Welcome to our blog series CSM from the Trenches, a community for frontline Customer Success Managers (CSMs) that discusses trends, best practices, and advice for the frontline.
Being on the CSM frontline allows us to directly influence the success of our clients. I love that; as our clients are successful, we’re successful. Each day we learn from the trenches what it takes to make clients happy and successful.
Our “Mentors” questions are geared toward CSMs receiving mentorship directly from Director-level and above customer success leaders, in order to help them grow professionally. The goal is that by sharing our experiences we’ll be able to learn and apply more practical advice / practices to our careers.
Let’s get started with this week’s post!
From: Steve McDougal, VP of Customer Success
Company: Preqin Solutions / Dynamo Software
Location: London, United Kingdom
What is one important lesson you learned in your early customer success days that has had a positive impact on your career? How has it helped you?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned was actually quite a hard lesson at the time; I had just started a role as a Customer Success Manager and was rather keen on simply getting to know my customers.
Starting with a particular customer, I called them to let them know I was their CSM and wanted to better understand their goals. What happened next came as a shock as I was faced with a tirade of complaints. The customer couldn’t believe that I didn’t already understand their goals, as well as the fact I hadn’t taken the time to really get to know them and their business. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, because I was sincerely reaching out to become better acquainted with the customer.
This experience taught me the importance of doing your external research, including things like going to the company’s website, understanding what the company does, reading the company’s annual report, looking for any news related to them, etc. What this does is help you get a sense of the strategic direction the customer is undertaking and the key challenges they might be facing.
Furthermore, I realized the importance of my internal network or the tribal knowledge available internally. This means talking to the people who’ve sold or implemented the customer to understand the key goals of why they bought us in the first place.
Ultimately, this was a lesson in preparation; now I make a conscious effort to understand as much as I can about a customer before actually engaging with them. I think this is a key to really help CSMs be successful in their role and it only takes about two to three minutes in terms of preparation, particularly when you’re taking on a new customer.
I’m the first CSM for my company and have been asked to implement a “customer success” program. Where should I begin? What tactics have worked for you?
Every Customer Success program should start by answering the question “what are we wanting to accomplish?”. Once this is understood, I’d recommend speaking with customers to collect feedback about what success actually looks like. Consider how your software helps them to be successful, especially in terms of customer enablement. Another aspect we must remember is the ROI being derived from our product or services.
Something that’s worked well for me is surveying customers my company has had over the past year to ask them what was important in terms of being successful. I’ve also worked toward better alignment with my product development department to look at how product itself contributes to making our customers successful. Coupled with the overall customer experience, it makes sense to implement a customer health program and look at the key metrics that drive a customer’s success. From a business perspective, we must focus on customer lifetime value or retaining customers for as long as possible.
If you’re struggling to get started, you should look at what other companies in your industry are doing and how they’ve created customer success programs. Join networks, read blogs, attend webinars, and participate in your local meetups.
I’ve used many of these tactics as I started my role as a customer success leader and they’ve helped me get to where I’m at today. Fundamentally, you can never go wrong talking to customers and working toward greater internal alignment around your customer’s success.
What are two or three ways you’ve established (or improved) “customer success as a culture” within your organization?
This is a really good question, because customer success is definitely a culture and not just a department; an entire organization must be bought into the idea in order to excel. From sales to marketing to implementation to onboarding, everyone must understand what customer success looks like and be aligned on the desired outcomes.
The way I’ve always done this is speaking with each department head as I join a company. and look at how we can establish internal alignment. For example, with the sales team we might consider how customer success can help the company become more commercial in the way we pitch products. On the other hand, salespeople might be able to help customer success with clients who have stopped engaging with us. I’ve also worked toward greater utilization of a reference program where we set up satisfied customers with potential prospects, which often results in a new sale.
These are a few ways I’ve contributed to the discipline of customer success as a culture. It’s certainly a give-and-take relationship with other stakeholders. Product, for example, might present the product roadmap to customers and in return customer success will help beta customers understand the new features as well as set up customer interviews for the product team to gather feedback.
Goal alignment is key for any organization to build customer success as a culture, especially within the C-suite. These individuals can help drive objectives forward and measure against any key performance indicators.
What are two to three qualities of a great CSM? And why?
Over the many years I’ve been around in the industry, these are the three top qualities I believe every great CSM possesses:
- Deep, pure and natural curiosity. It’s important to be curious about a customer, their business goals, desired outcomes, etc. CSMs must also be curious about your own product, how it works, how it could be improved, and so forth. If you’re not interested in any of these things, you probably wouldn’t be that great at what CSM needs to do.
- Resilience. The top-performing CSMs I’ve known are particularly resilient. Personally, this has meant they respond well to setbacks. For example, it could be working with an upset customer, responding well when the product doesn’t work properly, or persisting through challenging situations. CSMs must be resilient and not take feedback personally, especially when challenging customers might not be the nicest individuals to work with.
- The ability to build relationships. CSMs need to be able to effortlessly speak with C-level executives and other key stakeholders. Building relationships is critical, particularly for champion engagement. A great CSM can find and develop relationships with these champions. Doing so regularly strengthens a CSMs position within that account.
Was there a time you messed up and felt like you’d failed within your role or career? How did you bounce back?
Referencing back to the first question and the most important lesson I’ve learned in my career, I honestly felt like I had messed up with that customer when I was just trying to be helpful. That experience taught me the importance of thoroughly preparing for every meeting and situation. Now that I’m a Customer Success leader, I try to communicate this as often as possible to my team. I want them to really prepare as much as possible for their meetings, particularly when they’re meeting someone for the first time.
I felt I had messed up because it happened to be a strategic client. Things had gone so poorly a senior contact called and criticized me on Christmas Eve. On our group call, he asked my why I didn’t know anything about their business and told me how incompetent I was for not knowing those things. After the call, I bounced back by doing something about the criticism. I worked diligently to prepare for all of my calls, as well as not taking the harsh words so personally. By putting myself in the shoes of the client, I was able to better understand why there were upset and that their feelings were valid.
Even three to six months after this call, I wasn’t able to turn them around and we lost the account. While we shouldn’t have sold to that client in the first place because their use case wasn’t a good fit, I think it’s important for any CSM to realize they need to do their best to understand their customer’s industries, use cases, and business objectives more proactively than we might currently be doing.
What are one to three books, blogs, or thought leaders that have greatly influenced your career, and why?
- 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer – this book transformed the way I lead and think about situations and customers. It’s helped me be more conscious of building mutually profitable relationships.
- Bruce Temkin, Experience Management (#XM) Visionary, Keynote Speaker, Co-Founder of CXPA.org, and Head of Qualtrics XM Institute – customer experience thought-leader who helps large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers.
- Jean Bliss, Founder and CEO of Customer Bliss – has over over 22 years as the first version of a customer experience professional in 5 major US corporations; also has a podcast where she interviews a lot of customer experience and customer success leaders.
What is one customer success principle you try to live by?
“The customer is not always right.”
Within our industry, it’s very easy to follow the mantra “the customer’s always right”. I believe this does more harm than good. What often ends up happening is we try to adjust our platform or software for customer going beyond our intended use case. We end up spending a lot of money and time on professional services, trying to implement something that isn’t really suitable for our business or the customer. I’ve seen this happen too many times, so as CSMs, sales reps, marketers and leaders we need to be more prescriptive to our customers within the use case(s) we actual solve for.
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