What makes a good customer success manager (CSM)?
We could answer that question—in part—with the sort of things we’d find on a resume: proper education, prior experience, technical expertise and so on.
But is that enough? Is that really all it takes to make a good CSM?
Certainly not. Guiding your customer’s success takes more than just the application of technical skills to a well-defined set of problems. There are intangibles—things you won’t find on a resume—that are every bit as determinative, if not more, of your success as a CSM.
Instead, let’s consider a more holistic way to think about what a CSM is and what a CSM does. In so doing, I believe we'll find a better way to identify a "good" CSM versus a bad one.
For the CSM, doing the job often depends more on how you know than what you know.
First of all, a successful CSM has to be curious. To really help customers succeed, you need to know what constitutes success for them. That means asking insightful questions and taking the time to actively listen to customers’ responses.
An excellent CSM is also an ordered thinker. They need intimate knowledge of each account—the customer’s hopes, dreams, stakeholders, products, discreet revenue streams, markets, etc. And they have to hold it all together without jumbling any of the moving pieces.
Third, a great CSM must possess the relational knowledge that goes into navigating complex corporate structures on both sides of the B2B relationship. On one hand, that means integrating various stakeholders within his or her own organization. On the other, it means connecting customers with the different personnel resources they need to solve their problems. You need to know how the puzzle fits to do that.
But a good CSM doesn’t just think their way to success.
A CSM needs to empathize with their customers—not in a sentimental way, but in a way that allows them to “crawl inside their skin” and see the world from their unique vantage point. The CSM needs to embody that customer’s distinct drivers so well that their metrics effectively become his or her own.
This doesn’t mean lying prostrate before the will of the customer. Instead, the CSM should know them so well that he or she can effectively push back whenever the customer betrays their own business goals. This cognitive ability makes the CSM more than a salesperson or customer service rep; it makes them a trusted ally.
Head and heart matter. But without the practical know-how and expertise required to do the actual work, you won’t get anywhere.
At a minimum, this means intimate and extensive product knowledge. As obvious as this may seem, it bears repeating that a CSM’s ability to skillfully wield his or her company’s products and services directly impacts customer retention and any attempts to generate further revenue.
Beyond specific product knowledge, industry experience is another key component. To get inside a customer’s head, see their problems from the inside and creatively envision new solutions, you need prior experience in similar spaces. A CSM may have a deep background in customer service, but without insider industry knowledge, they may never be able to serve those customers in the way they ultimately need.
And of course you have 1,001 other practical skills that go with being a CSM:
- Support (phone, service, forum-based)
The list could go on for miles…
So what have we discovered here? The best CSMs seamlessly blend head-knowledge, heart-empathy, and hands-on expertise. Without these, you may still have a strong employee but you lose the essence of what makes a CSM.
A head-smart sweet-talker with a boatload of empathy for the customer’s goals and objectives will probably make one heck of a salesman. But without the practical skills needed to walk the customer through a problem situation, they’ll never make it as a CSM.
From another angle, an empathetic listening ear with plenty of product knowledge would make a fantastic customer service representative. But without the high-level mental chops of well-connected visionary, they still won’t cut it as a CSM.
What do you think? What makes a great CSM? I’d love to know.