A few years back, the Harvard Business Review published an article that offered interesting insights about curiosity at work. According to the author, Francesca Gino, curiosity helps people more adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures.
But applying curiosity is a bit of a contentious matter too because the leaders fear that it will increase risk and inefficiency. And the employees feel that asking too many questions will make them look incompetent, indecisive, or unintelligent.
These are real concerns that I see playing out every day in business settings—even within Avoma where I head a team of nine wonderfully talented customer success professionals.
It’s a topic that keeps coming up in my conversations with the leadership team at Avoma—and during my 1:1s with CSMs. So last week, we decided to finally record a podcast on the topic of what CS leaders can do to drive the right kind of curiosity behavior in CSMs—with the help of data.
If you prefer watching a video instead of reading the blog on how CSMs can drive the right curiosity behavior with data, here you go.
Curiosity is crucial to all customer-facing roles
We keep hearing that being curious is a great asset in sales reps—and being driven by curiosity is something you keep hearing in the context of sales conversations. But curiosity is an interesting element that helps everyone in business—it especially benefits customer-facing teams like customer success and customer service.
The surprising thing is that most leaders don’t think much about curiosity when hiring or coaching their teams—and that’s true in the context of customer success as well. I’m personally bullish on hiring curious Customer Success Managers because curious people are really good at building meaningful relationships and unlocking new business opportunities.
When I onboard new CSMs in my team, I always start the first slide of the presentation with a quote from Albert Einstein which says:
I’m not really that smart. I’m just insanely curious.
Come to think of it, that’s true for most people who are curious by nature. They question everything and it’s a fundamental skill that every CSM has to have to be truly successful.
What does the right curiosity mindset mean?
Curiosity is an important skill, but it’s not everything you should look for when hiring a CSM. One thing that goes along with curiosity is having a strong consultative mindset. Applying curiosity during CS conversations is a lot like asking the ‘five whys’—it helps you get to the core of the customers’ needs.
It also means you don’t take everything that a customer says at face value but try to figure out why they are saying it.
This is a common scenario that keeps coming up in CS conversations. Be it during onboarding, implementation, or quarterly business reviews—some customers will approach you and ask you for features that your tool doesn’t offer.
They insist that it’s a must-have in their workflow—some of them might phrase it like a blocker—implying that they might cancel their subscription if they can’t have it.
We had this happen to us a few months back when one of our customers said that they were canceling the contract with us because of a feature we didn’t offer. They were not entirely wrong—they did have to do some manual work and put extra time into their workflow because of the lack of it.
But when we peeled the onion back and asked them a few questions such as:
- What was the damage in terms of time and money?
- How frequently did they need this feature per day?
- When did the specific use case come up?
- Who was most affected by it?
Surprisingly enough, the more questions we asked them, the more we realized that the feature requirement was specific to just one person in the organization—whose hourly rate was much lesser than other stakeholders in the workflow.
Their use case was also very minimal and the chances of them putting in extra time and manual work was actually less than 1% on a day-to-day basis.
After listening to their issues collectively, we put together a presentation to show them the overall value that they were getting out of Avoma. We helped them see the bigger picture vis-a-vis the one-off request one of their members had.
Long story short, our curiosity led us to understand them better and put things in perspective and we could turn the table around on a customer who was on the verge of canceling their subscription.
When I’m interviewing someone for a CSM role, I try to figure out why they do the things that they do—even if it’s something they do outside of work. I want to understand: what’s important to them, and why? How deep are they willing to go into certain topics?
Hiring the CSM with the right amount of curiosity
It’s often tricky to identify a person who is generally curious about the world in general and a CSM who is curious and can leverage it in their jobs. Both forms of curiosity are great, but the former types of people tend to go down endless rabbit holes without any meaningful outcome.
On a side note about hiring, here are a few things we learnt that helped our remote hiring process.
When looking for curiosity in customer success managers, you need to make sure they don’t like to beat a dead horse.
When I’m interviewing someone for a CSM role, I always ask them questions like:
- What are your passions?
- How did you learn about it?
- How deeply do you understand it?
Their passion could be anything. For example, let’s say they learned a new skill set—like building a new sit-out porch in the backyard. I’ll dive a few levels deeper to talk about that to see how they picked up that skill. I want to understand:
- How did they go about building it?
- What kinds of research did they do on their own?
- Did they learn it from YouTube?
- What didn’t they know before?
At the same time, I look for signs that tell me they aren’t someone who is going to get so side-tracked doing it that they lose focus from the core job. Being distracted by something too much can be detrimental—especially if you’re working at a startup.
As an example, let’s say a CSM takes an interest in building a report. They start building a dashboard to get to know their customers better. They decide to spend some time on the HubSpot CRM and Vitally to build the dashboard.
But then, they go a step further and decide that the dashboard they are building isn’t enough. That they want to build a dashboard that goes even deeper with its reporting capabilities. In their mind, they are going to build the best dashboard that’s out there. But they don’t realize that it’s a job that demands them to spend 30 hours of their week for six months straight.
