This blog post is the very first draft of a chapter in the upcoming book that I'm co-authoring with Nick Mehta. I'm sure you have thoughtful feedback on this framework for CS development, which will likely undergo many revisions before ending up in the book. I'd love to hear from you. Send your comments if you have them!
“If you could design your child, how would you dole out IQ, EQ, and grit?”
Writer Tim Urban’s blog Wait But Why is a popular one among people who love questioning everything in life. Tim posted a puzzle that continues to fascinate us to this day:
“It’s the year 2045 and you and your partner are ready to have a child. So you head to the clinic so they can extract your gametes and prepare to conceive just the right child (then they grow the fetus in a machine with optimal conditions—only the biggest hippies still engage in old-school-style pregnancy).
In the consultation about your child characteristic preferences, they tell you that for the price you’re able to pay, you can’t afford a detailed personality design—all you’ll be able to affect are what they call The Big 3 Traits:
1) IQ—your child’s classic intelligence level and ability to understand complex concepts
2) EQ—your child’s emotional intelligence level—how good they’ll be at knowing and understanding people and human nature
3) Grit—a broad personality trait that relates to work ethic, mental toughness, and the ability to persist in the face of hardship
Each of these traits can be assigned to your future child on a human population percentile scale of 1 – 100. So an IQ of 100 would put your child in the top percent of all humans in IQ. An EQ score of 50 would give the child average emotional intelligence.
After performing some tests, they explain that you and your partner have enough genetic talent between you to dole out 250 total points among these three traits. So, for example, if you go for the top IQ and EQ scores of 100 each, that would only leave 50 points left over for grit, so your child would be exceptionally smart and emotionally intelligent, with average grit.
So the question is:
How would you dole out your 250 points?”
This to as sparked hours of conversation among our friends and family. Give it a try at dinner tonight or at your next cocktail party! In the meantime, let’s redirect your mind from thinking about your future or current children, back to contemplating the world of Customer Success. You could just as aptly ask the question: “If you had 250 points to dole out for your ideal Customer Success Manager, how would you distribute them across IQ, EQ, and grit?”
Even thought it’s quite possible that folks are born with some initial level of IQ, EQ, and grit, we also are fervent believers that these qualities can cultivated, including among CS folks, and that professional development programs should target them specifically. Although we could debate the split of points across the three capabilities, at minimum we believe that all three of these capabilities are critical ones for Customer Success folks to develop.
Here’s how we think about the types of skills pertaining to each of the three.
For the CSM:
IQ --> Product knowledge: CSMs need to know the product well. The level of required product knowledge will vary depending on the particular nature of the CSM role. For example, the “CSM for Value Gaps” type will be hacking workarounds to compensate for gaps in the product, so they’ll need to be quite technical. On the other end of the spectrum of CSM types, a “CSM for Value Capture,” focused on monetizing clients’ success by booking renewals and driving expansion, will need to be primarily familiar with how the product can help the client get more value; they’ll be selling by (1) playing back for the client how their feature usage resulted in ROI for them and (2) translating new product use cases into theoretical value that the client could achieve.
EQ --> Prescriptive persuasion: Regardless of type, every CSM will need to develop the ability to be prescriptive; in other words, to proactively recommend certain courses of action for the client. That will sometimes entail pushing back (thoughtfully) when the client tries to go down a path that’s not actually beneficial to them. A common example of prescriptive language is: “Client, I know you’re planning to do action A, and I’m hearing from you that you believe that’s the right decision because of X and Y. But, I’ve worked with many clients who decided to do something similar, resulting in meaningful harm to them, in the form of these specifics. On the other hand, clients that are similar to you and who have performed action B were able to generate the following outcomes. As a result, I’d strongly recommend action B, and look forward to your questions and feedback.” You’ll see in that example that prescriptive persuasion requires strong listening abilities. To effectively convince the client of a different course, a CSM will need to deeply understand the client’s assumptions, beliefs, and goals.
Grit --> Playbooks: Every role has a “hustle” aspect to it. Learning and executing on playbooks is the hustle that’s most common in the CSM role. To give a few examples, CSMs will need to learn their company’s methodology for getting clients to value, the process for handling an escalation, and the best practice for ensuring a renewal closes (whether they’re doing it themselves or working with Sales). Executing playbooks consistently requires self-discipline, a high degree of organization, and respect for the thought leaders within the company who created the playbooks. Even while CSMs are following the playbooks, it’s equally important for them to give feedback on those to their manager or the CS Operations team that maintains them. They should be attuned to the results that these playbooks generate and in the mindset of learning what works, what doesn’t, and suggesting improvements that can optimize the playbooks. That kind of rigorous learning is also a form of hustle.
