Oct 20, 2016

Read Time 6 min

The art of strategic conversations in CS, learning opportunities from churn, ways to make CS a key business metric


Fighting Churn Newsletter

When your manager tells you to have “strategic conversations,” your first instinct as a Customer Success Manager might be to hit the panic button. Am I not being strategic? Isn’t that my job? Am I not doing my job?!?!

“Strategic conversation” is, unfortunately, a really vague term. It means something different to everybody – including two people on the same team. This lack of clarity about what a strategic conversation is – and how to go about having one – is an enormous source of friction in customer success. And yet, conducting them is one of the most important aspects of a Customer Success Manager’s job.

In order to have a successful strategic conversation, you need to know exactly what your manager wants and employ some specific strategies to help you achieve that goal.


Defining a Strategic Conversation

Before you pick up the phone to call a customer, define what a “strategic conversation” means to your manager. It’s important to get on the same page regarding what the end goals of these discussions are – especially if your manager is the one instructing you to have them.

At a high-level, strategic conversations are discussions with customers about big-picture items. They might take the form of a Quarterly Business Review, onboarding or a check-in call but no matter what the context is, they’re completely different from tactical conversations. They focus on the long-term instead of the nitty-gritty. Here’s the main difference:

  • A tactical conversation is about your product. You will discuss it’s features and functions.
  • A strategic conversation is about the impact of your product. You will learn how your product impacts, affects and helps your customer. You will also learn about your customer’s organizational goals and what their future holds.

Strategic conversations are your best opportunity to build trust with customers, which is a cornerstone trait of any Customer Success professional. The ability to have a strategic conversation also separates elite CSMs from newbies. When you show that you truly care about your customers’ day-to-day pains, as well as their future goals, you’ll gradually level up from a ‘resource’ to a ‘partner.’

Questions for Your Manager

If your manager tells you to conduct more strategic conversations and you don’t know what that means, ask a couple of clarifying questions such as “Can you help me understand what you mean by “strategic?”, “How would you know I was having more strategic conversations? and “What would be different if I were having more strategic conversations?”

If your leader can’t answer those, your manager has some work to do before you can execute.

If you don’t know where to begin, try framing the discussion with your manager around the qualities a strategic conversation should have. In order to get to a higher-level conversation, you need to keep a couple of things in mind. A good strategic conversation:

  • Always puts the client first, not the company
  • Moves the customer closer to the end goal of where they want to be with your product
  • Builds trust by asking powerful questions
  • Shows that you’re genuinely curious about how the customer’s world works

Strategic conversations will be different for different products and different managers. As soon as you get a clear sense of what your manager wants and how you can best help your client, you’ll be ready to actually get started.

Getting Customers to Dig Deep

Strategic conversations require a level of depth that doesn’t exist in tactical conversations. But if you’re used to interacting with a client on a tactical level – let’s say, talking about specific bugs or features in your product – you’re going to need to coach them into giving you the answers they need.

Customers might be used to giving you short and sweet answers, especially if they normally interact with Customer Success only when a problem crops up. But rote responses aren’t going to cut it for a strategic conversation. You’re never going to understand a customer’s day-to-day experience with your product unless you do some digging.

Let’s say you just rolled out new analytics metrics for your platform. You ask your client what she thinks of them and she responds, “Yeah they’ve been helpful.” In a low-level conversation, you might just accept that answer and move on. In a strategic-level conversation, you need to ask a follow-up question. Listen for the places where you can open up the conversation a bit more. Whenever a client uses a generic word like “helpful,” or “useful” – go deeper. You might have a definition of that word but what does it mean to the client you’re speaking with?

When you ask a customer a follow-up question, use “what?” questions instead of “why?” questions. A “why” question, like “Why was that helpful?” feels interrogative and questions the customer’s judgement. A “what” question, like “what exactly was helpful?” demonstrates genuine curiosity. Try these follow-up questions on your next strategic call:

  • What exactly is helpful about the new metrics?
  • What’s the impact this part of the product has had on your business?
  • How has that affected you professionally?

You’ll build more trust if you show a genuine interest in your customers. In a study on customer loyalty in hospitality, researchers found that having high-quality conversations – that is, ones that went beyond the superficial level – significantly increased customers’ relationship with and loyalty to the brand.

Customer Success Around the Web

  • The learning opportunity of churn: Clients end their relationship with your business for a number of reasons. They may be unsatisfied with your service or pricing, they may have outgrown your solution and want to try something more sophisticated or perhaps they’ve had their head turned by a competitor. In some of these cases, churn can be prevented. In all of these cases, there is an opportunity to learn, win that client back and hopefully prevent further churn. This read explores lessons you can learn from different types of churn and offers thoughtful ideas on how to enact these lessons to reliably retain customers. Special shout-out to the author of this post, iContact – they are a rock star ChurnZero customer!
  • Ways to make CS a key metric in your business: As you can probably guess, the team at ChurnZero believes that customer success should be a true company ethos and should be ingrained throughout your company’s operations. But the reality is that getting to such a place can be difficult for many businesses. This read offers nine ways to ensure your company helps your customers succeed, from cultivating a new customer-centric mindset to investing in people who will drive customer success. A great list of ideas for any business working to fully realize the potential of customer success.
  • The importance of customer advocacy in CS: Customer advocates are in charge of understanding their company’s customers. This responsibility often carries with it other tasks, most notably customer engagement. But what does it really mean to be an “advocate”? It means being the people who are in charge of explaining to upper management what their customers expect from the company’s products and services. If you can appreciate this definition then you will be able to develop a better idea of what customer advocates are supposed to do. This interesting read takes a deep dive into customer advocacy, from why it’s important to how advocates should be woven into your customer support structures.

Word to the Wise

This week’s wisdom comes from Nils Vinje, the founder of Glide Consulting. In a recent episode of Helping Sells Radio, Vinje discussed the direction he believes customer success is headed and how companies can build high performing customer success organizations by focusing on the four P’s of CS: People, Purpose, Process and Platform. The full episode is worth a listen but we wanted to draw your attention to one particular nugget of wisdom:


“CS is a marathon and not a sprint. I advise people to get out of the mindset of focusing solely on the renewals and focusing solely on the churn because if that is all you focus on, ultimately that’s all your going to see. This why [the fourth P] Purpose is so critical. If you define your purpose [of making the customer – not your business – successful] at the highest level and then do everything to make sure you fulfill that purpose, you know that if you fulfill that, then X, Y and Z will happen in the form of renewals and expansions, etc. […] If you set yourself to think about churn, [your brain] is going to clear out all the other irrelevant stuff and all you’re going to see is churn. And that is a terrible place to live from. But when you set [your team] with a purpose [of delivering success] that is clear, what happens? Everything else disappears and you can see new opportunities to deliver against that purpose.


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