A discussion on the sixth of fourteen tenets (or principles) of customer success management, as laid down in Chapter One of the book “Practical Customer Success Management”. The sixth tenet is “The CSM is a Consultant and an Adviser”
The 14 Tenets of Customer Success Series – Tenet 6: The CSM is a consultant and an advisery
This short article expands upon the sixth 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 6: The CSM is a consultant and an adviser
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 sixth tenet is:
The CSM is a consultant and an adviser
Its definition is:
For each customer engagement, the CSM’s role is to act as consultant and adviser, rather than as the decision maker. It is the customer’s money that is being spent to pursue the customer’s own strategic outcomes by engaging the customer’s workforce to use the customer’s new products and services (that they have bought from us). Our responsibility is to provide timely and useful information and guidance and to lend a practical hand where necessary to help them get our products and services adopted.
The Customer Success Manager is an Expert Consultant
The customer success manager is (or should be) an expert in their own field, and that field is the onboarding and adoption of their company’s products and services, and the ability to maximize the value realized by customers from doing so. This makes the CSM a subject matter expert or SME – a subject matter expert in how customers can maximize their success from the adoption and utilization of the CSM’s company’s products and services.
When the CSM engages with the customer, typically the customer will already be some way down the line of selecting purchasing, customizing, installing, configuring and doing whatever else is necessary from a practical perspective to get the newly purchased products and services up and running and ready for use. Other experts such as account managers, product specialists and solutions architects may have helped the customer to decide what products and services they want and how best to configure them in order to get the desired outcomes from them.
The CSM’s role is to help the customer from that point forwards in making those outcomes actually happen. That requires a lot of researching and analyzing, a lot of planning and a lot of activity from the customer to turn their new acquisitions into functioning systems that are generating value. The CSM does not own the responsibility to make it happen – that’s the role of one or more of the customer’s key stakeholders. What the CSM owns the responsibility for is to provide consultative best practice advice and assistance to those key stakeholders to help them make their plans and actions as productive and effective as possible.
Being a Consultant Means Asking the Right Questions
To be a good consultant, you have to understand the customer’s needs, and to understand the customer’s needs you have to ask questions. But not just any questions will do. The CSM needs to be able to ask the right questions at the right time to the right people, and to do so in the right way that ensures both that the person being asked both understands the questions and is willing and able to provide the answer.
I have long been of the opinion that the secret to being a good consultant is this ability to ask the right question. The specific questions will of course vary from situation to situation, but in general terms, what types of questions are the right types to ask?
One way of categorizing questions is to group them into “open” and “closed” question types. Open questions are used to “open up” a conversation topic so that it can be discussed in as much length and detail as necessary. An example of an open question is “What are the major challenges you face in successfully implementing your project?” and another example would be “Can you describe what type of results you’re looking to achieve from using this service?” An open question is a question which invites a longer and more detailed or descriptive answer. It should “set up” the person being questioned so that they have a clear understanding as to what topic to talk about and how to talk about it, but at the same time have plenty of “head room” to go where they need to go within their answer.
For example, a question such as “Can you tell me about your company?” is definitely an open question, but for most situations it’s far too open. The person being questioned has not been given much of a steer as to what type of information the questioner wants to know. Do they want to know about the company’s financials, or its organizational structure, or its products and services, or all of it, or something else entirely? The person being questioned needs to be helped, so that they can provide the type of answer that the questioner wants. In the case of “Can you tell me about your company? This will probably get a response such as “What do you want to know?” (known as a meta question, since it is a question about the questioning process). Some well-meaning people however might feel obliged to actually go ahead and try to answer the question without any further and more detailed instructions. In most cases this will not lead to the best results. In most situations, open questions should therefore be open… but not wide open.
Closed questions are the opposite of open questions. Open questions are designed to “open up” the topic being discussed so that this topic can be explored in full, or at least in as much detail as is required in the circumstances. Closed questions are designed to do the reverse of this. Closed questions are used to cut off the options and clarify the specific facts. They are particularly useful in gaining commitments and in consensus forming. An example of a closed question might be “Are you comfortable with going ahead and making the purchase?” (gaining a commitment) and another example might be “Are we all agreed that we have discussed this topic enough and we can move on to the next topic?” (consensus forming and gaining a commitment).
Generally speaking open and closed questions can be used in combination within a conversation. I think of a conversation as being like surfing waves on a beach. The CSM can use open questions to “open up” a new wave and explore a topic. They can continue to ask more open, exploratory questions to “ride the wave” for as long as necessary. When the moment is ripe they can then use closed questions to “close down” the conversation and let the wave hit the beach, leaving them ready to start again with more open questions for the next “wave” or topic.
Being a Consultant Means Providing Best Practice Advice
If you have been reading the whole series of articles on the “14 Tenets of Customer Success Management” you may recall that Tenet 3 was “The CSM is a subject matter expert in how to adopt, use and realize value from their company’s products and services”. Being a consultant implies expertise, since consultants need to be consultants in something. As we saw in Tenet 3 for Customer Success Managers that means being an expert in how to adopt, use and realize value from their company’s products and services. You may recall from my article dealing with Tenet 3* that recent research backs up my own experience, which is that customers actively want their CSMs to be experts in their own (ie the CSM’s own company’s) products and services.
The research did not ask customers why they want this, but my strong belief is that it’s because generally speaking, customers recognize that whilst they are already experts in their own business they are not experts in the CSM’s company’s products and services, and they need the help of the CSM to understand how to onboard, adopt and generate value from those products and services which they have purchased. This of course is especially the case at first when the customer has just purchased the product, since they have not as yet built up any experience of using it.
From the customer’s perspective therefore, the CSM should be a key resource which they can use to help them plan for and successfully implement onboarding and adoption and measure and report on activity thereafter to show and prove the value that is being generated. This of course is precisely the consultative help and advice that we are talking about here in Tenet 6: The CSM is a consultant and an adviser.
Putting it All Together
In summary then and very briefly (since it requires very little explanation), to be a consultant and adviser, the CSM must first of all have expertise in a topic which the customer is not an expert in – namely how to onboard, adopt and generate value from the CSM’s company’s products and services which they have purchased.
Secondly, the CSM must ask consultative questions from the relevant customer stakeholders to first open up and discuss the relevant topics to extract all the necessary information and then to close down the stakeholders to gain consensus and commitment to move forwards.
Finally, once the CSM has understood the situation sufficiently and gained sufficient consensus and commitment from key stakeholders, they can provide their advice and assistance both in planning and implementing the right onboarding, adoption and value generation activities to meet the specific needs of this customer.
Next Week’s Tenet: “The CSM is an educator”
The next article in this series will be on tenet number seven which is “The CSM is an educator”. As someone whose life has for many years been very much bound up in educating professionals, the topic of education is very dear to my heart. Everyone needs education, customer stakeholders very much included! Knowing what education is needed and being able to provide that education in a way which is both understandable and palatable to those stakeholders is of course an essential skill for Customer Success Managers, and one which I will enjoy exploring with you in next week’s article.
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.