Mar 17, 2023

Read Time 8 min

How to bounce back stronger when a customer champion leaves with Ali Cudby


Losing a customer champion is the single biggest leading predictor of customer churn.

“It’s good news and it’s bad news,” says Ali Cudby, founder and CEO of Alignmint Growth Strategies. “It’s good news because it’s a line in the sand. You know when it happens and can get ahead of it. But it’s bad news because it’s risky.”

An unmanaged key contact change has a 51% chance of churn in 12 months, according to research from Sturdy, a customer intelligence platform. They also found that, on average, 65% of accounts with an “executive change” churn within 12 months.

That means having a playbook for dealing with key account change is not just an opportunity, but it’s essential for your healthy recovery, says Ali.

In our webinar, “Your customer champion just left. Now do this.” Ali shares a proven formula for navigating this key inflection point, and turning it into a moment to win a new champion.

The webinar’s Q&A session covered topics including how to approach former champions after they’ve moved on to another company, how to hold on to an account post-layoffs, how to get airtime with new senior stakeholders, and much more.

Handling a customer champion departure with Ali Cudby

Q: If your customer champion left to go to another company, how should you approach them?

A: It depends. What I’ll say is that if you’ve done the work to build the relationship, then it’s going to feel natural to reach out to them.

Some of this is a balance between what do you need to codify and create as process and how we can just be people engaging with people. If you’ve cultivated a good relationship with someone—it doesn’t matter if you’re the CS team or the sales team—reach out and congratulate them on their new role because that’s what people do.

If you’re reaching out, then it’s great if you can make them feel like you’re just excited for them and you want touch base. But they also know that they were working with you and your company’s products and services.

If they liked what they were doing and if they liked working with you, then they’re obviously going to remember. You can reach out in a personal way and not in of a sales pitchy way and just connect with them and let it go from there.

If you reach out immediately and you’re like, “Hey, you have this new role. Don’t forget our products and services,” and you roll directly into that selling orientation, then that isn’t feeling like a relationship. That’s feeling like a cash machine. Nobody likes feeling like that.

Q: How would you change your approach based on your customer champions’ role, e.g., the primary point of contact (day-to-day management) versus the executive buyer?

A: The play itself doesn’t necessarily change, but the way that you run the meeting and the things that you focus on is probably different.

If it’s an executive, then you’re going to talk more about the strategic growth goals and how you can partner at that level. You’re probably going to be less in the weeds on ticket history and that kind of thing.

If you’re talking to someone who’s more of the day-to-day contact, then you want to get them up to speed as much as possible. You’re probably going to be more in the tactical side of the relationship.

The executive is probably not that interested in the weeds, whereas the day-to-day person may only have a passing level of access to those strategy pieces of the conversation. You have to gauge by what the role is going to be for both the executive and the day-to-day person but that’s how they differ.

Q: How can you get airtime with new senior stakeholders?

A: This goes back to what I was talking about in terms of it being a holistic customer lifecycle. When you start the relationship by managing expectations effectively with the executive team, then it makes it a lot easier to keep them engaged down the road. When we work with our clients, what we build into the kickoff is ensuring that executives are there, and they know what their role is going to be moving forward.

We’re managing expectations from the get-go. When you do that from the beginning, you’re the expert in your products and services. When you start the relationship and frame it from the perspective of this is how this is going to serve you better and get you to the outcomes that you want more effectively—and part of that is engaging the executive—then it’s going to be a lot easier to get them to continue to engage.

In those realignment meetings that I was talking about, we want the executive there. But we’re framing it up from the kickoff meeting. When you’re already deep into the relationship and you haven’t built that executive relationship component, then it’s harder. Again, it’s trying to move backwards versus always moving forward.

But if that is your reality, then think about it from the executive’s perspective. What is going to bring them to the meeting that’s meaningful for them? Frame it that way. The more you can look at it from a customer-centric perspective and put yourself in their shoes (what would I want out of this if I were them?) the higher likelihood you have of actually getting them to the meeting.

Q: How can you build relationships with customers who are in the middle of internal reorgs and often delays meetings and action?

A: To some extent, I’m going to echo what I just said before. People do what is self-interested. If you’re saying, “We need to have a meeting,” that doesn’t sound super appealing to me. But if you can frame it in a way that is all about me and what I need, then I’m probably going to be more inclined to have that meeting. It’s the managing expectations component.

Also, make sure that you’re having a meeting that’s purpose-built and not just having a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. It all boils down to the same thing: what’s on your customer’s plate that’s bothering them or an opportunity for them, and anchor there.

You may not be in an actual selling position, but you’re selling the meeting. How do you sell by serving? Think about how this serves their needs and frame it from that perspective.

Q: How can you sell your company on the idea of launching an executive sponsor program to help build relationships with customers?

A: I would want to know what the fears are internally. What are the things that might block the company from wanting that to happen? My guess is that it may be around not wanting to impose or not being sure who should own the relationship and who’s going to manage this. That’s an internal culture and politics conversation.

