Taking the first step in your customer success career is an experience every CS professional takes at one time or another.
No one’s born into a job (trust-fund babies aside), and most are likely moved around until they find the right fit. Therefore, gaining different experiences throughout your professional life will all mold the career you decide to pursue.
Fact: customer success hasn’t been around for long, we’ve only recently seen it flourish in the last decade or so. Bearing that in mind, unless you happen to be working in the SaaS industry already, or you just happen to be a member of the Customer Success Collective, you might not be aware of the many roles CS has to offer.
Many people working in customer success will undoubtedly come from a myriad of different career backgrounds, which is why Customer Success Managers, VPs of Customer Success, Heads of Customer Success et al., are all multi-skilled.
That being said, if you are making a career change into a customer success role – or any new role, for that matter – it can be a bit tricky figuring out how to apply your current skill sets to a job description. If you don’t have the traditional experience required for a role, you must make it obvious to ensure your resumé stands out.
In this article, we’re going to explore:
- The core skill set of a Customer Success Manager
- How to apply your current skills to a CS role
- Education and customer success
- How current and prospective CS practitioners have found the transition
Sound good? Let's get cracking.
What qualities are sought in a Customer Success Manager?
A Customer Success Manager (CSM) is tasked with listening to their client’s aspirations for a product and effectively strategizing solutions to help them meet these goals. Since the purpose of the customer success function is to instill value for customers, a CSM will inspire their customers to adopt and engage with the product, to make sure they have the information necessary to achieve ‘X, Y, Z’.
We asked Mark Higginson, Executive Vice President of Customer & Partner Success at SixFifty, how he defines a CSM:
“They’re an advocate. Plain and simple. Through their advocacy, the customer can thrive in reaching their intended goals, and the company will keep customer priorities in mind when building for the future. They are the hub through which company decisions should be formed.”
CSMs are the ultimate problem solvers who not only guide the customer through their product journey but are the beacons of change within a company. Through their natural ability to build trusted relationships and their aptitude for listening to their customers’ pain points, the CSM is the person to gather feedback and relay which product features are well received, and which aren’t.
Communicating these issues back to the product team is invaluable to the economic success and market authority of any company. Maintaining high-level analytical skills, having honest conversations, and establishing mutual engagement plans with the clients is what customer success hinges on.
It probably goes without saying, but if you’re in the application process or preparing for an interview, remember to clearly demonstrate explicitly how your previous and current experience has equipped you with these skill sets, and show examples of how you used these qualities to deliver results.
How to apply your current skills to a customer success job
Like with any new endeavor, you’re not going to necessarily get a black mark if you don’t have the ‘textbook’ experience. Granted, some roles aren’t always based on transferable skills; a doctor could transfer their skills into a CS role, but a Head of Customer Success probably wouldn’t be able to apply for a medical position. At least not without the appropriate seven-year-long degree!
But what if you don’t come from a SaaS background? If you’re applying to a SaaS company, you need to figure out how your past experience parallels what success looks like in that organization.
According to Rebecca Kerr, Content Designer at Facebook, candidates should try to find something in SaaS that supports their domain expertise. For example, let's say you're in a certain industry, like health care, and you aspire to move into tech; you might be suited to exploring a career in health care technology, and you’ll already have a head start by having the industry knowledge.
Although some may aspire to a complete career change, the transition doesn’t have to be such a stark contrast; you could be a sales professional and you want to move into a customer success role. While you might not currently have the necessary CS experience, there’s a considerable amount of overlap between the two functions. The resolution? Find a tech solution that caters to your ability to speak the sales language.
Once you’ve established your transferable skill sets, it’s important to establish your ability to learn the product inside-out. As a CSM, you effectively have to be an educator and a guide to the customer.
Education in customer success
In most jobs, education plays a pivotal role in communicating your goals and explaining your processes. And much like teaching in schools, education is just as prevalent in customer success. Like CSMs, teachers are advocates and leaders too.
Education can be disjointed, which is why customer success is concerned with providing a seamless experience for the customer. How the customer is taught how to use your product is critical; the education materials need to be centralized and accessible to all.
In our webinar partnered with Adobe, Dr. Allen Partridge, Director of Evangelism at Adobe, made one thing crystal clear:
“Customer education should have a single source of truth that addresses all questions and gives control to the brand. This means creating a unified customer education experience, which allows your organization to provide education in the right way for your customer.”
Establishing a central educational resource to point to, or that the customer can readily access, is the first step.
But education in customer success manifests itself way beyond this. For example, it’s a universal fact that people learn in different ways from each other. One method of learning and adopting a product may work for some, but it might not work for others. This is the space that sets apart a good CSM and a great one; by meeting the different needs and struggles of each client, you tailor the education experience to drive value for the customer.
