Our customer success crisis response plan — what we did, what we learned

Yin Sylvia
6 min readDec 6, 2022

Times are tough for tech. Since the beginning of 2022, more tech workers in the US have been laid off than in 2020 and 2021 combined [1]. Not to mention globally and many more that went unreported.

While it isn’t reaching the levels that the industry saw during the dot-com bust, in which almost 300,000 were lost over the two years [2], it’s nonetheless a challenging period for anyone in the space.

As customer success, we are at the frontline, responding to this new direction our customers and ourselves are heading.

Our crisis response plan

At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, our customers were cutting costs and downsizing as no one knew what would come next. Talk about operating under extreme uncertainty.

Like the rest of the world, we had our fair share of customers requesting contraction and churn. But as they say, we learn more in crisis than in comfort.

During this period, the playbook for our customer success crisis response was born, and I’d like to share it here today.

This crisis response plan went on to help us navigate the rest of 2020 and 2021 as the world adjusted itself to the mercurial variants. By the time the pandemic “ended”, our NRR was in its best shape thanks to the learnings and experiences we gained through this period.

Hopefully, you, the reader, would find this helpful, especially if this is your first time navigating a contraction or churn crisis.

In summary we

  • Clarified our guiding “war-time” values
  • Conducted “re-discovery” calls
  • Conducted risk profiling
  • Proactively drove value perception and relevance
  • Empowered CSMs to make decisions

Clarified guiding “war-time” values

In times of crisis, CSMs must be clear on what they stand for to make decisions quickly. We honed in on

  • We help our customers to focus on their customers
  • Proactivity is key
  • Don’t assume anything; ask, do first, apologize and explain later
  • As a business ourselves, we are not leading with concessions, but we want to be flexible where appropriate and possible

“Re-discovery” calls

Firstly, we proactively reached out to each of our customers to conduct what we call a “re-discovery” to understand what has changed. Specifically, we wanted to know

  • Have the business goals changed?
  • Could their perception of our value changed?
  • Have their expectations of us changed? Is there a new desired outcome for working with us?
  • Has their preferred way of communicating with us changed?
  • What are their immediate key challenges, and can we address them?

We did our best to get the decision-makers on the line to seek answers to these questions.

Risk profiling

Secondly, with insights from the “re-discovery” call, we devised a risk level for each customer. We assigned high, medium and low risk based on the CSMs’ judgment.

Now, it’s far from perfect, as simple categorical labelling contains bias, but we had to act fast and make the call to trust the CSMs’ best judgment. That said, after the first round of collecting qualitatively what the CSM reported as reasons for risk, we were able to see some patterns and be more nuanced in our subsequent profiling of risk. So, for example, we assigned a different risk level for customers with immediate cash flow issues.

We reviewed this list of customer segmentation daily at our standup as the situation was fluid.

Drove value perception and relevance

Then, with what we knew about their immediate key challenges and desired outcomes in this new direction, we created resources such as ancillary or next-step use cases. We wanted to drive the value perception of us and our relevance in this new direction.

For high-risk customers, it was helpful to proactively suggest to them what their new desired outcome with us would be in this new direction, especially if they are stuck in panic mode and unsure how to move forward.

We wanted to avoid assuming anything for medium and low-risk customers and unnecessarily spooking them. We proactively shared the same ancillary use cases so that they know our relevancy in these times. But aside from that, we focused on validating that the customer’s desired outcome with us has not changed or changed minimally, asking questions, listening and continuing to deliver value against the customer’s desired goal.

We increased our effort in maintaining contact so that we could understand any internal changes in the customer’s organisation while being mindful not to annoy. It helped us in pivoting to the high-risk response plan when needed.

As always, Customer Success is contextual, so a caveat is necessary. The actions we took may not work for your customers and high risk does not automatically equate to increased effort.

Empowered CSMs to make decisions

Lastly, we wanted to empower the CSMs to make decisions quickly based on what they know best for their customers, so we created a priority guide should the need for commercial negotiations occur. Again, we are not leading with concessions but want to be flexible where appropriate and possible.

Without losing sight of the fact that whatever we do it must deliver value to our customers, we prioritised

  1. ADD MORE VALUE BY EXPANDING SCOPE TO RETAIN FULL REVENUE, and if not appropriate, we evaluate the customers’ new needs and
  2. REDUCE SCOPE to contract, and if not appropriate
  3. DISCOUNT, usually over an agreed period before reinstating to full contract and if not appropriate,
  4. PAUSE for a defined and mutually agreed period
  5. and lastly, if nothing else works, CHURN and keep warm

In summary, we wanted to do our best to

  1. DEFEND FULL REVENUE, and if not, we wanted
  2. LOGO RETENTION, and if not, we’d prefer a
  3. PAUSE over the breaking of the contract,
  4. and lastly, CHURN and keep warm

What we learned

Highlighting a few key learnings in bullet points,

  • We cannot emphasise enough the importance of being proactive. Ignorance is NOT bliss. The sooner you get the lay of the land of your customer’s situation, no matter how dire it is, the better off you are, as you can take targeted action.
  • The rapid development of ancillary use cases that were relevant in this period created a perfect way to showcase our industry leadership. Some customers brought us on board to fuel their growth agenda and did not realise we were equally well-positioned to help them in this new direction.
  • Resources like webinars, reports etc., are great but can get overwhelming quickly. Customers wanted more quick, tactical guidance.
  • It was a difficult period for many, and we did not have all the answers. What was helpful was being honest if we did not have all the answers but always offer our point of view (i.e., “We don’t have a crystal ball, but here’s what we think”) and stepping into the shoes of a thought partner to our customers to help clarify their thinking.
  • We also found it helpful to anchor the customers to a future state, especially if they are stuck in panic mode. Remind them that they are opportunities in a crisis and it’s the perfect time to work on fundamentals or prepare for when the market recovers.

By now, the reader can see nothing revolutionary about the approach. It is all that the CS must do during “peace” time but dialled-up.

I’d love to hear your crisis response plan if you have one. And if this is your first time navigating one, I’d be happy to bounce some ideas and share our experience with you. DM me over here!

References

  1. https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/finance/tech-layoffs
  2. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/it-was-not-sustainable-or-real-tech-layoffs-approach-great-recession-levels-11669741730

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Yin Sylvia

B2B SaaS • BizOps • Customer Success • Swim • Pilates • Yoga • Pawrent to 4 doggos 🐶