Jan 24, 2022

Read Time 8 min

6 Ways To Get Customer Success More Clout (and a Seat at the Table) – Part 1


Why is your Customer Success team underfunded, marginalized, and overlooked?

“Because leadership doesn’t value our contribution, or all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping our customers happy – especially when dealing with problems like product bugs or bad-fit customers that were never our fault to begin with; we can’t control the cards we’re dealt. Acquisition gets all the glory while Customer Success gets relegated the part of the unsung hero.”

OK, ready for some tough love?

“It’s not them, it’s you,” says Anna Talerico of Arthur Ventures while handing out some hard truths to Customer Success leaders during her session “When Customer Success Is a Second-Class Citizen” at BIG RYG, ChurnZero’s annual Customer Success conference.

As a former Customer Success executive and current SaaS business advisor to founders, revenue, and customer leaders, Anna brings a refreshingly candid perspective to the table on how to get a seat at it. Anna’s Customer Success experience runs the gamut – from her early roles as an individual contributor to leading and scaling teams of her own. Throughout her career as an entrepreneur, Anna has overseen Customer Success at every company she’s founded or led – keeping the function near and dear to her heart. With Customer Success roots and a venture capitalist mindset, if there’s anyone who knows what it takes to spot growth opportunities, prove your worth, and elevate your stance within SaaS organizations, it’s Anna.

Now, ready for some good news?

Getting Customer Success the organizational stature it deserves isn’t as hard as you may think.

“You can change this dynamic, oftentimes, with really simple fixes,” says Anna.

To start, it’s largely a matter of perception.

Perceptions shape our reality. Though subjective (and often unfair or impartial when viewed through one’s own eyes), others’ perceptions of you define how you’re treated. Whether explicit or implicit, this judgment permeates everything – opting what meetings you’re invited to, what conversations you’re included in, what opinions you’re asked for, what budget you’re entrusted, what projects you’re tapped to lead, what decisions you’re delegated, and what blame or credit you’re given.

“A person’s perception may be different from what you feel is the truth, but it’s not necessarily wrong,” says Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, in HBR’s article on work reputations. “It’s real for them, and the onus is on you, not them, to work to change the dynamic.”

You can’t sit on the sidelines of your organization and wait for things to change. You have to take an active role in shifting the perception of Customer Success. Change how others perceive you to change your reality.

Now, let’s talk tactics on how to stake your claim and carve out a spot of your own.

Note: This two-part article was adapted from Anna’s BIG RYG session “When Customer Success Is a Second-Class Citizen.” 

How Can I Tell if Customer Success Is a Second-Class Citizen?

Anna kicked off the session by covering the common symptoms Customer Success teams experience as a second-class citizen, including when:

  • You can just “feel” it
  • Churn is referred to as a “Customer Success problem” inside your organization
  • Customer Success is an afterthought in strategic planning, key decisions, and cross-functional communication (this can be insidious and harder to spot)
  • You struggle to get resources, funding, and staffing (it feels like you’re always stretched too thin)
  • Net and gross retention are not a shared KPI (take note: this is the biggest indicator)

What Are the Root Causes of a Lack of Visibility and Consideration for Customer Success?

As we know, treating a problem’s symptoms only offers temporary relief. To create lasting change for Customer Success, you need to address the root cause of its neglect, which include:

  • Operating in a reactive state (bearing the brunt of what’s outside of your control)
  • Using anecdote-based communications (atypical to how the rest of the organization communicates)
  • Lacking strategic, cross-functional relationships
  • Ineffective managing up
  • Having no line of sight for leadership (either providing the wrong information to leadership or delivering the right information the wrong way)
  • Experiencing learned helplessness

Next up, we dive into each of these causes and how to prevent them from diminishing the reputation of Customer Success and weakening its authority.

How To Change the Perception of Customer Inside Your Organization

Here are three strategies to help you positively shift your organization’s view of Customer Success. 

1. Work Laterally

Customer Success needs to work cross-functionally with other departments to meet your company’s strategic objectives. “Customer Success won’t be taken seriously by leadership if you aren’t working laterally across the organization with your peers,” says Anna.

But to build peer-based relationships, you first need to have peers – a common deficit among Customer Success teams whose functional recency often subjugates its leaders to more junior positions.

This disparity in job titles and responsibilities may be attributed to the fact that Customer Success has only gained team autonomy over the last decade – despite operating long before under a customer support and account management capacity. Because of Customer Success’ newer department designation, its candidate pool may not have the years of direct experience needed (relative to that of more established functions) to qualify for executive positions.  

Or leadership may be reluctant to grant executive power to a first-time function that doesn’t yet have organizational tenure (through no fault of their own).

“There’s a VP of Engineering, a VP of Product, C-level executives, but there isn’t a Customer Success role that’s at that same VP or C-level,” says Anna.

Without a congruency in titles and roles, Customer Success is challenged to build strong and respected relationships with senior leaders in spite of being shorted the positive benefits – such as the accessibility, relatability, and comradery – of a peer-based connection.

But this doesn’t mean Customer Success should dismiss or shy away from forming cross-functional alliances. If you don’t have access to a function’s VP or C-level executive, start with their directors or those who are your peers. You can work up the ladder over time.

Anna shared of few tactics to build effective lateral relationships:

Schedule Regular Meetings With Engineering, Product, Marketing, and Sales

You don’t need to overcomplicate this. Keep the agenda simple and use this time to share current projects, key initiatives, challenges, and opportunities. Start to have a regular peer-based rapport with other functions. Setting a routine cadence of conversation will nurture these relationships over time.   

