I’m really excited to share a fantastic interview I conducted with Kia Puhm, the Founder of K!A CX Consulting. We sat down to talk about Customer Success, Key Account Management, and how to drive real success with your most important clients.
In this interview, you will learn:
- How to build proactive Customer Success Plans
- Why it’s important for Customer Success teams to be prescriptive with their clients
- Secrets to mastering Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs)
- How to grow into your Customer Success role.
This was a fascinating conversation with a real Customer Success pro. Enjoy!
Kia Puhm has extensive experience building world-class practices that accelerate business growth. Kia leads businesses through the transition to customer-centric organizations. Her proprietary ICE™ methodology provides clients with a disciplined and sustainable approach to increasing customer value and long-term loyalty.
Her company, K!A CX Consulting, accelerates business growth through Customer Experience (CX) innovation. Kia provides the leading methodology to establish a disciplined and sustainable CX framework that drives revenue, retention, and scale.
Prior to K!A CX, Kia held chief positions at Oracle, Eloqua, Day Software (Adobe), Intelex Technologies, and Blueprint Software Systems.
My Customer Success Interview with Kia Puhm
Kia, you’ve done lots of work in the fields of Customer Experience and Customer Success. Tell me about your background and how you think about Customer Success.
I’ve spent 22 years in the software business, starting with a computer engineering background at some very fast-growing companies. I’ve built every post-sales function and the consistent thread has always been: “How do you drive efficient customer adoption? How do you get them to use the technology?” Working for a software company, it was ultimately about getting customers using the technology, and because I was at these fast-growing companies, I had to figure out, “How do I do it most efficiently for the vendor?” That is a natural challenge that still exists today.
With SaaS however the challenge is only magnified. Whereas with on-premise software, there are a certain finite number of customers implementing the software at any one time, with SaaS, you’ve got this ever-increasing customer base that’s continuously interacting with you. And because a vendor in SaaS is dealing with end-users versus the technical department, it has to become the subject matter expert in the business, the industry that the product serves. So, the focus is really on how your product or service helps businesses achieve their goals and objectives.
The whole idea of Customer Success – of making customers so successful that they become loyal – came from the subscription (or recurring) revenue model pioneered by SaaS companies like Salesforce.com. Keeping recurring revenue means that you don’t need expensive sales reps to sell to the customer base. You can have a post-sales team within the organization help customers realize their business objectives and have positive experiences so that they stay. It doesn’t have to be a sale, per se—it is more like account management – just proper, healthy, Key Account Management to keep the customers loyal and make sure that they were getting value.
You mentioned a couple of terms that I’d like to clarify. What differences do you see between terms such as “Customer Success” and “Account Management” or “Key Account Management”?
Fundamentally, I think the terms are similar in that they are used to 1) ensure companies are successful with the products and that 2) they are a partner to that user in realizing the value of the product and the services that they’ve purchased.
In essence, Account Management and Customer Success do the same thing and have similar objectives. And certainly, the two have similar profiles in terms of project management fundamentals such as having good communication skills, listening skills, understanding what customers’ objectives are, and strategic planning. All of those elements make for really good Account Managers and CSMs, as well.
One of the things that you’ve written about a lot on your blog is the idea of really being more proactive about building Customer Success plans. A lot of people are talking about how to be more strategic and more proactive. When you look at experience and your clients, what are the things that make a good Customer Success Plan? What are the best practices?
I like to take things down to the level of fundamental principles, and I like to make things very simple. The simpler things are, the more efficient they are to operate and the easier they are for customers to understand. In that context, it ultimately has to be about the customer and what they’re trying to achieve. I think a really solid Customer Success Plan is a plan that looks at, “What is the customer trying to achieve?” and that is aligned with that answer. When I see mistakes in Customer Success Plans, it’s that they are overly focused on the product, rather than the customer’s desired outcomes.
I love analogies. One I like to use is of personal fitness. A personal trainer can give you what they think is the best plan to reach your goals, but if you don’t follow it or incorporate the lifestyle changes, then you are not going to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter that the plan may be perfect. If it doesn’t resonate with the person, and they can’t do it, then it’s not going to lead to success.
It’s similar to customers. I often see plans that are very elaborate, and they focus on what vendors want the customers to do. To be honest, those are fraught with a higher risk of failure because they’re not taking into account the context of the customer. Will the customers be able to do everything that you are asking them to do? The more you can streamline the planning into their existing environment, into their day jobs, and how they operate, the more effective you will be in terms of driving adoption and success.
So, for me, a good Customer Success Plan is very aligned with what the customer is trying to achieve and how they operate.
So, it’s really about keeping it simple and staying focused on what drives customer outcomes. This is not about you as the vendor, but instead, it is about the customer. This is what we might typically call a Voice of Customer interview, correct?
Yes, absolutely, but there are some nuances. The Voice of Customer already happened (hopefully) during the sales process. Voice of Customer information should be amassed by the sales team so that this Key Account Manager is not coming in and going, “Okay, now tell me everything that you’ve already told all my sales colleagues!”
