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How to Shift from a Tactical to a Strategic CS Team

Are you bogged down by emails and a never-ending to-do list without time to take a breath, let alone strategize and create?

You’re likely stuck in the rut of a tactical mindset, a cycle that can feel hard to escape.

There is a better way, however. Tactical and strategic efforts both have their moments for Customer Success (CS) teams, but the most successful teams adopt a strategic mindset to drive beyond passive efforts to ultimately become true partners who help their customers reach their full value. 

The Difference Between Tactical and Strategic CS Teams

Before deciding where your team falls, you need to know the difference between tactical and strategic teams. 

A tactical CS team is reactive. They spend their days responding to emails, performing one-off tasks, and checking boxes. The danger of getting stuck in tactical mode is that the CSMs are too far in the weeds and spending time putting out fires instead of building customer relationships. Their actions don’t lead to the ultimate goal of providing value for the customer because they are merely performing tasks.

On the flip side, a strategic CS team moves customers forward. These teams understand each customer’s unique needs and how those goals and outcomes directly impact the customer’s business. Strategic teams have a plan to get customers to their ultimate goal of full value and know how the customer will use the product to reach their business goals. Strategic teams have a plan for their customers and proactively reach out to walk them down the path.

Even with a strategic CS mindset, tactical projects still need to get done. As much as we might try to avoid it, responding to emails and scheduling meetings is vital to keeping a business moving. But those occasional tactical efforts shouldn’t become the sole focus of the CSM. The ideal balance is 70% strategic, 20% tactical, and 10% operational. The goal isn’t to get totally away from the tactical but to stay in the strategic mindset as much as you can.

Why does it matter if teams are tactical or strategic? Strategic teams focus on growth and value, both for their own business and their customers’ businesses. Strategic teams focus on the past, present, and future and constantly reflect with customers, adjust, and put them on the right path to full value. 

In her book Radical Candor, Kim Smith points out the importance of building and evaluating relationships. She puts it this way: “People evolve, and so your relationships must evolve with them. Care personally; don’t put people in boxes and leave them there.”

Customers can tell the difference between a CSM who simply responds to emails and one who actively reaches out with personalized help and is invested in their business goals. Growing customers are sticky customers. When given a choice between a tactical or strategic CS team when renewal comes around, customers will always choose the strategic partners.

5 Signs You’re Stuck in Tactical Mode

Every CSM has to spend time in tactical mode. What matters is recognizing when they’re in tactical mode and not getting stuck there. It can creep into the culture and create a reactive and inefficient CS team.

Are you stuck in tactical mode? Here are five signs your team needs a refresh:

  1. Your day is consumed with checking things off your to-do list and responding to emails instead of brainstorming and thinking about the bigger picture. 
  2. You feel burned out and find yourself flipping back and forth between tasks with no real plan or motivation.
  3. You constantly put out fires and get distracted by last-minute emergencies.
  4. You perform the same tasks for every customer and walk them down a prescribed path with no personalization or variety.
  5. Your client interactions focus on what’s been done in the past instead of looking toward the future.

If any (or all) of this sounds familiar, your team is struggling in a tactical mindset and needs to become more strategic.

Shifting to a Strategic CS Mindset

Shifting to a strategic CS team doesn’t happen overnight. It requires effort to change the company’s mindset. But with passionate leaders and CSMs, change is possible. 

Adjust the Culture

A strategic mindset is reflected in the company culture. CS leaders must lead the charge to build and nourish a culture around strategy and outcomes, not just checking off boxes.

That often requires getting the entire company involved to show the importance of customer success efforts. Expectations are everything. CSMs must understand that they are expected to do more than respond to emails and wait for customers to have problems. 

Similarly, customers should expect a strategic relationship with your company. That effort starts in the sales process when sales reps set expectations of partnerships and strategy. The CS team might not be involved in making the sale, but customer success is an organization-wide responsibility. When sales is clear on the strategic mindset, it sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

Understand Where Time is Spent

Before you can create meaningful change, you have to understand where your time is going and the current roadblocks. Is your team currently stuck in a tactical mindset?

Spend time looking at a typical day or week for your CSMs. 

  • Where are they spending the most time? 
  • What tasks are weighing them down? 
  • What opportunities are they missing? 
  • What could be streamlined or improved? 

Break down processes and systems to get to the root of the problem and what is and isn’t working.

The goal of shifting to a strategic mindset isn’t to become more productive or efficient — those are merely side benefits. The ultimate purpose is to provide value to customers and help them reach their personalized business objectives. Use that lens to look at how your time is spent and adjust as necessary.

Create Automated Systems

It’s easy to get bogged down with mundane, tactical tasks. Building automated processes and systems is the best way to free up time while still ensuring everything stays organized. Think through the mundane tasks that weigh down CSMs, like responding to repetitive emails or pulling reports. These processes can often be streamlined and automated to spend more time thinking strategically and less time stuck in the tactical mindset.

At the very least, differentiate between strategic and tactical tasks. Moving back and forth between strategic and tactical is draining and ineffective. Block out times or days to focus on tactical work so that you can dedicate yourself and your team to strategic thinking the rest of the time.

Continually Re-evaluate and Adjust

There’s no finish line to creating a strategic mindset. If you feel like you’re done, you’re not being innovative.

A culture shift requires constant effort and evaluation. Try a strategic process or system and then evaluate its success and adjust as needed. You may find that something that seemed great on paper isn’t working for your CSMs or customers. Don’t be afraid to make changes until something clicks. And once you’ve found a good fit, don’t just sit back and fall into the tactical trap again. Stay proactive and keep looking for ways to improve and evolve.

Strategic CS teams are wholly focused on their customers. Shifting your efforts to better help customers find value and achieve their objectives by adopting a strategic mindset. 

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