How to make successful customers?

At the most simple level, your customers are successful when they achieve value from using your product or service – ideally, you are solving the problem that encouraged them to buy your product.

Or to put it another way:

Success is when customers achieve their Desired Outcomes through their interactions with your company.

Lincoln Murphy

The key for most organisations is to ensure that their customers are achieving this desired outcome as fast as possible after the “purchase” – time to first value. In a world of SaaS if this process takes too long, you are not setting them up for long term success with your organisation, and they are likely to churn – in a month to month SaaS business that could be in less than 30 days from purchase.

At HROnboard we focused on how fast did a customer send out their first offer using the platform – and to drive that metric down to as low as possible. For the Customer Success team, that was the one metric that mattered to us.

At Timely the focus is similar – how quickly does the salon begin taking bookings on our platform. But unlike HROnboard, which is Enterprise SaaS Timely is month to month credit card – we live and die on how “good” we are each and every month. It totally focuses you on your customer.

In both instances, different customer segments achieved their Time to first Value through slightly different journeys. The overall focus is always the same to quickly demonstrate value to your customer after the purchase decision.

The trick to demonstrate value is to ensure the journey the customer has with your organisation is appropriate.

Running a B2B company focused on small business whom self serve with a low average sales price? This experience is most likely mostly low touch – digital. Selling into larger businesses with medium average sales prices, then the experience will be a mixture of low and high touch. You guessed it at the enterprise end the appropriate experience will be mostly high touch.

While this experience needs to start with your sales and marketing messages, I want to focus on post-sale – where your Customer Success team steps in.

The number one priority of a Customer Success team immediately post sale is the onboarding of that customer. This process is the key to increasing the life-time value and ultimately reducing churn. A poor onboarding experience will almost always result in churn – and churn is bad.

The number one goal of onboarding is to have the customer achieve their Success Criteria as fast as possible. The best way to find out what their Success Criteria? Ask.

In a low touch scale model, this is not always possible directly, but there’s no reason your product can’t surface up a number of the key problems your product solves and then ensure your onboarding journey guides the user to that goal. I am always surprised how many products don’t do this simple step.

In a higher touch model, the onboarding journey is a lot easier. You can ask the customer or the sales executive.

This critical step of asking should form part of your onboarding process that is followed for every customer.

You have processes, don’t you?

The onboarding process should cover each step of the journey, the expected outcomes and time frame. I say expected as once you are in the high touch arena, you will find every customer is different, and their journey will need to be adjusted to suit. But this doesn’t change the ultimate goal – to have the customer achieve their Success Criteria as fast as possible.

The final stage of onboarding is once your customer has achieved their success criteria and are receiving value, you need to set them up for upsell. There is no better time to bring up the option of an upsell than when the customer has just seen the ROI your product delivers.

From here, it is rinse and repeat onboarding customers and setting them up for success. You will know if you are successful at this by watching your metrics – a topic for another day.

It’s all about your customers, stupid!

Shareholder value is

the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products….

Jack Welch 2009

There is a lot more to that quote, so read the article. The key message I want to call out is that customers and the value you bring to them drive shareholder value.

That’s all the Corporate Finance 101 I’ve got in me so let’s move on.

It’s not rocket science that by focusing on your customers first and foremost and delivering value in a consistent, high-quality manner is good business.

If you’ve been playing along at home, you will know today we are going to look at the Kanban Value of Customer Focus.

The Kanban Method has several foundational principles used for when implementing Kanban, outlined in two portions:

  1. Change Management
  2. Service Delivery

Today I want to focus on the Service Delivery side.

During service delivery is where you must understand and focus on your customers’ needs and expectations.

A good Kanban board maps out from the point a team commits to doing work to the point work is completed and delivered to the customer – the value part. But there are a few more steps in the process.

In our discussions on Collaboration and Balance, we looked at how WIP Limits focused the team on solving issues holding up work on the board. To get the best outcomes it is while resolving these blockers, by using tools like the 5 steps for eliminating constraints, that the team needs to be focused on the customer.

The real magic is that resolving blockers, constraints and adhering to WIP Limits the team actually increases the rate of delivery to customers and improves the quality at the same time.

I haven’t discussed the concept of policies within Kanban yet, another part of the Kanban magic.

Policies are the “rules” that govern how the board works – such as defining when a work item can enter or leave a process stage, and the Definition of Done. These policies need to be explicit and visible for all to see. The team can then work to evolve and tune the policies as they find ways to improve customer and business outcomes. The best policies are built by and agreed to by the team. Policies are never set in stone, as the team learns by experimenting the policies evolve.

