Understand what "customer success" does so you can build a better working relationship as a PM
Continuation of stakeholder management series: customer success
[With remote work, everyone is looking for a better whiteboard. I’ve tried Jamboard, Miro, Mural, and Whimsical. I discovered ExplainEverything and their whiteboard. If you have a Pen&Tablet setup like me, it’s awesome. I still like Whimsical for creating flow diagrams, but as a whiteboard, is so much smoother than Google’s Jamboard. Know a better whiteboard tool, let me know. Note: I am not paid to recommend any of the products mentioned.]
As a product manager working in a startup, you’re bound to interact with customers (and that’s a good thing). A key part of your job is to identify and build that “thing of value”. And guess who interacts with customers more than you - customer success. But PMs, including myself, often find we’re working against customer success. Who hasn’t said, “Sorry, but this feature/bug isn't going to get built/resolved.” So, how do you build a better working relationship with customer success to deliver the right product?
What is customer success?
[A function responsible for] ensuring customers reach their desired outcomes when using an organization’s product or service.
Okay, but what does “reach their designer outcomes” mean in practice?
Before the internet
It started with “complaint departments”, the precursor to customer success. The function and roles were primarily reactive, responsible for resolving customer complaints and requests after a product was sold. This core need, reacting to customer issues, is still very prevalent today for many. [Side note: Don’t think reactive is “bad”. For example, if you aren’t seeking to improve your product management skills with customer success, reading this article will feel at best like edutainment and at worst like an advertorial. However, if you’re dealing with an issue related to customer success, then this newsletter delivered to your inbox in reaction to your need is helping you “reach your desired outcome”.
Moving beyond customer support.
B2B products, especially those sold to large enterprises, have a different issue. These products have higher barriers to adoption. Traditionally, such products required customization, installation, and specialized training. Helping a customer receive value from the product or service requires additional work after contract signing. I recall stories from my father, who worked at Amgen in manufacturing, talking about equipment manufacturers sending specialist technicians to help Amgen not only service purchased equipment, but also calibrate and improve Amgen’s manufacturing processes to obtain maximum usage and value. This was happening in the 2000s and the technicians weren’t just responsible for repairs, but proactively looked for ways to help Amgen “reach their desired outcomes” of optimizing manufacturing processes to reduce waste.
SaaS Accelerated of the need for proactive customer success
With the introduction of B2B SaaS products and subscription business models, proactively helping customers “reach their desired outcomes” became more urgent. Software delivered over the internet and subscription/usage-based billing greatly reduced switching costs. Unlike pure customer support or sales, customer success combined part support, part product/service expert, and part consultant. They embed themselves into the customer’s business to figure how to help customers “reach their desired outcomes when using an organization’s product or service.” Subsequently, the customer success function, role, and thinking expanded outside of B2B SaaS enterprise and in some cases, replaced the term customer service in B2C companies.
This short sprint through history shows that depending on who you talk to, customer success is a little different in B2C vs. B2B, on a spectrum of reactive to proactive. Alas, the practical advice is broken into three sections: general, B2C, and B2B.
It’s natural and acceptable to have some constant tension between product and customer success. Product managers who have high EQ and people pleasers have trouble accepting this constant tension. They want to remove it, but this tension isn’t removable because customer success is a voice for the customer and the product role isn’t solely to champion the customer. The voice of the customer is important for the product, but PMs need to also consider business’ needs and capabilities (tech, resources, time, etc.). Great products that satisfy customers but have unsustainable business models (e.g., Moviepass) are ultimate doomed.
Understand the signs of unhealthy tension. If some tension is good, how do you know the tension is unhealthy? Taking a page from relation psychology, here are some signs:
Product and customer success dislike working with each other (e.g., customer success spends its own budget to hire outside engineers/product consultants rather than talk to in-house product/engineering, PMs talk to customers without bringing customer success along the conversation); There hasn’t been a customer success initiated project in some time that involves product
Product and customer success discussions quickly turn into zero-sum, no compromise, either/or conversations. It’s worse when people dread talking with each other or blame each other for problems (e.g., if only you did XYZ, I/we wouldn’t be in this situation). It’s very bad if either function believes a conversation is going to be bad before starting the conversation.
