A discussion on the eighth of fourteen tenets (or principles) of customer success management, as laid down in Chapter One of the book “Practical Customer Success Management”. The eighth tenet is “The CSM is a Communicator”
The 14 Tenets of Customer Success Series – Tenet 8: The CSM is a Communicator
This short article expands upon the eighth tenet (or principle) in my “14 Tenets of Customer Success” that are taken from my upcoming book “Practical Customer Success Management: A best practice framework for rapid generation of customer success” which is due for publication summer 2019…
Tenet 8: The CSM is a Communicator
In my book – Practical Customer Success Management: A best practice framework for managers and professionals – I set out 14 tenets (or principles) by which customer success managers can carry out their professional duties. All 14 of these tenets can be found in my LinkedIn article – The 14 Tenets of Customer Success – which can be viewed here:
This eighth tenet is:
The CSM is a Communicator
Its definition is:
Communication is at the heart of customer success management. This includes verbal communication in meetings, workshops and presentations as well as written communication in reports and on management systems (such as a CRM tool). Needless to say it also includes active listening. The CSM needs to have excellent communication skills and must be versatile enough to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders from a variety of cultural and job role-related backgrounds from within their own and the customer’s companies and sometimes from third party companies as well.
Meetings as enablers of customer success outcomes
Without a doubt the role of the CSM entails communication with many people. Principally of course the CSM must engage successfully with customer stakeholders, particularly those who are involved in planning and decision making, but also with departmental and team leaders whose teams will be impacted by any change. Additionally, the CSM will need to communicate with colleagues including of course the customer’s account manager and other salespeople who have been involved with the pre-sales process and other professionals such as solution architects and service managers who may have met and worked with the customer and therefore have useful information to impart to the CSM.
The ability to engage well with a wide variety of people and to form high quality working relationships with them is a very important skill for CSMs to have and to cultivate. Whilst the CSM may be tasked with the direct responsibility of maximizing the level of success each customer attains from the products and services they have purchased, they cannot perform this role in isolation. The CSM will need to be able to rely upon both their own colleagues and a variety of stakeholders from within the customer organization as well potentially as from third party organizations to help to achieve this goal.
Communication with others can take place in real time (such as telephone calls, live chat facilities and face-to-face or virtual meetings) or can be conducted non-real time (primarily using emails but could also incorporate messages on social media forums such as for example Linked In. What is important to understand is that every single communication a CSM has with another person contributes to that person’s understanding of and also to their beliefs about that CSM’s personal and professional character. I think it is true to say that the CSM will be judged as much by the way in which they communicate as by the results which they achieve. CSMs should therefore take care to ensure as best they can that all communication via any medium is courteous, friendly and professional.
Maximizing the value from meetings
Meetings are of course one of the most obvious forms of engagement, whether that be with customer stakeholders or with others. Meetings can take many forms and be conducted using a variety of formats. It would potentially be possible for the CSM to arrange a meeting with the customer (whether telephone, online or face-to-face) and then just turn up to that meeting and hope for the best. This is certainly one way to get the job done, but it’s unlikely that this approach will generate the best value for either the customer or the CSM’s own company. Wherever possible, every engagement with the customer should be planned in advance, and certainly the most important meetings (which most definitely includes the initial meeting) need some careful consideration and possibly some specific preparation prior to conducting them. Of course there may be times when unplanned customer meetings need to occur straight away without any prior warning and therefore without any planning or preparation, but that’s fine – rules are often designed to be broken when necessary and this is just such a rule.
With this simple rule in mind, it would be worthwhile to know what types of planning and preparation before a meeting might be worthwhile completing. It could also be useful to have some guidance around how to conduct the meeting itself, and finally it may be interesting to think about whether there is anything that should be done post-meeting that the CSM should make sure they are aware of.
The steps in planning for a customer meeting (or indeed any other important meeting) should include the following:
Table 5.2: steps in planning for a customer meeting
|1||Outcomes||The CSM should ensure they are clear as to what the desired outcomes are for the engagement. The more clearly defined these outcomes are the easier it will be to guide the engagement through to successfully accomplishing them.|
Outcomes for both long (strategic) and short (tactical) term should be considered. For example a tactical or short term outcome might be to agree next steps in an upcoming process, and a strategic or long term outcome might be to start to develop a trust relationship with a particular customer stakeholder whom you have not met before.
