Customer Success: How to Get the Process Right for Your Team to Succeed

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Definition:

Process: A set of defined activities and tasks, with clear inputs and outputs, arranged in a particular sequence to generate the desired outcome.

In our first blog post, we discussed the core principles foundational to building effective Customer Success teams, including customer focus, value, trust, and advocacy. In this second blog post, we’ll continue the journey by exploring what it means to “get the process right.”

Why Start with the Process?

Why start with the process instead of tools (platforms) or people? Because if you don’t know what process you believe generates the outcomes you want from your Customer Success team, you’ll have a harder time getting the tools well defined to support the people using the process. In other words, if you don’t know what you expect of people or of your systems, to get a good outcome, your efforts to hire people or design systems will be wasted or ill-conceived.

First, Define Your Critical, Value-Added Outcomes

Defining your new Customer Success process (or documenting the one that’s already in place) starts with asking a few tough, but simple questions:

  1. Why do you have a Customer Success function in the first place?
  2. What are the top three outcomes you expect if/when your Customer Success is up and running?
  3. What unique activities related to customer relationships are NOT covered elsewhere in the organization? Is it clear what sales, delivery, and customer support are expected to do and is it clear what’s different or unique about Customer Success?

For example, you might state one of the following:

  • We have Customer Success teams to manage adoption of our technology to increase the likelihood of expansion and/or renewal of our services. The measurable outcome is high (x%) retention (year-over-year) and Y% renewal rate.
  • The top three outcomes are: 1) adoption of technology, by a certain number of employees within the first 90 days of purchase; 2) expansion of services/users within six months; 3) renewal at year-end (or contract-end).
  • Customer Success is uniquely responsible after a sale is closed to get users to adopt (training, coaching, implementation planning), to manage the customer relationship (point interface for support and challenges), and lead the renewal process (with help from sales as appropriate or as defined).

Define the Key Steps You Expect

Once we know the answers to 1, 2, and 3, we can start defining what the key steps are in whatever process we know works or we hope will be most effective in supporting these objectives. Do we know what adoption looks like in the first 90 days? Do we know what the key implementation steps are and what happens first, second, and third to make it happen? What is our playbook to discuss expansion–are there key indicators to start those conversations? Similarly, do we agree on what’s the most effective way to initiate and complete a renewal? While this seems “obvious” as written, you’d be surprised how many times companies jump in and start doing work without critical processes (and roles) defined.

Write Down What You Expect

Process documentation goes by a lot of names–sales playbook, support playbook, operations manual, etc., and in more sophisticated organizations, might even follow formal ASQC or QMS process models. Whatever model you consider, writing down what you expect is a valuable exercise to ensure clarity, drive discussions to get agreement on process steps, and further on, can serve as the foundation for an effective new employee on-boarding and training program. Here’s a framework you can use to think about it as well as an example: (and of course, you’ll need to document who does the work too!)

Example: Quarterly Business Review (QBR) production

Test Your Process for Scalability and Flexibility

It’s great to document what your best or most-effective Customer Success managers do when they execute their roles, but what’s working today for one, or a few, might not be robust enough to go the distance as you grow and expand. Use the following questions below to pressure-test your process:

  • Does this process support our people? Or does this process make their lives more difficult?
  • Will this process work if we have 10 times the number of customers we have today? Or will it collapse under its own weight?
  • Can this process scale down to smaller, or simpler, account relationships? Or is it “heavy” and burdensome?
  • Do we know where in the process we encounter typical “moments of truth” that make a difference for our customers? Are we clear about what’s expected at these key junctures?
  • Will this process work if we had a remote team, or a team of Customer Success professionals working in another location? Or does it depend on people all being co-located?
  • Will this process work for our future customers in another industry, segment, or geography?
  • Does this process have flexibility built-in (off-ramps and on-ramps) to customize large, key accounts, or tailor to customers with special needs? Or is it so prescribed and rigid that it makes it hard for Customer Success managers to operate within?
  • Is this process easy to understand for someone not close to your business? Or do you have to have a long, deep history to learn the basics quickly?
  • Are the roles defined clearly with proper incentives (as appropriate) to ensure teamwork and alignment?

“The difference between amateurs and professionals is in their habits”

Often one will hear people complaining about processes as cumbersome, hard to use, or getting in the way of people doing their jobs. “I know what I’m supposed to do, why do I have to use our playbook?” or, “I’ve been doing this for years, I don’t need a manual to tell me how to do my job.”

A former colleague of mine once told me that the difference between a professional and an amateur is the following:

“The professional knows all the steps needed to do their job and only skips steps or takes shortcuts when it makes sense—they know what they are doing; the amateur skips steps because they don’t know why the steps are there in the first place.”

My point here is that while processes are important, they, in and of themselves, do not create value. They enable value to be created and when followed well, increase the likelihood of success. Ultimately, we want our processes to play an enabling and supportive role to our business.

I remember a time when a Customer Success (CS) manager and I were at an account and she was so nervous about making sure she followed every step in the QBR (quarterly business review) process to the letter. Halfway through the discussion, you could tell that the client wasn’t interested in what she was saying, and started to tune out. The meeting ended politely. Afterward, I coached her—“This is your QBR and you need to decide, based on your customers’ needs, what’s important to cover.” The next time she met with the client, she focused on his needs and priorities, and relegated some of the less critical content to an appendix. The conversation was more engaging, the CS manager was more relaxed, and the client was visibly more engaged. The moral to this story: only through first understanding the entire process and then professionally choosing where to deviate, did the CS manager succeed.


Key Takeaways

  1. Without a clearly defined process, it’s hard to get everyone working in an aligned fashion to consistently deliver value to customers.
  2. Starting with a process definition forces you to think about who’s doing what, and will serve as a basis for selecting platforms, tools, people, and metrics.
  3. Good processes support the business, they are NOT the business.

What It Looks Like When It’s Not Working

  • Processes are undocumented, or if documented, are not current.
  • Processes don’t follow logical, customer-oriented, and value-creating flows.
  • Processes are not lean, or create obstacles, for CS to get their job done.
  • Processes are not well integrated with other key internal partners (sales, delivery, support).
  • No metrics on process health or process effectiveness.

What It Looks Like When It’s Working

  • Processes follow the customer lifecycle and/or the natural business cycle to merge customer and company work.
  • Processes are flexible, not rigid, to allow tuning to customer needs one size does not fit all)
  • You see more engagement from customers due to clear expectations and communications around process.
  • Processes are “lean”; the work adds value to clients and companies.
  • Processes have natural points that allow for measurement and improvement.
  • There is a clear definition of inputs from outside the CS team and clear deliverables from the CS team to others.
  • Processes are documented and easy to understand.

About the Author: Morris Wallack is currently an active mentor, teacher and advisor with over 36 years in high technology executive roles. Skilled in business planning, marketing, sales and services operations he held executive roles at Hewlett Packard and 3D Systems, with experience with new business startups, global management, service (XaaS) management, remote team management, customer success management and sales operations.  He currently serves as a mentor with SCORE, CED VMS (Venture Mentoring Service) and NC State (BUS501/Poole School of Mgmt). Morris holds a BSEE from Cornell University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.