If you have been paying attention to the news lately or have heard anything about the latest rumblings in the SaaS world. Then you have probably heard that another economic recession is either here already or on the horizon. Regardless of where you stand one thing is clear. Companies are tightening their budgets and preparing for the worst. From companies like UBER announcing spending cuts to funding organizations like Y-Combinator putting out ominous warnings to startups to prepare for the worst. Although no one is sure how big the recession will be or how long it will last. Every company big and small must have a strategy going forward.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPLOYEE AND CUSTOMER RETENTION
When it comes to customer success one could say no need to worry we have been here before and bounced back. When covid hit in early 2020 for some industries like hospitality and travel already faced a recession and we survived. As a forever optimist, I also sometimes subscribe to this way of thinking. But after doing a lil research myself I do think that this recession has the potential to be the first true industry agnostic universal recession since the rise of the Customer Success industry. Without getting into all of the history of how we got here and reasons why this potential recession is different. (That could easily be a 3 blog series by itself). Regardless of where you stand the key for all companies in this current economic climate is retention. Companies who can retain their employees will be better suited to also retain their customers.
As someone who is also a firm believer in finding ways to be action oriented. I wanted to use this exercise in written soliloquy to share some tips that might help all CS organizations to provide a service to their clients that helps their companies weather this upcoming economic storm. Plus I brought in a special guest to share some gems as well so stay tuned for that. I don’t know everything about what is going to happen. But what I do know is that customer success will be the department that separates the winners and losers from the “out of business’ers”. Read below to learn more about how:
I recently sat down with Andy Rogers, Partner Success Leader from Postman. See some excerpts from our conversation below to learn more about how you can get your CS organization to be ready to weather the storm.
CUSTOMER SUCCESS IS ABOUT PARTNERSHIP
1)Andy, you have made a name for yourself at Postman and now a leader in your new role in Partner Success. You mentioned that “great customer success is about partnership”. Tell me more about what you mean by that:
Absolutely Sam. Partnership with your customers (and formal partners in the case of my current role) is fundamentally about earning trust: trust that you know what you’re talking about - from a technical perspective, a data perspective, product perspective, and from an outsider’s perspective trying to truly work towards their core business/team outcomes -, trust that you are working in their best interest and not just your company’s, and trust that you want to see them get real (not manufactured) value from your product and expertise.
If you can engage people with these fundamentals, then the relationship can start to grow into a partnership. A poor analogy for this journey is that the one-way work you do (to show competence, knowledge, interest in solving problems & helping affect outcomes, making data meaningful, etc) will turn into a two-way street, where your customer/partner will be able to give you more insight about their team/company, ultimately helping you increase value to their team/company AND yours. Vaidyanathan and Rabago have an entire chapter devoted to this in their Customer Success Professional’s Handbook. It also helps build trust that you will advocate on their behalf if value is diminishing for whatever reason - which correlates to risk and churn. Customer success managers get paid by their own companies, but really work on behalf of and for customers.
While it’s easy to say, “do these things” that I just talked about, the real secret of customer success – that few CS managers or directors talk openly about – is honesty and empathy. These are the simple, unnamed ways of being toward others that influence people trying to solve real problems and do their work every single day.
Sam, you and I talked about this as “staying human.” Empathy and honesty require you to recognize people and serve as the building blocks to earning the trust talked about above. When was the last time a manager or Director or VP dedicated a meeting to these topics? When have you ever seen a KPI around this stuff? We make up vanity metrics (maybe loosely associated with revenue or retention or some piece of data), rewarding or shattering people’s lives based on them, while missing the deeper point. This is much more the Mehta, Steinman, and Murphy approach to CS if anyone is keeping score on CS literature.
My view is that honesty and empathy driving learned skillsets are what foster the successful relationships to allow you to begin providing REAL value to customers and partners over time.
EMBRACING THE WARM AND FUZZY... A CASE FOR TRUST OVER TRANSACTION
I agree with that so much. My background comes from using data to tell stories and influence others. I found that having powerful insights was only half the battle. To influence leaders to follow my suggestions and make decisions on my findings. They had to find them valuable and trust in me as a partner who wants to share in their success. One of the things that made me so successful in working with CS leaders to drive change in their business was being able to boil things up to initiatives from data and findings. Instead of saying the data suggest Y and Z. I would show them findings but always end with some proven initiatives that can be run to solve problems across the border themes in my findings. This initiative based approach coupled with the things you mentioned above allowed me to position myself positively as a trusted partner who is action oriented and wants to see them win. If they win I win.