Kanban offers several great metrics to help you keep an eye on the value delivered to your customers. These metrics allow you to also forecast accurately as to when services will be provided to your customer. Sample metrics are:

  1. Lead Time
  2. Customer Lead Time
  3. Delivery Rate
  4. Little’s Law
  5. Cost of Delay
  6. Time in Process

These metrics are best looked at with actual historical data and mostly just require you to track three dates – Date the Work was Committed, Date the Work was Accepted and the Date the Work was Delivered. If you’ve got some cost data, you are ready to roll. I’ll explore a three here “Cost of Delay”, “Customer Lead Time”, and “Time in Process”.

Cost of Delay – A pretty simple metric the difference between the benefit delivered by a work item without delay vs the benefit if the work was delayed. This, along with lead times, helps you determine what work to be pulled into the kanban system.

Customer Lead Time – This is the time a customer waits for a work item to make its way through the system.

Time in Process – The total time that a work item remains in a stage within the kanban system. This can be used to identify inefficiencies in a system.

By using these three metrics you can drive efficiencies. Predict with a high level of accuracy how long it will take for a certain type of work to move through the system. At the same time be able to make crucial business decisions about which items should take precedence when moving through the system.

For example, if you get an “urgent” request from a customer demanding delivery on X date using the data from the metrics you can with a high degree of certainty say Yes or No to meeting their expectations, before you commit to the work.

The end result allows you to consistently deliver on customer expectations with a far higher certainty than with many other operational management systems.

Finally to really see if your Kanban system is focused on the customer here are a couple of “litmus” tests for you to try.

Has customer interface changed?

This means that the processes you are using to defer commitment and determine what work is sequenced are focused on maximising the flow of value to the customer. Focusing on metrics such as cost of delay and customer lead time can help you maximising this flow.

Has the customer contract changed?

Are you measuring the outcomes of your Kanban process in terms of your customers’ expectation? Whether it is with formal SLAs or just customer expectations you should be looking to your metrics for the results. Are you using probabilistic forecasting to ensure that you as maximising the value you can deliver?

All of this sounds easy, but its not and often takes months of iteration and experimentation by the team to really start to see profound improvements in the value delivered to the customer.

Collaboration the key to high performing teams

If you ask a business leader what they want from their teams, often you will hear one word – collaboration.

Collaboration in the workplace has many benefits which have been written about all over the Internet so we won’t delve into them here. Instead, we shall move forward with an assumption – collaboration is good for business.

So then how do you create a collaborative environment in our interconnected workplaces?

Harvard Business Review back in 2007 gave us “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams” saying:

  1. Investing in signature relationship practices
  2. Modelling collaborative behaviour
  3. Creating a “gift culture.”
  4. Ensuring the requisite sills
  5. Supporting a sense of community
  6. Assigning leaders who are both task and relationship oriented
  7. Building on heritage relationships
  8. Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity

I’m sorry to Lynda Gratton Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School who wrote the article, but all this is a little to “high brow” for most of us to implement on a day to day basis.

I’d want to take a more straightforward view to improve team collaboration – Kanban. A key value of Kanban.

There are many aspects of a successfully implemented Kanban process that help teams collaborate and continuously improve on what they are doing.

First up is the fact that work is Transparency means the team can see whatever one is working on. The work is explored daily in the daily stand up when the team walk through the Kanban board.

However, the critical aspect of driving collaboration when you are using Kanban is the focus on improving collaboratively and evolving through experiments – a core practice of Kanban.

A fantastic example is the WIP Limits that limit how much work in progress at any point in time. The WIP Limits on a specific column act as a forcing function to promote team members to work together to unblock the process. Work can only flow into a column if the WIP Limit is not breached. Too often the WIP Limit is reached because there are blockers further down the process – may be in Testing or QA. The entire team needs to work together to resolve the issues, not just the Testers or QA Team.

Kanban is the opposite of standard transformation projects as you “start with what you do now” and build from here, with the concept that there is no endpoint. There is constant evolution and collaboration. Your processes, policies, boards, cards all continue to evolve as you learn and experience different types of work. Through this process, the team needs to be amplifying useful changes and simultaneously dampening ineffective changes.

The team collaborates daily, not just when there are set “Innovation Activities” in the business. Also a “fully operating” Kanban process has a cadence for improvement with several review processes to ensure that the process is fulfilling the ultimate goal of improving the flow of value to customers.

Ideally, when working through obstacles, blockers and challenges, the team works autonomously in a self-directed way only guided by a team leader. When I have been helping teams with Kanban boards, my job as “manager” ends up being full-time craft extraordinaire – so glad for all that time I spent in Kindergarten cutting out!

