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The CSM’s Guide to Escalating At-Risk Accounts

Find out how to take immediate and effective action when you detect an At-Risk Account
Diana De Jesus
February 2, 2022
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Here’s a toxic thought all of us Customer Success Managers need to leave behind:

If an account is at-risk, you are the only person responsible for turning things around. 

The pressure that comes from feeling like the single point of failure isn’t something anyone should be subjecting themselves to. 

While being the “hero” may sound appealing, when an account is at-risk, it is the perfect opportunity to live out one of our field’s most used phrases: Customer Success is not a department; it’s a company mindset.

An account can be “at-risk” for many reasons, ranging from product gaps to changes in critical stakeholders. An essential part of our role as CSMs is effectively assembling the right team to address the risk. And while it might sound straightforward, sometimes we end up with a case of decision paralysis.

Using the workflow below has personally helped me as a CSM, which is why I’m sharing it with you. Here’s what this workflow will show you: 

  •  What information to share with your team when you escalate the risk 
  •  How to decide who within your company to inform 
  •  How to operationalize your workflow to drive efficiency

What to tell

During a monthly session with a customer, they shared information that immediately raised an at-risk flag for me. 

I panicked and immediately created a channel with a handful of people from my company (including folks from our executive team). I shared the information the customer shared with me, and that was it.

A few minutes later, I got a DM from my leader with some feedback. They expressed that I could’ve shared additional information in my thread to give my team a complete picture of the situation and what I needed from them. 

They were right –– I kind of just dropped that bomb on them and walked away. I was so focused on raising the potential risk ASAP, that I hadn’t considered thinking through a plan of action.

I didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so soon after that happened I put together a note template that included a list of questions for me (and any other CSM) to answer before raising risk internally: 

  • What is the escalation?
  • How did this happen, and why?
  • What is the customer asking for?
  • What features does this affect (optional)?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What do you need from those individuals?
  • What are the next steps?

These questions gave me the structure I needed to communicate with my team effectively. The next step I needed to nail down was who to notify about the risk. 

Who to tell

As a CSM, who we need to notify within our company varies depending on the nature of the risk. Before we ring the alarm with an @here in a public Slack channel, we need to be clear on who to notify, what we need from them, and what’s the next step. 

Creating a quick “who to notify” cheatsheet can save CSMs a LOT of time. To get started, outline the different risk themes that may arise. For example: 

  1. Engineer, Product, Design (EPD) - This theme can include risk flags related to the product. Anything from missing features to clunky UI. 
  2. Sales - The Sales theme can group reasons related to unmet expectations created during the Sales cycle. Was the customer sold on something that we then didn’t offer? 
  3. Customer Success - Lastly, the Customer Success theme should have reasons for things within our department's control, from customer experience to champions leaving.

Once we outline the themes, the next step is to document all possible risk reasons and assign them to the themes you’ve defined above. Here are some risk reasons and how to pair them with a theme:  

  • Integration limitation - This risk falls under our EPD theme because it relates to the product. 
  • A misaligned expectation on service offerings - If the customer was under the impression that they would be receiving a specific service, but it turns out they didn’t, this falls under Sales. 
  • Lack of product knowledge - The customer may not be finding value in a specific feature due to a lack of training; this would fall under the Customer Success theme.

With the risk themes and reasons laid out, you don’t need to start your decision-making process from scratch. Having this clarity is also something that your teammates will appreciate – no more pulling them into a thread they didn’t need to be in.

What to do about it

Believe it or not, you’ve just created a process! 

You know what to say when you spot risk and who to bring into the conversation. To go the extra mile, make this part of your team's workflow bank – they’ll thank you for it, and you’ll also stand out as a CSM. Here’s how I went about creating an escalation process as a CSM here at Catalyst:

My initial note template was a great foundation, but to take it to the next level, we wanted to automatically update fields and provide more context for anyone reading the note. I shared the idea with my leader, and we updated the note template together, which ended up looking like this:

With the note template in tiptop shape, the next thing to address was how we raised the risk internally. Some CSMs used private DMs or created private channels within Slack, while others emailed. 

We didn’t have a solid approach, which led me to set up a Slack workflow that pushed Catalyst's published risk escalation note to a Slack channel called #at-risk. I created a private channel, invited the top representatives from each department, and shared how the channel worked.

Pushing our escalation notes from Catalyst directly to a dedicated Slack channel meant that CSMs only needed to @mention whoever needed to be made aware. 

Ultimately, operationalizing this process has helped our Customer Success department: 

  1. Forecast Net Revenue Retention: We have a firmer grasp of our revenue targets by spotting churn risk early. 
  2. Become more data-driven: Documenting risk themes and reasons gave us important data points, leading to process improvements and more objective conversations with other departments (trends for Product, yayy!).
  3. Bring Customer Success to the center of our organization: Addressing churn risks cross-functionally helped other teams keep a pulse on our biggest priority: the customer.

Better relationships. Less churn.

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