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I’ve got this old Bob Dylan song going through my head. “The times, they are a-changin”. Customer Success (CS) Leaders, like everyone else, have been experiencing significant changes as we have navigated through a global pandemic over the past 16 months. The CS function has also been maturing and it is continuing to evolve at a rapid pace creating many additional decisions and choices for CS leaders to address.

The Impact of the Pandemic:

As a business function, CS has been thriving during the pandemic times. Why? Some companies benefited from the pandemic and are growing rapidly. For example, video conferencing, food delivery platforms, and telemedicine companies all recognize that they need CS teams to keep up with business growth. Of course, many other companies have had their business decline dramatically. Those who were negatively impacted by the pandemic often have had to downsize or even shut down. They too realize that even in declining businesses, the CS teams are critical to maintaining what business exists by retaining customers, so they have often survived. Some have even expanded.  

It would be great to think that this is a natural evolution towards a more customer-centric business world and I personally hope that this is a part of the growth we’re seeing in CS. Those growing companies who are investing in CS understand the impact. And for others, more likely the CS function has thrived because when times are challenging and businesses decline, companies look inward. They focus on retaining and growing current customers, and that is the true value of CS organizations so it’s natural that CS would thrive during downturns like the Covid Pandemic.

 What’s Next? 

In the United States, parts of Europe, and Asia, the post-pandemic era is beginning. As business norms attempt to recover, we as CS Leaders are presented with many choices that pose both challenges and opportunities. 

I do recognize that this recovery is uneven, and it’s not happening across the entire global business world, in the same way. For those of you who are still in the midst of pandemic chaos – hang in there. Eventually, you too will begin to emerge and this topic will become pertinent to you as well. In the meantime, stay healthy and safe. 

Choices abound. Some are being imposed from corporate leadership and others are surfacing within the CS team itself. Do we go back to the office? If we do, how? Do we stay fully virtual?  What changes do we need to make in order to be in-person in the office long term? What would “Hybrid” or “Both” look like? What challenges come from that? What about our customers? Do they want us to visit or not? Is it safe for my staff to travel to an area where there is continued widespread Covid cases or low vaccination rates? How do I take care of my staff who are burned out from 15+ months of living through massive changes? And what about the losses everyone suffered – loss of life, and also loss of time, and plans? How do I deal with the isolation felt by those who are working remotely alone, and are anxious to come back to the office? Will they thrive and do better in person? But what about the anxious staff who are concerned about Covid variants and don’t want to come back to the office? Can we support all these needs with a single policy? And what about limited mass transit schedules, staff who have relocated and don’t want to move back, and corporate-level decisions that might not work well for CS teams or customers? Whew, I get dizzy just thinking about all the choices we face as CS Leaders, I’m sure you are more than aware, and hoping for some clear answers. 

I wish I had a magic wand and could tell you what choice to make. Unfortunately, I believe that we are headed into a continued period of uncertainty. This is the time for leadership. It is an opportunity to align with whatever new norms will emerge from the pandemic. It is up to us to help our teams get to some kind of “new-normal”, even if that too will change again in a quicker timeframe than we expect. 

CS Leaders must navigate through the transitions

CS is all about navigating and adapting. We navigate customer journeys, we navigate escalations, we navigate growth and we navigate churn. It is your job as a leader to help the CS team navigate to cope with absorbing the unexpected changes that the pandemic imposed on us. It’s up to you to facilitate getting to the best situation for your team, customers, and business needs as we exit the pandemic.  

Exactly how to do this will vary from company to company and team to team depending on your growth rate, size, stage, and use case. There is no single right answer. Even today’s answer may become irrelevant for you tomorrow. Globally we are still in the middle of this pandemic. It’s up to you to consider the narrow balance between clarity for what needs to happen now, and flexibility to change decisions as needed to adapt in the future. And, don’t forget, you must bring your team along as you navigate so that they don’t get whiplash.  

Trust your judgment to know what must be decided right now, and what can be determined later. Ask the right questions, be strong and resilient. You are likely an active listener, with curiosity and a good understanding of the business, and awareness of what is going on around you. Those same skills are exactly what you need right now. A few things are very clear to me, there is no going back to the way we were before and CS Leaders are among the best people to navigate us through this narrow transition.  

Whether or not our outcomes will be good or bad depends on how we evolve and adapt and what we do as CS and Business Leaders. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers at the moment which makes it a very challenging time. There is no way to get around needing to make some of these decisions right now. Even without knowing what the future holds. At the same time, we have to be aware that in changing times, decisions will also have to change, and that in itself is likely to create its own chaos within teams and organizations. 

Be Flexible. Celebrate and be proud of the resiliency of our teams and our customers. Leverage what we learned and what worked. Continue to build strong relationships using phone calls and virtual meetings. Decide pragmatically when you or your team will be getting on the road for face-to-face personal interactions. Don’t force those who are still wary, and concerned about virus variants, or anxious about being around people to get on the road, or you can expect to lose good staff. Everyone needs to find their own comfort zone and path, and for leaders, that means continuing to adjust to individual employee needs. Many of them.

Leaders need to be asking the hard questions. How critical is it to get back to business travel?  What’s the benefit of being in the office? When is it really important to be face-to-face in person and how does that impact the specific employee who has to go? What about safety? It is necessary to consciously consider these questions and the trade-offs that they pose. Ask yourself if you have to make a choice now, or if you can wait. I know that CS Leaders are some of the most resilient and creative people in business. I believe that we can find somewhere in the middle of most of these choices that will move us forward in business, help us be flexible with our teams, and still create value for our customers while we find the balance between retaining the unexpected benefits that happened during the pandemic and getting back to what used to be. I guess it’s about balance or integration and it’s up to us as CS leaders to model and guide our teams in the right direction.

As a leader, decide where you will focus, and be sure to leave things open to be able to change over time. Change is the only constant and you will want to regularly revisit how you are prioritizing and re-balancing between business needs, employee needs, and customer needs.  Finding the balance is not easy, but worth it. The times they are a’changin.