By enhancing employee autonomy organisations are creating meaningful work for their employees which leads to improved employee engagement. Kanban allows intrinsic motivators to roam free within the team. So not only does your customer get a high-quality product with increased value the organisation receives a more engaged workforce.

Do you have any tips on how to improve collaboration in your organisation?

The balance beam for business

If you are a parent, you will know the value of letting your kids play on a balance beam – it builds balance, stability, body awareness and coordination. These are some of the most crucial gross motor skills a child can learn.

In business similar “gross motor skills” are critical to an organisation’s success – stability, organisational awareness and collaboration.

Stability, or predictability, of revenue, of employees tenure, of quality of outcomes, and in the end value delivered to customers. These elements go a long way to creating quality business.

Organisational awareness of cultural strengths and deficiencies are essential for day to day management but also when driving change through an organisation. Today business live and die by their culture, and being aware of their culture is critical.

Collaboration between employees, teams and divisions in organisations is critical so that they are all working towards the same business outcome. In fact, as many organisations have moved more and more to being knowledge-based collaboration (and the lack of it) happens even when we don’t notice it.

So how can we deliver these key “skills” to an organisation?

Given I’m exploring the value of Kanban in organisations today’s answer is Kanban. There are many other ways of delivering these organisational skills but let’s explore Kanban.

When a Kanban system is humming along it will be performing like a well-tuned F1 car, you won’t even notice how the system is delivering balance to the team.

There are many ways that Kanban creates balance:

  • Work In Progress Limits
  • Pull vs Push
  • Capacity Management
  • Explicit Policies
  • Feedback Loops
  • Known Customer Lead Time

The essential item in the list above is Work In Progress limits (WIP limits).

WIP limits define how much work, aka cards, can be in a specific column/stage of a Kanban board. When the stage meets a WIP limit no more work can be pulled into the column. The team then works how to get work out of the stage to allow for new work to flow into the stage.

Often work can’t “move out” to the next stage on the board due to a “blocker” in the next stage. Figuring out how to solve this “blocker” is key to the evolutionary, self-directed, continuous improvement a team implements to improve their processes, the quality of outcomes and lead time of value delivered to the customer.

How does this work? Well, WIP limits use a little theory called the Theory of Constraints that we borrow from Lean Manufacturing – well the whole idea of kanban is borrowed from Lean Manufacturing.

“Theory of Constraints is a methodology for identifying the most important limiting factor (i.e. constraint) that stands in the way of achieving a goal and then systematically improving that constraint until it is no longer the limiting factor.”

Lean Production

Implementing WIP limits can seem counter-intuitive at first. Often when talking to teams who are newly implementing Kanban they say “Won’t that just slow down delivery to the customer?” The answer is “No” as its that tension brought to bear by The Theory of Constraints that actually results in faster delivery to the customer at a higher quality.

There is a five step process for eliminating constraints within a system:

  1. Identify the constraint
  2. Exploit the constraint
  3. Subordinate everything else to the exploitation of the constraint
  4. Elevate the constraint
  5. Repeat

This process isn’t easy and will create tension in a team. But this improvement process makes the team work together to solve the problem. The solving of the problem requires critical thinking as we don’t want to solve problem A only to create a larger problem B.

Yes sometimes one can only solve a constraint through more investment, but 9 times out of 10 there’s always improvements to be made before you get to the “more investment” stage.

The other key part of Kanban that creates balance is the built-in capacity management through WIP Limits and Pull vs Push. WIP Limits and the fact work is “pulled” into the system mean that the system manages the capacity of the team, creating a more sustainable service orientated and future proof environment.

Kanban, when implemented “correctly” and “completely” helps an organisation grow their capacity predictable outcomes, with a positive culture all the while driving up collaboration.

There is lots more detail I could go into around how Kanban creates balance – a lot has to do with concepts like Little’s law, Weighted Shortest Job First and Probabilistic forecasting but for now, I’ll let you go about your day.

The value of transparency in business

Transparency is a relatively new concept in the world of business.

How do I know?

First, I took a look in The Penguin Book of Business Wisdom for a mention of Transparency and nope. So in 1998 when the book was published to cover the “Must-have collection of Business Quotations, Thoughts and Anecdotes for every Business Situation”, Transparency didn’t make the cut.

Second I had a look in another seminal work influencing business today “The Clue Train Manifesto” which has its central thesis that “markets are conversations” and one of the drivers is the need for authenticity. (If you’ve not read it do so and you’ll understand how Facebook has ended up where it is.) But none of the 92 theses in the book specifically mention Transparency.

