The time has arrived. You put a reliable team of CSMs in place, you have executive support, and the portfolio is growing by leaps and bounds by sheer numbers and in revenue. Now the team is ready to focus on demonstrating value within the account base. Your CSMs have spent weeks, maybe even months, finalizing success plans for customers based on buying insights, usage data, and sales team input. They’ve made notes in your CS technology platform or matter of record. They feel good about the progress they will drive with and on behalf of each customer, and they are ready to kick things off. All is well, right?
As a customer success leader, there is an important question you should ask each CSM before they go through the cycles with a new success plan:
‘Have you had a productive dialogue with each customer to get buy-in and ensure that they align with the goals and are ready to do their part to move things forward?’
The answer to this question lies in whether or not the customer has:
A. explicitly acknowledged the plan and the goals therein, and
B. has committed to offering up the time, energy, and resources to drive the goal forward.
Without a definitive ‘yes’ to both of the above statements, the initiatives are at risk of moving slowly, stalling out, or not moving at all. If a CSM hasn’t had a conversation with clear outcomes and full stakeholder support, the ability to drive success diminishes significantly. It seems like a simple exercise, yet world-class customer success organizations understand that customers have to buy into the vision to inspire them to participate in the process.
Let’s back up a second and revisit what a success plan is so that we’re on the same page. ServiceSource has put together a solid and straightforward definition in their white paper on the concept:
“A Customer Success Plan is a clear statement of “what” and “how” you will deliver value throughout the customer lifecycle. The Customer Success Plan is built by understanding expectations—both your customer’s and your own.”ServiceSource
A success plan is essential because it allows the CSM and the key stakeholders to operate amidst both respective organizations’ other mission-critical activities. The success plan essentially becomes a north star, albeit a complex north star, when you consider the acquisition, onboarding, adoption, and delivery stages of the customer lifecycle. We also have to consider the customer’s size, the solution’s complexity, and other factors. The success plan is a guiding point for forward movement nonetheless.
The ability to drive a success plan to completion, particularly in complex environments, is a skillset in itself. At Tribe Strategy, we believe that it all starts and ends with how the CSM communicates with the customer and drives the narrative. Success plans are great in theory and on paper, but they are only as effective as the dialogue to influence continuous movement. The key to real, measurable success is how conversations are guided by the CSM to make things happen. Here are a few components that empower CS teams to drive success plans effectively.
Success Plans Must Be Structurally Sound
For starters, the success plan’s goals or milestones must be SMART.
These are the fundamentals of a strong success plan. We help CS teams take these fundamentals a step further by adjusting on the fly, creating environment-agnostic proof goals, and ensuring that everyone stays on track. These may seem like cliche business terms. Yet, as professionals, regardless of function, including myself, there are moments where we have either defaulted to habits picked up over time in our career or got away from the basics in an effort to hit a “home run.” Both behaviors can lead to projects stalling, delaying, or getting overlooked for months.
As an Enterprise CSM, I was assigned to a Fortune 100 automaker where a small yet impactful initiative for the customer sat open for 18 months or more just because no one took ownership. The plan to drive that initiative home was not properly documented, and there was no one to communicate the vision effectively to the customer. After evaluating the situation, I was able to get that project moving and ready for customer review in three months, but I had to break the objective down to its simplest form, clarify expectations with the customer, and move forward from there.
Change is Constant
In a past life, I developed business plans for start-ups and existing businesses looking to get SBA loans to fund and grow their ventures. The business plan represented a “snapshot” of their performance to-date if they were an existing business and a conservative view of the future if they were a new business. One of the most important things I learned in working with those clients to flesh out the narrative is this: the game changes before the ink dries. The plan is a guide, not the gospel, and is subject to change at any moment. This concept is no different for success plans. A CSM’s awareness of this fact is vital to the process.
Once the CSM has settled on initiatives and the customer agrees on the goals, guess what? The world keeps moving, and business goes on every single day, creating a constant, often subtle, ripple effect on the nature of the efforts that are in play. Everything is continuously in motion, and once CS teams understand that, it becomes easier to be nimble in the market with customers. The overall goal or initiative may or may not change for the client, but subtle changes in the environment may impact the success plan’s strategy. Some of these external changes may include:
- Promotions / Demotions / Turnover
- Organizational Change (Restructuring of Business Units)
- Press (Good or Bad)
- Operational Change (Change in Processes or Workflows)
Thus, a CSM should communicate with the customer accordingly and thoughtfully update the success plan. As the customer’s business changes, a CSM must reconsider the impact on the success plan’s strategic execution and communicate to internal stakeholders on collaborative items to ensure organizational coherence.
Be The Quarterback, Not The Kicker
If we compare the world of customer success to football, it becomes quickly apparent that the best CSMs can play multiple positions, but the role closely resembles a Quarterback on an account. The Quarterback position leads the rest of the team and is the only position that has the power to call the right plays and move the ball “down the field” when it comes to success plans. One mistake I often see is CSMs playing the role of the kicker, proverbially “kicking’ the success plan down the field, waiting on the customer to “catch it,” and then responding accordingly. This is not always the most effective approach, yet it happens every day.
