Storytelling: How Customer Success Can Gain Influence Within Your Organization

Originally posted on the Success League Blog.

Losing a customer is one of the worst feelings for anyone in Customer Success (CS). You may feel numb or in a bit of shock depending on the circumstances and it can eat at you for days.  What’s worse is that you typically know why it happened and how it could have been avoided. You’ve explained the issues to your executive team or to your Sales team or to your Product team on several occasions. Your pleas for assistance, however, have fallen on deaf ears and your CS team’s spirits are in the gutter.

You may be thinking: Why am I not able to get through to these people? What more do I need to do? How many more customers need to churn before there is some real action outside my team? Am I the problem?

Unfortunately, this is a reality for many Customer Success teams. You can bring data that clearly states why you are losing customers but still not get the resources and process changes you need to prevent customer churn. Does this situation or something similar sound familiar?

While you shouldn’t put all of the blame on your shoulders, you do need to look more closely at the approach you take in requesting assistance. While data and customer feedback can provide insight and justification for the changes you want to achieve, your message may not be getting through. When making requests at the executive level, you can’t just persuade the mind, you also have to also convince the heart. One way to do this is through the power of stories.

This post will detail how stories win people over and provide some practical tips on creating a culture of storytelling within your own organization.

Why are stories so impactful?

In the Heath brothers’ bestseller Made to Stick, we learn about a brave nurse who saved a baby’s life by ignoring what the instruments and those around her were telling her. The story begins with a newborn suddenly turning a sickly black-blue color. The onsite medical team diagnoses the issue as a collapsed lung and prepares to operate. “It’s the heart” a desperate nurse cries out as she pushes away the other medical professionals and demands silence so she could check for a heartbeat with her stethoscope.

She immediately determines the baby’s heart had stopped even though the heart monitor reported no signs of trouble. The lungs were not the problem after all and the nurse provided the appropriate treatment. It was her experience and quick thinking that prevented a tragedy that day.

nurse_in_hospitalThis true story was one of the many that psychologist Gary Klein collected as part of his research in this area. He demonstrated that stories like the one above are very persuasive as they illuminated a causal relationship that may have been ignored and highlighted people’s inventiveness in solving real problems.

This specific story teaches a few lessons. Besides the obvious approach to addressing a potentially deadly condition for newborns, it provides a stern warning to medical professionals who may rely too heavily on machines and checklists. This nurse also serves as a reminder that hospitals need to have an adequate amount of trained and experienced professionals to make the right decisions when it matters. Finally, this story acts as a call to action that change is needed. As the Heath brothers point out, emotional stories like this one can provide the stimulation and inspiration to generate action. It’s a technique you can utilize for your own Customer Success teams.

From saving newborns to driving adoption

I experienced a similar situation to the story above although it was a little less dramatic. Ok, it was completely different but it’s still a good story so stay with me. Our Product team at Updater just launched a new feature but we were having difficulties in getting our largest customers to adopt it as it required a large number of customer administrators spread out across the US to make some configuration changes. Not an easy task – trust me – but not insurmountable.

One of our CSMs used our customer story Slack channel to document the approach she used to overcome this adoption challenge.  She described in detail how she coordinated with our client to launch educational email campaigns directly to the administrators who we needed to make these configurations and she specified how she creatively used one of our vendors, Intercom to do this. Another CSM who executed the campaign then provided the initial results. That’s when the magic happened.

The general manager of our division saw this amazing success story and shared it with our CEO and other relevant executive stakeholders including the Product, Engineering, Business Development and Data teams who all had a stake in making this feature a success. After several emoticons, virtual high fives and celebratory “reply alls” the message was clear: Customer Success was driving real outcomes for the organization. This specific example was going to impact our bottom line. Let’s now go into how you can easily replicate this at your organization.

3 simple ways to create a culture of customer stories

We’ve proven that stories can make a difference and drive action. Now it comes down to creating habits within your Customer Success team to share these stories on a regular basis and to allow them to permeate throughout your organization. Let’s talk about a few ways that you can do this:

  • Customer storytime. Do you remember when your parents read you bedtime stories growing up or reading stories to your kids? You can replicate this same type of situation in your own organization. Just schedule a monthly (recommended) or quarterly storytelling session where your CSMs can tell informal or formal stories about how they drove success with your product. Invite all the relevant departments: Sales, Marketing, Product, Engineering, etc… They will eat these stories up.

    I was first exposed to this at Eloqua and then carried on the tradition at my subsequent start-ups. At Influitive we bribed other groups to come by serving beer. It was so popular there that the Sales team demanded us to record the sessions as they used the content in their sales conversations. CSMs learned from each other and improved their tactics. Marketing leveraged these stories to seek out full case studies. Product used the feedback to make changes to future features. We all had a better understanding of the needs of our customers.

    A variation of this is to present stories at your company offsites, internal churn reviews, new team member boot camps and/or sales kick-offs. Keep this in mind: storytime all the time.

  • Customer story Slack channel. I referenced this tip earlier. I wanted our team to share more of their stories so we can all learn from them. We started a Slack channel to capture customer stories – both good and bad. Our goal was to hear more of the challenges and successes that the CSMs were experiencing in their day to day and share those with each other and the rest of the company. Slack is a great mechanism for this as it’s easily accessible and the information is searchable for everyone (especially for team members that join later on), unlike email.

    To kick this off we set a team goal of 35 stories in one month. If we achieved this we would all go for a nice dinner and the top three submitters would be rewarded. The channel quickly grew in popularity as others became interested in the stories and the CSMs gained recognition and a sense of accomplishment for submitting them. Oh, and we did go for a nice Mexican dinner. This is win-win-win stuff (CSMs, your company, and your customers).

  • Customer awards. While the CSMs are typically the ones driving these stories, Eloqua devised a great way to extract these stories directly from clients by creating a more formal marketing award ceremony called “The Markies.” Even though Eloqua turned this into an Emmy-like production, the essence of this is very simple. Create award categories, have customers apply by providing a detailed justification on why they should win, hand out awards based on objective criteria, reap the rewards of some outstanding customer stories. Rinse and repeat on an annual basis (the Markies have been doled out to top marketers since 2007 and are going strong). I can tell you with 100% confidence that my finest moments as a CSM were when one of my customers got up to an accept a Markie award. There is nothing better than this. Nothing.

A major theme across these three examples is that shouldn’t wait for your budget discussions with your CFO and other executive stakeholders to gather customer stories. Proactively generate and share these stories on an ongoing basis so they naturally percolate throughout your organization. When other executives start citing them without you having said a word, you know you are making progress.

Customer stories = power: Where do you start?

Not having a strong voice at the executive level and not being able to get the resources you need can leave you and your Customer Success team demoralized. Particularly when you are doing everything you can to make your customers successful. You need to make the pain that you are experiencing come to life. You need others to feel the impact that your team is making. This is the power of a culture of storytelling.

When was the last time you had a CSM describe to your company how they helped one of your customers use a new feature in a way that no one expected? When was the last time that a CSM had a chance to outline the real reasons behind why you lost a customer beyond entering the reason code “not enough ROI?” It’s time to try some new approaches such as a Slack channel to tell the real stories behind the data.  Implementing these practices will change how your Customer Success team perceives itself but also how the company perceives you. You can hold your head up a little higher, get that resource that you desperately need and earn the respect that is rightfully yours. What are you waiting for?

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