In September, our team headed to the Customer Success Festival in the Bay Area. There were plenty of insightful presentations, but the most candid one was the panel discussion about the challenges of cross collaboration between product and customer success teams. It was a panel discussion including CS leaders from four companies, ranging from startups to large corporations. The overall feedback was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it was great to see leaders speak so openly. While it would have been cool to see product leaders up there in the panel alongside them (for the sake of open communication and all), it did get me thinking about why these communication problems exist.
Most people are aware cross-departmental collaboration is important — especially between customer success and product teams. Both teams are charged with increasing adoption and improving customer experience. Both teams are well versed in the challenges customers face and what they want (or think they want). And both teams care quite a lot about the product roadmap and keeping customers happy. There is plenty that aligns these teams in both overall goal and awareness of the market as well as how they are solving a problem with their technology. Despite all these common goals, these two teams can often venture into opposition.
Well, the first thing to call out is that the environmental factors surrounding the tech space today are likely causing a low-grade (if not high-grade) level of burnout and stress for everyone. It was clear at the CS Festival that most people there had a rough 2023 and are feeling the weight of resource constraints and increased pressure to “do more with less” — a phrase repeated so often it feels like a cliche of the space.
Stress aside, if we can even do that, there seems to be one common denominator among any descension across departments — leadership. When leadership prioritizes cross-collaboration and backs that up with meaningful systems put in place to support that cross-collaboration, teams thrive. But when leadership makes blanket statements about how working together is important, yet gives no clear direction on what that looks like in day-to-day work… well to be honest, you end up with a broken record phrase like “do more with less.”
Cross-collaboration requires intention. It has to be backed with some agreed upon process so that everyone can feel good about how they prioritize their work. Because at the end of the day, most individual contributors are going to prioritize whatever will help them keep their jobs. And when you have employees looking out for themselves, this is more of a function of poor leadership than it is poor performance.
So how do we accomplish this? How do we build teams that truly work together? If you’re a manager or someone with some weight behind them to influence how things get done at a company — this is for you. (If you are a stressed out individual contributor who doesn’t feel like they have a say, maybe either forward this to your boss, or email me at email@example.com and let’s talk. I feel for you.)
In this post, I’ll share what I’ve seen work*.
Here’s what you can do as a leader to improve collaboration among product and customer success teams (or any teams really!):
- Reinforce a common purpose.
This is not only the first step, but should accompany every following step. In fact, I don’t think you can do this enough. Reinforce your common purpose as a team. Reinforce the value you ALL have. Reinforce why everyone is important on the team and the value they bring. Reinforce the importance of working together and how this is the only way forward. This is the most important part of being a good manager when conflicts arise, so even if you feel sick of it — keep doing it. This will go far while you…
- Let the grievances be aired.
If you’re at a stalemate with your teams and are currently struggling to get them all to work together… you need to air out the grievances. Do it respectively and find a way that works for them, but it must be done. Otherwise, there’s going to be residual resentment built up in the caverns of their hearts. Yea I said it… hearts.
At the end of the day, people just want to be valued. They want to know what they are contributing is meaningful, and they don’t want to live in fear that they’re doing the wrong thing. So in order to do this, let everyone talk it out. Whether they vent to you, or you mediate a conversation between them, it’s important to clear the air and to set that as the intention.
Once this happens, it’s important to set a clear act in motion to move everyone forward. How do you move forward?…
- Read between the lines.
Here’s where the good managers are separated from the not-so-good ones. The Jedi-level intuition it requires to read between the lines of what people are saying is essential in knowing how to move everyone forward. You have to listen for what people are really struggling with and deduce the core problem from both sides.
Let’s take an example:
Your product team is pissed that CSMs keep scheduling hour-long customer feedback meetings and say it’s a waste of time. CSMs are annoyed that product isn’t listening during those meetings — meetings they took the initiative to schedule. All of this is happening because executives of both teams suggested product and CS need to talk more often. So week-after-week, month-after-month, these meetings are being attended but no one is actually happy about them. Eventually no one wants to go and nothing fruitful is happening. Now you have several well-paid people in meaningless meeting, every week.
What’s actually happening here?
Could it be that product is tired of feeling like they’re failing based on the feedback dump CSMs are subjecting them to every week? Could CSMs feel like they have no control over their job because they’re collecting all this feedback and nothing is being done about it? Could it be that everyone involved feels like they’re unable to come up with a better solution because this meeting was set in motion by an executive?
What’s common here?
No one is feeling valued or feels in control of how to move forward. Everyone is unhappy with how this problem is being solved.
This is part of your job — to take the reigns, hit pause, and see if there is something worth reevaluating here. Get to the heart of what everyone’s needs are and see if you can dig to the bottom of those. Don’t get to the solution just yet, because first you need to…
- Humanize each other.
This is a cheesy step, but I’m a cheesy lady. Plus, I’ve seen this work countless times, so I have real evidence. Communicating value in another person’s role goes a long way. Seeing the humanity in each other is probably one of the most under-rated strategies for motivating a team.
Having your CSMs communicate the value in a PM’s role matters. PMs communicating the value of a CSM’s role matters. This step is what strengthens the bond between teams and makes those unavoidable stressful times go more smoothly. It’s what helps build trust, which allows for people to have healthy open debate. It’s what allows everyone to hold each other accountable without resentment. All of this goes a long way in building strong cross-functional teams. All of this is essential to building momentum as a company.
So how you go about this is up to you. But what you are going for is humanizing each other in a way that diffuses increased tension and resentment in order to increase team trust and momentum.
- Integrate. Integrate. Integrate.
I’m all for a quarterly all hands meeting where everyone lets down their hair and connects. These usually entail something around team collaboration and sharing, but are rarely backed with how to integrate these learnings when everyone goes back to their regular schedule. So you end up with these short bursts of blowing off steam that eventually become less and less meaningful.
You need to find a way to integrate these learnings into the daily grind. Meaning, you need to either schedule regular moments of connection or build it into your process so that your teams are routinely reminded of their common purpose, airing their grievances, and humanizing one another. I’m not saying every team meeting has to be a campfire Kumbaya — but you need to make space for your teams to connect regularly so that when issues arise, they’re able to handle it together. The more you invest in their humanity, and encourage them to do the same, the more they’ll see the commonalities on their own. And the more level-headed they’ll be to come up with new, innovative solutions to problems.
I know it’s tough to implement these things when it feels like everything is off the rails as it is. But start small and see how it works. Find something that complements for your team and keep at it. If you’re in need of more guidance or suggestions, I’m happy to chat! Let’s connect. And if you have suggestions of your own that I’ve left out, feel free to shoot me a message on LinkedIn.
*This is what I’ve seen work assuming all parties are generally good-hearted people who just want to work together harmoniously. If you are dealing with egomaniacs who can’t budge an inch, this advice may not be for you. This usually isn’t the case but hey, I live in San Francisco and have seen/heard it all.