CSM from the Trenches – 3 Principles I Learned in My First Year as a CSM

Sam Feil

Customer Success Manager

Welcome to our blog series CSM from the Trenches, a community for frontline Customer Success Managers (CSMs) that discusses trends, best practices, and advice for the frontline.

Being on the CSM frontline allows us to directly influence the success of our clients. I love that; as our clients are successful, we’re successful. Each day we learn from the trenches what it takes to make clients happy and successful.

We’re lucky to have this week’s frontline CSM best practice come from Cole Sanders of ClientSuccess, who recently joined our team and brings with him over 5 years of customer success and sales experience!

CSM from the Trenches – 3 Principles I Learned in My First Year as a CSM

Company: ClientSuccess
Location: American Fork, Utah
From: Cole Sanders, Sr Customer Success Manager

Two months ago, I joined ClientSuccess’ customer success team with previous sales and customer success experience. I was excited to hit the ground running, especially since I was already familiar with ClientSuccess as a software. My main goal in those first weeks was to continue to learn the platform as best I could in order to help my clients achieve their success criteria. I wasn’t interested in spending time using the “I’m new here” card. Even if it were just realigning on previously set goals or defining new objectives, making an immediate impact with my new book of business was critical. Rather than reminding them of my newness to the company, I wanted to build their confidence in my abilities as a CSM who executes.

Despite what doubts I might have had at the time, my customer success team members would always tell me that while I might not know the product as well as I would like, I knew how to be a good CSM.

In just the short time I’ve already been with ClientSuccess, my experience has caused me to reflect on some of the principles I learned earlier in my career and hope to always remember.

3 Principles I Learned in My First Year as a CSM

Principle 1: CSMs Lead Relationships

Early on in my career as a CSM, I was preparing for an onboarding onsite with two technical counterparts who were very much my senior regarding experience and general product knowledge. I got nervous and a little intimidated as our pre-onsite call with the client started and ended up taking a backseat while my more experienced colleagues did a phenomenal job running the agenda.

At the time I didn’t think much about letting them essentially run the call, however this seemingly harmless act reflected poorly on my abilities as a CSM. Events transpired over the following days and weeks after that call that not only hurt my pride, but also put me in a situation of vulnerability and insecurity. Feeling incompetent as a CSM during this time, though difficult in the moment, is an experience I’m glad to have had.

From these events I learned that CSMs should never fall into the trap of being a backseat driver. It ultimately doesn’t matter how experienced we are within our role, company, or product. At the end of the day, it’s our job to take control of every interaction we have with our clients regardless of who else from the company may be involved. We shouldn’t let the fear of making mistakes hinder our ability to deliver strategic value for the relationship. Confidence is key!

Principle 2: There’s Always Work to Be Done

It’s easy as a CSM to let our days be consumed by “busy work”; we often spend our time answering endless emails, following up on bugs and other outstanding issues, holding both scheduled and unscheduled calls, as well as onboarding new clients. But what do (or should) we do when the work seemingly settles and we find ourselves in a calm-before-the-storm moment? Whatever we do, one mistake that’s too easy to make (and frequently made) is assuming our clients are happy because they aren’t raising any alarms and we’ve checked off our list of tactical to-dos.

We should never ever make assumptions about our book of business and their “happiness”, even when they say they’re happy and there are no concerns. It’s our job to not only deliver happiness, but also value. CSMs should be making each touch and engagement meaningful by focusing on each customer’s needs and what job they’ve hired your software or service to do. Beginning somewhere is key—if anything, try to organize and summarize what you will talk about into some sort of agenda or plan. Keeping it focused is key, enhancing each conversation with client-specific questions and examples. Strive for simplicity; leverage experience.

During those calm-before-the-storm moments, we should be taking advantage of every opportunity to bring value to our customers (ie strategic planning) as well as develop or sharpen the skills required to perform our jobs. One of the biggest regrets in my career is not having spent more time earlier on collaborating with those around me in order to be a more strategic partner for my clients.

Principle 3: CSMs Need to Be a Strategic Partner

I worked in Sales prior to making the move to Customer Success. When I made this decision, I thought I’d easily pick up the skills required to be a great CSM. Going in with a Sales mindset, I knew I’d have to do more than simply learn the product, sell some quick features, send the contract, and repeat. Beyond those basics, I thought I’d simply have to do a little research on my clients, make them happy, show them new and exciting releases or functionalities, and that they’d be set. While those items might make for an average CSM, I could not have been more wrong when it comes to truly becoming a strategic partner (and thereby an invaluable CSM).

Again, it’s critical to be strategic with each interaction we have with our clients. We need to avoid the pitfall of taking a backseat and becoming reactive with our work. Our clients rely on our partnership to help them achieve their business objectives and success criteria. Clients want to be lead with best practices in order for them to be successful using your tool or service. It’s our job as CSMs to thoughtfully take the time to get out of the one-size-fits-all mentality and actually become a strategic partner.  

If you’re struggling to figure out where you should start, consider strategically segmenting customers or developing, documenting, and strengthening your customer lifecycle plans. Doing so helps us have a more consistent touch with each of our clients. Without any sort of planning, we’re letting ourselves become reactive. It’s difficult (and not very fun) to do any sort of relationship-building when reactiveness is the only strategy. Onboard effectively; plan strategically; execute tactfully; engage proactively. There’s always work to be done.

Conclusion

We have an amazing opportunity to learn on the frontline and in the trenches the essential principles that are required to ensure our customer’s success. I know from experience that leading our customer relationships, focusing on the work that needs to be done, and being a strategic partner will help us truly achieve customer success.

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Join the CSM from the Trenches Community

You can become involved in two ways:

Guest blog posts: Have a frontline CSM best practice you’d like to share? I want to hear from you! This is a great way to share your unique perspective and thought-leadership. Example – this post is a good example. (Email to csmtrenches@clientsuccess.com)

CSM from the Trenches: Mentors: Want to share your mentor advice for the frontline? Check out this example and submit your answers here.

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Here are other customer success resources:

Customer Success eBooks:

Customer Success as a Culture: Customer Success Leaders Edition

Ultimate Guide to SaaS Customer Success Metrics

Other CSM from the Trenches Posts:

CSM from the Trenches: Mentors – Rasmus Justesen, Head of Customer Success, Traede

3 Key Learnings from Taking a Customer Success Industry Expert Out for Lunch

Mieke Maes, Intuo – 5 Keys to an Effective Customer Apology

SoapBox Team Shout-Out

4 Segmentation Strategies for Frontline CSMs

Why Product Usage Isn’t Always King & 3 Lessons Worth Learning Early

2 Techniques to Avoid the ‘Overpromise and Underdeliver’ Temptation

Learn more about how ClientSuccess can help your company develop a strong customer success methodology and strategy with easy-to-use customer success software by requesting a 30-minute demo.

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