5 Surprisingly Simple Practices of Stellar Customer Success
These are the 5 concrete things anyone can do right now to start crushing it as a customer success superhero.
In my last article, 5 Counter-Intuitive Ideas of Phenomenal Customer Success, I described the unconventional shifts in mindset that are key to generating exceptional customer success results in SaaS/B2B. Each one challenges a dominant mode of thinking in the customer success world, and together they constitute a departure from conventional customer strategy. I call this approach, Client Velocity.
If you have not already read the article, I strongly recommend that you pause now and read it before proceeding. I promise what follows will make a lot more sense. Principles are magic in the way they clarify what matters. And when we can see what matters most, we also see what matters less. These principles are a tool for focusing scarce resources where the leverage is highest. The next step is to translate principles into action.
What follows are the behaviors that put each of the 5 Principles into practice. They are specific and concrete. They can be performed by any person or team, in any organization, and do not require a new customer success playbook, or a snazzy new system. And, best of all, they are very simple things you can start doing right now.
But don’t be deceived, these are the most powerful actions you can take to significantly up your game and create enduring bonding with your customers. I have demonstrated that, if done consistently, they drive incredible results. So let’s get started…
The 5 Practices of Customer Success
First Principle: Success [not happiness]
A strategy focused on customer happiness is not the key to long term renewal. Focus instead on understanding and driving the customer’s own definition of success.
Practice 1: Plan for Success
Create a custom success plan for every client. It’s impossible for me to believe that any success manager can be intent on driving their customers’ outcomes without a plan. Creating a custom-tailored success plan for every client is the first essential practice of Customer Success, yet it’s astonishing how many people don’t do it.
What is a Success Plan? This discipline ensures all the essential elements for client bonding are in place. First, you cannot take ownership of the customer’s success if you don’t know what it is. Naturally, it has to be measurable, and there must also be a clear target the customer would view as unequivocally successful. No plan would be complete without a timeline, milestones, and a clear definition of all the roles and responsibilities. That’s basically all there is (except for one additional key 6th element that I discuss below).
The formula for a great Success Plan:
Clearly define the client’s Purpose (what is success?)
Determine the Metrics and how to Measure
Agree on the Target
Create the Timeline and Milestones
Define the Roles and Responsibilities
Beware of the tendency to over-engineer the Success Plan. It’s great to have a beautiful document, but that’s not what a success plan is. Obviously it must be written down, but stay focused on the reality of the success plan as something you do, rather than fetishizing the written object itself.
What is NOT a success plan?
an account status update
an overview of the account
a write-up of the last interaction
a “next action” plan
a QBR (though it should always contain the Success Plan!)
Which customers need a Success Plan? All clients need a success plan. But in practice, only customers with a success manager are going to get one. Creating a success plan is, by definition, an individual process in which each plan is specifically tailored to the client and their own vision for success. This is not something a robot can do, it’s why you (the CSM) are so valuable in SaaS/B2B. You’re welcome!
When do clients need a Success Plan? Now. It’s almost never too early to start. The best process introduces success planning before the client even purchases the solution. It’s also never too late to start. I’ve built success plans for clients after they’ve cancelled, and won them back!
Some common objections to creating a Success Plan for every account:
“All my customers have the same motivation. The ‘plan’ is always the same.” This belief is a delusion created by starting from the wrong place: your product/service. You must open your mind to the variety that exists in your client group, and the only way to do that is to switch your perspective to focus on the customer.
“My customer won’t engage with me to make a success plan.” This speaks to a more profound problem in the relationship. The good news is now you know so it can be addressed. Beware the urge to presume the relationship is otherwise strong and therefore it’s a bad idea to “rock the boat” by demanding more engagement. Do it now. This account is red.
“The customer doesn’t know what their purpose/success is.” This mostly likely means you are engaging at the wrong level in your account, which is endemic in customer success. What has happened is your account has “fallen” in the customer organization to the level at which it will eventually fail. The solution is to up-level your engagement inside the customer. Do it now. This account is red.
