4 Reasons Hierarchy Can Help CSMs and Their Customers

This is a guest blog post by Polly Goss, Director of Partner Success at Stellic

Hierarchy and injustice can often be seen to go hand in hand. Even the word hierarchy can instantly make people feel uncomfortable, turned-off, or even angry.  People that constantly pull rank can be the killer of creativity and innovation, and make any work environment toxic. So given all that….why would I be promoting hierarchy as a tool to help Customer Success Managers, and their clients, drive results?

Organizing your CS team into a hierarchy allows you to mirror the structure of your clients, and establish distinct points of contact for decision makers vs. operators. Forming parallels relationships makes it easier to keep your buyer engaged post-sale, through creating distinct spaces for strategic conversations vs. in-the weeds meetings, for trouble-shooting and the like. 

Reason #1: Be like your customers.

While separating employees into ranks can feel uncomfortable or unnecessary, there is a benefit to having a tiered CS team when working with clients. Having worked for the past 4 years with universities where hierarchy is entrenched within the institutional culture, I realized that my CS team needed to mirror the customers we were working with. And let’s be real, how many companies truly don’t have a hierarchy? 

Reason #2: Keep the buyer engaged.

Oftentimes the buyer considers that their job is done when the check is signed, they can be eager to hand off working with your team to a project manager to figure out the details. The project manager can be equally keen to keep their boss out of the picture, and demonstrate their competence and ownership of the project. However an absent buyer and disempowered project manager can often mean delays in implementation or low adoption rates, meaning that your customers are not getting the value out of the product they were hoping for. 

Having separate points of contact for different clients doesn’t mean that you should never have your more junior person speak to your buyer, or your senior person speak to the project manager. Instead it is a tool in your tool kit that can be used to help elevate the importance of a meeting, a signal to the buyer that they should attend because this is going to be a “high level” conversation. It never hurts to also make it explicit that you plan on discussing how your product fits into their broader company strategy, as a lot of senior decision makers fear having their time sucked away in the details. Having a senior CSM leading the meeting, and an agenda as high level as you can go before you hit the title of an undergrad business philosophy class, can be essential in ensuring your buyer feels their time is being well spent. It is essential you set up these distinct points of contact from day 1. Waiting 3 months and then asking your junior CSM to reach out to set up a Quarterly Business Review (QBR), is not a good way to make sure your buyer realizes that their input on this project is critical to its success.

Reason #3: Create space for figuring out how to actually make it work…and then make everyone look really good to their boss.

The benefits of employing a hierarchical model are not all for the buyer, for project managers (and your CSMs) it can be helpful to create a space away from their boss to figure out the complexities of making the product work. Including the project manager as co-hosts of QBRs, is a great way of enabling them to show their boss all the amazing work they are spearheading. One essential tenant of using hierarchy effectively should be to empower your customers and showcase the ROI they have created for their organization through using your product. When overseeing your product becomes something people are fighting to own because it helps elevate their career, then you know you have something your competition can’t offer them.

Reason #4: Create a scalable team structure.

A potential downside of hierarchical CS teams is that it can reduce team members’ feelings of ownership over the account, or mean work is not evenly distributed across the team. A good CS leader should be aware of these pitfalls and ensure that roles have distinct responsibilities, and recognized areas of expertise; the latter is essential for ensuring that the junior CSMs feel empowered internally, as well as externally. From an organizational standpoint, clearly delineating responsibilities within a hierarchy creates a more scalable model than having all CS team members be Jack/Jackies of all trades. Your senior CSM is able to provide high-level low-touch support to 2 or 3x the number of accounts that your junior CSM can support. Hierarchy is a tried and tested method of creating scalable teams, and it is as true for CS as it is for other business functions.

At the end of the day, for any team to be successful, people need to have clear roles and responsibilities. The best CS teams stretch beyond the boundaries of their own company, and truly form partnerships with their customers. To form these effective partnerships, you need to help your customers understand who is responsible for what. You can all then more smoothly progress towards achieving your shared goal, to make them successful! As with every rule, there will be exceptions but hierarchy can be a powerful tool when implemented thoughtfully. When operationalized effectively, hierarchy can enable people to take ownership at different levels, and prevent bottlenecks where everyone is waiting for one person to give the ok. Clear roles and responsibilities help everyone to focus on getting the job done, not figuring out who should be doing it! 


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