Over a decade and a half spent serving in account management and marketing strategy roles at b2b ad agencies, I’ve learned the art of successful expectation management. For customer success practitioners, knowing how to set customer expectations post- purchase, and then throughout implementation has become a standard practice. But, it’s naive to think that those expectations are static. They never are.
Your customers change. Their business is dynamic and shifts with the market. There are personnel changes that lead to business changes – strategic and tactical. Your business changes too. New features get rolled out, and some get retired. You have personnel changes, which can also lead to business changes.
With change being constant from implementation to QBRs to renewals and beyond, it’s imperative to know when and how to reshape, recast and reset how customer expectations can be met.
Over the last year I’ve now spent leading customer success at Allbound, I’ve found several key areas where the need to delicately realign expectations have emerged. I’ve highlighted a few below, along with some tips to make that realignment work for you.
“Post Kick-off Hangover”
When you sign a new customer, everyone is excited. The customer. Your sales team. Your CSM and technical teams. Everyone is sure they understand how the product will get applied, what the implementation plan requires and can anticipate (almost to the day) when that customer will experience their “time to value”. All of those notions are celebrated at the implementation kick-off where the project plan is reviewed, roles defined and responsibilities agreed to.
No matter how seamless the sales to customer success hand-off, every new customer brings a perception and expectation for how your product will work for them. Often, that expectation may even transcend what they saw and heard in the series of demos and discussions they had with your sales team. Once they move from the vision to the reality of working with your product, those expectations can shift.
What changed? Learning. Your customer starts to gain a greater understanding of how your product works. As a result, it becomes more and more clear how the product will manifest itself in their everyday lives. Those realizations can result in aha moments of excitement, but can also create disenchantment over functional limitations they hadn’t expected.
Resetting Expectations. When customer learning results in realizations about what the product can’t do, it’s important to reset expectations by restoring focus on the customer’s desired outcome. Doing this is as simple as following the old adage of honesty is the best policy. Cliché right? Perhaps, but it is the easiest way to shift their focus back to why they purchased in the first place.
Acknowledge their challenge – should the product do what they thought? Maybe. Could it eventually? Perhaps. Does it stand in the way of them being wildly successfully with your product? No…well, hopefully not. The point is that through in-depth learning about your product, customers will find gaps in the offering. Don’t cover them up or gloss over them. Address them head on and then reset focus on the features and functionality that get them to their desired outcome.
‘Mid-Implementation Ideas Fallout’
As your customers continue to become better acquainted with your offering, they’ll inevitably come up with ideas about enhancements that would benefit their particular use case. My email inbox and nearly every customer status call is full of ‘what if the system could’ or ‘wouldn’t it be great if’ ideas. This is all great perspective and feedback of course. And, let’s agree that this sort of customer-driven ideation is one of the valuable outcomes of having a strategic customer success practice.
What changed? A wave of new ideas can pose a challenge and a threat to the success that customer will experience with your product. It becomes a distraction from what your product CAN DO for them now. New ideas also become a list of what your product doesn’t do, which really isn’t good (see section above).
Resetting Expectations. Without making promises that your product or roadmap can’t keep, it’s important to acknowledge the ideas. My approach for this has been to document “future ideas and phases” in a central place along with other critical customer information like objectives, KPIs, business reviews etc. Essentially this documentation becomes a living ‘expectation management’ document. That’s its intent.
By documenting those ideas and future opportunities, your customer feels heard. If it is related to an available feature, tie the document to the cost and process to implement. If it’s a roadmap item, record its target release and indicate if there is an opportunity for that customer to be a beta user. Finally, if it remains in the parking lot for a while, determine if it represents a custom services opportunity or a referral to a partner services provider who can support the customization they are seeking.
The goal of this approach is to make the customer feel heard and to keep them transparently and proactively informed of their options to see their 'ideas' come to life. By placing it along side their KPIs and metrics, they can also self-balance their ideas with how it adds value or detracts from what they are trying to achieve with your product.
Implementation of any product comes along with excitement and camaraderie. Everything is so new and for an enterprise product like ours, implementation is a hands- on endeavor. Weekly calls, dozens of emails and maybe even a few in-person meetings lead to a high level of trust, but can it can result in a customer that is over-reliant on your team. When the onslaught of regular interaction comes to a close, it can be difficult for a customer to migrate to a place of self-performance. And, they’ll blame you for leaving them unprepared and less than confident on how to independently use your product.
What changed? Despite any training provided, customers quickly realize how daunting and isolating the management of a complex product can be. Maybe they learned, but are not yet proficient. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, so they are only realizing how much there is to learn. And, while you’ve got a customer success plan to support them over time, you’re already bogged down in the work you’re doing to implement your next new customer.
Resetting expectations. This one is difficult, because it brings into focus the idea of customer accountability that many customers just don’t want to accept. There is no easy way to let someone know they should have paid closer attention, and you definitely don’t want to give them the impression that you are too busy to help them (even though you probably are). You could offer additional paid training or more ‘consultation hours,’ but at this stage, that suggestion is just going to create a greater chasm in the relationship you worked so hard to create in implementation.
A successful approach can be to create a “Post-launch Success Plan” that includes an expanded cadence of check ins- whether direct or as part of your customer marketing strategies. Basically, take proactive steps to provide insights on their application and use of the product over the course of quarter post-launch. What’s working, what’s not and how they should be responding. The proactive nature of your outreach, either 1-to-1 or via tech touches, will let you address the isolation that customer might be feeling. Your goal should be to shift the customer perception that they’ve been left ill-prepared to manage your product so that those feelings from becoming overtly negative.
The process of managing shifting expectations can at times put strain on the relationships that customer success professionals need to forge. Creeping expectations that go unaddressed or unmet lead to discontent and eventually, to churn. While changing expectations are inevitable, two things that shouldn't change:
- The primary objective and value the customer is seeking from your product.
- Your confidence in your product.
As long as these two things remain constant, the need to manage and reset expectations becomes just another required skill in an effective customer success methodology.
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