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Internal Communication For Effective Customer Success Teams

Leonardo Federico · June 14th, 2020

If I had to pick one team for which internal communication matters more than any other, that team would be Customer Success.

A huge part of being a successful Customer Success Manager is about being good at communicating. Specifically, it’s about one’s ability to adapt the communication strategies to be more impactful depending on the audience.

This essay is intended to be a practical handbook to show what effective internal communication means for Customer Success teams, and see some of the strategies that your organization can adopt to maximize cross-functional alignment and foster operational excellence across the entire organization.

On to the write-up.

The fundamental reason that explains the statement above is that Customer Success teams have to interact cross-functionally both with the end customer and with other teams in the same organization. In other words, Customer Success has to juggle two completely opposed types of motion: one toward external stakeholders (customers) and the other toward internal ones (sales, product, marketing, customer support teams).

On the one hand, a Customer Success team has to:

  1. Gather information from the customer
  2. Process information & extract signals relevant to the team
  3. Distribute signals and align the organization
  4. Measure outputs
  5. Repeat

chart that shows who customer success comms can enrich internal departments

On the other hand, they have to:

  1. Gather information from the team
  2. Process information & extract signals relevant to the customers
  3. Distribute signals and align the customer
  4. Measure outputs
  5. Repeat

chart that shows how customer success can act as a way to extract important customer data and pass them to other internal teams

As one loop feeds the other and vice-versa, the interplay between these two motions is very complicated and hard to manage at scale. Moreover, each one of these loops is actually composed of multiple sub-loops depending on the number of internal and external stakeholders they have to keep in sync.

multiple enrichment loops that happens inside an organization

The enrichment loop

Generally speaking, the interaction between these two loops is an enrichment process. Simply put: it’s about leveraging the knowledge that Customer Success Management captured in the first loop by virtue of communicating closely with customers, in order to enrich other parts of the same company.

As we’ll soon see, the opportunity represented by correctly executing cross-functional communication for Customer Success Management is huge since every single team in the organization – from Sales, Product and Marketing to Executives and Management – has something to learn from the Customer Success team.

This enrichment process is a very demanding and proactive endeavor. The best companies know this doesn’t happen naturally, and plan for it very deliberately. CSM ought to be the one in charge of proactively enriching the rest of the organization and probably with a more aggressive cadence than you’re initially comfortable with.

In order, let’s see exactly how internal stakeholders can benefit from CSM enrichment loops and how you can get it right.

Orchestrating Sales and Customer Success

Few relationships have more impact than the one between Sales and Customer Success. The former is in charge of selling to the customer the vision of success, and the latter is tasked with actually making the vision sold a reality. Information between the two units should flow seamlessly and on a regular basis. Yet, more often than not, that’s just not the case. Let’s look at the Customer Success and Sales enrichment loop.

The Customer Success and Sales Enrichment Loop

The Customer Success and Sales loop aims to describe the interplay of information between these two teams.

We’ll start by seeing how information should flow from the former to the latter, then how the two teams should exchange data to really achieve their best work, and finally add some prescriptions regarding how content should be delivered.

1. Help Sales close more deals this month or quarter

At the beginning of any relationship, the goal is to get people’s trust. The goal of Sales is to close more deals, and if Customer Success Management can help them make more money, they’ll trust them forever.

How should CSM start getting that relationship off the ground?

Customer Success teams, by virtue of having a direct line with the end buyer, tend to learn a wide range of customer habits over time, from how customers think and talk about their goals, to how they’re using the product to reach those goals. All those behavioral insights can be leveraged by Account Executives in demos and sales discussions.

How should CSM think about providing value through those insights? The first thing is to broach a monthly digest called “What we learned from customers this month”. The digest should include distilled knowledge from hours of conversations with successful clients, such as good-fit customer characteristics, successful use cases, and language the customers use.

You can leverage Pulse to share some of these internal memos with your Sales Team. Create a Pulse Stream, name it @customer-learnings and drop insights on a consistent basis. Depending on how many signals you are able to extrapolate and include in this memo, the cadence might be weekly, if not daily.

Customer Learnings Pulse Stream owned by Customer Success

Start the enrichment process by offering distilled knowledge and sharing what has been learned proactively without making additional requests. Bear in mind, if you can help salespeople close more deals, they’ll trust you all the more.

2. Help them avoid signing bad-fit customers

Sales often tend to spend a significant amount of time on bad-fit customers, not only failing to realize that they’re practically setting up Customer Success for failure, but actually hurting the entire company.

