The Biggest Barrier to Customer Success Has Nothing to Do with Your Software

Implementing a customer success function can result in tremendous value for you and your customers. The only catch? Doing it successfully means teaching your customers to take on something more complicated than learning your software — changing their behavior.

Editor’s note: This is the final post in a three-part series from Jason Whitehead, CEO of Tri Tuns, explaining why and how to build an effective customer success management (CSM) program. Read Part 1 to learn the importance of strong CSM teams and Part 2 to discover how to develop a cohesive customer success strategy. 

In the first post in this series, I explained why so many SaaS vendors are investing in customer success management (CSM). Poor user adoption and the lack of perceived value by customers is often the greatest challenge faced by SaaS vendors, therefore it is more important than ever to focus your efforts to deliver the results you and your customers require.

Developing Your Methodology and Tools

Once you have your customer success management strategy in place (see the previous post), you can figure out exactly how you go about actually delivering your customer success management (CSM) service. This is where you need to define and build the methods, tools, processes, and deliverables that you will use when working directly with your clients.


What methods do you use to help your clients successfully drive user adoption and ROI? Figuring this out is a challenge most technology vendors don’t have a clue how to solve.

Before diving in, you have to realize — successful adoption requires you to understand (and be able to facilitate a change in) customer behavior.

  • One of the biggest hurdles you will face is helping your clients change the way their employees perform their jobs. They need to stop doing business the way they do it today and start doing their jobs by using your system. That often involves a major shift to their daily work routines, which can require a change in attitudes, behaviors, and organizational culture. The methods you need to bring about this change will need to be heavily grounded in psychology, ground dynamics, and organizational development.
  • The processes you use to develop great software do not apply here. SDLC, Agile, and all the tricks of the software development trade are for building technology, not changing behavior. Forget what you already know and look for new ways of thinking.

Developing an effective user adoption and ROI methodology is not fast and it is certainly not easy. You will be dealing with a lot of client personalities. In many cases, adopting technologies will result in a change in your client’s role or job and dramatically affect users’ day-to-day work flow. This gets very emotional — and very personal — very quickly.

End-users will get scared and uncomfortable when they see their jobs changing. Your methodology needs to help your CSM staff deal with both the concrete changes to users’ jobs as well as address the emotional changes users must navigate if they are to actually change their behavior and use your system. As you can imagine, this is new territory for many software companies.

How you develop your CSM methodology will depend on some key choices you make when developing your CSM strategy. If you adopt a “build it” strategy, you will need to invest a lot of time and effort on building out an effective methodology. If you adopt a “partner” strategy you can invest less of your own resources in developing your methodology and instead choose your partner(s) based on the methods and expertise they bring to the table.


There are a variety of CSM tools you will need in order to deliver your CSM service. CSM software tools, such as those currently offered by Evergage, Totango, Gainsight, Frontleaf and others, can provide you great insight to help you understand where your customers are having success and where they need help. You may also need to develop some of your own tools and templates for your CSM team to use when working with clients.

While it is clear that you will need some CSM tools, you should only consider investing in CSM tools after you have defined your methodology. Your CSM strategy and methods will influence which tools you need and which functions are most important to you. Don’t waste money buying CSM tools or capabilities until you know exactly what it is that you need.

CSM Staff

Once you understand the methods and tools your CSM team requires, you can work with your HR department to map out the required skills, experience, and competencies you need in your CSM staff.

A quick word of caution: Just like your CSM methodology needs to be grounded in psychology and organizational development, the staff on your CSM team need similar skills, knowledge, and experience.

In other words, your CSM team needs the emotional intelligence and understanding of individual and group change dynamics to be effective in their role. You may need to look outside your current organization to find the people you need.

Another Challenge: Changing Your Internal Organization

Now that you know your CSM strategy, methods, and staffing, you can begin to figure out how the CSM team fits within your existing organization. This can be a bigger challenge than most organizations realize.
Keep in mind that when you create a CSM team you are not only changing how you engage clients, you are also changing how your employees interact with each other internally. You are changing the roles and responsibilities of major departments in your organization, which, in turn, changes the jobs of the individuals who work in these departments.

  • Prepare for a shift in roles and responsibilities: For example, some account management functions that previously fell under the sales team may now belong to the CSM team. Similarly, work that may have previously been handled by your technical support or customer training team may now be performed by the CSM team. In such cases, you may need to make adjustments to these internal departments as the scope and volume of their work has shifted.
  • Prepare for tough decisions: You may find that some of your current employees do not like the way their jobs have changed and/or they do not have the skills to be successful in their new world. They may need to leave your organization.
  • Get ready to mediate: You may find that there are turf battles during the transition. Some people will feel like they’ve come out ahead while others will feel they are worse off. This can be especially true for leaders in the organization who may find the size, budgets, prestige, etc. of their area has shifted.

