Sep 25, 2020

Read Time 8 min

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


Spread the love

[This is the second installment of a two-part article series. The first installment outlined the significance of (and ramifications of not) marrying your Customer Success and Product teams, how to spot the misaligned warning signs, and decoding each team’s unique working style.]

In this article, I’ll discuss how to create a strong feedback culture to realize Customer Success and Product alignment.

But first, let’s talk about the fences.

Before diving into feedback loops, I want to share an article excerpt from Product Marketing Community by Rowan Noronha, PMC Founder and VP 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.

Fix Communication Breakdowns With Formalized Feedback

With most of Customer Success and Product’s communication centered around customer feedback, structuring how each team collects and shares this information – with both the client and one another – removes operational ambiguity and improves performance. A good process produces good results (and goodwill between teams). So, let’s take a quick look at each team’s common communication shortcomings and how they can level up their alignment.

Prime Product for Customer Conversations

The best way Product can help themselves 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 needs to immerse themselves in the customer. When talking with customers, condition them to not only hear what they want to hear but to remain open and receptive to unprompted or diverging discussions steered by the customer. As for the cadence of these touchpoints, Product shouldn’t settle for having customer conversations only once or twice a year. They should be had on a continuous cycle and baked throughout their work.

Here are some other suggestions for how Product 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 (as a quiet observer)

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 Customer Success Feedback Measurable

Since Customer Success teams’ 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 you have recurring meetings with CSMs to discuss customer feedback, chances are you’re hearing about their most recent customer issues or current crises – 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 CSMs’ minds and can also be objectively assessed later by both teams to uncover insights such as request trends, at-risk and potential revenue for certain ideas, customer segment patterns, and more.

You should also 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 your feedback request process, set detailed submittal and response guidelines, including the essential datapoints 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 don’t just send out a product request form, but 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.

But remember to take an open-minded approach. 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. So, be careful to not breed the habit of only reporting feedback from large customers or contracts, because you will miss out.

Don’t Forget to Always Close the 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. (If accepted by the team, always try to provide the customer with a rough release timeline.) 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 rather poor at putting it to use and following up with the customer – even when they do implement a customer’s requests, which is a massive missed opportunity. You forfeit any credit and affinity built by this positive action. Or worse, the customer discovers the change on their own and becomes annoyed that you didn’t notify them that their request was executed. So, make sure that you’re not solely focusing on collecting feedback; demonstrate to customers that you respect and value their proactive efforts by responding to them as quickly as possible.

When both teams are focused on customer feedback, it gives you a quantitative launching spot. Instead of dealing in hyperboles, anecdotes, and hair-on-fire moments, you have substantiated points that orient the conversation around real value.

Keep Teams on the Same Page With Constant Points of Feedback

Does it ever feel like Product takes on a customer request then disappears for weeks or months and only resurfaces once they have the finished product?

This efficient yet exclusive approach misses a slew of opportunities for Customer Success and Product to work together throughout development. 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 a constant 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.

Consider proactively inviting CSMs to your beta program or making new functionality available to them before it’s even finished being developed or released to customers so that you can collect firsthand feedback from experienced users.

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 you look at your entire roadmap from ideation to go-to-market, there are opportunities to involve Customer Success in every single step.

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 also 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.

But 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 make it easy to get started. 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 to simply placate the other. The new processes and strategies you implement need to have a clear benefit and value and connect the teams in a meaningful way – not just in the interest of appeasement or appearance.

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.

Customer Success Around the Web

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




Subscribe to the newsletter   

5 Customer Success Newsletters to Subscribe To

Customer Success newsletters are a great way to stay on top of industry trends and strategies, get tips and tricks to improve day-to-day operations, and even find networking opportunities and events, without having to do all the digging for information across the web...