Leading Customer Success into the future 5 key questions for CS leaders


The role of the leader places particular responsibilities on the post holder.  One that all too often gets addressed poorly is thinking about the future.  Two things drive this.

There is so much pressure to fix the day-to-day issues; we fix one and another two or three arise.  It’s like chopping off the top of an iceberg: one tenth of the nine tenths was below the water surfaces.  We jump from one problem to the next and before we know it, the future has overtaken us.  I am not suggesting you ignore these issues – you should not! You should however carve out time for reflection on the bigger picture and the changes that are going on around you.

Even those that find time often assume that next year will be essentially a continuation of this year.  That might be ok in slow moving industries where competition is limited and technology is not a factor but do such industries exist anymore?  Most of us face competition, both from direct competitors, new competitors and from other ways customers can spend limited time and money.

Here are five questions you must answer to shape the future of CS in your company.

1. What outcomes do customers want that we are not serving?

No software product I have ever encountered does everything, which suggests that there are opportunities to extend your reach to solve other problems and aspirations customers grapple with.  This requires a deep understanding of customers that surveys and focus groups are unlikely to uncover.  Only by studying your chosen customers and their work can you identify effectively ‘new’ needs.  The best approach I have come across is job or task mapping: documenting what your target customers do and where their needs are not served effectively by existing approaches and technology.

One other technique I have found invaluable (for B2B providers) is seeking an understanding of your customers’ customers.  This can put you one step ahead of your customers and your competitors.

2. How can we use our product to guide better customers to achieve their goals?

Much of what we do in customer success is fill in the gaps in what our product should do.  This is the first tenet in the Customer Success 2.0 Charter and covered in greater depth in this blog.  If we are to scale the business significantly and and profitably, we have to get out of this mindset of every n new customers requires another CSM.  Productising the discovery, delivery and tracking of a customers’ goals is the best way to scale.

3. What technologies and business models are emerging and how will they change our customers’ lives?

The world is full of people who have said “That will never take hold” who have been proved wrong by those that have done it.  Oracle’s Larry Ellison initially dismissed cloud computing/SaaS and lost ground to Salesforce in the CRM market as a result. The recurring revenue model is now spreading outside software: Porsche have recently announced a $2,000 per month subscription that allows members to drive a selection of their models.  It is an interesting fact that no company that led in one wave of technology has ever gone on to lead the next wave.  Real change starts in the margins, at the edge so keep an eye on them.  I often look at Google search stats to see how new ideas are developing and growing.

As above, extending this understanding to your customers’ customers can also help.

4. What technologies and business models are emerging that can change how we deliver value to customers?

Whilst the research is the same as the above, the application is different.  Do new technologies allow us to enhance our product, scale more profitably, build better insights and execute for customers more effectively?  Don’t limit your research to new forms of functionality; infrastructure is a key component of any SaaS business and new ways of building applications can have a significant impact on the ability to deliver an application that better meets customers’ needs.

5. How can we engage better our people to deliver value to customers?

Some have said that CS 2.0 is about removing people from the process: the end of CSMs.  It’s not, although I do see a distinctly different focus for them, which I will address in a forthcoming blog.

I do not think there is any radical new thinking on this front, although I do think there is a massive gap between good practice and common practice.  All too often, so called leaders still view people as resources.  I have never met anyone who gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says “Thats a great human resource!”

I have always looked for ways to engage people better, which to me comes down to the following:

  • Understand and if necessary, help them develop their life goals
  • Give people a purpose for their job beyond earning money
  • Tell them honestly how they are performing, what they are doing well and how they can improve
  • Invest in learning and developing and especially on-the-job coaching
  • Give them the opportunity to share their concerns and, most importantly, shape their job
  • Recognise their successes publicly with a generous spirit and no, that does not mean money

Making a start

For me, these five questions are not something to schedule a couple of weeks before the annual budget round, although implementing some of the learning will need to be built into plans and budgets.  They are questions that a CS leader should have at the back of their minds constantly.

I get a lot of my ideas not from studying the work of others in CS, although I do that but from researching other business functions and disciplines.  I am a great student of emerging technologies and research into how people think.  I set aside an hour, twice a week just to research.  I am an avid consumer of TED talks, especially those exploring human nature.

One way to develop new ideas is to set outrageous goals.  A CEO once asked me how could he scale the CS function ten-fold?  I took that and asked how could it be scaled 1,000 fold.  That pushes thinking in different ways, forcing you to explore discontinuous approaches.

Be unreasonable!

I think this challenge is best summed up by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Go forth and be unreasonable!

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