Customer Success can help Sales focus on good-fit customers. Simply by virtue of actually seeing what the common traits are among customers who end up succeeding in using your product, CSM can help Sales avoid wasting time and effort on bad-fit customers.

How should you think about this? Gather bad-fit customer characteristics in an internal digest and call it @successful-customers. Don’t limit the content to the what (traits and attributes to avoid), explain also the reasons why they aren’t succeeding in using your product. You have a higher chance of making an impression on Salespeople and their workflows by explaining to them these underlying reasons. Through reading your memos, the pain associated with closing bad-fit customers should become clear.

Bear in mind, this second step succeeds only if salespeople already trust that Customer Success Management is actually operating in their best interest. That’s why the first point is so critical.

3. Signal Account Expansion

For companies built on recurring revenues where the sales team handle account expansions, relationships with customers are an ongoing priority. Opportunities with existing customers can directly translate into signing additional teams, buying access to additional features, or agreeing to a longer-term contract.

The two requirements for healthy expansion are: 1) that the customer currently sees value in your product and 2) that expanding your relationship will bring the customer even more value in the future.

Customer Success teams are the first to spot expansion opportunities among existing successful accounts. That’s another area where it’s critical that information should flow seamlessly between CSM and Sales teams. CSM needs to ensure that there’s a clear enrichment loop that informs Sales Account Executives when there are new expansion opportunities.

The Sales and Customer Success Enrichment Loop

Just like the Sales team, CSM needs enrichment loops in order to thrive and really do their best work. It’s imperative that they too stay informed on what happens in the other room.

Let’s see what this is all about...

1. The onboarding knowledge transfer

Sales teams want the customers they sign up to be successful, but most of the time they might be a bit hazy about what Customer Success teams actually do, and how and when they actually get involved in the onboarding process.

Without a clear internal communication framework, it’s easy for an Account Executive to forget to share critical information with a Customer Success Manager. While the Account Executive has spent weeks or months digging into the needs of a customer and building an argument for why your product is the best solution, the CSM is starting from square one.

Keep in mind that sharing critical information doesn’t mean updating the CRM account with common data points; I’m actually referring to the entire customer context captured during the buying process and ultimately transmitting it to CSM in high-resolution text.

That’s not just how you avoid Customer Success teams feeling that “Sales throws customers over the wall to us after a deal is signed,” rather it’s also how you ensure that you deliver a better experience for the end-users and prevent them from wasting time repeating the same conversations they had during the sales process with a CSM who hasn’t been given any context.

Here’s an example of critical information that an Account Executive should include in an internal memo shared with CSM.

  • Basic customer info What vertical does this customer operate in and how do they monetize? Do they have relationships with other affiliates or divisions that Sales are currently pursuing a deal with? If we’re hoping to leverage this agreement to open up cross-sell or expansion opportunities, how can CSM advance these goals? How will Sales keep CSM up to date on any broader negotiations that could impact this customer?
  • Contract terms Is there anything unique about this agreement? Quick summary of contract terms: Is there a trial period? If so, what happens after the trial period ends? Are there custom terms of service or an SLA? Are the number of seats or the product usage restricted? Does this agreement fall under an MSA for a larger corporate entity? What pricing plan are they on? Are there any loose ends regarding payment?
  • Customer goals What was the customer’s motivation for buying our product? Will our product be replacing an existing solution? How will the customer be evaluating the success of our product? Have any usage goals or expectations been shared? Has the customer expressed expectations around a formal review schedule (quarterly, yearly)?

(The real catalyst for making the purchase is discovered during the sales cycle, and even though it doesn’t depreciate (and may even get stronger!) once the prospect becomes a customer, it is very often not recorded or communicated by the AE to those taking over immediately post-sale).

  • Contacts Who is the decision-maker? Did Sales work with anyone else to get this deal signed? Do Sales know who the CSM’s point of contact will be and what their role is? Were there tense or negative moments during the buying process? If so, who was involved and what were the circumstances?
  • Onboarding Is there an expected “go live” date? Was an onboarding/training schedule or format discussed? Does the customer have an idea of how our product will fit into their existing workflows? Did the customer like any particular features or mention that they found certain features less appealing? How many people are expected to use our product? Which of the customer’s teams are supposed to receive logins?
  • Professional Services Did the customer purchase any additional professional services? If so, is there a completed work order or invoice? Has the customer already expressed a need for new functionality? Did you future sell any unreleased functionality? Did we commit to anything that has not been discussed so far?

