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Practical Tips For Leading Customer Success Through A Down Market

This will be the first down market with a mature customer success function. Here’s how to get through
Diana De Jesus
November 1, 2022
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Recessions and down markets aren’t new. But with the risk of a recession looming strong for 2023, this will be the first down market with a mature customer success function.

The last major downturn—2008—occurred when customer success was still in its infancy. Now, the entire premise of customer success is more well-known. While that means more resources, it also means more demands placed on CS leaders to deliver companies from the misery of spending cuts. 

At the #ReUp2022 Customer Success Summit, the thread of CS in a down market loomed heavily over many discussions. In this roundup post, we’re detailing some of the practical insights shared by leaders throughout the Summit.

Cut through vagueness with direct questioning

The chaos of uncertainty should not impact your customer relationships. If you’re not sure whether a customer will renew, ask them. 

This advice might read as a bit obvious, but it’s something Cassie Young, General Partner at Primary Venture Partners said is often overlooked during her talk Things Keeping CS Leaders Up At Night featuring Ellie Wu, VP, Sales & CS Center of Excellence at Insight Partners. CSMs and CS leaders, genuinely concerned about various accounts, discuss signals or indications they got from a customer. However, no one has asked the customer themselves if they are planning to renew. 

“The worst answer you can get is no, but at least you have a little bit of visibility to try to mitigate some of the risk that might exist there,” said Cassie.

Understand the three buckets CS must fill

Cassie added that CS truly only needs to fill three buckets: 

1. Procedural: this focuses on operational rhythms and customer segments—the planning that gives you a good overview of each customer.

2. Commercial: this is the actual business of CS including renewals and expansions.

3. Customer value chain: this is ensuring that the CS team is aligned on board objectives and is working toward overall company goals.

“If you are in the boardroom, I am going to operate under the assumption that you know how to run your team and the operating rhythms procedurally,” said Cassie. “The things that I'm going to care more about are the commercial components and then the customer value chain piece, because that is so huge.”

Focus on expansion first, renewals second

In down markets, there’s a lot of focus on protecting revenue, as there should be. But John Gleeson, the VP of CS at Motive (formerly KeepTruckin), said he thinks about it differently, a view he explained during his ReUp talk on Driving Toward the Future of CS.

His view is that simply protecting revenue—that is, focusing on renewals—is the bare minimum and might even lead to slipping behind. Even in down markets, he thinks about growth through expansions first and renewals second. Not only does this help increase gross retention—as in, an expanded customer is also a retained customer—but it also provides a stronger competitive moat.

“If we expanded really well, essentially we lock competitors out from their inroad into our business,” said John.

Build proactive trust with your team

For Julie Flodr, Head of Customer Success at Canva, trust is the foundation of any success within CS. During her fireside chat on Managing Through Change And Rapid Growth, she explained that trust comes from transparency, authenticity, vulnerability, and repetition. 

Importantly, she advocates building trust before you need it—when the bad times happen and you need your team to step up, you want to have trust already built so your team will continue to follow you.

Within Canva, Julie builds trust with a few key pillars: 

1. Let it get a bit personal: rather than only focusing on business outcomes or tasks, Julie gets to know her team on a personal level, such as their career goals or what they did over the weekend. While not everyone wants to share everything with their boss, these simple questions help Julie understand the whole person and how she might help them succeed beyond doing their job well, a critical element to building trust.

2. Change the physical environment: when possible, Julie likes to leave the office confines (whether physical or virtual) to add some visual change—the classic example of going to a cafe rather than meeting in an office still holds value.

3. It’s ok to be silly sometimes: during every team meeting, people answer icebreaker questions meant to not only get a laugh but also bring humanity into the room—in one meeting, the key question was how everyone likes to prepare potatoes. 

“With change too, authenticity from a leadership perspective is extremely important,” said Julie. “With authenticity comes trust.”

Be wary of “playbookitization”

As automation tempts evermore in CS, it’s important to not go to extremes, what Mike Sasaki, VP of Customer Success at Mitek, called “playbookitization” in a ReUp panel discussion on Doing More With Less in CS.

The definition of “playbookitization” is simple: when every single CS motion is run through a playbook, whether semi-automated or even sent by a human, with no personalization and no humanity.

“I used to think that automation was going to solve everything for me and for us,” said Mike. “We're going to Playbookitize everything.”

While playbooks have significant value to offer the CS team (and customers), it’s important to realize they can only go so far. When looking for what to automate, Mike and the other panelists said administrative and data collection tasks—such as reminders to fill out a survey or a nudge if someone hasn’t logged onto the platform in a while—can and should be automated in most cases. But conversations, answering complex questions, and handling escalations should always be picked up by a human in some way.

“The reality,” Mike continued. “At least, my reality and what I think the future is going to be is a hybrid approach.”

Remind yourself (and customers) about action items

Whatever tactic or strategy you have. Whatever playbook you’re running. If it contains action items, make sure they get done. Schedule reminders for yourself and your clients. Just because it’s a down market doesn’t mean people can’t take action—in fact, your clients may have to take even more action to get value when things are tough. You can play the role of confidant and trusted partner by reminding them to do their work (and ensuring your work gets done).

This is something Julie brought up during her fireside as well. While internally, CS leaders need to build trust with their team members, your external is about moving projects over the finish line.

“[Make] sure that you follow through on those next steps that you agree to and setting expectations,” said Julie. “It's a relationship. So the customer also needs to contribute and then the CSM needs to contribute a certain amount. It can't all be the CSM.”

Watch all of #ReUp2022 On Demand HERE

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