You’re a Customer Success leader. You want to help. You’re “nice”. These are all great qualities – but they can kill your department if you don’t have the right boundaries.
Boundaries in Customer Success are essential. But there’s good news. Setting them isn’t as hard as it sounds, and you can do it without burning bridges or seeming confrontational. In fact – your empathy and people skills can give you an edge in doing it the RIGHT way. You just need to learn how.
It’s easy to think of boundaries as hostile, but done right, they’re actually helpful – even considerate! Think of them as your user’s manual. A way to tell people:
“This is cool with me” vs. “Not my thing”.
And, like a good user manual, they’re meant to help you get the most out of your relationship with someone or something.
Why The Word “Boundary” Feels Icky
The word “boundary” has too much baggage for most people. It either feels too much like therapy talk for a work environment, or it sounds confrontational. That’s why you should never tell someone you are setting a boundary — you just do it.
When it comes down to it, boundaries are about saying “No” and a lot of us find that difficult.
But you aren’t helping anyone by saying yes to everything. If you say “yes” and then can’t deliver, both you and the person you committed to will be disappointed.
That’s why I often prefer to think of boundaries as “Setting Priorities”.
Why You Need Boundaries In Customer Success
You can’t say yes to one thing without saying no to another – whether you mean to or not.
We all have a finite amount of time. In our day, in our work, in our lives. If you don’t acknowledge that, your time will be filled on a first-come-first-serve basis. This will keep you very busy but it will kill your effectiveness.
Learning to set Boundaries is essential for your own growth and success. You need to be able to make a decision and risk being wrong.
If you’re wrong, use that information as a data point and pivot.
If you can do that and explain your thinking, you’ll never get fired for simply being wrong. But when you’re right, you’ll get credit for it.
What No One Told You About Leadership
When you are an individual contributor, you are asked to do things and are expected to say yes.
When you become a leader, you are asked to do things and expected to say yes or no depending on the best interests of the company.
This is one of the biggest mindset shifts that new leaders have to adjust to. Most don’t even realize they’re allowed to say “no” now!
But have to learn to say it in the right way.
The right level of boundaries for your team
Finding the right boundaries with your direct reports can be tricky if you’re relatively new to leadership.
This is a huge topic in itself, but overall, you want to be collaborative. Show that you are open to their ideas, even if you may not be able to use every one of them. And give them credit for the part they’ve played in your successes.
As much as you might genuinely like some of them, you can’t be friends in the traditional sense. Show you care about their well-being and share a laugh or two, but don’t go out with them 1 on 1.
How Boundaries Affect Customer Success
If you don’t set your priorities, someone else will set them for you.
The CS leader cannot be present for every cross-functional meeting the company has. Not if they are expected to actually get any work done too.
Aim for updates to be done asynchronously, and only accept meetings with a concrete agenda.
Most importantly, block out time in your day to
- Work on concrete CS initiatives.
- Check your email (2-3 mini sessions)
- Eat lunch
More than any other department, Customer Success is cross-functional. This is one of the most exciting — and frustrating parts of Customer Success leadership. But it is also the reason Customer Success is vulnerable to seeming ineffective.
You are often seen as the voice of the customer. Your input feels necessary in meetings for Sales, Marketing, Product, Support… and they all have projects they want your help on.
But just because something is customer-facing doesn’t mean it’s your job. Before committing to ANYTHING:
Ask yourself these 3 questions:
- How much will this move the needle on my OKRs?
- How much will this help the customer?
- Is it really the job of my department?
It can be hard to say no to a cross-functional project because you fear you’ll be seen as uncooperative or not a team player. But company OKRs should help you prioritize which projects need your immediate attention.
Perhaps the biggest cause for scope creep (and headaches for Customer Success leaders) is that the role of Customer Success isn’t well defined. Depending on the company, the KPIs and responsibilities can vary widely.
If it isn’t clear what your department does, it isn’t clear what VALUE it delivers. If that’s not apparent, you’re going to have trouble getting your larger initiatives prioritized, and will end up supporting other more established departments.
