The Secret to Seamless Customer Handoffs
Handoffs are at the root of too many customer problems – especially in the enterprise. Read on to find out why, and my method for making them seamless.
Everybody says you’ve gotta nail the handoffs or you’ll lose customers. I couldn’t agree more. Except, I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve tried every suggestion out there. But nothing I’ve ever done to engineer the “perfect” handoff has really solved the problem. Transitioning custody of a customer between teams continues to be a major source of customer success problems — especially in the enterprise.
In fact, I completely stopped doing handoffs altogether in my SaaS/B2B customer success process. It started when I discovered the specific reason why handoffs cause so much trouble.
That insight was a key turning point. Once I understood the root of the problem, I could see that there will never be a perfect handoff – at least not with enterprise customers. Conversely, it also explains why many companies don’t have any trouble with handoffs, and why other companies start out fine but develop handoff problems as they grow.
Based on this key insight, I’ve created a very simple technique to determine the handoff risk and the best approach which I share below. But first, it’s important to understand why handoffs cause so much trouble?
The Trouble with Handoffs
The reason it’s so difficult to solve the problem of handoffs in the enterprise is because it isn’t really about you — it’s mostly about the customer. Let me explain…
The reason we handoff the customer between teams is because of specialization. It makes perfect sense: salespeople are devoted to selling, implementors are dedicated to onboarding, and support teams exist to address issues and questions from end-users.
Likewise, the customer also hands off custody of us inside their organization. In larger companies, the decision maker usually hands off to a project manager to work through the implementation, and after that, the project manager exits and the solution goes live for the users.
Here’s the problem: What is merely a handoff for us is actually a hand-down for the customer. Here’s how I drew it in my notebook…
Looking at it this way, it’s instantly clear what’s wrong: in every handoff, the focus of our engagement with the customer falls, and therefore so do we. The problem is, getting back “up” in the customer and reestablishing engagement with the executive sponsor is notoriously difficult.
What’s Wrong With Hand-Downs?
This matters a lot in SaaS/B2B because we need the sponsor to be engaged to have any chance of success. The solution just isn’t going to succeed without support from the top. And even if we somehow miraculously get the solution to take hold with users without this support (unlikely), we are eventually going to need that person’s enthusiastic support to secure the renewal.
That’s why losing engagement with this key person really is a disaster. This is usually the only person in the customer who thoroughly understands how your solution will drive their success, and that makes this person essential to your entire customer success strategy. Who else is in a position to appreciate the value you’ve created and how it specifically drives their success? Certainly not their project manager who’s focus is being on-time and on-budget. And certainly not the end-users who mostly just want things to be easy and trouble-free.
On your side, the person who established “custody” of this specific relationship and the mind-meld that occurred in the purchase decision is usually the salesperson. Unfortunately, the first handoff is also the moment when they also disengage from active involvement.
The Danger Zone
In my experience it is often not long before the customer sponsor starts forgetting some of the details about precisely what was agreed and even exactly what success looks like. In the vacuum created by the hand-down, their grasp on the specifics of the success plan begins to fade, and they enter the “danger zone” where they become vulnerable to having their vision of success hijacked. The first time they hear any complaint about the solution, it can completely take over how they think, shifting their mentality from a business project focused on success to a technology project focused on problems and issues. This is the most common way customers lose track of the original success concept. Obviously this is bad.
Now, I know very well that both the customer sponsor and the salesperson will adamantly deny that they are going to disengage. They’ll say that they are keeping tabs on the implementation and will be fully engaged when it is time to go live. But, to be fair, they both have a lot of other things to do, and far too often they won’t fully reengage, especially in larger enterprise projects, or where the implementation takes weeks or months. That is, until the inevitable moment down the road when the whole thing goes off the rails.
This is where the idea of the customer success manager (CSM) comes in to the story. The hope is that the CSM fills the vacuum at the top of my chart.
But, the trouble is, the CSM usually never has a chance to reestablish engagement with the executive sponsor once it has fallen. Most of the time, the CSM is stuck dealing with someone lower down – either a “system admin” or IT person – which will never be able to appreciate the original success plan and vision. Their focus is nearly always on minimizing difficulties and user complaints – hardly a recipe for real success.
