What Makes a CSM Successful?

Desired attributes for a CSM can be a subjective matter, as different Customer Success leaders emphasize varying skills in their team. Domain and product specificity can also have a large influence on necessary traits. For this reason, it can often be difficult to determine the capabilities that will make one successful in the role. Some companies require a lots of external face time with customers, while others may require technical skills to even understand the issues customer are experiencing. Throughout my tenure as head of Customer Success at five startups and a senior executive at large companies like Sybase, SuccessFactors and Commerce One, I have come across a wide swathe of CSMs. As a result, I know the main traits that can push a good CSM to greatness, and will highlight them in turn below.

Analytical Awareness

Oftentimes, the dialogue around Customer Success emphasizes becoming a trusted advisor to the customer, and as a result, interpersonal skills are held in high regard. However, equally essential to winning the trust of a customer is showing them you have an in-depth understanding of their use cases via convincing metrics and data. Having a solid handle on their data and how it correlates to the customer’s business objectives helps CSMs become qualified to fill the role of the trusted advisor. Great CS professionals leverage KPIs to provide their customers with visibility of progress against business objectives.

Proactiveness

Proactiveness is an essential attribute for every CSM. If you’re always behind the curve and handling issues once they’ve already become a problem, you’re performing the role of Customer Service, not one of a CSM. It’s especially important to proactively reach out to customers about training, guidance, and assistance needed. Everybody appreciates a helping hand now and again, especially if it is provided without prompting from them. If you’re available before the customer even knows they need you, customers will be impressed with how well you anticipate their needs.

Enthusiasm

CSMs need inherent enthusiasm, and a positive outlook that is infectious and irrepressible when times get tough. It’s often said that life is 90% how you react to it, and a great CSM embodies this wholly. Times will get tough, people will get frustrated, and CSMs are on the frontline of every battle. They have to be able to keep going even when products fail, and stakeholders leave your clients. CSMs must have the grit to turn these challenges into triumphs, and keep a positive attitude, regardless of the circumstances. Not only will this help CSMs do their job exceptionally well, but it will also uplift their entire team.

Communication Skills & Emotional Intelligence

CSMs interact with customers on a daily basis, so they have to have a reserve of emotional bandwidth to rely on to get them through each day. They have to be able to read situations adeptly and know what is required just based off intuition. In order to do this effectively, they will also need high EQ capabilities, as well as exceptional communication skills to converse in the method each customer prefers. Even more critical is the ability to communicate with groups within their own company, as CSMs often find themselves collaborating with other teams. In all of these cross-functional interactions, it is critical that a CSM be able to handle and manage the inevitable conflict that WILL arise from different priorities from different groups. Being the Customer advocate will take some diplomacy to negotiate, and you will have to lobby for your customers interests, while not forgetting that you work directly for your employer, and must represent and support those interests as well.

Being a Team Player

Customer Success is a team sport. You won’t have answers to most of the questions that come your way. You will be dealing with new crises all the time, so you will need support from your peers within your team, as well as externally within the company. CSMs often need help from Product, Engineering, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service, so in order to leverage the expertise from all aspects of your company, build relationships with members of each sector. Some of the most important relationships are with the support team, and the product team, where you will be consistently seeking help and input to answer important questions for your customer. Always seek to understand their positions as well, as they have their priorities and drivers. Always try to help them where you can. A “help each other” relationship will pay dividends when you most need them.

Domain Expertise

This varies by company, but the ability to deeply understand the intricacies of a customer’s business problem and how your technology / solution solves that business problem is of paramount importance. You can’t fulfill any of the characteristics listed above, if you don’t have the industry knowledge to back it up. People can see through an act if you are pretending, so it’s much easier to do the research and make sure you know all about what your customer needs from your offering. It is often hard to find a person with deep domain expertise AND all of the skills mentioned above; a top-notch CSM that has this combination of skills is positioned to be a rock-star in their organization.

A Commitment to Excellence

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins analyzed over a thousand successful companies, and did a deep dive on the eleven companies that were outstanding. In each of these eleven companies, Jim found there was no miracle moment, instead, it was commitment to excellence over a long time. We can take the same approach in Customer Success, as no one is the perfect CSM when they start the role. However, if you encourage your team to develop the above attributes, you’re on your way to to creating a great CS organization.

Mark Pecoraro is a senior business executive and trusted advisor to leadership teams with a demonstrated ability in consistently delivering high customer satisfaction, client retention and operational excellence in a recurring revenue business model for both start-up and established businesses. He was previously VP of Customer Success for Conviva and is a recognized thought-leader in Customer Success. He has held a variety of executive roles in enterprise SaaS organizations including Appcelerator, SOASTA, WhiteHat Security and Accept Software. He also serves on the Board of Advisors for Strikedeck and BlueNose Analytics, and is a member of the Standards committee for The Customer Success Association.

Mark Pecoraro

Member, Board of Advisors, Strikedeck