Sep 11, 2020

Read Time 11 min

Customer Success and product: how to align your customer-centric stars


“The stars must have aligned.”

If this expression captures how you feel when your Customer Success and product teams interact without friction 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.

As the chief product officer (CPO), 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 (CCO)–and now CPO–I started my career in Customer Success 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 journey. My experience 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.

However, 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.

Why Customer Success and product need to align

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

Keep everyone’s roles 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. It can also be 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 also want to 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.

Creating a strong feedback culture to realize Customer Success and product alignment

Before diving into feedback loops, I want to share an article excerpt from Product Marketing Community (PMC) by Rowan Noronha, PMC founder and vice president of product marketing at Zix and Chris Gillespie, editor in chief at Find A Way Media, that explains how the workplace fences we construct, often under the guise of efficiency, breed cross-functional biases and blame:

“In a famous psychology experiment, researchers asked couples how much of the household chores they each thought they did. On average, both felt they did 80 percent of the chores. There’s a name for this effect: The availability heuristic. We place too much importance on the information available to us (I know all the chores I did), and too little on what we don’t know (the chores my partner did when I wasn’t around). Teams experience this in the extreme.”

To illustrate this point in the workplace, Noronha and Gillespie describe how to salespeople “everyone seems to be trying to slow down their deal” and for product teams “all others seem to be trying to ruin the user experience. (No more in-app offers!)”

Sound familiar?

When teams lack context and knowledge about work that’s outside of their immediate purview, they unconsciously undermine that which you don’t perceive. This limited sight puts blinders on your team – often making them more selfish in their requests to other functions, feign necessary understanding, and miss otherwise obvious opportunities for collaboration and improvement.

As Noronha and Gillespie warn, “that can kill you in the market.”

The same fence that shuts others out – whether for the perceived sake of efficiency, conflict avoidance, or specialization – shuts you in. Formalizing how Customer Success and product communicate helps tear down these fences while still maintaining neighborly boundaries.

Now let’s take a look the most common communication shortcomings for each team and how they can level up their alignment.

Prime product for customer conversations

The best way a product team can help itself is by directly talking to customers as much as possible. Unfortunately, when I reflect on my own experience at various product roles throughout my career and when I look at organizations today, many product teams claim to have a Voice of Customer program, but the way in which they collect feedback tends to focus less on customer needs and more on their own.

For example, when product gets on the phone with a customer, they often have their own objective for the call and a predefined list of self-serving topics to discuss. They aren’t in listen-and-learn mode; it’s a one-sided conversation driven by their personal agenda.

Instead of being in their own head, product team members needs to immerse themselves in the customer. When talking with customers, condition them to remain open and receptive to unprompted or diverging discussions steered by the customer. 

Here are ways your product team can really get to know their customer:

  • Attend Customer Success and sales calls
  • Go to customer onboarding and training sessions
  • Shadow customer support, jump in their ticket queue, and answer customer questions
  • Sit in on Customer Success team meetings

The greater exposure, context, and understanding your product team has of a customer’s experience, the better they’ll couch feedback from Customer Success and the broader they’ll expand their perspective and problem solving.

Make feedback measurable

Since a Customer Success team’s daily work revolves around customers and their ever-evolving needs, formalizing the feedback process helps bring order and balance to the constant stream of incoming demands and requests. To regulate your customer feedback flow and better prioritize your roadmap, you first need to quantify feedback urgency—and the cost of delaying it.

If product has recurring meetings with CS to discuss customer feedback, chances are CSMs are sharing their most recent customer issues, which doesn’t necessarily reflect broader feedback patterns.

To counteract this recency bias (where people more easily recall recent events and weigh them more heavily than past events), create a system to thoughtfully collect customer feedback as it happens. That way, details are captured when they’re fresh in a CSM’s mind and can be objectively assessed later by both teams to uncover insights such as request trends, at-risk and potential revenue for certain ideas, and customer segment patterns.

Encourage CSMs to elaborate on the proposed request by asking probing questions that structure their case, such as:

  • What’s the customer’s sense of priority?
  • What’s your (the CSM’s) sense of priority?
  • Are there dollars at stake? If so, how much?
  • Are there workarounds/alternatives? If so, how reasonable/easy are those options?

To build both teams’ confidence in the feedback request process, set detailed submittal and response guidelines, including the essential data points for request considerations, a reasonable timeframe for receiving answers, and feedback priority setting.

Surprisingly, many product teams skip over this last detail because they assume that all requests will be deemed a high priority or must-have. But in my experience, that hasn’t been the case, especially if you schedule dedicated time to review process expectations with both teams. Customer Success wants their feedback to be taken seriously, so they’ll respect the process so long as you provide them with one.

