Do you remember playing the game "telephone" in grade school? The teacher would whisper a phrase to the first student in line; students down the line would quietly repeat it to each other, one by one. When the last student shared what he'd heard, it barely resembled the teacher's sentence.

Although the game illustrates the dangers of gossip, it also points to a pernicious problem in business: bungled handoffs between sales and customer-focused staff. Whatever the salesperson tells the client, the customer team often hears a different story.

While crossed wires between sales and customer success can create tension, there's no point in playing the blame game. Instead, focus on the solutions: processes and technology.



From One Team to Another

Both salespeople and customer success personnel are, or should be, expert communicators. As a result, leaders often leave interteam communication up to them. The message is the same, leaders assume, whether the salesperson conveys client information via Slack, email, phone or face-to-face conversations.

Unfortunately, as the game of telephone teaches us, that's not true. Face-to-face communication can be 34 times more effective than email at producing a positive response, but persuasion isn't the point of a handoff. When critical information can be lost, communication methods that record what was said tend to be a safer bet.

But email is no longer the only channel for digital, text-based communication. No matter how many rules employers implement about which messages should be stored where, employees inevitably talk to one another using whichever program is most convenient at the moment.

One example comes from Gong, a conversational intelligence platform for sales teams. Like most companies in the digital age, Gong struggled with too many communication tools. Its customer success team didn't know whether it would find the answer to a sales question in a CRM tool, an email, a calendar or another program. Through email augmentation platform Mixmax, Gong discovered that fewer tools could actually facilitate better communication.

But the trouble isn't just with tools. At many companies, there are few (or no) ground rules surrounding how and when sales should communicate with customer success. Automated processes can make communications between the two teams less prone to error.

When Processes Pay

No matter the product or company, there are three critical points in the client life cycle when problems typically flare up: acquisition, upsell and renewal.


1. Acquisition

Acquisition is by far the most expensive of the four, so it deserves the most rigorous process, according to a 2016 study by Pacific Crest SAAS of 400 companies. This study says it is nine times less to renew a customer as it is to attain a new one. Salespeople should record every call before and after the client signs, ideally using an app like Otter. Otter lets the user record, transcribe, search and share voice conversations. Not only does it save transcription time, but it also creates a mutually accessible record of concerns the client had or promises the salesperson made. Recordings should be shared prior to the handoff.

In my own team, we've had to align customer communication in one place. We were getting lost in all the emails and Slack conversations, so we developed new processes that have improved our handoffs.


2. Upsells

Upsells, which are less expensive than acquisitions, arguably take more diligence. When clients decide to invest more in a product, they also expect a heightened level of service. Something as simple as a miscommunication over the features included in a product tier can cause them to reconsider.

By this point, both the customer success specialist and the salesperson should have built a relationship with the client. Therefore, it's a good idea for both parties to be part of the upsell call. Not only does having the conversation together reduce the chance of a mistake, but it heightens trust: The company considers the client worthy of both employees' time.


3. Renewals

What about simple renewal? Unfortunately, companies often treat this client interaction like a given. Clients can tell when they're taken for granted, which can jeopardize the renewal -- the least costly of all sources of revenue. While this is usually a conversation the customer success team can have without the salesperson, it's one they should take seriously. It's critical for customer success to document clients' points of satisfaction, as well as their frustrations, well ahead of their renewal date. That makes each insight accessible to the entire team in a timeframe they can act on.

Communication has never been easy, but the proliferation of messaging tools has -- ironically -- made it more challenging than ever. Systems change, requests get lost and clients get upset. Occasional "telephone"-like mishaps are unavoidable, but that doesn't mean we can't take steps to prevent them.

Published on: Feb 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.