Dec 16, 2022

Read Time 14 min

Beyond ICP: Why Customer Success needs to stress ideal customer behaviors to increase user adoption with Jason Whitehead


As a CSM, do you have to chase customers into doing the bare minimum required to see product gains, whether it’s responding to an email, showing up to a meeting, or finishing a task?

Your first instinct might be to blame sales for a bad-fit customer…but the account matches your ideal customer profile (ICP) to a T. It’s not down to a lack of structure either, since you have defined processes and roles for every journey stage. So, what gives?

Jason Whitehead, co-founder of Success Chain, suggests that CSMs need to shift from narrowly looking at customer attributes and tasks, and focus on their behavior instead.

“It’s the people in your buyer’s organization, the choices they make, how they are organized, and the behaviors they demonstrate that make all the difference between success and failure,” says Jason.

In our webinar, “Focusing on ICBs to accelerate user adoption and success,” Jason shares strategies for mapping and rewarding ideal customer behaviors to drive adoption, product engagement and customer retention.

The Q&A portion of the webinar explored examples of effective behavior incentives, how to align CS and product on priority ICBs, whether you should penalize a customer for bad behavior, and much more.

Defining and rewarding ideal customer behaviors with Jason Whitehead

Q: How can you get a customer to prioritize your product implementation when they have internal competing priorities? What if those priorities arise after they purchase the product and take precedence over adopting the product?

Jason: That’s one that comes up quite a bit. This is one of those, and it will depend on your solution and how big of an impact it has on your potential customer. I worked with one organization where the CEO and the others recognized that the importance of the impact of the software as well as the price tag they were paying made this a huge priority. But they actually went to their IT department and said we are putting all other non-critical initiatives on hold until this project is done and they took workload off the plate.

You can suggest to your customer a couple of things. You can say our most successful customers say let’s get this done in the next two months or three months, and just focus on adoption so that we can get through these other things and here are the benefits for them.

If you structured this the right way, you can show them the company and personal incentives they have to get there, but the reality is there will be some customers who do have higher priorities or other competing interests or maybe they’ve had some financial issues and they don’t have the staff or turnover or whatever it may be.

In those cases, you can do a couple of things. One is to highlight for them and say, I understand your situation, but here is what’s at risk if you are not able to do this. Or we can adjust some expectations accordingly around value but let’s have a discussion right now about the expected value and ROI that you’ll get and what you’ll need for future renewals and success now, and when your situation changes, how can we get in touch to reconfigure things? It can be done by outlining those, but that also comes back to having the right incentive plans to make it easier for them to say we get a bigger bang for our buck here than we will for someone else.

The other thing to keep in mind is the idea here is to try to incentivize them to take behaviors they really should be taking anyway. You’re trying to encourage them to do what will make them successful so they benefit even more. This is just highlighting it for them in a way and trying to create the motivation to get them there faster.

Q: What are examples of customer incentives at both the individual and company level for milestones in the customer journey?

Jason: The company ones are easier to track, and those can be more the financial or service level ones. That might be offering a discount if you complete these certain tasks by a certain time at a certain level of completeness, and accurately so they’re up and running and in a position where success is really up to them and you can get them out of the train, and stop blaming them for the vendor trap. That could be a discount. I’ve seen other companies say we will give you free training or discounted training. I’ve seen we’ll give you access to certain modules that you might not otherwise have.

In general, what I like to think through is what are some of the things that your salespeople might try to give away to land a deal. How can you structure those in a way that they earn the right for those if they demonstrate the behaviors that will make them and you successful?

In terms of personal incentives, I’ve seen a variety of different things that have been effective. That can include things, especially at the end user level, like certain training or something that will help their career or help their future career prospects that you can offer them.

One client we worked with, they were collecting success stories from their internal users about how a certain application helped them close more sales deals and gave some specific examples of that. Everyone who put in a clear business case for that was eligible for a very desirable price. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something expensive, a trip or something like that. But it was a big enough situation that by having the end users show that using this application helped them close deals and put in a number amount of what they close, tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars, that was a number and a proof point that resonated with the executives of the client company. It helped to secure renewals and to further other adoption efforts. They structured it around customers giving them social proof internally that they can use to justify the renewal and expansion of this account with their customers.