Having a clear grasp of the benefits of education and training is monumentally valuable when addressing the education of the customers, giving them a solution to leverage your tools and services.
Real-life examples of the transition into customer success
Forever intrigued by how people tackle this career transition, we spoke to a variety of people in the CSC community who either work in customer success, are trying to change careers and enter the CS space, or have had a similar experience of transferring their skill sets into a CS-type role.
Ben Childers, Head of Global Client Success at Engaging Networks, had this to say about his experience working in education and the charity sector:
“I was a former teacher, then a fundraiser, and after that is when I then moved to customer success.
“Over the course of this transition, I’ve noticed that a lot of the soft skills I learned as a teacher and a fundraiser have proven critical to my success in my CS career. To be specific, I’ve found skills like empathetic listening, synthesizing information, and creative problem solving to be of critical importance to my day-to-day work in customer success.
“In my experience, and based on the CS practitioners I manage, having a CS background isn’t necessary if you’ve got the right skill sets behind you.”
We spoke to Alizée Levavasseur, Senior Customer Success Manager at Blue Prism, her experience went a little like this:
“The position I’m in now is a combination of CS operations and digital customer success, but I previously came from a project/change management background in the branding/web field.
“While there was certainly a lot of specific jargon to learn (customer success metrics like ARR, NRR, NPS, etc.), specific processes around quarterly executive business reviews (Q/EBRs) to familiarize me with and key touchpoints to get acquainted with, I found that I brought more transferable skills than I initially thought. I realized I could offer creative problem solving, critical thinking, sound judgment, and experience with change management.
“It's been a blast to apply skills to something new, which yields a different impact in CS, and to still be new to it and learn tons of new things every day."
Murtaza Oliya is an Account Executive at DXC Technology, and while his role is formally classified as account management, his position encompasses a lot of customer success responsibilities:
“I came from a non-CS background – in IT delivery – and when I transitioned into my current role, I found I was able to leverage a lot of my experience and skills.
“Whether you’re in an AE or CS role, one has to collaborate with technical teams and different functions within the company. It’s of fundamental importance to be able to immerse oneself in the client's business and translate the business challenges and/or requirements into technical requirements. I found my experience in IT as a key enabler in my AE role.”
For others, getting into the CS space is the hard part. We spoke to a member of the CSC community, Diana Pavic, about this very hurdle in real-time; Diana’s currently working as a social worker aspiring to move into a CS position and notes the many transferable skills social work can bring to the proverbial CS table.
Having exceptional interpersonal skills has got to be one of the first things people associate when thinking of either social work or customer success. To excel in both social work and customer success, Diana notes you must be adept at building trustful rapport with the clients and be able to manage your clients’ behavior and risk.
While customer success is first and foremostly a human-driven function, there is a huge amount of importance in harvesting data to accurately reflect your customers’ needs and roadmap with your product. As we state in The Customer Success Manifesto,
“CSMs the world over will agree that one of the biggest challenges is to organically blend the human aspect of CS with the data collected about the customers. Understanding what the data means, collating it, and letting that drive your strategy is just as important as having the customer’s desires drive your strategy.”
As much as we like tooting our own horn, we’ve brought up this key aspect of CS for a good reason.
In any position that requires you to monitor the progress and/or well-being of another – be it in a teacher-student, doctor-patient, real estate agent-buyer/seller capacity – you’ll be familiar with the process of setting the goals with your client and reviewing them at regular, prescribed intervals.
Setting things off to the right start is equally as important in any role that involves getting a client from A to B. Many customer-facing roles rely on customer loyalty and repeat purchases, demonstrating your value to customers from the outset plays a critical role in reducing the likelihood of customer churn. Parallels can be drawn between instances like these and the onboarding process a CSM undergoes with a client.
Suffice to say, customer success roles incorporate a multitude of skills ranging from strategic thinking, proactivity, and perception, to empathy, data handling, and time management, all of which can be lifted from various past experiences.
Customer success professionals – in all levels of seniority – have to be agile workers, familiar with liaising with all departments of the business. From content and finance to product and sales, all aspects of business contribute to the fruition of customer success. Understanding all perspectives within business processes will ultimately strengthen the overall CS strategy, and therefore, the customer.
There are numerous aspects of all types of careers that cross over with customer success. One of the most noticeable is education. Eileen Snover, an educator looking to pivot into a customer success role, articulates this overlap perfectly:
“Customer success not only demands exemplary communication skills but the ability to develop a high-level knowledge and disseminate this information in a simplified way for the consumer.”
If you’re applying for your first CS position, or perhaps you’re recruiting for a CS role and looking at non-CS candidates, the best candidates will be able to have an honest conversation and align their communication to the customer’s needs.
One customer success role will vary from company to company, but the important values remain the same: be empathetic, and attest to the value of your own skills in the same way you would in a CS position.
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