Of course, you want to understand what the customer’s objective is – but here’s the catch: To be efficient and able to drive successful Account Management or Customer Success, the vendor should also have a prescriptive approach and best practices to making the customer successful. Because, otherwise, if you’re truly doing a bespoke type of engagement with every account – that’s not scalable, and that’s also a failure. So, the CSP has to have this fine balance of really understanding the customer and their objectives and understanding how you can seamlessly fit the product into their environment, so they can adopt technology in a manner that’s going to be effective.
One of the very common things that happens with plans of any kind, including New Year’s Resolutions, is that people will sit down in January with their boss to set goals. If I’m an Account Manager or a CSM, I’ll sit down in January with my boss, and I’ll come up with a plan for my accounts. I’ll write it all down – but then the plans don’t get reviewed and they are super static. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t get reviewed – nobody looks at it until June or July if you’re lucky! It often just gets saved in some random folder on Google Drive or in the CRM, and it doesn’t become a living, breathing thing. Your plan becomes a concept as opposed to something that you are actively working on day in and day out with your customers.
How have you seen Customer Success professionals take these plans and make them really, truly actionable?
That’s a great question and I’m passionate about this topic. I like to look at repeatable success and using the overarching objectives to keep people motivated. With my elite sports background, I always had long-term goals that I had my eyes set on. Whenever training got really hard and I was tempted to stop, I would think about achieving my overarching objective and that would motivate me to keep going.
Understanding why your customer bought from you and what they are trying to achieve creates a powerful vision and motivator. You need to keep that vision top of mind for the customers so they stay motivated. You need to have that prescriptive success path so that they know you’ve got that answer. This is where I use the customer journey. If a company understands “What is the most successful path for customers to take and adopt the software, and then remain loyal and buy more and expand their use of the software?” then it has the prescriptive path to success that it can track and follow. The Customer Success Plan becomes the tool to manage this repeatable approach and use regularly, not something that is looked at one time a quarter or once a year.
Everything that you talk about with the customer should be in the context of the journey and their overall objectives. Again, using an analogy, let’s say I’m going to the gym because in a few months I want to run my first marathon. The fitness trainer should give me a plan, and when training gets really painful or I need extra motivation, the instructor should remind me of my over-arching goal and how great it’s going to feel to finish that first marathon. They should point back to the plan and explain how every training element is focused towards achieving that goal. If they keep me focused and following that “success” plan, then I will acomplish my goal. That journey then forms the context for what the customer is about to embark on to achieve their success.
That means you’re not talking about discreet points of work effort with the customer but a holistic plan that builds up to the end goal. You’re providing the path to success for the customer and keeping them accountable for the actions that are going to impact their ultimate outcome.
Fantastic. One of the other things that we’ve talked about a lot is communicating with your customer – i.e. how to build trust to get that “Trusted Advisor” status with our customer. I know that one of the things that people talk about is being transparent to build trust, because the more a customer trusts you, the better the relationship and the results.
What have you seen work well in building trust or driving better communication styles with customers?
Trust is built on some fundamental principles—saying what you’re going to do and then doing it. And doing that consistently over a period of time continues to build trust. Also, it is having the customer believe that you have their best interests in mind and that you’re aligned with what the objective is. Setting proper expectations are key here.
Being forthright, open, transparent, direct, and clear are important elements that go into effective communication. But I also think by setting the context of how you’re going to operate together, you answer the question, “How do you build trust in a very effective manner?” Again, this is where I go back to the journey. If you can tell the customer what they’re going to embark on, starting from today and over the next 30, 60, 90 days and beyond, and you can give them a high-level expectation (even where things might go wrong) along the journey, then the trust grows.
When you can tell your customer up front what’s going to happen and then it happens as you’ve laid it out, that just establishes trust that much quicker and more effectively. Of course, you should be forthright and honest. By setting expectations of what things are going to look like and how you’re going to walk the customer through the journey, the quicker you can build that trust.
What are the best methods of communicating with customers? Email, phone, chat? How do I know what method to use at what time?
The more you understand the customer’s goals, objectives and concerns, the more you can be very relevant in your communication. So, if you know that there’s a big moment of truth at a certain part in the adoption journey that is crucial to their business, then having some form of personal contact is always good. If you set expectations that they’re going to expect to feel “this” and that you’ve got video training to handle “that”, or they can call out to you at any point in time and reach out to you, or they can submit support requests, then you can use any number of different mediums to communicate. There is no one best medium through which to communicate. It really should be relevant to the context of how critical is that moment for the customer. Set the expectations so that they know how you are going to communicate with them so that they trust in the process and the support offered.
Again, if I think about it, none of us minds going online for how-to questions or help. We prefer that instead of contacting someone for support. But when we can’t find what we are looking for or we don’t know and are stressed or under a time critical situation, then we get upset and search for someone to talk to personally. If you know that customers are going to feel a certain way at certain points in the journey, then I would argue you should be contacting them using the medium that is most effective for that situation.
Every communication should also be linked to what they’re trying to achieve. It should be relevant and helpful to them. It shouldn’t be that you’re just reaching out to them to keep the conversation warm.
