In the context of an initiative in Europe to bring together customer success leaders to exchange on their experiences, we’d appreciate if you could take a couple of minutes to indicate what are your current top 3 customer success challenges. You’re of course welcome to reply whether you’re in Europe or not 🙂 The results will be published afterwards.
As we onboard 2021 and bid farewell to 2020, the challenges thrust upon us over this past year have demonstrated our immense resilience and capacity to adapt quickly in the face of adversity. Digital transformation is a prime area where we have shown our huge capacity to adapt.
According to a study by McKinsey & Company, digital offerings in 2020 accelerated by 7 years within the space of a few months as companies have surprised themselves with their capacity to pivot their digital initiatives in response to Covid-19. The pandemic has forced companies of all sizes, B2B and B2C to leapfrog their transformation efforts. We are now raising questions about how to anticipate the new digital “normal”, what that will look like, how to maintain momentum and how to set companies up for continued success.
As we celebrate all those companies and staff that have been able to adapt their digital offerings to help their customers get through these unprecedented times and to address new market needs, let’s also keep in our thoughts all those domains, companies and staff that have unfortunately been directly negatively impacted by the pandemic, e.g. travel, hospitality, culture, dining to name but a few.
Let’s view this accelerated digital transformation context from a Darwinian point of view. This is a revised article that I wrote 4 years ago but which resonates more than ever now in the context of the abrupt changes of our current world. The following famous Darwin quote echoes loudly today in our response to the business disruption triggered by Covid-19 and our attempts to survive and resume some sort of balanced “business as usual”:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change (Darwin)
Those of you who have crossed my path will have no doubt been introduced to my mascot chameleon which I affectionately call “Adaptus Rex”. He’s tame and as a prehistoric descendant, he learned to survive environmental change. His capacity to modify his skin colours to adapt to different environments has inspired me in all of life’s challenges, continually adapting to the next phase of evolution.
Whilst history has mostly shown us the somewhat progressive driving force of technology in transformation, digitalization is creating an immediate impact and disruption, particularly so in response to the pandemic. With each new digital offering, there’s a promise of progress that is accompanied by considerable learning curves and adaptation. In some cases, the height of the step to adapt is higher than others, implying considerable change management efforts and learning to take on board new working practices. In other cases, the height of the step to adapt may seemingly be less but as we’re on continual moving sands, it’s difficult to use a yardstick to measure the required effort. Whatever the required effort, we either adapt quickly and survive (thrive for some) or run the risk of being left behind or even extinct! In the words of Brian Solis:
Each business is a victim of digital Darwinism, the evolution of consumer behaviour when society and technology move faster than the ability to exploit it. Digital Darwinism does not discriminate. Every business is threatened.
Digital Darwinism has been accelerated with the disruptive impact of Covid-19 as we have been collectively catapulted outside of our comfort zones and plunged right into unknown territory. All of us, suppliers and customers alike have had no choice but to learn fast.
These challenging times have also reinforced companies putting the customer right at the strategic centre, focusing on doing everything possible to help and retain the current customer base. This customer-centric strategy has highlighted the strategic importance of customer success and how it runs through the veins of all the company, where each and every role contributes to helping customers survive, perhaps even thrive. Many companies have reinforced their customer success efforts, put into place special success task forces or crisis committees, bringing sales, support, product and other roles into redefining roles and responsibilities in the “collective customer success team” effort. This company-wide team effort is now playing a vital role by helping customers pivot, step out of their comfort zones to adapt quickly to new and unknown situations where their ever-changing pain points are resolved.
Customer success partners customers to help them blend their invested tools and services into their working environment. This means that customer success professionals need to be experts not only with the tools and services offered by their company but also to know how these tools and services can become “camouflaged” in the customers’ new working habitats.
It’s rather like Adaptus Rex’s capacity to adapt his skin colour according to different habitats. With our Covid-19 impacted habitat, our adaptation capacity has been tested to the extreme. It has not been like our previous gradual adaptation to digital offerings in continuous improvement mode. This time, our adaptation capacity has been triggered out of pure survival. Customer success has played such a critical role in helping customers to adapt in record time to new environments and facilitate our collective metamorphosis. The real challenge of this rapid metamorphosis process is not about the technology itself. It’s rather about how the technology, digitalization and its promise fit into the fast-evolving organizations, processes, routines and behaviours. This is where customer success professionals have demonstrated their capacity to anticipate new customer pain points, learn and adapt to these ever-changing environments, transferring their knowledge to help customers develop new skills to meet their evolving goals and survive.
To give some Darwinian evolutionary examples in nature, a famous story took place in my native northern England during the last major technological evolution: the industrial revolution. To ensure camouflage as a consequence of the sooty northern manufacturing towns, peppered moths, originally white, became predominantly black via a reproduction process.
Another recent example in response to current climatic change is the shift of snail shell colour from dark to light. Snails have developed lighter coloured shells which have a lower body temperature to keep cooler in response to global warming. This phenomenon is noticeable in France where I live where snails are still a culinary delicacy, whatever their shell colour !
Whilst we humans have not suddenly developed coloured shells and wings (although I believe I can fly) to adapt to this harsh environment thrust upon us, we are being forced to challenge more than ever before our “business as usual”: business models, organization, processes, tools, behaviours and routines. Most companies have now adapted to operating with remote workforces, attending online meetings and events and investing in tools for remote collaboration, onboarding, team building and customer engagement. This last year has forced us into adopting new working habits that we would have not thought possible when we were celebrating the arrival of 2020 just one year ago!