There may be other things, but also do keep in mind that people really just are looking for an easier way to do their job and be happy in their job. Have leadership think through how they can reward their staff. Here’s the day off. Here’s a movie pass. Here’s something else. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it can just be enough to recognize the contribution you’ve made.

Q: How mature does a CS program need to be to start offering incentives?

Jason: I’d like to see it from day one. It doesn’t need to be mature at all. What it does need to do though is be justifiable and clear. Start simple. The easiest ones are those examples where you stop giving away value. Instead, exchange it for behavior. Even if it is: complete these onboarding tasks within a certain day, and attend every QBR in the first year. Whatever it needs to be. What’s going to add the most value for you? If it is just getting them to return a phone call or getting them to attend a QBR, whatever it may be, you can put those simple pieces in there.

It could also be asking them to come prior to a QBR and fill out a form online that tells you what their proudest achievements are so far and where they are struggling the most, so you have ammunition and you can plan for an appropriate meeting. It can be very simple, but just make it easy for them to say yes. But you should do it from day one.

What I would recommend is as you start to map out your customer journey and your processes, you can just do swim lanes: here’s the journey, here are the key processes, here are the key behaviors that we want to have, and here are some incentives. You can start very small. You can get people in a conference room together for two hours and map out a simple thing. Let’s test it and try to iterate and experiment.

Q: How do you avoid making financial incentives too complex? It seems like too many if-then incentives would be hard to administer and communicate to customers.

Jason: That is a risk, and I always recommend that people start exceedingly small and come up with one or two simple financial incentives you can exchange for either one or two key behaviors.  If you complete onboarding, here’s a refund, or here’s a discount off your next invoice up to X percent. It must be SMART goals. Then you can experiment with adding in one or two others down the road.

Simple is key. You don’t have to incentivize every single behavior. Sometimes, it’s the simple act of identifying behaviors. The incentive might be they want to be successful in their career. You just need to show that this behavior will make them and they can self-motivate.

Q: How do you identify customers as a good fit for a pilot group?

Jason: That is always a challenge. I like to experiment with new customers who have no experience with us before. During the sales process, I get a sense that they are motivated, that they’re open to ideas, they’re open to try new things, and that they are really looking to make this a success.

For new customers, they have no idea what’s the right process and flow. You can even tell them during the sales process that we do things differently than a lot of your other vendors. Here’s what our program looks like. We’re piloting this and we would love to invite you to participate and here’s how you benefit.

Once you’ve got a few success stories underway, then you can retrofit it to existing customers, either as part of a renewal or pricing restructure, and explain it to them. But if you’ve already done it with some new customers and you can prove success stories, then you can justify here’s why we’re doing it this way, and here’s what we’re seeing, here’s how you will benefit from this new program.

Q: How can you help customers see the value in change and communication management? I’ve tried explaining it many times, but customers only want to focus on software setup rather than this important element.

Jason: I’ve encountered that many times as well. There’s no easy way to get through there. There’s a couple of things that can work. There will be some customers that no matter what you do and despite your best efforts, you just won’t get there. One, I like to ask customers, “Hey, you’ve made some great assumptions about the ROI that you’re going to get, and you probably came up with our business case and this is all great. But you probably assumed that you’d get 100% user adoption in that. What does your business case and value look like to you if you only get 30% adoption or 20% adoption?”

Sometimes, I will also ask them, “When you look across your landscape of other live IT systems, what level of effective adoption do you have there? Do you think you’re using 100% of the capabilities of the system? Are 100% of your people using it 100% of the time? What does that look like?” As you start to peel back the onion, they start to realize that they leave a lot of value on the table and they have a lot of problems, but they may not be motivated to do anything about it.