2. Share context during the sales-cycles

Context sharing doesn’t start when the deal is closed. Sales should start sharing context in the middle of the sales cycle. Good Sales teams provide clear guidance on how they are operating and do their best to keep CSM updated on what’s happening, e.g. How far along are they with certain deals? What they can expect in the short, mid or long term?

Salespeople can feed the enrichment loop by writing a one-pager that captures all of this information and deliver it on a weekly and monthly basis. This will help Customer Success set their expectations and avoid unwanted surprises.

The best way to do that is to create a Pulse Stream called @sales and share imminent deals in weekly memos. Customers Success folks can simply follow the stream and remain up to date with short updates on customers that sales have in the pipeline and who will likely be closed one month from now.

Sales Pulse Stream owned by the sales team

Focus on what’s coming. If you have an AE onboarding memo, use these weekly memos as opportunities to repeat and cross-reference them. Sales should share deals which are on the horizon in monthly memos and show what might be coming next alongside a glance at what opportunities they're currently involved in.

Sharing these internal memos can not only make CSM more successful, it can tremendously help sales team to stay more aligned.

3. Actively respond to and embody Customer Success Signals

To improve the communication between the teams, make sure there’s a feedback loop in place. Sales teams need to proactively inform Customer Success Management that they are successfully absorbing the information that Customer Success is passing to them.

As Customer Success is going to provide relevant resources and key insights on customers’ behaviors and whether they are a good or bad fit, Salespeople have to make sure that CSM feels heard, and to that end they should embody some of CS’ prescriptions.

To solve this Sales teams can write a one-pager called “What we learned from Customer Success this month” and share all the instances in which CS insights were applicable and helpful. (In Pulse, this can be shared in the same @sales stream mentioned above).

This not only helps Customer Success to refine their communications, it also helps them to stay motivated and maintain momentum.

Product is next. Let’s dig into this one.

Orchestrating Product and Customer Success

Any successful relationship between a CS and the end customer assumes that the Customer Success Manager not only is an expert of your product but it’s always informed about the latest product news.

That’s why, immediately after Sales, the relationship between the Product team and Customers Success is arguably the most important. There’s a number of ways these two teams can benefit from one another, and that’s why internal enrichment loops matter so much here.

On the one hand product teams have to provide fresh, always-on information to CS teams, making sure that customers are always up to date on the latest and most important product news. They also need to communicate temporary product issues, bugs and roadmap changes. Correspondingly, Customer Success Management can unlock massive opportunities for product teams. Not only can Customer Success Management help Product Management teams to refine and improve the products by passing along customers’ feedback, but they can also enable problem discovery by facilitating customer interviews or by giving precious hints on the customer jobs that need doing.

The Product and Customer Success Enrichment Loop

Just like with Sales, the exchange of information between and CSM and Product Management occurs in a bi-directional fashion.

1. Today: product in review

Customer Success Management is often reactive. If the website is down or there is a major disruption, they need to have access to fresh information before they get questioned by customers.

That’s why Product Management has to proactively share information without being prompted.

A good way to do that is by sharing a weekly digest where Product Management presents a quick snapshot of what’s happening on the product side. Here are the top things that Product Management should include in this one-pager memo:

communicate internal product release note in pulse

  • New Product Features or Improvements Share and give context about new online features. Explain what improvements have been made and deployed, such as feature enhancements or bug fixes. Even if you already have such a memo, don’t limit it to the what, share the narrative behind some of those changes as well.
  • Newly Introduced Changes People are naturally reluctant to change. Whether you effected some change in user behavior or removed features, make sure you provide the right context, explaining why you did so. Not only will this help CSM to create a compelling argument for why the product team took that action, it also incentivizes customers to understand and adopt the new user behavior that Product Management want to achieve.
  • What’s in progress Offer a glance of the developments you are aware of and their progress. This will prevent classic CS complaints such as “Customer x is saying this is not working.” Craft a short list of all the new issues that you and the team are aware of, but just didn’t have enough time to deal with yet.