At ChurnZero, before a CSM submits customer feedback, they must assign a priority. Customer feedback is typically prioritized based on influential factors such as contract size, strategic accounts, and upcoming renewals. As a business, you can’t ignore revenue, but you also don’t want to discount customers based solely on size. Some of our best product ideas have come from our smaller customers, and it’d be foolish to disregard that. Be careful to not breed the habit of only reporting feedback from large customers or contracts, because you will miss out.

Always close the feedback loop

As the gold standard, product teams should strive to immediately review product feedback upon receiving a request. Once reviewed, product should provide the CSM with a definitive response on whether they’ll proceed with the request. The CSM then relays this verdict back to the customer to minimize the amount of time requests spend in limbo. This rule may take exception to when a request relates to your company’s broader strategic initiatives for the year. You don’t want to prematurely assign a timeline that’s based on best guesses, but you should communicate to the customer that you’re interested in pursuing their feedback once it becomes more pertinent to your roadmap.

Teams are often effective at collecting product feedback, but they’re poor at acting on it. When teams fail to follow up with a customer on feedback, they forfeit any credit and affinity built by this positive action. Even worse, the customer discovers the change on their own and becomes annoyed that you didn’t notify them that their request was executed. Demonstrate to customers that you respect their proactive efforts by responding to them as quickly as possible.

Keep teams on the same page with constant points of feedback

Does it ever feel like your product team accepts a customer request, then disappears for weeks and only resurfaces once the feedback’s been implemented?

Instead of waiting to unveil progress until big check-in moments right before a launch or at certain points of the year, product should loop in Customer Success on an ongoing basis and throughout feature development. Set up focus groups where product can share mocks of in-progress work to gauge the team’s reactions and solicit their opinions. Ask product to invite CSMs to beta programs or make new functionality available to them before it’s released to customers.

Having constant points of feedback during development makes Customer Success inherently more familiar with product changes, and, in turn, more articulate and confident in how they convey them to customers. When looking at the roadmap from ideation to go-to-market, there are opportunities to involve Customer Success in every step along the way.

Put on your product hat

At ChurnZero, to help give Customer Success perspective into the development phase, we use an exercise where we turn our CSMs into mini product managers. We let them sit in product’s seat to get a taste of the development decision-making process, which must consider the broader scope of the company’s strategic goals.

During the exercise, I lay out every request that the Customer Success team submitted and highlight the most common and high-value requests as well as those related to the company’s strategic goals and initiatives. Then, I ask the team to prioritize, requiring them to balance the customer, team, and company’s needs.

This roleplaying allows Customer Success to put on their product hat and gain the context to understand the reasoning and rationale behind these, sometimes controversial, decisions.

However, these engagements take effort: scheduling the meetings, planning the exercises, continuously asking for feedback, and analyzing the results. Customer Success and product leaders need a close relationship to execute these steps purposefully and repeatedly. Process consistency and conformity trickles down from there. 

Product and Customer Success alignment starts from the top down

It may sound cliché but change only happens when it comes from the top down. I’ve seen internal team members, however spiritedly and scrappily, attempt to invoke change, and although their efforts are admirable, they’re also often futile. You need to establish a culture of cooperation that must come from your functional leaders, otherwise the actions of individuals without authority will not withstand.

Setting practical goals and expectations is the foundation to achieving lasting change. First, Customer Success and product leaders need to have a candid conversation about the type of relationship they want to have and how they can help each other to make it mutually beneficial.

As a leader, if you only visualize the big picture and think of every possible course of action that you could take to achieve alignment, you’re never going to get anything done. Instead, make a short list of action items that can help each leader be more useful to the other and then break those down into smaller, achievable tasks. To build momentum and prove viability, pick a few easy wins, but make sure they have a measurable and tangible effect. You don’t want either team to feel like they’re senselessly executing tasks and going through the motions simply to placate the other. The new process you implement needs to have a clear benefit and connect the teams in a meaningful way. 

What the future holds for Customer Success and product

When a customer purchases a product, they have expectations about what they want from it, and certainly some of that is features and functionality. But it’s also how they want to be supported and engaged, which requires defining the right moments to present them with specific types of information or services.

Long-term Customer Success is all about reducing friction in customer relationships. It’s figuring out how CSMs can meet customers where they’re at and on their terms. As the primary means of business communication, phone and email will never go away. But Customer Success should also heavily invest in other channels that feel more natural to the customer and make the CSM an organic, nonintrusive part of their experience. Where from the customer’s point of view, vendor outreach isn’t based on routine email cadences and QBRs, but their own unique needs at a specific moment without ever having to raise a hand or ask. We believe that customers are most primed to digest information, accept advice, and try new functionality when they are actively using your product. This makes in-app communications a powerful tool for Customer Success to connect with customers sans distractions, overload, or additional customer effort.

The increasing demand to embed Customer Success inside the product means that the alignment between product and Customer Success will need to become even stronger. Teams that settle for superficial alliances will get out of it what they put into it: a passable product of no real substance.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: “The importance of product-led growth for Customer Success.”


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