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Understanding Joint Success Planning: A tool for outcome-based customer success management

By Jay Nathan

A Joint Success Plan is a simple but powerful tool for outcome-based customer success management. It's designed to help solution providers align with their customers' business goals and objectives.

Customer success continues to evolve as a practice within companies that enjoy recurring revenue models. 

Here’s our definition of what customer success is: 

Customer Success is the art and science of proactively helping your customers reach measurable business goals with your products and services.

Pretty simple, right? 

We think so, but the range of responsibilities of Customer Success Managers (CSM) in the industry is dizzying. From technical support to renewals and upselling, this role might be one of the most confusing and misunderstood jobs in all of tech. 

Given the definition above, I believe the most critical responsibility of a CSM is to ensure that customers are achieving their internal goals using your company’s products and services. 

When our customers meet their goals, we have an easier time meeting our own. 

Through this partnership, we create customer advocates in the market who will provide references and referrals, we renew customers at higher rates, and we have the opportunity to expand revenue by selling additional products and services into our existing customer base.

So how can CSMs engage with their customers in an outcomes-oriented way? 

We’ve designed a tool called the Joint Success Plan which helps CSMs capture, measure, communicate and execute against customer goals. 

The exercise of Joint Success Planning itself is a collaborative one (hence the word “Joint” in its name). By working hand-in-hand with your customer to build a plan, you will drive alignment and establish shared ownership over goals and activities required to achieve them.

It serves as a strategic communication vehicle to garner attention from customer executives and relationship stakeholders. The Joint Success Plan is designed to be read and reviewed by executives. 

Executives are more concerned with outcomes than the tactics we use to achieve them. So the Joint Success Plan starts with outcomes and works backward. When building success plans always keep our executive sponsor in mind so that we can tell a story that resonates with her or him.

Finally, because this is a customer-facing tool, we won’t be using it to document internal strategies for engaging and growing a customer account. That information is captured in an Account Plan which is a different exercise and tool altogether. 

Joint Success Plans are all about creating alignment with customers and memorializing it. 

Simplicity is the name of the game

The Joint Success Plan is intentionally simple. In fact, it’s less than a page long in most cases. But don’t be fooled, it’s power lies in its simplicity and brevity. 

Perhaps the simplest way to think about the plan conceptually is 3xO: Outcomes, Objectives and Operational Execution.

Can it really be this simple? Yes. It can. My good friend Matt Myszkowski introduced me to this acronym. He’s used the concept successfully at SAP, an enterprise ERP software company with 95,000 employees.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that if this approach can work for SAP, it can work for you. 

Outcomes are the key business benefits that our stakeholders are looking for in our products and services, and they should align closely with your company’s value proposition.

Objectives are near-term goals we need to achieve and the KPIs we will use to gauge progress against them. 

And finally, Operational Execution is a fancy term for activities and milestones. In other words, “What do we need to do to meet objectives and when do we need to get it done?”

We will also use the Joint Success Plan to identify our core customer relationships as well as key risks to realizing outcomes. 

The Structure of a Joint Success Plan

Now that you understand the importance of success planning and the principles behind it, let’s talk about structure. The Joint Success Plan has 5 sections: 

  1. Relationships
  2. Anticipated Outcomes
  3. Objectives and Key Results
  4. Activities and Milestones
  5. Risks

I’ll explain each section and provide some examples you can reference as you build your own success plan. 

As you read, I’d encourage you to think about a customer that you want to have a more strategic relationship with. Maybe you haven’t been able to gain access to an executive sponsor; or, maybe you’re spending too much time on product enhancement requests. Perhaps it's a customer that could be getting far more value by increasing their adoption of your solution.

Whatever the case, I’d encourage you to start building your first Joint Success Plan as you read along. You can make a copy of the template which is available here

Section 1: Relationship Summary

This is a brief overview of your key contacts and their role in the relationship. 

I suggest three types of contacts to track here, starting with Executive Sponsor. This is the person whose budget funds your product. The ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the money your customer spends with you. 

Next are the day to day leadership contacts. These are the directors, VP’s or other internal champions whose teams gain the benefits your product offers.

Primary contacts may not be product administrators. They typically don’t have final spending authority, but what they do have plenty of... is influence. Our goal is to make them our “champions.” Champions promote your company and products internally when you aren’t around.

Strong delivery for, and relationships with, your champions will most certainly make an impact on your future renewal and upsell opportunity outcomes.

