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.
Our “Mentors” questions are geared toward CSMs receiving mentorship directly from Director-level and above customer success leaders, in order to help them grow professionally. The goal is that by sharing our experiences we’ll be able to learn and apply more practical advice / practices to our careers.
Let’s get started with this week’s post!
What is one important lesson you learned in your early customer success days that has had a positive impact on your career? How has it helped you?
I learned early on the value of really caring about what I do and bringing that passion to my work. It has been in the roles where I really care about the products that I have authentically and more naturally contributed the most. It’s not that I didn’t give my best in other roles but it didn’t come as naturally.
In one specific role, I knew I was passionate about one specific product we were thinking about building. So I showed up early in the morning for a couple months and would whiteboard different ideas with one of my colleagues. We then proposed some of these ideas on how we could go to market with the new product and how would we best service the customers who would buy that product. The CEO and the COO recognized our efforts and gave me the opportunity to step into a new role to build out the post-sale strategy and a small team for that new product. This was really a pivotal moment in my career and came from me finding something I cared about and something I knew I could grow in doing. And my leaders trusted me because I had consistently demonstrated that passion and commitment to make company-wide impact with this new product.
If I can’t step in front of the customer and show passion in what I do or with the product I represent, then how can I get them to become raving fans of it? How can I create advocates when I’m not a genuine advocate myself? At one point in my career, I chose to step away from an industry I’d always been passionate about to pursue a specific role with a lot of potential for financial upside and career advancement. I learned that while our team made great progress and had great numbers, I really didn’t connect with the purpose of the product or the nuances of the industry. And because I wasn’t showing up for the clients with a strong level of passion or appreciation for the industry and for our product, I was not at my best in fulfilling my responsibility of cultivating customer advocates.
And I want to be clear…It is NOT the amount of hours we need to demonstrate our depth of passion, but rather how deliberate we are in our actions of showing our customers and our colleagues that we care. Showing up is half the battle, but are we showing up with energy to make a difference?
A couple questions I like to ask myself are:
- “Am I passionate about the mission that our company represents?”
- “Am I passionate about the product I’m promoting?”
- “Am I passionate about the role I play in accomplishing our mission?”
Another thing to know is you sometimes don’t find your passion until you’re in the process of just working hard in something. While some know exactly what they want to do before they start, most simply take steps and ask these questions along the way. Just start somewhere and do something. Experiment in different areas and pay attention to what you care about and what you’re good at. You’ll find or create your passion along the way.
I’m the first CSM for my company and have been asked to implement a “customer success” program. Where should I begin? What tactics have worked for you?
A CSM’s role needs to be clearly defined before someone or something defines the role for the CSM. If we’re not deliberate about defining the purpose, responsibilities and metrics of the role, then the CSM / CS team often becomes the “catch all” role where anything related to client is pushed our way. However, if we start by clearly defining the role and are proactive about educating our internal teams and customers about the role, we’ll prevent some bad habits early on.
For example, if roles aren’t clearly defined or communicated, we might unintentionally train our customers to do things we don’t want them to do. At two different companies I’ve been with, we weren’t clear on when a client should go to Support versus their CSM. Because the clients have a great relationship with the CSM, they would typically go to the CSM as their default. And so all of a sudden, 20-40% of a CSMs time would be spent on troubleshooting or other Support-related requests that should have gone to Support – not to their CSM.
Another crucial point is internal alignment of the CSM’s role. Companies should be aware of what the best use of a CSM’s time is to stay proactive, strategic, and credible with the client. Defining the role internally and externally prevents some unnecessary work and explains why a CSM does what she does.
In the past two roles I’ve had, there have been five sets of questions I’ve asked to get this kind of clarity on the role of the CSM.
- What’s the purpose of this role? Why does this role exist? What is our company trying to accomplish by having this role?
