Customer Success Starts with Empathy

Updated: Jun 14, 2019


One thing I see working with customer facing teams is they don’t listen to customers enough. Even though more companies have Customer Success, Customer Education, Professional Services, and Support teams in place, customers are not being engaged and enabled in a seamless way. The key to successful customers is understanding what they want and need, and then designing programs that have real impact.

In May 1997, at the World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, Steve Jobs said it best, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology - not the other way around.” During that era, software companies chased the idea of the killer app, assuming success came as a result of the best set of software features and functions.


In today’s Software as a Service (SaaS) world, software is becoming a commodity, and customer engagement is the new killer app. In their Customers 2020 report, Walker anticipated, “Empowered customers ... will demand a new level of 'customer obsession.' They will expect companies to know their business inside and out and use their knowledge to design products and services that create a “frictionless” experience. To do this companies must engage in a collaborative, consultative relationship with customers.”

Unfortunately, I don’t see much consulting and collaborating happening. Instead, companies jump on the Customer Success (CS) bandwagon without knowing what’s really going on with their company or customers. They attend CS conferences like Pulse, and then cobble together a CS approach from a presentation at the conference. When they take a break from churn analysis, they might stand alone at the whiteboard to design how to address pain points. But they miss the opportunity to listen and to learn from teams inside the company and especially from customers. When you don’t know what your customers want and need, how can you define and design proactive solutions that lead to successful customers?

The answer: Step away from the whiteboard, and step towards design thinking.

The point of design thinking is to build programs and offerings that address the unique needs of your products and your customers. Rikke Dam and Teo Siang from the Interaction Design Foundation share, “The Design Thinking process is iterative, flexible and focused on collaboration between designers and users, with an emphasis on bringing ideas to life based on how real users think, feel and behave.” Design thinking includes a flow of stages from empathizing, to ideating, to prototyping solutions in order to build products and offerings that meet users’ needs.

Image: Nielson Norman Group

Start with empathy.

The crucial first stage of the design process is empathy. Empathy is our ability to see the world through other people's eyes. The Interaction Design Foundation details, "In the empathize stage, your goal, as a designer, is to gain an empathic understanding of the people you’re designing for and the problem you are trying to solve. This process involves observing, engaging, and empathizing with the people you are designing for in order to understand their experiences and motivations, as well as immersing yourself in their physical environment in order to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs and challenges involved.”

An effective customer engagement strategy must include ways to empathize with your customers. Mike Gospe, an expert Customer Advisory Board (CAB) facilitator and co-founder of the Kickstart Alliance emphasizes, "Learning how to listen to your customers may be your most important skill. Listening requires patience and empathy. It is a sign of strength and honor, not weakness. And it requires a committed investment in nurturing long-term relationships with your best customers.”

I build empathy into the Customer Success assessments I conduct with B2B software companies. I interview internal teams as well as several customers of the companies I work with. It’s amazing what I learn from them. For example, one company’s customers rave about their relationship with the company. In fact, every customer I talked to declared that it's the best relationship with any vendor they work with. A customer even emphasized how the company is “a model for other vendors." When I interviewed customers from another company I work with, however, I heard a different perspective from each customer I interviewed. “The relationship with the CSM is great,” gushed one customer. “There is no relationship,” lamented another. While the first set of customers sounds like great news it leaves me concerned about the long-term cost of providing this white glove treatment. The second set of customers highlights the lack of consistency and transparency in the customer facing teams and points to gaps that need to be addressed. In this case, it indicates a need for a Customer Success platform.

The reality is that Customer Success teams are "largely stuck in a reactive mode, defined by the threat of churn,” finds Mikael Blaisdell of the Customer Success Association. A never ending fire leaves you little time to listen to customers. Dealing with issues after they happen means you will wake up one day with a churn problem, even if you don’t have one now. If you want to move your company and the industry forward, you can't just check the Customer Success box and think you are done. Customer Success must be about engaging customers in the way customers want and need to be engaged. Starting with empathy, move along the design thinking process to explore ideas and prototype approaches with your customers. Walker declares, "Getting and keeping customers engaged will be a strategic initiative for B-to-B companies in the future and companies should plan to assign resources to develop this engagement.”

#CustomerEngagement #CustomerSuccess