Here’s an example of how to document key stakeholders: 

Executive sponsor: 

  • Johnny Denver, President of NA Operations

Primary Contact(s): 

  • Sofia Varga, Director of Recruiting
  • Alan Alda, Manager of Recruitment Marketing

Power Users: 

  • Linda Hale, HR Manager (East)
  • Eli Whitney, HR Manager (Central)
  • Jennifer Cartwright, HR Manager (West)

Note that a good rule of thumb is to maintain a 1-2-3 relationship triangle. One executive sponsor, two champions and three power users. Maintaining this web of “high and wide” relationships allows you to withstand the loss of any of the stakeholders. 

Section 2: Anticipated Value (Outcome)

Anticipated value represents the long-term and ongoing business outcomes your products and services provide. Your value proposition. 

If you’re not sure what your company’s value proposition is, go read what’s on your website. What problems does it talk about solving, and what benefits does it tout that would make a prospect want to learn more, and possibly buy your solution?

If you can’t figure this out from your website, your marketing and sales leaders should be able to help answer this question. You can even ask your champions to help you better understand your value prop from their perspective, however, I’d always start with internal resources first. 

Here are some examples of Anticipated Value: 

  • Enable field managers to control hiring processes while maintaining compliance
  • Hire high quality talent to represent our brand in the field
  • Maintain consistent staffing levels
  • Reduce costs associated with employee turnover

Section 3: Objectives and Key Results (a.k.a. OKRs)

Next are objectives, and this is where it gets fun.

While Anticipated Value represents long-term outcomes and return on investment, an objective describes a current business goal. Stated another way, objectives are business outcome drivers (i.e. If we do [insert objective], we can expect to achieve [insert business result]).

I recommend having a handful of objectives on the Joint Success Plan, typically no more than 3 to 5.

For example: 

  • Reduce the number of unfilled positions across all regions
  • Improve field manager control of hiring processes
  • Reduce voluntary employee turnover

Notice that these are not adoption goals, and they are not projects. They are your customer’s goals, written in their language. Objectives will often be the same as those found on the personal goal sheet of your day to day contacts and executive sponsors. 

Their performance may even be judged upon whether they succeed in meeting these objectives. This is where the opportunity lies. Customer Success Managers must seek out, align with business objectives, and then aid the customer in achieving them. 

Imagine a world where we deliver clear outcomes that result in our users, champions and sponsors receiving promotions for their efforts. Joint Success Planning can help you help your stakeholders look like rock stars inside of their companies and in front of leadership.

Once we are clear on what the objectives are, we’ll need a way to measure whether we’re meeting them. That’s where Key Results come in; the “scoreboard” for an objective.

Key Results are written as SMART goals which means they are:  

S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - Attainable
R - Relevant
T - Time bound

Each objective should have at least one Key Result, however it’s not unusual for an objective to have two or three metrics associated with it.

Here are some examples of key results related to the objectives we outlined above: 

ObjectiveKey Result
Reduce the number of unfilled positions across all regionsIncrease traffic to careers microsite from 8,000 to 12,000 per week by August 30.

Improve career site applicant conversions from 3% to 3.5% by July 31.Increase (and maintain) the number of pre-screened candidates from 10 to 15 per week by June 30.
Improve field manager control of hiring processesOnboard 100% of Central Region field managers to the product by August 30. 

Improve field manager satisfaction with process and solution from 50% to 75% by August 30.
Reduce voluntary employee turnoverReduce regrettable team member attrition from 4% to 3% in 2020

Increase new team member onboarding rate from 80% to 90% by December 31.

It’s easy to see why OKRs are a great “hook” for executive discussions. They map directly to what execs care most about: business results. They also provide an opportunity to bring in best practices. As a CSM you have the privilege and opportunity to see across the industry you serve. 

Never forget that it’s a value-add for your customers to work with someone with visibility into similar companies working toward the same goals. Their CSM becomes a valuable source of benchmarking guidance around what good metrics and execution look like for your industry. 

Section 4: Key Activities & Milestones

The next section focused on the operational tactics. The “how” behind our customer strategy. 

Key Activities are the actions that to be taken in order to meet objectives and realize outcomes. Here is where adoption and utilization play a more prominent role. 

Consider these examples: 

  • Complete rollout to the Eastern Region by July 31
  • Finalize training guide for newly-promoted managers
  • Identify baseline candidate flow volumes so that we can measure improvements

Remember, the Joint Success Plan is an executive summary level document. So while it may be tempting to include detailed project tasks in this section, it’s important that you don’t. 

Instead, choose the most impactful project milestones within these projects. These are anchors in the plan and represent key decisions, review points, deployments or other critical steps involved with meeting stated objectives.