For the Director or Manager of CSMs:
IQ → Situational problem-solving: When an escalation or unique scenario comes up, the situation sometimes falls outside the set that the playbooks were intended to address, so the CSM will usually go to their manager for help. As a result, a Director needs to be skilled in helping the CSM think through the problem. The ideal Director will ask the CSM questions to probe deeply into the situation, leveraging a series of “Why?” questions to get to the root of the problem -- not in an accusatory way, but in a way that conveys intellectual interest and a desire to coach the team member.
“Why do you think this result occurred?”
“Ah, I see, so X is the reason. If you think even deeper about it, what’s the reason why X happened?”
“Got it. It sounds like Y is causing X. Do you think there’s a deeper factor Z that resulted in Y?”
Once the Director and CSM have together arrived at the root causes of the problem, they can begin to brainstorm solutions. This requires creativity on the Director’s part. They may throw out ideas with the CSM and see what sticks, and also encourage the CSM to think outside the box about the right solution.
EQ → Emotional regulation: Because the Director is often a beacon for discussions of challenging, emotionally-charged situations, they will need to help their team members cope with their own emotions. This involves recognizing their team member’s emotions in the first place, as well as expressing empathy for them. This in turn requires the Director to regulate their own emotions. If the Director is stressed out by all the escalations that are coming their way, they may react impulsively to the team member, perhaps with frustration or anger. Especially since CSMs may not have the same ability to regulate their own emotions (depending on their level of seniority), the Director needs to carry that burden of managing the group’s emotions. This can make the management role challenging, but also highly fulfilling, since the Director’s success in helping the group can make the CSMs feel understood and appreciated. The CSMs also learn by watching the Director role-model this emotional self-regulation.
Grit → Achievement: Directors should have a thirst for translating day-to-day actions -- the execution of playbooks and other activity -- into the achievement of goals. They may not yet have developed a deep intellectual understanding of that link between activities and results (see the capabilities required for VPs below), but they’re not satisfied if the team’s hustle doesn’t result in the achievement of goals. They’ll drive conversations with their teams about what it takes to make the number, whether it’s a target for Gross Retention, Net Retention, or another metric. If they don’t make their number at the end of the quarter, they’re disappointing and want to do better next quarter.
For the VP of CS:
IQ → Long-term planning: Once that Director becomes a VP, they’ll need to be able to analyze the linkages along the following chain:
Lagging Outcomes (Financial Metrics)
Here are some common questions that a VP should be able to answer about the linkages between these:
Activities → Leading Indicators:
How exactly will what CSMs are focused on today lead to improvements in the Customer Health Score(s)?
Why does that happen?
Will that always happen in the future?
How will our change in company strategy affect the linkage?
How long is the delay from the completion of an activity to an improvement in the Score?
Will CSMs have time to execute on activities A and B if we’re now also giving them responsibility C, and how will that affect our ability to achieve a certain improvement in Customer Health Score?
Leading Indicators → Lagging Outcomes:
How do improvements in the Customer Health Score(s) result in improvements in Gross Retention Rate and Net Retention Rate?
Why does that happen?
What’s the exact correlation between the two? In other words, if we improve the Customer Health Score by X points, how many incremental points of Gross Retention Rate or Net Retention Rate does that generate?
Will that always happen in the future?
How will our change in company strategy affect the linkage?
How soon before the renewal does a customer have to be in a Green Health Score in order to make the renewal highly likely?
The VP may work with an analyst on their CS Operations team to answer these questions, but they’ll need to “own” the knowledge of these linkages themselves. These are the types of questions that a capable CCO, CEO, and CFO will ask them during an executive meeting or when preparing for a Board of Directors meeting.
EQ → Executive sponsorship: The VP should be able to substitute for the CCO or CEO in an important meeting with senior people at the most strategic clients, whether it’s a meeting to address an escalation or a regularly occurring review of the partnership. (Side note: We do believe that the CEO and CCO should be meeting with many clients, especially the more strategic ones. At the same time, the CEO and CCO can’t be in all of those meetings. They need to be able to rely on their VP.) This means the ideal VP can help the internal team set a vision for the meeting in advance and prepare an agenda and content that will likely achieve that vision; create the right tone during the meeting; listen carefully and read between the lines, surfacing topics that need to be elevated; orchestrate the interactions of client and internal stakeholders during the conversation; and drive the meeting to the right next steps.