The remedy for this is communication. Put a slide deck together that shows what your department does, the value it delivers to the business and the customers, and the numbers you judge it by. Be clear on how that impacts the bottom line. This should be high level. You can refer to it whenever you need to explain why you are choosing to prioritize one project over another.
Which Boundaries to Set as a Customer Success Leader
Here are some shortcuts for the right boundaries to set for your department.
1. Instruct your CSMs not to solve technical issues.
Allow Customer Support to do their job. They are better at it. Even if it feels easier to just fix the problem for the customer in the moment, those moments add up.
2. Sales has Sales Ops. CS needs CS Ops.
No, you can’t “borrow” a sales ops person. CS Ops allows Customer Success to mature from reactive firefighting to proactive and predictive models 3x as fast. The revenue you will lose by going slowly far exceeds the cost of one employee’s salary.
3. Stop telling your CSMS to go “above and beyond”
If your standard processes aren’t cutting it that’s a problem. Solve one big issue rather than 100 small ones.
4. CSMs are not admins.
They are not here to make appointments for sales and should not spend half their time on data entry.
5. Customer Success is not solely responsible for churn
Create a cancel flow including exit surveys. If the majority of churns are due to bad-fit customers, buggy software, or missing features, customer success can’t do much but pass that message along to the appropriate department. If it’s a failure to adopt or to realize value from the product, that’s on CS.
How To Set A Boundary
It might be clear by now why you need boundaries in customer success… Now here’s how to actually set them!
1. Assess Your Boundaries First
Start with your priorities. Here are some ideas to give you a jumping-off point:
- No meetings after 5:30 PM. That’s family time.
- No working on the weekend
- Turn off email/slack when not at work
- No working while sick
- Have a plan and a schedule of how and when to achieve your work goals.
Do these seem extreme? They’re not. And they won’t make you less effective or seen as a slacker.
2. Communicate Your Boundaries
It’s far easier to set a boundary the first time someone makes a request than it is to correct an issue further down the line.
Make sure your team knows early on that you will be unavailable after [X time] except for emergencies, and you don’t expect them to be available after hours either.
- Be clear on what constitutes an emergency. Is a customer pissed off? Not necessarily an emergency. Will they cancel if you don’t get back to them before 8 AM? No? Then it can wait.
- Has a Customer Success Manager accidentally sent out an embarrassing blast email to all accounts? Ok, that counts as an emergency.
3. Say No With Empathy
While “No” is a complete sentence, it’s not the best one to start with.
Fortunately, most Customer Success Leaders have great empathy for others. Start with how excited they must be for their project, and how important it is to them. Show genuine disappointment that you can’t be a part of it.
Example : I really wish I could help you with that. It’s such a cool project and I know how much you are trying to accomplish [with X,Y,Z going on]. Unfortunately, I’m completely at capacity.
Need proof it works? Well the FBI uses this technique too in hostage negotiations.
4. Be Clear
Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. Say “I can’t…” vs. “I might not be able to…” You’re not doing them any favors by keeping their project up in the air on the off chance you can accommodate them.
5. Ongoing Behavior
If you didn’t set a clear boundary the first time, it can take a while for people to get that you are serious. They will try to get you to do things their way again because it’s more convenient and they’re used to it.
This may feel insulting, but have some patience for them. You changed the rules of the game, and they need time for that to feel normal. So try not to “…per my last email” them.
Simply restate your boundary and hold it. If you cave in you’re just going to frustrate you both.
Boundaries are the parameters for your life. They’re what you want to prioritize in each context. In your department. Between yourself and your employees. In your home life. You have a choice in all of these. Don’t let it be made by default.
Whenever you’re ready, there are 3 ways I can help you:
1. Move from CSM to Management with my proven success map here.
2. Land your dream job in Customer Success here.
3. Become an irreplaceable Customer Success leader – Hone your strategy, lead with heart, and create work-life balance here.