Teaching to Fish: Why Self-Sufficiency Means Customer Success


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“Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day,” the saying goes. “Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

As a Customer Success (CS) professional, have you ever found yourself doing everything for a customer instead of teaching them to succeed themselves? I’ve seen firsthand how a customer’s dependency can do more harm than good—and how leading them out of that comfort zone can help them achieve more than they ever imagined.

Oftentimes, businesses will onboard customers with plenty of enthusiasm but few “fishing” skills. You’ll need to provide plenty of proverbial fish: basic best practices, help with features and so on. These things provide important short-term value—but the real value comes when you teach the customer to catch their own fish. That’s what builds a sense of competence and confidence. That’s what leads your customer to self-sufficiency.

Overwhelmingly, self-sufficient customers are your happiest customers. They see you—their CSM—as their partner, advocate, and coach, not just their software expert. Where you used to spend time responding to problems via email, now, you work with them proactively, brainstorming new approaches, connecting them with new resources and helping them network with other customers to overcome challenges.

It’s the sort of customer experience that drives deep loyalty and growth via word-of-mouth. It impacts retention and expansion, helping you move into additional business units without prospecting. It’s the engine of long-term growth.

So how do you create self-sufficient customers? It takes three things.

1: Give them the right resources to succeed

No matter your customer’s level of competence, you have the power to lead them to value faster by giving them the know-how to succeed. Your resources don’t need to be encyclopedic: start with a straightforward knowledge base of written training materials. Then, incorporate the videos you have. Not sure where to start? Every CSM on your team has, at some point, recorded a two-minute video to answer a customer question directly; compile these into a library and make them public.

You also have the power to make things difficult by failing to ensure that customers know where to go. A customer who hunts through five different online locations and bookmarks a hundred pages isn’t self-sufficient—they’re frustrated. Give them one link for everything they need to find.

If you have a CS platform, use in-app communications to introduce your resources at the right time. Customers don’t stare at their inbox all day waiting for an email from you, but they pay attention to messages that appear in the app they’re using. You can automate the timing of each message based on session length, customer usage data, persona, and more. Even if your customer hasn’t been active for weeks, you can greet them with a “welcome back” message pointing to a resource as soon as they log in.

2: Set the customer’s expectations early and often

No matter how robust your resources, your customer is unlikely to go to them without your encouragement. Self-sufficiency starts with priming your customer to succeed, which means setting expectations early—and the earlier, the better.

This can start as early as the sales process. As you talk about the makeup of your client team—the implementation specialist, the CSM, and the support specialist—be clear about their roles, and reiterate them every time a new person is introduced.

During implementation, share the resources that will make the customer self-sufficient. When it comes time to introduce the customer’s CSM, reinforce the resources again, recommending that the customer check the resources out in their own time before meeting with the CSM for an hour to discuss how each resource applies to them.

Occasionally, you’ll hit a sticking point after onboarding where the customer continues coming to you for support issues. Here, it’s time for a forthright conversation that might go like this:
“We’re a fabulously trained team. I can absolutely handle these issues and be your technical support, but it will mean that I have less time to devote to other areas of impact for your organization. Of course, I want to help, but I can better assist you when I’m focused on your success; on realizing value for you; on making you look good to your leadership; on freeing up your time to tackle bigger initiatives.”

That tends to get the message across.

3: Be sure to keep challenging the customer

Why would you want to challenge a self-sufficient customer? Customer Success doesn’t aim for a steady state—it’s a growth function. And there’s a fine line between self-sufficiency and complacency.

How can you determine if you have a complacent customer? It’s tough. At a glance, they show the traits of self-sufficiency. They’re successful. They’re using the right channels. They look like power users… except they’re not necessarily seeking to do more.

Once they’ve achieved their initial goal, the complacent customer marks the project as complete, and your product becomes less of a focus. Soon, you’ll see results that aren’t as strong as they used to be. All of a sudden, you’re in the danger zone where usage decline or even churn becomes a risk.

Look at adoption data and engagement to see whether usage is steady or increasing incrementally. If it’s only steady, it’s time to challenge the customer. If they’re spending 1,000 minutes a month in your application, how can you lead them to 1,200? It might be inviting them to a refresher meeting because you’ve added new features lately. You might have new resources, or thought leadership, or an event in town that could get them to the next level. Use the data, sell the benefits, and adapt.

And finally: teaching works both ways

Continuous improvement is the name of the game—and not just for your customers. When your customers reach self-sufficiency, ask for their feedback on what worked for them. Which resource was instrumental in building their confidence? What was the conversation that made things ‘click’?

Share your learnings with your team, compile your successes, and adjust accordingly. Happy fishing!


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