Day in and day out, customer success (CS) teams go above and beyond to answer questions and solve problems—but they also do so much more. They’re responsible for driving customer loyalty and expansion in the best of times and the worst of times.
But as we all know, even when CS leaders have done everything right, their teams may still feel the sting of a worst-case scenario. And with an already-long list of tech industry layoffs, the topic won’t seem to fade away.
According to Lauren Larson, Vice President of Global Customer Success at Reputation, layoffs back CS leaders into a “do more with less” corner. How can CSMs and their leaders rise to the challenge and make the most of a tough situation with a smaller team? It’s not like their goals and expectations get laid off too.
In addition to our conversation with Lauren, we also spoke to customer success consultant and leader Brooke Simmons. The two offered wisdom on moving forward effectively after a layoff—and maybe even finding a hidden opportunity.
Leaders: Don’t focus on “saving face.” Instead, save the team.
Leaders bear the weight of reassuring and supporting their CSMs. For better or worse, all eyes are on you. The moment you catch wind of a layoff, every decision will either make the situation better or worse.
Here’s how the best CS leaders help their teams navigate the shock of layoffs, support their people, and continue driving value.
Be transparent, take ownership, and be available (in that order).
The first days after downsizing are a pivotal time to rebuild (or lose) the trust of your CS organization. As a leader, take accountability where appropriate and offer transparency about what happened, why, and what the next move is. Remember that your team anxiously awaits your next move, so take great care in attending to your departing team members and your remaining CSMs.
Support your outgoing team members
Start by acknowledging those being laid off with kindness and compassion. “It’s never easy. Everyone takes it personally, no matter what,” Lauren says.
During Lauren’s time at Oracle, leadership would plan for layoffs six months in advance to give people plenty of notice. During her first round of layoffs, Lauren even ensured that anyone who wanted to stay would still have a position at the company—just maybe not in CS. “Through the whole organization, you build incredible trust in that way,” Lauren says.
Of course, this level of foresight is one of the benefits of being a well-established brand like Oracle. So, what about smaller companies that can’t give six months’ notice or offer employees another internal position?
Let people know you’re there for them as they process the news and search for their next role. As a CS leader, this might mean offering to coach and mentor laid-off employees or providing referrals for their next step.
The bottom line: Take time to rebuild trust rather than burn bridges. You never know when your paths might cross again—departing employees could become future colleagues or customers.
Inspire and empower your team
After supporting your outgoing teammates well, your next priority is making sure remaining employees feel valued and essential to the company’s success. Start by helping them understand the path forward. Bring the team back to the organization’s North Star metric, offer transparency about strategy, and redefine their place in the big picture.
Next, provide space for teams to ask questions, express concerns about increased workloads, or provide feedback about what should change in the CS organization. Then step back and listen.
After a layoff, Lauren adopts this attitude with her remaining teammates: “You have any questions, comments, concerns, and/or emotional outbursts? Those are all acceptable.”
If one of her less-vocal team members remains silent, she reminds them they have a safe space with her.
Rebuilding trust with a CS team post-layoff isn’t easy. But if everyone feels like they’re in it together, those feelings can serve as a “protective coating,” Lauren says, that unites them and fuels new ideas. It takes time to restore morale, but your camaraderie-building efforts in the weeks and months right after a layoff are vital.
“The most important thing in a customer success organization is ensuring that your people are inspired and empowered,” Lauren emphasizes. “With that, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
If possible, lean out your tech stack before your team members
When budget cuts brew and layoffs loom, company leaders will start zeroing in on easy ways to save money. You might be able to save salaries if you can demonstrate (and then eliminate) waste from your tech stack.
“I was all about, ‘Let’s cut everything but people,’ Lauren explains. “We can optimize in a lot of other ways.”
Eliminate expenses by assessing your actual needs. From there, you can look at all of the features across your entire tech stack, look for ways to consolidate solutions, and cut what’s superfluous. It’s way wiser to invest in fewer, better technologies than many, “okay” solutions; you’ll make your wallet happier, and your team will love having fewer sources of truth, too.
Check out this Game Changing SaaS Metrics Cheat Sheet we wrote in partnership with our VP of Finance, Deidre Mullen.
Trust the automation hype—especially with fewer team members
When Lauren anticipates budget cuts, she first looks to automation for assistance. When layered on top of other technologies, AI advancements make day-to-day workflows faster and easier.
Automation tools are lifesavers for lean teams that need to do more work with fewer people and less time. Each year, Lauren sets a goal of reducing manual workflows through automation by 20% and, in turn, increasing customer touch by 20%.
This strategic approach to tech touch customer success ensures Reputation’s customers get personalized care when it counts. CSMs spend more time on meaningful work rather than repetitive, manual tasks, so they’re also more satisfied.
Lauren cites customer outreach as an ideal workflow for automation. “How much more attention do you spend on your large customers…than you spend on your small customers?” she asks. “Do your small customers still want attention? Of course, they do.”