“There’s no way to measure success.” See “Practice 3: Measure + Materialize” below.
“I don’t think this customer will follow the plan or fulfill their responsibilities.” This is evidence that your entire on-boarding and customer success process is not designed to drive specific, measurable, success outcomes that are meaningful to your customer (see previous objection). This could also be due to the problems described in the second and third objections above.
“I don’t have time to do a custom success plan for every customer.” First, you need to take a hard look at how you spend your time. Anything else you are doing is lower leverage. Success planning takes priority. Second, you are probably over-engineering the process. Keep it simple.
Here’s the key to client success planning: do it. Just push all objections and worries aside and start today. Go through your accounts, one at a time, and engage with your clients. The process is magic. Your customers have probably never had this experience with a provider. It’s refreshing. And, here’s the secret: you will discover your bonding takes hold almost immediately, even long before you complete the plan and hit your goal. Of course, the target is important. But you will find just engaging in this practice transforms your customer relationships.
Finally, don’t just do it with the “good” customers that you are comfortable with. Your troubled accounts need it even more, and have the potential to respond even better. Try it with one of your difficult accounts today. Hey, it can’t hurt, and you may just be astonished at the turn-around that happens!
Second Principle: Behavior [not technology]
Technology does not transform organizations. Business process change transforms organizations, and technology makes it possible and scalable. Success is dependent on helping your customers change how they work.
Practice 2: Add Expertise
Add expertise to every interaction to help your clients change how they work.
The second key practice is based on the understanding that technology will not transform your customers’ business unless they also change how they work (see principle 2 here). Organizational change is hard, so owning their success inevitably means getting involved in their process change.
However, it is not as complicated as it may first appear. You don’t need to be McKinsey and create a big corporate change initiative to have a real impact. All you need is to recognize that the key to the change that matters most is found in the unique expertise locked within your company.
This practice is simply about continually sharing key insights, tips, and suggestions gathered from within your company and across your clients to help your clients change and improve how they work.
Some common concerns with adding expertise to your regular interactions:
“I don’t know what expertise we have to offer the customer.” Here are some simple ideas for gathering expertise:
Think of your most wildly successful customer, and ask the following question, “What did the customer change in their work process that was important to their success?” Inevitably you will think of several things. Write them down and share some in your next client meeting, adding that these are things your most successful customers do. Then, follow up on how it’s going next time you talk.
You should also reach out directly to your successful customers, and ask them the same question.Request an interview, and ask them about how they do everything, and especially, why they do it that way. If possible, go onsite and observe. As an added bonus, they’ll appreciate the recognition for their good work, and end up becoming more bonded as a result.
Identify the domain expert/guru in your company. I’m guessing you know instantly who that person is. Do they write or speak at conferences? Consume everything they’ve said/written, then go to them directly and ask if they’ll teach you and your team about what makes some companies so much more successful at this function than others. Write it all down. You are well on your way to becoming an expert advisor to your customers.
“My customer is not open to my advice on their process.” If the account appears healthy, then I suggest offering some expert advice when appropriate in conversation. If this is not possible, then write it up and send it by email. Be friendly and conversational: “Hey, I wanted to share with you something that another customer of mine has had success with…” If neither of these work, then either the account definitely isn’t healthy or you are working with the wrong person (see the second and third objections under Practice 1 above).
“The customer won’t change their ways.” This is a common issue, and is familiar to anyone who’s worked in the enterprise. As I’ve said, organizational change is hard. Have some empathy for your customer, their processes are usually the result of forces far outside their immediate control. Keep in mind that their rigid processes are part of what has helped them scale to this point. Be patient but persistent. Remember that small changes often have the biggest impact, and that the process of engaging with them is often as important as the result.
