Healthy cross-functional relationships are key for customer success teams to do their job. In this indispensable guide for customer success leaders, Rod Cherkas, CEO of consulting firm HelloCCO and mentor for ODCS fellows, draws from his 15+ years of experience as a post-sales exec to provide a masterclass in building relationships with cross-functional partners.
Healthy cross-functional relationships are key for customer success teams to do their job. In this indispensable guide for customer success leaders, Rod Cherkas, CEO of consulting firm HelloCCO, draws from his 15+ years of experience as a post-sales exec to provide a masterclass in building relationships with cross-functional partners.
For those of us in Customer Success, we are often trained to put the customer's needs at the center of all that we do.
Delivering great outcomes for customers often requires cross-functional collaboration, making our work highly dependent on successful engagement with those other teams.
However, getting support from those cross-functional organizations is not always automatic.
This is because each function has its own goals and priorities that it’s working towards. Working with cross-functional peers is, therefore, an important skill itself for customer success teams to master.
This guide is intended to promote that skill by covering:
- How to create cross-functional alignment
- The 3 most important cross-functional relationships for customer success teams
- Relationship-building techniques
- Tips to influence others to support your team
This article was inspired by Rod's session from our fellowship for customer success leaders. Let's dive in.
The complexity of creating cross-functional alignment
Generally, cross-functional teams need to work well together to grow and scale companies, so building cross-functional relationships and navigating them with skill is aligned with the broader success of the company.
For customer success teams, cross-functional alignment is a core part of the job because CS has critical dependencies on other teams to achieve results.
The first thing to recognize about cross-functional relationships is that in any given company, there’s a constellation of different driving motivations and objectives within a company that need to be understood to build relationships, create alignment, and get the support you need from other teams.
Just as you need support and assistance to get things done, each of your functional peers is also developing their own relationships with other functions to accomplish their goals.
So the question then becomes: how do you stand out among this complex web of possible relationships?
To begin creating that alignment and successfully build cross-functional relationships, there are several key questions to ask:
- How is what you’re doing helping the team you’re working with achieve their goals?
- How is what they’re working on helping to achieve your goals?
- How are these both aligned to help achieve the outcome the company needs from you?
These questions are key to consider because it gets you thinking about building mutually beneficial relationships, which is especially critical in a world where so many are working remotely — meaning that these relationships have to be cultivated deliberately since serendipitous chance encounters that might otherwise seed those relationships are largely missing.
To build cross-functional relationships, you want to be a great partner. This means it’s just as important for you to understand what your partner functions are trying to do, to understand the metrics and goals that are important to them, as it is to communicate the same about your own team.
If you can help them get their job done, it’ll make it easier for them to reciprocate and provide the assistance you need.
6 techniques for building cross-functional relationships
Here are six tips to help you collaborate with cross-functional peers.
1. Know and play your position well
What is the role of your team and the outcomes that you, uniquely, must deliver? Clearly understanding what your team is responsible for and how it relates to the goals of the company as a whole may seem obvious, but understanding, communicating, and playing up this well can be an important point of leverage in establishing cross-functional partnerships.
2. Understand and acknowledge what’s important to your peers
Understanding and being able to sincerely discuss what's important to your cross-functional peers is foundational to building an effective relationship, as touched on above.
The best way to do that is just making the effort to ask your peers about it directly, demonstrating a real interest in their answer, and identifying ways that your team can help them.
3. Demonstrate empathy towards others’ challenges
It’s important to understand that everybody feels like their role is the most important thing for the company, irrespective of which team they’re on. Sales thinks the job they do is most important, marketing thinks what they do is most important, etc. etc.
This is not only necessary but it’s an asset. It keeps everyone motivated to perform to their best ability and contribute the most value to the company, raising everyone’s chances of success.
While no team is more or less important in reality, showing empathy for this fact in the context of another function with the company, and for the challenges they face, can go a long way towards getting them to empathize with you and your challenges as a customer success team.
