In this article, I’ll share what I call the EAR methodology, a way to rethink the relationship between product and success and turn previously negative experiences into the foundation of a positive working relationship using empathy, alignment, and reframing exercises.
Have you ever disagreed with a decision that your product manager has made?
Have you ever lost a customer because of a product decision?
Throughout my career I've spent quite a bit of time in both product and success and especially in SaaS, I've found it's the most important internal relationship in the business.
So why is that relationship so contentious?
If you answered yes to my questions, I can't promise to make that go away, however, I can help you think about this relationship with your product team in a different way. A way to turn those previously negative experiences into the foundation of a positive working relationship.
The EAR method
I call it the EAR method which stands for Empathy, Alignment, and Reframing.
In this article, I'm going to share a series of stories about how I came to this realization.
A story from my time as an account manager
I started working in customer success before success or customer success was even the popular name of the role. As an account manager, I worked with companies like Samsung, Toyota, and Nike to guide their success in using the marketing analytics software platform I was working with at the time.
Why weren’t my suggestions prioritized?
I could not understand for the life of me why our PM didn't seem to prioritize anything I suggested. That is until our lone PM decided to leave for another position at a different company.
Suddenly I had the opportunity to finally build all the things my customers needed. I drew up my roadmap, and I shared it with our engineering lead who was acting as our product lead for the time.
What he did was proceeded to open seven other documents, three from other account managers, one from sales, one from our pre-sales team, one from our marketing team and one from our CEO.
At that moment, I realized that while I was getting pulled in multiple directions by our customers, our PM had been pulled in even board directions by everyone else in the business.
I was contributing to the chaos of the role by my insistence that my priorities and my opinions were more valuable than everyone else's.
Both product and success are glue roles in the business. The key difference in these roles is really just what they're holding together.
You as a success leader are holding together a set of customers whose value realization determines the success or failure of your business.
The product team is holding together an entire market whose adoption determines the value of your business.
That's why this relationship is so important.
To get back to that first example, I'd like to share an exercise. This is something I've found works really well in developing empathy between success and product teams.
This is actually putting the burden of doing some of the work that product would do on you.
What you can do is get together with your CS team before ever approaching your product team, and outline your top three asks. You have to limit it to just three, no more, no less.
You could have a dozen CSMs, you could have 100 on the team. It's not a simple endeavor. But what it will do is give you a really good taste of what your product team's life is like.
Especially, it will endear you to them, because they will see that you understand the types of things they go through.
Back to my predicament
What I did was spoke with Steve, our PM in this situation, who was our engineering lead but acting as our product lead. I was really surprised when he asked me to spend half a day with him prioritizing all of that disparate input, not just from me, but from other folks in the business.
I had to go back to folks to request and ask clarifying questions, learn why they thought things were important. It was really an exhausting endeavor. We removed things, we combined things, we cut a bunch.
But by lunchtime, we had our list and I walked out of the room feeling confident we were on the right track with the product.
What went wrong?
After our next meeting, Steve shared out the roadmap with the company about a week later. I was seething. Nike needed the combined reporting feature we had spoken about during the conversation and there wasn't anything like that in his plans.
So I approached him after the meeting, I was wanting to know an explanation. It was in my top five requests, we talked about it. I got even more furious at the time when he started off by saying, "Well, I spoke with our primary contact at Nike".
Going through my head, I was like what, what he talked with my customer without even asking? He continued, he told me that he asked them why combined reporting was important to them. He asked who would use it and what it would mean for the business.
Our contact told him the request came from management who weren't really certain if our software was providing any value at all, to the business. Steve replied to them, "That's not what you need".
The business of outcomes
I let out a little bit of a gasp. Really, what Steve knew was that simply summarizing and adding together the values of a bunch of different reports wouldn't really achieve Nikes goal. The key word was value and for our analytic software that was driven by informing the business of outcomes, like what are the outcomes of what we're doing with this software?
He told Nike, "That's not what you need", but then he continued and said, "What about something like this?", and walked them through the designs of another feature, which was a simple way to encode a campaign start and end date into our reports, and how they could use that in combination with an already existent report sharing feature.
Steve also pointed to another feature on the roadmap which was scheduled sharing and explained to me that this would solve Nikes problem proactively as well in the future.
Not only that, our contact at Nike had agreed and was excited to engage in some joint thought leadership about how to calculate the joint ROI of social media marketing campaigns which was ultimately our goal for that customer.
A happy ending
Nike remained a happy customer for a long time, and Steve knew it was worth the risk of telling the customer "No". If Nike wasn't aligned with the value he provided, then it was worth the chance of them leaving as a customer if only for the sake of the rest of the market he served.
By confidently saying no, and then providing a recommendation he positioned himself and by proxy, the rest of the business as experts. It actually strengthened our relationship.
As far as the 'A' part of this EAR methodology, building alignment with your product team, I'd say open a path for your product team to speak with customers.
This is a risk, what if they say the wrong thing, what if they don't understand that customer well enough, but requires you to really internalize alignment.
It's not your customer they're speaking with. It's our customer.
A simple heuristic
I've been in both success and product and as a product leader, I measure this with a really simple heuristic. I ask every PM to meet with more prospects and more customers than the CEO.
It's a really tall order, especially if success is hindering that connection. But if you can be a conduit instead, by allowing your product teammates to join these conversations, to give them direction over that conversation, and then collaborate on a joint success plan for that customer, you'll find a really high degree of alignment.
You are not a manager
Around the time my title officially changed from account manager, customer success manager was the in vogue title for what we were doing. But here's the problem, I didn't really want to be called a manager and I don't think you should be called that either.
It has nothing to do with the importance of the role. You're the glue that holds together a major part of the business. It's more about the sentiment of management as a title.
- It's aligned with control, not influence.
- It's aligned with administration, not collaboration.
Here are the facts, you're not invited to your customers’ board meetings, you don't get to set their business objectives. Instead, your primary responsibility is that of a strategist, someone who collaborates on how your customer can get the most out of your solution to drive those independent business objectives forward.
Customer experience strategist
At Flatfile, we don't actually have Customer Success Managers. Instead, we have Customer Experience Strategists. Their mandate is to guide our customers towards successful data onboarding experiences using Flatfile, which is what we do.
Their directive is not related to output. It's related to outcomes. By reframing your own responsibilities, you can also reframe your relationship with your product team.
So instead of spending valuable time with product, I know we only get a little bit of that time sometimes, instead of spending that time debating on how features should be ordered in a roadmap, my challenge to you is to discuss your customers’ motivations and desires during your next conversation.
It will also build your confidence in the product you have today, that the software or hardware or service itself will always be better tomorrow. So instead of falling back on that, and dropping an anvil on top of your product team whenever tomorrow gets pushed to next week, spend your energy on how to drive the best result from what you have today.
Don’t talk about features
My challenge to you for reframing is to have a conversation with your product team where you don't talk about features. Talk entirely about customer outcomes, and how you can use the product as it exists today to guide your customers there.
Touch your EAR
The next time you're getting frustrated with how your product and success teams are working together, it's really simple. Just touch your EAR.
Are you feeling like your product teammates just aren't listening? Take a crack at answering the questions they're always asking you.
If you're concerned product is making the wrong decisions, put them in front of your customer. Allow them to drive the conversation.
Are you overwhelmed with things to do? Organize instead around customer outcomes and lean into how your product gets your customers there.
Conflict between product and success is not going to go away. But when it's combined with empathy, alignment, and reframing, you'll move your relationship, the most important one in the business, and as a result, the business as a whole forward.