CS leaders often have to learn their jobs the hard way—alone—with few teachers or mentors to help them.
New CS leaders should prioritize three things: strategy (how customers use your product), customer goals (in different use cases or customer segments), and playbooks (the foundation of scaling up a CS motion).
Customer success is a long game with lagging indicators that won’t be clear after six months. In reality, most teams take two years to move from reactive to proactive.
Building a great CS team is like building a house—you can’t focus on the shape of the roof until you’ve built the foundations.
Budding customer success leaders (and those newly promoted) have an intense task ahead of them. Whether it’s building from scratch or inheriting a team, the demands placed on CS are intense and growing. It’s a system Rachel Provan knows well—with 12+ years in CS leadership, Rachel is now an independent consultant and coach (a “coach-sultant”) helping new CS leaders grow. In this CHATalyst interview, Rachel shared more about the three pillars every CS leader needs to cultivate.
Can you share more about your background and how you got into coaching CS leaders?
I worked in customer success well before it was called that—back then it was just “post-sales,” “account management,” or “delivery.” I’ve been in the space for over 16 years, with 14 of those being in leadership at various organizations.
In 2022, I started my own coaching firm because I realized no one is teaching CS leaders how to do their jobs. I had to learn on my own, the hard way, and now want to help build the next generation of CS leaders.
I like to call myself a “coach-sultant” because I try to include the best of both—a consultant brings expertise to the table and tells you what to do. A coach, on the other hand, points you in the right direction and teaches you how to think for yourself. I do a little bit of both as a coach who has expertise in the space and has seen multiple trends unfold.
What are the key things all new CS leaders need to build or understand?
Whenever I work with a new CS leader, regardless of their experience to date, I find we go back over three things to ensure they are rock solid before continuing: Strategy, Team Leadership, and Mindset.
For strategy, the focus for new CS leaders—especially at startups—tends to be on the following:
A new CS leader must take a big step back to understand what customers are trying to achieve. From there, leaders need to know how customers do that with your product.
If you don’t have this simple knowledge, everything you do later is a guess.
It’s easy to think that everyone has the same goal with your product—but how your customers perceive that goal will depend on their industry and role. Sometimes small tweaks can make a huge difference depending on what exactly they are trying to achieve with your product.
Knowing this information will help you create systems down the line that help customers achieve their goals in a way that helps the business achieve its goals.
Playbooks are the foundation of scale in CS. To build them, you need to know the customer journey (and see if there are different journeys for different use cases). Then think about additional context such as industries or niches to understand if they need a unique element in a playbook.
From there, building a playbook helps your CSMs guide customers on their journey to achieving their goals with your product.
The other pillars I work on are Team leadership - how to build and lead a high-performing CS team (and have fun doing it), and Mindset, as EVERY CS leader struggles with imposter syndrome. Hint - just because you don’t know how to do everything yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there!
What’s the most frustrating part of being a new CS leader? How can you overcome it?
Customer success is a long game with lagging indicators that won’t be clear after six months. And unfortunately, too many executives think CS is a “just add water” problem—you hire a CS leader and, boom—churn should vanish and they should have positive NRR. But that’s not how this works.
In reality, most teams take two years to move from reactive to proactive. It’s almost like building a house—you can’t focus on the shape of the roof until you’ve built the foundations. That part is not sexy, but it’s essential. This isn’t to say CS isn’t immediately valuable. There is typically an initial bump in retention and you will continue to see movement, but real results take time.
The other part of that equation is that new CS leaders don’t know what to prioritize, so they try to do everything at the same time, which can feel like they’re being productive, but nothing is getting done to move the needle.
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How can a CS leader structure their own development or mentorship?
If you’re not in a position to hire an experienced coach to help you, I like what I call the “GROW” model. It asks four questions—and you must fully answer one question before moving on to the next.
1. Goal - What do you want to achieve? This is both from a customer journey and a company perspective.
2. Reality - Where are you now? It’s important to be honest about what you might be capable of achieving (or not) with current resources.
3. Opportunities/Obstacles - What opportunities and obstacles are clearly in your path? This is what you can take advantage of or what you need to plan around.
4. Way Forward - What will you do next? This is the immediate next step you can take on your plan.
From there, I recommend breaking all goals down into bite-sized chunks, then setting expectations with your execs on what you can get done (and when).
When is the right time to hire a coach?
I know it can feel counterintuitive to pay for a coach—new CS leaders have typically tried to figure it out on their own because they had no other option. But without someone to give you a map of how to do this job, it’s hard to get it right. The current tenure of a CS leader is 18 months—they either burn out or their company doesn’t see the value they’re providing.
So if you’re finding that you’re overwhelmed by the amount of things you have to do, but don’t really feel like you’re moving the needle, it can be good to get some direction.
Of course, a powerful mentor can also play this role—if you have someone internally to show you the ropes, absolutely use that person’s knowledge. The problem is that most new CS leaders don’t have anything like this. And experience is often the most expensive way to learn.
Provan Success Coaching helps you develop the tools, strategies, and vision needed to go from first-time manager to confident leader.