The Theory of Customer Success

The Theory of Customer Success

A few months ago I received an email from a local Firefighters Union asking if I would join. I chuckled a little bit to myself. I am by no means a firefighter. Though, I’ve had many conversations about my LinkedIn headline over the years. Which, if you don’t know me, my LinkedIn headline reads “Theoretical firefighter. Actual Bug Squasher” Sometimes people reach out to ask what it means to be a “theoretical firefighter" or an "actual bug squasher”.

The short answer? When a customer has an issue, I bring solutions. I can “put out the fire” in many ways. Training, Services, Feature requests, Webinars, Best Practices, etc.

I can also “squash bugs” because spiders terrify my kids and I'm a crack shot with a flip flop AND a nerf gun.

But, “CSM’s are firefighters” right? Customers call us when shit hits the fan. When things go “boom”, when all hell breaks loose. Yes, this is true. We are. But isn’t it more than that?

We are all smart people. Capable. Creative. Able to solve a myriad of problems for our book of business. We have processes and steps and BOXES TO CHECK! But this misses a big part of our industry…

This is all Theoretical.

Everything. All of it.

When I first heard the term “customer success” it looked nothing like it does now. The job was little more than a career path up from support roles. Relationships and retention never came up in conversation. No meetup groups. No thought leaders. Hell, LinkedIn hadn’t figured monetization yet. Not to mention the ability to grow a community around niche industries. Well, Customer Success is "niche" no more!

Now? We have platforms, playbooks, services, best practices AND EVERYONE IS A THOUGHT LEADER…


That playbook you have on your desktop? Theories.

That journey map you follow? Theories.

That certification from Gainsight you paid for? 👏 Full 👏 of 👏 theories.

Now, this isn't to say there's no INTELLIGENCE behind any of this. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There is a LOT of intelligence behind what we do. And, of course, all those things are incredibly valuable.

Yet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “follow this playbook, check off these boxes, do all the things” and VIOLA! We have a successful customer.

But what happens when they still churn? Even when you did all the things?

You found an internal Champion (check)
You built a coalition of super users (check)
You expanded the user base (check)
You got them to do a Case Study (check)
You exceeded every KPI (check)

and yet they still churn…

You missed something.

We are missing something, guys.

Customer Success isn’t perfect. No process can be. There are human elements that are incalculable. There are budgets and downturns and upswings and layoffs and pandemics and sometimes Reddit makes your stock price explode and sometimes your favorite artist turns out to be a scumbag and everything else that could go wrong ACTUALLY GOES WRONG.

We need to embrace the Theory of Customer Success. That it is evolving. That it is changing. And that it is GOOD to change. To grow. To see a challenge, fail, and get back up again with another plan of attack. To prove that there is always something more to try. There is always something else to try. To prove to our customers that this well never runs dry.

I’ve worked with many young (in experience, not age) CSM's who feel defeated when they followed the “playbook” and still lost an account. When they did everything “right” and still had a pissed-off customer. The moment we acknowledge that we are all testing our theories, the easier it becomes to shrug off defeat and try something new.


We want our customers to be successful. Full stop. Yes, we need to retain. Yes, we need to grow. But also CUSTOMERS GROW TOO. When business needs change, the solution will need to change too. If you lock into the boxes you need to check, you will miss the CUSTOMER part of CUSTOMER SUCCESS. (this is like, a whole different article though)

The sooner we present ourselves as a “resource with many solutions” instead of a bunch of boxes to check, the sooner we can get to real value. Maybe it won't change the ENTIRE WORLD, but it will better shape the world you and your customers live in together.

That’s what this is all about anyway. It is not one size fits all. It's not “check all the boxes”. It IS “sometimes this box works” and most importantly

Always. Having. Another. Box.

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