The Partnership Kickoff Model

Kristi Faltorusso, ClientSuccess, explains the Partnership Kickoff Model and how it can help you with flawless project execution
Kirthika Soundararajan
March 23, 2024
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In this episode, we have Kristi Faltorusso, VP - Customer Success at Client Success. She was named one of the Top 25 CS Influencers 2020. Kristi is a seasoned CS leader and has transformed the CS function at high-growth, B2B SaaS companies like IntelliShift and BetterCloud. 

In this episode, we talk to Kristi about her kickoff model. She covers the following topics:

  • Complexities with implementations that include a hardware component
  • What got her thinking about the Partnership Kickoff Model
  • What the Partnership Kickoff Model is about
  • Managing expectations with executive stakeholders of an implementation project

… and more.

Check out key takeaways from the session.

Sri: Please tell us more about the genesis of the partnership kickoff model you developed.

Kristi: Organizations usually go straight from sales to the onboarding kickoff, and that's a huge missed opportunity. You've got someone who's just signed a contract, and you've got the momentum, but you still need to have a productive conversation to help set the table for what the partnership will look like over time.

That was the mind shift for me. It's just what I've observed over the years talking to my peers and colleagues. They go from handoff to onboarding. While that makes sense, there's something in between that can really drive better alignment between the two parties over time.

Sri: Can you walk us through the partnership kickoff model?

Kristi: A kickoff is essentially your first business review with a company. And it should be an executive-level conversation; you should be prepared with visuals to guide the discussion and have a clear agenda and objective. This is really to level-set and reset expectations for the partnership moving forward. I break it down into a couple of buckets where you spend time aligning on the business.

Talk through what their business does – the customers they serve, what their competitive landscape looks like, and how they make money. With a good handoff from the sales team, you should be coming in with information to guide the discussion. And then, you should have them confirm or add additional context where valuable that can guide the partnership over time.

The second thing I like to anchor on is the actual subscription. The sales team will show everything the product can do. But that doesn't mean that that's what the customer purchased. It's important just to reset and tell them what the product can do, what they’ve purchased, and what they don’t have access to. By doing that, we've uncovered and gotten ahead of things that could have been tricky later down the line. We've also got an opportunity for upsell and growth conversations – because now you've got an executive who may not have been part of a conversation or a demo so far, and they're now seeing the complete picture. Spending time here really helps us mitigate risk and uncover greater opportunities later down the line.

The third component is what the partnership looks like from our end. We take it as an opportunity to introduce our customer journey and the prescriptive nature with which we engage our customers. Introduce the accounts team, and talk to them about what they can expect from the partnership over time. I also like to introduce surveys during this point because I want to ensure we've got that engagement long-term. It's a perfect opportunity to show them what they are walking into from both the company and the partnership perspective.

The fourth step is walking them through onboarding. While this isn't the onboarding kickoff, it is a great opportunity to introduce what they can expect over the next couple of weeks or months, depending on how long that takes.

So again, it’s about setting expectations, ensuring you've got access to the right resources, and talking through any technical requirements.

The last component of this is just Q&A and the next steps.
You want to make sure that you're leaving time to answer any questions, address any concerns that might have arisen, and then make sure that they're clear on what happens next.

This five-step framework really helps to set the appropriate conversation to get the partnership kicked off the right way.

Sri: Who do you typically take into these meetings to represent the vendor site organization?

Kristi: I recommend your core account team – so whoever sold the deal and your AE, because this is their opportunity for formal baton passing. Then the customer success manager or professional managing the account. If there is an onboarding manager or somebody who will be guiding installation and implementation, they can also be present. I’d also recommend including the executive sponsor.
The larger the account, the more people we bring to the conversation. We try to mirror them when it comes to the number of people from our end. Depending on who is attending from the customer side, we try to match that from our end as well.

Sri: Has the partnership kickoff model required any retraining for your teams? Or is it similar to other business review meetings?

Kristi: Given that these meetings are about diving deep to help customers understand how you’re're measuring the partnership's success, what the business transformation needs to look like in terms of their KPIs, etc. That's the trickiest part because often, customers don't know what they don't know. That's been an area we've had to spend some time to coach and enable our team to have those conversations with the customer.

Sri: You'd expect any conversation involving execs to have its upsides and downsides. For example, how do you manage their expectations? Do you insist that the customer side execs attend this kickoff meeting?

Kristi: Yes, we do. We can only kick off with an executive stakeholder present. It is so critical that we move quickly, while we've got the moment momentum from the execution of the sale. We make it clear that this is our partnership kickoff, and that these are the attendees required on the customer side.  We've never gotten any pushback here. There are varying degrees of how involved they are in the conversation, but they always show up.

Sri: And do you have any playbooks on managing expectations with execs during these meetings?

Kristi: I think it's all about teeing up the framework of the conversation effectively – even before the call. I always talk about setting the appropriate agenda and then the objective for the meeting. This is an opportunity for us to make sure that we're tightly aligned.
Sometimes, our customers will come to that conversation with unrealistic expectations about how long it should take to complete onboarding, installation, or implementation. And this is our opportunity to explain what's involved and how we execute our project. It's all about communication, right? And answering their questions effectively. And if you can't do something, it's not necessarily a hard "no," but about helping them understand what is possible.

Sri: What's the typical duration of these meetings? You were talking about these five steps. How long does it take to get through all this?

Kristi: We usually get the job done in about 45 minutes for smaller companies or ones with only a few of our modules. But it can take up to 90 minutes when there's more complexity. We always set the agenda and objectives in advance and pad our calendar with 90 minutes – just in case the customer asks us to extend the meeting.

Sri: How do you look at kickoff meetings for mid-market versus enterprise customers? What elements would you prioritize or drop based on the size of the customer?

Kristi: It's important to keep in mind that not everyone has lots of time to spare. Your top-tier accounts should definitely have the framework I outlined today as a given. If you're scaling back and looking into your further segmentation, you can reduce the number of attendees and not go as in-depth into specific areas. One way to do that is by sending materials to your customers beforehand and having them fill out a survey.  We've done that in the past and it works well.

Sri: How do customers react to the idea of a partnership versus the typical customer-vendor relationship?

Kristi: I believe that if you refer to it as a partnership from the start, and then act like it is one, it will set the tone for your relationship. Making a good first impression is essential; establishing credibility and reliability is important for building trust. While just the name might not be enough, good execution of the conversation and follow-up will transform people's views.

Sri: What would you focus on if you had to get just two things right in your kickoff?

Kristi: Setting proper expectations – we need to make sure that both parties know what's expected of them, and that we're on the same page with their goals. The other is an understanding of how they measure success.

Sri: When you have project managers and engagement managers involved, how do you define the role of the CSM during that initial kickoff and implementation phase?

Kristi: I'm always a big advocate for the customer success manager serving as the internal coordinator for the customer's journey. It's the CSM's job to pull in additional resources to help support the customer, essentially inviting other members of the team on their journey. During onboarding, it's important for the customer success pro to invite the project manager or onboarding manager to assist them. Clearly define roles and responsibilities internally and also make the customer aware of who manages what.

Sri: You talked about how the CSM must be held accountable. How can we ensure that everyone in the implementation journey is held accountable –  including the people from the customer side?

Kristi: Setting expectations from the beginning is key for holding people accountable. Having certain milestones or metrics can help measure progress and make sure that everything runs smoothly. One effective way to do this is to create a RACI model, which maps out tasks and who is responsible for what. That way, everyone knows what they need to do and can be held accountable for it.

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