When developing your CSM team, make sure you manage the internal change to your organization with care and attention. This can be a very stressful time for your staff. Few people do their best work or collaborate effectively when highly stressed. If not carefully managed, employee productivity and relationships with customers can suffer when you are setting up your CSM team.

Start Supporting Your Customers

Okay, now that you have figured out how to deliver your CSM services and have built the internal capacity you need, you are finally ready to start working with clients. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you begin engaging customers differently.
Remember, not only is the CSM function new to your organization, it is also new for your customers. CSM is such a new and emerging field that few client organizations have experience working with a vendor’s CSM team. Your customers probably do not know what to expect from a CSM team, nor will they fully know up front how CSM is different from sales, support, or customer service. You will need to guide them.
As you begin to rollout your CSM service, pay careful attention to the experience you are creating for your customers. You may need to engage your existing customers slightly differently than new customers. Also, you may want to pilot your CSM services with just a couple of new and existing customers before you rollout it out to all customers.

Working with Existing Customers

You will need to work closely with existing customers to introduce your CSM service. Explain to your customers the nature of your service, the problem(s) it solves, and the improved business outcomes they will realize from working with your CSM team.

Many customers will not fully “get it” based on simple conversations. They may need to experience your CSM service before they fully understand what it is and the value you provide. To that end, you will need to provide detailed information to existing customers spelling out what level of service they can expect to receive and what, if any, fees they will need to pay for the service.

During the transition period you may decide to give a small amount of your CSM services for free to existing customers. If that is the case, make sure customers are crystal clear on what you provide for free and when you will charge them.

Working with New Customers

How to Build a Customer Success Map

A key tool in your fight against churn.

New customers present both great opportunities and new challenges. You need to shift from just selling software (selling features), to selling customers on the future business value they will receive from working with your company (selling value/benefits). You then need to show them how your CSM services are a critical component in helping them achieve their desired business outcomes.

When you are selling customers on business value instead of system features, you need to map out what happens after go-live and when they can realistically expect to achieve their ROI/business goals. Show them the risks involved if they do not have any CSM service. Then demonstrate how your CSM team can help them reduce risks and accelerate the time to achieve their desired business outcomes. Then deliver on your promise.

Tip for longer adoption cycles: Depending on your client’s implementation timeline, you may need to show them that their contract will be up for renewal before they fully realize the ROI goals they have set. For example, one cloud vendor I worked with found that it typically took 3-4 years for their customers to fully adopt their software, yet their contracts were only two years in duration. Not surprisingly, they lost a lot of customers at the first renewal point.

If you have a similar situation, get your customers to define up front how they will measure progress and the criteria on which they will base their renewal decision. If it is not realistic that your customer will achieve their full ROI goals when their contract is up for renewal, get them to agree on the measure of progress you must demonstrate in order for them to fully renew.

Evaluating & Evolving Your CSM Organization

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As with any major effort, you need to continually monitor the impact your CSM team is having and evolve your capabilities to meet future needs. This may include developing a variety of CSM related metrics and reporting processes. It may also involve meeting with customers to analyze what is working and where you need to change things up going forward.
Also, keep in mind that you and your customers do not operate in a static environment. Just because something works today does not mean it will be effective tomorrow. Shifts in technology, changes in customers’ needs and preferences, and evolutions in the external market environment mean that you will need to continually monitor and adjust your CSM methods and services.

Bottom Line

Developing an effective CSM program is not easy and the CSM field is still in its infancy. Organizations of all shapes and sizes have struggled with user adoption and technology ROI for years. The tools and methods in this area will change greatly over the next 20 years, and you need to be prepared to evolve with them. For the foreseeable future, you need to recognize that your CSM program will be in a constant state of flux and you will need to devote time and resources to maturing your CSM organization.
No, it isn’t easy, but few things with the power to transform your business often are. I hope following the steps in these posts will help you implement a CSM function that will yield tremendous dividends to you and your customers.
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Photo by: M.G. Kafkas

Jason Whitehead
Jason Whitehead

Jason Whitehead is CEO of Tri Tuns, a Customer Success Management and IT User Adoption consulting company. He has over 17 years of experience working at the intersection of technology, process, culture and people to help clients drive effective user adoption and realize their IT and business goals.
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