Customer success by design: stop selling & solving, start connecting

I've noticed an interesting dynamic in customer success that may explain, in large part, why we've struggled to become more proactive and experience-oriented in our approach. To put it plainly, we're not making good use of our time with customers.

As customer success leaders, even when we get out from behind our dashboards - interacting with escalated accounts or bringing customers into the Executive Briefing Center (EBC) - all too often we miss the real opportunity: to build insight and trust by connecting.

Wait, what's all this fluffy stuff about insight and connection? Isn't the job of customer success to help solve problems and sell renewals?

Here's the rub. Repeatable customer success comes from well-designed customer experiences. Any designer would agree that great experience design begins with customer empathy - the ability to feel what it's like to walk in your customers' shoes. (Hint: this means doing more listening than talking). Yet, something strange seems to happen when we get a customer on the line. We immediately go into sales or solution mode and can't stop talking. It's almost like we forget how to interact with customers like normal humans.

To get the customer insights we need, we’ve got to ask the right open-ended questions, then shut up and listen. 

My team was once brought into an EBC with a large global IT customer because the sales team wanted to showcase our “customer experience design” chops. We began our showcase by asking the customer, “What’s preventing YOU from delivering amazing experiences to YOUR customers?” The customer’s CIO and his team leaned into the exercise and started writing their organizational and technical challenges on post-it notes that were soon spreading across the wall. Our account executive’s eyes went wide. At the break, he whispered in my ear, “I don’t know how you’re uncovering all of these opportunities that I’ve been trying to uncover over the last few years, but I’ve just canceled the rest of their EBC agenda for the day—keep doing what you’re doing!” The funny thing is, there was nothing magical about it. We simply asked the customer an open-ended question about what it’s like to be them.

The only way to get better at having insightful conversations with customers is to practice. So, here are three simple open-ended questions you can practice asking a customer today: 

  1. I’m just curious… what’s it like to be our customer?

  2. Tell me about the last time we really frustrated you?

  3. Tell me about the last time we really impressed you?

I recommend practicing now, before your next big customer journey mapping initiative. Next time you’re with a customer on the phone or in person, just ask one of these questions and let the conversation go from there. Try to resist the urge to have an agenda beyond seeking good, authentic stories that really get you thinking, and that you might want to tell someone else in your company later on. Imagine that you’re a journalist. What do you find interesting about their answer? Do you notice any tensions or contradictions? I can almost assure you there will be some surprises if you do this right. 

If you’re enjoying that, try asking some great follow-up questions. 

  1. Oh that’s interesting… tell me more about that. (Sometimes people need permission to share the juicy stuff.) 

  2. Wow… what were you thinking at that point? (Thoughts are a window into emotions. Emotions drive behavior.) 

  3. Tell me about another time you felt the same way. (Specific stories are the gold that get retold.)  

Here’s the thing—your customers will absolutely love this. It might feel weird to you the first few times, but it won’t to the customer. They want to talk. They want you to ask. They want to influence your thinking. To them, it’ll feel like you really care—because you do. 

I’ll prove it to you. Think about the last time you called your cable or cell phone provider and found yourself saying to the customer service representative “I know it’s not your fault, but …!”

Here’s what we wish the phone rep would say in that situation:

“Wow, I hear your frustration! Doesn’t matter that it’s not my fault. Tell me more. Maybe I can help ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Here’s what the rep actually says (if we’re lucky): 

“I’m sorry for that, sir. Tell me again your account number so I can pull up your record.”

At the end of the day, if we as customer success leaders truly want to lead a customer obsession movement in our companies—and we must, in order to be successful—we will need to get better at truly connecting with customers ourselves. This means getting out from behind our dashboards regularly, creating new venues for the sole purpose of customer listening, and asking better questions when we get there. 

The secret in all of this, in my experience, is that those who understand customers deeply and on an emotional level hold a healthy leverage and power over those that do not. This is true at the company level—Company A knows their customers’ needs and motivations more deeply than Company B, thus holding a competitive advantage in the marketplace. This is the type of information you can't buy. It sets you apart from those who are just buying market data. It’s also true internally within our organizations. When Leader A possesses true empathy, quotes and human stories relating their customers’ needs and motivations, they hold influence over Leader B who does not. 

Customers level the playing field and break down silos. Their stories are the great equalizer. Let’s start leading customer success by harnessing the true power of the customer.