Outcomes for all attendees should also be defined where relevant (ie what value does the customer get out of this meeting?). It is also reasonable to have thought of both required (must be attained) and desired (nice to attain if possible) outcomes, since this potentially expands the value returned from the engagement and enables a certain amount of flexibility in time management.
|2||Attendees||Once the outcomes have been defined the CSM can determine who will be needed in the engagement in order to contribute to the attainment of those outcomes. Outcomes must be defined first, since it should be the outcome requirements that determine who will attend the engagement.|
Anyone who does not contribute to the attainment of the outcomes should not be an attendee. If you find a need for an attendee that does not contribute to attainment of any of the outcomes you have defined this is telling you that you need to go back and redefine your outcomes, perhaps including additional ones.
|3||Agenda||Step 3 is to create an agenda. This should include both activities and timings. An activity is more than a topic for discussion, it does indeed define what will be discussed but it should also define how the discussion will be performed. For example it may just be a simple conversation, but it may be a more structured survey of pre-created questions, or it may be a whiteboard exercise, or a short video followed by a round-table discussion, etc.|
Timings (including breaks if it is a longer engagement) are also critical to get right. It is essential that sufficient time is given to enable all outcomes to be attained. At the same time it is unprofessional to waste people’s time by asking them to attend meetings that are unnecessarily long. Having a few non-essential outcomes placed towards the end of the agenda can be a good way of providing some flexibility in time keeping. This is especially useful where it is difficult to calculate how much time one or more activities will need to be completed.
|4||Assets and Resources||Consideration should be given to any assets and resources that may be required for the engagement. This may include basic assets such as a room, a projector and screen, a microphone and speakers (for larger rooms), etc.. It may also include catering for refreshments on arrival or at break times and if appropriate pens, note pads and name cards for attendees. It may also include more specific assets such as a case study presentation prepared on Microsoft PowerPoint slides.|
It could also include people – subject matter experts who are not attendees themselves but who are invited in to (for example) provide their expertise for attendees to take on board and consider. This might also include people to help you facilitate the engagement, perhaps for example by helping you to supervise attendees, manage time or record outcomes.
|5||Outputs, Measurements and Next Steps||Consideration should be given to engagement outputs. The engagement outputs are the results from the engagement. For some engagements a simple, verbal acknowledgement from each attendee that a consensus has been reached may be all that is required. Often however it may be necessary to create written documentation of discussions and agreements, or even to record the entire engagement for future reference.|
In addition, thought should be given to how the engagement will be reported on and who should receive this report. It may be necessary to create minutes for dissemination to all attendees and/or a summarized report on outcomes attained that can be sent to one or more particular stakeholders or simply stored in the Central Repository for the CSM’s own reference.
A final consideration might be around measuring or otherwise evaluating the relative success of the meeting and using those measurements or evaluations to help determine next steps. Measurement or evaluation of the meeting’s success is usually based upon the level of attainment of the stated outcomes for the engagement.
Is all this meeting preparation really necessary?
The above steps will most definitely help CSMs to deliver effective meetings that produce great outcomes. Of course different meetings will require different approaches and different levels of preparatory effort. It is not the intention here to burden the CSM with unnecessary tasks that do not lead to much reward in the way of results. A decision should be made on the appropriate course and level of preparatory activity for the CSM to complete for any given specific engagement, and this should be based upon its importance and complexity. This decision is of course for you as the CSM to take, in consultation with any of your colleagues if necessary.
