A Functional Intersection

Even though at first glance it seems like it might not be the case, there is quite a bit of symmetry between two key roles in an organization – Product Manager and Customer Success Manager. Product Managers manage a myriad of tasks and spend a fraction of their time in front of customers. They leverage feedback from customers to drive a lot of their product design decisions. Likewise, Customer Success Managers are in constant communication with customers in order to stay informed of their product/service related issues and new requirements.

Product Management

There are many dimensions that make Product Management (PM) a very difficult job. At its core, PM involves stitching together various functions (technology, documentation, onboarding/deployment, training, support and more) in an organization to build a great customer experience. This is both a science and an art. Great product managers are very skilled at this craft, and can stitch together a wonderful customer experience.

They leverage customer input gathered through customer interviews, surveys, usability studies, and focus groups. Essentially, they “pack” various elements to build a great Product or Service that meets customers’ needs. If done well, this leads to a fabulous customer experience. Very often, a PM’s skill in “packing” these elements together can make the difference between the success and failure of a business, especially if that business relies on upsells and renewals from a subscription model.

Customer Success

Similar to Product Management, there are numerous elements that make a Customer Success job quite difficult. One of the critical roles that a Customer Success Manager (CSM) plays is to identify the source of friction in their customers’ experience and bridge the gaps. They do this through escalation management, 1:1 customer interviews, feedback tools, and NPS surveys. Given that CSMs get to work with many different customers, they can find the patterns of where the customer experience is failing.

Like PMs, CSMs “unpack” the customer experience, and diagnose the point of failure in a product/service. A CSM’s skill in analyzing, diagnosing, and abstracting a root cause of poor customer experience can have a huge impact on the success of a business. I have seen all great CSMs do this effectively. In the pre-CSM world, this job fell on the shoulders of the Product Manager.

How to Work Together

Both roles help shape the customer experience, and are critical to a business’ success. In fact, you can go so far as to say that they attack the same problem from different angles. The symmetry between these two roles is fascinating and opens the door for possible collaborations between the teams.

Given this premise, how can these two groups work together beyond organizational silos, leveraging each other’s skills and expertise to mutually impact the customers in a positive manner?

If you are a Product Manager:

  • Befriend your local CSM. He or she can provide a very valuable source of input at the aggregate level (one-off data points aren’t as valuable to a PM as much as aggregate data). This can save you a lot of valuable time. Without a CSM, this is work that you would have to take on to determine if the assumptions that you made during the “Packing” stage are working.
  • Help out a CSM when they seek assistance from you. They are a proxy for the customer experience and all great PMs care deeply about the customer experience. The CSMs are out there in the trenches trying to make your product/service successful.
  • Consider a stint as a CSM. This will help round out your skill set nicely by bringing you closer to your customers. This is a suggestion that I have offered to all the Product Managers who have sought career advice from me.

If you are a Customer Success Manager:

  • A Product Manager can be your best friend. He or she can help you impact change in the organization. Discovering and solving a specific customer problems is only half your job. The other half of your job is to ensure that no other customer runs into the same problem again. This is how you build leverage into your group and the company. Great PMs have the organizational influence to make this happen. Therefore, it’s worth your while to seek their help.
  • You should offer to help a Product Manager. A PM has a very difficult job and is juggling a million things – this is very hard to appreciate until you spend a day in their shoes. There are points in time where a PM has to speak with customers to get some quick feedback. Help out the PM by facilitating these conversations or offer to gather customer feedback on behalf of the PM. You will find them more receptive to your requests, the next time you knock on their door for help.
  • Consider a stint as a PM. This will help round-out your skill set nicely by helping you understand the big picture of how you stitch together a great product/service. It will give you a CEO/GM’s perspective and help you understand how a business functions.

Delivering End Goals

Customer Success Managers should attain a mastery over their product/service. It’s extremely important that CSMs acquire product knowledge. At the core of the business should be a product that can always deliver; CS teams need to know the product like the back of their hand in order to be able to drive adoption. At the same time, the end goal is no longer just structured around delivering a product. Customers expect their vendors to help them achieve their desired business outcomes. As an organization learns from customers, CS & Product teams need to work together to ensure that the result of customer feedback is the manifestation of new features in the product that deliver specific business outcomes.

Ratan Tipirneni is a an entrepreneur, and experienced Customer Success leader, with expertise in driving customer-partner delight, churn reduction, and revenue expansion for SaaS businesses. He has been Senior Vice President of Customer Success & Services at Actifio, Inc. since June 1, 2014. Mr. Tipirneni served as GM of Smart Services for Customer Success at Cisco. He led Cisco’s new software models initiative, where he helped develop the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model. He served as Vice President and General Manager at SupportSoft. Mr. Tipirneni also oversaw the founding and leadership of two enterprise technology start-ups, and filled senior product management and engineering roles at Sun Microsystems.

Ratan Tipirneni

SVP, Cloud Business, Actifio