Customer success is an exciting, burgeoning field within modern business. Across the industry, SaaS leaders are experiencing the benefits of a solid customer success strategy firsthand. According to Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, in a company-wide memo in 2013:

“Even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc, will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.”

With a subscription-based model, the power is well and truly in the hands of the customer, and if you want to stop customers from churning, you need to arm your org with an army of empathy experts.

Does that mean giving customers exactly what they want? Not quite!

Good customer success is more about giving customers what they need as opposed to what they want. Of course, the kind of folks who can deliver on this is often a rare breed.

Here are the top 7 questions for hiring customer success managers. 👇

Q1.  'How do you deliver bad news to customers?'

No one likes to deliver bad news, but very often it’s a necessity. Candidates who can strike the right balance in their response here will demonstrate three integral qualities:

  1. Toughness: They’re able to face the unpleasant consequence of upsetting or angering a customer. In other words, they're honest. They don’t pretend that everything’s fine and that they can still deliver on something that’s not realistic/feasible for the sake of an easy life.
  2. Empathy: But honesty doesn’t necessarily mean tactlessness. You have to be able to deliver bad news in a way that expresses remorse, as well as a genuine desire to serve the customer’s needs.
  3. Accountability: Good customer success managers – or managers in any field for that matter – will demonstrate an ability to own and assume responsibility for tasks. This, of course, also means owning faults and mistakes. This is an absolutely essential quality, how can you expect to set targets for growth in new hires if we’re not aware of the mistakes that are being made?

During June 2021’s Customer Success Festival, Corinne Goldberg (now Customer Success Team Lead at Google), explained that one of the defining characteristics of a CSM is their commitment to ensuring realistic expectations between customer and business.

Q2. How do you communicate with customers if you can’t solve a problem right away?

An essential part of good CS practice is managing expectations.

It’s all about laying the foundation for a relationship of long-term trust over time.

If you’re continuously promising customers solutions and then failing to deliver on them, you might please customers in the short term, but you’re going to shatter that foundation of trust that leads to a long-term relationship between the customer and your org.

What is at the root of integrity? Honesty.

Although you might disappoint customers in the short term, the honesty that a CSM demonstrates in letting them down is going to engender respect further down the road.

At the SaaS Metrics Summit 2021, Rebecca Nerad, Vice President of Customer Success at E2open, stressed the importance of honesty in customer success.

“There are times where we have to push back on the customer. We have to push back internally. It's one of the challenging and amazing things about this role. I like to say sometimes, it's good cop, bad cop. But that role changes toward one direction or the other. It all starts with understanding customers' expectations in the first place. Also, it’s about being able to fairly represent what we think would be the right final result for them.”

Q3.  What’s the toughest case you’ve ever handled?

With customer success, there’s always a significant element of unpredictability to the role. Each customer is different, after all, and there are always going to be surprise challenges, keeping you on your toes.

The thing you want to be looking for: is an adaptable, agile individual who can think on their feet. Customer success is a field in which the practice has to be continuously re-fashioned around the needs of the client. According to Paula Mendes at Hubspot,

"It was not possible to help our customers achieve their goals if we had a one-size-fits-all approach to onboarding. Our customer onboarding and professional services needed to be tailored to our customer's most important priorities."

You want to hear stories, not where the onboarding has gone smoothly and you’ve really wowed the client, but where the CSM has had to constantly negotiate a barrage of curveballs hurtling their way.

This is the ultimate evidence that the candidate is constantly adapting their practices to the customer's needs.

Anybody working in a customer-facing role knows how unpredictable it is, and how all the careful planning in the world can be shattered by one tricky request. Those that thrive best are those that can not only dodge the blows but effectively roll with the punches as well.

Q4. How do you collaborate with sales and product teams?

Customer success only works when it’s successfully aligned with the org as a whole. After all, as a CSM, what is the essential service that you’re providing to your org?

One is that you’re both utilizing essential customer data from your sales teams and translating them into really great customer service, the second is that you’re then feeding invaluable data back into the org from your experiences with customers.