How the success plan is delivered makes all the difference. Take the following four approaches as an example:
- Email + Follow-Up Call
- Live Review on Call
- Real-Time Collaboration
- Agenda Topic on QBR
Our natural inclination is to gravitate to our personal preference for communicating the information, but the question a CSM should ask is this:
‘what form of messaging best serves the accountable stakeholders on the customer side?’
In our CS Power Dialogue sessions, we teach a systematic methodology called “Audience Calibration,” where we help CS teams properly evaluate audiences and tailor the channel, content, and timing, regardless of the message to be delivered or the situation at hand. This methodology is particularly helpful when it comes to communicating success plans.
Remember, It’s “Customer” Success
Customers are not thinking in terms of being successful with your solution specifically. Customers are thinking about the success of their business (or piece of the business that they own) and associated objectives. Your solution serves as a means to help them achieve those goals. The more CSMs keep that in mind, the better the success plan will be. This doesn’t mean that your solution isn’t valuable. It means it is essential to keep the customer’s perspective in mind as a litmus test for relevancy. For example, all new features on the roadmap are not relevant to all customers, and some customers don’t care as much about new features as being able to get the most out of what is available today.
Regardless of the size of the investment, the customer has options in the marketplace. Any given customer has chosen to commit to your organization over a specific term (one, two, three years, or more). Their plan, as buyers, is to achieve measurable ROI and long-term value from the solution. This is true even if that customer uses the solution a little differently than other customers across the portfolio.
It is essential to understand what real success looks like for the customer versus a few high-level bullet points to satisfy CS leadership. This is achieved through a very intentional approach to every conversation with the customer, including active listening and intelligent processing of information. Again, this back-to-basics philosophy rings true here as CSMs work to unpack the customer’s motivating factors for a thorough success plan.
All Success Plan Goals Are Not “Strategic”
There is a misconception that success plan objectives have to be these complex initiatives that save the customer millions of dollars and revolutionize their business. This is not the case. Some items are just critical to the customer’s business and occur unexpectedly, yet the CSM must quarterback the efforts to resolve the issue.
An example of a non-strategic item is an outstanding “hotfix” for a critical bug. That is not a popular term in Enterprise software, but nothing is perfect, and it is a real part of the SaaS world. In short, a “hotfix” is a code correction to a bug in the system and deployed as soon as it is ready, outside of the regular product release schedule. Effective execution requires the CSM’s collaboration with the customer and your organization’s software engineers to correct the issue. It may have been an unexpected item, but once it begins to impact business beyond expected functionality, it becomes a value point for the customer.
It is not uncommon for customer calls or QBRs (Quarterly Business Reviews) discussions to stumble upon a languishing item such as an outstanding hotfix. The customer’s most important items will continuously be brought up until the customer feels the items are resolved, no matter how seemingly insignificant to the overarching “journey” the CSM has outlined. Sometimes, it is a tactical pain point that requires a concrete solution, and it should be in the success plan to ensure that it doesn’t lose priority.
Accountability is Non-Negotiable
How do CSMs keep customers on track with the plan? There is a specific way to communicate with the point of contact to get things moving. Knowing these components and how to leverage them in the arsenal is critical to securing customer buy-in and holding them accountable for progress.
Often, CSMs will get on a call with a customer to discuss the success plan or progress on an initiative, and the customer will exclaim, “Oh we’ve been swamped with this other technology project and everyone is tied up with that!” This is a common, yet subtle, shift in accountability, and the CSM is expected to accept that response. It’s not that the customer doesn’t care, but they haven’t been sold on the ultimate end result in a way that keeps them vested in the project. Even if there are competing priorities, there are always ways to keep initiatives moving forward with the CSM’s focus and guidance.
One of the most unproductive situations a CSM can be in is where he/she is at the customer’s complete mercy, and good business relationships are not one-sided. Here’s what being at the mercy of a customer looks like:
- The customer cancels calls at will without any recourse
- The customer dictates agendas without leaving room for the CSM to drive items that benefit the customer
- The customer takes the CSM down rabbit holes on items outside of the CSM’s control.
We all have been there in customer success, but it is possible to turn the corner with these stakeholders, even when it seems impossible. Customers must be held accountable to do their part to contribute to the desired outcomes outlined within the success plan. That cannot happen if the customer bis not bought into the vision of success, but once they are, accountability is non-negotiable, and at that point, there is no need to negotiate because the CSM has set the stage for the customer to be fully collaborative, no matter what happens.
In summary, there are nuances to skillfully driving success plans. As a discipline, customer success aims to create lifelong partnerships by helping customers realize the untapped value in their business. Your organization’s ability to do this at a high level consistently leads to clear, measurable benefits such as driving additional annual recurring revenue (ARR) from those accounts. None of these achievements happen by accident, which is why success plans and the ability to communicate and manage them effectively are critical to the relationship. It is a central characteristic of the difference between having a customer success team in place and embodying customer success as part of the culture.