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CSM from the Trenches – 5 Fundamentals to Avoid Surprise Client Breakups

For those just joining my blog series CSM from the Trenches, welcome. This series, now a community for frontline Customer Success Managers (CSMs), discusses trends, best practices, and advice that can help the frontline.

We’re lucky to have this week’s frontline CSM best practice come from Erica Newell of Marketware. Erica has been a CSM for Marketware since February 2017 and became the Lead CSM shortly after joining the team. She brings with her nearly 10 years of customer success, coaching, and other customer-facing experience!

CSM from the Trenches Best Practice – 5 Fundamentals to Avoid “Surprise” Client Breakups

Company: Marketware
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
From: Erica Newell, Lead Client Success Manager

The “Surprise” Client Breakup

Not too long ago, the company I worked for at the time had built our budget for the next year based on a huge assumption: that our largest and longest standing client would renew their contract. Our roadmap for hiring, product development, and employee programs were based on this particular contract renewing. In the weeks prior to the renewal, our team had met with the executives at the brand and all seemed well.

Flash forward to the renewal. They had actually decided to cancel. Sitting around a table, we were caught with sweating foreheads and lumps in our throats. We felt completely blindsided.

Just thinking of this situation has me awkwardly adjusting in my chair. Although uncomfortable, it’s important to realize your clients and partnerships can come to an end. Many of us have been there before – an important partner suddenly stops referring business or a client that was certainly going to renew surprisingly terminates.

Competition is cutthroat. Building loyalty cannot stop when a contract is signed. Your competitors will work tirelessly to win your clients’ business. Consistent effort and support are necessary to sustain long-term business partnerships.

So what can you do?

Five Fundamentals to Help Avoid “Surprise” Client Breakups

While there are situations you can’t or won’t be able to directly control, you can often influence the outcome if you are proactive with the relationship, spot warning signs in advance (or avoid them all together), and take appropriate action.

The following fundamentals can be an eye-opening experience and make for better CSMs, better companies, and longer-lasting professional relationships.

1) Understand your client’s goals, challenges, needs, and how they measure success

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie observed, “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours”. Understanding your client is paramount because it helps form a solid partnership. Why did they choose your organization? What problems do they hope to solve by partnering with you?

It’s important to understand the answers to these questions not only for your key contacts, but also across multiple parts of their business and other contacts (and roles).  I’ve found creating advocates at all levels of a business drastically influences the likelihood of renewal. If you can make the end-users consistently perform well for and look good to their boss, you’ll win their loyalty. If you can help inform an executive and arm them, the chances of renewal are high.

Dave Blake, Founder and CEO of ClientSuccess, encourages CSMs and CS organizations to go “High and Wide”. He explains,“the concept [High and Wide] references the goal to develop as many relationships as possible high and wide within your customer’s organization. Rather than having the entire relationship hinge on one or two lower-level contacts that have little to no influence or buying power, broaden your scope to develop as many relationships as possible throughout the organization. Not only will you strengthen the overall relationship, but you’ll also uncover other opportunities to add value in their business that may result in expansion revenue.” Check out the full article here.

I’ve challenged myself to go “High and Wide” and can see that it’s improved my communication dramatically by making habit of targeting conversations around my customer’s goals. Clients will define their success criteria if you ask for them, which enables you to cultivate a strategic partnership with the tools you need in order to deliver value.

2) Deliver value and celebrate achieved value or success with your clients

While simply understanding goals is a great start, alone it’s not enough. Once you understand the value, you’ll want to work on delivering it. Align with their goals/expectations and celebrate achieved value or success.

A few years ago, I partnered with a large brand on an influencer marketing campaign. Their goal was to promote a new product and advance their market share simultaneously. We found and engaged already authentic influencers through social media, retail, and professional teams. The results were outstanding and surpassed the brand’s expectations; however, despite the success of the campaign, the success came near the end of the year as budgets were being reevaluated. One of my contacts informed me the executive team planned to reduce budget at the end of the year. I was so confused…we had just held an Executive Business Review (EBR) with their team a few months ago and we had clear evidence of success with this campaign. Eager to save the renewal, I began writing an email outlining our wins with data and other relevant explanations. Before I hit send, I paused, and realized I was going about this in the wrong way: what I really needed was executive buy-in and this long-winded email was not the way to do get it.

