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According to a recent article on Theorem, “Consumer researchers say many companies don’t understand customer relationships and manage them unevenly, which leads to problems that damage the long-term relationship with customers.”
The authors of a Harvard Business Review research report entitled Unlock the Mysteries of Your Customer Relationships say that many company employees lack relational intelligence, meaning that they do not fully understand and adapt to “the variety of relationships customers can have with a firm and don’t know how to reinforce or change those connections.” In fact, in the research analysis of consumer relationships within the United States across, more than 200 brands in 11 industries, the authors identified 29 distinct types of relationships.
Understand the True Relationship Status
As customer success teams know all too well, relationship types can be positive or negative, distant or intimate, and intense or weak, communicative or noncommunicative, and so on. Your CSM team has customers with various needs that may even change on a daily or weekly basis.
Before companies can improve how they engage with customers - both existing and prospective ones - they need to understand their customers, but most importantly, need to understand their behavior patterns. What if the customer isn’t happy - how will your CSM know? What do they really think about your product or service? Would they tell your CSM or an executive if they weren’t happy?
Three Factors to Mind the Relationship Gap
Customer success teams should monitor the following three factors of each customer relationship carefully in order to determine if a relationship gap could exist between what appears to be true and what actually is true.
Here are 3 factors to consider to eliminate relationship gaps:
1. The Customer – What do they think about the product?
While it may seem to be the most obvious sign, often times the straightforward questions of “what do you think of the product or service?” or “how could we improve upon your experience with our company?” go unasked. A CSM might assume that if a customer is responding to them and is engaged in the relationship, they are happy with the product or service. Make sure you truly understand where the customer stands with the value and ROI of your product/service.
Mind the Gap: Just because a customer responds quickly and has a good relationship with the CSM doesn’t mean that they are necessarily happy with the product or service. For example: the customer may have KPIs or goals directly tied to the success of your product or service in their organization or department, so the customer will respond and will be engaged, because their own success depends on it. But are there aspects of the product or service that could be improved? Without asking the customer (or multiple stakeholders across the company), this could be a missed opportunity that could create relationship risk—a gap.
2. Product Usage – Are they using the product or service? How much?
Monitoring product usage is a strategy customer success teams use to gauge product engagement, stickiness, and indication of value. Product usage helps your customer success managers know how often clients are logging in to your product or using your service, how engaged the users are in your product, how many team members are using your product, and so on. These usage metrics are incredibly helpful indicators of how the relationship is going.
Product usage is an incredible indicator of not only how effective your product or service is to the customer, but also how “sticky” your product is to the customer organization. For instance, if a customer is using your product daily and has hundreds of users engaged in frequent activity, then it’s more difficult for them to transition vendors.
Mind the Gap: While product usage paints a great story of engagement, it doesn’t always tell the whole story. What if your product or service is absolutely fundamental to the company’s success? If it is, then they really have no choice but to use it. For example, a CRM is critical to a sales team. If your company sells a CRM product, your customers will use it - period. But what is the rest of the story? How much value is the product driving?
3. The CSM – The CSM’s relationship with the customer
CSMs that are in-tune with customers are able to ask straightforward questions because they have built a rapport of trust with their customer. In turn, when a customer has a problem or needs assistance, they look to the CSM for guidance or help. The CSM’s personal relationship with the customer - both the day-to-day contacts as well as other stakeholders - can either be incredibly beneficial to understanding the customer needs, or can be misleading if the relationship isn’t strong.
Mind the Gap: While a CSM with strong customer rapport and a solid foundation across the entire organization is able to ask straightforward questions, what about CSMs they don’t have that relationship? Will customers be honest in their reply or will they be wary of how the CSM will respond? Has the customer and the CSM been working together long enough that trust exists between both parties?
The Relationship Gap Model and Three Example Scenarios
The relationship gap model takes the three factors above and places them on a scale of customer happiness. The goal is that your CSM team works to eliminate the gaps that may occur between the perceived happiness of your clients, your product, and CSMs. The diagram below is an example of a strong customer relationship with satisfaction and happiness located on the left of the scale for each of the three factors.
Because a customer relationship is constantly in motion and satisfaction, I've provided three scenarios that highlight how relationship gaps may occur and how using the relationship gap model will help your CSM team develop a strong game plan to decrease the gaps.
Scenario 1: Your customer says they are happy with your product, but their product usage is down. Even though they tell your CSM they are happy with your product. There is a relationship gap. The next actions and strategies of the CSM should be to understand why they are not using the product. This will help to shorten the relationship gap and decrease risk.
Scenario 2: Your customer is using the core sticky features of your product. You find out after a phone call that your product is not meeting the needs of your customer. Now your CSM also knows the status of the relationship. There is a gap and the next actions should be to understand your customers challenges and resolve their concerns.
Scenario 3: You customer is using your product. Your CSM feels like they are happy with your product and service. This same client just responded poorly to an NPS survey. What’s next? Their is definitely a gap. Time to dive in and seek understanding.
You'll find many more scenarios as you use the three factors and happiness scales of the relationship gap model. Using this simple model your CSM team can navigate and build strong relationships with your customer base.
Is Your CSM Team Minding the Relationship Gap?
The best way to identify relationship gaps with customers is to build transparency throughout the entire customer lifecycle. If a customer feels confident in the relationship and knows that the CSM is looking out for their company’s best interest, then the customer is much more likely to be open in their dialogue about what’s working and what could be improved. The transparency between the customer and the CSM is critical for long-term success, so how are you equipping your customer success team with the tools they need to beware of the potential relationship gaps?
Check out our resources below for more customer success best practices and insights for how your organization can approach customer success with the customer at the center:
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.