A Vygotskian Perspective on Customer Success

March 12, 2019

I’ve always had a very simple north star for guiding my Customer Success practice: be helpful. It’s my responsibility to help my customers get from the present to the future. We describe that progression as a customer’s journey, something that resonates strongly with my education background.

At the most basic level, education is just the transferring of knowledge. At an advanced level, education is the mentoring and development of a learner. As an educator my responsibility is to shepherd learners to where they otherwise would not be able to go. This concept was elegantly conceptualized by psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

Before we get into how this applies to Customer Success, why it’s important, and where you can improve, I want to introduce the man and his theory for those who are unfamiliar.

Who is Lev Vygotsky?

Lev Vygotsky is a Soviet psychologist whose work focused on how social interactions and culture influence the development of children. According to Vygotsky, children continually learn through interactions with their parents and others. His constructivist theory asserts that knowledge and truth are constructed. If you’d like to learn more about his work, it’s divided into three primary concepts: Social Interaction, the More Knowledgeable Other, and the Zone of Proximal Development.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Vygotsky believed there are three types of tasks: (1) those that can be done without assistance, (2) those that cannot be done, and (3) those that can be done with assistance. This third type of task resides in what he coined the zone of proximal development. Through an education lens, the zone of proximal development is the sweet spot where students are being pushed yet supported. The scaffold is gradually tapered down as the learner matures until the task becomes one that can be done without assistance.

How Does it Relate to Customer Success?

You may not realize it, you may not have signed up for it, but if you’re in Customer Success you are indeed an educator. Your customers come with a problem and they need to solve it. Customer Success functions to bridge that gap. Especially when it comes to a new customer, you don’t want them drowning as they swim towards the promised land.

This isn’t just about training and onboarding, the zone of proximal development can be applied to implementation, desire to expand, advocacy… really most things. When you boil it down to the simplest terms, customers have a desired outcome, somewhere they want to get, and Customer Success is the assistance to do what they otherwise may not be able to do.

In the context of Customer Success, “tasks that cannot be done” is a bit of a misnomer. Keep in mind that the outermost ring—tasks which cannot be done—is a moving goal post. As tasks requiring assistance become attainable, those that are unattainable slide into the new zone of proximal development.

That process can be stressful. Adopting a new software or redefining business processes is hard enough. But dealing with constantly being on the fringe of your comfort zone can scare people away. While your customers are focused on reaching their desired outcomes, as a Customer Success professional you want to mask that they may be traversing treacherous waters.

When you reframe education as development, it falls in line with Customer Success. Partner with your customers to achieve their outcomes, support them in times of struggle, and advocate on their behalf — they will grow faster and larger than if you kept them at an arms length.

Why is this Important?

Remember, if your customers are successful, you will be successful. The zone of proximal development is going to manifest differently for each company. Conceptualizing gaps in this way will help determine the best way to build bridges. Documentation, automation, and consultations are just some of the many ways you can scaffold the zone. Self-awareness and empathy for the customer’s journey are crucial in cultivating a successful environment. Here are three Customer Success lenses to apply the concept to: