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Built to last: Nurturing customer relationships that will survive a downturn

Many a classic TV show has been built around the importance of friendship.

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From Stranger Things to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to, well, Friends, we love to watch groups of friends spend time together as they celebrate the good times—and stick together during the tough times. 

As Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta pointed out recently in an article for Inc., we seem to be headed toward some of those tough times. (Nick is partial to Community, by the way—solid choice!). During times like these, the relationships you have formed and nurtured become more important than ever. And we’d like to take that idea one step further—during an economic downturn it is vital that customer success teams continue to proactively build relationships. Your business’ survival may depend on it. Let us explain.

With new sales stagnant or declining, SaaS companies have to be laser-focused on customer retention, advocacy, and expansion to buck the downtrend and maintain growth. That means doubling down on your post-sales and customer success (CS) efforts. But what do those efforts look like in practice?

In a recurring revenue world, success isn’t defined by the product or the sales process. No matter how awesome your solution is, at the end of the day, every business interaction is between people. 

That means your success is directly tied to the relationships you build, both with your customers and with those in your own company. To build strong relationships, you have to be a human, not just your customer’s CSM. 

With that goal in mind, here are some relationship-building strategies you can put in motion right now to prepare for a potential downturn. 

Check in with your customers NOW to avoid surprises down the road.

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The time to get serious about risk and renewal management is now—before customers start to slash budget. You’ll want to make sure you have a framework in place to spot early-warning signals. This will help you prioritize resources and find the right cadence to make sure customers who need attention receive it. You’ll want to lean on your customer health scorecards, if you have them.

Scaling through digital can keep relationships alive (light touch is better than no touch).

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Sophisticated digital tools can manage relationships at scale, with limited resources. You’ll probably find that many portions of your customer base don’t actually require or even desire high touch customer success engagements, and a few digital touches like email or in-product messages can actually go a long way. This is where having the right customer success platform will help empower you to do more with less, while delivering a personalized customer experience. It’s worth putting in the effort up front so that you can proactively deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time—rather than troubleshooting after the fact.

Be a good listener, especially within your community.

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The customer journey is a collaboration between you and your customers. In other words, you can’t do it without them. You need to understand what outcomes they want and how they achieve value from your product. To do that, you have to listen first. 

In our experience, one of the best venues for listening is through the product community. You’ll often learn more by listening to what customers discuss among themselves. Your customers will reveal trouble spots, share success stories, and even brainstorm new features and solutions that your product dev team had never even considered.

Go on offense—keep a positive attitude!

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During a downturn, everyone is feeling anxious about the future. This may feel like the time to keep a low profile, but the truth is actually the opposite. Reaching out to your customers to see if they need help can be reassuring. Remember, this isn’t about selling, it’s about maintaining a relationship. You’d be surprised at how many customers are actually looking to expand during tough times. 

For example, at the height of the pandemic, here at Gainsight we saw expansion dollars rise even as net new-logo acquisitions went down. The key is to increase the adoption of underutilized features with digital-led CS and lean into integrated account planning to help CSMs drive more Customer Success Qualified Leads (CSQLs).

Optimize your product from the customer out.

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At Gainsight, we have a saying: Customer Success and Product should be BFFs. We call this “Product + CS Interlock.” It means that the customer should be at the center of your universe, with everyone on the Customer Success team collaborating with Product to make sure that customers are ready to consume what you’re preparing to release. If you haven’t hit product roadmap milestones indicating that customers are ready to adopt a new or enhanced feature, don’t be afraid to hit pause.

Infusing customer success input and iterative feedback into the product roadmapping process ensures that your team prioritizes the features that help customers realize value, reach their business goals, and become advocates for your product.

Create moments with your customers.

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Finally, remember that customer relationships are just like any other relationship—they are built on shared moments of joy. This is especially important when your customers are dealing with negative emotions as a result of stagnant sales, downsizing, cost constraints, and other challenges. By showing up as a human with empathy and care, you’ll be putting pennies in the “relationship bank” that will add up to stronger, more sustainable relationships.

Don’t be afraid to have fun with your customers. Make your users feel seen, understood, and celebrated with events, videos, and other special forms of content. Constantly be thinking of ways to surprise and delight your customers.

Durable relationships = durable growth

When the chips are down, you tend to find out who your friends are, and who you can count on. Sometimes losing a customer due to economic reasons is unavoidable, but if you consistently demonstrate to your how you help them achieve value, you will find that customers stick with you more often than not. As a Customer Success function, there are specific strategies you can deploy to identify, engage, and solve potential churn. Focusing on the customer and the relationship will go a long way. 

To read more about Gainsight’s strategies for durable growth during a downturn, check out our latest ebook, The Durable Growth Playbook for Savvy SaaS Companies.

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