2. This month: product in review

The monthly product review will help you share a broader and more holistic view of what’s going on in the product department to Customer Success. It’s intended not for giving operational information, but for capturing a high-level picture of what’s going on in the Product Management team, by way of highlighting:

  • What’s been shipped this month (think of it as a changelog)
  • Updates and ETAs on ongoing projects
  • Hints about what’s coming next

The Product and Customer Success Enrichment Loop

Next, consider how Product Management can leverage the relationship with Customer Success as a wedge to delve more easily into the existing customer base and test new hypotheses, refine or iterate on existing features, or extend the product’s reach to adjacent areas.

Here’s how excellent communication with Customer Success can help Product Management:

1. Make PM aware of customers’ jobs to be done

Product Management teams usually have two distinct goals in mind: execute their vision for the product, and build and implement new features that customers are requesting.

As Customer Success has a direct line to the customer’s world and can ascertain what the customer actually needs to be successful, they can be extremely useful for helping Product Managers articulate the difficulties customers have, and for ensuring that engineer’s time is not wasted on building things no one cares about.

2. Help them coordinate user interviews

One area where Product Management teams often struggle is user interviews. Not only is it hard to find who is the most appropriate person to talk to about a particular feature, it’s also quite a challenge convincing that person to give up their time.

Not only do Customer Success Managers have a much broader view of the customer base, thus being able to point to the right person much more easily, but since they already have an ongoing relationship with them, they can help Product Managers to schedule calls and interviews with warm intros.

3. Share Customer Feedback

Very few things are more motivational for product teams and engineers than well-articulated feedback from customers. Unfortunately, feedback can be hard to obtain, and even when companies manage to do that, it’s often not very well articulated.

This is where Customer Success Managers have a greater capacity to improve things. Not only can CSM provide much more granular feedback, they can also help the customer better articulate why specific features are good or bad.

Next...

Orchestrating Marketing and Customer Success

Even though a clear, direct connection between Customer Success and Marketing doesn’t exist on paper, you want them to be better informed, for the simple reason that they both tend to work with both Product managers and Salespeople.

Just exposing Marketing people to some of the enriching loops already in place involving Product Management, Sales and Customer Success can help Marketing teams produce better output, as they benefit from more context relating to the customer and the company’s purpose.

Marketing will develop better material, and as a result both Sales and Product teams will operate more efficiently and their activities will yield better fruits.

Building the communication “flywheel”

The best companies don’t just hope this type of alignment happens (because it won’t). The best companies work hard to orchestrate and operationalize the intel-sharing between Customer Success Management and Sales, Product Management, Marketing, Customer Service, Executives, etc.

I’ve already talked about it quite extensively, but high-resolution communication and cross-functional alignment are hard. It won’t simply happen naturally, as your company scales up you have to be very deliberate about your communication.

To wrap up, here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Develop the process and design your an internal communication system

When discussing Amazon’s internal organization structure, I wrote that :

[..] a good internal design communication system is one of the most important leverages an organization can have to make an impact. Bezos realized that he had to change the internal communication infrastructure before he could actually change the make-up of the organization, and that such a radical organizational change was required to arrange the internal dynamics in a way that would allow the creation of something like AWS.

Specifically, what he got right was an internal communication system designed to (1) embrace accessibility as its most important commandment, in order to (2) enable a strong platform mindset and (3) incentivize extreme dogfooding.

While the third point makes all the difference in the world, what Amazon really did get right that Google didn’t was an internal communication system designed to make all the rest possible.

To design your internal framework, start with a few simple questions:

How do your team leaders communicate today? In which direction does communication flow? Is it uni-directional or bi-directional? Is it mostly high (long-form updates) or low (chit-chat) resolution? Where do you think the bottlenecks are? Where are the opportunities for “enrichment loops“ that you are leaving on the table?

2. Pick the right tool

Once you have the framework, pick the tools. Not vice versa.

The mistake most people make is thinking that the tool you adopt will solve your problem. Pick the tool for its functionality in an existing process, not the other way around. Hoping that a product will solve a process problem just doesn’t make sense.

Again, start with questions.

What tools do we have? What communication method do we currently use? What type of communication are we incentivizing? Do people know when to use one versus the other? Do we have people missing out on important stuff?

3. Measure and refine (settle into a positive feedback loop)

What gets measured gets focus, and what gets focus gets fixed – very true in this case.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of negative responses, rather than mistakenly assuming that deep alignment and high-resolution communication is happening behind the scenes, and that these teams are operating at optimal efficiency, take the time to ask questions about where the disconnect is arising, re-align efforts, and ensure everyone is on the same page.

If all goes well, six months later, you and the team will be celebrating a needle-moving win rather than trying to figure out what went wrong.