4. Communicate effectively and consistently
Actively sharing what you and your team is doing, and communicating your strategies and expectations, will also help people empathize with you and increase their motivation to support your teams’ objectives.
5. Demonstrate mutual respect and trust
Showing that you understand the value of what other functional teams are doing, and showing respect for the fact that your cross-functional peers have a lot on their plate and goals of their own to accomplish, can go a long way in earning you goodwill when you make a request.
6. Prioritize the most important functions and relationships
Building relationships takes time. Where is it best to invest that time? While ideally it would be great to develop strong ties with every function in the company, in reality you’ll need to prioritize.
The 3 most important functional relationships for customer success
As a customer success team, what challenges do you have that you’re running into most often? Where do you potentially run into the most friction?
In general, there are 3 functions from which customer success teams require the most support:
These are therefore the most important relationships to build in order to influence your cross-functional peers to get the help you need.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t also build relationships with other functions which you may need the support of as well, such as marketing. But for most customer success teams, it makes sense to prioritize these three as they often will be the most critical.
Building a relationship with sales
What matters to sales
The evaluation of a sales team’s performance is tightly coupled with their metrics. Accordingly, meeting their metrics is a primary motivator for them.
They strive to hit their sales numbers, like the latest new logo ARR goal (in the case of recurring revenue businesses). The ability to close deals and hit monthly and quarterly quotas is crucial to them. They also are keen to achieve sales growth by way of achieving their upselling and cross-selling targets.
The intensity of the sales process, along with the way that sales team members are typically compensated, can mean that sales teams have an emotional tie to their goals. Team members beating quota is a major morale boost, and sales leaders take pride in this.
Sales teams also seek to minimize friction in order to deepen and expand relationships with clients and accelerate the time it takes to close on deals. When collaborators are brought in on their process, they want to maintain control. Having this stripped from them is a source of frustration.
Maximizing compensation is similarly important. Though the term “coin-operated” may be overused when describing sales’ motivations, the nature of the commission model means there’s definitely some truth to it, and understandably so.
How to help sales
A great place to start is with empathy. The success of the sales team is directly quantifiable, which makes it a high-pressure job. There’s no room for them to BS—they either hit targets or they don’t. Demonstrating empathy for the stress they face can go a long way.
One way to exhibit this empathy is through effective communication. Proactively seek the input of sales team members instead of waiting for them to come to you in crisis, at which point something likely has occurred that created the urgency.
If you’re thinking about implementing a strategy that affects their organization, ask them for their thoughts. Doing so shows that you trust them and helps form open lines of communication.
Effective communication also involves communicating with their entire organization, not just the sales leaders. Get in front of them at all hands and forecast meetings and share what’s important to customer success and what your goals and challenges are. This will make their job that much easier.
Another way to strengthen your partnership with sales is to not expect them to deliver perfect clients. A common point of contention between sales and customer success can be the quality of the clients that sales brings in. They’ll occasionally deliver clients who make the lives of customer success more difficult, whether because their expectations of the product differ from reality, or they’ve been insufficiently educated on how to use it.
Recognize that sales is under that pressure to hit quota, and sometimes they simply won’t have the resources to ensure perfectly groomed clients. Don’t expect customers who always understand everything that was sold to them, but don’t let sales consistently bring in the wrong clients either.
If some imperfect clients slip through the cracks at times despite good intentions and rigorous sourcing, don’t make a huge deal about it. It’s not worth compromising your relationship with the sales team.
How sales can help you
Your relationships with cross-functional partners should be reciprocal. While they should never be transactional, you should have expectations as to how they’ll benefit you and your team as well.
Because sales is responsible for bringing in the customers whose success you’re seeking to ensure, they have a disproportionate impact on your team relative to most other functions across the company.
One important way in which you can ask for their support is in setting reasonable expectations surrounding the caliber of clients they bring in. While you shouldn’t expect perfect clients, as we mentioned earlier, they should aim to target high-quality customers and set reasonable expectations.