You can also go through and say here’s what our most successful customers do, go and talk with them and learn about the problems that they’ve had, that they’ve avoided, or how they addressed them to confirm this. Then sometimes you can even just ask the question: what evidence would you need to see to change your mind about this? What would it look like? How can we prove to you that you faced risks here and that you were maybe disappointed in the results? Sometimes, that can get them going. There are a few things like that you can do, but some people you just can’t reach.

Q: What are examples of clear and measurable outcomes for user adoption?

Jason: We actually, my business partner, Sue Nabeth Moore, has come up with an approach that she calls “AM PM” that I really love. “AM” stands for activity metrics or adoption metrics. Those are the leading indicators that show you are on the path to getting the results that you want. So a certain number of records are created or updated or things are entered, but basically looking through and saying, are people using the system as designed? What are the numbers behind that?

Then also looking at the performance metrics or the “PM” metrics. Those are the lagging indicators. What is the business value that we can attribute to this? It’s not always easy to get there but look over a period of time. I wrote an article about this too that’s on our blog that I’m happy to share if you’re interested in equivalent metrics.

For example, we have solar panels on our house. We have a little online portal that tells us the equivalent of the number of kilowatt hours generated and all this other transactional stuff. But then they convert it into something meaningful and they say this is a corresponding number of trees not burned or barrels of oil not used or cars off the road as a result of using this energy source compared to others. That’s meaningful.

You might be able to come up with a justifiable way to show folks that using this simple and justifiable formula, we translate this much time savings into this much added revenue or this other impact to really show the value of adoption. As long as you have something that makes sense and is rational to folks, you can come up with a meaningful metric that they can relate to.

Q: Should you penalize customers for negative behavior such as ignoring your emails or calls?

Jason: Absolutely. That comes back to that question at the beginning of my presentation with the coffee. Did they lower their prices for good behavior, did they raise their prices for bad behavior, or both? I am perfectly fine applying that to customers too.

I’m not an expert in pricing strategies. There are folks out there where that is their entire business and they get way in the weeds of it. But I am a believer of incentivizing the behavior that you want and making it harder for not having behavior you don’t want. By all means, come up with a penalty and maybe you structure it as a penalty, but maybe it’s a reward for them. They get this discount or this benefit if they do a certain thing by a certain time. You don’t have to tell them it is a penalty per se.

Now I have seen some contracts where customers expect a penalty on the vendor if they don’t live up to service level agreements or if their system is down or if they don’t fulfill uptime commitments, and those sorts of things. You can try that with your customers. Some may go for it. It depends on the nature of your software needs to have those mutual servicen level agreements, and that’s a great way to go.

I also know of other service providers who say this customer is difficult to deal with, they’re not friendly, and they take up a lot of my extra time. I’ll work with them going forward, but I’m going to charge them a lot more than I would my favorite customers who are easy to work with.

Q: How can CSMs remove internal roadblocks that stall a customer’s progress?

Jason: Some of that comes back to how you framed the expectations with the customer about how everyone’s going to be successful from the very beginning. One of the things that we encourage CSMs to do is, especially during the initial conversations where you’re building rapport with customers, spend time talking about the process of how you will collaborate and spend time being explicit with them and getting agreements around how both of you will handle it when things get delayed.

What we’ve often found helpful is saying that inevitably through a project, hiccups will come up. There’ll be delays on your end, there’ll be some problems on our end. We’re going to figure out what this looks like, but here’s what you can expect from us when that happens. One, I’m not going to just ignore it, I’m going call you on it. Two, we’re going to talk about the problem, how we resolve the problem, and if we need to change any of our expectations of how we work together going forward. Three, you might even have, and I encourage people to do this, escalation points built into their senior leadership throughout the day to say here’s where we’re on track, here’s where we’re behind, so that if the individual you’re dealing with becomes a blocker or non-responsive or whatever, you have a clear escalation path. But it’s done under the expectation that you will always tell them in advance. Part of our contract and our agreement with your executive is that we will advise them of this and we will get regular status meetings. I will notify you in advance if I have to report something so you’re not blindsided. But it is my obligation to do this as part of my job.

