Let me ask you some questions… Are your customers truly realizing the types of value from your products, services and/or solutions that they desire and/or need to realize? How do you know for sure exactly what this value should look like? How is your company (and especially your Customer Success team) ensuring not only that this value is occurring but that it is being measured and reported on to senior management within your customer’s business? Finally, if any of the above is not occurring (or at least not to the level that it could or should be), what are the implications to your business of the potential loyalty of your customers when it comes to renewing their contract – and especially so in these times of financial difficulty?
If these seem to you to be good questions to be asking, then please read on as I describe what I believe to be a common challenge or problem within many Customer Success teams – that of alignment with the true needs of their customers during the early phases of the customer engagement – and then discuss the steps that businesses can take to align themselves with their customers’ goals and objectives and start proving the value of their products and services in terms that are meaningful to their customers.
When we think about the tasks that the Customer Success team are typically associated with, I would suggest that we tend to think about the types of activities that occur during the processes of onboarding and adoption, and perhaps also the monitoring of those KPIs related to supplier value realization (such as NPS and churn levels for example) and those KPIs related to product utilization (such as numbers of logins and support utilization patterns for example), rather than the types of activities or KPIs associated with customer value. And yet when we describe the role of customer success management we acknowledge that delivering value to customers is at least one primary aspect if not the core purpose of the role. After all, the very name Customer Success Management implies the purpose of managing processes and activities such that customers attain success.
The Customer Success “Logic Gap”
It seems to me that for some CS teams at least – and perhaps even the majority of such teams – there is what I might describe as a “logic gap” that has arisen between what the team says it does and what the team actually does. This logic gap is there because the Customer Success function has focused more and more on internal outcomes – outcomes for the Supplier as a whole and for the CS team specifically – and less and less on customer outcomes – outcomes that bring value to the client. This aspect of the role seems almost to be unfashionable as a discussion point, and relegated to being of secondary importance… something that only takes place later on in the customer engagement during the “Quarterly Business Review” and does not need to be given the same level of upfront time and attention to plan for or provide assets, resources and training for as certain other aspects of the role.
The Potential for Customer Experience Disappointment
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly it means that that a customer’s experience of the customer success service itself may be one of disappointment. Assuming they notice that anything is wrong, they may even feel let down because they did not get what they hoped for in terms of help and support to make a success (in their terms) of the underlying initiative that they purchased the supplier’s product or service to help with. Commonly, however, they might not specifically feel anything, since they did not go in with any specific expectations from their relationship with their CSM, nor did they start with sufficient expertise about Customer Success best practices to be able to have set their expectations differently. If this happens to be the case, the CS team may be able to “get away with it” as it were. But this in itself is part of the problem since it means that the lack of focus on ensuring success occurs for customers as well as for the supplier remains unnoticed or at least unremarked upon, and therefore remains to be not dealt with.
The Potential for Long Term Results Disappointment
The second issue is one of mid to long term results. Whilst in the short to medium term, this previously described focus on onboarding and adoption and on internal (ie supplier side) success might seem perfectly OK, and might appear to generate acceptable results, it is my opinion that in the long term it does not result in the types of strengthened relationships and bonds between the supplier and customer that would be desirable. This comes from the lack of common purpose between supplier and customer. Instead of a feeling of partnership between two teams, both pulling in the same direction and both focusing on achieving the same goals and objectives (ie those of the customer), we end up with two teams pulling in two different directions to achieve two different sets of goals and objectives. These two directions might be more or less aligned of course, and sometimes the alignment might not be too far out. But rarely if ever will they truly be exactly aligned except in those instances where this is deliberately sort after – in other words where the CS team recognize the importance of aligning their efforts to the outcome requirements of their customers right from Day One.
If the above problem occurs then as time moves on, the “outcome gap” that we have been describing may widen. At first, it might be a slender enough gap for it not to be noticed and even for it not to be important. But as time continues to go by this gap may increase sufficiently for it to become an issue. And because it is a creeping issue that occurs one degree at a time, it may not get noticed until it is too late and the customer has decided not to renew, and perhaps even has already determined the replacement product or service and is now moving ahead with the “new normal” and there is nothing that the incumbent supplier can now do about it.
Why this Might be a Worse Problem Right Now
“What went wrong?” the CS team might ask in surprise. From their perspective maybe things looked OK. But the truth is that the CS team had perhaps never fully understood this customer sufficiently to be able to appreciate their true needs. And/or perhaps they had never formulated sufficiently strong relationships with the customer’s senior decision-makers to enable them to know what was really on those stakeholders’ minds. And perhaps they never spent enough time figuring out what it was that they needed to make sure their product, service or solution should be doing, nor how the results from doing those things should be measured, recorded, analyzed and reported on to lend the type of support that those senior decision-makers needed when they were faced with the age-old question of “do we really need to be paying for this?” from their Head of Finance.
And this, of course, is one reason why this whole topic of customer value realization is of particular significance right now during the COVID-19 crisis. When everything is going well, companies tend to let things stay as they are much more than in times of difficulty. When enough is coming in in terms of revenues to pay all the bills and leave sufficient profits, the bills do not perhaps get scrutinized in quite such detail as when times are hard and every cent needs to be accounted for. When things get tight, companies naturally look to economize – what choice do they have?
There are only so many places where the money is being spent that a business can most easily economize on, and one area that is likely to be scrutinized very carefully indeed is what might be described as “non-essential services”. What I mean by that is any service that the company is paying for on an ongoing basis (rather than having already paid for upfront – which is quite a different matter) that the company could survive without having. What every business needs – and in particular what every business that supplies its products, services and/or solutions on a pay-as-you-go basis needs – is to ensure as much as possible that their product, service or solution does not fall into the bucket that the FD or other Head of Finance determines the company could do without. In addition, if (or perhaps we could even say “when”) the value of the service being supplied does get questioned, it is essential that the supplier of that service knows exactly what to say to prove the value that is being delivered to the customer in terms that are relevant and meaningful to that customer’s senior management team.
