Without the big-picture understanding and buy-in of the big dogs, your customer success initiative won’t have a chance.
No matter what type of organization, it is leadership’s role to craft and build the appropriate culture, and frame and implement the organizational blueprint.
In many ways this is the easiest link in the chain to understand, yet the most difficult to forge or change. It is the primary role of the organization leader to create the culture in the start-up phase, nurture it during growth, and modify or destroy it in maturity.
High-performing cultures share four components in common:
1. Contribution. Contribution refers to the actual value added by either the individual or the group or groups within which people operate. Contribution is a part of a culture when (1) results are valued more than hard work, (2) performance is more important than political connections in getting recognized and rewarded, (3) individuals are expected to take personal responsibility for their actions, and (4) there is a tolerance of unusual styles of behavior of the people who do good work.
2. Candor. Candor is a part of a culture when (1) people are frank, even when ideas directly confront those of superiors, (2) people challenge the unsupported talk and actions of others, (3) people routinely stop to reflect about what they are doing and why, and (4) exemplary performers are regularly observed and analyzed to fuel improvement efforts.
3. Community. Community is a spirit of interdependence among individuals within the supplier, its partners, the customer, and people within the organizations within the marketplace. The sense of community spurs the sharing of information, respect, and openness.
4. Constant Learning. Constant learning has special significance in making a culture amenable to change, because in order to constantly learn, an organization must actively listen, understand, and align with the issues and the feelings of all stakeholders. Organizations with this element built in are open to ongoing change because they see meeting stakeholder needs as an element of the culture. Constant learning is a part of a culture when (1) continuous improvement is valued, (2) innovation is prized, (3) appropriate knowledge-management systems are in place, and (4) quality failure is acceptable.
Culture of Success
Even in organizations possessing high-performance cultures, one more cultural dimension is needed to deliver customer success. This requires that a supplier embraces and operates based upon customer intimacy—a deep understanding of how the customer thinks and acts and what they value. Customer intimacy means that all aspects of the organization are focused on making all customers (or at least some segments) successful as each customer defines it. When customer intimacy is embedded within and throughout the organization, customer success follows. In short, this philosophy means, “when the customer wins, we win.”
This customer intimacy philosophy (also known as customer driven, customer first, customer centered, etc.) is widely espoused by organization management around the globe, with many companies’ lobby walls stating platitudes about the importance of the customer.
Yet, experience shows that identifying organizations that operationalize customer intimacy is quite rare despite what the mission statements proclaim. Recent research has shown that only 3% of 140 organizations studied were truly “customer-centric,” while fully one-third was found to be “customer-oblivious.”
The second prime responsibility of leadership is to craft and then oversee the implementation of the organization blueprint. Under leadership guidance, the marketing organization or the strategy group gathers, sorts, and analyzes the information required in the development of a compelling blueprint. External data gathering and analysis, including methods such as environmental scanning, voice of the customer research, brand perception/credibility analysis, and competitive positioning, are combined with internal data gathering and analysis, including the collection of perceptions and the comparison of external issues and needs with internal capabilities. These inputs help define the supplier organizations’ focus of ideal markets, offerings, and customers, plus a rich understanding of the issues and trends of the target market.
A compelling blueprint creates common ground, defines expectations, establishes decision-making criteria, and builds consensus and commitment. It is the high-level action plan for making customer success management a reality.
Below are some findings from the study along with some recommendations related to leadership. 
Study Findings Related to Leadership
- The proven model of key account management is an appropriate framework for delivering customer success no matter what the supplier business.
- For the most part, customer success was spoken of by research participants in tactical, not strategic terms.
- There is a mish-mash of approaches to implementing customer success management—different definitions, goals, issues, processes, and metrics.
- As validated by the research participants, delivering both customer success and the customer experiences that help drive customer success is everyone’s business, but the message, the motivation, and the money all start at the top.
- Only a small percentage of organizations in the study noted that a senior manager was in charge of customer success management.
- Some participants questioned the “internal commitment” of the leadership team in regard to customer success management.
- There were surprisingly little differences between how more mature and less mature organizations responded to the implementation of customer success management, however, more mature organizations had more metrics in place to measure results.
- Some concerns were voiced regarding if the appropriate structure was in place.
- Many on-premise organizations attempting to implement customer success appear to be unprepared for the transition (inadequate resources, undetermined structure, ill-defined processes, etc.). In some cases they are especially unprepared for the required change in culture, and hence, face the real possibility of failure.
- Take a holistic approach—customer success implementation requires a systemic approach firmly embedded in the culture and directly linked to the organization blueprint—this is a leadership requirement.
- Clearly formulate then articulate the organization blueprint over and over again with the emphasis on customer success.
- Take the time to formulate and communicate the lifetime value of key customers. The size of this number has wonderful motivational impact on both supplier leadership and supplier employees.
- Link executive compensation to customer success management performance.
- Publicly recognize employee actions that deliver on the customer success promise.
- The ability to scale is a big deal. If you have the luxury of time, start customer success efforts with key accounts to clearly define and refine all aspects of the supplier-customer success process and learn as you go. Deliver adequate high touch where needed (one-to-one), gradually find ways to enhance efficiency touching one-to-few, and build the capabilities to touch one-to-many.
- Invest as if your future is at stake (it is).
- Reality for pure cloud organizations: Unless your offering is light-years beyond your galaxy of competitors, you have no choice but to embrace a culture and a blueprint of customer success.
- Reality for traditional organizations: Transforming to a culture of customer success won’t work in many organizations—remember those 30% customer-oblivious organizations? Like asking a bluegrass band to play only heavy metal, the desired transformation is just too extreme. Conduct a Readiness Review to determine if the probability deserves the investment in time and pain. If so, aggressively invest and implement change management following a proven change management model.
Are you in charge of your organization’s customer success initiative? If, so start with the big dogs.
This blog is excerpted from the study “Customer Success: Managing the Customer Experience for Loyalty and Profit,” by James A. Alexander, EdD.
1. Alexander, J.A. 1999. “A Test of a Rapid Developer Model.” In K.P. Kuchinke (ed.). Conference proceedings. Academy of Human Resource Development.
2. Robinson, Florin and Justin M. Brown. March 2012. “How to Make Your Company Think Like a Customer.” Accenture white paper.
3. Alexander, James A. EdD. 2016. “Customer Success: Managing the Customer Experience for Loyalty and Profit.” Alexander Consulting and Service Strategies Corporation.
4. Steinman, Dan. “The Ten Laws of Customer Success.” Gainsight. http://www.gainsight.com/resource/the-10-laws-of-customer-success/