Mar 19, 2021

5 min

Change Management in Customer Success: Overcoming Change Resistance


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About 75% of change efforts fail due to their inability to deliver value or complete abandonment, according to HBR.

Pile that probability on top of the compounding stress of living through a pandemic and your chance of change friction and burnout becomes even more certain.   

“The amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued is half what it was last year,” says Jessica Knight, Vice President of Gartner.

Aside from threatening our sense of control, certainty, normalcy, competency, and ego – to name a few of humanity’s favorite things – we resist change because it also creates more work.

Even if that additional upfront work makes us happier or far more successful in the end, we’d rather remain unhappy than make ourselves vulnerable to the unknown of change.

As a Customer Success leader, you feel this change resistance twofold when dealing with your own internal organizational change and when driving change with your customers (in the form of product adoption) who must also contend with their own internal team pushback.

In the HBR article “Ten Reasons People Resist Change,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and book author of “Think Outside the Building,” outlines the most common reasons people fight change.

Using Kanter’s 10 reasons as a guide, we identify how Customer Success leaders can navigate this delicate emotional territory to overcome customer and employee resistance to change.

1. Control

Change, such as using a new product, affects our autonomy and power. When change comes from others, Kanter says our self-determination typically drops first.

As people experience a temporary loss of independence while learning a new system, you can reinstate their control by giving them opportunities to make choices. By inviting those affected by the change to planning sessions or brainstorms, you give them back a sense of ownership and authority they may be feeling insecure over losing. 

2. Uncertainty

“If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it,” says Kanter. People loathe the unknown and avoid it all costs, even if that means remaining ineffective, antiquated, or unhappy.

To counter feelings of ambiguity, Kanter says people need to feel safe, which allows them to be vulnerable and open to change, and motivated by an inspiring and inclusive vision. You can reassure your customers and make them feel confident about your process by simply defining clear steps and timelines for implementing the change.

3. Surprises

People don’t like being caught off guard. We like to think we’re aware of what’s going on around us, especially if it affects us. 

Don’t spring sudden changes on your customers or team. Instead, Kanter recommends dropping clues of what’s to come and collecting feedback along the way. For instance, if functionality that your customer heavily uses is undergoing development and will be significantly altered, you can give your customer hints about the impending changes so they aren’t shocked once it’s gone – and they may be able to offer a new perspective or helpful input, too.

4. Unfamiliarity

Change requires us to deviate from our habits and routines. “Too many differences can be distracting or confusing,” says Kanter who recommends avoiding change for the sake of change.

Limit irrelevant variances caused by change. Focus on the familiar and essential. You should only direct a customer to change a process if it’s absolutely essential to their value attainment.

5. Shame

Your customer’s team members or certain stakeholders may resist adopting your product if they’re associated with the system that came before it. Whether the legacy system is being replaced because it’s no longer effective, or never was, Kanter says those involved with its creation and management fear the notion of being seen as a failure by others.

To help people maintain dignity, Kanter recommends celebrating the admirable parts of the past and driving home the narrative that the world has changed. Recognizing what your customer and their team have done exceptionally well in the past and making it clear what needs to happen to be successful in today’s business world, gives reassuring recognition and removes the guilt – making it easier to move on.

6. Competence

“Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid,” says Kanter. Customers may show hesitancy or distrust when adopting a new system if they fear it’ll cast them as inadequate or render their previous strengths futile.

To offset their apprehensions and unease, you should “over-invest in structural reassurance” by making sure your customers have ample information and resources at their disposal, as well as stepping in as their support system and mentor to reinforce their confidence. 

7. Additional work

Customers who are responsible for implementing your product or leading the charge on internal change usually get overworked – despite scrupulous planning.

Kanter explains this is partially due to unforeseen problems that happen midway through change. Kanter’s Law, which is derived from this issue, says that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.”

For those struggling to overcome this murky middle phase, leaders should permit team members to solely focus on the change initiative and/or offer incentives (such as free meals, gift cards, extra PTO) to show appreciation for their participation and effort.

8. Ripple effects

Change can interfere with the work of other departments that aren’t directly involved or invested in your customer’s change – stirring the pot of team animosity when a change (which other team’s did not ask for) impedes their way of doing things.  

To make sure your change ripples don’t turn into tidal waves, Kanter suggests expanding your stakeholder circle. Before implementation, your customer should map out the internal teams that will be impacted by their new product and processes and align with them to limit disruptions and potential inconveniences.

9. Old Wounds

Past working experiences between functions and individuals come with history. When everything’s going well, these relationships appear amicable. But Kanter warns that as soon as you “need cooperation for something new or different” people resurface past disagreements and grievances.

Launching a new software often requires support from other internal teams – whether it’s for technical implementation or the backing of process changes. If there’s bad blood between people or teams you need assistance from, put forth the effort to reset the relationship and make amends for a fresh start.

10. Threats

Sometimes, change poses a genuine threat to people’s livelihood and career. New software can replace existing resources and investments. Kanter says when change has the power to hurt others, you should be “honest, transparent, fast, and fair.”

If implementing a new software will eliminate or drastically alter employees’ roles, don’t tiptoe around the subject. Be straightforward about the full extent and reach of the change.

Get to the root of resistance

Product adoption drives customer value which drives customer loyalty and recurring revenue – the lifeblood of SaaS companies.

Therefore, the success of Customer Success teams and their customers hinge on invoking change both through processes and people.

When dealing with the people side of change, you must account for their emotions, reasoning, and history. Understanding the reasons why people fight change allows you to get to the root of their resistance and address the issue, so you have the best chance of making change stick.

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