In my experience this problem remains even when the CSM gets introduced right away by the salesperson at a “kickoff” meeting. This is because the problem isn’t really with your handoff, it’s with the customer’s. Once the decision maker hands-down the engagement, the CSM will be building a relationship with someone else, nearly always focused on issues other than the original success vision, and will have a lot of trouble getting the sponsor reengaged.
The magnitude of this problem can be seen in the immense effort CSMs continually expend trying to “get back up” in the customer. If they don’t succeed in reestablishing full engagement with the key leader there is little chance for a long term relationship. This is one of the most important sources of avoidable churn in SaaS/B2B.
The Solution: Durable Custody of the Customer
That’s why a key element of my solution has been to eliminate handoffs altogether. In my experience the risk associated with hand-downs is simply too great and the effort needed to recover too costly.
The way I do it is to bring the CSM directly into the sales process. If the CSM is involved in the sale, and ensures the customer sponsor remains engaged, then there really isn’t a handoff. After all, the CSM was there for the mind-meld, and they were an integral part of the success plan. In fact, I like to get the CSM deeply involved by tasking them with building the success plan and working through it with the executive sponsor to get their full buy-in prior to the sale.
During the implementation, the CSM conducts a regular cadence of oversight meetings (I prefer weekly), led by the CSM requiring the executive sponsor’s participation (and preferably the salesperson as well). This is an expectation that must be clearly set and agreed prior to the sale.
In this approach, there is no hand-down of responsibility and oversight in the customer. The CSM leads with the clear purpose of retaining sponsor engagement throughout that phase and beyond. This is what I call establishing “durable custody” of the customer.
There are other benefits to this approach including ensuring that the salesperson remains involved enough to be an asset at critical moments down the road. It’s also the best way I’ve found to implement a real success planning process and have the continuity to ensure that the plans are implemented and achieved.
Why Aren’t Handoffs a Problem For All Companies?
Once I understood the problem with handoffs, I could immediately see why many companies don’t have any trouble with them. Look again at my diagram of the customer above. It’s obvious not all companies look like this. Many companies simply don’t have that many levels in their organization (what I call “organizational distance”).
In fact, particularly in smaller companies, these roles are often played by the same person. In other words, the decision maker is the same person who sees the project through implementation, and this is the same person who is the ultimate end-user for the solution as well. In these customers, there is no hand-down and therefore, minimal handoff risk.
In other cases, the implementation is not complex or significant enough to allow for a loss of engagement. If the solution can be provisioned in a day or two, then the risk of lost engagement is effectively zero. However, in both of these cases there must still be a very tight coupling of sales and customer success to ensure continuity with the success plan. Building good success plans in collaboration with the customer sponsor, and making them the focus of all interactions is one of the keys to maintaining sponsor engagement.
This also explains why some companies experience no trouble from handoffs early on, but develop problems later. A lot of SaaS/B2B companies gain initial traction with smaller customers where there is little or no organizational distance between the decision maker and end-user. However, as these companies mature and their solution begins to take hold with larger enterprise customers, their handoffs can develop hand-down problems. I’ve seen this happen a lot in SaaS/B2B, and it’s often a source of confusion and frustration when terrific early customer success results run into trouble as they move upmarket. This is one of the reasons the enterprise requires a different approach to customer success.
How To Choose The Right Approach
Based on this, I use a very simple technique to determine the degree of handoff risk, and the right customer success process.
I will always use the “durable custody” approach described above if:
The customer will handoff ownership of your account within their organization for any reason.
The implementation will take more than a few days.
Your company is starting to move into the enterprise.
In my experience working with SaaS/B2B companies, eliminating handoffs via the “durable custody” approach has helped eliminate a lot of problems and drive exceptionally high customer retention, expansion, and advocacy. It is one of the key things you can do to enable customer bonding.
But this approach does not come without a cost. For one thing, it places much more responsibility on the CSMs to establish and maintain engagement at a high level in large enterprise accounts, and to build and deliver on specific account success plans. It therefore requires a relatively high degree of skill and competence. Finding and training the best CSMs is one of the most important things for any company to get right. Also, the relative number of accounts per CSM has to allow enough time for the high degree of engagement.
Although the cost is higher, the returns can be phenomenal, measured in reduced onboarding failures, much longer retention through customer bonding, and most importantly, in continual expansion of account value through real customer success.