Product and customer success lack respect for each other. It’s worse when ideas are mocked as crazy (i.e., dismissive) or attacked without identifying possible solutions (e.g., “Yes, that’s an issue. And here’s a way I think we can solve it.). It’s very bad if there are personal attacks.
Unhealthy tension is symptomatic of a deeper disconnect between product and customer success, which should be brought up for executives to discuss.
Put on your user interview hat when talking to customer success. PMs who haven’t worked front-line customer success sometimes lack empathy. “We want to build empathy for our customers, why can't we do so with our coworkers?" says Ting-Ting Zhou, previously Operations and Product at CommonBond. “[As a PM in a small startup], it can be easy to think that if you [in customer success] work at the same company as me, we must share common goals. [Thus] I don't have to listen as intently when you share your concerns. But what if we practiced the same type of listening and empathy skills we employ when doing user research?”
Bring customer success along the journey of change: A theme in the stakeholder series, part of the PM job is bringing others along the product change journey from the ideation to delivery. You can start with press releases during ideation. You can pair that with demos during build and release notes and feature demos prior to release. Use these sessions to communicate ideas, answer questions, and incorporate feedback.
Advice for PMs working with B2C customer success
Focus on increasing customer success productivity. Richard Kho told me a great story that illustrates this. “Early at Postmates, every night someone had to manually perform an account zeroing task. They had to log into a vendor’s website that managed hundreds of debit cards with some account balances. The website was slow, with transactions taking ~15-20 second before you could move onto the next card. It got so bad that customer success would use a second laptop. By building an API integration with the vendor to automatically zero card balances at night and a feature to manually add more balance in our own internal tooling, we saved several hours of daily repetitive work.” One way to identify these opportunities is through 1 hour of observation, by watching or performing customer success work. Look specifically for repeat repetitive activity.
Introduce external tools and provide training. If your engineer resources are limited, introduce 3rd party tools that give customer success more control. It doesn’t have to be a fancy SaaS tool. Take aText for text templates or Alfred (Mac only). Both tools save a lot of time when performing repetitive tasks. Alternatively, give some training on basic excel/google sheet functions, which can help speed up simple data entry or analysis. Even linking to Gmail shortcut keys will help reduce mouse clicks and repetitive stress injuries as customer success in early stage companies act as the duct tape that holds the company together.
Adapt how you work with customer success as the company stage changes. Very early, when there are few customers, it’s possible for customer success to succeed by providing personalized, individual support (e.g., hand written cards, individual phone calls on first name basis). But as your customer base grows into the 4, 5, 6, and 7 digits, it will no longer be possible to provide individualized customer support at scale. This will be especially challenging if the LTV per customer is also very low. This transition phase is a challenge for customer success, but also PMs. This means it’s natural to work on non-scalable customer support during early stage to provide individual delight, but at later stages, you have to shift your mentally to focus on providing delight at scale (e.g., within the product/service such as tutorials built into or self-service).
Plan releases away from Mondays or Holidays. For many consumer products, Mondays and Holidays are higher workloads for customer success. There’s less customer support staff, if any, working over the weekends so when Monday rolls around, there’s 2 days of customer emails to respond in addition to activities at the company. Holidays are similarly another busy time. While engineering may be shutting down, customer support needs are often highest. It’s not always possible to plan around these days, but a PM can be considerate by speaking with customer success to plan for releases while considering people’s vacations/holidays.
Advice for PMs working with B2B customer success
Determine if you’re working with a support, product, sales, or project oriented customer success person. Supported oriented will act like customer support (I will respond to issues you bring up). Product oriented will act like product experts (I can go into the software and show you how to solve your problem). Sales oriented will act like inside sales (I see you’ve grown headcount, I can get you more seats at a discount if you commit for annual license), and project oriented will act like account managers (I can help understand our processes and connect you to others). Knowing how your customer success associate acts will help you know how to interact with him or her.
Understand how customer success is being measured. Is the evaluation based on customer satisfaction such as response times or tickets answered? Is there a sales quota such as number of licensed users or cross-sell revenue? Are they measured based on daily/weekly active users or other usage/engagement metrics? This is another way to understand the type of customer success person you’re working with and their priorities. This will help both understand motivations and potential conflicts. For example, Vasu Sharma, Senior Customer Success Manager said, “I’m measured on engagement [daily/monthly active users]. For me, features that help build habits for users go a long way. It can be very simple, like a banner that brings awareness or a feature that teaches a habit. [This will help] change and reinforce user behaviors [when using the product].”
