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Customer Success: An Instrument for Change

In a talk I delivered last week about our new service model at the Customer Success Summit in Toronto, I referred to customer success as a function that should be seen in the age of the cloud as a company’s most vital instrument for transformative change. It’s a bold statement since that’s not how companies typically view the function.

For sure, customer success is seen as important and as playing a pivotal role in helping customers survive business-impacting crises of one flavor or another. But transformational? Rarely.

For proof, follow the money. Where do organizations typically invest money and resources when they decide on a go-to-market strategy? If we’re honest, the answer is that customer success is usually seen as a subordinate partner to sales. That, my friends, is the kind of thinking that belongs in the past. In a time when our business world is moving toward a heightened focus on the client experience, that’s the kind of thinking that puts companies at increased risk of irrelevance.

Going all in during that talk, I extended the meaning of "instrument for change" to suggest that the opportunity for significant change through customer success exists for customers and for virtually all of a vendor’s organizations — and for each of the individuals who populate the teams contained within.

Customer Success Should be the Linchpin

That broad interpretation is a departure from how customer success is too often viewed. Which is to say, through a very narrow lens. It’s too often viewed as an organization operating in only one dimension: as providing service to customers to help them be successful with the product they purchased. That sounds sensible, I know, and while there is, of course, value in that, the vagueness of language and the open-endedness of the promise is a bit of a trap. Not to mention that it’s problematic that the value proposition is invented solely by the vendor and is difficult to measure in any business sense with precision.

That’s why we find ourselves facing a real dichotomy between the positioning statements used by vendors when deploying a customer success service and how that service is perceived by many customers. That value, again, is defined by the vendor and it tends to emanate from a reactive posture, which is not the kind of posture a company should adopt in the fickle, forward-moving world of cloud.

Proactive Not Reactive

Proactive is where the real value lies for customers. And what makes proactive highly relevant and critical is that it’s something customers crave and require. Receiving knowledge when they need it helps them achieve their articulated business goals. Whether it’s through a direct human-to-human connection or through a programmatic and machine-generated action, proactive outreach is what benefits customers most. (Spoiler …  we’ve validated this supposition with customers in our Voice of the Customer program.)

Beyond the Simple Definition

Seen in that light, the simplistic view of customer success as crisis mitigation or as  a service to help customers be successful with the product they purchased becomes a limiting construct. Why? Because it should be so much more than that.

That simplistic interpretation prevents customer success from living up to its potential. It should be seen, instead, as a force for delivering strong transformational value in three directions: toward the customer, the employer or vendor, and the individuals who hold the role of customer success manager.

Proximity & Data: Twin Advantages of Customer Success

No other organization or function within a company has the license to have such close, observational and influential proximity to the digital behaviors customers exhibit, to the experiences they have while using the product, to the actual businesses of their customers and the goals they aim to pursue, and to the decision-makers charged with making sure their pursuit results in positive business momentum.

Each of those items can be captured and documented in digital form. Each offers gateways into additional opportunities for collecting more data that can be used to better understand and substantially improve the customer’s experience with the products and the services. Data collected through customer success processes and digital interfaces should result in critical insights and these should be seen as essential fuel rods for the vendor’s corporate nuclear core.

Insights gleaned from customer success data can fuel many things:

  • More compelling and impactful success plans. Success plans have been around for many years, but from an industry point of view, their efficacy at driving real business results is decidedly poor. Too often they are reactive in nature, focused on obstacles rather than milestones, on problems rather than opportunities.
  • Business reviews that offer powerful targeted guidance. Customer success data should inform the kind of business reviews that customer executives have been wishing for and that they have found wanting in most customer success deliveries to date.
  • Improved product management processes. Customer success data should provide product management with a near real-time view of the full customer experience and (at least in theory) help them design better products in more powerful and immediate ways. What could it mean for product managers and their ability to plan for future technology solutions if they were able to depend on a steady diet of solid and programmatic customer feedback (via customer success-generated insights)?
  • Remove the middle man. If customer data was as enriched as I described, the customer success team could identify and act on the best opportunities for upsells and cross-sells (especially if the CRM system automated recognition of the customer data signals that suggest the time is ripe). In its LAER model, TSIA touches on such a future-oriented capability for customer success, as long as a data and insights engine exist (they refer to this as Consumption Analytics).
  • Reduce reliance on customer support. Ultimately, customers do not want to interact with your support organization. They would much rather find success using the product without having to contact anyone. Think about it. When you buy a product, is contacting the hotline or support line something you hope or expect you will have to do?
  • Elevate customer success. If customer success-generated insights drove process improvements and customer success moved into the forefront of where the economy is focused (CX), what might that do to the careers of the customer success individuals? As data and insights become more of the thrust behind the engine of the entire company, how will that enhance or alter the skillset and the aspirations of people charged with its management and implementation? I’ll give you a hint … it will enhance them. The World Economic Forum touched on this topic in this recent blog post as did The Boston Consulting Group in this post.

The future of customer success is about finally being able to exert maximum force on executing a proactive customer engagement model. Proactive does not mean providing a customer with information when they stumble. It’s too late at that point. Proactive means getting ahead of customer need with knowledge so that they don’t stumble at all. We shouldn’t want them to even be aware that the sidewalk is cracked.

Insights, not just data. Knowledge, not just information. These are the transformational precepts upon which customer success needs to operate for they offer the chance to influence across the dimensions of business, organization, and role.

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