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Building a better relationship between customer success and product

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

If I asked you about your relationship with your customer success team, what would you say?

Whenever I ask product teams this question, I’m generally surprised by the answer: that there isn’t one. And if there is, it’s barely hanging on. Often, the relationship is very back and forth, with CS handing off customer problems — or even worse, solutions — to the product team. Then the product team places them either very high (bug or critical error) or low (enhancement) in the queue because they originated outside of the typical product development process.

This breeds resentment and the two teams rarely address it. The status quo remains unchanged and the opportunity for better alignment and communication is lost.

Does this sound familiar?

As a product executive and consultant with over ten years of experience, the customer success team is often the first team I talk to when trying to understand a business and its customer base. When the relationship between CS and product works well, important customer information, including qualitative feedback, feature requests, and emotional reactions to the roadmap, makes its way to the product team to inform their strategy. 

Ultimately, a strong relationship with your colleagues in CS will give you a much higher success rate when launching products. And all of this for free.

How do you build such an alliance? Well, I put the onus on us, 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. 

Here are three ways you can repair and improve that relationship with your customer success team:

  1. Hear them out
  2. Bring them into the research process
  3. Be transparent

Hear them out

Typically, your customer success team is going to be the lowest paid and the least listened-to team in the building. Their job is often a taxing one — customers frequently yell at them, and they work on the front lines of frustration, listening to customers vent at 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 relationship I described before sounds familiar, they will likely have a lot to say.

How should you frame this conversation? I’m a big fan of the team retro process laid out by NOBL here. A team retro gives you and that team at least 60 minutes to get things completely on the table. Remember, the retro process isn’t about blame; it’s about level-setting and improving, so make sure you use that time to get a clear lay of the land. Both teams more than likely have some misconceptions about the work the other does. It’s finally time to clear them up.

Bring them into the research/product development process

I think the biggest distinction that the product team should communicate with the CS team is that they have a good understanding of the emotional state of reactive customers, but aren’t always clear about the problem set of proactive customers. That is the difference between research and inbound. Making that distinction clear with your customer success team is the start of engaging them with the product development side of the house, instead of “break/fix.”

Something as simple as inviting your customer success team to the research outlines and asking them about common customer frustrations can give you a world of information — not just about what the customer wants, but opportunities to get help, even in the way they process inbound. 

Also, make sure each product team has a customer success advocate on board. They don’t have to go to every meeting or engage in every conversation, but it helps keep the team involved and may lead to useful insights when the build begins. 

Be transparent

You’ve already built some serious inroads if you’ve been doing the above two methods regularly. The next step is to be transparent. This involves a potentially big change in your product strategy: inviting the customer success team in to talk about it. 

New hires coming in to shake things up? Let the customer success team know. Doing some sort of tech debt initiative and new features are temporarily suspended? Bring them on board. Keeping the customer success team aware of all the big movements from your perspective will build trust and help mend any damaged fences.

Remember to continue to do the retro as well. Once isn’t good enough — make it a regular occurrence to encourage consistent engagement and communication.

Customer success and product can work well together

Our customer success teams are on the front lines keeping things running smoothly 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. The way we get there is by making sure that we stay open, bring them along, and continue 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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