Feb 11, 2022

Read Time 6 min

Customer Success, Start Playing Offense to Build Your Executive Presence


As a customer success leader, you’re likely familiar with the struggles of gaining executive buy-in and advocating for the criticality of customer success to the larger organization. For years, customer success has fought for the attention of the C-suite and to join them in their ranks.

With more and more executives wising up to the value of this customer function – whether due to the pandemic, the industry’s growing acceptance, or internal champions – customer success leaders must figure out how to make their C-suite’s heightened, and potentially fleeting, interest permanent.

In this article, Michael Harnum, CEO of ESG, a provider of Customer Success as a Service® (CSaaS), shares an executive perspective on how to take the attentiveness of your own execs and make the most of it. We delve into Michael’s best advice on how you can build your own executive presence and increase your influence by using an offensive strategy comprised of these six tactics:

  1. Set the agenda
  2. Have an informed perspective
  3. Infuse your message with data
  4. Tell a story using direct customer input
  5. Make a recommendation
  6. Anchor your recommendation to a corporate objective

Let’s get started.

*This article is adapted from a session presented by Michael Harnum, CEO of ESG at BIG RYG Virtual, ChurnZero’s online customer success conference. You can also watch the session, along with all other BIG RYG Virtual sessions, on-demand now.

How to play offense as a customer success leader

In a business context, offensive strategies focus on executing with a proactive and an intentional approach. When playing offense, you anticipate and drive change rather than react to it.

But Michael finds many customer success leaders default to playing defense. “I talk to customer success leaders and they’ll say things like ‘I have a new chief customer officer or a new CEO and I need to find out what they think about customer success,’” says Michael. “That’s the wrong approach.”

Now of course, you should be aware of your executive’s perspective. But instead of automatically conforming to their position, Michael advocates that a better approach is to proactively share your point of view. “Playing offense means that you have a perspective,” says Michael.

Whether you’re attending an executive review or a board meeting, use the offensive tactics shared in this article to frame your perspective, gain credibility, and hold the attention of the C-suite.

1. Set the agenda

While setting an agenda sounds like a super fundamental practice, Michael says he sees many customer success leaders either failing to do it or failing to do it well. Both of these shortcomings can put you in a situation where your executive team questions why their investment in customer success hasn’t returned immediate increases in revenue retention, renewal rates, or the like.

To counter these unrealistic expectations and effectively set the agenda, you need to emphasize leading indicators over lagging indicators. “If you allow the focus of the conversation to be exclusively on lagging indicators, unless you have a tremendously mature and well-funded customer success organization, that’s probably not going to play well for you,” says Michael.

Instead, Michael recommends focusing further upstream. One way you can do that is by creating a baseline of your capabilities. This gives you the means to showcase improvements and talk about the capabilities that your customer success organization has today that they didn’t have last month, quarter, or year. Example capabilities might include launching an integrated digital customer success strategy, mapping your customer journey, or creating a customer health score.

Rather than focusing your message on lagging indicators or revenue impact (if you haven’t achieved that yet), highlight how your capability enhancements – broken out by customer segment – better position you to drive a positive revenue result.

2.) Have an informed perspective

If you want executives to buy into your perspective, you need to include credible information that substantiates your claims. When assessing the credibility of a source, you want to consider its:

  • Accuracy: How exact or approximate is the information?
  • Objectivity: What degree of bias is shown in the information?
  • Completeness: Where is information missing or partial?
  • Timeliness: How close to in real time is information?
  • Authority: What credentials does the source have?

You also want to ensure you don’t withhold or falsely convey the original context of your supporting evidence when applying it to your argument. Be straightforward. Don’t contort the facts to fit your narrative. If you do the research needed to have an opinion, you’ll gain the trust and respect of your executives.

3. Infuse your message with data

Customer success tends to lead with anecdotal evidence when making arguments. This is in part due to the conversational nature of their customer-facing role. But if you want to legitimize your stance, you need to back it with data.

One way Michael recommends using data to strengthen your message is by highlighting segment-level performance. “The higher up you go in an organization, the more they tend to talk about customers as a clump and see all customers as the same,” says Michael. “But as customer success professionals, we know that the behavior of customer segments is very different depending on their size and what they’re trying to get done.”

For example, Time to Value – which is influenced by a company’s onboarding capabilities – can widely differ among customer segments. It may take an enterprise customers six months to get from implementation to value. Whereas a SMB customer may be able to recognize value in half that time.

You need to understand and articulate the nuances of your customer data, especially how it differs by customer segment.

4. Tell a story using direct customer input

Customer success can gain influence within the C-suite by becoming the customer expert. “This becomes really important as you move up the chain in the organization,” says Michael. “This is your armor to make your arguments, and you don’t need systems to be good at this.”

As a customer success leader, you want to be the one who engages with customers more than any other executive in the room. Having a direct and open line of communication with customers allows you to act as their proxy when discussing related matters with leadership. You can use your unique vantage point to influence others to see your point of view since they likely don’t communicate with customers as directly or regularly as you do.

If you’re unsure of which topic to prioritize in your discussions with customers and to share with executives, start with your customers’ value realization. Ask customers questions like “What value did you expect from our platform and are you getting that value?” Then you infuse that customer story throughout your messaging to leadership.

5. Make a recommendation

After you’ve followed the steps above to build a compelling business case, it’s time to incite action. To do that, you need to make recommendations. “You want to start as many sentences as you possibly can with the two words: I recommend,” says Michael.

Make sure your recommendations are highly specific. If you made a thorough effort to clearly illustrate your issues to executives, don’t conclude with a vague, wishy-washy solution. Apply the same amount of thought and consideration to your concerns as you do your solutions.

Lastly, don’t forget to make your recommendations measurable. Ensuring their specificity will naturally help you quantify them. If your executives can evaluate your recommendation’s performance, they’ll feel more confident backing it.

6. Anchor your recommendation to a corporate objective

With any recommendation you make, especially to C-level executives, you want to tie what you recommend to an agreed-upon corporate objective. Corporate objectives tend to be broad concepts such as increasing customer retention or creating a customer-first culture. The key is to back your specific recommendations into these higher-level objectives. By showing executives that you understand their goals at an organizational level, they’ll be more receptive to considering your solutions.

Stand your ground to keep the spotlight on customer success

Customer success is a new concept in many organizations. As such, some executives might not yet understand the function’s business value. This lack of mainstream acceptance will require you to challenge the status quo to varying degrees. Leaders will poke at your numbers. They will question you. But you need to have the courage to stand by your convictions.

“If your belief system informs your actions and your belief system says we have to be good at customer success, it’s our future or we will not succeed as an organization, then you’re going to have to remind yourself every single day that you believe that and fortify that belief with additional data as it becomes available,” says Michael.

You must be relentless in your pursuit and proliferation of your point of view inside of your organization. Be ready for pushback. If you expect pushback, it stings a little less when it comes. “When you are resilient and relentless,” says Michael, “And you truly believe in your work, it will feel very natural to have conversations with people that may not believe to the extent that you do.”

Education breeds confidence. Use your raised platform to educate your executives on the capabilities and positive effects of customer success.

“This is a reminder that we all wanted this attention,” says Michael. “If you go back a few years ago, we were having trouble getting a seat at the table as customer success leaders. We have it now. I encourage you to make the most of it.”

To help you further capitalize on the C-suite’s attention and get the customer resources you need, check out our eBook “How to Sell Customer Success Software to the C-Suite.” In this guide, we show you how to sell customer success software internally including how to position your pitch for each C-suite executive.


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