It's a smart idea to build your career in a profession that’s growing, rather than shrinking. (Just ask any Blockbuster Video manager). So what are today’s fastest-growing professions? Customer success management was one of the top 10 fastest-growing roles in 2019, according to Gainsight. If you’re looking to apply for one of the thousands of customer success manager jobs currently open worldwide—read on.
In 2014, I started working as a customer success manager (CSM) at a company in North Carolina. Until I got the job, I had never heard of the term “customer success manager.” But the profession was in the midst of a massive growth spurt. From 2015-2019, the number of openings for CSMs grew 736%. What happened?
A key factor is the explosive growth of SaaS companies. The rise of the SaaS recurring revenue business model means the ability of CSMs to retain customers is now more valuable than ever. There’s a broader shift happening, too—87% of leaders now point to customer experience (CX) as their top priority for growth, rather than sales or product. And customer success managers have a powerful impact on the customer experience.
If you’re looking for a CSM job, you’re embarking on a customer-centric career with fast growth and a healthy future. But to break into customer success management, you’ll first need to understand what the job entails, what skills you’ll need to bring to the table—and of course, how much you should expect to be paid.
What Does A Customer Success Manager Do?
A CSM’s job, from a strategic point of view, is to retain customers. Everything else CSMs do serves the goal of retention—although the specific tasks can vary widely, from troubleshooting to customer onboarding.
Key areas of focus include:
- Managing onboarding
- Ensuring fast time to value
- Monitoring customer satisfaction
- Encouraging upsells and cross-sells
- Advocating for customers
When I was a CSM, the sales team and I booked a joint handover meeting that doubled as an onboarding call. In other companies, you might be responsible for reaching out to arrange the onboarding on your own.
However it happens, once the salesperson hands a new customer to you, you’re in charge of the relationship from there. And the first step in that relationship is onboarding, which sets the tone for everything that comes afterward.
The stakes in onboarding are high. Happy customers recommend your product to others and have a lifetime value that’s 600%-1,400% higher than that of unhappy customers. But most onboarding processes aren't as good as they should be. Over 90% of customers feel that the companies they buy from could improve onboarding.
As a CSM, you’ll need to navigate this territory carefully and provide an onboarding experience that exceeds customer expectations.
Ensure customers get fast time-to-value
Onboarding isn’t just about helping customers get familiar with your product. It’s about identifying and fulfilling customer expectations—and not all customers have the same expectations.
This dynamic is known as “time to value” (TTV), and it’s a key focus for CSMs. Customers bought your product to achieve a specific outcome. If that outcome takes too long to materialize, they’ll churn. Your job as a CSM is to shorten time to value, and ideally, to provide customers with an “aha! moment” of value during the onboarding process itself.
Because onboarding is such a routine part of your job as a CSM, it’s easy to follow the same playbook every time. Avoid this instinct. Instead, stay curious. Work to understand the specific goals of each customer. Why did they sign up for your product? How can you help them take a step toward realizing their goals during onboarding?
Monitor customer satisfaction—and fix issues before churn happens
As a customer success manager, you’re closer to your customers than anyone else in the company. That means if something’s wrong, you’ll be the first to know.
If you have a good relationship with the customer, they may tell you when they’re dissatisfied. If this happens, you’ve got a window to fix the situation—but you have to act fast.
Most customers won’t tell you that they’re satisfied. Instead, they’ll show you through their behavior. Many client success teams monitor at-risk customers with a customer health score that flags customers who start disengaging. Metrics and KPIs might include:
- Upsells and cross-sells
- The number of support tickets
- How often customers log in
- Whether customers engage with new features
- Responses to surveys like Net Promoter Score (NPS) or customer satisfaction score (CSAT)
When customers disengage at any point in the customer lifecycle, be proactive and act urgently. This is the time for you to be your customer’s champion, revisit their goals, and help them get value fast.
Encourage upsells and cross-sells when the moment is right
I get it—selling is for salespeople! You’re interested in taking care of your customer base, not pressuring them into sales conversations.
While upsells and cross-sells are part of the job description for many customer success team members, it’s not always for the reason you might think. Yes, companies want to increase revenue and profit. But upselling is also a sign that the customer relationship is healthy and growing. A study from Vendasta showed that upselling can increase customer retention by 30%.
Your job isn’t to pressure existing customers to upgrade when it’s not in their interest. Instead, it’s to keep an eye out for win-win opportunities—and to nurture close relationships so that upsells happen on their own. As a CSM, customers proactively asked me about ways to grow their use of our product. If you build rapport, grow trust, and deliver early wins, cross-sell and upsell opportunities will come up organically.
Advocate for customers
The relationships you cultivate as a customer success manager will generate customer loyalty and advocacy. But that advocacy is a two-way street—you’ll also need to advocate for your customer’s needs within your organization.
This starts with your own behavior. Remember—not every customer needs the same thing from you. As a CSM, I had some customers who liked chatting on the phone for an hour; others just wanted straight-to-the-point emails that showed them how to get more value from our product.
You’ll also have times when you need to go cross-department to make sure your customers feel their voices are being heard. As suggestions and issues come up in the course of your conversations, make sure you pass that customer feedback along—and follow up on it internally to provide your customer with updates.
7 Skills You Need As a Customer Success Manager
As a customer success manager, you’re a jack-of-all-trades—your job covers everything from empathetic listening to troubleshooting to account management.
