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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Buckingham

CSM Efficiency: Simplify Decisions





 

CSM Efficiency: Simplify Decisions


Customer Success Managers(CSMs) make countless decisions every day.


Many of these decisions require more CSM time and effort than is worth the time and opportunity costs to the business. Additionally, many of these decisions are not black and white, forcing the CSM to operate in the gray.


Many of these cumbersome decisions come from well-intentioned levels of flexibility. What is often missed when creating flexibility is the toll it actually takes on CSMs in the form of increased time and effort needed to make (what should be) simple decisions.


One of the simplest ways to gain CSM efficiency is to simplify the decisions CSMs have to make. There are three ways to simplify CSM decisions. The best part is these aren't three separate ways, they are essentially three steps in the same maturity curve.


Three steps to simplifying CSM decisions:

  1. Eliminate subjective criteria/Provide only objective criteria.

  2. Make decisions binary,

  3. Automate decisions.

That simple: Get objective, then reduce that objectivity to a binary decision, and then bake it into your systems to be fully automated.


Let's take an example of whether or not a customer should have an annual or quarterly business review.

While this seems like a simple decision on the surface (and often starts as one), it often becomes overly complicated by small subjective criteria leadership adds to it.


 

Let's look at the most common example I hear from fellow Customer Success(CS) professionals.


"We've setup criteria for which customers should have a quarterly business review, and when to make an exception. However, it seems more and more customers are NOT getting the quarterly business review, falling into the exception category. This is the opposite outcome of what we hoped for."

At this point, I will often ask what criteria are being used, and will hear something like this:


When to do a quarterly business review:

  • Enterprise customer

  • Mid-market customer with open expansion and/or potential for expansion

  • Marquee customer brand, regardless of segment(enterprise, mid-market, small-medium business)


When to skip a quarterly business review:

  • The customer is currently escalated, and the business review will not facilitate significant improvement in the escalation.

  • The customer is not using the product enough to present outcomes or a positive return on investment(ROI).

  • Recent product release does not address any of the customer's previous feature requests and could surface frustration (so much wrong with this, I know... that's for a separate post).

  • The customer has little to no growth potential.


We started with clarity: "Enterprise customer".... assuming that "enterprise customer" is a label clearly defined, and not assigned by the CSM.


We ended with massive clarity gaps: "Customer has little to no growth potential."


Imagine it is your first or second month after onboarding at a new company.


How do you know if an account has little or no growth potential? Aside from the glaringly obvious examples, you're months away from being able to accurately and consistently make this call. The same goes for understanding every customer's ROI and fit for recently released features.


It isn't just new hires though. This could be tricky for that CSM who just took over an account from a CSM who is no longer with the company. If there are little to no notes, how do they make this decision with confidence?


This is just one example. However, I think it is a relevant one. Organizations such as our example likely have Directors and VPs saying "Aside from a few proactive exceptions, all our enterprise customers receive quarterly business reviews."


Something as straightforward and table stakes as quarterly business reviews is now a time-consuming, unclear decision for CSMs. Worse of all, the initiative itself is being executed differently than was planned and is currently understood by leadership.

 

That is just one example. There's plenty more. You can find similar examples with when to start renewal conversations, how often to go onsite, and when to provide free professional services. All because we wanted to create flexibility.


Flexible processes aren't the issue - I love trusting CSMs to use their judgment as the person who knows the account best.


That judgment and critical thinking are not only time-consuming, but also take a toll on exhaustible muscles for every human. Make 5 complex decisions in a day, then make 25 complex decisions the next day - which day are you more tired at the end of?


We want that level of creative thinking to be used for decisions that truly matter. Decisions that cannot be easily operationalized. Decisions that really must be made in the moment and by the person who truly knows the customer best - the CSM.


 

So, how do we actually simplify these decisions?


We could fill endless articles with how to simplify decisions and decision-making processes. Instead, let's get laser-focused on our three ways to simplify the decision using our example.


Three steps to simplifying CSM decisions:

  1. Eliminate subjective criteria/Provide only objective criteria.

  2. Make decisions binary,

  3. Automate the decision.


Eliminate subjective criteria/Provide only objective criteria.


Taking our quarterly business review example, I would go down the list of criteria, asking myself for each line item "Is this necessary? Is this critical to achieving a goal or preventing a negative outcome? What is the ROI attached to this criteria?"


Doing a QBR with Enterprise customers... that probably ties to the goals of driving enterprise-level adoption and sentiment. Time spent showing new features to enterprise customers can have massive ROI due to expansions. I'll keep that criterion.


Skipping a QBR because the customer is not using the product enough to show a positive ROI...


Is skipping the QBR necessary to retain the customer and drive adoption? Far from it (I'd argue the opposite). What negative outcome does this protect us from? Well, it prevents us from further showing the customer they are not receiving a positive ROI. The customer already knows this. I promise you the customer knows this. In fact, the customer is wondering if YOU know this. The customer is wondering if YOU care. Show the customer you know this. Show the customer you care about this. Show the customer options to remediate this. So this is super low ROU - if not negative ROI. Kill this decision criterion. The decision already got a bit simpler.


