Feb 26, 2021

Read Time 7 min

6 Key Takeaways From ‘Managing Friction Between Customer Success and Other Company Departments’ Panel


Is your Customer Success team:

  1. Butting heads with sales during onboarding
  2. Operating on a completely different wavelength than product
  3. Getting bombarded by marketing for unrestricted customer access
  4. All of the above (and more)

Put simply, Customer Success does a lot of things for a lot of people. As the customer liaison within an organization, Customer Success must work with virtually every department – which means navigating their unique working style, culture, processes, and priorities.

When you’re traversing up, down, and across an organization, you’re bound to encounter some cross-functional friction. This type of conflict or resistance is usually an effect of team misalignment, miscommunication, or mistrust – which can quickly deteriorate into a cycle of defensive and standoffish behavior that’s hard to rectify once in motion.

At ChurnZero’s recent virtual RYG, we held a panel discussion with Customer Success leaders who offered up their best advice on how to eliminate unhealthy friction between departments.

ChurnZero vRYG panelists included:

managing friction between Customer Success and other departments

Here’s the recap of the top takeaways from our panel discussion.  

1. Incentivize cross-functional requests

At a high level, Customer Success often focuses on adoption, retention, and expansion, which is a full-time job in and of itself. But along with meeting the demands of their external-facing role, Customer Success also faces a barrage of internal requests – whether it’s case studies for marketing, referrals for Sales, or research for product.

“In my opinion,” says Sana, “that’s where some of the friction tends to come from because now sales is asking for countless reference calls each quarter and marketing is looking for demand-gen content using customers. The CSMs who build the strongest relationships with customers are the ones who end up getting asked the most. Generally, the [CSM’s] sentiment is ‘I don’t want to ask my customers for another favor. I’m trying to build a relationship with them.’”

To bridge that gap and drive goodwill across the organization, Sana recommends incentivizing CSMs for not only driving ROI for their book of business but also for other internal functions.

While some organizations build this incentive into their overall OTE, Sana created an internal advocacy contest that awards points (what they call “FloCash”) to CSMs for completing requests from other departments. The number of points awarded is determined based on the task’s level of effort and value. At the end of the contest, there’s a cash prize for the overall winner and a raffle with prizes such as dinner, wine, and gift cards.

“The CSMs love it, especially the new hires,” says Sana. “They get so competitive over it. It not only makes that part of their job fun, instead of a low priority, but it also makes for healthier working relationships cross-functionally, because the CSMs are stepping over each other to fulfill those requests and get their points.”

2. Set crystal-clear rules of engagement between sales and Customer Success

Whether you think Customer Success or Sales should own the renewal is not as important as having rules of engagement between these two customer-facing teams.

“I could argue either way for who should own the renewal,” says Amanda, “but what I’ve seen not work is when you don’t have a clear division of who exactly owns the renewal.”

Amanda cautions that when Customer Success owns the renewal some of the time, but not all of the time – like if an account has expansion, then an account executive owns it; but if it doesn’t, then a CSM owns it – the system breaks down and that’s when friction begins to materialize.

3. Give product thematic feedback, not anecdotes

Most Customer Success and product interactions center around customer feedback. Formalizing how each team shares this information removes process friction and improves performance.

“Product teams want to understand the ‘why’ behind everything,” says Sana. “What’s worked for us is to avoid anecdotal feedback, piecemeal conversations, and wanting to share customer feedback as soon as it’s received.”

As the customer’s advocate and internal voice, taking immediate, responsive action is the impulse of many CSMs who want to do well by their customers since it’s their reputation and work on the line.

But to create a stronger working relationship with product, Sana recommends using a thematic approach to collect customer feedback that prioritizes broader customer pain points instead of one-off stories. Once feedback is organized into themes, appoint a CSM to represent the voice of the customer and present the requests to the Product team on a monthly or quarterly basis.

“If you don’t have product ops or Customer Success ops to help support that, your tech-touch team might be a great resource for communication with Product because they look at usage trends and data and already take a one-to-many approach,” says Sana.

4. Give product greater exposure to customer experiences

The more Product is attuned to and understands the customer experience, the better they’ll be at receiving feedback from Customer Success. Hearing feedback firsthand from the customer gives product teams added context and a better appreciation for the customer’s reality, which can be an eye-opening and perspective-shifting exercise.

Matt explains that since they have a highly technical product, their customers often benefit from talking directly to product managers who help facilitate conversations around more complex and painful customer issues.

