Trust in Trust: the Path to Customer Success

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I have been in customer success informally for over 15 years, and officially in that realm ever since Customer Success became a formalized discipline. As I reflect back on my passion for serving my customers, and the journey that brought me here, one incident in particular served as the trigger for my move into the customer success function.  

The year was 2004. I was responsible for sales at a large Wall Street firm that had just launched a new independent business unit with an innovative new line of products that had the potential to revolutionize the industry. We were doing really well – and the company was looking to raise growth capital from a consortium of investors. Term sheets were in place, and closing a much-needed round of financing on attractive terms was imminent, pending the attainment of a few goals that we had committed to.

One of those commitments was to close a certain number of “high-value, big-logo” customer deals that were in the late-stage pipeline in order to validate the growth story that was being presented to the investor syndicate. We succeeded in closing almost all of those deals on schedule. A critical exception was a particular open deal that represented a major logo acquisition in addition to having an outsized contribution to our revenue projections.  

I was leading the deal team for this account. I had developed a good relationship with the customer’s decision makers and they trusted me. The challenge we had with this particular customer situation was that their business need wasn’t served in its entirety by our then current product suite, and the complete solution would have needed a partnership with another firm’s solution stack. However, we had neither the time nor the relationships to put such a partnership in place. I was under immense pressure from my company’s leadership to bring this deal to closure in order to close the funding round. I was asked by the executive team to get this deal done as is, despite the known deficiencies, and deal with any remedies post-sale.  

This situation presented a serious challenge for me – on ethical, relationship and pragmatic levels. On the one hand, I was clear that I would not willfully mislead or lie to my customer. On the other hand, I also realized that the consequence of sharing the reality of our solution with the customer would likely result in the deal stalling, resulting in the likely falling through of our investment deal and putting the company’s survival in serious jeopardy.

I thought long and hard about this – and then decided that the best recourse was to rely on open, honest communication, share the challenges with all parties openly, and to trust in trust.  Let me explain the last point – I have always believed that one must trust in trusting others. People inherently want to trust and be trusted, and I firmly believe that we all respond with our best instincts when we are asked to trust and be trusted.

I had an open, honest conversation with my customer, outlined the situation, shared my personal commitments to ensuring their success, and explained how critical their business was to us. I detailed the deficiencies in our current solution, and that we had a plan to close those gaps by partnering with another leading provider. I also went to our investors and explained that we would get the deal done, but only with some restrictions and covenants to address our prevailing solution deficiencies.

It wasn’t easy – there was trepidation and wavering from all parties to this candid discussion of the risks. However, I was counting on that trepidation being overcome by the confidence generated by our honesty, ethics and commitment to value delivery.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. The customer signed the deal, the investors loved that we shared the cold, hard truth, and they agreed to proceeding with the funding. In the end, we got a phenomenal partnership deal that made our solution the dominant one in the market, we gained a very loyal and vocal customer and investors that were delighted.

Trust in trust. Honesty, ethics and genuine caring for your customer will always prevail.

Srikant Sharma is the Senior Vice President of Customer Success at Conga

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