In their 2016 book, Customer Success: How Innovative Companies Are Reducing Churn and Growing Recurring Revenue, Nick Mehta, Dan Steinman, and Lincoln Murphy emphasized that

"CS is a philosophy, and it must pervade the entire company. No organization or job role can function in a vacuum, it requires a top-down company-wide commitment."

In order for any SaaS org to effectively compete, it’s crucial that they’re always adapting to the changing demands of the market. You can achieve this through collecting, monitoring, and analyzing customer data. With the CSM being up close and personal with the customer, CS is an invaluable tool for this function.

Patrick Kelly, Senior Director of Customer Care Enablement & Operations at Brainshark, describes how data can be the foundation for improving practice in customer success.

“We review for trends first and then for details on an individual basis. We make training and enablement decisions based on gaps that we might identify, and we use the data to influence product development.”

Q5. Explain to me how [product feature] works

Now, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that this is the kind of question you would be expecting in the interview for any SaaS org.

You want the candidate to demonstrate diligence and conscientiousness, and this is shown in how much the candidate knows about the product prior to taking on the position.

But for a CSM, this is even more essential. The CSM is the guiding hand for the customer along the way. And that goes way beyond a generic, broad knowledge of the product, it encompasses the minutiae of issues that a customer might encounter when interacting with your product.

No two clients are going to interact with your product in exactly the same way. To effectively catch and run with those curveballs along the way, CSMs must have an intimate knowledge of your product’s features and how they may be handled or mishandled.

Q6. How would you explain our product or service in a single sentence?

A crucial aspect of a CSM’s job is not only what information they deliver to the customer, but how they deliver it. As a CSM, you might have all the knowledge in the world, but it’s important not to overwhelm the customer with a dense wall of technical know-how.

Here, the candidate demonstrates that they can master concision: often a cornerstone of effective communication. Equally, the candidate will demonstrate an ability to adapt to the expertise and knowledge field of the customer.

Not all customers are going to be able to grasp long, intricate scrolls of technical information. You might be dealing with a client from a non-tech background, for example, or someone from a less tech-savvy generation.

Being able to cut down your spiel to its most fundamental aspects ( i.e what does the product/feature do and how can it help me in my day-to-day?) shows an aptitude for inclusivity on the part of the client.

In short, it’s not about what you (the CSM) understand, it’s about how it can improve the life of the client.

Q7.  How would you change our product or service?

The benefit of this question is two-pronged. Candidates show the potential not merely to unquestioningly go along with a business-as-usual approach but to be continuously thinking about innovating and improving your product as they continue with their careers.

What’s the point in hiring fresh talent if they’re not going to provide fresh solutions for your org going forward?

The second benefit is the nerve and courage to question your organization’s mission and/or strategy. CSMs have to be able to keep a close ear to the ground, listening to customer needs and demands.

Sometimes those needs might be at odds with your company’s strategy. A courageous CSM can help an org headed in the wrong direction to effectively pivot in the right direction.

If you’re hiring a ‘yes man’ in a field like customer success it’s a pretty poor indicator of how they’re going to fare when having to deal with ‘difficult’ customers.

According to Rebecca Fenlon, Head of Customer Success at Cognassist, attempting to be a yes-man will

"Ultimately leave you with poor product-market fit and you'll end up trying to service customers who shouldn't really be your customers in the first place. You waste time, you waste money; that’s not what good CS is about, and it’s not what good customer centricity is at all."

Final thoughts

Customer success might sound like a frilly position, but the individuals you’ll be looking for to spearhead a solid CS initiative will be anything but that. CS managers can ask tough questions, and more importantly, answer them.

A good CSM can be the ambassador for your company’s principles, so don’t take it lightly.

During this SaaS revolution, we have a unique opportunity to continuously customize the product to the customer’s needs. That’s why SaaS and CS, when it’s done right, is a match made in heaven. The CSM can be the linchpin of any good SaaS strategy.