There are a few distinct handoffs in a typical B2B company: when a customer is handed from Marketing to Sales, and Sales to CS. When product specs are handed from Product to Engineering. Each of these handoffs are well documented and given plenty of attention. 


But there’s a distinct handoff between CS and Product too, involving customer feedback on the product. And in the world of SaaS, this handoff is too often treated haphazardly: feedback is “handed off” in google sheets, in Slack, in one-off meetings. 


All that’s to say, the Product <> CS partnership needs some shaping up if we’re to get Product to prioritize our customers. So to help us know how to be more intentional, we held a roundtable with Megan Bowen (CCO at Refine Labs), Jeff Justice Williams (Enterprise Lead - CS at Box), and Nick Paranomos (CPO at ‘nuffsaid) on this topic. 


Here’s a summarized version of the highlights from that conversation. If you want to watch the recording instead:  


Increasing your influence as a CS leader at the executive level

Q: What practical steps have you taken in the past to have an equal amount of influence relative to your other peers on the e-staff and, more specifically, equal to the Chief Product Officer?


Jeff: I'd say that the first step is for CS to have a formal seat at the table. There are a lot of companies that don’t have that space open for CS to be able to present what the post-sale experience looks like at depth, the same way that Sales does for the pre-sales flow. 


If you don't have someone at that top level, then there's a gap. So if your company has a CPO, but the highest level of CS leadership is a senior manager, it’s likely there's an innate disconnect on the executive team’s visions and how their organization plays into the customer journey.


Another situation that is very common, which is more misleading, is when the highest CS leader has a bloated title (think VP or Director) but they're really acting as a player coach. This is a disservice across the board internally and to the customer, and it makes it very hard for us to have a true voice in the journey. 


If CS and Product are going to have a peer-like relationship, the company has to have a CS leader who is vision-bound and forward-looking. And both the CS and CPO leaders have their hands on the customer journey. 


So for me, bottom line, the first step is to give CS a genuine seat at the table.


Megan: One way to build an equal amount of influence at that level as a CS leader is to have the mindset that you are the CEO of the business. You’re thinking “what is actually the most important problem that needs to be solved in the business as a whole?” You’re not just focused on your own department. 


If you can look at the business from a 30,000 foot view, see areas we’re missing out on or the biggest pain points across the customer experience, then build a business case around improving that—that’s when you get invited to the exec meeting. That’s when you have an opportunity to drive the agenda. 


Nick: I think the one thing that CS leaders can do—and I don’t think most people are tracking this right now—is you need to make your CFO, your best friend. Start learning the language of the CFO and the metrics they care about and how they think about the business. Because what I've seen with the most powerful members of the executive team is they start with a metric that matters, and then they have causal metrics that the team can affect and take action on.


So for example, the CMO has marketing qualified leads. They've got channels with funnels and they can tweak what they do with those funnels. Every meeting they come and say, “this is how we affected that KPI.” 


It's the same thing with the CRO—dollars closed. And the CPO—usage. Both the CRO and CPO know what levers to pull that have downstream effects on their KPIs.  


But many CCOs aren’t there yet. We’ve got NRR as our outcome, but we’re using things like NPS and CSAT which aren’t leading indicators of NRR. It’s very difficult to create a causal relationship between NPS and NRR. 


Instead, what I typically recommend for companies that I've worked with in the past is this: think about your customer journey, break it down into risk stages, and think about the actions needed from all teams across that journey to move the needle on my end metric.

Developing a health score, and Product’s role in that process

Q: How have you seen success in developing a comprehensive health score that takes all team metrics into consideration? And how much ownership does Product have in this process? 


Megan: For a meaningful health score, there are three main things you need to take into consideration: 

  1. One is product usage or adoption. Whether that's log-ins or usage, whatever metric that indicates that your product is being used on a regular basis. 
  2. Then you have the commercial inputs. So that's how much the customer is paying you, whether they're upselling, whether you're retaining them. 
  3. Then the last area is the experience that the customer is having. So things like whether support is solving problems quickly, whether CSMs have a good relationship with champions, and whether we’re plugged into what's going on in their business.  