One common mistake I see is that projects and tasks are often captured as objectives instead of activities. When it’s all said and done we’ll be measured on results and outputs, not activities and inputs.

That said, we often need to build support for the activities and projects that will drive positive outcomes. We do this by associating them to objectives and outcomes.

Section 5: Key Risks

Last, but certainly not least, are Key Risks. According to the Project Management Institute, an association focused on project, program and portfolio management professionals, a risk is: 

"An uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project's objectives."

In the context of a Joint Success Plan, a risk is anything that could prevent a customer from achieving their stated objectives.

Again, remember the goal of getting your success plan in front of key execs. Outlining risks is a constructive and formal way to elevate concerns that are preventing the customer from realizing the full business outcome they are looking for.

Here are a few examples keeping with our recruiting example: 

  • Deprioritization of rollout in eastern region due to leadership changes.
  • Current candidate screening practices are causing delays.
  • IT resources required for rollout do not have availability support rollout by target date.

Barriers to success often lie outside of your product. Policy decisions, aversion to change, uncoordinated resources and 3rd party systems are just a few of the examples of items outside of your direct control as a SaaS provider and a CSM.

While we cannot directly control all of the factors that will impact outcomes, our job as CSMs is to influence results despite potential roadblocks.

Your ability to articulate risks and gain executive sponsor support to mitigate them could be the difference between meeting objectives or not. And this could mean the difference between customers renewing or cancelling.

When to use the Joint Success Plan

Now that you understand the anatomy of the Joint Success Plan, you’ll want to consider when and how to use it with your customers.

The image below is what we refer to as the Customer Success Battle Plan. These are the key customer success tasks across each stage of the customer journey after the initial sale. The areas highlighted represent places where success planning takes place. As you can see, it’s a continuous process. 

The Customer Success Battle Plan

Success planning begins during onboarding when the CSM validates the customer’s anticipated value and success criteria. In Enterprise SaaS, this process begins during the late stages of the sales cycle before a contract is even signed.

Once onboarding is completed, users are trained and adoption is expanded, the CSM works with the customer to update the success plan. 

As the customer’s business priorities evolve so will their objectives and key results. Stakeholders will enter and exit the relationship, and new milestones such as renewals and upsell opportunities become a factor.

Once in the adoption phase, executive business reviews (EBRs) begin. These are a great forum for live discussions to validate and update the Joint Success Plan.

Between EBRs, the CSM maintains and distributes the success plan to execs and other stakeholders. This is usually done on a monthly basis with a summary of any changes to the plan.

Start small and build

As you’ve seen, Joint Success Planning is a simple concept, but it will take time. So you probably won’t undertake this process with every single customer. 

Instead, I recommend starting with your most strategic customers. The ones who represent the highest current value (ARR, MRR, referral sources, etc) and potential value (upsell, cross sell and license expansion) to your company.

These customers are represented by the right hand side of the two by two matrix below:

Choose a few existing Strategic and Key Retention accounts per CSM. Collaborate amongst the team to draft and critique the plans before they go in front of your main points of contact. From there, work with your champions to determine how to get the plan in front of executive sponsors.

For new customers, have Sales set the expectation during the sales process that the CSM will be connecting with the executive sponsor directly for this activity. 

A note about scaling success planning to the “long tail”

Most SaaS companies have large segments of customers who fall into the “low maintenance” or “key growth” categories (the left side of the two by two above). 

We don’t neglect these customers, however, it is clear that we need a scalable solution for success planning. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to handcraft plans for each of them, and even if you could, the ROI on that activity would be low.

For this segment of customers we use a more prescriptive approach. First, we identify the most common objectives and benefits your customers derive from your products. Then provide in-app or emailed surveys that allow them to self-select the outcomes they are looking to achieve, and their near-term objectives. 

Depending on their selections, devise digital campaigns to deliver best practice content, prompts and other “nudges” that encourage behaviors and activities known to drive those outcomes. 

Final thought

The essence of customer success is aligning with customers to drive business outcomes. The Joint Success Plan provides a North Star to guide our customer relationships. The planning process itself drives powerful executive engagement. 

With alignment and executive sponsorship, we can execute plans that maximize our customers’ success. And when our customers consistently succeed, advocacy, renewals and expansion sales will naturally follow.

For more discussion on Joint Success Planning, please join in the discussion in the Gain Grow Retain community for Customer Success leaders.

Published July 5, 2020
About the Author

I've spent my career working in technology companies to build customer-centric teams, processes and technology platforms. In 2017, I founded Customer Imperative, a consulting firm that helps fast-growing B2B SaaS companies improve renewals, increase expansion sales and scale customer engagement. See full bio ›

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