I pivoted and started to work with our creative team and other key leaders to develop an Executive Dashboard that resulted in a quick, one-page PDF. This provided a data-driven snapshot of the campaign’s results and could be used to support more strategic conversations. Coupled with the EBR, this snapshot armed the brand’s executive team with the material necessary to reallocate and increase budget. It was a huge win!

The key learning, in this case, was communicating value to the right audience.

3) Get your clients in the habit of asking the right type of questions

If there is one lesson I’ve learned from my experience in coaching, management, client success, and general strategy it’s that silence is not always golden. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel often does get the grease as we tend to respond reactively rather than proactively. This is a dangerous pitfall.

There are many reasons clients and partners may not be asking questions. Are you available to support them when their questions are initially asked? Are there ways for them to find answers on their own when you are not available? If you ignore the variety of questions that come your way and don’t provide answers in whatever form they might need to be, you train your clients to stop asking questions which leads to silence and your team becoming more reactive. Supporting clients with their questions is one of the simplest ways to build trust and transparency.

4) Build competency and confidence in your partnership/product

Competency and confidence are not the same thing.

Competency implies skill. Do your clients know how to be successful? Have they shown you they can do it? Do they understand how to work your product on their own? Do they have access the resources or answers they need to send you more business?

Confidence comes when your clients trust themselves and their desire to work with you (and your product). Do your clients want to partner with you? Do you have advocates in their business when you’re not present? Do your clients feel capable with the product? Do they trust you as a trusted adviser and their CSM?

Though simplified for the sake of this post, I’d recommend reading more on Situational Leadership for a deeper dive into understanding how to better coach, advise, and support depending on individual levels of skill and will.

5) Become a trusted advisor and partner in the relationship

The final fundamental centers around trust. Can your client rely on you? Have you illustrated you know what you’re doing and are genuinely interested into their success? Building trust requires a proactive relationship that follows the other fundamentals discussed in this post, as well as other best practices. Each are pieces to building the larger relationship puzzle.

Key Takeaway

While this isn’t a comprehensive list, these are fundamentals we can follow to proactively influence the success of our customer and reduce the likelihood of churn. Don’t be blindsided. Ask the right questions. Challenge the status quo. Be proactive. Invest in building loyalty with your partners and clients. Understand their success criteria. Deliver value.

Marketware is the leader in providing relationship management and data analytics technology to ensure organizations have the insight to strengthen their competitive advantage and generate new growth opportunities.

Join the CSM from the Trenches Community

You can become involved in two ways:

Guest blog posts: Have a frontline CSM best practice you’d like to share? I want to hear from you! This is a great way to share your unique perspective and thought-leadership. Example – this post is a good example

CSM shout-outs: Do you know a CSM who goes above and beyond the call of duty? Have a team member you’d like to give a special shout-out? This is what CSM from the Trenches is all about – celebrating the frontline CSM. Example here

Here are other customer success resources:

Customer Success eBooks:

Customer Success as a Culture: Customer Success Leaders Edition

Ultimate Guide to SaaS Customer Success Metrics

Other CSM from the Trenches Posts:

3 Key Learnings from Taking a Customer Success Industry Expert Out for Lunch

Mieke Maes, Intuo – 5 Keys to an Effective Customer Apology

Priscilla Zorrilla, 15Five – Asking the Right Questions to Challenge Customers

SoapBox Team Shout-Out

4 Segmentation Strategies for Frontline CSMs

Why Product Usage Isn’t Always King & 3 Lessons Worth Learning Early

2 Techniques to Avoid the ‘Overpromise and Underdeliver’ Temptation

Learn more about how ClientSuccess can help your company develop a strong customer success methodology and strategy with easy-to-use customer success software by requesting a 30-minute demo.

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