What is a customer success manager (CSM)?
Apparently, it depends on who you ask.
- Some would define a CSM as a key account manager—a dedicated representative who makes sure this or that uber-important customer gets all the attention they deserve.
- Others would view the CSM as an extension of the sales representative—their job is to increase opportunities for up-sells, cross-sells, and the like.
- Another would paint the CSM as a beefed-up version of a customer service representative—a more direct conduit for customer support.
What all these definitions have in common, in my view, is an “us-first” take on customer success. In each of them, the customer is primarily a means to "our" success, an opportunity to keep the customer happy and keep them sending us money.
That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t go far enough.
What we need is a definition of customer success management which shifts the ground from an “us-first” to a “customer-first” perspective. To that end, I propose we start thinking of the CSM as a heart surgeon.
“What in the world does heart surgery have to do with customer success?”
There’s an old Hebrew proverb that says you should guard your heart, “for from it flow the springs of life.” The heart surgeon’s task is a near-sacred one, to crack open the chest of her patient and to work on an organ which constitutes the very center of their being.
As a customer success manager, part of your job is to crack open a company and see what’s inside. You not only need intimate knowledge of your own products and services, but you need to know everything about your customer (key stakeholders, mission, vision, markets, and so on) if you’re going to help them succeed with your products.
There are negative and positive elements of a heart surgeon’s work. Negatively, she goes in and cuts out diseased tissue, removes defective parts, clears blockages, and so on. Positively, she repairs valves, puts in stents and, if necessary, replaces the whole thing.
As a CSM, you have an analogous two-fold task. Negatively, you have to pinpoint and remove all of the faulty ways in which your customer is trying to use your product. More than that, you must be willing to so identify with their business that you feel free to critique them at any level, not merely those that pertain directly to your own product.
Positively, you have to be ready to provide reliable, sustainable solutions to the real issues they’re facing. If you’re going to raise an issue, you need to be ready to wield your organization’s resources to help solve that problem and move the customer forward towards success.
“That’s all very clever, but what does it look like in practice?”
First, it means actively listening to your customers. As cliché as that may sound, it bears some repeating. Don't assume you know who your customers are and what they're looking to accomplish with your products. Ask discerning questions and go beyond your own preconceptions to find out what truly makes them tick.
Second, performing heart surgery on your customers means regularly helping them map out and process their goals. This will help you not merely to offer practical solutions, but to dream with your customers as well. As Alex Gorman of Clarizen says, the challenge and reward of CSM are mixing “tech creative problem solving and relationship building.”
Third, it means getting your hands dirty and creatively attacking your customers’ problems. This involves more than technical support. You’re not a glorified customer service representative. You’re a champion for the customer’s success, using every means necessary to help the customer win—whether that includes your products or not.
In all this, I’ve offered us one more model for conceiving a CSM’s work.
What matters isn’t that you take the model on board in all its details, looking for a parallel between heart surgery and customer success in every respect.
What matters is that you see customer success management as a holistic process in which you move your business into the heart of your customer’s organization.
That’s the key to maximizing your value to them, and ultimately, their value to you.