- What is the CSM ultimately responsible for? (e.g., Renewals? Advocacy? Engagement? Adoption?) What are the core aspects of the role? Because every company is a little bit different, we need to define who owns what and what it takes to make clients successful. And which aspects do the CSMs own? It’s critical to distinguish between your own company’s outcomes (e.g., retention, adoption, expansion) and your customers’ outcomes (e.g., ROI, business results, positive experiences or user success stories) and then to identify the drivers that typically lead a CSM to helping a client achieve those outcomes.
- How can a CSM do this role really well? Are the people we hire competent in the areas we need them to be?
- Have operating principles around how you make decisions, prioritize work, collaborate, execute, and grow different components as a team.
- Be very clear on the difference between mindsets and skill sets. Be purposeful in the type of people you look for and the attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives they bring to the role, not just the skill sets and competencies they have.
- What does a CSM need to do their job well? What processes, tools, technologies, routines, data are required?
- How does a CSM know when they’ve done their job well? What are the metrics that indicate a CSM has been successful in their responsibilities?
What are two or three ways you’ve established (or improved) “customer success as a culture” within your organization?
One of the first things we’ve worked on is shared responsibility across the company for our customer’s true success and creating accountability for each team. To get more specific, we’ve actually created a shared strategy around NPS. Every three to six months, each functional team leader across the company submits one to two priorities for how their team is going to move the needle on our company’s NPS objectives. Our head of engineering, product, finance, etc. each report on what they can do in order to achieve a better NPS score next time. It’s not just a responsibility of the Client Success team.
Another thing we do is hold monthly risk mitigation meetings, where a representative from each of the functional teams reports on how they’re mitigating certain risks that they own – e.g., If it’s related to not delivering on a growing list of unaddressed product enhancements, a Product team leader plays the role of reporting on mitigating that risk. This has created a more collaborative approach to solving client-related issues. It’s awesome that each functional leader is fully bought into and feels responsibility for the general success of our customers.
A third thing we do is hold weekly company meetings where someone from our Client Experience team (whether it’s implementation, support, client success, or technical solutions) share some sort of customer story. And about once a month, we hold client interviews where invite 1-2 clients and spend 45 minutes in a Q&A session to learn about their experience with us. This helps foster a greater awareness of what our challenges, successes, and value propositions are.
What are two to three qualities of a great CSM? And why?
I think it’s important to distinguish between someone’s mindsets and their skill sets. Mindsets are the natural attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives someone carries with them, largely independent of the environment. And skill sets are the combination of hard or soft skills that someone has developed over time. One mindset I emphasize with our team and look for when we hire is relentless ambition. Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls it the growth mindset and it essentially means defaulting to learning, growing and developing, knowing you don’t always have the right answers, that there’s more you can learn, that failure and mistakes are stepping stones. I’ve found that a person who has this tendency almost always pursues excellence despite setbacks, is resilient, and regularly seeks feedback. There’s something to learn from pushing through hard times, because there is always the results and growth on the other side of the challenge. That, to me, is a fundamental characteristic of relentless ambition.
The other piece I think is core to any client experience client is what I call authentic altruism, which is basically legitimately and naturally caring about people. Do you have people who treat clients with the same respect like they would their mom? It’s not that we can’t be frustrated with customers or disagree with them, but it’s when it turns into disrespect, blame, or harsh criticism. Something I always look for as a leader is if a person is generally interested in helping people. What’s their attitude about people? How much do they value relationships? Do they demonstrate emotional intelligence, which includes active and empathic listening?
When it comes to skill sets, what are the specific tactical things that I need CSMs to be able to do? For me there’s a few I look for, but the biggest balance is between someone who can not only bring strategic insight but also execute in a disciplined way. Part of this is having the foresight to ask really good questions to know where you’re going with a given conversation, guiding the customer to where they need to go, and bringing data into that conversation. And then following through on what you say you can and will do. As a CSM, am I following up on action items? Am I being deliberate about who I involve? Every interaction we have with a client should leave them with some new insight. Our job is to create value by bringing new ideas and insights that get them excited. Over time, these disciplines create tremendous value.
