Rhys Ellis-Jones – Director of UK Sales
There’s a conversation I hear in my worst nightmares, and it goes something like this:
Account Manager: “Your service renewal is due next month so I’ve prepared this quote. There are one-year and three-year options and I’ve managed to get some additional discount for you as you are such an important customer.”
Customer: “How much is it?”
Account Manager: “It’s $100k per year but previously it was $120k per year, so I’ve achieved a $60k reduction over the three-year term.”
Customer: I don’t see how we get $100k a year’s worth of value out of the contract. Can you help me understand that?”
Account Manager: “I do appreciate that with tight budgets it’s a significant spend but let me tell you about all the value we have brought over the life of the existing service…” After a significant amount of time spent reviewing internal service metrics and service highlights, the Account Manager presents these back to the customer.
Account Manager: “Hopefully that helps you understand the value of the service.”
Customer: “Not really as that is not the value I thought I was going to get from the service and from where I’m sitting it hasn’t resolved the operational efficiency issues that I thought it was going to. I’m not sure I can justify continuing to spend $100k per year on this service as I have a number of operational budget savings that I need to deliver next year, and this seems unnecessary…”
What’s happened here is that the AM has failed to align to the customer’s success goals which makes it impossible to demonstrate the value delivered. Of course, this isn’t always easy because like beauty, value is totally in the eye of the beholder. My opinion of what’s valuable may not be the same as yours, so VARs must maintain the discipline of listening to the needs of the customer throughout the lifecycle of the project or relationship. And more important than that, that they demonstrate and surface this to the customer continuously, and not just when it comes to discussing the renewal. In the world of the VAR, this means sharing accountability for the customer’s success.
The Accountability Manager
Up until recently, HighPoint had maintained a pretty similar customer-facing organizational structure to most VARs and vendors in the IT industry, with Account Managers charged with owning our customer relationships. It was the AM’s job to retain the primary interface with the customer and ensure that their needs were being met and opportunities to work together were being pursued.
In most customer-facing teams the role of the AM is to be responsible for the growth, profitability, and success of the relationship with that customer. And the clue is really in the name there – an ‘Account’ often reflects the financial relationship and exchange between two parties. But I believe that the relationship between an AM and a customer should be about much more than financial viability. In my opinion, the AM should think of their role not as an Account Manager, but rather as an Accountability Manager – someone who is 100% accountable to the needs of the customer and ensuring they get the experience and outcomes they require.
Investing in Customer Success
But it doesn’t stop there. More and more we’re recognizing that client satisfaction won’t come from just the AM pursuing it, so we’ve changed our focus and organizational approach at HighPoint by investing heavily in customer success expertise to govern and guide our approach to every single customer interaction. And that starts with sales. This means that customer-facing AMs, solution architecture leads, services leads, and exec sponsors come together with customer success professionals in one cohesive engagement framework that focuses on experience. Service and customer success have always been our guiding principles at HighPoint but the formalization of our approach to customer experience will ensure we are consistently focused on the customer’s perception of our ‘service’ and their ‘experience’.
So how does this playout for the customer? Our CX and AM team share in the tracking of a customer success plan which holds us fully accountable to the outcomes the customer specified when deciding to make their technology or HighPoint services investment. To build this plan, we must agree on specific, quantifiable outcomes from the project right up-front. These success criteria must be measurable and reviewed regularly during service reviews and QBRs. These reviews are never superficial. They are based upon ongoing, repeatable methodology where we carefully review the success plan we agreed with the customer upfront, and whether the agreed value criteria has been delivered against it. This process involves Solution Delivery, Managed Services, Engineering, and CX individuals, with the AM accountable for governing the entire process.
Whether it’s a straightforward hardware transaction or a more complex transformation initiative, I believe that the reason many technology projects fail is that they do not take this approach. Very often there’s a misalignment of expectations and ultimately, customer dissatisfaction, because the customer’s perception of value may be different from your own. We’re making this an intentional evolution right now at HighPoint by ensuring that customer success plans are baked in at the point of sale, not bolted on late in the day. This is a natural evolution as our approach has always been to lead with a conversation about the desired outcome and not the price.
In my ten years in Service Delivery and the ten, I’ve spent on the Sales frontline for HighPoint I’ve witnessed countless occasions where OEMs or VARs are desperately trying to prove value ‘after the event’ by hunting down deliverables that might not have been measured as standard. This is entirely avoidable. By shaking hands on a customer success plan detailing what equates to value in clear, unequivocal terms, and then documenting, tracking, and measuring client satisfaction, we can lay solid foundations upon which long term, trusting relationships are built. Of course, there are moments in a relationship that may be worth even more than that – a member of our team going the extra mile to get a critical device to a client out of hours, or facilitating something outside of the agreement that means the world to the client. These moments help to cement a positive gut feel and trust in the relationship. But we need more than these unplanned moments to achieve proper partnership, and so do our customers.
Customer Success is the Primary Measure
By pivoting our approach to customer success as the primary objective in every engagement, we tear down invisible walls that might exist between different teams and role holders. Siloed teams are unlikely to work together seamlessly in the interests of the customer because each is measured on specific internal metrics, and not on their ability to meet the outcomes that ultimately matter to the customer. For example, sales teams will be measured on sales bookings and quota attainment. Service and delivery teams will be measured on revenues and profitable growth. Customer Success will be measured on customer satisfaction, experience, and utilization measures. But if none of these customer-focused measures are shared across all the teams touching the customer, how will their success ever come first?
At HighPoint our customer-facing teams now share the same set of measures and targeted outcomes. We’re also looking to infuse diversity of thinking into our teams, for example by introducing people with deep service delivery experience and front line bruises (like me!) into sales and business development roles, so that our approach primarily centers on caring whether the customer is happy and feel like they are getting the outcome they mentally signed up for when they cut the PO.
I believe that this approach is fast becoming the norm in the VAR space, and it’s critically important that we make this transition, particularly in economically challenging times where we are physically distanced from our customers. Now is the time to realign with customer experience front and center. It may require a leap of faith to innovate and change in the current environment but continuing with conservative measures is not how we will be successful in meeting the customer head-on.
Now more than ever, VARs must be agile and accountable to their customers and be prepared to challenge outdated practices that fail to put the customer first. That’s true accountability.
If you’d like to talk more about how to embark on an outcome-focused initiative, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.