Jan 25, 2022

Read Time 6 min

6 Ways To Get Customer Success More Clout (and a Seat at the Table) – Part 2


customer success data

This is the second installment of a two-part article that was adapted from one of our most popular sessions at BIG RYG (ChurnZero’s annual Customer Success conference). Presented by Anna Talerico of Arthur Ventures, “When Customer Success Is a Second-Class Citizen” takes a hard and honest look at why growing Customer Success teams are so often underfunded, marginalized, and neglected within their organization.

Part one of this article identifies the common symptoms and root causes of the treatment of Customer Success as a second-class citizen as well as three of Anna’s strategies to overcome this “less-than” status, including how to:

  • Build your own Customer Success support network by working laterally
  • Create the perception of being proactive (even if you don’t feel it)
  • Get leadership to see Customer Success as a strategic partner by spreading its word

In this second part of this article series, we share Anna’s last three strategies for elevating Customer Success within the organization including how to :

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

Picking up where we left off, let’s look at how Customer Success can shift internal perceptions of their storytelling from “I’ve heard this one a thousand times” to “You now you have my full attention” using data and cold, hard facts.

4. Adopt a Data-First Mindset

“Customer Success is a relationship-driven function,” says Anna. “We have to learn how to tell the story of those relationships with data.”

The problem, explains Anna, is that Customer Success mostly works in anecdotes: “I hear leaders of other departments say this about Customer Success. I hear Sales say it. I hear Product say it. I hear Engineering say it. I hear leadership say it. I hear Finance say it. It’s a common refrain about Customer Success: it’s so anecdotal.”

For instance, does your Customer Success team often give innocuous feedback, such as:

  • Nobody likes how we handled that last feature release.”
  • Everyone’s been asking for the XYZ integration lately.”
  • “We’ve got a bunch of new expansion opportunities in the pipeline.”
  • “Churn is increasing this quarter because of COVID.”

Now, using the last bullet as an example, here’s how you could rephrase this observation: “We had [number of] customers churn last month and mention COVID as one of the reasons.”

“We have to fight our natural instinct and start thinking in fewer anecdotes and more data,” says Anna. “The analogy I always give is that data, facts, and reports need to be the meat of your communication. The anecdotes and stories need to be the salt and pepper. Salt and pepper make steak delicious, but you’re not going to have an entire meal of salt and pepper.”

using customer success data

Anna continues “When we learn to communicate with data and facts and use fewer anecdotes, it can dramatically change the perception of Customer Success. Many people within the organization don’t communicate with anecdotes and stories. Finance doesn’t. Executive leadership often doesn’t. Product doesn’t. Engineering doesn’t. And we do. That’s who we are. That’s true to our nature and our role. But to effectively communicate in a way that’s received, we have to change that.”

The specific data points you use to tell your customers’ stories will depend on your organization, but Anna recommends including:  

  • Days in onboarding
  • Time to first value (TTFV)
  • Churn reasons
  • Expansion reasons
  • Customer feedback and support tickets/trends
  • Feature requests
  • Customer health scores – percentages and trends
  • Customer segmentation data (i.e. 25% of our SMB customer segment is using XYZ feature)

5. Manage Up

The concept of “managing up” is often described as making your boss’ job easier by managing your manager.

But from Anna’s perspective, it’s less about managing up directly to your manager (or a specific person) and more about managing up to the next level of leadership. “To me, managing up to leadership means understanding their communication, priorities, strategies, and goals, and then finding ways to fit Customer Success into leadership’s world view,” says Anna.

To manage up, Customer Success needs to become a source of truth.

“What happens is Customer Success is being told information about customers or their being asked for that information versus Customer Success proactively sharing it,” says Anna. “For example, you want to be proactively sharing churn reasons versus being asked for churn reasons.”

To become your organization’s source of truth for your customer base, Anna recommends that Customer Success own the following data points:

*Note: in an ideal world, Operations or Finance owns gross retention and net retention; but if they don’t, Customer Success should be the source of truth for these metrics.

Another simple trick to manage up is to surface churn risks with context and action plans.

A side note on having internal churn conversations: make sure you avoid being defensive – even when you’re frustrated. Customer Success must often deal with the aftermath and own the issue. Don’t surface problems without ideas or solutions. Be the source of opportunities for improvements, not just the source of complaints.

And when churn does happen, provide post-mortem learnings. You can diffuse most of the tension around churn by highlighting what you’ve learned from the losses.

internal use of customer success data

“A lot of times, especially in founder-led companies, there can be a little bit of a toxic environment around churn,” says Anna. “And that is because founders take churn very personally; it hurts.”

When churn happens or there’s a spike in churn, Anna says it’s often accompanied by an explosion of energy and emotion directed towards Customer Success.

But she contends these flareups can always be avoided by proactively communicating churn risk and churn intervention plays.

Instead of trying to defend yourself and explain things that have already happened, you need to share churn signs in advance. For example, you might tell leadership that of the 100 renewals you have next quarter, 10 of them are at risk and these are the steps you’re taking to mitigate.

“That one thing can change the whole dynamic in your company around churn,” says Anna. “It’s very important to not be afraid to talk about churn risks and to proactively share them. Because first of all, churn is not our fault. Churn is a shared responsibility across the organization. The best way we can show that is to be talking about churn well before it happens and to be sharing the things we’re seeing and the things we’re doing around it. Change the dynamic by getting in front of it.”

6. Break Out of Learned Helplessness

And now, we’ve reached our last tactic, which (by no coincidence) is also the most transformative of the bunch: how to overcome learned helplessness.

Anna shares this definition of the psychological concept: “Learned helplessness is behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused from the subject’s acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented.”

Having encountered many Customer Success teams afflicted by this condition, Anna explains: “What I see a lot of is Customer Success not elevated to where it belongs in an organization and a Customer Success team feeling like there’s nothing they can do to change that. ‘We’ve tried. We don’t have a seat at the table. We’ll never have a seat at the table. This is the way it is.’ This concept stops us from trying to change it.”

To change the perception of Customer Success, you need to change your mindset and the mindset of your team.

“The number one thing we can do is act as if Customer Success deserves a seat at the table,” says Anna. “Act as if Customer Success already does have a seat at the table. That alone can change how Customer Success is perceived within the organization.”

Seats Taken

They say that Jeff Bezos and company leave one empty chair during meetings as a symbolic nod to the customer always having a seat at the table. As the conduit for the voice of the customer, Customer Success deserves a seat and to be heard.

Your work as a frontline team affords you an unrivaled perspective of the customer and business that no other function can match. When organizations don’t put a seat at the table for Customer Success, they don’t put the customer first. It’s like making decisions without having all the information you need. And though, more information (and opinions) is not always better, greater relevance always is – and what is more relevant than your customers’ point of view?

Don’t wait for an invite that may never come. Instead use these clout-building strategies to amplify Customer Success’ worth within your organization until it can’t be ignored. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. If there isn’t a spot saved for you, pull up a chair and make room anyway.


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