Saturday, December 13, 2014

This isn't going to work

The role of a customer success manager can be difficult. Okay, that is a bit of an understatement. It can be incredibly difficult, frustrating and downright depressing. Being a Customer Success Manager requires solving problems. Really solving them. Not just selling past them, working around them or changing the focus. Solving them. And solving problems is hard. Another understatement. Customers who don’t want to adopt the product they purchased, technology that doesn’t work in the customer’s environment or with the customer’s processes, stakeholders who leave without selling the solution internally… these are all big problems and a typical day for a Customer Success Manager. When the problems surface and it becomes clear there is no simple answer it is easy for doubt to creep in and to think, “This isn’t going to work.” It is easy to give up.

In my career as a Customer Success Manager and leader of the Customer Success function I have experienced my share of difficult days. The most difficult are not just when we lose customers but when we know we deserved to lose them. Maybe there was more that we could have done as a team, more I could have done as an executive, more we could have done to find a technology solution faster. Whatever the reason, there is almost always more that we could have done. We live and learn and constantly improve, but losing always sucks. It can be especially depressing because in Customer Success we own it. We are often the last line of defense. We need to solve the problem or it doesn’t get solved and the customer leaves.

Over the years I have found a few things to be effective in dealing with difficult customer situations. 

Understand the problem  There was a great quote on the walls at SuccessFactors, “If you don’t want to do something, any excuse is as good as another.” Customers make excuses. They make excuses for not adopting the technology, embracing a new way of working or managing the change associated with it. To solve the problem you need to understand the real problem. It isn’t always the technology that doesn’t work. Sometimes it is the people trying to use the technology. Fixing a slowness issue or a broken workflow isn’t going to solve the problem of someone who simply doesn’t get it, or worse, doesn’t even want to.

Take it personally  This is not A problem. This is MY problem. The best Customer Success Managers make the customers’ problems their own and work to solve it as if their own career depends on it. If you don’t feel personal accountability for getting it resolved, it is hard to continue to find and fight for solutions to the most difficult issues.

Use the team  While Customer Success Managers need to own the problem, it is not theirs alone to solve. The most effective Customer Success Managers leverage the team to solve the problem. They build relationships and credibility along the way that allows them to come back again and again as different issues surface.

“If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.”  I love this line from Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. In Customer Success and in solving the most difficult customer situations it is absolutely true. To solve problems you need to get into it. You need to get into the details, get into the issues, keep digging until you get to the heart of the problem. It doesn’t work to nibble around the edges. Problems don’t get solved that way.

I have also found a few things to be effective in dealing with the disappointment and often outright depression that comes with losing customers.

Own it  You need to take it personally to solve the problem and if you try and fail you need to own it. If you blame the team, the technology or anything other than your own ability to execute, you can easily slip into a sneaky hate spiral that leaves you depressed and defeated. Losing sucks. It should. Owning it is the fastest way to feeling better.

Walk it off  Walking helps. Really. Get some air. Change your view. Think through the problem, the failure and the lessons learned while walking. Sitting at your desk brooding is ugly. Walking it off will make you feel better.

Learn from it  Shit happens. Asking yourself what you are going to do differently next time, then putting a plan in place to do just that will help you feel better.

Solve it anyways  I love the movie Tin Cup. In the final scene, Tin Cup is convinced he can hit it on the green. He misses. He misses again. He has lost the tournament and is at risk of not qualifying for the next. But he keeps trying until he gets it done. Solving the problem that couldn’t be solved in time to save the customer can be very consoling and make you feel better.

The role of a Customer Success Manager can be a difficult one and involve complex problems that defy simple and fast solutions. Some customers will be unhappy. Some customers will leave. It sucks every time. Customer Success is about finding the path forward, owning the issues and dealing with the outcome, win or lose.

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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