“We’ve tried everything and the customer just isn’t getting results.” This situation is neither particularly rare, nor necessarily a reason to panic. It’s a signal that there is more to learn about the customer: how they operate, why they do it that way, their unique resources and constraints. Somewhere in there is the key to unlocking their results. Keep digging, and when you find it you’ll demonstrate just how valuable you are to them.
It is unacceptable ever to write the client off as a “bad” account. They are your client, and you are responsible for their success. This is what you do. And remember that the harder you dig-in, the more they’ll come to see you as a trusted advisor. That means you are creating bonding long before you ever solve their problems.
Third Principle: Bonding [not relationships]
Relationships will not be enough to drive retention and expansion. The purpose of all activities in the company is to achieve bonding with the customer. Bonding occurs when you become integral to the customer’s success.
Practice 3: Measure and Materialize (M+M)
Continually measure and materialize the client’s key success metrics. Nothing demonstrates your commitment to the customer’s success more profoundly than measuring it. That’s why this is the keystone habit of customer success. As I have said previously, It’s impossible to be truly intent on something, and applying your efforts to effectively drive it, if you are not measuring it.
Measure The practice of measuring is simple. Once you know what success means to your customer, it is only natural that everyone involved will want to know how they are doing. They may already be measuring it, in which case you’ll want to get access to monitor it on your own and come to every meeting prepared with the latest updates. If they are not measuring it, get creative and figure it out. Make sure the metric accurately tracks success for the client.
Materialize Materializing is about tying the success metrics to your solution, so that your impact is clear. Often that is as easy as showing their metrics before and after your solution. But, remember that client velocity is all about making continual improvements. So most likely you’ll want to display the data as a time series (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.).
Some common objections to M+M-ing:
“There’s no way to measure success.” This is the most common objection I hear from low-performing customer success teams, and the clearest indicator the entire company is not centered on the customer. The short response is: This is almost certainly not true. And if it is, your entire business model is in danger. Grave danger. (Is there another kind?) Even if you know how your client defines success, you may still have a challenge measuring it. My advice: own that problem. The need to measure is never going away, and solving it can be one of the most powerful bonding activities you ever do. Think about how integral you have become with their success when the client relies on you to measure it.
“I’m not sure we really have any measurable impact on their success.” Beware of jumping to the conclusion that the solution is a failure, or the customer is a bad fit. It’s possible this anxiety simply comes from never having measured it before. It’s scary, but there’s no alternative, so get started. As I said above, you’ll get some credit in the short run just for trying.
“We are measuring but there’s no visible benefit.” Check your metric to ensure it really tracks your solution’s impact. Remember that the results are dependent on the client changing how they work, so ensure you are following Practice 2. Beware of the tendency to blame the customer (which is the cardinal sin of customer success). Up your game in Practice 4 below. And remember, if SaaS and customer success were easy, everybody would be crushing it.
“My customer doesn’t care about measurement.” You are dealing with the wrong person in the organization. Go back and reread the third objection under Practice 1 above (“The customer doesn’t know what their purpose/success is”).
“The metrics were progressing great initially, but recently they’ve stalled.” There isn’t space here to deal with this one. Just know that it’s important, and figuring out what is going on and what to do about is the responsibility of the success manager. Suffice it to say that stopping measurement is NOT the solution. Take ownership of the problem and hone your skills in Practice 4 below.
Make M+M a regular part of your kick-off’s, account reviews, QBRs/EBRs, renewal calls, and other touch points. Create a slide, spreadsheet, table, chart, or dashboard which contains the client’s success metrics. Review it regularly and talk about it with the client. Have they gone up? Why? Have they gone down or stagnated? Why? You are their partner in figuring it out and driving it up and to the right. M+M is the essence of success management, and the most important practice in creating durable bonding with your clients.
Fourth Principle: Learning [not teaching]
Learning is the essential attribute of great customer success organizations, and the best predictor of whether an organization will succeed in achieving bonding. Focus first on understanding.
