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How to lead quarterly business reviews (QBRs) customers want to attend
The QBR has become an industry staple—and polarizing topic—in customer success. Many of its critics complain it inflicts death by PowerPoint. Fans of the meeting espouse its bottom-line benefits.
In a sense, both sides are right. QBRs, when designed with respect to customer needs, are an effective tool to gain strategic alignment between a vendor and an account. However, many customer success teams squander this opportunity by making it about themselves and not thinking outside the box. And while there isn’t one right way to lead a QBR, there are certainly plenty of wrong ways to go about it.
In my years as a customer success manager, I’ve seen what makes a standout QBR and what makes a bad one. Often, it’s the small details that make all the difference.
What is a quarterly business review?
A quarterly business review (QBR), also known as an executive business review (EBR), is a customer meeting typically held every three to six months where vendors assess a customer’s goals, performance, and strategies. Typically, vendors present an analysis of agreed-upon KPIs and business trends to measure the company’s progress against its objectives.
The generally acknowledged purpose of a QBR is for the vendor and customer to align on the value the customer has received to date and the potential value they stand to gain in the future. The QBRs I’ve seen and done that really stood out and were most successful had the subtle message of “Customer, be confident in us and what we can do for you.”
The meeting should include past, present, and future initiatives while mentioning notable challenges, learnings, benefits, and tangible wins for your customer. If my vendor never spoke about anything negative, I wouldn’t trust them to surface when things went wrong. It’s rare that things to go perfectly, so apply ownership of any problems and focus on the lessons learned and resolutions. The clearer you can be in defining the solution and learnings, the more confidence you inspire as a business partner.
Are quarterly business reviews right for your business?
QBRs are an effective tool for managing customers with annual or multi-year contracts—regardless of auto-renewal agreements. Basically, you need to spend a long enough period of time with the customer to form a substantive relationship. The meeting’s frequency can be correlated with customer segmentation for your business. For example, strategic customers might get a business review every quarter and smaller customers get a review once or twice a year.
If your business runs on monthly contracts or individual orders, there is commonly less value in trying to force-fit a scheduled QBR because the customer could leave in 30 days or never order again. You’re not doing yourself or the customer any favors by forcing them into a QBR cadence that is not aligned with their obligation to you or appetite for you. That is not to say they cannot be valuable; relationships can supersede standard obligations. Consider your own business dynamics before rolling out a process.
Who should attend quarterly business reviews?
From the customer side, QBR attendees ideally include executive sponsors and relevant points of contact. While optional, it can be valuable to invite other departmental leaders who interact with your product or its output in some capacity. Even if they’re not your direct customers, these impacted teams can have a strong influence over business decisions, such as renewing, adding licenses, and integrating the product into other areas of the business.
A quick aside on roles: In customer success, there are different terms for the same role. There is a buying committee with different requirements and goals and the more you can relevantly include them in these QBRs, the better. You want to have the executive who is accountable for your performance, the people you work with regularly, and others who have significant influence over decisions present during these calls.
From the vendor side, QBR attendees should include the CSM as the one responsible for leading the meeting. If you’re conducting a QBR for a high-value customer, you may want to invite someone from your leadership team as a sign of commitment and respect. CSMs in tech-heavy roles may also choose to include a technical resource from both their side and the customer’s side to help facilitate questions and explain the rationale behind specific decisions.
A technical resource can be someone from the operations, product or development team. These roles tend to become more involved when discussing future projects or technical issues.
How to run an effective quarterly business review (QBR)
If you’ve never led a quarterly business review before, or you’re looking to revamp your QBR’s format and script, I’ll walk you through my QBR process from preparation and kickoff to conclusion and follow-up. Use these tips to encourage active participation, clear communication, and accountability among QBR attendees.
Quarterly business review preparation: Get the most out of your meeting
To prepare for the QBR, start by getting your hands on every scrap of data you can, even if you’re not going to present it. Why? Because it makes you more holistically ready for the meeting.
When I conduct QBRs, I almost always get questions about things that are not directly shown in the slides. If you don’t do the prep work to thoroughly understand everything, then you’re more likely to run into situations where you have to tell the customer “I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you.” And while it’s not a mark against you, it is a missed opportunity to demonstrate preparedness to the customer. You build your customer’s confidence when you’re able to consistently prove your knowledge of their business.
Most of the data you gather should be ready at your disposal, not prepared for display. The difference in these approaches is often an indication of a CSM’s skill level. More experienced CSMs use slides to complement their presentation, not to drive it.
As mentioned, I prefer to structure the meeting around past, present, and future initiatives:
- What has happened so far, what have we learned, and how has the customer benefited?
- What is in progress? What’s on hold? How will it help the customer?
- What is planned? What are the areas of opportunity?
There should always be an element of personalization when deciding what information goes into the presentation. Know your customers and what they look for. Be selective.
Additionally, don’t shy away from covering service or product problems. Customers will notice and be more irritated by the omission. Instead, when faced with a negative situation, try to present a positive outcome whenever possible. To give you an example, in a prior role, I once had to tell a global head of engineering that we couldn’t meet our deployment deadline for two of their sites. The reason was that we encountered unforeseen workflow challenges because the teams had non-standard processes. As a result, the teams identified multiple other use cases they wanted to pursue beyond the plan. Within two months, these sites were leading the company in terms of adoption and the number of use cases in deployment.