That kind of curiosity is commendable—but it also causes you to fail at everything else. That’s a good metric to look at when you’re interviewing a candidate: what are the things they are willing to give up to get something done?
Figuring out answers to such questions helps you learn about their time management, how they set their priorities, and how they make decisions. If someone says that they spent four weeks building a porch in their backyard and they didn’t really care about being away from their family during that time—it might reveal some extreme behavior.
As a CS leader, you have to look for people who can balance their lives well and they don’t ignore things that matter in their lives.
Applying curiosity in sales vs customer success
Being curious helps sales reps a lot—especially during the discovery process. The same thing applies to CS conversations as well—be it during QBRs or regular CS check-in meetings.
The only difference is that a CSM has more information and context about a customer’s business than an account executive running the sales discovery.
Come to think of it, most CS conversations are an extension of sales discovery—in form and substance.
The biggest difference is that customer success managers have the luxury of looking at the actual product-usage data and mapping it back to the business goal. A CSM is usually at a privileged place to have a unique perspective on not just how a customer is using it or the ROI they are getting out of it, but also how it’s similar or different to other customers in the same industry.
It’s a shame for CSMs to just take the data points and present them as answers to the customers. Data without actionable insights is just noise. As a CSM, you have to put on your analyst hat and synthesize the data for the customers to make sense of it.
Because CSMs are at the vantage point of having access to industry-wide data, they should be a couple of steps ahead of the customers in terms of noticing trends, analyzing patterns, and recommending best practices.
They have the advantage of pattern-matching a customer’s business data with 30-40 customers from the same vertical. You can build off of that knowledge and leverage that in your customer conversations.
At a more advanced level, the customer success managers should use the data to come up with hypotheses on why certain things are working versus not working. The role of a CSM demands many skills—including having the statistical acumen to run trend analysis. You also have to cross-pollinate the best practices data from your most successful customers to accounts that want to get the same results.
You can never discover these data points and insights without being genuinely curious about your customers. You have to work alongside your customers to learn things together and ask them a ton of questions. You have to figure out answers to questions like: why are they using your tool for the reasons they are using it? What are they trying to get out of it?
When you are able to understand them fully, you can provide them the value that they can benefit from. It will put you in the position of a business consultant—someone who sees things from an outsider’s perspective and has the right solution to the customers’ problems.
It’s a unique advantage that earns you your customers’ complete trust and lets you charge a premium for your CS services—when you’re ready for it.
Prepare well for all customer-facing conversations
To prepare yourself for a customer meeting, you need to hone your research skills. Of course, that includes barebones CSM work like finding out:
- Who is going to be on the call?
- What’s their role in the company?
- How long have they been working there?
- What else can you find out about them before the call?
The answers to these questions are important for you to build deeper relationships with the customer. This level of preparation is fundamental to every CS call.
But with QBRs, the amount of preparation and research gets much deeper. You need to know an account and its data inside out.
If you are preparing to present an insight about a trend or make a recommendation, you also need to have a good idea of what their possible response is going to be.
Let’s suppose that users in an account haven’t adopted a specific part of your product and you plan to recommend them to start using the feature to make the most of the tool. To make the conversation more effective, you have to break down the data by the current state of product adoption, adoption by the number of users, and perhaps a few outliers. But you also need a hypothesis on why the feature adoption is low.
If your hypothesis is valid, you can confidently present your recommendations as a solution to fix the adoption gap. If not, you have to ask targeted questions to the customers to clarify the matter. Have the questions written down ahead of time and know when to bring them up during the conversation. It’s like playing chess with your customers and thinking a few steps ahead of them in order to make sure you can offer them the desired goal.
To reiterate my earlier point, a QBR—or any CS conversation for that matter—shouldn’t be a data dump of rough patches of facts and statistics that you give the customers. Going into a conversation with scattered data points often overwhelms customers and doesn’t do any good to anyone. Instead, a QBR should be a partnership where you present the data to the customers, articulate your hypothesis on what that data possibly means, ask them for their opinions, and agree on an action plan.
At Avoma, one thing we always look for in a successful QBR is how many questions are customers asking, how many of them are CSMs asking, and getting into a detailed analysis of what the engagement looks like. With the right amount of preparation and the right kind of questions, you can turn your QBRs from being a basic session of data dump to strong two-way communication with customers.
Look for critical signals during your customer conversation
A QBR is also an opportunity for you to gauge the engagement level of customers and get an idea of the account health. As an example, the types of questions a customer has or the number of questions they have for you are usually very telling of the longevity of the account. Therefore, you should look for critical signals during your conversations with customers to evaluate which customers are satisfied with your product versus the ones that are at risk of churning.
A lot of times, these signals can come forward in the form of body language. You might notice that the customers are just sitting back, not really asking questions, and not engaging with your presentation. That’s a huge red flag that says something is wrong with the way they are using your product and/or they are not getting the right value out of it.