In our discussion you bring up so many interesting concepts that leaders can do to allow their team to level up their conversations with clients. In a time where everyone is overscheduled and time deprived. You bring up this interesting concept of “Embrace the warm and fuzzy” when growing/upleveling your customer success teams. Can you explain what that means and why this will be critical for CS teams looking to thrive in this economic downturn:
We discussed this around the topic of hiring, something that I have personal trepidation with. My take is that we should hire primarily based on (1) the perceived ability to be empathetic, (2) enthusiasm toward learning/competence, and (3) curiosity and comfort with asking questions. Unless you need a CSM to be an immediate technical expert (and we do need this for enterprise, senior, and strategic roles), my preference is to hire based on these items plus diversity and uniqueness of experiences/background. Hiring is more than closing listings based on how many checkboxes a candidate ticks.
This view also demands a few things:
Three Elements of Building an Empathetic Organization
|CULTURE - Build a learning culture||Your organization must be willing to allow CSMs and other members of the team to continually learn, probe, and question. Without this type of culture, a company becomes more resistant to change and knowledge is built by a lucky few who are in certain positions of power.|
|INVESTMENT - Invest in learning experiences||This is not just a subscription to Masterclass or Udemy, forced courses on DEI, or a gentle nudge to volunteer for a cause (though these are certainly not bad things), but facilitating experiences that will connect employees with users/customers, communities, and experts that push our awareness and perspective.|
|TIME - Provide time for learning experiences||Probably something that is obvious but I’ve never seen an organization do this well. Just like many organizations are forcing employees to take PTO, we should implement learning days. Not like a forced day or week of meetings, but each employee has n learning/experience days to use each year. The experiences and learnings should be presented to teams with a goal to apply those learnings to make something the team does better.|
VALUING NON-TRADITIONAL LEADERSHIP STYLES
You mentioned you consider yourself a non-traditional leader. I vibe with that on such a fundamental level. Can you explain why you think people focus too much on stereotypes of what a leader should be like and why you think non-traditional CS leaders will thrive during this recession:
In some ways, this is a reactionary line of thinking on my part. We all have to report upward, and eventually you are in a high enough position where you are disconnected from a majority of people and daily responsibilities across the company. At this level priorities are based entirely or mostly on revenue and financially-driven challenges/goals/stockholder noise. That’s simply the work. It takes someone very talented, and perhaps very special circumstances, to create a structure where this is not the case. Dan Price is one leader who frequently pushes back against these stereotypes. Startup leaders can also offer a juxtaposition to stereotypes for a while, but eventually they too succumb (if they succeed).
But, honestly, I think it's mostly observational. People who are perceived to be successful in leadership roles generally look similar – similar degrees, similar career pathways, similar business-speak, similar inaccessibility to everyone, usually similar skin color. They may be subject experts, but the majority are not. They all managed people, whether they were good at it or not. Most are not and fall into the trap of trying to compensate for poor leadership by forcing employees to do largely meaningless administrative work or getting involved in details of the minutiae of personalized CS work. Maybe they create vanity metrics – e.g., n number of customer calls logged per week, x number of contacts or leads logged, or a checkbox list of items that really serve YOUR company and not theirs (such as two champion quotes, case study in the works, video testimonial, vanity metric showing that a feature is being used, etc.). They simply followed a well-trodden path of moving up the ladder or getting lucky by time or circumstance.
The principal pathway is one way to counter this. Managing people is hard and there aren’t a lot of people who are good at this. In fact, an Harvard Business Review article released recently decried the promotion of incompetent leaders. But there are a lot of good mentors and experienced CSMs who have knowledge, insights, and learnings to share. If we can have an option for our best CSMs to continue leveling up their careers, while giving back to their colleagues and to the CS field, without forcing them to follow the stereotypical leadership path, then CS wins, the CS practitioner wins, the company wins, and most importantly our customers win.
With all of that said, I hope non-traditional CS leaders will thrive. I’m not entirely convinced they will, but I think as a general observation those who were instrumental to the “success” of Customer Success in the wild – people like Mikael Blaisdell but also the early CS implementers like Marie Alexander, David Dempsey, etc. – as well as those who are currently the biggest influencers in CS today – Jay Nathan, Kristi Faltarusso, Irit Eizips, and many others (not a ton of diversity here btw Sam!) – are most definitely not stereotypical leaders.
You are dropping gems my friend. So much to unpack here. I can relate to that in so many ways. As a data scientist who worked with over a 100 CS teams over the years. I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw over and over that leaders would prioritize. One common example is when CS leaders would attach health score metrics to their customer success teammates compensation. Time after time I would see the same thing. Health scores would go up but you know what did not… Outcomes. Renewal rates would not change , upsells would not increase. So much valuable stuff to share. We gotta come back for a part two just to give people more of this hot sauce.
Part II coming soon… In the meantime. If you would like to get a cheat sheet that breaks down the highlights that you can use to drive conversations internally. You can contact us HERE and will send you the Recession Ready worksheet.
Hopefully you enjoyed some of these spicy takes on how to hire and enable your customer success teams to thrive during this upcoming economic crisis. What do you think? Let us know by sharing this blog, reaching out on Linkedin. Until next time, stay hungry!