The process of enforcing these client standards might include your team having some veto power on low-quality clients. Customer success should have the power to reject clients that they can see won’t be successful in some very clear way. Whether via veto power or some other way, customer success should hold negotiation powers in the client-acquisition conversation.
Customer success leaders also can and should ask that sales set aside time for well-orchestrated handoffs and share information through clear documentation and communications.
The information-sharing efforts should include the sales team apprising you of known challenges with customers, as these will soon become the challenges that your team is tasked with handling. The trust you’ve established with sales will encourage them to share these customer challenges with you in the faith that you’ll use that info to problem-solve, rather than gripe about such customers being brought on.
Following in this vein, you can lean on sales to help you figure out which clients to prioritize. While it’s important to strive to serve every customer well, the reality is that not every client is created equal, and some will merit more post-sales attention than others. Sales can help you figure out which ones need the most post-sales attention and where the greatest opportunities for customer growth lie. This knowledge will help you manage staffing and resource distribution considerations within your own org.
Building a relationship with finance
What matters to finance
Finance, perhaps more so than any other function, is strongly driven by metrics. A central part of finance’s mindset involves making sure the company is investing its capital in the things that will propel its own growth.
Growth is one of their core drivers, and growth-related metrics are a big focus. Importantly, this often means they’re more concerned with metrics describing the trajectory of the company than they are with ones representing the current state of things.
One such metric is retention. In particular, net dollar retention (NDR) has been garnering more attention among finance execs of late. NDR places a greater emphasis on the post-sales process, where there are opportunities to grow client accounts and reduce churn. This makes it more relevant to your customer success team.
Finance also cares about your productivity metrics. They want you to understand your org’s productivity metrics and continuously improve them over time. If it’s a services team, productivity metrics might include things like utilization, margin, and time to value. If it’s a CSM team, staffing ratios within teams and cost per client may be relevant. Your functional KPIs matter to finance as well.
One more metric finance will likely be looking at is CSAT or NPS.. They want to know how customers feel about their experiences because it’s a leading indicator—it will help them know what to expect from other metrics down the road.
While this isn’t a comprehensive list, these are some of the metrics that are usually important to finance teams in SaaS companies. Each team is different, so the most important thing is to talk to your finance leaders about what metrics matter to them.
And while finance tends to be less emotional and more metrics-oriented, one notable emotional concern for them is a desire for predictability. Predictability is a compelling emotional motivator for finance. They want to be able to project the future, and they’re typically not fond of surprises (at least when it comes to business).
How to help finance
One of the most impactful ways you can help finance is to know your numbers inside and out. The numbers are critical to finance, and knowing yours builds trust, respect, and rapport with them.
While knowing the numbers themselves is great, to really have a strong grasp on them you should have a deep understanding of the underlying causes driving those metrics. Know what users are experiencing, thinking, and feeling and how this is causing trends to go in a certain direction. This knowledge will render a far more predictable world within which finance can project.
You should be proactive in this enterprise. Don’t wait to be asked to try to cobble together a working knowledge of the metrics and their underlying causes. Acquaint yourself with them now, and you’ll impress when you already know them when asked.
Another substantive way you can endear yourself with finance is to hit your targets. This might be the simplest (though perhaps not the easiest) way to make the finance team happy.
A final tip is to build a strong relationship with a partner from the finance team, like the CFO or a finance manager assigned to your org. This spans all of the above tips in that having such a partner will render you more capable of communicating clearly with finance and providing whatever help they need.
How finance can help you
Cultivating that relationship with a finance partner is an opportunity for you to help them, but your organization also stands to benefit significantly from this relationship. For several reasons, they can be a fountain of insight and advice for you and your team.
For one, a finance leader can clue you in to a wealth of information and offer you a purview that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. They work across the company, and consequently, this partner can share input from other organizations to which you wouldn’t otherwise have much access.
