Friday, November 21, 2014

Three important relationships

Driving results through Customer Success requires balancing relationships across Customers, Sales Partners and Product Management. This balancing act can, at times, resemble juggling chainsaws: each relationship is important, powerful on its own and has the potential to be a great resource, but if not handled properly, each can also cause significant damage to everyone around it. While balancing these three relationships is the key to driving results, creating effective relationships requires more than just back slapping and big talk. Within these relationships, Customer Success requires understanding and executing three key roles:

  • Advocate
  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Trusted Advisor 

These three roles are foundational to building effective relationships with Customers, Sales Partners and Product Management.


Advocate – Customers need a voice in the organization, and an advocate for the features, functionality and services they need to be successful. Customer Success is charged with acting as this advocate. The challenge in the role of advocate is knowing when a customer is asking for too much, asking for the wrong things or just being a pain in the ass because they can be. Effective advocacy for customers starts with knowing when to go to bat for your customer and having the relationships and business case to make each request most effectively.

Subject Matter Expert – Customers don’t always know what they don’t know. The role of Customer Success is to provide them with access to subject matter expertise they need to make good decisions. It does not mean that the Customer Success Manager needs to be or needs to position themselves as the all-knowing oracle. Rather, they act as a facilitator, bringing in the right expertise when needed. It also doesn’t mean that the customer is going to listen. The challenge in the role of subject matter expert is providing access to this expertise in a way that empowers the customer and the Customer Success Manager, maintains the relationship and sets a clear executable path forward.

Trusted Advisor – The path to customer success sometimes involves telling the customer things that they don’t want to hear, telling them the answer is no or that the problem is not with the software but with their team. The most difficult relationship for a Customer Success Manager to establish is that of trusted advisor. Customers are slow to trust vendors, especially those that call their babies ugly. The challenge in the role of trusted advisor is first establishing, then knowing when and how to leverage the relationship to help customers be successful.

Sales Partners

Advocate – If a sales person came to your front door would you let them in the house? What if they came calling every day with some new and even more important innovation than the day before? You might start pretending that you aren’t home. But what if that sales person came to the door with your best friend and trusted advisor? You, like many customers, might be inclined to hear them out. The role of advocating for sales partners is a difficult balancing act. You will quickly lose your trusted advisor relationship if you are beating a path to your sponsor’s door with every new discussion the sales team wants to have. At the same time, if you aren’t enabling sales, you simply aren’t doing your job.

Subject Matter Expert – The best sales partners are eager to find subject matter expertise and leverage that to solve a customer’s problem while driving a sale in the process. The challenge in the role of subject matter expert supporting sales is ensuring that the expertise you provide is not distorted to fit a sales agenda that is in conflict with true customer success. There is a well-worn saying about sales and customer success: “They [sales] sell the dream and we [customer success] live the nightmare.” The role of subject matter expert can be a clear competitive differentiator with sales, especially when combined with the role of trusted advisor to the customer, but this is a relationship that needs to be carefully cultivated and managed.

Trusted Advisor – Sales managers, and not all of them will admit this, don’t always know everything about the product, the customer or the customer’s business challenges. Driving big deals requires aligning these three elements and the role of Customer Success is critical. In the role of trusted advisor, the Customer Success team can provide the sales team with insights into the customer and product fit, helping sales find the optimal alignment.

Product Management

Advocate – While the customer needs a voice in the organization, the product team needs a voice with the customers, an effective advocate for how the product works today, what it is designed to do and why, and balance the legitimate needs of the customer for product evolution with the needs of the product team for innovation. The best Customer Success Managers balance these competing priorities because they truly understand their customers’ needs not just today but tomorrow and a year from now. And they enable the product teams to get there by managing expectations on both sides for incremental evolution as well as step-wise innovation.

Subject Matter Expert – Product management and engineering need eyes and ears on the street to ensure that the problems they are attempting to solve through the software are 1) the right problems to solve and 2) being solved. The role of customer success is critical here. As subject matter experts and trusted advisors to the customer, customer success managers can help interpret the business and ensure the most effective alignment of software to business need. This requires not only subject matter expertise but the ability to understand current and future business needs of the customer, and support the product management team in making the translation to software requirements.

Trusted Advisor – Product management needs a trusted advisor who can help deliver bad news to customers and properly interpret customer feedback. Not every feature is going to be released on time and not every release is going to be bug free. Product management needs a trusted advisor in Customer Success to understand the level of impact of the product miss and to understand the right course of action to correct the customer impression and frustration. The challenge for Customer Success in the role of trusted advisor is removing personal emotion from the conversation and focusing on advising the product team on what the customer really needs to move forward.

Driving results through Customer Success requires balancing these three key relationships. By understanding and seamlessly executing the three roles of Customer Success, the juggling act becomes a feat of skill rather than an accident waiting to happen.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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