Third, the Agile Manifesto, the 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto also have no specific mention of Transparency. Given everyone and their dog is doing agile now again a surprise.

Finally In Search of Excellence talks about information sharing and trust but not Transparency.

Don Tapscott talks about Transparency in is 2013 book Radical Openness as one of the four principles of success – the others being collaboration, sharing and empowerment.

As I said I will admit there is mention of trust, which is the result of Transparency, in these works, sometimes in the form of distrust but no real mention of the value of Transparency in business.

(I’ve not done a full literary review on all management texts ever written so I could be wrong here. For the benefit of this post play along that Transparency is pretty new.)

So what is the value of Transparency in business?

  • Transparency builds trust and honesty within the workplace.
  • Transparency also allows for what is hidden to become visible.
  • Transparency helps drive decentralised decision-making.
  • Transparency improves collaboration.
  • Transparency improves the quality of an organisation’s outcomes.
  • Transparency improves employee engagement.
  • Transparency, in the end, improves the value delivered to customers – the whole reason for an organisation to exist in the first place.

Transparency is good. Transparency is hard. Transparency is brave.

Transparency is all about trust. And trust is a two-way street, and someone always has to “start” trusting before both parties trust each other. Trust, and the betrayal of that trust has been the source of many a scholarly article. Trust in business is also hard but it is empowering for all.

Organisations who believe in Transparency also don’t just believe in it on the good days, they believe in it on the bad ones. Nothing destroys trust than closing ranks when the news is terrible.

So how can you start to build Transparency within your business?

There are lots of ways to go about it, but today I want to touch on one – The Kanban Method. Transparency is one of the core values of Kanban.

Kanban starts building Transparency by making work visible to all. The Kanban board shows your workflows and processes. The Kanban cards display your work items and what components make up your work. When displayed (which they should be) your explicit policies articulate processes beyond the board driving more Transparency on how the team works. The process of feedback loops, which promote evolutionary change by the team, drives Transparency. When blockers are highlighted, everyone involved in the workflow can see them, but also collaborate on how to resolve the issue.

Kanban displays Transparency within a team. Kanban displays Transparency across organisational boundaries when the Kanban board is physically out in the open for anyone in the business to see. Exposing a team’s work like this is a brave, trusting step – especially at the beginning when you “Start with what you do now”.

Transparency is good for business, and Kanban is useful for helping organisations become transparent.

Value of Kanban

Kanban boards are all the rage and have been for a long time now. Most “planning” software has some form of Kanban view of your data – heck even big old Salesforce gives you a “kanban” view of things.

But the real value of a “real” Kanban board is in the underpinning values used to create the board. These values make knowledge work “jump out” so that the team is in a far better place to self-direct/self manage.

There is a lot one can write about Kanban and the value it brings to a service based organisation, but I won’t cover that today, maybe later. Instead, I want to briefly review the nine values of Kanban.

The Nine values of Kanban are:

  1. Transparency
  2. Balance
  3. Collaboration
  4. Customer Focus
  5. Flow
  6. Leadership
  7. Understanding
  8. Agreement
  9. Respect

What’s interesting about these items and the thing that makes them so valuable is each item on the list is a goal for organisations unto itself of most leadership teams. You’d be hard-pressed to find a leadership team in business today who didn’t want their organisations to demonstrate the values.

Unfortunately creating a few columns on a whiteboard with a couple of swim lanes and popping coloured post-it notes on it does not unto itself result in these values. The value go more in-depth and require significant effort and understanding to achieve.

I hope to explore these topics more.

How does Agile apply to Operations?

Much of my working career has involved a mixture of project delivery and operations and while the technology has changed since the 90’s what defines excellent project delivery or great operations hasn’t.

Excellent project delivery is all about time, cost and quality/value-added and operations is about the processes and services that continue to deliver value outside of a project. (To understand what is a project have a read over at PMI.)

One of the unique aspects of operations, unlike a project, is that operations never stops. Operation teams have no control over their workload. Unlike say an agile team “pulls” product backlog items into their sprint plan based on what they feel they can commit too. An operational team,especially customer facing team, has to manage whatever work they receive from their a customers.

But this constant flow of work doesn’t mean agile practices aren’t relevant. If anything, I often feel they are more relevant to operations than delivery! One of the critical values of agile is the need to respond to constant change, a definite need in operations today. In fact, all four agile values apply more to operations that delivery but that is a topic for another day.