Here are seven key skills to focus on as a CSM:
1. Relationship management
Let’s start with the obvious—relationships. Being a CSM means understanding what it takes to keep each customer happy.
Just as with your personal relationships, your relationship with each customer will be different. Some customers will be communicative and some won’t. Some will tell you what they need, and for others, you’ll need to be more proactive.
A good customer success strategy means staying organized. (CRM and customer success software is your friend here.) Keep track of when you last communicated with each customer, and create a schedule for regular follow-up. Don’t annoy customers by using boilerplate templates in your outreach. Instead, come to them with genuine value and recommendations based on their needs.
When times are good in your customer relationships, it can feel like you’ve mastered the skill of customer communication. But the real test comes when customers are upset and frustrated—especially when it’s your product’s fault, or even worse, your fault.
There’s a temptation to look for a way to pass the blame. Avoid that instinct. Instead, accept responsibility gracefully and quickly move on to making the situation better. And remember—if you say you’re going to fix something, make sure you do it. If you compound frustration by failing to do something you said you would, a higher churn rate isn’t far behind.
3. Ongoing customer education
You’ll need to continue educating your customer as your product improves and new features are released. Think of this as an extension of the onboarding process.
When you help customers take advantage of new features, it’s a win-win—they get more value, and at the same time, your product becomes more essential and “stickier,” increasing retention.
As a CSM, you’ll keep customers updated on product development and provide training when new features are released. As a side benefit of taking the time to train customers on new features, you may find your upsells and cross-sells naturally increase.
4. Proactive problem solving
Sometimes it seems like everything is fine with a customer—until it isn’t. The phrase “no news is good news” doesn’t apply in the world of customer success. Take a critical eye to your customer relationship management. Even if customers say everything is fine, watch their behavior for signs that they may be struggling to get the value they need from your product.
The CSM role is inherently proactive. Your job is to keep customers happy by addressing small problems and fixing them before they become big problems. The best way to do this at scale is with surveys like CSAT and NPS. But you’ll also want to check in with your customers frequently on a 1:1 basis to pick up on customer satisfaction cues that these surveys may not be picking up.
For example, let’s say your data shows that one of your customers hasn’t logged into your platform in months. When you check in with them, they might say “Oh yeah—I lost the password and wasn’t sure how to reset it,” or “Yeah, I’m actually not getting much use out of the product right now.”
In the first case, the answer is simple. In the second, it requires more investigation. Either way, by proactively raising the issue and taking initiative, you have a better shot at keeping your customer around long-term.
5. Active listening
The key responsibilities of a CSM—onboarding, getting customers quickly to an “aha moment,” keeping customers happy—all revolve around active listening. If you make assumptions about what customers need, you’ll run the risk of missing what they’re actually saying.
Active listening means seeking to truly understand your customer by paying close attention, asking clarifying questions, and paraphrasing the core of the customer’s message back to them to avoid misunderstandings.
By doing this, you’ll give customers the immediate satisfaction of being understood (and not having to repeat themselves). You’ll also be in a better position to understand the emotions and motivations behind what customers are telling you.
Much of customer communication—especially when something’s wrong—is about making your customer feel heard. That’s why when you complain to customer support reps, the first thing you hear is “I’m so sorry there was an issue with your order. Let me investigate.” First, empathize with your customer. Then, make it right.
Empathy is especially important in situations where you may not have an immediate solution. For example, if the features a customer needs haven’t been built into your product yet, don’t say “Sorry, our product doesn’t do that.” Instead, say “Oh, interesting—I can understand why that’s something you would want. Let me share your request with our product team and report back.”
By showing customers you understand their feelings, you can make customers happier even when you’re not in a position to fix their issues right away.
7. Organization and follow-through
I once had a manager who brought a fresh sheet of paper to each meeting. He didn’t write notes. Instead, he only wrote down action items for himself—and he followed up 100% of the time. If your request ended up on that piece of paper, you knew you were getting support from him.
That’s the kind of trust you need to build with your clients. So far, we’ve mostly talked about soft skills—empathy, active listening, relationship management. But while building rapport gets you a long way, you ultimately need results. You can be the most likable CSM in the world and still fail at your job if you don’t have organization and follow-through.
Make it your goal to always take action on anything you promise the customer. When your promises start slipping through the cracks, customers notice—even if they don’t say anything at first. Take notes, stay organized, provide next-level support, and follow up.
Customer Success Manager Payscale
Curious what the career path of a customer success manager looks like? Yael Haloutz started as a CSM in 2014—and ended up as a VP of Customer Success within seven years, ultimately joining a startup where she built her own CS department from scratch. That’s the kind of career trajectory that’s possible in customer success management.
A common progression for customer success professionals is:
- Customer Success Associate
- Customer Success Manager
- Customer Success Team Lead
- Senior Customer Success Manager
- Director of Customer Success
- VP of Customer Success
- Chief Customer Officer
In North America, here’s what the salaries looks like for each position:
Customer Success Associate
Customer Success Manager
Customer Success Team Lead
Senior Customer Success Manager
Customer Success Director
VP of Customer Success
Chief Customer Officer
Preparing For Your Career As A CSM
If you’ve made it this far, you’re ahead of most people looking to break into the world of customer success management. You may be on your way to a future Chief Customer Officer role—but there are no shortcuts. It all starts with putting into the work as a CSM first.
If you really want to ace your CSM interviews, you can learn more about the world of customer success—and CX in general—by subscribing to our newsletter here.
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