Automation allows you to extend the same level of outreach to lower-value accounts as you do to top-dollar customers. That way, everyone feels seen and cared for, regardless of the size of their contract. Lauren’s team recently automated outreach to customers they don’t meet with weekly, sending content like reports to show the value those customers gain from the product. The efforts have already sparked great revenue results.
“That wasn't rocket science of automation. It was some of the low-hanging fruit,” Lauren explains.
Quick note here: Automation is a whole lot easier with a solid Customer Success Platform in place. If you’re wondering what might work best for your team, steal this resource we put together for people in your exact position: The Best Template to Evaluate Customer Success Platforms
Invest in expansion with one source of customer truth
If your company’s leaders decided to lay off post-sales team members, you now have a clear mission: Show them they made a mistake.
Make sure everyone involved in post-sales revenue has a single source of truth for customer data. By investing in a strong post-sales platform (actually designed for post-sales teams), you can focus on landing more expansion opportunities like renewals and upsells—preventing the need for layoffs in the first place.
For many CS teams, the hassle of a disorganized database is all too real. In the scramble to expand and retain customers after layoffs, CSMs lose time looking for essential details in multiple data sources.
A shared platform that provides detailed insights and reporting is the perfect way to boost team morale, give them quality-of-life updates, and show them that you’re invested in their success.
CS teams, meet Sales—your new post-layoff bestie
CS and sales should be a unified front—for both the ongoing success of your customers and your company's health. Lauren says CS and sales are “two skill sets that, when they collaborate, really make a magic formula.”
So what’s the secret sauce behind that magic to help CS thrive after layoffs?
“One of the best ways to foster a positive relationship is information sharing,” Brooke says. A shared foundation between the two functions paves the way for customer success and expansion opportunities. That way, CSMs can be more effective and efficient on a smaller team and prove their value to the organization through retention and other forms of expansion.
For example, an account executive (AE) should carefully document why a customer bought and what success looks like for them. What competitors did they consider? What do they want to measure in the platform? The clearer the picture a CSM has of the customer, the more effectively they can support that client.
Even better, if a CSM is involved during the sales cycle, they can offer inputs and recommendations to guide customers to the right solution—then drive success with the solution, Lauren explains. This collaboration strengthens customer loyalty and the business as a whole.
Embrace a partnership mindset
Shared incentives and goals empower CS and sales to lock arms and grow the business.
CSMs identify customer pain points that signal growth opportunities—so be sure you’ve got a compensation structure in place that benefits both sales and CS. For instance, sales might be encouraged to oversell upfront or maximize initial deal size at all costs. While this approach increases an AE’s initial take-home pay, it leads to down-selling or negative retention down the road—which reflects poorly on CS.
“It would be healthier if we right-size the deal upfront and then compensate the AE for all the expansion that naturally happens in the next year or two,” Brooke explains.
Brooke prefers an incentive structure for CSMs that recognizes and rewards their hard work in renewing, upselling, and expanding customers. Such incentives draw a clear line between CSM efforts and the bottom line, proving their value and making a case against future headcount reductions.
Lauren has seen great success by mutually incentivizing CS and sales, especially for upsells. With variable compensation plans where teams have to work together to hit quota, leaders avoid gaps and manual workflows that make them less effective.
To thrive as a CS team, leaders should avoid ‘us versus them’ conflicts—especially through the stress of layoffs. “If you care about your company and doing right by it, as an entire team, you’ve got to figure out how to work with your sales leaders…to come to common ground on a lot of these things,” Brooke says.
Create a renewal pipeline
In general, Lauren explains, the closer CS teams are to the “hard numbers” of upsells and other ways of driving revenue, the more likely they are to avoid layoffs. Most leaders know that CSMs are valuable contributors to the business—but most leaders don’t know just how valuable they are.
To keep this value front and center, Brooke recommends creating a renewal pipeline that functions like a new deal pipeline. Right now, most companies don’t have a renewal-specific pipeline in place.
“There’s so much rigor and examination for new deals, and there’s nothing for renewals,” she notes. “Most people have no pipeline rigor, even if they’re doing forecasting or have active renewal opportunities.”
The CSM should stay invested in the hygiene of the renewal pipeline, even if AEs own the renewals themselves. This is one way CS directly impacts the bottom line and helps the business remain healthy even amidst a downturn.
Prove your team’s worth and stop more layoffs
Your CSMs keep your company strong and your customers satisfied—which makes them the last line of defense against churn and loss of revenue. This means that CS should be the last team impacted by layoffs, although that’s often not the case.
Businesses that keep their customers loyal and satisfied and embrace the power of customer-led growth can emerge from recession in a position of strength. Your customers are likely also being asked to do more with less, and your product can help them do just that—with the help of a strong CS team to show them how it can drive further value.
Even on the toughest days, never forget why the CS team exists: “A customer success manager is there to enable success and greater success with a customer’s business,” Lauren says. When your customers succeed, your business succeeds too.
And that, in good times and bad, is the superpower of CS.