Developing Leaders for Customer Success - SmartKarrot Blog

Developing Leaders for Customer Success

Foundations of holistic customer success leadership development and key questions for Customer Success Leaders.

Leadership Development for Customer Success
Leadership Development for Customer Success

If you lived in and around the customer success space for a while, take a moment and think back to those earlier years. Appreciate how far the field has come–from delivering onboarding and adoption outputs to achieving major corporate and customer outcomes like customer ROI and retention.

Leadership and the Customer Success Profession

Customer success firmly established a new level of legitimacy and maturity over the last decade or so. Yet compared to its primary collaborators in sales, support, product, etc, it’s clear customer success still has room to grow. One factor above all others will determine the path forward–Leadership. And not just general leadership but leadership that understands the unique context and promise of customer success. Leaders of customer success as an outcome and not simply managers of customer success as a team.

Elevated leadership is the key to future performance. And leadership development efforts must understand and deliver on the unique knowledge and skills needed to navigate the unique environment of today’s CS leaders.

The Challenge of Multiple Audiences

Leaders across most functions juggle the needs of at least two audiences–their organization and their team (or team members). With customer success comes the added complexity of serving the customer as an audience. Unlike support, for example, the customer success function aims to influence customers to take the actions needed to achieve their desired outcomes.

It also helps to understand the individual leader–their personality, priorities, and preferences–as an audience. I’ve coached cohorts of leaders with nearly identical knowledge and skills yet seen them have wildly varying degrees of success in similar roles. The leader’s self-awareness strongly influences their ability to serve the other three audiences.

Most leaders excel in delivering for at least one or two audiences–company, customers, team, self. The challenge for customer success leaders is how to balance the needs of all four. And, for many, how to prevent meeting the needs of one audience (typically the customer or the company) at the expense of another (typically the team or the individual)

Leadership Development for CS Leaders

Leadership development for customer success works best when it acknowledges and builds upon the context and audience elements that make the role, and function, valuable. I propose three approaches as foundational to effective customer success leadership development: audience segmentation, answer-based, and applied learning.

  • Audience Segmentation simply uses a chunking approach to learning and development. The day-to-day role of leading the customer success function is about navigating overlapping audiences and priorities. But focusing learning and development on one audience at a time allows for deeper exploration and understanding. This is very similar to why we segment customers–to provide targeted treatment based on their unique needs and attributes.
  • Answer-Based is a learning and development method that uses a question-and-answer format to work through the content. I find this highly relevant to customer success because the effectiveness of the leader is directly linked to their ability to answer a handful of foundational questions for each audience. It also allows space to surface the 50%+ of questions each audience wants answered…but never asks.
  • Applied Learning ensures the relevance of leadership development efforts. This isn’t about studying for a content-heavy multiple-choice exam or crafting an exceptional essay on unique customer success leadership topics. It’s about increasing leadership effectiveness in the real-world. The applied learning approach encourages the use of real-world examples from participants and builds lessons that require participants to apply new knowledge and skills immediately. Learners then use these experiences to refine their ongoing development. Applied learning is enhanced by sharing tools, templates, and other resources that connect to actual job performance and deliverables. 

Taken together, these three approaches create relevant learning and development experiences. For example, exploring how customer success leaders deliver for their Company as an audience might include the following elements:

Audience: Company

Answers from CS Leadership:

1. How does the CS function help us meet corporate objectives?
2. What is the State of the Customer (SotC)?
3. What does __________ (finance, legal, sales, marketing, etc.) need to know about our customers to be effective? How can we best facilitate this?
4. What is the cost/value of each additional team member?  

These are the important questions because they establish the value of the function as something we must measure and track. They also set a clear expectation that the success function helps all other teams understand our customers and their needs.

Applied Learning:  

Tools and Templates:
1. Formulas for net unit and revenue retention
2. Calculations of service costs
3. Sample SotC presentation deck
4. CSAT/NPS surveys that drive responses and inform follow-up actions
5. Helping Others Understand the Customer – best practices guide  

Knowledge Transfer:

1. Create and present inaugural SotC at Q2 exec meeting
2. Draft service cost calculations and validate with Finance by end of month

What’s Next

I’ve thought about this topic for a while now. Leadership development infuses much of my work as both a consultant to organizations and as a coach to leaders. I kept adapting my existing leadership training and development programs and exercises for CS and CX audiences. Now I’m finally taking a more holistic approach. In short, I’m helping create and deliver leadership development for CS professionals using this methodology.

Even more importantly, this is a collaboration among customer success practitioners at the top of their game, industry thought-leaders, solution providers, and consultants. It’s an interesting and exciting time for customer success. Together we can help shape the next decade. It starts with great leadership and I look forward to being part of that journey.

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