Regarding the frequent question of, “Do you need a CSM from the industry or not?” I’ve learned that new hires don’t have to have as much expertise in the industry as your clients…but you do need to have reliable expertise. What I mean is that you can have conversations with the client that don’t slow down the process of them getting to where they need to go. Can you understand their industry, company, and role well enough to have intelligent conversations and lead them to the outcomes they expect?
Was there a time you messed up and felt like you’d failed within your role or career? How did you bounce back?
Before I stepped into Client Success roles, I consulted on change management and technology adoption. On one of my first engagements with a client, I was given the keys to come up with the change management strategy of how we were going to get buy-in and adoption across the company for implementing a new technology that they had just spent millions on. While I wasn’t the only one on this project, I was entrusted to lead this workstream. I was fairly new to the consulting firm and wanted to impress my partner so I just started doing stuff.
After a couple weeks, I started to recognize that what I was doing wasn’t really what the client wanted or needed. My work confused the other consultants and they were trying to figure out how to connect my work with the rest of the project. My credibility to my team started to slip. It was at this point I had to humble myself a little bit. While I was trying to be confident and demonstrate that confidence to the team, I had to learn to be vulnerable and ask for help. I had to admit I didn’t know everything and needed to ask questions to really understand the problem we were trying to solve and I honestly didn’t have certain skills they needed.
When I started doing to allow myself to show weakness, I was able to be more open-minded and start learning and developing the skills I needed to deliver what they client needed. I learned how to make better informed decisions around the direction I needed to go to reach more targeted results that were aligned with what the client actually needed. This pivot totally changed the strategy; everything we were building ended up being a lot more relevant to the client’s desired outcomes and I got there a lot faster.
Having the agility and flexibility to adapt and learn from whichever environment you are in, before you start making judgment calls that may be entirely irrelevant, can help you be better aligned with your customer. You don’t need to be perfect or have every skill to do really great things for your customers and for your company.
What are one to three books, blogs, or thought leaders that have greatly influenced your career, and why?
Three of my go-to books:
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. This book is essentially about change management and how to drive change effectively. One principle the book discusses is called bright spots. A lot of times we look for gaps and how to close them; however, we don’t really give our attention to what’s working really well and the root of why those things are working well. Once you’ve identified these bright spots, you can use them as a recipe to replicate success with other customers. For example, instead of asking, “Why are our customers leaving?”, you should start with “Why are our customers staying?” and focus on the attributes and practices of the lifelong customers.
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. The principles from this book apply at multiple levels. When I read it the first time, I thought about what could I edit from my life to be more focused on what I’m really trying to accomplish personally. But those same principles also apply to our professional lives. There are a hundred different projects we can work on, but it’s the discipline of figuring out which ones will have the highest impact the soonest and using that to help us prioritize.
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. This just goes back to my point about relentless ambition. It’s so easy, especially in a CS role, to get discouraged, tired or fatigued. We have to work to not let ourselves become overwhelmed by the problems or challenges we might face; we have to figure out how to how to make things better. How things are today is not a measure of how they need to be or can be tomorrow. In the words of Goethe, “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
What is one customer success principle you try to live by?
“Client experience can be improved by improving your employee experience.”
How your team treats, grows, and develops your clients is a reflection of the way you treat, grow, and develop your team. In my position as a CS leader, I see myself as a CSM to the CSMs – I’m the employee success manager for our whole team. The responsibility I have is very similar to what our CSM do with their clients. Some of my responsibilities are to coach and develop them to progress, stay on top of risks and celebrate the wins.
Many of the skills required for CSMs are similar to the skills I’ve seen in some of the best leaders. CSMs can develop to be really good business leaders because of their frontline experience and skills with customers. These translate well into coaching, developing and managing customer-facing and operational teams.
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