Think about it from the perspective of is there someone senior who can benefit from owning it, and can you partner with them? Yet again, how is that serving their needs?

I feel like I’m being repetitive on this point, but hey, it serves a lot of purposes. Try to figure out what’s blocking the “yes” and what needs to happen to mitigate that. If it means partnering with someone more senior so that the senior leadership feels more confident starting this thing—it’s not coming from a junior person to a senior person—then figure out a way to make it senior to senior so that it feels like those relationships are more aligned.

Q: How can CSMs tactfully bring up to their customers the downside of switching to a different software that their team is already using without sounding threatening or making them feel like they’re being backed into a corner?

A: You can always talk about the things that happen with that software without talking about that software. I’m going to make up an example. Let’s say you know that customers get the blue screen of death on Windows 95 every time they use that software. They have to reboot their computer and that’s a pain. If you’re Apple, then you can talk to the customer about how great it is that they never have to deal with reboots.

What I mean is that instead of saying Windows 95 sucks and so does the blue screen of death, you talk about the pain that they may be experiencing in this other software without talking about the other software, but by talking about how your company avoids that problem.

Instead, you talk about how one of the great features of your company is that they’ve really conquered the challenge of [insert pain here]. That way, you can talk about it without talking about it.

It never looks good to talk about the competition in a disparaging way. You’re probably right that they’ve got these glitches and you can do it better. But it always comes off poorly. I try never to do that.

Q: If your champion has left because they were laid off, it seems inevitable that budget cuts will be coming for this customer’s tech as well. Any Hail Mary suggestions for retaining the account?

A: Don’t be the problem. It’s a little bit like that old joke: you may not be able to outrun a bear, you just need to outrun the guy next to you. As a company, when you’re on the chopping block, and you can be less of a problem than the next guy, then they’re going to get chopped first.

Some of this really does come down to the people piece. We think about businesses as being super analytical. We’re going to crunch the numbers. The reality is that’s just not the way we do business. McKinsey has a great study out there and it says that 70% of customers buying decision is based on how they feel in the purchase experience.

We think we’re being super analytical all the time, and we’re not. When you can build the relationship and be the vendor that is actively helping solve problems—you may not get it right all the time—then they’re going to be less likely to cut you.

Does that work 100% of the time? No. When downturns come, they’re not going to cut everything. When I think about where I spend my time, and not just me, when I think about my clients and where they spend their time, they address the things that are their pain points.

There are lots and lots of products and services that you probably use that you could get better, faster, cheaper somewhere else. But because it works well for you, it never makes it to the top of your to-do list.

I use a product for my company’s email called Active Campaign. I’ve been with them forever. I really like their customer service. Is Active Campaign the greatest email provider on the planet? Probably not. Is it the cheapest on the planet? Probably not. I never spend time looking at other email providers because I am never unhappy with Active Campaign. And so just be that guy.

Q: Does a scenario where a new point of contact joins an account but doesn’t replace anyone qualify as a key contact change?

A: There’s no official definition for these things. I would run that play if you had a new key manager come in, for sure. There are different ways of thinking about champion versus the key manager on the account when it comes to running this play and really understanding what’s going to move the needle. If they’re in a position where they can impact your success as a company providing products and services, then heck yeah, run the play. There’s no downside to doing that.

Q: How would you handle a key contact change—introducing a new CSM or AE—on the vendor’s side?

Q: This conversation was more focused on the key account change or the key contact change on the customer side. But having a process in place to introduce a new key contact to the customer is always a good idea. You don’t want to spring it on the customer. You want to make sure they feel comfortable with it. Some of this is going to depend upon the circumstances under which the change is being made on your side.

Is the person who’s leaving going to be in a position to make that introduction and be part of that transition? That’s the ideal scenario. That’s what you want to have happen. You want to make the customer feel like everything is collegial and you’re all working together and the person who’s rolling off is rolling off into the greater good, but they’re still going to be well taken care of.

That’s what you’re aiming for, if at all possible. That’s not always possible. If the circumstances are that the person who’s rolling off is rolling off under less-than-ideal circumstances, then that’s going to be a different kind of introduction. But again, you can still pull from what we talked about here.

When you go into a conversation, if you’re the new key contact on the company side, go through that process of preparation so that you walk in the door understanding what has happened in this account in the past: what are they buying, what’s working, what needs work, and who are you going to be working with. Those are important pieces. When you walk in the door and you show that you’ve done your homework and that you know the account, then that is a great trust builder. You don’t want your customer to have to go through a process of scratching their head and saying, huh, is this working?

The more you can do some of that foundational work upfront and walk in and make them feel confident in what this changeover is going to look like and how you’re going to take care of them, the better.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy, “How to show that sales is not the only path to revenue growth.” Ali shares how to turn Customer Success into a profit center and prove its financial contribution to the C-suite.


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