The following article was published by CS Insider last December. It hits on five essential skills I believe every customer success manager should hone: writing, meeting facilitation, executive networking, commercial negotiation, and consulting.
Currently, companies are streamlining technology stacks and cutting the staff we rely on to drive the adoption of our products. And it's happening at a time when B2B tech companies are reducing their own spending and staff.
How we handle these challenges will define customer success for the foreseeable future and possibly redefine it forever.
I'd love to hear from you - what skills do you consider critical for customer success teams in trying times? Feel free to hit 'reply' and share your thoughts.
Customer success, retention, and advocacy have never been more critical for a B2B tech company.
Every year, we see thousands of new entrants into customer success jobs, and right now, if you search for open positions on LinkedIn, you’ll find nearly 200,000 open CS roles in the United States alone.
So, what skills are required to obtain a job and thrive in customer success?
Here are five essential skills you might have yet to consider.
Writing may be one of the most underrated skills in the business world, period. Since many companies have embraced remote work policies and their employees are scattered across the country or the globe, conveying information via writing is increasingly important.
Remote work has driven an un-Godly number of video meetings which are taking a toll on our mental health in ways we don’t yet fully understand.
The best CSMs can document issues, plans, and updates in writing and use collaboration tools to share them ahead of meetings.
Do you have an upcoming customer meeting to review their approach to using your product for a specific process? If you share your thoughts in a concise written form ahead of time, I’ll bet your meeting will be shorter and more effective for your customer.
Writing also has a positive impact on our thinking. Documenting an issue, new idea, or plan will help you clarify your thinking and better prepare you to speak about it, no matter the circumstance.
A framework I learned early in my career that I still use today is “MECE,” Mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive, a concept Barbara Minto pioneered at McKinsey over 40 years ago. Communicating MECE eliminates superfluous words and information that doesn’t matter to your desired outcome. It helps simplify an idea down to its essence.
There's good news if you don’t consider yourself a good writer. It is a skill you can develop with focus and practice, and it’s worth investing time to grow in this area.
There’s a lot of protest against meetings these days. The highest cost any tech company carries is people, so it stands to reason that optimizing people’s time by reducing the number of meetings we have is a great way to increase productivity.
But meetings themselves often aren’t the problem. It’s the quality of our meetings that make them ineffective and unbearable.
If used correctly, a meeting is an opportunity to build camaraderie with teammates and customers, solve problems, and move initiatives forward.
CSMs hosting meetings should have clear, written objectives, i.e., the expected outcomes for investing people’s time. Before the meeting, these should be shared with participants, along with critical questions to answer and data points to support the discussion.
One of my favorite business authors, Patrick Lencioni, has written extensively on the value of and methods for running great meetings. Here’s an episode of his podcast where he goes deep on the topic.
CSMs spend most of their time with day-to-day users and champions of their products. But executive relationships are a vital tool to combat churn. This means getting “high and wide” with your customers. Relationships with executive sponsors can help minimize the risk of employee turnover (in your customers) and improve outcomes when issues arise.
You need to foster executive relationships, but how?
The key is to offer value.
It might feel weird to go “over the head” of your day-to-day contacts to communicate with an executive sponsor but think about the unique value you can provide by…
- Introducing them to a peer with similar objectives and challenges
- Sharing an industry trend that applies to their role
- Reaching out with an unsolicited compliment for their team members
The CSM’s role here is to facilitate a relationship with executives, which doesn’t always mean they have to have a direct, ongoing, one-to-one relationship. Executives prefer to network with their peers, but your ability to connect them with a peer that they wouldn’t have otherwise known offers unique value.
Over time, these executives will see you as a trusted advisor.
One of the levers we have to retain business, in a recession or otherwise, is through commercial contract negotiation.
Contracts are the basis for customer success and retention in SaaS. While terms and conditions and other legalese are daunting, every CSM should understand a few fundamental elements of a contract, whether it’s their job to negotiate them or not.
The term of an agreement is how long it will be in effect. Many SaaS companies sell one-year contracts that renew automatically, but it's also common to see two- or three-year arrangements.
Longer agreements automatically drive higher retention. Customers can cancel their contracts at the end of a term but usually not in the middle. Therefore if a customer is on a three-year agreement, there is no renewal engagement until later in the term.
Payment terms dictate cash flow for the customer and the vendor. The vendor typically aims to collect as much cash upfront as possible. Therefore you may see an annual payment as the default for many enterprise SaaS solutions.
Cash flow is so vital to a SaaS company that many will reduce the price significantly in exchange for an annual payment. For lower cost, point solutions, you often see options for customers to agree to a yearly fee in exchange for a healthy discount over a monthly payment arrangement, usually 20% or more.
Finally, pricing and scope are usually tied to the pricing plan or "edition" of the software they can purchase. It includes the product's functionality and any commitments for implementation or other services the vendor will provide.
These elements combine to form a “deal,” or an agreement, between the customer and the vendor.
CSMs who understand these elements and the tradeoffs between them are more effective business partners to sales, finance, and their customers.
I’ve long held the opinion that business consulting is the most similar role to customer success. CSMs must assess their customers’ ambitions, requests, and feedback through the lens of the business goals they are looking to achieve.
This means that they must frequently pause to ensure they understand and are in alignment with those objectives.
Consulting involves tying day-to-day execution with broader business objectives. It involves asking powerful questions and giving customers enough space and airtime to answer them vs. showing up with all the answers beforehand.
Consulting also requires documented goals, objectives, and action plans (back to that first skill, writing!).
Years ago, I created a Joint Success Plan template that aims to boil down the essential elements of a customer success plan into a one-page summary that can become the basis of communication beyond your day-to-day champion or even be circulated directly to customer executive sponsors and other stakeholders.
Customer Success is a function whose mission is to drive business results by making customers wildly successful to the point they are willing to advocate on our behalf.
The best customer success teams balance the needs of customers, their team members, the business, and its investors.
The skills I outlined above aren’t the only skills required to become a great CSM, but they will help differentiate you in the marketplace for talent.
💡 Weekly Favorites
Here are some of my favorite podcasts, blogs, and videos from the week:
- Jeff and I recently interviewed Matt Dixon of DCM Insights for the GGR podcast this week. Check out his 2017 HBR article on Kick-ass Customer Service, where he outlines the most effective service persona profile, The Controller. I believe identical principles apply to any customer-facing role, from sales to customer success to support.
- One of a leader's jobs is to hold effective meetings, but what happens when a meeting goes off the rails? SHRM's thoughts on How to End Bad Meetings Diplomatically (SHRM is the Society for Human Resource Management).
Enjoy, and I'll see you next week.
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