Sep 11, 2020

Read Time 5 min

Customer Success and Product: How to Align Your Customer-Centric Stars (Part 1 of 2)


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“The stars must have aligned.”

If this expression captures how you feel when your Customer Success and Product teams interact or fulfill a customer request without bickering or finger pointing, then please continue reading.

Although the purported meaning behind this cosmic phrase is inaccurate – since it takes stars thousands of years to align, we don’t live long enough to actually see stars move – you probably still relate to its less stellar celestial reality. As like with stars, you won’t be around long enough to witness the alignment of your Customer Success and Product teams. Perhaps in another time, another place, or another dimension, but certainly not this one.

As the Head of Customer Success and Product, I can tell you that you needn’t go searching for an alternate universe to see these functions work in (im)perfect harmony – we’re keeping it real here.

Before joining ChurnZero as Chief Customer Officer to lead both functions, I started my career in Customer Success (though we didn’t call it that back then) prior to shifting into Product a few years later. Having lived on both sides of the coin, I understand and empathize with each team’s outlook and approach to managing internal operations and the customer experience. My atypical position has made me acutely aware of the ongoing cross-functional crossfire, where clashes of opinions and processes result in casualties of product innovation and service.

But you can achieve both peace and progress by setting some basic engagement ground rules. By familiarizing and formalizing team communications and dynamics, you’ll build an alliance that you’ve only ever dreamed of; one that sparks groundbreaking headway, fresh and diverse ideas, and a product that reeks of customer-driven value.

In the first part of this two-part article, I’ll set the stage by explaining the significance of (and ramifications of not) marrying these teams by walking through:

  • Why Customer Success and Product need to align
  • How to recognize when they’re not coexisting
  • Gaining perspective into each team’s working styles

In the second part of the series, I dive into how to create a strong feedback culture to realize alignment, including:

  • The steps to build a formal yet flexible feedback loop and cadence
  • How deliberate processes lead to better change management
  • How to rally teams around shared goals
  • Why alignment must start from the top down
  • How the future has changed for this power couple

Why Customer Success and Product Need to Align

When your customer renews or leaves, their decision is not solely based on your product and it’s not solely based on your service – it’s a combination of the two. It’s a reflection of their entire experience that’s driven from across your organization.

And while all teams have a bearing on the customer experience, it ultimately comes down to its two most influential functions: Customer Success and Product.

As two halves of the same whole, they share interdependent goals and challenges, such as delivering customer value, optimizing onboarding and conversions, and increasing retention and adoption. They rely on each other to be successful. When they do this well, it results in an outcome where your product and services are undeniably useful to the customer. The customer and both teams feel not only understood but appreciated by one another. It’s the “you get me” simpatico feeling you’re after.

Aligned teams exemplify this sentiment and unity of purpose by agreeing on variable factors such as ideal customer profiles, pain points and uses cases, and reasonable service expectations. There’s a mutual understanding of why everyone does the things they do – despite their diverging communication styles, which can often feel like they come from two different planets.

Product is from Mars, Customer Success is from Venus

It’s a tale as old as SaaS, Customer Success and Product teams struggling with ineffective communication, misconceived grievances, and otherwise avoidable conflict. Bound together by shared goals yet disconnected by a foreign functional language, each team has a distinct communication method that’s derived from their collective skills, personality, culture, and working styles.

HBR explains that working styles (how we think about, organize, and complete tasks) can be broken down into four basic types. As your customers’ main advocate, Customer Success often reflects a work type comprised of relationship-building attributes, such as “supportive, expressive, and emotionally oriented.” This work type excels at facilitating interactions and persuading or selling ideas. Whereas Product often identifies with a more technical archetype defined by traits such as “logical, analytical, and data-oriented,” and is skilled at executing with a laser focus and solving complex problems.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen Product teams not take a Customer Success team’s feedback seriously because it’s delivered in a way that’s overtly emotional and laden with hyperbole. It’s communicated as “Everything is on FIRE!” As a Product Manager, you get engulfed by this panicked pitch and miss the significant information and priorities that are embroiled by the heat.

On the other hand, Product Managers needs to realize that Customer Success feels especially passionate about helping their customers – given that a Customer Success Manager’s commitment and sense of duty to the customer is often tied to their own livelihood with compensation based on retention and expansion.

Put Product and Customer Success in Perspective

If both teams keep perspective on why the other acts in the way that they do, it helps remove animosity and blame from defining the relationship. You instead discern actions from a place of shared understanding rather than distant assumptions and unconscious biases. It’s much easier to harbor feelings of contempt towards a faceless function than when you invest the headspace to learn about another. It starts by seeing your coworker as more than a means to an end, but as an actual human being – one who must contend with their own team’s goals, processes, and demands just like you.

Adding transparency drives more candid dialogues, empathy, and trust by providing an intimate view of each team’s innerworkings. When Product makes decisions, they should explain their reasoning to Customer Success and keep them involved. When Customer Success has feedback for Product, they should neutralize the emotion and highlight the recurring revenue that’s at stake.

Teach Product how to empathize with the customer and perceive the pain that’s felt by customer-facing teams. Coach Customer Success on how to take an objective approach and find multiple ways to solve a problem. When these functions lean on each other, they fortify their foundation and build a stronger, more stable alliance.

How to Recognize the Misaligned Warning Signs

You’ll know Customer Success and Product aren’t on the same page when your Customer Success team increasingly reports product misfits, customer angst, or gaps between customer expectations and reality. Or when Product claims that Customer Success is overindulging (and overreacting to) your customers’ short-term or impulsive wants instead of defending your product’s long-term strategy.

You might hear common complaints like:

  • Customer Success: “Customers hate using our tool. They say it’s hard to use and missing key features.”
  • Customer Success: “My customers can’t accomplish their goals. The solution isn’t delivering the value that they purchased it for.”
  • Product: “Our customer-facing teams are always going on about whatever last thing upset a customer. They’re overly swayed by single experiences and don’t see the bigger picture.”
  • Product: “They don’t push back on customer “needs” as much as they should. They look for problems, not solutions

These comments usually correlate to a higher churn rate, even if only related to a specific customer segment. Your renewal and expansion rates can indicate how effectively you’ve paired these teams together.

You should also pay attention to how teams relay and respond to product critiques.

Every product will have gaps as a result of serving various customer types. When you talk to customers about the reasoning behind why they follow certain processes, you start to uncover information about the product gaps they’re trying to fill. Customer Success teams that have a strong bond with Product adopt a more positive disposition about these criticisms than teams with a poor relationship. That strife can be a forewarning that there’s room for improvement in the relationship.

My strongest recommendation to align Customer Success and Product is to formalize how they interact with one another. It can feel overly formal and stiff at first but establishing clear communication avenues and processes is where it all starts.

Check out part two of this series which covers how to build a strong feedback culture to realize Customer Success and Product alignment.

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Fighting Churn is a newsletter of inspiration, ideas and news on customer success, churn, renewal and other stuff and is curated by ChurnZero.




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