Customer success by design: leading with listening

In an earlier post, I outlined several pitfalls preventing customer success teams from getting where they want to be. The central theme of the article was the observation that, as customer success leaders, we know we need to become more focused on customer experience, but we don’t know how. As we work toward success-at-scale, an imperfect mastery of customer experience methodology, mindset and culture becomes a major stumbling block. 

My previous post laid out three underlying issues:

  1. Customer success management is not talking to customers in the right way

  2. Customer success teams are spending a lot of money implementing customer touches without testing the experience

  3. Customer success is leaving key stakeholders behind despite the best of intentions

In this post, I’ll dig into the first of these to show how top customer success leaders are creating the right kinds of opportunities for productive customer conversations—and the difference it’s making for their organizations. 

Step away from the dashboard...

I believe we’re becoming addicted to our customer success data dashboards and it’s starting to hurt us. While there’s no denying the value of customer health scorecards, adoption indexes and such, it has become all too easy to become deskbound and make decisions based solely on the quantitative information in front of us. Quantitative data only paints half the picture—it tells us what customers are doing, but rarely why or what they really need. To get the deeper understanding required to design predictive playbooks for customer success at scale, we’ve got to regularly get out from behind our management dashboards. 

My business partner Saul Gurdus tells a great story about this dynamic in a recent blog post

When I was at Citrix, we felt like our strong license renewal rates were a sign that we were doing everything right in customers’ eyes. But then we dug deeper and discovered that for many, it was really a lack of better options and the effort involved in switching that kept them around—and we could lose a big chunk of our renewal business overnight if an aggressive competitor came around. Based on this finding, we started initiatives to improve the experience of customers who were already renewing. Data does not equal experience, and qualitative research can help you avoid the complacency that strong numbers can foster.  

(If you haven’t seen Saul’s piece yet, read it next - he’s got great insights for developing a customer-obsessed culture). 

The first step in building proactive customer success at scale is to get out from behind our desks and talk with customers. Of course, that’s not just true for customer success leaders—it’s got to be part of the regular operations of our teams and companies as a whole. Here are a few ways I’ve seen customer success executives lead this change. 

Executive “walk-a-mile” programs

If you could see you through my eyes... I believe you'd be surprised to see that you've been blind. -- Elvis Presley sings "Walk a Mile In My Shoes" lyrics by Joe South 

Executive walk-a-mile programs can take a few different forms, but they all involve getting out (or on the phone) regularly with real customers for the sole purpose of understanding what it’s like to be in their shoes. The simplest version is a weekly executive call-down: every week, each exec in the company checks in on a handful of customers. It often becomes something the execs look forward to, and customers love it—it really shows you care. 

I’ll never forget the first time we ran a walk-a-mile day for a bunch of tech executives. We marched them down to their customer support center and strapped on headphones to listen to real customer calls. They expected it to be a nice if largely symbolic morale-building experience for the team, but by the end of the day they couldn’t stop talking about what they’d heard: how the product had interfered with a customer’s day, the difficulties their processes had posed. My favorite quote was, “I never realized how non-technical many of our customers actually are.”

Similarly, I recently spoke with a CIO whose entire perspective on his job changed when he started regularly walking the halls and asking his customers (i.e. employees, contractors, executives, etc.) what it was like to use the IT systems he and his team provided. During these walkabouts, he’d ask users to “show me” the issue they were describing. Quickly, he saw with his own eyes that there were countless, legitimate user-facing problems that he and his team were unaware of. He had an epiphany: his customers weren’t calling in for help. They were just accepting things as they were, as bad as they may be. Instead of new features and technologies, the CIO’s newfound priority was to address an underlying lack of trust and communication between his users and his team.

The most impressive walk-a-mile program I’ve come across is the Lifeline program at Intuit. During peak tax season, customer service literally becomes the responsibility of every TurboTax employee, from the CEO down. All employees gather in the cafeteria and, in shifts, take turns answering a deluge of customer questions via various channels. Reportedly, this drives a level of customer empathy, insight and efficiency that far outweighs the investment. 

Regular customer empathy gatherings for leadership

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. -- Stephen R. Covey 

Many companies have some type of “customer council,” but this is a bit different. Instead of inviting a small group of regulars for the purpose of unveiling our plans and seeking their praise, we reach out to a larger number of rotating participants with the sole objective of listening to and understanding what’s going on in their world. 

Someone posted an example of this approach as a comment on my last article: “We are inviting some of our customers to an event called 'Behind the scenes.' The intention is to gather different departments incl P&D, UX and CS to sit down together with the customers to be able to understand their pains and gains even better. Really looking forward to that.”

A former colleague of mine mentioned another great way to do it:“We had a program where the product director would reach out to customers who responded to a survey with negative feedback. He called it the, ‘Customer Empathy Program.’ He would pull together a ton (100+) of people from across product/engineering and then he and few other people would interview the customer live. Attendance kept growing.”

Customer empathy content campaigns (hint: NOT PowerPoint slides) 

“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” -- Maya Angelou 

Smart customer success teams are finding ways to involve people in customer empathy at scale. One client engaged us to do deep customer journey research including 20+ recorded customer interviews. Rather than settle for a report that touched only a small slice of executives and middle managers in the organization, they had us create an audio reel of the juiciest moments from all the interviews. These raw stories started getting forwarded around the company, from the C-suite down to the front line, spreading the “why”—in the customer’s own voice—throughout the organization. It was so powerful that our firm created a formalized “audio journey” product to complement our customer journey mapping engagements. 

One of our most prized customer success clients printed their customer journey maps as eight-foot walkable journeys, and placed them on high-visibility walls throughout their office—including the board room. That sparked a buzz across the company, top to bottom, as people started using the journey map framework in their own presentations and leaders started doing their own customer empathy work. The team that created the journey maps became well known and well regarded... and secured the biggest capital investment in the company’s history to fund a customer success project that came directly from their listening work. 

Making the most of the conversation

Qualitative customer listening practices like these represent a departure from familiar ways of working for many customer success organizations, pushing beyond the seeming concreteness of numbers on a screen into more subjective territory. But by bringing oursleves into closer contact with the customers we’re serving, it can also bring a renewed sense of purpose and clarity to our work. We’re no longer just trying to goose a few metrics— we’re listening and responding to actual human needs, expressed in human voices. That can be a powerful experience. 

OK, so let’s say you’ve got your customer on the phone, or in a room, ready to talk. What next? How do you start the conversation, and how do you get the most out of it? In my next post, I’ll offer tips for making the most of the kind of qualitative listening opportunities we’ve discussed in this article.