“Make sure [product] understands the downstream impact as well; because when you message product in Slack and say, ‘This customer requested this change,’ it doesn’t say, ‘And now 100 of their customers are upset with them,’” says Matt. “Bringing that to light and empathy into the conversation helps too.”

As Amanda points out, this advice isn’t only reserved for technical products: “We don’t have a very technical product, but we have a very complex product because it’s all based around people. Every company does things a little different – their values, culture, how they approach feedback and reviews. All that stuff is really complex.”

To better connect product and Customer Success, Amanda’s team created a Slack channel where both functions post their requests. For example, product managers can share research requests when they want to talk to a customer with pain points related to a feature in review. Or if Customer Success has a customer who wants to become more involved in an aspect of product development, they post a request to have a product manager or engineer listen in on the conversation.

“That’s been very effective and the best way we’ve gotten the customer voice into the roadmap for such a use case-based product,” says Amanda. “Connecting people to understand the use cases person to person has been beneficial.”

5. Take the initiative to align on your product roadmap

This piece of advice was strongly echoed by all three of our panelists who urged Customer Success to make the first move for better cross-functional alignment.

“The no. 1 thing we can do to take actionable steps to define roadmaps and strategy is to figure out how [other] teams either drive their decision-making or drive their ROI,” says Sana. “Sales is driven by the latter, but product is driven by the former. It creates a vested interest on both ends to come up with a collaborative solution.”

Like many other Customer Success teams, Sana’s team had previously been manually compiling their product feedback into a spreadsheet that over time accumulated thousands and thousands of records.

“CSMs felt like feedback went into a blackhole. The product team would spend hours and hours deciphering every entry, and then spending more hours with CSMs or customers to get the information they were actually looking for,” recalls Sana.

With a desire to change course, Sana decided to meet product where they were. The root of the problem, as Sana explains, was that CSMs were dumping feature requests into the spreadsheet, but product was making roadmap decisions based on generalized themes that solved multiple pain points at once.

To get both teams on the same page, product conducted training sessions on how they uncover pain points and what open-ended, probing question to ask customers based on their development focus. Then, the Customer Success team restructured their QBR decks and feedback forms to match product’s questioning style which allowed both teams to meet their goals faster.

Sana attributes those trainings to completely changing the narrative on both sides: “It empowered the product team to be involved with the solution and to build products for customers more efficiently, and it helped CSMs become much more consultative with their customers. That was years of friction between product and Customer Success that was distilled into a few training sessions. Once we took ownership of aligning with their decision-making process, it impacted our product roadmap more than anything else.”

Amanda also champions for Customer Success to take alignment into their own hands and empower themselves to change. At 15Five, the Customer Success team implemented a quarterly process where the entire Customer Success team meets to do a brain dump of every customer request. They stack rank their laundry list of feedback and present it to the product team each quarter. To help promote a company-wide perspective, their product team also recently created a prioritization team complied of one representative from every department who votes on customer feedback requests.

To drive home this point, Matt urges Customer Success to take the initiative on alignment and communication: “It’s not safe for you to assume that the data is going to be looked at in the same lens or intensity that you would. It’s your responsibility as Customer Success team to make sure you’re forcing the issues and making the connections and painting the picture as to what the actual impact is.”

At Nylas, Matt shares that they use Productboard, a product management software, to manage their customer feedback. He also recommends internally sharing NPS feedback and finding ways to share the accountability for those metrics across departments.

6. Overcommunicate with your organization

To elevate Customer Success within your organization, you need to know how to communicate your team’s mission and progress towards achieving that mission throughout every function.

To create a voice of customer culture, Matt recommends sharing Customer Success OKRs, including insights around implementation timelines, adoption trends, retention stats, and advocacy highlights.

“It’s a huge [customer] lifecycle,” says Matt. “If you put things like this into context for the larger organization, they start to understand. It gives context to all the other things you’re nagging them about or trying to collaborate on and how it fits into the piece of the puzzle which benefits the whole business.”

In the same vein, and as an overarching takeaway, Amanda says it all comes down to internal selling: “We cannot do that enough. We have to sell value of what we do across the entire organization.”

Want to join our next virtual RYG live?

Be sure to sign up for our newsletter for upcoming vRYG details, plus get our latest blog, resources, and event updates delivered to your inbox each week.


Subscribe to the newsletter   

Empowering your customer success team through community

Has your customer community lost its spark? Teams are often eager to launch this new initiative, however, sustaining that same enthusiasm in the months ahead can be a challenge. “It's one thing to create excitement and another to keep people’s attention,” says Shauna...