A healthy Customer Success and Product team relationship is essential for high performing, high growth companies. When these functions aren’t aligned–you lose. Most software companies can point to areas of coordination between Success and Product and this is an excellent starting point. But for the sake of your long-term success–aim higher. I offer three simple steps to elevate from coordination to collaboration, and drive a winning organization.
Before diving into the Success and Product relationship it’s important to understand the similar–but not identical–priorities and POV of each team. Not every user is a customer and not every customer is a user. The Product mission relies on understanding users and providing features or solutions that meet or exceed their known and unknown needs. The Success mission relies on understanding customers and guiding them toward meeting or exceeding their explicit and implicit expectations.
Success + Product Coordination and Collaboration
Let’s use a case study to explore both the benefits of smooth coordination and how to identify areas requiring collaboration. A SaaS company provides a point-of-sale and CRM product for the hospitality industry. The SaaS customers tend to be managers and general managers of traditional lodging providers (hotels, motels, etc.) and for-hire transportation companies (shuttles, corporate cars, etc.). The users tend to be hospitality personnel who book, manage, and serve individual customers.
The Product and Success teams frequently coordinate on feature development for the CRM product. Success drafts narratives and use cases for high-value features requested by customers. In turn, Product shares the updated CRM roadmap with Success so they can properly set expectations with customers about future plans. Both teams are accountable to the customers and users and coordinate to define needs and set expectations.
However, coordination was much less smooth when handling escalated issues that impact customer sentiment and retention. The point-of-sale product relies on 3rd party billing systems integration. When issues started coming in about failed or inaccurate data transfers the Success team recorded these and flagged as high priority. Product accepted the tickets and requested more information on future tickets so they could effectively replicate and troubleshoot. Integration issues continued to come in and the lack of a quick fix threatened to impact customer retention. Product was trying to replicate, understand, and remedy the underlying integration problems. Success was spending most of their time collecting detailed information about this complex issue and saving at-risk customers. But they couldn’t offer insights on when customers could expect their point-of-sale functionality back in service. Both Product and Success are accountable for delivering products and services that work as intended.
To summarize the two relationships:
Coordination works when both teams are accountable for the same user or customer.
Collaboration is required when both teams are accountable for the same outcome.
When you share a customer/user you have to coordinate. But when you share an outcome, the bar is raised to collaboration.
The examples are easier to see with these definitions. Common areas where Success and Product coordinate around a shared customer or user include finding users for UX Testing or User Groups; standard ticket routing, resolution, and communication; feature communications; product marketing; and more. Areas with shared outcomes requiring collaboration might include facilitating user groups; prioritizing features or fixes; customer retention; and more.
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Tips for Collaboration
Collaboration rarely happens by accident. But getting there is easy as long as you’re intentional. Start with these tips and guidelines from experienced CS and Product collaborators.
- Executives lead winning collaboration – whether 1:1 or through an executive team, the leaders of Product and Success set the tone and culture for collaboration
- Define shared outcomes – get specific on why you need to collaborate and not simply coordinate. Write down the shared outcomes to create a clear scope
- Develop shared metrics – if the outcomes are shared, so are expected results
- Detail your commitments to each other – make this explicit and identify any gaps
Three Steps Today = Smooth Collaboration Tomorrow
The case study above is just one example of coordination and the need for collaboration. Your industry, organizational maturity, product, personnel and other factors influence the best collaboration approach for you and your organization. The three steps below are universal and help establish intentional and effective collaboration between Customer Success and Product. The case study examples under each step are merely thought-starters. Consider how each step plays out in your organization.
1. Conduct a Customer Interaction Audit
Collaboration is not the answer to every situation. In fact, limiting true collaboration to when it’s most effective and necessary–when Success and Product are accountable for the same outcome–yields better results. The audit looks at each customer interaction led by Success or Product and identifies each as currently a Collaboration, a Coordination, or Neither. Then record what each customer interaction should be going forward. Remember–shared responsibility for outcomes is the strongest signal for collaboration.The result is a list of target collaborations–some of which are already operating that way.
Example: A portion of the customer interaction audit from our case study company shows existing collaboration on managing the user communities but opportunities to improve the approach for escalations and post implementation validation–a customer review with Success to close-out the implementation phase.
2. Kickoff with an Executive Launch
The Audit results provide Success and Product leadership with the who, what, and why of the collaboration model. Ideally, key team members were also involved in the audit. The executive launch creates clarity and a mandate to all members of both teams. This is a change initiative and should be managed as such. The structure of the executive launch may vary but the goal is to establish specific collaboration points as intentional priorities because Success and Product are collectively responsible for the outcomes.
Example: The Chief Product Officer and VP of Customer Success brought in a handful of team members to help create and validate the customer interaction audit. Next, the leaders prepared and delivered an all-hands presentation for both teams highlighting the need for increased collaboration, sharing audit results, and outlining next steps. Specifically, the two executives highlighted the ineffective response to integration issues and potential customer churn as a driver to review how the teams work together. They shared that a team-member-led audit showed they can leverage their successful collaboration on user community management to also collaborate on major escalations and through the post-implementation validation process. Finally, they shared the next steps is forming working groups to propose a collaboration model for each of those two areas.
3. Share the Needs and Commitments
This is an important and often overlooked step to successful collaboration–clarity on what you need from your collaborators and commitments to deliver for each other. Assumptions are the destroyers of effective collaboration; don’t let them go unstated. Needs and commitments should be written down, shared, and periodically reviewed. I worked with two vastly different organizations who both used a “commitments” slide at the beginning of each joint meeting to keep commitments top-of-mind and make it easy for team members to note when they need updating.
Example: The hospitality SaaS teams had clear guidance on collaboration after the audit and launch. They were to focus on major escalations and post-implementation validation. Each team stated what they needed from the other to achieve the target outcomes. Commitments were then made to meet these needs.
The Product team needs, and Customer Success will deliver:
- detailed steps that led customers to experience a feature failure
- a statement of impact for recurring Level II issues
- an updated post-implementation validation flow that includes Product involvement
The Success team needs, and Product will deliver:
- information on timing and priorities that can be shared with customers
- a forum to input customer preferences for features and functionality into the roadmap
The Success and Product relationship is too important for laissez-faire interactions. Coordination is an important model for team efficiency and maintaining a positive customer experience. But when the shared outcomes include such mission-critical goals as building products that customers truly need and maximizing customer long-term value through retention–winners use a collaboration model.24
Choose collaboration where it makes sense and then follow these three simple steps for a fast and successful launch.
Marty Kaufman is the founder of Infinipoint – the customer retention consultancy. The common thread through his diverse background is helping organizations grow profitably by approaching customer success and retention as enterprise-wide goals and not merely team-based tasks. Marty has led, and advised leaders, in start-up organizations, Fortune 100 companies, and complex government agencies.
Published January 15, 2021, Updated January 21, 2021