After your prep work is complete, build a clear meeting agenda. Share the agenda in advance to let participants know what to expect. This helps set expectations and protects the QBR’s purpose. If the slides complement the meeting, then it will be inherently more interesting and decrease the chance of people skipping.
Quarterly business review kickoff: Keep it short and sweet
While introductions are essential in QBRs, they can derail and delay your meeting when left unchecked. For example, if you have four people from the customer’s side attending plus three people from your side, introductions can take 10 minutes. If any conversations spin off from that, you lose another 10. Now you’re 20 minutes behind and rushing through the presentation you diligently prepared for.
One time-saving tactic is to assign a person from each side to handle the task. At the start of the meeting, have your main point of contact introduce their entire team. Coordinate this with them ahead of time to get their agreement. As the CSM, introduce the team members from your side who are attending. This way, everyone gets to know who’s who within a few minutes, and you can move on.
Quarterly business review engagement: Encourage participation during the meeting
Too often, QBRs devolve into a one-sided conversation where the CSM reads off data from the slides. This will all but guarantee a meeting decline the next time around.
Get customers to open up and engage during QBRs by following these strategies.
- Use a narrative format. Paint a picture of what’s happened, the current state, and what’s to come. Draw out emotion by contrasting the old way of working with this new, better way. Illustrate how the customer’s hard work and strategies, along with your product—as the supporting role, of course—helped them make that transition.
- Build in opportunities for engagement. Take intentional breaks and frequent pauses. Give customers the space to ask questions. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time to spark conversation when the line goes silent, which inevitably happens to us all.
- Practice the communication imperatives of alignment, control, and affection. Alignment is understanding why the customer cares. Do you have a shared interest and objective? Are you working toward the same goal? Control is offering them a choice. People hate not having options. Invite customers to influence the conversation. Build in areas they can control and comment on. Affection is affirming them through edification and encouragement. If people are sticklers, thank them for being detail oriented. You can convince customers to show up by bringing these needs to the forefront.
- Put customers on the spot. If I’m part of the way through a QBR and no one is engaging, I use a line that gets customers to speak up. It works 100% of the time. It’s super simple. I did not invent it, but I’ve used it ever since I first learned it. After I finish speaking, I’ll say, “I’m going to pause here. I just gabbed at you a whole lot. I take silence to mean either I’m doing an amazing job so there are no questions and we’re all perfectly aligned, or I’m doing an absolutely terrible job. Someone give me something.” If it goes another few seconds and no one says anything, I follow up by saying, “I will wait.” That always gets them. Someone jumps in. I’ve never had it not work. If no one’s participating, consider using that call-out or a similar one to help lighten the mood.
- Ask questions. When you ask the customer questions, it allows them to provide insight and guidance. An example of this would be “Are there things we didn’t cover that you want to discuss?” or “Am I understanding your ideal outcomes or initiatives correctly?” You can also ask them questions about business challenges or areas of opportunity. However, this should not be an interrogation. It’s about showing curiosity, a desire to understand, and a sincere interest in the customer’s success. These insights will change the way you support them and provide value.
- Ask pointed yes-no questions. While you typically want to use open-ended questions as conversation starters, if you find yourself in a meeting with unresponsive attendees, try to elicit a reply using yes-no questions. The idea is that easy answers will act as a springboard to a more engaging dialogue. For example, if you’re presenting recent learnings to a customer, you could pause to ask, “Do you have any questions about how we set up this project?” If they say “no,” then you could follow up by asking, “Do you feel confident that you’d be able to replicate this process in other areas?” It’s harder for them to say yes or no to that. Getting a reply, even if it’s a one-word answer, makes it easier to ask follow-on questions that eventually get the ball rolling.
Quarterly business review conclusion and follow-up: Close out on a positive note
At the end of your QBR, start by taking a minute to recap the positives. Reiterate one or two of the customer’s notable accomplishments. These points should support the foundation of future goals and initiatives.
Keep talking points high-level. Don’t summarize everything you’ve just talked about. Save the detailed summary for the follow-up email you’ll send after the meeting.
Include in your follow-up email any notable discussion points, questions, and action items. Capturing this information in writing demonstrates accountability. It shows the meeting was productive and makes the customer feel confident that you were listening, that their contributions were valued, and that action will be taken quickly. Attach a PDF of the QBR deck to your email so the customer can refer back if needed.
Thank everyone for their time. Give personal shout-outs when suitable. For example, if someone asks a good question or surfaced a concern you were able to address. This helps build the relationship, and again, shows you were engaged in the discussion. It can be as simple as saying: “Matt, I really liked your question and your consideration of [past issue]. It’s resolved now, but I appreciate you making sure we think through these details and take the best approach possible.”
Don’t dig too hard though. Only include these types of personal touches when natural. Otherwise, your praise will come off as disingenuous and do more harm than good.
Breaking the traditional mold
While QBRs are a tool that can absolutely provide value, customer success teams tend to get hung up on trying to fit the traditional mold of what a QBR should be. They conduct QBRs because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, and what the customer expects.
Instead of following the status quo, I encourage CS teams to consider if QBRs are the best use of their resources and time or if there are alternative ways to achieve the same alignment.
Bottom line: QBRs are what you make them. If you use them to talk about all the work you have done for the customer and the data you want to present and the upsell opportunity you want to promote, then yeah, they will be an hour-long drag. But if you design the QBR to make the customer confident in their decision to partner with you, they can be a huge relational and financial asset to your customer success team.