What Do You Do When Product and Customer Success Won’t Play Nice?

Too often, customer success and product teams treat each other like adversaries. Here’s how to fix that.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
September 7, 2021
Updated: September 8, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
September 7, 2021
Updated: September 8, 2021

What kind of relationship do you have with your company’s customer success team? I often ask product teams this question, and the answer is usually that there isn’t a relationship at all. And if there is, it’s hanging on by a thread. The product team never connects with the customer success team except when it’s time for an “enablement” session. The session is designed to allow other teams to understand a product. This meeting, though, is likely to just be a quiet presentation and Q&A.

Meanwhile, the customer success team tends to see the product team as the product feature repository. They just drop off feature requests and then go back to their own work.

Both forms of communication are reactive. Customer success hands off customer problems with solutions and dates to the product team. The product team uses customer success as a shield against the customers themselves. Neither team leverages what the other knows to maximize their ability to collaborate on solving big customer problems and innovating in the marketplace.

But that dysfunction isn’t the most significant issue. The organization is building a culture of resentment. The teams will continue to resent one another until something changes. So, they’re losing in two ways. They lose the opportunity to leverage the intelligence of both teams, and. because of the resentment, the business misses out on some moonshots that could change its overall trajectory.

Before we talk about the tactics we can use to make things better, we first need to address that resentment. Remember, it’s the product manager’s (PdM) job to increase the overall decision fitness of the organization. By decision fitness, I simply mean how well the team makes decisions. Good product management leads teams to consistently make better decisions. You won’t be able to level up in this area if there are no clear lines of communication between customer support and product.

So, let’s talk about how you can identify some of the issues both teams have with each other, create more precise lines of communication, and tie it all to your culture so that it stands the test of time.

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Identifying Issues

Your customer success team is likely the lowest paid and the least listened to team in the building. Their job is often a taxing one. It’s a matter of when and not if customers are going to yell at them. The customer success agent is on the front lines of frustration, listening to customers vent during their lowest moments of using the product.

Your job as a product leader is to take the opportunity to sit down with them and listen to what they have to say. If the poor relationship between teams that I described before sounds familiar, they will likely have a lot of valuable information to tell you.

Let’s set the stage with BobCo, where two leaders, Jill, the new director of product management, and Bob, the new director of customer success, are connecting for the first time. They plan to get the company on a better path and leverage each other’s team for better product outcomes.

Bob and Jill both took the time to listen to their teams for the first 90 days of their tenure. They also talked to other disciplines, like engineering and sales, to get a solid overview of the organization.

Both connected with a random distribution of people, taking advantage of their newness to the organization, and led one-on-one conversations with everyone on each team around three subjects.

3 Goals for One-on-Ones

  1. Establishing competence — “Here is who I am and what I've done.”
  2. Laying out their vision of the future — “This is what I want to do.”
  3. Building a bridge between the other team — “How can my team help yours?”

 

Replacing Resentment With Trust

Bob and Jill both know that the secret to identifying issues is to build trust. That trust must first start with themselves, so Bob and Jill spend time listening to each other and developing a shared vision of their futures.

They spend their first few conversations feeling each other out. Once they get to know each other a bit, they agree that a team conversation will give them a jump-start on understanding how product and customer success can work together.

How should they frame this conversation between the two teams? I’m a big fan of the team retro process laid out by NOBL.

A team retro gives the facilitator and the relevant team at least 60 minutes to get everything out on the table. Remember, the retro process isn’t about blame; it’s about level-setting and improving, so make sure you use your time together to get a clear lay of the land. In our example, both teams more than likely have some misconceptions about the work the other does. It’s finally time to clear them all up.

Both Bob and Jill are coming into teams that already exist. Like most of us, they have to deal with the culture that’s already there. In this case, it’s one that is marked by the resentment that I mentioned earlier.

Without presenting a solid foundation to both teams, one that establishes competence and tells a story that people can trust, and showing that they trust one another, they know this process can fall apart.

