Wednesday, May 20, 2015

3 Tips for Building and Maintaining C-Level Relationships

In my previous post, I noted the challenge of balancing strategic interactions with tactical execution in the role of customer success. To effectively drive change, help customers achieve their business results, and ensure a productive long-term relationship, Customer Success Managers need to align with C-level leadership. Establishing these relationships is easy. Our partners in Sales often introduce Customer Success to C-level leaders during the hand-off. But maintaining and growing these relationships is often a challenge for CSMs who all too frequently focus on the technical aspects of the project and go into the weeds on the technology while losing sight of the business implications, or simply do not do their homework to understand their customer’s business or the challenges faced by the C-level leader. CSMs fall into the trap of thinking tactically and talking technically, and as a result, lose the C-level relationship that can help them be successful. Having seen this story play out many times, I have identified three effective strategies for maintaining and growing these C-level relationships.

Understand the customer’s business - There is a common refrain in Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success organizations: “We need to understand our customer’s business better.” What is uncommon and a differentiator for CSMs is actually taking the time to do it. At HireVue, I created a short video training that provided my CSMs with a method for breaking down a customer’s annual report to understand the key business challenges the customer was facing. The method is not complicated and involves simply reading the CEO or President’s letter in the annual report, noting specific themes, summarizing those themes, and tying them back to the solution we provide. It sounds simple and it is. But the process of reading the CEO’s summary of the business and identifying themes that tie back to the solution provide a CSM with the basics, and it is just the basics, to have a credible conversation that is focused on the business and not just the software. CSMs often avoid this simple exercise because they mistakenly believe they need to read and understand complicated financial statements, cash flows, or income statements. The CEO is telling the Customer Success Manager everything they need to know. They just need to read and understand it. 

Own the pitch - The elevator pitch is another simple concept that is often neglected or underutilized by Customer Success. Owning the value proposition, your company’s elevator pitch is table stakes for Customer Success. Beyond just mastering the 2-minute pitch, understanding the underlying concept can help Customer Success build effective relationships with busy C-level executives. The 2-minute pitch is effective because it focuses on the core concepts and eliminates extraneous detail. An effective strategy for Customer Success to maintain relationships is training them to apply this method to their engagements with the C-level. For every point of discussion and ask from the executive, prepare a 2-minute drill. Challenge them to eliminate the extraneous detail, identify the core points and value proposition and ensure that only the essential elements remain. One of my favorite executives summarized this approach well: “Just get to the fucking point.”

Have a perspective - C-level leaders don’t want to hear a laundry list of options. Too often CSMs are eager to please and end up having conversations with leaders that focus on options and/or product flexibility. "You can do it this way, or you can do it this way, we allow you to configure it this way or this way...". C-level leaders want an informed perspective backed up with data. "Here is what I suggest and why". Creating effective and productive relationships with C-level leaders requires that CSMs identify a perspective, back it up with data, and be prepared to defend it. I have coached my teams in the past that you don’t have to get them to agree to your way but you do have to show them A way. Challenging CSMs to refine their perspective and back it up with data has the added benefit of ensuring that they have validated their recommendations. Through this exercise, I have found CSMs rethinking the recommendation or changing the specific ask that they were going to make of the C-level leader.

One of the most important and rewarding roles a CSM can play is as a partner to C-level executives. Building and maintaining these relationships over time requires that CSMs engage leaders with a style that focuses on business outcomes and deliver their message in a way that resonates with C-level work and communication styles.