While daily activities vary, a core element of the CSM’s role is to ensure ongoing value by helping customers achieve business goals with your products/services. At some point, you must go beyond reactive churn prevention and become more proactive in developing solutions that your customers need. Developing solutions often requires highly cross-functional internal collaboration and the ability to influence outcomes or decisions not directly in your control.
Customer Experience Management, like Customer Success Management, is an industry unto itself. It involves a vast array of technologies, research methodologies, customer engagement paradigms, and much more. Companies are increasingly making significant investments to establish internal ecosystems to drive customer experience transformation involving combinations of these elements.
Looking at my career in CS and CX, I’ve taken a bit of a “fixer” approach to all of them, which involved a balance of hard and soft skills. The latter was not always taught or explicitly cultivated organizationally, but I have come to realize that these skills have had a significant impact on my ability to be a change agent. I joined Salesforce as a Customer Success Manager in 2004, a time when we were actively defining what that meant for the company and the industry. In essence, we were building the house while we lived in it. Much of this work involved a tremendous amount of cross-functional collaboration across every aspect of the company: Sales, Marketing, Product, Legal, Finance, and everything in between. I quickly found a sincere interest in helping the company grow and scale. I did so by transitioning into roles that required an ability to create structured solutions in the midst of seemingly unstructured and broken chaos. I often found myself smack in the middle of a web of connective tissue of many functions, but with a clear directive to fix broken processes/programs. The end goal always being to further emulate our value of being a company that our customers loved. This became my personal brand, and it greatly shaped my passion and commitment to Customer Experience as a profession today. As I reflect on my journey to becoming a dedicated Customer Experience practitioner, I find that oftentimes companies tend to focus on the the “hard” skills involved in doing this work (e.g., NPS methodology, knowledge of CEM platforms, customer journey mapping, research techniques, the ever growing demands for AI and data scientist expertise, etc.). But losing sight of some of the “softer” skills involved can be catastrophic and counter productive. So much so that I’m even hesitant to call them “soft” skills, as they are equally crucial to driving CX improvements.
As a Customer Success professional, you have a significant role in this movement. That is one of being a customer advocate and a change agent. How effective you are is partially based on your ability to drive internal process changes or decisions to improve the way products and services are delivered. In today’s session, I want to share a few skills that I believe are crucial to being an exceptional Customer Success professional. My belief is that to do this, you have to take on the role of being a change agent, regardless of title. These are skills that will help you build your ability to influence, provide fuel to a needed cause, and rally individuals around something bigger than yourself. These skills will help you drive change.
The starting point to becoming a great leader regardless of industry, role, or title. I read somewhere “Answers don’t change the world; questions do.” And while you may not be trying to change the world, I fundamentally believe that your role as a CSM is to continuously improving your company’s products and services to improve the lives of your customers. So in that scenario, questions are at the core of driving change. Seek to understand the broader landscape in order to determine the best path forward. Siloed thinking leads to siloed and disconnected solutions, which helps no one. Jeff Bezos: “You have to say, ‘Wait a second. Why are we doing it this way? Could it be better? Could it be different?’ That kind of curiosity, that explorer’s mind, that childlike wonder, that’s what makes an inventor.”
Be a Curious Learner: Spend at least an hour per week learning about the markets you serve and your customers’ businesses. Become More Curious: Ask better questions in every conversation whether at work or outside of work. Listen for how you respond to conversations and hold your urge to respond with your own story. Disrupt the Status Quo: With your team and with other leaders, discuss what status quos are holding back your company and your customer’s business, preventing you both from reaching your full potential. This one can be touchy, so don’t try this unless you know you can go about it in a tactful manner. Dig Deeper: Try to understand the underlying beliefs, experiences and assumptions that are underneath current business processes and practices. Dig for the “Why” and understand why you (and they) do business the way you do business today.