Prior to Covid-19, we were adapting digital offerings in a rather progressive manner where “digital transformation” was being placed as a priority for business strategies. In reality, however, companies were often struggling to adopt digital offerings and make digitalization an inherent part of the company DNA. Unlike the instinct-driven metamorphosis of our friends Adaptus Rex, the peppered moth and the shell-changing snail, our response to change has always been complex. It is perhaps because we human beings are the most intelligent of creatures on earth (we are led to believe) that we have often approached each new business evolution, including digital transformation with too much thought, emotion, memory and resistance. It is also because we are not always conscious of the risks ahead or are simply not measuring the risk of staying in our comfort zone.
With our Covid-19 impacted environment, our adaptation process has been more in line with the instinct-triggered adaptation of our friends from the animal kingdom. Like the peppered moths of my native England, we humans face the challenge of adapting quickly to our accelerated digital environment in order for our business to simply survive. We need to rapidly “camouflage” the new technology and associated behaviour, blending it into our daily habitat so that it becomes the accepted “norm”, at least until the next evolution! With remote working practices and collaboration for example, we’re still learning about the tools but also acclimatizing associated best practices, code of conduct, new routines and associated soft skills.
Customer success is a role to partner our fellow human beings to acclimatize as quickly as possible to our new surroundings and rise to the new challenges of a world propelled more than ever by technological and digital innovation to overcome a global crisis: whether that be to facilitate remote collaboration, to foster online payment, to facilitate eCommerce transactions, to produce vaccines and monitor their supply chain, distribution and impact, to use 3D printing to produce medical supplies, to use AI to monitor and anticipate important data including the spread and behaviour of Covid-19 around the world … and the list goes on.
As we embrace 2021, I’d like to congratulate all the companies, all their customer success staff (customer success teams and all roles of the company) that have adapted and delivered their offerings (digital and non-digital) to help their customers and their own companies to survive and even thrive over the past year. I’d also like to send thoughts to those companies, customers and staff in verticals that have been directly negatively impacted by the pandemic.
“Adaptus Rex” joins me to wish you all the best for 2021 with joy, health and continued business adaptation, evolution and success!
As we observe momentum building up in Europe around the emerging role of customer success, I’d like to share a few thoughts around this business metamorphosis we are witnessing. While this new role is still very much at experimentation stage as it positions itself in the recurring revenue business model, there are common themes around its practice and impact. This inspired me to create a series of some reflections around recurring themes and which I have called “Customer Success of Things” (CSoT)
What do we mean by Customer Success ?
Before we dig further into some common CSoT themes, a definition of customer success is fitting. The notion of customer success has different interpretations and maturity levels depending on countries, sectors, markets and company sizes. The role of customer success for example is quite different in a large enterprise organisation than in a start-up. There is however a common goal:
To fulfil the evolutive expected outcomes of customers through their multi-directional interactions around your company.
Customer success is a mindset and a series of on-going processes and interactions. A customer’s needs, expected outcomes and context at the beginning of their customer journey may change after contract signature or within the licence period. Proactive listening, observation and engagement is necessary to identify health and risk to ensure your solution and company services are constantly providing added value and adapting to signs of change. Customer success thrives on multi-directional positive engagement and communication:
1) Vendors towards customers
2) Customers towards vendors
3) Vendor customers between themselves
4) Vendor customers in exchange with other third parties (peers, prospects, stakeholders, competitors,…)
This CSoT series of posts will share some thoughts on customer success themes. The first one below continues the above definition:
“Customer Success” – Term with a Double Meaning
When On-Demand and SaaS first started (Salesforce.com being one of the pioneers), they observed that to retain client subscriptions it was necessary to proactively engage with customers to help them become successful with your company and solution. So they created the notion of “customer success teams”.
Customer Success Teams
The customer success team is commonly known as the group of actors who relay, usually after contract signature (though not always) to continue to proactively partner customers to achieve their expected outcomes. The foundations for success have already been laid early in the sales cycle by the marketing/business development/sales teams. The customer success team now continues the customer engagement and provision of added value over the whole duration of the licence period until renewal and beyond. Depending on organisations, renewal is also included as part of the role of the customer success team.
So whilst there is a group of people called “customer success team” dedicated to the contractual health and wealth of the customer, other teams have also played their part in the “customer success journey”.
This brings us to the second more holistic notion of customer success.
Customer Success – Company DNA and Global Objective
It has transpired that customer success is not about a team of people trying to please customers and reduce churn. The term “customer success” is a holistic cross-functional objective and responsibility. This means that across the entire customer journey, every single actor has a customer success role to play with clearly defined responsibilities. A customer success mindset is in the DNA of the vendor company running throughout the whole organisation, e.g.
Management to define the customer success vision, objectives and tempo
R&D to evolve the product according to customer input and market needs
Marketing to prospect ideal customers + personas with success potential
Sales to close and prepare customers ready for on-boarding to success
Customer success teams to provide proactive engagement and added value
Support to provide rapid and pertinent replies to customer queries
All teams play a customer success role as customers progress across their journeys to achieve repeated success. For this holistic view of customer success, this often means that existing internal roles are revisited so that each player has clear objectives, responsibilities and engagement aims at each stage of the customer journey. In the recurring revenue model, the post contractual growth potential is so considerable that the traditional notion of pre-sales and post-sales activity is revisited. This necessarily impacts the internal organisation, responsibilities and internal relays.
There are 2 notions around the term “customer success”:
Customer success organisation = holistic responsibility and objective of the whole organisation to ensure the success potential and achievement of its customers as they move across the customer journey.
Customer success team = group of actors (usually after the initial contract but sometimes before) responsible for proactively partnering customers to reach their evolutive expected outcomes.