The key to introducing agile to operations teams and to respond to change is to understand theĀ heart of agile:

  • Collaboration
  • Delivery
  • Reflection
  • Improvement

These four principles can guide any team through the introduction of agile. I’m a firm believer that if you are living these values, the actual tools and techniques you are using are irrelevant. (Sorry to all the agile coaches and trainers our there.) Having said that there are a few “traditional” tools and techniques that can help operations teams.

So here’s my list of some easy agile practices/ideas that can help operations teams:

  1. Daily Stand-Ups
  2. Fortnightly Retrospectives
  3. Kanban boards
  4. Visual Indicators of success
  5. Theory of Constraints

What are your go to agile practices and ideas?

What are your customer’s desired outcomes?

Any student of Customer Success should know the definition of Customer Success from Lincoln Murphy:

Customer Success is when customers achieve their Desired Outcomes through their interactions with your company.

Nice and simple.

Lincoln and others have explored this concept in lots of detail, and the Desired Outcome boils down to two different parts:

  1. Required Outcome
  2. Appropriate Experience

The required outcome is what the customer needs to achieve while the appropriate experience is how they need to realise it.

Mess these two parts up and, you do not have a successful customer – there are subtleties to this but let’s leave it there.

So how do you figure out these two parts?

One of the initial steps is to understand your customer more than they know themselves. Again simple in concept hard in practice.

A common tactic to understand your customer is to conduct customer interviews. The key to which is the type of question you ask.

One type questioning I like is from the Socratic method, yes there are other methods/ways. But for now, I’m going to explore the six types of Socratic questions adapted from R.W. Paul’s work on critical thinking.

  1. Questions for clarification – Why do you say that?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions – What could we assume instead?
  3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence – What would be an example?
  4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives – Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences: What are you implying?
  6. Questions about the question: What does…mean?

Using questions in this style during interviews you can start to break down what the customer is trying to achieve (required outcome) and how they want to achieve it (appropriate experience).

Of course, once you have some results, you need to build experiments to confirm your hypothesis, but that is content for another day.


Business agility

Agile is not new!

Although if you listen to many current business leaders it is the latest in innovative thinking that will save the world and their business. They are partially right, but it’s not new.

Agile was “born” in early 2001 at a small gathering of software development pioneers in Utah. Out of this gathering came the Agile Manifesto. (In fact, as I write this post that manifesto is now 18 years old, almost a generation ago.)

Agile Manifesto

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile in business

A couple of weeks ago I attended 1st Conference all about enabling Organisational Agility in 2018. Overall an awesome conference that got my mind thinking – always the sign of a great event.

For those that don’t know Agile software development is a change-based delivery methodology. From this perspective there are many ways to do agile:


For business, agility is about responding to the change in a whole of business perspective. Sounds easy, not so.

To reuse from Sharon Robson‘s presentation agile is:

  • Customer-centric
  • Focus on Value
  • Visibility
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Team work
  • Flexible/Adaptive
  • Reflective
  • Learning
  • Improvement

All good things for business, but very hard to do in practice.

Many of the speakers highlighted that today business is very focused on the “how” of agile but not the “why” or Kokoro of agile. They are stuck in the Shu of Shu Ha Ri and not moving through the various stages of mastery.

Having been an admirer of agile for the better part of a decade I’m hoping to write a bit more about agile over the coming months. Maybe I’ll explore some of my more recent experiences and flesh out some more thoughts – like agile performance management.

What is Customer Success?

Over the last few years, I have been working at the Head of Customer Success, which for many might seem a strange change of pace from the HR Technology Consultant/Expert/Whatever.

However, it is not that far from what I had been doing. A lot of my career had been spent in project delivery roles of various technology platforms. Over the years I started to realise how critical change management was in the process.

My views on change management could be summed up in a simple cartoon for years I was using on the back of my business card:


The image is from Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid, although I don’t seem to be able to find the originally published version anywhere.

This approach to project implementation moved my focus from just being about time, cost and quality. To ensure that the end solution actually met the customer, or user, in this case, needs and added value to their day.

Jump forward and this brings me to the definition of a customer success function that I have been using for the last few years. The basics came from Lincoln Murphy‘s book on Customer Success.

To me customer success needs to be focused on 5 areas:

  1. Orientated around the success of your customers using your service or product – adding value to them.
  2. Revenue generating – yes with a subscription economy if you are not driving up customer lifetime value you are doing it wrong.
  3. Proactive engagements that have a context to the customer – these are the best to engage and demonstrate value for customers.
  4. Analytical focused, not just relationship based – you cannot scale a customer success function based totally on relationships.
  5. Predictive so you can let the CFO know churn and growth numbers.

There are lots of ways to execute on these factors.