This isn’t new. This is a classic “7 Habits” skill espoused by Stephen Covey and many others (Covey calls it “empathetic listening”). The reason why I include this in my list is because it isn’t a technique as much as it is a personal value that influences us to shift from the movie about ourselves running in our own minds to focusing on the movie or picture being created by someone else. Demonstrate that you’ve heard what was said by the other person, and encourage them to continue. Make it a habit to asking follow up questions that reference the information you were just given. This is probably one of the most challenging skills to cultivate, but the good news is that there are many examples and opportunities to practice it! While I love the idea of customer heroes, trying to be a hero internally can have a negative impact on your interactions, the quality of solutions you come up with, and your personal brand and efficacy. Most individuals who seek out CS/CX work are “helper” types by nature. We all love the idea of being the problem solver. But an emphasis on solving the problem over understanding all the dynamics involved will often take you down the wrong path. We’ve all had experiences with customer service reps that don’t have the ability to go “off script.” Don’t be that person. Better yet, don’t always plan to have a script!
The next time you’re having a discussion about a something that’s impacting your customers’ experience, note if you’re jumping into others’ conversational pauses with your own commentary, or if you’re allowing them to finish their thought before asking them clarifying questions. If you’re really listening with intent to understand, you could be wondering about an array of topics, such as: I wonder why they believe that? I wonder what experience they’ve had with this in the past? I wonder what they believe will be the best outcome.
Storytelling is a much praised and discussed method for leaders and influencers. This comes in handy when you think something about how your company is delivering product/service is negatively impacting your customers. You’ll never convince people to invest in making improvements if you base your assumptions off a couple of customer conversations. You need to not only build empathy for your customers, but also have some amount of data to back up your assumptions. Admittedly, this is a bit of a mixed bag with both hard/soft skills, and it does take time to develop. The basic point is really about the process of forming a hypothesis based on observations, collecting enough (sometimes just enough) data to confirm it’s something that needs to be solved, then telling a compelling enough story to garner support to solve it.
Find the story. Who are the characters? What is the drama or challenge? What hurdles have to be overcome? And at the end of your story, what do you want your audience to do as a result? Be authentic, both in terms of presenting the information in your own words, as well as using customer data/anecdotes to reinforce the message. (share example re: survey feedback, “You should spend more time fixing customer issues than sending surveys.”) Be your own editor. Stick to 1-2 key issues, how they relate to your audience, and how they are impacting your customers. Don’t expect your audience to remember more than a handful of key facts. Summarize and invite discussion. Once you’ve told the story and built authenticity and empathy, transition to ask probing questions that will invite your audience to explore potential areas for improvement. Do not present your assumptions as the only solution (remember, be curious!), and truly be open to understanding how others have perceived your message and what ideas they’ve extrapolated from the discussion.
Playbook secret for driving internal decisions and necessary changes in the midst of disagreement. It’s the opposite of “agree to disagree.” This is dependent on a couple of key values: Setting an example by showing up for others as our most genuine, vulnerable and compassionate selves, and in spite of differences. Belief that change is not an event but rather a process that occurs over time AND embracing an iterative approach to that change (i.e., embracing mistakes that will inevitably happen along the way.) We forget that disagreement is a key ingredient to exploring options and developing better solutions. And when people have a chance to express their point of view and have its pros and cons heard and appreciated, they are more likely to accept and support a differing approach (i.e., buy in to the ultimate solution). I often also find that taking an “agile” or “iterative” approach to implementing and evaluating the impact of solutions will ease most people over the hurdle of feeling like they’re committing to something that they don’t necessarily agree with. Jeff Bezos wrote about this in a way that articulated it perfectly: &quot;If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’ By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.&quot;
Acknowledge what you’ve heard. Ask the other side to consider new data or a different viewpoint. If necessary, ask for more time and offer to assist in researching alternatives. Let it go, and either thank them for the support or offer to support the defined solution. This may require acknowledging (to yourself) that the other person’s objectives may differ from yours, that maybe they have more info that they aren’t able to share and/or ultimately, that if they own the project, it’s their decision to make. If you can get to this place, the “commit” part becomes easier.
There are a number of other skills that are also critical in driving CX improvements. I wanted to highlight these because they’re not typically skills that you often find in any sort of job description. And sometimes they’re not even emphasized in performance management conversations. All are critical to your ability to be a successful change agent and customer advocate. It’s also hopefully evident that these skills really do need to be paired with hard skills as well in order to be maximally impactful (e.g., industry domain expertise, nuts and bolts of driving adoption/retention/expansion, etc.).
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