Pre-plan With Departments

You know how it goes: your company conducts its strategic planning; you get assigned targets to hit; you take those goals and ride off to conquer alone. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to go off in a corner and agonize over how you’re going to hit these numbers. Reach out to your peers to discuss and ask: “how are we going to meet these objectives?” Everyone has a role to play in contributing to the customer experience.

Understand What’s Important To Other Departments

“Just like we in Customer Success often don’t feel understood, and people don’t understand how what they do impacts our role and our customer base, I think sometimes we fall victim to that as well,” says Anna. Instead, find out how other departments are measured and what KPIs they track. Then, use that information to demonstrate the value of Customer Success by offering insights, information, or help. “When you start to create that culture, it can really change the dynamics of how you [Customer Success] are viewed inside the organization,” says Anna.

Find Cross-functional Initiatives To Collaborate on Together

Create joint initiatives to increase Net Promoter Score® (NPS), retention, and expansion. Teams should embrace owning a shared responsibility for your customer base.

Ask for Support

Sometimes, we avoid asking for help because it makes us feel weak; but vocalizing your needs is a sign of strength and self-awareness. “Asking for support can be transformative,” says Anna. “Be open about ‘Hey, I don’t feel like Customer Success has a seat at the table and other functions do,’ or ‘I feel like Customer Success needs to be inside the room when we’re making decisions that impact customers.’” Gather lateral support to help you carve a path and create a culture of interdepartmental support.

2. Be Proactive

During the session, Anna shared an easy trick Customer Success can use to be more proactive.

“The number one thing you can do is create the perception of being proactive,” says Anna. “It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick. Customer Success needs to be the calm in the eye of the storm. Even if we don’t feel it, even if there’s been a crisis and we have hundreds of customers upset or up in arms or experiencing friction […] whatever it may be, we have to be the calm in the eye of the storm.”

Anna says the key is operating like you always have a playbook: “I understand we don’t always feel like that, but we’ve got to create the perception that we’ve got this. This is very important. Lots of times when I don’t see Customer Success elevated to the place it should be in the organization, I see these behaviors that feel very reactive, feel very defensive, or blame based, or just ‘Ah, the world is on fire.’”

Another way Customer Success teams can radiate a take-charge attitude is by conducting post-mortems. Anna recommends that Customer Success teams communicate these learnings and action plans across the organization (without finger pointing): “If there’s a big bug and we want to do a post-mortem, it’s not ‘Hey, don’t release anymore bugs because it causes Customer Success a problem.’ Instead say ‘When this happens, this is what we can do to respond well.’”

Customer Success should also make time for their own self-improvement through strategic initiatives.

“We live so reactively in Customer Success,” says Anna. “We need to force stop ourselves to undertake strategic initiatives. We can’t always be in this reactive state. Undertake strategic initiatives to improve your onboarding process or renewal plays or to increase adoption. Make sure you’re communicating those out to show we’re not just a reactive organization, but we’re proactive as well.”

3. Spread the Word of Customer Success

To be an effective functional leader, you need to know how to communicate across your organization. Your correspondence strategy should adapt to each function and role.

Company-wide Communications

Customer Success should routinely share reports, insights, wins (expansions, at-risk saves, resolved adoption obstacles), and internal challenges (such as issues with scaling or specific customer segments).

Create a monthly Customer Success roundup email to highlight this information. For example, you can include “did you know” customer insights, such as:

  • Did you know [percent] of our customers are in [industry]?
  • Did you know [percent] of our customers reached Time to Value (TTV) within [number of days]?

Sharing this information builds empathy for your customers, creates a voice of customer culture, and establishes a regular communication cadence inside your organization. “It makes you look more like a strategic partner and it makes Customer Success look more proactive,” says Anna.

Leadership Communications

Build standardized monthly reports for notable customer activity such as wins, post-mortems on churn, trends, gross and net retention, health scores, and at-risk customer interventions.

Calling out the significance of conducting post-mortems on churn, Anna says: “There’s a lot of fear in Customer Success around churn. I’m afraid to talk about it oftentimes, especially in organizations where Customer Success isn’t elevated to the level it needs to be. There’s a lot of fear around being transparent about churn or churn reasons or things we could have done differently to save a churned customer. I find that having openness, honesty, and vulnerability around that can really change the culture of how Customer Success is viewed.” (We dive more into overcoming this fear in part two of the article.)

Depending on the size of your organization, you may postmortem every loss or just choose a couple to share with leadership.

Also, when communicating with leadership, always adapt your style to match. Don’t send a five-paragraph email if your leadership team communicates in a few short sentences.

Internal Quarterly Business Reviews

Customer Success can conduct their own Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) to review what activities they should stop, start, and keep. “In Customer Success, a lot of us do QBRs for our customers, but to do them on Customer Success as a function can be super helpful and shows leadership the strategic importance of Customer Success,” says Anna.

Education and Industry News

If you read an article with a new strategy framework or tactical insights, spread the knowledge by sharing it with your leaders and peers. But always include a concise article summary and your reason for sharing – what’s the relevant application and takeaway? With limited time and attention, leadership values brevity. “When I’m coaching Customer Success leaders on this, they say, ‘Well, that’s not really our culture,’ or ‘Leadership isn’t asking for this information,’” says Anna. “I believe that what you have to do is send it anyway. If leadership isn’t asking for this information, that’s a symptom of a situation that we want to try to change. The way we do that is we don’t ask for permission, we just do it.”

Read part two of this article, which covers our last three tactics on how to:

  • Shift from dealing in anecdotes to data;
  • Effectively manage up to build your visibility; and
  • Break the cycle of learned helplessness that’s prevalent in growing Customer Success teams.



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