Customer Success Managers Can’t Avoid Conflict. They Should Tackle It Head On.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Brooke.land blog here.

Customer Success is fundamentally about helping other people, and as a result, most Customer Success Managers have amicable and agreeable personalities. However, these same traits can lead them to shy away from conflict, which negatively affects customer relationships. Healthy and productive relationships involve a certain amount of friction as both parties challenge each other and track accountability. The goal isn’t to be friends with your customers, it’s to deliver value and success. Tackling conflict head on gives you a chance to manage the resolution process in a way that builds credibility, trust and respect.

Conflict is inevitable

Trying to avoid conflict is an exercise in futility. You can dodge an uncomfortable conversation in the short-term, but unresolved issues fester and manifest in new ways over time. CSMs who think they have skillfully avoided conflict are often surprised when the customer cites those original issues as the reason they want to cancel- and by then it’s too late to save the account. Conflicts are a chance to start a dialogue around how to remove the roadblocks preventing customers from realizing their goals.

Identify the source

Review how you got to this point by asking the customer to identify what they believe is the source of the conflict. The goal isn’t to place blame, but to get both parties to recognize how their actions impacted the situation and agree on how to proceed from here. Allowing each party to explain their thought process and assumptions creates empathy. If there’s any lingering frustration or resentment, this is the time to put it all on the table. You might uncover additional underlying issues that contributed to the current situation- these will also need to be addressed before your relationship can progress.

Establish and agree on a success plan

After you’ve identified the source of the conflict, establish and agree on a success plan that will allow you to move forward. Include a summary of resources each side will commit in order to execute on the plan. Secure buy-in from the customer’s executive leadership and your own. Establish a structure and cadence for how you will update all parties on your progress.

Assign tasks and hold people accountable

Customer Success requires the customer to invest in achieving their goals, which means CSMs need to be comfortable assigning tasks and holding the customer accountable. CSMs are constantly assuming the role of project manager– with customers, internal teams and even other vendors. Outlining the work that needs to be done on individual projects, and how these projects fit into the broader success plan, clearly spells out what the customer needs to contribute in order to be successful.

Manage expectations

Conflict is often the result of mismanaged expectations or poor communication. Maybe a salesperson sold the customer on functionality you don’t support, the customer expects an unsustainably high level of service, or your day-to-day contact misunderstands your product’s value proposition. Take the time to evaluate, reset, and continuously manage expectations to limit further disagreement moving forward.

Invest in building relationships and trust

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with people- make an effort to be genuine, approachable and honest in your interactions. It might be hard to recognize in the moment, but conflict presents an opportunity to grow the relationship by building trust and respect.

Averting constant conflict

Even if you diligently follow the process above you will encounter customers who operate in a near constant state of conflict- jumping from one issue to the next, never spending much time being content. These customers have characteristics that are misaligned with your ideal customer profile, which results in frequent tension. Unless something critically changes, the relationship will remain strained and they will continue to find sources of conflict.

Friction leads to growth

The vast majority of customers want to avoid conflict as much as you do, and will only reach out when they have a serious problem. Recall that truly great relationships need moments of friction to push both parties to grow. Take a moment to consider if your customers are trying to motivate you and your company to become more than you currently are. Think of these customers like an inspirational coach who knows you can succeed and encourage you to put in the extra work to push into areas where you’re less comfortable.

Customer Success teams need to recognize they can’t avoid conflict and instead view these moments of friction as opportunities to grow.

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