Feb 8, 2022

Read Time 5 min

How to guide your team and customers through change management


According to the Harvard Business Review, about 75% of change efforts fail due to their inability to deliver value or complete abandonment. 

Pile that on top of other stressors, and your chances of change friction and burnout skyrocket.

“The amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued is half of what it was last year,” says Jessica Knight, Vice President of Gartner. 

Not only do we resist change because it threatens our sense of control, normalcy, competency, and ego (just a few of our favorite things), but also because it creates more work. Even if that additional upfront work makes us happier or more successful in the end, we would rather not make ourselves vulnerable to the unknowns of change.

In the HBR article, “Ten Reasons People Resist Change,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Arkbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Think Outside the Building, outlines the most common reasons people fight change.

Using Kanter’s reasons as a guide, we outline how Customer Success leaders can navigate this delicate territory to optimize the customer change management process and overcome change resistance.

1. Desire for control

Any sort of change, such as adopting a new product or using a new service, feels like it directly affects our sense of autonomy and power. We have a deep-rooted desire for control, and when change comes from something outside of ourselves, Kanter says, our self-determination typically drops off first.

If you’re worried that customers might feel a temporary loss of independence when learning a new system, you, as a Customer Success leader, can help reinstate a sense of control by giving them opportunities to make choices. 

Instead of outlining every step or detail of a change management process, invite those involved in the change process to attend planning or brainstorming sessions. This will give them back a sense of ownership and authority that they might have been worried about losing.

2. Fear of uncertainty

“If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it,” says Kanter. Most people avoid the unknown at all costs, even if that means remaining ineffective, antiquated, or even unhappy.

People need to feel safe to counter those fears of ambiguity, Kanter says. This allows them to be more vulnerable and therefore more open to change. As a Customer Success leader, you can motivate and inspire your customers by reassuring them and making them feel confident in and comfortable with your process. By defining clear steps and timelines for implementation, you can help undermine those worries of uncertainty.

3. Dislike of surprises

Generally, we like to think that we’re aware of what’s going on around us, especially if it affects us directly. So, most of us don’t particularly like being caught off guard.

This is important when it comes to designing your change management process. Don’t surprise your customers or your team with sudden changes. Kanter recommends that, instead, you drop clues about what’s to come and collect feedback along the way.

For example, if a certain product, service, or feature that a customer heavily uses must undergo development and may be significantly altered, give those customers hints about the impending changes so it doesn’t hit them all at once, out of the blue.

Plus, if you bring your customers along in the process like this, they might be able to offer a new perspective or helpful input, too.

4. Avoidance of unfamiliarity

Change requires that we deviate from our regular habits and routines, which can be overwhelming. Kanter recommends avoiding change just for the sake of change: “Too many differences can be distracting or confusing.”

As a Customer Success leader, you should do your best to limit variances caused by change that could be irrelevant or extraneous to the goal of your change process. Focus on what’s familiar to your customers and what’s essential to them, both before and after you make your changes. You should only direct your customer through a change process if it’s absolutely necessary for their value attainment.

5. Shame over failure

If you’re changing a product or a process that your customers’ team members or stakeholders have been significantly involved with, they might resist adopting the new product. They might worry that the change in the product reflects on them and their choices. Whether the legacy system is being replaced because it’s no longer effective or simply to usher in some improvements, Kanter indicates that those involved with its creation and management might fear being seen as a failure by others due to this change.

To help people overcome the fear that these changes personally reflect on them, Kanter recommends celebrating the admirable parts of the old product or system and driving home the narrative that change is necessary in a changing world. 

Recognizing the things your customer and their team have done exceptionally well in the past and  making it clear what needs to happen to continue to be successful in today’s business world gives reassurance that your customers haven’t failed. You can provide recognition of their achievements and help remove any guilt they might be feeling, making it easier to move on through these future changes.

6. Desire for competence

Customers may show hesitancy or distrust when adopting a new product or system if they worry that it might make them seem inadequate. “Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid,” Kanter says. You want to make sure new changes don’t make your customers feel helpless or like their efforts are futile.

To offset their apprehension and unease, Customer Success leaders can “over-invest in structural reassurance” by giving customers ample information and resources. You can also step in as their support system throughout the change management process to mentor them through these new product adoptions and reinforce their confidence.

7. Resistance to additional work

The members of your customers’ teams who are responsible for implementing your product or leading the charge on their own internal change management process usually end up overworked. This can happen even when change has been planned out meticulously. 

Kanter explains that this is partially due to unforeseen problems that might occur midway through the change process. Kanter’s Law, which is derived from this issue, states that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.”

Customer Success leaders should allow team members to solely focus on the change initiative for those struggling to push through this murky middle phase. They can also offer incentives, such as free meals, gift cards, or extra PTO to show appreciation for their participation and efforts. This can help motivate and encourage the extra work that customer change management might require while discouraging resistance to it.

8. Unpredictability of ripple effects

The change management process can interfere with the work in other departments that aren’t necessarily directly involved or invested in customers’ change. It can stir the pot and accidentally dredge up some internal animosity when customer change management impedes other teams’ ways of doing things. 

To make sure that the ripples from your change process don’t turn into tidal waves, Kanter suggests expanding your stakeholder circle. Before implementation, encourage your customer to map out the internal teams that may be impacted by the new product or processes and align with them to limit disruptions and potential inconveniences.

9. Possibility of scratching old wounds

Past working experiences between teams and individuals come with history.  When everything’s going well, relationships amongst teams appear amicable and stable. Kanter warns, however, that as soon as you “need cooperation for something new or different,” past disagreements and grievances can quickly resurface and escalate.

Launching a new product or service often requires support and collaboration from multiple internal teams, whether it’s technical implementation or support of the change management process. If there’s animosity between team members that you need assistance from, put in the effort to reset or mediate the relationship so you can make amends and restart on the right foot.

10. Possible threats to business

Sometimes, change can pose a real threat to someone’s livelihood and career. New products and services can replace existing resources and investments. Kanter says that, when change has the power to hurt others, you should be “honest, transparent, fast, and fair.”

If implementing new software may eliminate or drastically change an employee’s role, you must be straightforward about the full extent of the effects of this change.

Consider the roots of resistance to change management

To drive the change management processes that help customers get the most value out of your products, Customer Success leaders must understand where resistance stems from. Once they have a good grasp of these roots of resistance, they can navigate these changes and help increase customer value.

To learn more about driving product adoption, the lifeblood of SaaS companies, check out our blog post, “How to Drive Product Adoption and Satisfaction as a CSM.”


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