One of the most common communication mechanisms that Account Managers and Customer Success Managers do are Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) which many people dread. And they dread them because maybe they don’t prepare, maybe they feel overly formalistic, maybe they just feel like they come up too quickly. Looking at QBRs in general, do they work or how can we make them more effective, or what are the practices that you’ve seen that wind up being solid in terms of how people can take them and use them to their advantage?
I think when they don’t work is when the QBR is done for the sake of doing a QBR. I would expect that Account Managers and CSMs would dread them when they have to come up with some agendas and figure out what to talk about and that they’re doing it for the sake of doing it.
If you really have a holistic plan for how you’re going to move a customer through the journey, and the Customer Success Plan encapsulates that, and every time you are talking to a customer, you are talking to them in the context of the journey, their objectives, and actions that they should be taking, then a QBR is just a continuation of that communication.
Instead of it being something tangential to the regular, on-going communication, it should be like zooming out to remind them of the bigger picture and take stock of what has been done to-date. It provides the opportunity to pull up from the minutia of the Customer Success Plan and all the tasks and activity work and say, “Okay, this is what we’ve done over the quarter.” Or, “This is where we are on this journey now. All the things that we thought might come up did.” Or, “An exceptional item came up, and this is how we addressed it and corrected course.” It should be a discussion reviewing and learning from what’s been happening.
The QBR should be very relevant to what they’re doing and a continuation of the dialog, bringing the customer’s focus up so that they can see the forest from the trees to see that they’re on track and that they’ve still have the bigger picture in mind.
Are there different people involved in the QBR than the normal communication meeting? What are the right expectations to set there, both with my internal team and with the customer?
There are definitely different people involved. With a QBR you want to have the key stakeholders and executives in the room. You want to try to pull them onboard because it does two things:
- It can highlight the success of their team. You, as the external party, can give kudos and credit to the team and let them shine in front of their management to show how much they’ve achieved.
- It also helps keep the effort and the product top of mind for the executives so that they see the strategic impact the product has on their business and it becomes more business critical versus just talking about the nuts and bolts of the engine and what the product is doing. You want to get them to see the same vision.
Sometimes it’s hard to get folks involved. Again, it is about setting expectations. I like to set the expectations even in the sales phase by saying things like, “Hey, our most successful customers have their executives engaged throughout the process. As a matter of course then, how we drive success is to keep executives engaged through the Quarterly Business Reviews. During these we cover milestones achieved and track progress to objectives and we need your accountability as part of that to drive the change that the organization is embarking on from top-down.”
One of the questions I get asked a lot is to what extent should the Customer Success or Account Management Team formally own revenue. What are the considerations about this, and what do you recommend?
First we have to understand how customers adopt our product or service and what their needs are in doing so. That allows us to then think pragmatically about the skills that are required to address those needs, and whether those skill sets can be found within a person or team.
If the skill sets to drive adoption and revenue can be found in one person, then there’s no reason why revenue can’t be owned by that role. Separating adoption and revenue typically occurs when the products or technology are very complex and requires deep subject matter expertise which usually means that those individuals don’t have a sales bent or want to talk about revenue.
An argument I often hear against owning revenue is that the CSM cannot have a comp plan and be a trusted advisor. I find that line of thinking naïve. Unless you’re working for a not-for-profit, every company is focused on generating revenue. Customers need to get value from your product but the vendor also needs to be paid in order to continue delivering value to its customers. It has to be a win-win and I believe that when you do things smartly and align objectives and goals, you can achieve that win-win scenario. And then there’s no reason why revenue ownership is not possible.
There’s no right or wrong as to whether revenue should or shouldn’t be owned by Account Management or Customer Success. It’s about aligning the business model to drive customer success.
I know there are lots of readers of this blog who are interested in getting started in a Customer Success or an Account Management career. What’s your advice for people who are looking to get started in Customer Success?
First of all, getting into roles that are customer facing is a good avenue into Customer Success. Customer Success is an interesting field because there are so many different roles involved. I’ve seen people from the Marketing side, Support, Product Managers, Account Managers, all getting into Customer Success.
Regarding specific skill sets, I think a strong project management background is really important to guide the customer forward and manage them to success. Obviously, great communication skills, being empathetic, listening skills – those are the types of skills that are important for CSMs. You also need to be passionate about wanting to help customers be successful and accomplishing their goals. Ultimately that passion is what will align you with the customer to help them through the initiatives they’re working with you on.
And what are your top mistakes for Customer Success professionals to avoid?
Trying to be friends with customers and reacting to their every request. Saying “Yes” to everything does equate to being a good CSM or Account Manager.
Again, the analogy with training, if the customer wants to eat food that is not going to be effective for their running, then you as a coach should be saying that. The coach needs to say “No” or let the customer know when they’re not doing things they should be to achieve their goals. The idea is not to be a friend but to make them successful. A wonderfully strong relationship can be a great outcome of making them successful, but ultimately it needs to be about working with the customers collaboratively and making sure that you’re keeping them on track to achieve their overarching objective.