But ultimately, even at those senior levels, there will be blockers. Sometimes, there’s not a lot you can do, but you can definitely try to structure things differently from the beginning and put those escalation points and processes in place so that when you need of them, it’s not a personal relationship issue.

Q: How do you create an incentive for an existing customer when you can’t amend the contract?

Jason: You can still do some of the same things as well. But you may need to get a little creative there. One of them may be, “We’ve tested this out with other customers. We’ve found that this works for us and for our customers and that everyone is more successful. Here’s what we’re prepared to offer you. If you do XYZ, here’s how you’ll benefit.” Sneak it in that way. At some point in the future, there may be changes to the agreement and you can bring those in.

Also, I used to do quite a bit of contract work. If it’s a happy customer and you’re happy with them, if they don’t want to sign on board for whatever reason, I’d want to investigate. From a contract perspective, everything’s negotiable and you can always come back and try and change things if you need to. But if it’s not going well, that’s where you can propose it to them and say, here’s what we’ve done and here’s how I think this will make things better for you and for us. Let’s change the environment so that we’re both more successful.

Q: How can you identify when new users or leaders join a customer’s organization?

Jason: There may be a couple of ways. One, is there functionality within your tool that signals when people’s accounts have been activated or deactivated, or if they’ve not been accessed for a certain amount of time? That might trigger some of this functionality.

If you have the right CS platform to trigger flows when new users sign up, you can prompt them to provide some information about their persona, their role in the organization, and what they’re doing. Depending on the results, trigger an alert to the CSM that this may be a key person.

One of the other behaviors that I’ve often asked for with new customers is at some point someone either on our side or yours is going to leave the organization or get promoted or transferred or change their role. When that happens, one of the things that we would really like to ask for is that you contact us to let us know what’s changing and who the new contacts are so we can address this appropriately. That’s just asking for the behavior that you want. Even just doing that and reminding people periodically, maybe at each QBR, if there are any staffing changes, please let us know so we can do whatever.

Then, it’s absolutely essential to remember that whenever a user, especially a leader, is leaving and a new one’s coming on, you’ve got to rebuild the relationship and you’ve got to rebuild the trust. You need to set the history and context with the new person who’s taking over so that they understand what was done before and why. What are the agreements that are placed? What are the successes you’ve had? What are the challenges? Also, so you can learn from them what are their new versions of success and their priorities, and make sure you continue to be aligned.

Sometimes, you can have those initial conversations with them but it may take them two or three months to get up to speed in their job before they’re ready to make some changes. Don’t treat it as a one-off conversation. Be ready to stay on top of that and follow up with them to make sure you have the behaviors and commitments from them that you need.

Q: How can Customer Success and product teams at small SaaS organizations align on what ICBs to prioritize?

Jason: What are the current alignment incentives between product and customer success teams? Make sure you are already aligned and working well to drive customer behavior. For example, one of the ones we’re seeing very commonly is, does everyone have a stake in NRR? Is that part of everyone’s incentive plans, and where does it need to be?

If there are misalignments already within your teams, then throwing ICB on top of this will probably not solve a whole lot of your problems. You might need to fix the other alignment issues first. But then work with your product teams to identify what are the behaviors that we need to see from our customers and how do we enable those and request those?

Similarly, you may very well find that one of the behaviors you want is for your customers to do a better job of providing feedback or insights to the product team so that they can do their job effectively and know what’s most relevant for them. If you need to incentivize those behaviors, figure out how to do that at the appropriate time. This is an opportunity that you could take with your product team to look over the entire customer journey map to find where the product team would like to see a different customer behavior that would help them do their job and ultimately help you. How can you work collaboratively to request that behavior from customers and incentivize it and track it?

Customer fit must come first

Before you can strengthen your ideal customer behaviors, you need to ensure you’re building off the right ICP. When assessing a customer’s fit, the difference between a reasonable stretch versus a fundamental mismatch can run a fine line. Learn how to define your range of customer fit in our blog, “Defining the gray area between stretch-fit and bad-fit customers.”


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