How Do You Become a Customer Success Manager?

I never really imagined myself writing this post but as the LinkedIn Group I started called “Customer Success Managers in Action” hits the 1,000 member mark, it’s a good time to write about this. Customer Success Managers and SaaS software go hand in hand. As the SaaS industry has grown, so has the need for Customer Success Managers to keep customers happy and retain them. You could easily rename the role “Customer SucceSaaS Manager”. I have lived this dream. The dream of providing customers that have purchased internet based software the advice they need to get the most out of their investment and to assist them in advancing their careers. Before I write more on this topic I thought I would talk about how I became one myself.

How I Became a Customer Success Manager

When I broke into the software world in 2001 (what was I thinking?), I didn’t know it yet but I was on my way to becoming a Customer Success Manager. I started off as a consultant for a company called MarketLink Solutions here in Toronto. We were a small technology focused consulting company with amazing people and a mission to create web-based software solutions. As a consultant, I did everything except build the product even though I had some software development skills. I helped generate the business opportunity, scoped the project, created the requirements documents for the developers and customer, project managed the project, created the end-user documentation, Q/A’d the software and trained the end users. If things went right (which they usually did) we would rinse, wash and repeat this process which made us successful. Ah, the life of a consultant.

I was very blessed as I had a patient mentor that taught me about how to develop long-term relationships with customers – something that is crucial in the SaaS business model. Much of our success had to do with how we treated our customers. There were some core methodologies that I took from this opportunity and helped me be a better Customer Success Manager. Here is a first pass at what I think they are:

  1. It’s OK to lose a battle if you win the war. Because we created custom applications, there were constant battles over what was in scope and what wasn’t. What it came down to was making sure that everyone was relatively happy and that we produced quality products that were on time and had the potential for future phases. That meant that we would throw something in for free the odd time. It was worth it as it would help build trust and make us partners and not just a software vendor.
  2. Focus on solutions – not features & issues. This has a strong tie into the first item. You need to always think about the overall solution and not get bogged down in issues and features. Looking at a situation holistically will lead to a better result and will guide you in asking the right questions. Features and issues are important of course and need to be properly addressed but always think about the overall objectives that the customer is trying to achieve and the solution that is required. As a consultant, I wouldn’t just give advice and hope for the best. I would provide a solution that included the advice and the best next steps.

    Baseball Success
    First world series win for the Toronto Blue Jays
  3. ASV – Always Show Value. Supporting a SaaS product is almost like being on a baseball team (I’m getting excited for spring training). You have many fans out there  – some love you and some love you a little less but when it comes down to it, they need to see value. Let’s take a fictitious example of a baseball team that is just awful (I have experience here as a loyal Blue Jay fan).  Nobody wants to pay $50 a ticket to see a team lose the majority of the time. Now, there may be some glimmers of hope on that team. You have a new young slugger in the minors that is ripping it up and ready to let it loose in the big leagues. This could only have happened because the baseball team sacrificed its current season for long-term improvement. The baseball team needs to tell this story.

    I saw the same situation when I was a consultant. We would launch a new product that didn’t seem to be going well. However, when I dug into the data, I started to see some positive changes that the client wasn’t aware of. In this situation, I admitted that this project wasn’t progressing as well as we expected but when I examined another project that we had worked on with the client, I demonstrated that this other project was also slow to get the off the ground and then became very successful. In addition, we reused technology from this other project and saved costs on some other small applications (including the underperforming product) we built thus maximizing the client’s investment. This type of thinking is needed by a Customer Success Manager.

How do You Become a Customer Success Manager?

It’s a tough question as this is a profession that is still not a profession. I think you need the following:

  • A technical bent. This is a career in technology and you really need to understand how software applications work so you can best help your clients. The best people in this profession that I’ve seen have this background. You need at least 3 years of either working in the software industry or being exposed to SaaS software administration.
  • A passion for customers and excellent client management skills. This requires experience in a customer service role. How do you deal with difficult customer situations? Customer Success Managers are typically the voice of reason – the people who take a step back and help get the problem solved. If you can’t handle a crisis, this isn’t the role for you. Three years experience in this type of role or something equivalent is a must.
  • Domain experience. This last one is an area that has changed the most for me over the years. When I first started it wasn’t as important. Today, it’s crucial. In order to provide advice to clients on how best to use your software, having actual experience in the field gives you credibility. You can instantly start adding value to your clients and your company (see #3 above).  You also understand what it feels like to be the customer. It depends on how complex the problem your product is trying to solve and how mature the market is. The easier the problem, the less domain experience that is needed.

This is only my opinion and I’m not saying you need to be an expert in all three areas. As they say, two out of three ain’t bad. Much of it comes down to your attitude.  The right manager will use his or her’s team’s strengths appropriately.

What do you think are the necessary skills and background needed to become a Customer Success Manager? What have you found to be successful?

Chad H.

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