Image this, one of your customer's renewal dates is just around the corner. Their engagement metrics look good, and their recent feedback has been positive. It looks like the renewal will go smoothly, so you begin celebrating. Unfortunately, there's an unpleasant surprise around the corner.
Unbeknownst to you, they decided to switch to one of your known competitors. Turns out they were testing another product behind your back, resulting in an imminent churn.
This situation is shocking, especially when a seemingly satisfied customer switches vendors when they have no reason to do so. Despite the reasons leading to this unfortunate decision, you can spot and manage these risks as a Customer Success Manager.
But how do you know when your customers might be moving away from your product "behind the scenes"?
The following are three non-obvious indicators of competitor assessments, along with the steps you can take to save the account.
Whenever there's a change in stakeholders, it always comes with a new set of opportunities and potential risks. Newly appointed stakeholders have their own agendas and ideas of what success looks like to them. They may have had a positive experience with your competitor, which led them to stand out in their previous role.
Because of this, the new stakeholder is confident they can replicate the same accomplishments - consequently getting the full attention of your competitor in the process. As a result, your competition will take full advantage of this to win them over as customers.
Your company might already have a stakeholder change playbook for this situation. Among the actions included in your playbook to detect and mitigate risks, make sure also to include the following activities:
Knowing about the stakeholder's intentions can help you better assess the risks and benefits associated with the change. In the best-case scenario, their expectations align with what you can deliver, and you can adjust your efforts accordingly. In the less favorable scenario, you may realize that the risks are too high and that you need more time for planning and executing a mitigation plan.
If you're experienced with your product, you should be able to anticipate the common questions that customers will ask. The frequency with which users ask these questions can also indicate their engagement. This is the point in time when you can use your expertise to guide your customers to achieve their desired outcomes.
It may all look good. However, this can also be tricky.
You may receive multiple questions from your customers about features and functionality you do not offer. This could signify that they are considering a proof of concept (POC). In tandem, they may fill out a feature comparison matrix as part of their evaluation and inquire about capabilities your product does not support.
At the same time, competitors will emphasize their uniqueness while promoting features your product does not offer, which your customers want. It is hard to determine if these questions are based on curiosity about your product or something more worrying.
This "magic" question can help you probe deeper when you detect these types of questions:
"Can you describe this requested feature in more detail and explain how it will best serve your business?"
If their answer needs to be clarified or more specific, there may be no need for a new feature or worry. But you may need to reinvestigate if similar questions continue over the coming days or weeks.
Here are a few tips when you're faced with suspicious questions.
Asking good questions will help plant doubt in the customer's mind about their parallel evaluation before the critical decision is taken.
If your customers express genuine interest in new or additional features of your product, this is a good indication that they are engaged with your product. However, if they inquire about features they haven't used before, they may be comparing your product against your competitors. The challenge is distinguishing between curiosity about new features and active comparison shopping.
Similar to the earlier example, you can spot this pattern by qualifying the use case and underlining the need. Suppose the stakeholder requests a report they have yet to use to meet a new operational, financial, or legal requirement. That's a positive signal and outcome.
Alternatively, if the customer can't explain why they're suddenly interested in the report, it may mean they're comparing your reporting capabilities against a competitor's offering.
You can uncover these necessary details by asking good questions. Here are a few other tips when facing "suspicious feature usage."
If you begin to spot these potential red flags, here are steps you can take to investigate and save your customer.
Evaluating a competitor's solution is often an additional burden to your customer. Suppose your product has delivered measurable value, and you've built a solid relationship with your stakeholders. In that case, you have more influence to change the course of their direction than you may think.
Think about this from your customer's point of view - they are being asked to analyze a product they may not all want while keeping it quiet. Some may wish for the evaluation to end so they can return to normal operations.
You can take advantage of the situation by putting your soft skills and the stakeholder relationship to the test by asking for more information.
When choosing a stakeholder for this, keep these things in mind:
Here are a few sample questions you can ask them as you dig deeper:
Remember, you are taking a calculated risk. If the stakeholder feels comfortable, you will collect insights, gauge their "appetite" for change and gather valuable information necessary for your next steps.
If you were over "suspicious" and it's a "false alarm," then your approach should be perceived as a proactive CSM interested in the challenges and priorities of your critical customer.
It's standard practice for customer management to keep track of client health and take action when scores are low. However, it isn't easy to assess the seriousness of a client's health score from their satisfaction, usage, and relationship indicators because they could all be positive even if the customer is not happy and trialing another product behind the scenes. Therefore, the health score framework should be taken seriously but cautiously simultaneously.
Following good prediction tactics is essential, but you should open your view to more than just metrics and dashboards. To predict nonobvious churn risk more effectively, "read between the lines, " proactively listen, and follow your instincts.
In most cases, spotting one or two signals listed above should create sufficient doubts in your mind regarding the customer's intentions. This will be the time to act and follow a plan with one objective – retaining the customer and avoiding churn.
Here are a few steps from playbooks I used before that were instrumental in executing a mitigation plan:
This data and the information gathered during your stakeholder conversation can help you better understand how to communicate with your customer's primary influences and what kind of messaging will resonate.
It is not an impossible mission.
As a Customer Success Manager, it's important to be aware of the signs that a customer is evaluating a competitor's product. This way, you can take preemptive action to keep the customer interested in your product. Sometimes you may notice this early, during the planning stage, but only sometimes. Sometimes it may happen during the latter part of the competitor comparison. Regardless of when you notice it, you should be confident in your ability to make an impact and keep the customer engaged.
Then it's time to take action. My philosophy is simple - "Never Give Up."
Difficult circumstances, such as the one described in this article, present new challenges, and CSMs must rise to the occasion. You will sharpen your instincts, practice leadership skills, and improve your ability to assess and respond to challenging situations with customers.
Rely on your strengths. Healthy stakeholder relationships, supporting stakeholders, and trust are significant assets when you need to pull all resources in hand.
I'm inspired by the "Mission Impossible" movie series. In it, Ethan Hunt accepts a job and hand-picks his A-Team. They're able to overcome obstacles and succeed against all odds. CSMs aren't movie stars, but they can gather their team, lead the charge, and take on the challenge. They can also make the most of their capabilities and successfully complete a complicated yet achievable mission.
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Tracing the path to CS leadership, uncovering essential skills and strategies, and exploring the day-to-day of a CCO – delve into these key insights in this edition of Dear Insider.