Practice 4: Ask Questions
Ask a lot of questions, and write down the answers. If you want to be phenomenal at driving your clients’ success, you need to become a champion learner. All of the practices described above require you to acquire deep knowledge of your clients. It is not an overstatement to say learning is the quintessential attribute of stellar customer success managers. CSMs should view themselves as the front-line in the company’s imperative to continually learn and understand the world of their customer. This learning should be so effective that every other part of the company from marketing and sales to product and billing wants to engage with the CSMs to benefit.
But, you have only so much time, so learning effectively also means learning quickly. My mother always said, working hard and working fast are the same thing. This applies to learning. As you hone your craft, you need to develop habits and techniques that enable you to surface and leverage knowledge quickly. That starts with great questions.
Ask Questions Highly effective learners ask lots of questions. Quantity leads to insight. Avoid the tendency to focus all your questions around the solution. Ask about how they do their work, and who is involved. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to ask what I think is the most valuable question in customer success: “Why do you do it that way?” What you learn from this question will often lead to the key to unlocking their success.
Write Down the Answers Deep learning won’t happen if you don’t have a process for capturing answers. There are lots of systems and solutions for doing this, but don’t get hung up on the technology. The magic is in asking good questions and writing down the answers to support your work with clients, to benefit others in your company.
There are no limits to the types of questions that should be asked. However, I often provide my clients with the following “cheat sheet” to get them started and prompt some of the most valuable questions.
5 Key Questions of Customer Success:
WHY: What is success? What are your top strategic priorities?
HOW: How do you do it now? Why do you do it that way?
WHAT: What resources do you have to work with? What are your limitations?
WHO: Who is responsible for this success? Who will be essential to have involved?
WHEN: What is your timeline? When do you hope to achieve your objectives?
The above questions represent most of the general areas. But you obviously should be digging-in wherever the hunt for driving their success leads.
The good news is anyone can start this practice immediately. Here’s an idea: Instead of measuring yourself on the number of times you interact with a client, track the number of questions you ask, and diligently write down what you learn. You’ll see the benefits sooner than you think.
Fifth Principle: Velocity [not value]
Creating value is not enough to establish long-term bonding. The focus must be on continually finding ways to add more value, to more people, along more dimensions, always expanding your leverage as a partner in your customer’s success.
Practice 5: What’s After This?
Include a “next phase” in every success plan. Now that you have become integral to their success, the renewal should be a foregone conclusion. I always know there’s a problem when a renewal call culminates with something like: “So, would you like to renew?” If you have to ask, then the renewal is at risk. This final practice ensures that the renewal flows naturally. And, as a bonus, it is also the most effective method for driving account expansion.
This practice is simple: just add one more element to your Success Plan. In addition to the 5 elements above, there should always be a 6th which defines what comes next when the current phase is done. In other words, always give your client something to look forward to: a “next phase” with even better results.
In some cases what’s next is a high-priority objective or task that did not make it in the current plan scope. It is always about achieving higher performance, and often involves rolling out to more divisions, driving broader or deeper adoption, applying your solution to additional processes, adding services, or adding more functionality. In every case, what’s next must anticipate driving more results for the client.
If you find yourself stumped as to where to go next, here is my What’s Next “cheat-sheet”…
5 Ideas for What’s Next:
More success targets
Finding a compelling “next phase” should not be difficult if you are asking lots of questions (see Practice 4). Review your notes and you should have no problem identifying opportunities. In fact, most often there are too many to select only one, but this is a great problem to have. Openly engage your customer in prioritizing their wish list. You’ll probably end up not only with a compelling next phase, but several after that as well.
This practice should not be complicated. You do not need to write-up a detailed plan, that’s for later. Right now you are focused on your current success plan and targets. As you get closer to achieving your current targets, you can start to discuss it more and fill in the details, and the client will increasingly envision where you are going together. At that point, the renewal will be natural, and the conversation will most likely shift to expansion.
To summarize, here are all 5 Practices:
Plan for Success
Measure + Materialize