Customer Success as a profession has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short years. Companies are no longer just exploring the idea of Customer Success, they are now making big investments and wrestling with the challenges of managing and nurturing Customer Success teams. In this article, we explore the skills and characteristics that define great Customer Success Managers (CSM), the best places to recruit CSM talent, and how to develop and retain your Customer Success team.
What are the Required Skills and Competencies?
Most industry professionals agree that there is no singular definition for the role of Customer Success Manager. Responsibilities vary between companies at different stages of maturity, from startup to SMB to enterprise. However, there are some general traits you can look for when searching for CSM talent:
- Customer communication, relationship and situation management skills.
- Knowledge sharing and a desire to help others succeed.
- Technology savvy from an internal and customer perspective.
- Program, project, and process knowledge.
- Stakeholder management with internal groups, e.g. Sales, Renewals, and Support.
- Personal resilience.
As customers progress from onboarding through feature adoption, there is the potential to require more capacity and services, which presents as an upsell opportunity. Additionally, the entire Customer Success process is focused on getting the customer to receive value fast to ensure subscription renewal. Therefore, upsell opportunities and renewals bring the following competencies into play:
- Sales acumen
- Renewal management
Where to Find Talent?
Customer Support engineers who successfully solve customer problems can make excellent CSMs, particularly those who have progressed to enterprise support where there is a degree of proactive engagement and relationship management. Similarly, those who have handled escalations requiring critical situation and stakeholder management will also possess valuable CSM skills. In addition to the technical skills, they also possess two essential characteristics that are harder to quantify: 1) the customer care ‘DNA’ and 2) personal resilience.
Customer care ‘DNA’ – These are people who are passionate about helping customers. When faced with severe difficulties they will communicate frequently, engage their organization and demonstrate to customers that they will do whatever it takes to help. Even the most demanding customers can detect and value this trait — building enduring relationships and strong loyalty.
Personal Resilience – Research has been done to characterize the importance of personal resilience in roles that contain high amounts of problem management and emotional strain. Roles that face customer problems 8 - 10 hours per day, every day, can take a toll on employees. Success requires personal resilience — the ability to manage customer demands and emotional strain while staying objective and focused on moving a situation forward.
Training & Education
Internal trainers, especially those teaching technical subjects on product or processes, can make great CSMs. They are experienced in knowledge sharing and can hit the ground running during phases such as onboarding. Trainers also have well-developed communication skills and with a little support they can quickly transition from assiting internal customers to helping external customers. Experienced trainers also can manage the logistics of setting up live or online classes, have good facilitation skills, and may even be involved in the creation of content.
People with a ‘sales acumen’ can also be a fit depending on how a company ties the CSM role to upsell revenue. As SaaS organizations scale, Customer Success tends to de-emphasize revenue expansion in favor of other focus areas, and to avoid any conflict between selling and helping.
If a salesperson is successful, especially in acquisition, you would need to have a credible reason to move them into a Customer Success role. A salesperson who understands the business but doesn’t have the desire to remain in commercial sales may make a strong candidate. Account managers with strong customer empathy and more emphasis on retention than acquisition could be a better fit than one who drives new sales acquisition. At the leadership level, a sales leader may be a good Customer Success leader where the company wants to align the Success function with Sales or to put emphasis on value to protect recurring revenues.
Candidates with Customer Success experience may possess the required skills, but they are by no means a guaranteed fit. Although the titles are the same, Customer Success roles typically differ between companies. Some organizations differentiate roles for Customer Success, onboarding, and renewals while other companies define Customer Success to include account management and sales responsibilities.
Sales Operations and Business Intelligence (BI)
Customer Success departments rely on data analysis to segment customers, understand consumption of onboarding materials, track adoption, correlate support tickets, calculate health scores and track performance metrics and value to the business. The requirement for data analytics and business intelligence is a significant one as Customer Success teams scale. Candidates performing Sales Operations and Business Intelligence roles in other functions should possess transferable skills and transition easily to similar roles in CS.
Retention and Development
The best way to approach your talent retention strategy is to be crystal clear about the role, competencies, and personal characteristics that are required. This will significantly increase chances of retention and success. To avoid fatigue and burnout associated with customer problem solving, and to keep CSM development on track, the following career development tactics are worth considering:
- Rotate CSMs across the CS lifecycle: onboarding, adoption, and renewal.
- Develop team members from one-to-many customer management to one-to-one customer management.
- Expose CSMs to training and content development roles.
- Pivot team members to Business Intelligence and CS operations if appropriate.
- Give CSMs additional leadership roles within the team.
A team competency matrix that maps CSM levels to different competencies can be an effective tool, creating a development path for CSMs and offering structure to development activities. This type of document can also be very effective to share with candidates to attract them to the team.
Compensation strategy will influence behaviors. If CSMs are rewarded on upsell alone then that will drive a selling behavior. Compensation design should drive the behaviors that will result in success for the business. If upsell is a key requirement then percentage attainment of a revenue target will contribute to bonus calculation. To mitigate any risks of selling behavior over Customer Success behavior the bonus calculation should also include a satisfaction measure such as Net Promoter Score (NPS)™.
As organizations scale, the tendency is to separate the various functions and teams that are required for customers’ success, e.g. onboarding, adoption, customer support, escalation management, onsite services, and renewals. The risk with this is that teams become siloed with their own metrics, operating independently and not having visibility to the customer’s status or the real requirement. Even if they have visibility, organizationally in terms of management structure, metrics, and responsibilities there is a danger that team's goals and efforts may not be fully aligned toward Customer Success. It is worth regularly re-evaluating if teams are aligned and working toward a common goal, supported by common metrics, processes, and structures.
Like any effective team, Customer Success requires a mix of characters who can play different roles in order to get the customer to value and business success with the product. Your CSM team will have unique needs but the good news is that there is talent already available — if you know where to look. In addition, CSM roles are quite popular and an attractive option to a growing pool of candidates. The only remaining factors are 1) a good team manager who can integrate, train and support the team in its goals and 2) a budget to afford them.
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About the Author
John Kelly is the Managing Director of CustomerLink, a technology and consulting services firm based in Europe that helps companies of all sizes to understand, measure and improve Customer Success. You can read his latest thoughts via the CustomerLink blog or connect with John on LinkedIn.