. I try to gain an understanding of their viewpoint by asking insightful ‘why’ questions. I hope to find common ground from where we can start and grow from there. In some cases, they believe they don’t have enough information to set a goal. You know what? Sometimes they’re right. Their business leaders haven’t set clear goals. Or, they bought the product without defining the desired business impact. When this is missing, I’ll try to persuade them to commit to a goal of gathering information that’s needed to set goals afterwards. Another tactic I’ve used is to encourage setting 1 or 2 ‘micro goals’ for a 3 to 6-month period. It can be easier for the customer to accept. It helps to build their skills and confidence which leads to success.
Wherever these customer conversations go, I emphasize what I’ve learned from experience: customers who set effective goals have more success than those that don’t.