Introduce a process for customer success to share individual and collective feedback. PMs can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas/feedback they receive from customer success. It can feel like you're being treated as an idea dumping ground. So, introduce a process for customer success to share ideas. For early stage, small customer success teams (<5), it can be a simple Google sheet updated monthly. Pick a tool, a cadence, and try it out before changing. For growth stage companies with larger customer success teams (5-20), discuss with the Head of Customer Success with a focus on the collective feedback across customers. “At Microsoft,” said Vasu Sharma, Senior Customer Success Manager, “we have a very complex enterprise model with a broad range of products. [In Customer Success], we know that product and engineering have to think about the scale of any new feature. Thus, we have a process where we talk within the customer success function and with our strategic program managers to define the impact of a feature request. Our process for feedback is complex, but at the basic level, we [as Customer Success] evaluate feedback on an urgency versus scale of impact.”
Individual customers understand if you say no sometimes. It’s not possible to fulfill every customer success/customer request. Typically, you’ll focus on the most frequent request by multiple customers. This won’t make the particular customer success associate happy because their focus is on their client(s). However, it’s better to be candid upfront rather than dangle a false promise. “Customers need transparency. It’s okay to say we have this bug and we won’t be able to solve it right away. I'll get back to you when it can be on the roadmap in 2 weeks. Then, you have to then get back to the people,” said Aurore Lanchart, Customer Experience @ Clind. When you are candid with your customer success, they will go bait for the product and company. “One time at Shine.fr, we had a customer that was abusing our process. He lied over several interactions and I, as the customer success associate told him, we’re no longer doing business with you. You broke our trust, we can no longer have a commercial relationship.”
Special thanks to the following individuals who spent time sharing their experiences, which made this article possible.
Richard Kho, Wore Many Hats ex-Postmates during Series A
Aurore Lanchart, Customer Experience @ Clind, ex-Head of Customer Care @ Shine.fr
Ting-Ting Zhou, previously Operations and Product @ CommonBond
Vasu Sharma, Senior Customer Success Manager @ Microsoft
If you like this article and want to receive more delivered in your mailbox every Wednesday.
If you love what I wrote and want to support me.
Thanks Shaw for the great article and summary regarding customer success and their motivations!
Another approach for a product manager to have a good working relationship with customer success (and any other internal stakeholder group - sales, etc) is something we've adopted called "product stakeholders".
One person from cust success is designated the "product stakeholder" - the expectation is that they meet with the PM for 30 minutes each week to:
1) Give feedback on recent releases
2) Weigh-in on upcoming releases
3) Feed back anything else that's bubbling up from their team
4) Help the PM answer ad-hoc questions related to their group ("does cust success see a lot of issue x?", etc)
They are also viewed as their group's resident expert for anything related to that product area - so they 1) help to take "inbound question" load off the PM, 2) act as a signal filter/ amplifier for
feedback to the PM, and 3) can more effectively announce releases and also pulse their teams with questions (since they know what effective comms channels are, who is trustworthy in their group, etc).
This role typically is fulfilled by an IC (not a manager), and takes 5% of someone's time. In return, they get some exposure to product management and also gain a little soft influence over product development.
With this role in-place, we always eliminate a) the stakeholder group being unpleasantly surprised by a releases [since the forced weekly meetings ensure no surprises], b) releases not taking the group's feedback into account [again, the weekly meetings help], and c) the group feeling un-heard [the product stakeholder takes the group's most important feedback and can force those conversations during the weekly calls].
Lastly, will note that "product stakeholders" ***always*** seem to work better than feedback boards, suggestion inboxes, etc... the invariant pattern with these is that there's a surge of interest from folks initially and then it quickly tapers off when the feedback can't be actioned quickly enough to maintain interest (and the quality of the feedback is bad, and the effort it takes to comb through is high, and and and). If there is a stakeholder group that feels they aren't
being heard, we always implement a "product stakeholder" - seems to work pretty well!