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What makes a great CSM?

I have interviewed over 100 CSMs and mentored 20+ in the last 6 months and ‘What makes a great CSM at insert company name?’ is the most asked question I get at the end of each interview.

The reason why candidates are so interested in learning that answer is that Customer Success Management can vary widely from organisation to organisation. Some companies lean more into relationships, while others lean into the product. Some are suffering from churn problems, while others are trying to build feedback loops between the user and the product team to improve their offering. Some have mature practices with onboarding, renewal management and professional services, while others expect the CSM to own every activity once a customer signs their contract.

Each environment will dictate the specific knowledge, attributes and skillsets that are required to succeed, right? Not really.

Despite acknowledging that different companies have different practices, I have led Customer Success teams in different industries, implemented Customer Success for small and large organisations, and seen CSMs thrive and fail. What I tell my mentees is: The Success Triangle is the secret sauce for Customer Success Managers.

What is the Success Triangle?

It’s a triad of skills that a CSM needs in order to be brilliant at their job.

  1. Consulting
  2. Learning Agility
  3. Book of business management

Together, these will result in the powerful combination of the right advice to the right customer at the right time. Let’s explore each of these areas.

Consultancy

It’s no surprise that ‘consultancy’ is ranking as one of the top skills here. Often times CSMs are referred to as the ‘strategic advisor’. The reason for this title is that it’s the CSM’s job to advise customers on how to achieve their desired outcome.

In order to do that, one must be able to:

  • capture the attention of the right stakeholder
  • uncover challenges and opportunities
  • gain the customer’s partnership to seize those together using their product and service offerings.

You often hear that great CSM-ing is about relationship building. This isn’t a lie. However, you don’t build strategic relationships with customers by simply getting to know them personally (that’s how you make friends). Strategic relationships are built on a bedrock of compounding value delivery. And how do CSMs deliver value? Through excellent consulting.

Every fruitful consulting engagement starts with a great discovery session, which requires active listening, insightful question-asking and effective problem framing. The good news is that those skills are like muscles. You can work on getting better at it with every conversation. The best way to improve these skill is to record your calls and get your manager, mentor or coach to listen to them and give you feedback on question asking and active listening.

If a CSM is great at uncovering opportunities and challenges but cannot back it up with tactical product/service advice, then they will not be able to drive success. Imagine you have problems with your pipes, calling a plumber that asks you great questions about your plumbing system and the problems you are experiencing, tells you exactly what is the problem in your pipes, but can’t do anything to fix it. Frustrating right? It’s the same with a CSM that is great at active listening, question-asking and problem framing but has no product knowledge.

That is why having product knowledge is critical.

Many companies will structure CSM onboarding to equip new hires with product training first. A good baseline of knowledge combined to consulting skills like active listening and question asking will enable a CSM to hit the ground running. But if you want to be a CSM, you need to be prepared to embark on a continuous learning journey as both the product and the industry evolve rapidly. Which leads me to the next attribute.

Learning Agility

A great CSM is a lifelong learner. A person that is self-motivated in the pursuit of knowledge. To be a top-performer, CSMs need to be passionate about continuously learning an ever-changing product, industry and customer landscape.

Candidates looking to impress an interview panel should:

  • look for examples of areas where they had to learn complex concepts from the ground up in a short period of time
  • have awareness of their learning style and use examples of how this understanding has helped them learn complex subjects effectively
  • connect their investment in education to their customer’s success

Internal candidates might have an advantage by knowing the product and the customers of today, but those are relatively easy areas to train and coach. Demonstrating a passion and process for learning will build confidence in your ability to keep up with the pace required by the role. I have seen candidates knock it out of the park by doing certifications and taking on product trials in order to demonstrate to the hiring manager that they are already investing in their product knowledge proactively.

A CSM that can consult effectively and keep learning will be able to deliver the right advice to the right stakeholder, and hopefully gather enough information to be timely.

As a great consultant, a CSM will be in high demand and they might struggle to manage their time. Professionals who possess the next skill are the ones that will demonstrate they can achieve fantastic results by working smarter and not harder.

Book of business Management

I like to say that a CSM is the CEO of their book of business. Every company will have different install-base sizes per CSM and sometimes even a shared install-base across a team, but one thing is true across the board: whether you manage 30 or 500 accounts every customer has lifecycle motion happening (eg. onboarding, quarterly business reviews, renewals etc).

An understanding of the key stages of an account and how to prioritise based on these motions is a baseline for any customer success role. For example, ahead of a month with a big renewal cohort, you must prioritise renewal discussions and contract preparations to ensure you are in a good position to meet your retention metrics. Having an effective, scalable and adaptable framework for managing the customer’s lifecycle is key to top performance.

In a perfect world, this is relatively simple to accomplish. The basic structure is usually:

  • a calendar blueprint for structuring your weekly priorities where you have blocks of time saved to focus on each one of your key activities
  • a forecasting process that lends itself to planning ahead for expansions, cancellations and downgrades

However, on any given day a CSM will have out of the blue emails, scheduled calls and some fires to put out. So on top of planning and structure, a great CSM must be able to adapt quickly to reprioritise based on the urgent and the important. For that reason, many hiring managers will be looking to identify a candidate that has a good understanding of how to use the Eisenhower Matrix.

So if you are looking to break into a CSM role and you are thinking that it’s hard to prepare because every company defines CSM differently, think about the Success Triangle. Think about consultancy, learning agility and book of business management. Doing your assessment of where you are and how you can develop these skills will definitely put you in a better place for those recruiting processes.

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1 Comment

  • Aileen Brown May 6, 2021

    Daphne – Thank you so much for sharing your insights.

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