Begin at the Beginning with Expectation Setting
If the above is all making sense and feels relevant to your organization, then you might wish to take action to make some changes and improvements to what your CS team does and/or how those things are done. The place where change is most obviously likely to be needed might be thought to be firmly in the “Value Realization” phase of a customer engagement, ie during the period where the CSM is expected to attend regular ongoing meetings with the customer’s management team to review and report on progress and outcomes. However, it is my very strong belief that a lot of customer success problems or challenges stem from the initial effort that is put into preparing both the CSM and the customer for the engagement, right at the very beginning. This to my mind is the right start point for exploring how we can narrow down or even completely remove the “logic gap” issue we described earlier.
One of the pieces of advice that Steven R. Covey wrote in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin with the end in mind” and this is great advice for us when looking at the issue of misalignment between CS team and customer. This misalignment problem generally stems from what occurs in the earlier, preparation stage of the engagement. Lack of clarity on the goals and objectives right at the start of a new customer engagement is what causes the gap to initially occur, which then widens over time. Closing or at least reducing that initial gap is, therefore, an important part of the fix.
In my Practical CSM Framework I divide a “typical customer engagement” into seven phases that occur over three major stages. The first major stage in my Framework is called the “Initial Stage” and its focus is on getting things ready – primarily getting oneself ready as the CSM to be useful and relevant in the context of the customer’s needs and desires and getting to know the customer’s key stakeholders, as well as reaching an agreement on the types of ways the CSM will be able to help the customer with their journey towards value realization.
The first two phases are included within the Initial Stage. These are Phase 1: Preparation and Phase 2: Commitment and both of these are important to our conversation.
Preparing for Closer Customer Alignment
Before meeting the customer and indeed before performing any activity related to a new customer engagement, the CSM should engage in some basic preparation to get themselves ready for the engagement and to ensure they hit the ground running in terms of their usefulness to the customer. Phase 1: Preparation deals with what the CSM should do in this first period. Amongst the activities listed by the Framework for this phase are the following:
Step 8. Formulate the customer engagement strategy
Step 9. Create the customer engagement strategy roadmap
The customer engagement strategy is the high-level plan that should describe the goals of both the supplier and the customer that will need to be achieved by the engagement. The customer engagement strategy roadmap breaks down those overall goals into a more manageable series of objectives that can be placed on a timeline to get an initial feel both for what needs to be done and for how long it will take before results begin to emerge.
By utilizing a customer engagement strategy and a customer engagement strategy roadmap, the CSM ensures that the focus on all important objectives (ie including both those of the supplier and of the customer) are placed foremost in mind right from the get-go. This, in turn, provides a mechanism for ensuring that the focus remains on these objectives throughout all of the later phases of the engagement.
Delivering on Closer Customer Alignment
In Phase 2: Commitment the focus of the CSM is still on preparation, but moves away from preparing themselves and onto both preparing the customer and on collaboration between the CSM and the customer. A critical aspect of Phase 2: Commitment is the validation of information learned during Phase 1. By validating the known facts with the customer’s key stakeholders, the CSM accomplishes several things. Firstly, the CSM gains the opportunity to check that information they have been passed from pre-sales teams such as Sales, Marketing, and Product and internal tools such as CRM is up-to-date and accurate. Secondly, the CSM gets the chance to gain a deeper insight into the business needs of the customer and to perhaps uncover additional information about the customer’s outcome requirements that were not previously known (or at least not documented). Finally, the CSM can use this time with the customer’s key stakeholders to begin to form a high-quality trust relationship that will hopefully set them in good stead throughout the engagement to come.
The inclusion of the customer’s own key stakeholders in validating both the customer engagement strategy and the customer engagement strategy roadmap enables the CSM to gain all of the above benefits, plus it will ensure both maximum alignment between the objectives of supplier and customer and (moving forwards) maximum collaboration between them to get the work done.
In summary then, The Right Preparation leads to High Quality Onboarding and Adoption, which in turn leads to Greater Value Realization. By paying careful attention to understanding the customer’s true outcome requirements during the initial stage of the customer engagement, the CSM either entirely closes or at least significantly narrows down the potential gap between the customer’s expectations and what actually gets delivered over time as the engagement unfolds.
Whilst not being guaranteed, it is far more likely that the right onboarding and adoption processes will occur when the customer engagement strategy roadmap provides an accurate picture as to what is really important to the customer. Furthermore, after onboarding and adoption has taken place, KPIs can be chosen, measurements taken, analysis of data undergone and reporting completed that again focuses not solely on supplier value and/or product or service utilization, but on real progress made towards the actual outcomes of the customer’s underlying business initiative or initiatives, which in turn can be shown to contribute towards the attainment of their longer-term strategic vision.
This is not to say there will not be plenty that the CSM will need to ensure happens during the later, Value Realization phase of the customer engagement. Rather that if the CSM leaves the whole subject of customer outcomes until this phase is reached they will have made it far more difficult for themselves to fulfill on the promises of customer value, since by this stage, what might have been a small initial gap may well have widened into a significant gulf between the desired results and the current reality on the ground.
Time being unidirectional, it is not possible to go back to make adjustments to what happened weeks, months, or even years back. Realizing the value in Phase 6 of the framework, therefore, relies heavily on the right focus being placed on customer outcome requirements during the earlier phases of the engagement. In a sense it is like sowing seeds; however carefully the farmer tends their crop, they can only ever reap that which they sowed in the first place.