Verbal communication – consultative questioning
Consultative questioning is the process of gaining the necessary understanding to be able to help the customer through the use of good quality questions. A good quality question is quite simply the question which enables the stakeholder being questioned to understand what the CSM wants to know so that they can provide them with that answer. As simple as this sounds, to be good at consultative questioning takes practice and experience, and also requires the right trust relationship to have been developed so that the person being questioned feels comfortable with providing the answer. Below are some general rules for verbal communication that can help CSMs to refine and improve upon their existing consultative questioning skills:
Table 5.3: rules for consultative questioning
|Know your outcome requirements||Whenever you know ahead of time that you will be conducting a meeting where you need to gain information from one or more people you should ensure you are clear on what your outcome requirements are for this meeting, and this should include whatever information you need to collect.|
|Plan and document your questions||Rather than just hoping to remember everything that needs to be asked, or hoping you will be able to think of a way to ask for the information you need, plan your questions in advance and document them so that you can have them in front of you during the meeting.|
|Brief the attendees ahead of time||It helps attendees to know ahead of time what information you need from them. This enables them to prepare their responses and gather any information they might wish to bring with them to reference in their answers. Doing this also helps to prevent the possibility of humiliating attendees by asking them questions that they do not know the answers to.|
|Provide the right environment||If it is within your power to do so, try to create an environment that is appropriate to the meeting. Concerns relating to comfort, noise and other distractions and particularly to confidentiality if sensitive information will be discussed should be addressed. If the meeting will be a long one you may want to consider breaks and refreshments to keep attendees energized.|
|Build the trust first||Even if you already know and have a good relationship with the stakeholders, do not start the meeting with asking about sensitive or difficult topics. Instead start the meeting in a comfortable way and build empathy and rapport in the room first before touching upon delicate subjects.|
|Ask the same question many times||Do not always accept that the answer you have received is the complete answer or that it contains everything you need to know. Try asking the same or similar questions several times (for example “what else…”) to help the stakeholder think more deeply about the topic and provide further information about it.|
|Break down complicated topics||Use the concept of “chunking” to break down any large or complicated subject into a series of smaller and more digestible topics that can be discussed and dealt with more easily one-by-one.|
|Use open questions to explore topics||When a topic needs further exploration use open questions to enable this exploration to take place. Open questions are questions that require a sentence or two or even a paragraph or two in response (for example “what do you think about…”. Use multiple open questions to continue this exploration as long as necessary.|
|Use closed questions to gain consensus or commitment||When you need consensus (such as from multiple stakeholders) or a commitment from one or more stakeholders use closed questions. Closed questions require a short, definitive response (for example “are we all agreed on…”).|
|Use active listening techniques||When you want to either check you have understood something or reassure the stakeholder that you understood what they have said you should employ active listening. This entails paraphrasing back to the stakeholder what they have just told you and asking for them to validate the accuracy of your words (for example “so what you are saying is…”).|
|Ensure all stakeholders are able to have their say||If there are multiple stakeholders in the meeting you may find that some stakeholders are more dominant of the conversation and others more reticent to share their views or knowledge. Try to provide a supportive environment that enables all stakeholders to feel comfortable about contributing, and proactively ask quieter stakeholders for their contributions if you can do so without making them uncomfortable.|
|Summarize progress as you go along||Do not wait until the end to make sure that everything has been discussed and (if necessary) agreed. Instead, break the conversation down into a series of sections and summarize progress at the end of each section. Try to gain consensus from stakeholders that the section has been fully discussed before moving on.|
|Note any information that is missing||Even though you might ask all the right questions, that doesn’t mean that the stakeholders will know all the answers. You may well uncover areas that require further research to determine the required information. If this occurs note what information is missing together with who will be responsible for researching this information, by when the research will be accomplished and what they will do with the information once uncovered.|
|Create an agenda and manage time||As with any meeting it is important to manage the meeting so that as far as possible all topics are given adequate time for discussion debate and (where necessary) negotiation and consensus forming. An agenda with timings can be a useful help in managing the progress through a meeting.|
|Document the meeting outcomes||Make sure that information gained from the meeting is adequately documented in whatever format is necessary. If required, make sure that this information is circulated to meeting attendees and/or other interested parties.|
|Follow up!||Where further activities were agreed during the meeting (such as further research to uncover missing information), the CSM needs to ensure these activities actually take place and results are documented. Next steps should be considered after every meeting and again the CSM should ensure that progress forwards continues to be made.|
Next Week’s Tenet: “The CSM is an influencer and an enabler”
The next article in this series will be on tenet number eight which is “The CSM is an influencer and an enabler”. Communication is a core, critical skill in almost any type of job role, and especially so where that role involves collaborating closely with customer stakeholders and with colleagues to generate team-based results. Within the range of communication skills, the ability to influence and enable others are particularly important when the person is not just a part of the team but a leader of that team. The Customer Success Manager is just such a role and in fact the CSM almost has it harder than many leaders, since they have to “lead without being in charge”. In this situation great influencing and enabling skills are essential. I look forward to discussing how “the CSM is an influencer and an enabler” with you next week.
About the Author
Rick Adams is an independent author, trainer and consultant, specializing in helping technology companies deliver measurable business value for their customers. Adams has over 25 years’ experience of working in the IT industry, including owning his own startup software-as-a-service business which he sold in 2012 to focus on writing, training and consulting. Having delivering training and consultancy to many hundreds of businesses and thousands of technology professionals in over 30 countries across four continents, Adams is now based in the rural west coast of Ireland where he lives with his two dogs Zeus and Terri.
Adams’ recent work includes the development and delivery of a global certification program on customer success management for Cisco Systems Inc. He is currently working on a book titled Practical Customer Success Management: A best practice framework for managers and professionals which will be published by Routledge in the summer of 2019. His current interests includes helping individuals and companies develop best practices in customer success management and in business outcomes focused selling.