Author – Alex Thebert 12/17/2020
I took my first improv class in the winter of 2016 -- nervous, afraid of messing up, and with a vague sense that I might not even like improv. Not only did I meet my fiancé in that first class, I gained the confidence to take more risks, be a more effective communicator, and make my colleagues look great in front of customers. Here are my top improv lessons for any Customer Success Manager.
Rule #1: Say “Yes, and”
Use “yes, and” as a response to the customer to both agree and build on their requests -- especially when you might not actually agree! Leading with “yes” bakes empathy into your work and is great for de-escalating tough conversations. Adding “and” shows you understand their perspective enough to build on it with them.
When mapping out success planning, I start with open questions to gain a customer’s perspective, and then use “yes, and” to build out their core KPIs and the timeline for achieving their goals as a horizontal partner.
Use “Yes, and” to take accountability for your work, and to set expectations in a friendly way. Showing you’re on the same team as the customer will strengthen the relationship, even if you’re not able to meet every request they have.
Rule #2: Every line should drive the story
Driving the story means you’re leading the customer towards success -- and we won’t be derailed by asides, big personalities, or a mountain of feature requests.
Taking charge doesn’t mean you’re bulldozing. It means each of your actions is centered on maximizing value for the customer, making executives feel their time is being used effectively, and preventing any possibility of that “this meeting coulda been an email” feeling.
This starts before you ever sign onto Zoom. Make sure every meeting has an agenda, and a deck (even if it’s just to visually anchor the agenda), and have quick access to the key performance metrics you use to measure success. Send out a summary of action items and next steps on the same day, and track open issues to make sure every you’re always moving towards progress.
Block off some time every day or each week to prep for every meeting. Not only does this ensure meetings run more smoothly, but by protecting meeting time, you’ll have more time for deep dives into big projects.
Rule #3: Make your teammates look like geniuses
Improv and Customer Success are team sports, and whether it’s on stage or in a meeting, if your teammate is struggling, it reflects on you, your organization, and your work.
Here’s how I’ve systemized lifting up my colleagues on customer calls:
- Include a section in any prep doc for my colleagues called “Things that would be great for you to ask about.” Include easy wins, troubleshooting recs, and any future betas that would be a great fit.
- Use private Zoom DMs! We’ll never be able to fully share every piece of feedback from an account (or, unfortunately, the name of every pet we see on video!). Use private Zoom DMs to send over on-the-fly context to set your colleagues up for success.
- Step back and let them lead. Your teammates don’t need a hero swooping in to save them from a customer. They need the context, data, and support so they can be a leader themselves.
Not only is working with a group of geniuses super rewarding -- you’re gonna look like one too.
Rule #4: Bomb the practice to ace the performance
Through improv, I’ve become a believer in roleplaying to practice difficult conversations or new moves. Get a buddy and ask them to take on the specific customer persona you need to improve with. Take a deep breath, and truly treat them as a customer (don’t break character!), and then debrief together on what worked, and what still needs improvement.
In class, I was often told to “bring my best C+ and nothing more.” This means you shouldn’t try to nail a roleplay. Instead, take risks, experiment, and reach beyond your comfort zone.
By leveraging time to practice, learn, and grow, you’ll find that your “performance” in customer meetings will shine as you’re consistently over-prepared for any curveballs thrown your way.
Rule #5: Celebrate “failure”
Improv is all about celebrating failure. This gets you out of your own head, and helps you set your anxieties and fears of failure aside for the sake of your team and the work you’re building together.
When doing live product demos and trainings, screens will freeze and weirdnesses will reveal themselves for the first time. Rolling with these changes, and building up a practice of resiliency will calm the waters with any customer. Customers will often take their cues on how to react from you as the one setting the tone.
Failure is the necessary precursor to innovation, and what will inevitably happen when we’re learning, trying something new, or working in unfamiliar territory.
As they say in the theater biz, break a leg!