Not only do they have insight into individual organizations, but they understand how these different orgs stitch together to constitute the broader organization and can pass that bigger picture perspective along to you.
Finance leaders also tend to be phenomenal strategic thinkers and can lend that capacity to you and your org, empowering you to make better strategic decisions.
Don’t expect these insights to just fall into your lap though, as your finance partner may not think to offer them up unprompted. Actively seek the advice and input and they’ll likely be happy to oblige.
In addition to their insights and advice, a good finance partner can be a boon for customer success by keeping you involved in quarterly and annual planning. Together with them you might also review relevant results and trends both from your team and from elsewhere throughout the company.
Lastly, a heads up on potential budget changes is another useful perk that might follow from a strong partnership with a finance leader.
Building a relationship with product
What matters to product
The success of the product team’s initiatives isn’t always as quantifiable as those of sales and finance.
Yet while product outcomes may be a little more nebulous than those of other functions, that doesn’t mean they can’t be understood.
Product teams are always striving to develop a stellar product which enables a great customer experience, while also straining to manage resource allocation. They’re constantly juggling three major priorities as they work to deliver the best experience possible for their users:
- Allocating resources for new products and features.
- Operational costs of supporting the existing product.
- Fixing bugs and other product shortcomings that need to be fixed.
These all matter to product, but flawlessly executing on each is a tall order.
Sales and marketing typically demand and capture more of the product team’s attention than customer success because of how tightly their goals are aligned.
Great products are essential for sales and marketing to remain competitive, so these two functions will be strongly motivated to capture product’s attention. This means that as a customer success leader, you’ll need to be especially proactive about establishing a relationship with the product team.
Another concern for product is feeling a relentless pressure to innovate. They’re expected to continue to drive growth and remain competitive with other offerings on the market, and this frequently revolves around product innovation, often at the expense of fixing bugs in the existing product.
It’s not that they don’t want to fix bugs. Of course they do! They want to create the best product experience possible. However, the resources usually just aren’t there to do it all. Sometimes customer success teams end up picking up the slack for products that don’t work as expected, struggling to appease frustrated customers. This is one of the big friction points between customer success and product leaders, so it’s important that you as a customer success leader understand where they’re coming from.
Creating a phenomenal product experience with constrained resources isn’t all though. Product also has to meet the demands of the time constraints that are placed on them. They’re expected to have products ready for target launch dates and to keep up with milestones along the way.
On top of this, the products and features they build can’t simply be loved by users; they also need to be sellable.
Customer feedback is one vehicle for accomplishing much of the above. Feedback from the end user is a prized resource that unlocks the path to a better product experience. Because of this, such feedback is also a means by which customer success can become an essential partner for the product team.
How to help product
Customer success can become a highly valuable partner to the product team by systematically collecting feedback from clients and relaying it to them. Customer feedback is precious to product. However, you also need to be judicious about the feedback you share with them. Too much information could overwhelm them, adding more noise when they’re already fighting to sort between so many competing concerns.
Instead of relaying all the feedback you receive, work to prioritize and curate the top concerns your team is hearing about and pass those along. Do your best to include any relevant context along with this feedback. This will go a long way in helping them to make sense of it all, and is something that your team is uniquely positioned to do.
You can also use your close contact with customers to identify trends and issues related to the user experience early on. Gauge whether the product is resonating with users and meeting expectations, as well as other problems the users might be experiencing that the product could potentially solve, then relay these trends back to the product team.
The direction of these communications can be flipped too. Relaying customer experiences to the product team is priceless, but you can also be of great service by amplifying communications from the product team back to the customers.
For example, instead of just passively responding to complaints and requests, you might elect to be proactive by letting customers know about new features that they can take advantage of. This demonstrates to product that you care about what they’re trying to do and will elevate their trust in you and your team.
