Why CSMs Need To Be Capable Project Managers

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Customers are conditioned to see their Customer Success Manager (CSM) as the central point of contact with their vendor. As such, CSMs are the natural first stop for any project a customer wants to discuss.

  • Interested in switching over to annual billing? → Email your CSM.
  • Want to brainstorm a new use case? → Bring it up during your weekly call.
  • Need a custom-built integration? ... You get the idea.

Since CSMs tend to work on a variety of projects it’s nearly impossible (if not impractical) for them to individually complete each one. As a result, CSMs regularly interface with a variety of internal and external teams. So, how can CSMs oversee such a wide array of initiatives, including ones they’re not individually responsible for executing?

The answer: CSMs need to be capable project managers.

Project Management for Customer Success

Customer Success teams are responsible for metrics that map to the overall success of their customer base — retention rate, annual net revenue, or customer satisfaction score, to name a few. Because CSMs are held accountable for the success of their accounts, they are deeply invested in the outcome of every interaction their customers have with your company, especially in the form of high-impact initiatives.

I have yet to meet a CSM who is in a hurry to remove themselves from a major project that they know will have a lasting impact for their customer. Instead, I commonly see CSMs struggling to determine what their role should be when overseeing projects that involve multiple stakeholders.

In the context of Customer Success, project management means being able to identify customer needs or issues, translating them into actionable projects, and shepherding them through completion. Projects can range from simple requests like asking Finance to update the customer's latest invoice, to the extremely complex like developing a new product feature.

"Strong project management skills allow CSMs to better manage their day to day responsibilities, as well as more seamlessly deliver on long-term strategic goals."

Project management is crucial throughout the customer journey from onboarding to renewal. An overarching theme in discussions about the customer lifecycle is that CSMs need to help customers navigate these critical stages.

Applying Project Management Skills to Customer Success

Agree On Scope

Ask probing questions to identify requirements, teams involved, and timelines.

Nothing is worse than allocating significant resources towards a project, only to find that the finished product isn’t in line with what the customer was asking for. Failing to deliver damages relationships because your team is viewed as either incompetent or ambivalent to the customer’s needs.

Define Ownership and Responsibilities

Projects that lack clear ownership and defined responsibilities have a low chance of success.

As part of the scoping process, outline what you need from the customer in order to meet their goals. Have a way of holding everyone accountable and keeping all interested parties up to date on your progress.

Collaborate

It's important to keep a centralized, up to date list of all the projects you're working on.

I call this a "status doc" and make sure I share one with each my accounts to ensure they’re appropriately collaborating with our team on major projects. This ensures both parties are aligned on which projects we’re working on, outlines who owns which tasks, and spells out the progress to date.

Create a Repeatable Process

For complex projects that are common and repeatable (like planning for a QBR), establish a well-defined process that allows you to complete them efficiently and effectively.

Because CSMs interact with a variety of teams working on a range of projects it’s essential they’re able to apply project management skills throughout the customer journey.

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