Grit → Accountability: Even though a culture of accountability should exist at all levels of the organization, the VP demonstrates through their actions what accountability means. They should be thoughtful about communicating what happens when a CSM does or doesn’t make their target for Leading Indicators or Lagging Outcomes, and likewise when the team does or doesn’t make their targets. They should be clear about the importance of following playbooks. The VP answers to the CCO and CEO for achieving the Gross or Net Retention number, which means they take responsibility when the target is and isn’t met, and they are disciplined in learning the root causes of that achievement.
For the Chief Customer Officer:
IQ → Cross-functional orchestration: A company that’s customer-centric will resemble a symphony, where every function is playing a different instrument, but everyone is playing according to the same sheet music. While it’s not the CCO’s job to run the company, the CEO should be deeply familiar with the sheet music, design a significant section of it (for the functions that report to the CCO), and recommend improvements to the rest of it. This requires an ability to see a company’s engagement with its clients as a system, as opposed to a loose collection of unique situations that aren’t related to each other. Systems thinking involves detecting patterns and also imagining how alterations to those patterns could result in a system that generates better results for clients and for the company.
EQ → Inspiration: In our high-grit CS organization, everyone is hustling to execute their playbooks and improve them, achieve goals, and ensure accountability. But even people with unusually high grit need inspiration to fuel their hustle. They’re not always inspired by the numbers, by operational initiatives, or by short-term wins. They want to feel they are contributing to a broader purpose. It’s the job of the CCO to illuminate that purpose.
Here’s how Allison thought about it in her former role as CCO at Gainsight. “There’s a particularly strong purpose in Customer Success. How humans interact with technology is a fundamental question of our time. Software is eating the world, robots are more capable than ever, and AI can replicate at least some human capabilities. Interestingly, Customer Success Managers are at the forefront of human-machine interaction in the business world. When software has bad UI, when it’s imposed top-down, or when it’s not natural to adopt, the CSM is on the front lines, empathizing with the poor human being who’s struggling to use the software. It’s the CSM’s job to break down the barrier between human and machine, in a way that’s human-first. To me, serving that purpose is among the most valuable causes we can contribute to in our lifetimes.”
Team members don’t just want a purpose to follow; they also want to see that their leaders are motivated by a broader purpose. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our purpose in our work, particularly since we each spend a lot of time (too much time?) reflecting on more existential questions. Last year, Prakash Raman, an executive coach, joined an offsite that Allison was hosting for her extended leadership team. He posed a question: “When you’re on your deathbed, what do you want your legacy to be?” For Allison, it’s pretty simple:
“I want to have built meaningful relationships with my family and others who I am close with.
I want to have followed the ethical precepts that I hold dear, every step of the way. (The means matter, not just the end.)
I want to have built communities that inspire others to create a more ethical world.”
If we as leaders can be open in sharing with our teams what we hope our legacy will be, and helping them define their own desired legacies, our teams will feel a whole new level of inspiration in their work.
Grit → Mobilize peers: For some CCOs, helping teams see the purpose in their work is the fun part of the role. But like everyone else on their team, CCOs need to hustle. Their hustle is in mobilizing their peers -- the head of Sales, Marketing, Product Management, Engineering, Finance, and others -- to factor customer-centric thinking into their decisions. It’s the job of the CEO to manage the leadership team, but CCOs can provide an irreplicable source of information to those other executives about the Experiences and Outcomes that clients have. The ideal CCO doesn’t merely share that information. Over the course of likely many conversations -- with steps forward and steps back -- they discuss, debate, and negotiate with other functions about how they might act on that information.
Obviously, we’d all love to have a world where every function was customer-centric in the ways we described in Part 2 of this book. But the CS movement hasn’t fulfilled its mission yet, which means the CCO needs to act as a torchbearer for customer centricity in the company. Evangelizing on behalf of clients is hard work. We’ve seen CCOs experience disillusionment, frustration, despair, and burn out. This is why our events for CCOs often turn into group therapy sessions. We highly recommend that CCOs demonstrate self-compassion, a willingness to express vulnerability to others who may be going through the same thing, and support for others who are struggling along the journey.
We're sure you have thoughtful feedback on this framework for CS development, which is a first draft and will likely undergo many revisions before ending up in our next book. I'd love to hear from you. Send your comments if you have them!