A team retrospective can raise issues that plague teams and businesses. Both leaders are committed to handling the pressing problems upfront, by writing them down and following up. They present regular status updates to ensure that no one had to work to find out what was happening. They also keep each other accountable by holding routine check-ins. All of these steps can go a long way to establishing trust.

 

Building Bridges

So, you’ve done the first team retrospective. Put the next one on the calendar in about a month. Keep this meeting a consistent part of both teams’ workflow. Every time each team talks, you’ll build more trust. But you’re not done there.

After the retro, Bob and Jill realize that just talking about the issues won’t be enough. Instead, they need to change how the teams communicate. This change means moving from a reactive approach (enablement and feature requests) to a more proactive one. Making this shift requires bringing both teams into regular contact during product development.

So, they pick one point during a sprint for the customer success team to meet with the entire product team to talk about development and see how customers may engage with the product as it’s being constructed.

This connection point helps the customer success team understand how to talk about the product with customers and get their insights. Because they now know how to frame these insights, the product team is more likely to receive this feedback instead of brushing it aside.

And this new structure leads to an important point. Customer success teams have a good understanding of the emotional state of reactive customers but aren’t always clear about the problem set of proactive customers.

Bringing the customer success team inside the process allows them to guide the product team in addressing the customers’ emotional needs as it’s building the product. For example, say you have a section of customers that are angry about your latest widget. The customer success team can take a look at the next iteration of the widget and tell you exactly what they are hearing, which will help the product development team avoid potential landmines.

Jill knows by bringing Bob and his team around in the middle of the process, the team can make sure they solve more pain points and build a better story to present to the customer. Bob knows by bringing Jill around, his team can frame customer requests more effectively.

Keep in mind that the PdM should under no circumstances consider this feedback qualitative research, however. The customer success team’s involvement isn't a replacement for talking to customers. But it is a great way to make sure each team is making the most of one another’s expertise.

 

Be Transparent

Bob and Jill know that working together will lead to stronger teams, but they need to make sure they can keep it that way. After all, these are two teams that have had some contention before. Bob and Jill need to keep the newfound trust going.

The continuing retrospectives will help to identify any trouble between the teams as it happens. This relationship isn’t going to work like before, though, and change is fragile. So, leaders will have to talk often about both successes and failures. Transparency is the bedrock upon which you build trust.

You’ve already made some serious inroads if you’ve adopted the retros and invited customer success into the development process. The next step is to instill a culture of transparency.

Bob and Jill set up a report designed for the business; they call it the BobCo Product to Customer Report. Inside, they highlight anecdotes from customers and how the different product development teams are each building products that meet the needs of the customer. Those anecdotes fit the story the product team is trying to tell, and speak to how those customers will be affected by the change. They also include data about research, renewals, churn and team changes.

Are new hires coming in to shake things up? Is the team doing some tech debt initiatives that mean new features can’t happen right now? Are you holding office hours? All that information should go into the report. This report then goes to the rest of the business to build trust and allow them to keep an eye on the product strategy.

More in Product ManagementWhat to Do When Product Theory Isn’t Your Product Reality

 

Get Everyone on the Same Page

Customer success and product can work well together. What does it look like when it works?

Important customer information gets back to the product team and influences strategy. Remember, product management’s job is to improve decision fitness. By taking in the emotional energy of the customer, we can better understand their points of view, leading to better decisions. Customers aren’t acting out. Their feelings come from somewhere. Customer success holds the key to understanding where.

A strong relationship with your colleagues in CS will give you a much higher success rate when launching products.

How do you build such an alliance? I put the onus on the product team to manage the relationship and bring out the best in the teams around us. Product isn’t just a translation service — it also is a diplomatic one. We’re here to build bridges to help us level up the decision fitness of the company as a whole.

Our customer success teams are on the front lines keeping things running every day. We have an opportunity to use that expertise to make better decisions about the products we bring to market and how our product development serves customers. We get there by making sure that we stay open, bringing them along, and continuing to build trust through transparency.

Building the right products is a team effort, and when we all work together, great things happen.

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