In customer success, customers come first

Karen Doak, Senior Director — Customer Success

In this blog series, experts from across Khoros share their valuable knowledge on a topic of their choosing. This month’s author is Karen Doak, Senior VP of Customer Success.

I interviewed a candidate for a role on my team recently and was asked my philosophy on customer success management. It's an interesting question, but in trying to answer it I realized that a customer success philosophy isn't what's most important. More important than any set of beliefs are the actions we take every day to ensure that our platform and services are helping our customers in tangible ways that have a material impact on them. On my team, we don’t need a specific philosophy; we need to act with each customer’s needs top of mind at all times.

Now, this is fairly easy when we’re talking directly to a customer and listening to their needs and feedback. It’s not quite so easy when we’re balancing other priorities. So how, in these situations, can we most effectively serve as a customer’s advocate? Here are a few things to remember to maintain a customer-first mindset.

Use a customer-first mindset by speaking on behalf of customers and not internal departments.

Of course every team wants the customer to be successful — that keeps our business sustainable — but different teams interact with customers in different ways, and may see the same path to success through different lenses. Sales builds credibility by pitching the products and services most aligned with a customer’s goals. Enablement wants to get customers trained and configured quickly and efficiently to maximize the customer’s utility from the product or service. Support wants to solve the problems preventing customers from being successful. When these teams enter meetings and discussions only advocating for one piece of the puzzle, the organization can lose sight of the main goal: helping the customer.

Our job as a customer success team, unlike these teams, is to separate and focus on the needs of one particular customer, as opposed to all customers. The customer success team should have individual customers in mind in order to advocate for them specifically and not in the abstract.

Be the bridge between your customer and your organization and help each side come together.

Consider the process of responding to customer requests: Let’s say a customer asks for an analytics dashboard that tracks remaining inventory in stock. You build that for them and after doing so, they tell you: This is great because it shows us we only have three items left, but it takes us a couple weeks to restock so we really need this to alert us when we’re below a certain number.

If you simply documented this request, built it, and reported it to appropriate internal groups, you’d be iterating for a while before having a dashboard that delivered value to your customer. If, instead, you treated this as an opportunity to partner with the customer and try to understand their business problem, you would have realized from the start that they weren’t only interested in having inventory visibility, but also in knowing when they need to re-order. You might have co-created something that modeled future inventory numbers for them to both inform your ordering schedule and even your manufacturing schedule. Leaning into the problem they’re trying to solve gives the team enough information to think strategically and collaborate with the product team to solve the problem effectively.

By ensuring that you understand the real challenges customers face, you’re able to speak on their behalf more effectively and minimize the tedious back-and-forth that slows everyone down. Moreover, this understanding establishes a trusted partnership that shows internal teams customers aren’t simply making demands, but rather seeking a platform that evolves with them and their business strategy.

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask how you would want to be treated.

Empathy goes a long way in customer relationships, but making the effort to understand the obstacles they face and imagine how they may experience an interaction goes even farther. This most often applies to how we communicate with customers, but it’s also important for making smart account management choices. For example, it’s human nature to not want to share disappointing news, but a customer can perceive omissions like this as dishonest. Being upfront even when sharing something you know won’t be popular builds trust and credibility with your customer. Answering the question “how would we feel if a vendor partner of ours did this?” can serve as a general compass on all issues and can help to reframe a conversation that’s entrenched in internal politics or silos.

An important part of empathy is transparency. Helping a customer understand your process and perspective reduces friction and gives them greater understanding on what you’re doing and why things take time.

After all, other than Stephen Hawking, who truly understands a black hole? Think about the difference between these two hypothetical communications with a customer:

  • “This project will take about four weeks to kick off”
  • “I’ll submit this request, we’ll conduct a discovery call and then I’ll get you to scope for quick sign off. After that, we’ll staff your project and kick-off. I have to warn you that the team who typically takes this work on is booked for at least the next three weeks so I anticipate scheduling a kick-off for four weeks from now, but we can get a lot done before then.”

The timeline is the same in both cases, but shedding light on processes and interdependencies can lead to a better partnership than ever before. Trust that things will work out and that they’ll have visibility along the way may make customers more likely to repeat these projects leading to incremental work. On the flip side, the perception that everything takes too long without any reason is an easy way to lose future business opportunities.

Providing a great customer experience and making customers successful always comes back to our behavior over our philosophy, because the latter means nothing if not reinforced every single day through action. It may be in the job title of a customer success manager, but customer advocacy is something that every member of our organization can practice.

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