So it starts by thinking about those three buckets and then figuring out based on your business, your context, your product, what makes sense to measure against that. I think it needs to be quantitative, but there should be a little bit of qualitative input. 

Now, what I will say is that after creating lots of “too sophisticated” health scores with all kinds of criteria, what I've actually found as most effective is a system for flagging at-risk accounts. Basically, it’s identifying signals that things are off for a customer. If they’re not logging in, sure, that’s a flag. If they’ve logged 50 support tickets in the last 30 days. If you survey them at the end of the onboarding process and they don’t feel they’re fully onboarded yet. Those are all at-risk indicators, and acting on those has been more meaningful to move the needle on churn. 


Nick: Yeah. One thing I’d say is, look, product usage is my job. If any Product leader out there is telling you that usage is on you, they're dead wrong. My job is to make sure that the product is good enough that people are using it. If they're not, that's on me. That's what I'm held accountable to. So for organizations that have product usage as a core metric for CS performance, that is the first place to start—we need to agree that that's on Product. 


Second, I hear a lot of the churn reasons coming from Customer Success, sharing things like “my champion left,” “we lost budget,” “it wasn’t a good fit.” Those things are not helpful to me. What I want from CS leaders is to collect better data. I don’t want to know once a quarter after a QBR if the customer is happy or not. I need an automated way to know if each champion is doing well and how they feel about that product.


So Megan, to your point, I need to know how you feel about your support interactions. I need to know how you felt about onboarding. Did my sales team over-sell you? Does the product meet your expectations? How do you feel about your service level and our response time? The thing is, if usage is going well, we may still have a problem. If it's not going well, we definitely have a problem. 


I need to focus on the “we may have a problem” part and I need better data to inform what’s going on. So what I typically recommend is setting up some sort of automated survey that's specific to different areas of the account during the onboard, engage, and renew stages, where we can actually get data about the customer’s experience. 

How to be part of Product’s decision making process 

Q: Nick, who is the best partner within Product to work with every day? Is it the CPO or someone on their team?  


Nick: Well, first the CS leader and the CPO have to align on what process we're going to use to include customer data in Product’s decision making. 


The CPO probably doesn’t want anything to do with it after that because their team is making the prioritization decisions. So the CPO and CCO need to agree on a process where somebody from CS is representing the customer voice in sprint planning meetings for each team that’s working on those areas of the product.


And in order for anything to get prioritized, we need the voice of the customer in that meeting. So whether it's a CSM, or a CS manager, or even a director of CS that sits in these meetings, depending on your company size, that's where the ongoing partnership needs to happen. 


Q: And what needs to be included from CS in order for Product to effectively make a prioritization decision?  


Megan: I think a lot of teams struggle to present information within the context of the customer’s pain points, and the opportunity to be gained (or what could be lost) from a dollars perspective. That’s the only way you’re going to effectively influence change in the organization. 

That’s often hard for CS leaders because as you get promoted and come up through an organization to a leadership position, that is not something that you’ve had to learn as you lead up to your new position. So they have to figure it out on the go. 


Apart from that, I’d also add that it’s dangerous for Product teams to make decisions in a conference room because they think they know what’s best. I’m not saying you should do exactly what the customers say, but their perception is their reality. And if that’s not part of Product’s decision making process, they’re missing an important part of the puzzle. 


Jeff: That level to level forum, between the Product team and the Customer team, is key. It means your ICs are engaged, your executives are engaged, and Product isn’t making decisions in a conference room. 


One final thing I’d say is if you have an attachment to that old algebraic adage, CS (Customer Success) = CX (Customer Experience) x CO (Customer Outcomes), and if you’re putting your Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, and Product team next to that conversation, you’re on the right path. Align team members, align goals, and constant communication. There is no over-communication between the Product and the CS teams. It's just about intentionality and presence.

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