How to Make Customer Success and Product BFFs

“Product never commits to specific dates”

“Customer Success always says yes to customer requests”

These were a few of the responses to the question “what are the misconceptions that Product and Customer Success (CS) have of each other” that we discussed at a recent PulseLocal NYC meetup hosted at Updater.

I assumed going into our meetup that the main issue was that CS and Product aren’t communicating with each other. That is actually not the case. The frequency of meetings and communication between these departments was quite good with many teams meeting weekly or bi-weekly. The main issue is the number of incorrect assumptions that each group has of each other that need to be called out and addressed. You may be part of the problem as well and you don’t even know it. I’ll share some of these misconceptions as to how best in class teams have overcome them.

Broken Telephone

What does the dysfunction between CS and Product look like? The teams that struggle the most seem to be playing a big game of broken telephone. As an example, we discussed a common misconception that Customer Success just punts every customer request they receive to Product. This offended the CS people as they took pride in pushing back on their customers and asking questions to determine the reasoning behind the customer request. When they do submit requests to Product, there is usually a lot of vetting and thought put into the request. However, a Product person will rarely see that effort and additional information. CS people also don’t understand that Product Managers (PM) are inclined to reject ideas or backlog them so they can remain focused on the priorities at hand.

On the flip side, the Product Managers defended their need to avoid specific feature release dates due to the ever-changing company priorities. CS is just one group amongst the many internal customers that Product has to work with. Product needs this flexibility as a certain feature may need to be pushed back or moved up based on the business needs. It comes down to being ruthless in where resources are expended. CS people responded that PMs don’t understand that this can compromise a trusted customer relationship that CSMs have.

Much of these issues come down to these functions having very little knowledge on how each department operates. For example, it was clear as went around the room that many Customer Success people didn’t understand how Product prioritizes feature requests. They also weren’t sure what Product was measured on. In the same light, Product didn’t have a clear sense of what Customer Success Managers do. A recent survey by UserIQ backs this up with 25% of the survey respondents (made up of CS and Product professionals) not knowing their churn rate. This is deplorable. While it seems that the Product and CS teams are communicating, they aren’t fully aligned.

If you are in either of these functions, take a moment and ask yourself — do you really understand what the other department does and what they are measured on? If you have any doubt in your mind, tell your leader and push for action.

Under Pressure

Under pressure that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
Queen & David Bowie

That song Under Pressure seemed to keep playing over and over in my head when we broke down the misconceptions that these groups have of each other. You could almost feel the weight of the company on the shoulders of these CS and Product leaders and individuals in the room as they expressed their frustration. For me it was an emotional moment as I realized that we rarely don’t take the time to really empathize with each other:

  • For a CSM, losing a customer can be catastrophic for the company but also give that CS person a black mark on their career.
  • For a Product Manager (PM), a failed product release can also put the future of the company at risk and setback its career progression.

One takeaway from our meeting was that before you send an incriminating email or Slack message where you slam someone or a team (either Product or CS), have a quick, direct chat with the individuals that are affected. Let them know what you are going to say and ask them for their input. Shit happens and you do need to make people aware of the problem but you can do it in a respectful way. Always be respectful and show empathy as we’re all under pressure. Refrain from the blame game and assume the best of each other.

So how do we create more empathy and alignment between these functions and have them rowing in the same direction? Does it come down to going for drinks after work or is it having that weekly CS/Product meeting in the calendar that everyone dreads going to and is canceled half the time? It needs to be much more than this.

Communication ≠ alignment

To get Product and CS on the same page doesn’t mean setting up a weekly meeting between these functions or a joint Slack channel. It’s much more than that if you want to be BFFs. These teams need to be fully aligned or at least start down the path of working in a more structured way. This can include:

  • Establishing a regular cadence of meetings between representatives of CS and Product that has a specific agenda and outcomes
  • Documenting and communicating the goals and metrics of these two groups and having some common metrics
  • Setting the right expectations internally and with customers on what will be released
  • Providing CS with proper training on how to discuss what’s being released and what isn’t

A good starting point is to review the current agenda and purpose of the regular CS/Product meeting (if you don’t have this meeting in place, you have other problems you need to deal with). Having something on the calendar isn’t enough to align these two functions. Communication ≠ alignment. These joint meeting best practices were mentioned:

  • Go through the roadmap to see if anything has changed. What has been moved up or pushed back and discuss why so the representatives can communicate this back to their respective teams.
  • Discuss high priority customer features and confirm the prioritization and next steps
  • Confirm what is in the next release and the impact that this will have on customers
  • Go through any major bugs so that Product understands the impact of these bugs and confirm a resolution path
  • Provide Product and Engineering/Dev with insights on how features were used. This can include doing demos of how clients are using features and reviewing support tickets and emails. CS teams should make a point to highlight both the positives and the negatives. It was emphasized that CS teams shouldn’t forget about the contributions of the engineers. They tend not to get a lot of credit or appreciation for their contributions.