Likewise, you can serve as “customer enablement” by providing assistance with the product to your clients where needed. Though you might hope that the product is designed well enough that clients don’t need any hand-holding to use it, that won’t always be the case. Just as you shouldn’t expect perfect customers to be handed to you from sales, you shouldn’t expect perfection from the product team.
How product can help you
The product team has the power to make your life as a customer success leader easier by orders of magnitude. There’s a handful of ways in which you might ask for their assistance as a partner — many of which revolve around increased information-sharing.
One way that product might help you is by sharing the rationale behind their product decisions. This helps enable the customer success team to better explain these decisions to customers — especially disgruntled ones who may be unhappy about product changes, continuing issues, or awaiting for the rollout of new product features.
Product can also help you assuage customers by offering your team access to the product roadmap. Using this access you can let customers know when much-coveted features are on their way (but be sure to double check that these features are legitimately being built before you make any promises to customers).
Don’t let product make assurances that things are “on the roadmap” as a means of getting you off of their case. If a feature on the roadmap isn’t a top priority or likely to get shipped any time soon, it’s better not to make promises to customers as this could end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
Further, product can lend a hand by apprising customer success of upcoming product and feature releases. By staying in the loop on these developments, your team will be ahead of the curve and positioned to offer top-notch support to your customers as soon as any release happens. On the actual product side, the product team should provide sufficient onboarding and documentation to create educated, effective users.
Customer success and the product team might also work collaboratively at times. For example, product could seek the input of customer success as they engage in product planning. The process can often happen in silos, and valuable information may go uncommunicated.
To increase your odds of having a say in product planning, it may make sense to designate a liaison to their team. Product leadership likely won’t resist having someone from the post-sales or customer success team involved in product thinking, as long as they’re making valuable contributions. They’re often looking for more resources anyway.
This liaison could be you or it could be someone from your team with a special interest in the product team. You can use your insights from working with customers to help them prioritize, rather than simply adding to the massive backlog of feature requests that they’re already coping with.
The collaborative product-planning process should also extend to escalations. Together with the product team, you should devise an agreed-upon process for handling escalations. This includes determining how and when customers will be handed off from the product itself to the customer success team. Escalations do happen, and they shouldn’t all be managed ad hoc. You won’t need everyone to swarm to these issues all at once if you have clear roles defined for who will handle them and how.
Cultivating cross-functional flourishing
At the end of the day, internal alignment is key to the success of a fast-growing company. Having alignment entails syncing your goals with teams across the company to feed into one another’s success. In doing so, you all contribute more effectively to the goals of the company as a whole.
As a customer success leader, you should do all you can to take your team’s alignment with other functions into your own hands. Alignment with sales, finance, and product in particular can have outsized impacts on your organization’s success.
The best way to foster alignment with these functions is to partner with them in the places where you can generate value for one another. Here are a few of the actions you can take to do this:
- Invest in building relationships, whether remote or in person.
- Go to their team meetings and have their leaders come to yours.
- Praise cross-functional partners in places like Slack when they excel. Show gratitude when they lead a great client handoff, collaborate effectively on an upsell, bring in good clients, or help resolve an escalation. You’ll see your peers start to do the same.
- Show sincere interest in their success. Seek their input and advice.
- Schedule one-on-ones with team members of other functions
- Review your strategy and results with them. Share your challenges and ask about theirs.
Perhaps most importantly, remember that your company and your relationships within it are unique, so no outside advice will perfectly apply. Ask what matters to your partners, share what matters to you, and exchange ways that you can help each other with your respective goals.
Putting these principles into practice is easier said than done, but prioritizing a select few partners makes this an attainable aim. Consistently implement even a handful of the above and you’ll soon find yourself with cross-functional relationships that empower a much more effective customer success team.
At the On Deck Customer Success Fellowship, you'll learn from leaders like Rod while connecting with senior CS leaders from places like Slack, Twilio, Google Cloud and Airtable. Click here to learn more.