Avoma’s interaction intelligence is very useful in helping you look for engagement metrics during a customer call. Take the average Talk Time Range as an example. It tells you how often a customer is speaking versus how often the CSM is speaking. We have seen that the most fruitful customer-CSM conversations usually happen in the recommended range of 60:40.
Of course, the talk time ratio depends on the context. But generally speaking, QBRs are supposed to be highly engaging conversations where you ask your customers pointed questions 40% of the time and listen to them respond 60% of the time.
Many in the CS believe that the talk time ratio between the customer and CSMs adjusts to 10:90 during onboarding, implementation, or training sessions. From an efficiency point of view, that ratio makes perfect sense because—when you’re training a 100-member audience, for instance—you can’t risk everyone opening up their mics and asking questions.
But if you are onboarding or training just 5–10 people, I believe that the talk time ratio shouldn’t have that big of a gap. Ideally, it should be in the 70:30 range and try to make the session as interactive as possible.
Imagine a 30-minute training or onboarding session where all you are doing is clicking around and talking, while the customers are trying their best to pay attention to the presentation. In all honesty, it can get pretty boring when you are doing all the talking.
Instead, you should ask a bunch of questions about how the people you are talking to are currently managing their workflows, what are their big challenges, what they want to see in the presentation, and what outcomes they expect out of the implementation.
It’s the most effective way to make your conversations more effective—and you can get there only by asking the right kind of questions from the beginning. When the majority of conversation time is lopsided in your favor, you also don’t get to read your customers’ minds on what they are thinking. But if you strike a balance between asking the right questions and letting the customers talk for the most part, you can glean quality insights on where they currently stand in the scale between retention and churn.
Not all questions are made equal
Many times, CS leaders make the mistake of misreading the engagement metrics in customer calls. For instance, you might look at a call and analyze how many questions a CSM asked, how many of them did the customers ask, and so on. And if the talk time ratio is within the recommended benchmark, you might assume everything is fine and move on.
But when you look at the kinds of questions that the CSM asked, you might find that there is a big discrepancy between the number of questions versus the quality of questions.
This is yet another example of peeling the onion back and seeing what actually took place during the call instead of going by the high-level metrics. The thing about good questions is that they either help you build deeper relationships with customers or drive you toward the right business outcomes.
I had a real-life example of this happening in our CS team a few months back. As a VP of Customer Success, I dedicate a few hours of my time every week to listening to the CSMs’ calls or—if time is a constraint—going over the summary notes of those calls.
Avoma has this ability that allows you to see the aggregate of the top questions that people in your team are asking. During my review, I was hoping the top questions to be based on business goals, ROI, and use cases. Instead, I found that the top questions mostly hovered around small talk!
Small talk isn’t necessarily bad, but there are varying degrees of small talk. If you jump on a call and the first question that you ask your customer is, “where are you calling in from?”—it’s absolutely the worst. They are your customers to start with, so that kind of question shows a total lack of preparation on your part.
Let’s say you are onboarding a customer for the first time who came to you through the account handoff from sales. You can still review their past calls in Avoma or look up the customers on LinkedIn to get a better understanding of the customers before jumping on the call.
We live in a world where we have so much data at our fingertips. Going into a call with zero preparation is disrespectful and downright unprofessional when you are supposed to give customers a welcome onboarding experience.
You can look up every call attendee’s name on Google, LinkedIn, or plenty of other places online to understand what’s their background, how long they have been with the company, and what’s their role in the company. And don’t just stop with professional data, also look at information such as where they went to school or where they were working before this.
Here’s Thomas Minturn, our AE at Avoma, who has a great story about how meaningful small talk helps sales reps build an instant rapport with prospects:
One word of warning though: always find something to talk about that you are truly interested in. People can smell fake talk from a mile away—and they don’t appreciate it when you are doing it with an agenda.
Going back to our original topic, not all questions are created equal because all questions don’t lead you to meaningful relationships or desired business outcomes. Before asking a question, always ask yourself: is it going to help you make a deep connection with customers? Or are you filling up the meeting time with bland questions like “where are you from?” and “what’s the weather like out there?”
Here’s a thing about building curiosity as a habit—you can’t change things and build a new habit overnight. All changes in life are like that: you can’t have a 10% increase in the health score of your customers in one day. But you should aim to improve it by 1% every week or month.
My final piece of advice to CSMs reading this blog—wake up every morning, stay super hungry, and always stay curious. People who do well as CSMs often have a strong consultative mindset—they are super curious and lifelong learners.
Try to find and chase something new every now and then—it helps you build a mindset where you are always learning something new on a daily basis.
If you can learn something every day and make your calls 1% better every day, that 1% increment in your ability as a CSM over a span of 365 days or 10 years will make a world of difference. So keep learning, keep driving, and keep pushing the boundaries of curiosity by making incremental improvements day over day.
I’ll end this post by giving a huge shout-out to the wonderful CS team who always channel their curiosity in the right direction to make sure they don’t let any customer down. Here’s one of my most recent posts on LinkedIn with a virtual team selfie! 🙂