There should be full transparency and no secrets between these teams. Beyond the actual meetings, CS teams need to embed themselves more into the Product process and really understand how decisions are made so they can impact this process. This will also help CS set the right expectations with customers and prevent further miscommunication and games of broken telephone. As an example, CS should focus its efforts on bringing forward customer feedback and helping to gauge the importance of the requests. Product will then go through the right discovery process so that they can devise the best solution.

Another pain point brought up was misalignment between CS and Product regarding metrics. CS felt that Product wasn’t being held accountable to topline revenue metrics. Companies that used a standard goals/metrics framework such as OKRs seemed to be the most successful as there was transparency and alignment across the organization. CS and Product can align on certain metrics and better understand priorities.

There also needs to be a formal product feature submission process for all departments, a tool to collect and communicate these feature requests and an agreed-upon prioritization process. All departments need to agree on this process so teams can be held accountable. Tools such as Canny can also help as they allow customers to provide product feedback and vote on new features. This requires commitment from Product that this feedback will be reviewed and responded to on a regular basis.

Beyond creating alignment between the two groups, each department can do their part to improve the relationship.

How can Customer Success can “be a better bestie”?

If you think about the best friendships you have, much of this can be attributed to doing things for each other. Customer Success can deepen their bond with Product in the same way. CS can ensure feature requests are submitted correctly, support the efforts of Product and Engineering rather than being critical, training themselves on how to properly communicate product changes to customers and sharing customer stories.

CS can prevent unnecessary friction with Product by preemptively reviewing the feature requests and bugs that are being submitted. The debate over what is a bug vs a feature is one we all love, isn’t it? CS can implement a process to reduce this ambiguity by vetting the submissions. As part of this process, CS can also make certain that items prioritized correctly, have the right amount of details (such as screenshots) and are classified appropriately. These efforts aid Product in focusing on the most important issues and being much more efficient.

A really important point made during our roundtable was that CS needs to stand behind its Product team and support it. They should focus on the features that have been launched rather than dwell on which features were dropped. Celebrate the Engineering team’s low rate of bugs and speedy resolution rather than griping about what’s broken. Software will always have bugs. We should accept that. Having a Product and Engineering team that regularly and quickly addresses product issues and maintains a relatively stable platform shouldn’t be taken for granted. The relationship between these two departments should take precedence and be cherished.

CS also needs to be trained on how to speak to the roadmap so there is a common message that is conveyed to customers. This should be a joint effort between CS, Marketing, Sales and Product. This helps give CS more confidence in what Product has accomplished and can preemptively address customer questions. It helps set the right expectations internally and externally.

Customer Success has a secret weapon that they rarely employ: customer stories. These are extremely powerful and is something that other departments — especially Product — value. CS can hold monthly meetings for the entire company and discuss how customers are using certain features. This can be in story format and also by doing live demos. This can be something that Sales and Marketing can also benefit from but should be geared to the whole company. It will really help CS bring to light the highlights and lowlights of how your product is being used. A Slack channel that highlights customer feature use via stories is also a great way to share this information and to create a historical record of customer stories that is searchable. This goes beyond using Slack as a simple communication channel between the teams to resolve issues.

How can Product can “be a better bestie”?

The Product team can also strengthen their CS relationship by simply meeting with more customers. This can include having Product meet with customers in person or joining meetings with CS where they can hear customer’s concerns first hand. PMs that have specific metrics associated with customer meetings can embed this culture into the team. This can also include leading a Customer Advisory Board initiative which is part of a more formal customer feedback process.

Beyond getting that first-hand perspective, the group shared the importance of Product watching videos of customers struggling with the product. This could either be via a screen sharing video or via Fullstory.

Much of this comes down to having the right ratio of Product Managers to Engineers and/or the right type of Product culture that is open to creating joint processes that will improve how the different departments work together.

You complete me

The trend is for CS and Product to work even more closely together and not the opposite. There is an overarching desire for the two functions to strengthen their ties and work more closely together. We’re seeing new positions such as Product Operations that can help bridge the divide between these two groups. There is even talk of having Customer Success and Product merge which may make sense in some organizations.

Regardless of the company structure, these two functions need and complete each other. They must put their differences aside and focus on creating a deep and lasting relationship. It starts with constructing a mutual understanding of each other’s roles and dispelling assumptions that exist. Create true alignment by building joint processes, orchestrating meaningful meetings and being transparent with each other.

Lastly, becoming true partners requires that each group give a little more to each other. Celebrate what has been accomplished rather than just stewing on the challenges. Have that face to face discussion with each other or with the customer to get to another level of understanding. Take that extra moment to really show that the relationship matters and that you care. It will make all the difference.

Customer champion & customer success executive. A leader that is always learning. Top 25 Customer Success influencer. Father of 3 kiddies. Leafs fan

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