Customer Success for Ninjas: How to Command (the Attention of) Your Product Team

Customer Success for Ninjas: How to Command (the Attention of) Your Product Team

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“Heck, I know how our product works better than Product Management does. Why should I have any confidence you guys will deliver what my customers need to be successful?”
— Frustrated Customer Success Manager

I’ve heard variations of this statement many times over the years in my SaaS product leadership roles, and I can empathize. At too many companies, Customer Success leaders have struggled to get their rightful seat at the table for the Product Council meetings.

When the big product roadmap decisions get made and software development capacity gets allocated, CSMs are stuck hearing about it afterwards. Even though they often represent the most accurate knowledge of how the company’s customer base uses (or struggles with) the product.

CS & PM: The Disconnect

Customer Success Managers live where the rubber hits the road — where a real customer with real goals, bosses, and deadlines, needs to use your company's product to get their job done. CSMs know how to steer customers to the right product capabilities and away from trouble. They’re familiar with the product's “known issues” and all the best workarounds. Often better than anyone else at their company.

On the other hand, Product Managers often can’t get to that level of practical knowledge, even with their best efforts. They are hearing from the exec team that they need to “get out of the weeds” and be more strategic. They are asked by their bosses to manage their product like an investment portfolio, to apply the best practices of product positioning, competitive analysis, market research, and pricing optimization in order to yield the highest return on the software development investment.

On top of that, PMs often receive disparate feedback from various customers and CSMs, often to the point where these requests start to cancel themselves out. Plus, PMs may be be highly influenced by a small number of big enterprise customers that they’ve spent 1:1 time with, perhaps as part of a customer steering committee for a new set of features. Now, good PMs closely watch the company's Ideas boards (if they have them) for customer feedback, and some are able to analyze usage data to draw inferences about the product's effectiveness.

But in general, CSMs attain a unique product/customer expertise that Product Managers can’t match. And many companies fail to fully take advantage of this fact, and neglect to prioritize Customer Success efforts via the product roadmap.

Bridge the Gap

Considering all of this, it’s not surprising that there is often a disconnect between CSMs and PMs. This doesn’t have to be the case. You, as the CSM, can bridge this gap, command the respect of the PM team, and drive a Customer Success agenda at Product Council.

But it’s on you to make the first move.

The good news is that many PMs want nothing more than to enhance their product line to truly meet the needs of existing customers and turn them into full-throated customer advocates. But more often than not, they are being asked to change the product to win the big deal, outflank competitors, and enable penetration of new market segments. And this soaks up most of their time and energy.

How do you overcome these obstacles?

Do some of the hard work yourself and make it easy for Product Management to drive a Customer Success agenda. Now don’t laugh or dismiss out of hand... but this can be done most effectively through a Customer & Product Success Working Group.

Customer & Product Success Working Group

Oh no, not another committee?!! Don’t worry this one will be cool, strategic, and effective. Just follow these steps:

Step 1: Convene the Group

  • Find an ambitious, customer-focused Product Manager to serve as your partner.
  • Jointly convene the group.
  • It should include representatives from Customer Success, Renewals Team, Support, ProServ, Product Management, and Engineering.
  • Also get exec sponsorship from the VPs of Customer Service, Product Management, and Engineering.
  • Get C-level visibility by having the exec sponsors announce it at the weekly exec meeting.

Step 2: Define the Charter

  • The charter of the group should be to speak in a single, clear voice for a Customer Success agenda at Product Council.
  • And do it in a way that helps the Product team be more effective!
  • The group can also give hands-on feedback for current product development efforts.

Step 3: Do the Hard Work

  • It’s not the job of the group to inventory and prioritize all the bugs and enhancement requests that frustrate customers. Many of the participants will try to go there — be sure to avoid it.
  • Instead, you need to define the product objectives and high-level requirements that enable your ideal customer to get the full value from your company’s existing product.
  • This is very hard, and sometimes messy. It requires making tough tradeoffs. It requires knowing your ideal customer and favoring their product use scenarios at the expense of other, less “important” customer segments.
  • It helps to bring data to the table. Bonus points if you can use detailed Customer Survey data, or better yet, product usage analytics to understand exactly where product dissatisfaction and disengagement arise.
  • Sometimes it helps to do an exercise where everyone has 100 points to allocate across one or more of a dozen product improvement themes, just to see where consensus lies.
  • In the end you should aim to articulate 3-5 key product improvement objectives that most effectively move the needle on customer satisfaction and retention. This is the language the product leadership understands, and it makes their job much easier to get it in this form with the blessing of an entire customer service department.

Here is an example of a good output product objective this working group might come up with for an HR Job Recruiting application:

“Increase the percentage of job interviews conducted where the interviewer enters their notes into the app to more than 75%.”

This product objective may be based on the following findings:

  • Use of the “interview notes” feature is highly correlated with customer retention vs. churn.
  • It’s a product area with a large number of existing bugs reported.
  • Customer surveys may indicate this feature is confusing or frustrating.
  • Poor design of the feature blocks adoption of the application from additional users outside the power users in the HR department.
  • “75% interview notes recorded” provides an objective and measurable goal.
  • It does not try to specify implementation details that are better left to the product and engineering teams.

Now why spend time on something like this as a CSM? Isn’t this stepping outside of your job function and into the world of Product Management? Yes, that may be true, but won’t you get more bang for the buck from product improvements than by expertly coaching your customers on workarounds?

Convening a Customer & Product Success Working Group is a creative way to get real movement on what’s most important for your customers. Is it still possible that your company lands a huge new enterprise account that sucks up all the product development capacity? Of course, those things happen. But this approach is guaranteed to earn you the respect of the PM team (and probably your execs), and is your best chance to have a Customer Success agenda reflected in your company’s product roadmap.

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