Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thinking Tactically and Talking Technically

Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to build two amazing Customer Success organizations. Each opportunity brought its own challenges and rewards. SuccessFactors was challenged with a large and diverse customer base, 20+ products of varying degrees of technical complexity and maturity, and an increasingly complicated company structure. At HireVue, the challenges were very different. There, we had a few simple but disruptive products that could be viewed by customers as a “nice to have”, a small customer base where the relationship was often dependent on a single stakeholder, and an internal operating model that was still actively being defined. While the challenges of these two organizations can be viewed as opposite ends of a spectrum, one thing they both had in common was the need to get higher into customer accounts. To effectively drive change, help customers achieve their business results and ensure a productive partnership, Sales and Customer Success need to align with senior C-level leadership.

Customer Success Managers have a unique challenge in getting to and engaging the C-level. As the owner of the customer relationship, it's easy for CSMs to get stuck in the details. They are the individuals ultimately responsible for ensuring customers successfully implement, adopt and use the product to drive their business results, and successful CSMs go deep into the technical details to ensure all the pieces come together. They master the product so they can speak with confidence about features and functionality. They create and maintain detailed issues logs, project governance documents and other articles of good project discipline. These are important details that lead to the success or failure of any given account. Often, the CSM is also the glue that holds the relationship together and it is critical that they have the full and nuanced view of the component parts. But it can also lead to even great CSMs getting stuck at the Project Manager or Director level in the customer’s organization. The level of detail required to drive success is often the level of detail that prevents the CSM from effectively engaging the C-level. Commonly this barrier manifests itself as thinking tactically and talking technically.

To create highly effective teams, Customer Success leaders need to coach their CSMs in finding the right balance between maintaining detailed account discipline and driving strategic executive engagement. It is difficult to do both. But to impact change and lead CSMs to engage strategically with a focus on business results and business outcomes, leaders need to challenge their team to lift their heads up from the details to understand the broader context. Effective CSMs need to be able to articulate how individual decisions will have broader business impacts without getting lost in a feature functionality discussion. They also need to be able to articulate to C-level leaders the status of a project and the key issues that are facing the account without getting bogged down in a detailed project plan or issues log review. Customer Success leaders play a pivotal role here and can reinforce the right balance and behaviors by modeling strategic conversations and business focus while maintaining an eye for detail and execution focus through their one-on-one meetings, individual and team coaching and active mentoring.

The company structure and operating model can also go a long way toward aligning Customer Success with the C-level. At HireVue, one of the first changes I drove was to differentiate Professional Services (implementation, configuration and training) from Customer Success Management (relationship management, account strategy). It is difficult, nearly impossible in my opinion, to have one person turn on the software, train end users, and solve technical problems as well as engage the C-level, drive strategy conversations and manage toward positive business outcomes. Many organizations task CSMs with wearing both hats and are then surprised when Customer Success can’t get or stay aligned at the C-level. By differentiating the technical role of Professional Services from the tactical role of the Customer Success Managers, leaders can align their teams to drive the right type of influence at the right level.

Thinking tactically and talking technically is really only a symptom of the problem. But it also identifies a clear opportunity. The key to a successful Customer Success partnership at the C-level is in the balancing act between fostering strategic interactions with a focus on business results while maintaining visibility to and discipline in managing the account to a successful outcome. 

This balancing act can sometimes be a challenge, and next week I'll discuss specific strategies I've used to coach and mentor my teams toward this goal.