Make decisions binary.


This one won't always work. Some decisions just can't be simplified down to A or B. That's okay. The thought exercise of asking "How could I make this decision binary?" will better challenge your assumptions of what could be done to improve the decision in question.


Let's take the example of "customer has little to no growth potential." Far from black and white. If I've come from a company with an average contract value(ACV) of $50K ARR, and I am now at a company with an ACV of $750K ARR.... I might, by the bias of comparison, think almost EVERY account has a TON of growth potential. I'm seeing expansion deal sizes bigger than some of my previous accounts.


More likely, this is going to be influenced by our own subconscious thinking and self-preservation. Imagine the account in question has been really challenging. As the CSM for the past three years, you've saved it from fully churning a few times. You've really turned around the relationship. The fact that there is any expansion potential at all on this account is a really big deal - something you feel you've worked really hard for.


However when you think about it, if you looked at the same amount of expansion or expansion percentage on a different account, you would likely feel differently about it. You want to be consistent as a CSM, but you know the same amount of expansion opportunity on a different account would have you choosing to make a different choice. So, what choice should you make?


For the record, I 100% believe this hypothetical customer should have a business review(all clients should).


Whether this customer should or shouldn't isn't the point.


The point is it shouldn't be this fuzzy of a decision. This inefficient decision should not be placed on the CSM.


The point is there shouldn't be this much variance between accounts and CSMs.


So, how can we make this binary? Let's reflect on our criteria. Let's look at two points specifically. Enterprise customers must have QBRs, and customers with little or no growth potential do NOT need to have QBRs.


What were we trying to get at when we created these criteria? It seems like we wanted not just the current value of an account, but also the potential value of an account to be taken into account when deciding if business reviews should be quarterly or not.


Now that I know that, I can drill down into what our thinking was at that time and/or how that thinking has changed since then. Maybe I know that we originally added this because we had accounts that weren't Enterprise, yet and were about to be worth $100K or more after a few deals closed and therefore felt they too should have a QBR.


Ah, there's the rub.


If the Current ARR + Potential Expansion ARR is equal to or greater than $100K ARR, business reviews should be done quarterly.


That actually IS a binary decision criterion. Mission accomplished. The CSM can now add ARR and Open Expansion ARR and simply give a yes or no. How simple is that?


But wait, it isn't that simple. Expansion opportunities can be created and closed lost willy-nilly by the sales team. How do CSMs keep track of this? How do CSMs know when a customer has reached $100K+ ARR,? How does a CSM know when the customer has dropped below $100K ARR for this metric?


all in all, it's still too much to track manually - despite being binary. It's better than it was, but it could be better.


This gets us to our next point.


Automate decisions.


One of the greatest advancements in Customer Success in the past several years has been the addition of CS Operations. One of the reasons for this is that CS Operations has built structures and systems for things that previously were decided manually by CSMs time and time again. (Seriously, shout out to all our CS Operations rockstars.)


So, let's take the example of our quarterly business review decision. We've already made the decision binary, but it still requires a good deal of effort by the CSMs. Each CSM, for each account, must look at the current ARR and the potential expansion ARR(potentially from multiple opportunities), then add all that up to determine if it is $100K+ or not.


How could we build this into our systems and structures? The simplest thing would be to create a field in your Customer Success software that assess the combined current and potential ARR of an account.


>= $100K Current ARR + Potential ARR: quarterly business reviews.

<$100K Current ARR + Potential ARR: semi-annual business reviews.


Not only is the decision binary, but it also isn't even a decision anymore. It is built into systems. You could even create a process in which such criteria are assessed upward quarterly but only dropped downward annually. Essentially this could just be baked into your account segmentation and/or call-to-action triggers.



 

These three steps are all good to embrace, but the real benefit comes in the fact these three steps can be part of your maturity evolution. You don't need to eliminate subjective criteria, make it binary, and then automate it all at once. In fact this is a pretty natural evolutionary path to follow.


First, you remove low-value/subjective decision criteria. Now the decision is even easier to make. The goal is to take this simplification even further and refine it down to a binary decision. This isn't always possible. The best case scenario is you make it binary, worse case scenario is you all go through a wonderful thought exercise that drives further refinement and alignment. (Hey, who doesn't want more refinement and alignment?!).


Now that you have a binary decision with crystal clear decision criteria, you've laid the best foundation for your CS Operations team to automate this decision in your CS tools. From the CSM's perspective, an automated decision is the most efficient decision.


I hope this helps your efforts to drive efficiency to your CSMs. It is 2023, and many leaders and individual contributors are being told to "do more with less." Often in that pursuit, we forget how cumbersome and time-consuming the decisions we make actually are. Tackle those decisions. Simplify them. Make them binary where possible. Best of all, automate those decisions so CSMs can spend more time engaging customers and making meaningful decisions.









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